I’ve long been an advocate for getting the most value for your dollar. I am very price conscious when I shop for most things. I constantly joke with my kids about how I’m a “store brand connoisseur,” and when they go to the store with me, they know I’m going to inevitably swap their breakfast cereal choice for the store brand version and that half of our cart will have store brand labels on it. I buy lots of small appliances and sporting goods used. I’m just generally very careful about how I spend my money.
However, I don’t go for the cheapest version of everything that I buy. There are many things for which I don’t buy the cheapest version or go the cheapest route.
For me, this isn’t a case-by-case basis situation. There are a handful of principles that guide me toward choosing a higher quality item than the minimal cost entry level version.
Here are six categories of items that nudge me personally to seek out higher quality but higher cost solutions.
Basic Life Maintenance Items
Here, I’m talking about things that ensure that I’m practicing good hygiene, getting a good night of sleep, and so on. Here are five items that fall into this category.
Mattress and pillow: If I wake up sore from a night of sleep on a consistent basis on my home mattress or pillow, then there’s a problem. That’s unacceptable, because it interferes with virtually everything I want to do that day.
I’m willing to overlook the occasional night of sleep where I wake up sore – I assume I slept in a bad position. However, if it happens consistently, I’m flipping the mattress or getting a new pillow, and if it continues, I’m replacing our mattress. A good night of sleep is fundamental to my life.
Soap and shampoo: I buy inexpensive soap and shampoo, but if the soap irritates my skin, I don’t continue to buy it. The same goes for shampoo – if it gives me dandruff or leaves my hair feeling or looking greasy, I’m not buying it again. Fortunately, I have good success with some inexpensive bar soaps (a wide variety work for me, but I avoid Lever 2000) and shampoos (Pert Plus always works). They’re not the absolute cheapest, but they’re inexpensive and they do the job for me.
Toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss: I want to keep my teeth pain free and in good working order for as long as I can, and that means caring for them as well as I can. Here, I follow my dentist’s recommendations pretty strictly.
Maintenance visits to the doctor and dentist: It’s far cheaper to just skip these kinds of visits and only visit when something is wrong, but by doing this, I’m keeping myself healthy for the long term and nipping potential problems in the bud. You’re far better off going in for a tooth cleaning every six months or an annual wellness visit than having some nasty dental or medical problem sneak up on you, especially if your insurance covers wellness visits.
Food items: There are some ingredients in food items that I will pay extra to avoid, simply because those ingredients are almost strictly unhealthy and will lead to serious health issues down the road. I avoid anything that has trans fats. I avoid anything that has high fructose corn syrup. I avoid anything that has added sugar unless I am strictly using it as a dessert item.
Those standards sometimes cause me to pay more for basic food items, like pasta sauce or salsa, for example. It’s a simple step I can take to ensure that I’m eating at least somewhat healthier and avoiding some of the worst things I could be eating.
Daily Use Items
If this is an item I’m going to be using every day – particularly if it’s an item that I’m going to be using several times a day – I tend to go for items that are highly reliable and do the task as efficiently as possible, and I’m willing to spend more for that. Here are four items that fall into that category.
Cell phone: My cell phone must be sturdy (meaning it won’t break if I drop it from arm height when in a case) and must run the key apps that I use. That means that “freebie phones” simply don’t cut the mustard in either regard. I have no need for the latest and greatest phone, but I do need a phone that’s reasonably sturdy and can run things like Evernote.
Part of the difficulty is that there are several iOS-only apps that I use on a daily basis, so this restricts me to an iOS device. Thus, what I typically do is buy a lower-end Apple phone, put it in a sturdy case, use it until there are no longer OS updates for it, and then replace it with a newer-but-still-not-high-end Apple phone. This is decidedly not the cheapest route, but I’ve found that I’ve never seriously damaged an Apple phone in a decent case, even after years of use. (I’m still using an iPhone 6, for those curious.)
Automobile maintenance: I follow the maintenance schedule in my car’s manual to the absolute letter, getting each and every maintenance task done within 1,000 miles or so of the recommended mileage. I can do some of the simpler tasks myself, like changing oil, and I have a local mechanic that I trust with the rest of the tasks.
Yes, some of the items could be delayed to “save” a few dollars, but on the other hand, sticking to that schedule has managed to get every single car Sarah and I have ever owned as a married couple well above the 200,000-mile mark. It’s one of those things that costs more up front but results in savings over the long run.
Basic kitchen items: There are some items in our kitchen that receive daily use (or very close to it) – a couple of key knives, a pot for making soup or boiling water for pasta, a 9″-by-13″ baking dish, and a spatula are on that short list.
When I use a tool that often, I spend time researching the tools a little to see which ones are reliable and which ones do the job with minimal effort. I use a chef’s knife and a paring knife for virtually everything, so I spend a little more on them (I have a Global chef’s knife I received as a gift and a Victorinox paring knife, both of which I’ve used for years and years, and they do a fantastic job if they’re honed and very occasionally sharpened). I have a couple of older Pyrex baking dishes that seem to be indestructible – again, I could have bought cheaper ones, but these do the job. Our pots are Le Creuset enameled cast iron – again, basically indestructible and they do the job well (we found these during a going out of business sale). None of those are the cheapest low end option.
Pocket notebooks: I write in my pocket notebook several times a day, so for me it’s pretty important that it stays together in my pocket, doesn’t lose pages, and doesn’t have any metal edges that can snag or scratch as it goes in and out of my pocket several times daily. I used to use Mead top-spiraled notebooks until I cut myself on the spiral and then ripped up a pair of dress pants with loose metal on the top spiral.
Now, I use Field Notes (or similar notebooks). Field Notes are a little expensive, but they last and last and last in my pocket without falling apart. I can get through a full notebook carrying it in my pocket constantly and pulling it out several times a day without the notebook falling apart or losing pages or scratching me or damaging my pants.
Items That Protect My Safety or My Family’s Safety
Another class of items that I don’t skimp on are items that protect my family’s safety. If it’s an item that will keep family members safe, I’m going to make sure I get high quality items. Here are four examples of items that I spend more on to keep my family safe.
Automobiles: There are three key metrics I use to judge a car I’m considering buying. One, can my whole family fit in there? Two, is it reliable — meaning does the model have a good reliability history? Three, is it safe, meaning does it rate as a IIHS top safety pick?
Those factors mean that I do end up paying more for a late model used car than if I chased price alone, but having a car that’s reliable and that keeps my family as safe as possible on the roadways is worth a higher price to me.
First aid items and medical items: If someone is injured in some way, we get what is recommended to heal them the fastest based on the doctor’s recommendation. It’s as simple as that. We don’t take shortcuts when it comes to first aid or medical items. Recovering from illness or injury isn’t a situation where we cut corners.
Car seats: Although our children are too old for car seats, these were not items that we bought used. Rather, we researched them for safety ratings and bought ones that would maximize their safety in the event of an accident. Used car seats are often weakened due to extended exposure to sunlight and the negative effect it can have on plastics.
Life insurance: Obviously, in terms of monthly expenses, it’s cheaper to go without life insurance. For Sarah and I, however, making sure that our children are safe and well cared for in the event of either one of us passing away before our time is vital, so we both carry sizable term life insurance policies, enough so that our children could enter adulthood without a notable decline in standard of living if Sarah or I suddenly passed away.
Items That Prevent Injury or Consistent Pain
If “going cheap” on an item has a significant chance of creating consistent pain or causing injury, then Sarah and I spend more on an item to ensure that such a thing doesn’t happen. Here are two examples of this.
Shoes: Neither Sarah nor I go cheap when it comes to shoes. Sore feet or injured feet are not fun. Both of us enjoy walking and hiking, and Sarah walks a lot at work, so we both have motivation to keep our feet injury and pain free. This extends to the point that we will stop wearing fairly new shoes if they’re causing consistent discomfort or other problems.
In general, we both buy New Balance shoes and Keen sandals, as they have shown in the past that they minimize injury and maximize comfort for our feet when walking a lot.
Sporting protective gear: While this might also follow under “safety” equipment, many sporting gear items exist to also minimize unnecessary pain. We don’t skimp on things like protective cups, helmets, knee pads, headgear for sparring, or other such items. The goal isn’t just to prevent injury, but to prevent short-term pain as well. I’d rather spend a little more and get well made sparring gear, for example, than sustain extra bruises from sparring.
Items With Lower Total Cost of Ownership
I will almost always pay more up front for something that has a lower total cost of ownership over the lifetime of the item. I’d rather pay more now and have a lower maintenance cost while using the item. Here are three examples of that.
Fuel efficient cars: As I mentioned earlier, reliability and safety are our two main concerns with automobiles, but when we’re actually deciding between different models that meet our needs, we’ll pay more for a model that’s more fuel efficient because we’ll end up saving money over the long haul.
Typically, we calculate the rough fuel cost of the vehicle over 100,000 or 150,000 miles and then tack that onto the price, then go for whichever car represents the lowest total. It was this type of calculation that persuaded us to buy a Prius back in 2010.
Lighting: We have not purchased a non-LED light for our home in years. LED bulbs blow away other options in terms of total cost of ownership because of how long they last and how low the cost per hour of lighting is. Nothing else is even close. LED bulbs are a little more expensive up front, but they last so long and are really easy on the energy bill along the way.
Socks: This probably also falls under “daily use” and “life maintenance” (as well as the next “worn out from use” category) but I’ve learned over the years that a good pair of socks will last for a very, very long time, whereas cheap socks will fall apart at the toe seams after a surprisingly small number of wears. Socks aren’t going to last forever, but if you invest in a good pair, they can and do last for many years of banging and beating.
For me, the preferred sock is a Darn Tough merino wool sock. They’re expensive per pair, but I’ve got pairs of these that have lasted for literally hundreds of washings, something that cheap athletic socks have never done. They’re warm in the winter, comfortable, and breathe surprisingly well, too, meaning my foot stays warm but doesn’t really get hot. One pair of these might cost as much as six cheaper pairs, but those six cheaper pairs will be long gone before these wear out. (They also make a nice practical gift.)
Items I’ve Literally Worn Out From Use
One final category is made up of things that I’ve literally worn out from use over the years. If I have an item that I’ve used until it has worn out and failed, I’m generally very interested in buying a quality durable replacement. Here are four examples of this.
Kitchen tools, especially a skillet: I’ve had several kitchen tools wear out from overuse over the years. Most notably, I’ve had skillets give up the ghost, particularly nonstick skillets where the Teflon coating began to peel. We invested in good cast iron skillets as replacements and once they have a patina, they’re fantastic.
Wallet: I used to buy a wallet every two years or so because the stitching would consistently rip out of the relatively cheap wallets I was buying. I switched to a well-made wallet from Recycled Firefighter that has now lasted me for six years and basically looks like new along the seams at least. The single wallet cost more, but it’s lasted longer than two or three of the older wallets that I once used.
Backpack: I have a hiking backpack that I need to be very rugged, which is a Goruck that literally looks new (and which I use as “luggage” for short trips), and I also have a “portable office” backpack (a North Face) that I use when working away from home. Both of them have been used by me for years and barely look as if they’ve been used at all. I swear that the Goruck literally looks new, although I know what it has already been through. The North Face looks worn a little, but only if you look for it. Compare that to the cheap Jansport backpack I used before this, which failed with a similar load as my “portable office” within three years.
Belt: I used to buy $10 belts from department stores and they would inevitably fail within a year, usually with the buckle becoming detached from the belt or the buckle falling apart. I spent $50 on a belt from Orion and it has lasted for several years now. It does look a bit worn, but it’s fully functional and by every measure I can tell it will continue to be functional for a long time.
Although I pay a little more for these items than I would if I were going for the cheapest version, they often end up saving me money in other ways. They have a low cost of ownership, or they do the job reliably without having to be replaced for a long time, or they help me to avoid pain and discomfort and poor sleep that would slow me down.
Buying the cheapest item isn’t always the best value.
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