Friday, September 1, 2023

Buy It For Life? Not Necessarily!

Engineering a product doesn't mean making it last forever, but making it cost-effective.

There is an old trope about poor people and shoes - and it dates back to the era where everyone wore leather shoes, not "sneakers."  You watch those old cop shows from the 50s and 60s and realize everyone is running with shoes on - my knees hurt just thinking about it.

But anyway, the trope goes like this:  A rich man (back in 1930) can afford to spend $10 on a pair of good leather shoes that last him a decade or more.  A poor man spends $2 on a pair of cheap shoes with cardboard soles (no, really, and many women's dress shoes are still this way!) that barely last a year.  Over a decade, the rich man spends $10 on shoes, the poor man spends $20 or more - and thus the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

I am not sure that even made sense back in the 1930's.  The rich man has a closet full of shoes - a dozen or more - and thus his shoes rarely wear out.  The cost of shoes isn't making him poor or making him rich.  But the idea is, the poor man can't afford to scrape together $10 for a decent pair of shoes, so instead spends more money on a succession of shitty shoes. He probably walks more, too.

It is like the waitress we met once, who just went to work on Jekyll.  Back then, the toll was $8 and a yearly pass was $45.  She complained about the toll and we asked her if she got a yearly pass.  "Not yet," she replied, "I have to wait until payday next week to have $45 to buy one!"  Maybe she was trolling for tips, but I find it hard to believe that there was no way she could afford a yearly pass that cost less than a tank of gasoline.

But it illustrates the penny-wise, pound-foolish approach. Between now and her next payday, she would spend as much on a succession of daily passes as she would have for the one yearly one.  But again, maybe this is an example of poverty-think.

There are discussion groups that tout "buy it for life" products.  The idea is, instead of buying cheap shoes or daily passes, you save up to buy "investment grade" things that last a lifetime, and thus save money.  Instead of a set of cheap knives, you buy carbon steel.  Instead of buying cheap Tfal cookware, you buy cast iron pans (both are good, cast iron literally can last a lifetime, though).

Is this a good way to save money?  Like anything else, yes and no.  There are some products that just wear out and cannot be made to last forever - even if you wanted them to - at an affordable price.  Shoes, for example - today we all wear sneakers or what would be considered sneakers back in the day.  These have expanded polyurethane foam soles and the foam compresses down to nothing after a year of daily wear.  Eventually, it is a better idea for your feet to just buy a new pair of shoes.

If you want to save money, just buy a decent set of sneakers instead of some trendy "designer" label endorsed by an athlete, that costs hundreds of dollars.  No one will ever mug me for my Merrell shoes.   They work well, and I generally can buy a pair for under $100.

Could they be made to last longer?  Well, that was the idea behind the NIKE AIR shoes - the soles had chambers filled with gas (not air - that would leak out) and thus not compress as much over time.  But there are other factors to consider.  Sneakers get funky and smell bad over time,  You can wash them, but this tends to degrade the sneaker.  You can replace the laces when they break, and put in "Mr. Scholls" inserts to extend their life - by a few months.  But eventually, it is a better idea to just start over - they are a wear item and should be replaced over time.

The weird thing is, of course, that unlike the trope about cheap shoes, we see today that the most expensive sneakers, such as yet another iteration of "Air Jordans" are not sold to rich people, but rather to the very poor, who covet status items more than any other demographic.  Some folks buy sneakers and then never wear them - convinced they are "collectible" and will be worth a fortune, years from now. Yea, the poor fall into that trap as well- buying "collectible" Elvis plates or Beanie-Babies.

So, are there things that you should "buy for life?"   Well, to begin with, bear in mind that many of these "buy it for life" discussion groups are trolled by companies trying to sell product. Speed Queen washers, for example, are touted as lasting forever.  But buyers discover that, while not a bad product, they tend to break down and last as long as any other washer on the market - but cost far more to buy.  You may spend more on a product, that doesn't mean it will last longer.

In fact, as I noted many times in this blog, "professional grade" products can be fussy and unreliable.  The "subzero" built-in refrigerator costs 5X more than a plain-Jane model, and yet the simplest refrigerators seem to last forever (because they are uncomplicated) while the fussy model with all the "features" gets cranky over time.   BMW and Mercedes make fine cars, but they are expensive to own and expensive to repair.  You rarely see older ones on the road, as the cost of repairs more easily exceeds resale value, particularly after a decade or so.  You spend more and you don't get more, you just spend more.

But that is the point with a lot of these expensive products - the idea is to show people you don't even know that you have money to spend on status items.  It is just a foolish waste of money - ask me how I know!

One commentator noted that things like carbon-steel knives are great and all, but they cost a lot of money.  Over the years, though, he found a set, one at a time, at garage sales and thrift shops.  Most people can't tell a good knife from bad and that's where you can score a good deal.  On the other hand, a set of "cheaper" knives may be all that most home cooks really need - they still slice your unions and garlic, and can be sharpened regularly.

When Mark worked at Williams-Sonoma, he brought home a lot of "scratch and dent" items from the store for pennies on the dollar.  Tellingly, a lot of it is either gone or rarely used.  The aluminum "Calphalon" pans turned out to be a hassle - food tended to stick to them and they got a funky color after a while.  But a big pot rack hanging from your cathedral ceiling, loaded with Calphalon could give the impression you were the next Martha Stewart!

On the other hand, cast-iron Le Creuset generally doesn't wear out, although the plastic pot handles on some later models will crack over time (you can buy metal replacement knobs at the outlet store, however).  But a basic cast-iron "spider" (fry pan) from Lodge can be had for a few dollars - oddly enough in the camping section at Walmart.  They literally last a lifetime and can be handed down from generation to generation.  They also are a deadly weapon, too.  Crack someone on the head with a cast-iron frypan and it's lights out!

Sure, a cast-iron skillet is "buy it for life!" as it has no moving parts.  You see a connection here - the simpler you can make something, the more reliable it is.  The more expensive and complicated something is, the less reliable it is.  You start adding complexity, reliability suffers.  The military is aware of this - MIL-SPEC-217D adds up a factor for each component in a circuit to determine the failure rate per 1,000 hours of service.  The more components, the higher the failure rate.

So, simplicity is the key.  You don't have to spend extra to have reliable things that last a long time - in fact, the opposite is true.  And sometimes, things can be so cheap to buy, there is little point in "buying for life" as it is cheaper, overall, to discard a product at the end of its life cycle and just buy anew.  This is particularly true for appliances and automobiles, which are generally designed for a 15-year product life.  They wear out, and there is little point in trying to make them "last forever" as you will spend more money keeping an older car alive than it costs to buy a new one.  The Weibull curve cannot be denied.

Rather than "buy it for life!" think about what is most cost-effective and most reliable and gives good service.  It may be better to buy two of something over time, than to pay three times as much for something that doesn't last a long as two of the cheaper models.   A lot of "buy it for life!" products are over-stated and frankly, will not last your lifetime.  Moroever, you may find you are bored with a product or your lifestyle needs change over time.

For example, we own a lot of Stickley furniture - a "buy it for life" type of product.  And while we have had this furniture for more than two decades now, we may reach a point where we downsize and no longer need it.  We might get most of our money back at that point, or maybe not.  Not everyone likes the craftsman style of architecture and furniture.  I  have no regrets, but paying $2000 for a chair does seem excessive.

Others buy cheap furniture and replace it every ten years - throwing away the old furniture as it is worn out.  I can't say that either approach is better than the other.  Sometimes it is nice to have new things.

Think carefully before you "buy it for life!"   Some things were meant to be replaced periodically.