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When Does It Make Sense to Pay More For Quality?

This article was written by in Shopping. 10 comments.


My brain is slowly re-wiring itself now that I’m finally free of credit card debt, and I’m wondering about things that I never seriously considered before. I remember many years ago talking with a friend who tried explaining to me that it made sense to spend $600 on a pair of shoes, if they were high-quality enough to last for decades. At the time, I rejected that idea immediately and, I thought, forever. After all, they’re just shoes.

But now, I’m allowed to think about paying more for higher quality in additional areas of life, and I find that I want to think about it before spending money on just about anything. Maybe shoes can be worth $600, maybe it’s worth it to have a suit tailored exactly to my body, maybe there’s a good reason one hammer costs twice as much as the hammer hanging right next to it.

For example, last week we bought an oscillating lawn sprinkler. In the last seven years we’ve bought probably seven or eight sprinklers, some of them fancier than others, but none of them what you’d consider high end (at least not if you’ve done the research I just did). Last week’s sprinkler probably cost just over $10 after tax. We tried to set it up in the yard and we simply couldn’t figure out how to get it to spread the water out in the right pattern. It’d get stuck in one position, or only go up halfway before coming back down. The controls didn’t make any sense, and when we tried to get it to stop spraying upside-down, it broke.

After we gave up, I did some research at the Home Depot and Lowe’s websites, and cross-referenced their options with sprinkler reviews at Amazon, and I found two surprising facts: 1) neither Lowe’s nor Home Depot sell sprinklers at my local stores that are well-reviewed on Amazon, and 2) it looks like you need to spend at least $35 for any sprinkler that is well-reviewed.

Actually, I learned a third surprising thing: a person could theoretically spend almost $2,000 on a lawn sprinkler. I didn’t get that one, I got the first one I could find with more than a couple five-star reviews, which ended up being $37.80. It still seems like a lot to spend on something that should be easy to make cheap, but according to several reviewers, this is a brand that can last up to ten years. In other words, it goes against the “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” concept.

I tested the new sprinkler just now, and it worked right the first time, due in large part to controls that make sense. So, I’m adding sprinklers to the list of things I’d pay more for, in addition to video and photography equipment, computer hardware and software, trash cans, wine, coffee, power tools, haircuts, mattresses and bed frames, cars, air filters, pet care, vacations, exercise equipment, and dinner ingredients, not to mention the occasional visit to a nice restaurant.

But there are still some things I will always buy the cheap version of, if only because I tend to lose them. That’s being generous; I always lose them. Sunglasses and fingernail clippers, for example.

I’m still not so sure about shoes, though. What did you used to buy the cheap version of, before you decided to spend more on quality?

Published or updated August 29, 2010. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Smithee formerly lived primarily on credit cards and the good will of his friends. He is a newbie to personal finance but quickly learning from his past mistakes. You can follow him on Twitter, where his user name is @SmitheeConsumer. View all articles by .

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Apex

I was once being given a ride in a shuttle vehicle and was talking to the driver who was the child of an immigrant to the U.S. During conversation about buying things she said her father used to regularily say, “We aren’t rich enough to buy cheap stuff.”

I found that phrase interesting and accurate at times. Because you buy the cheap one and either re-buy it regularly or just buy the cheap one once or twice and then end up buying the more expensive one anyway because the cheap one is junk.

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avatar Donna Freedman

You know what they say: “Buy it right or buy it twice.” In this case, more than twice.
I wouldn’t pay big bucks for, say, a mop bucket. But some things are worth it. Shoes are an excellent example. I wore cheap shoes most of my life. Now I have foot problems.
I wouldn’t skimp on well-made shoes — keeping in mind that not all expensive shoes are well-made. Your feet will thank you later. They will do this by NOT HURTING.

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avatar Brian

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve definitely taken to paying more for things that save me time. Previously, I might have tried to fix something on my own (which I still do on occasion), but if it’s going to take me more time than I think the project is worth, I will hire somebody to do it.
This principle also applies to a lot of the things you mentioned. It’s worth it to pay a bit more for a good camera, computer, mattress, and car because you’ll spend less time and money in the long run because they will cause you less problems and irritation than the cheaper options. One thing I’d add to the list: concert and sporting event tickets. I’m too dang old for standing room only! :)

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avatar Kevin

I don’t buy many things so I don’t really have something that I have bought for cheap and decided against it. However if I don’t know much about something but it’s going to have some impact in my life, such as a camera (it captures moments) I wont scrimp on. Thats manly because I don’t know how bad the cheap stuff is. You can’t really listen to reviews because everyone has a different opinion of bad. I know I’ve seen a lot of movie reviews that say the movie sucked but I enjoyed them. So I’ll go with that. I do however don’t try to break the bank when I do that.

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avatar Heather

Kitchen equipment. We registered for good pots/pans and knives when we got married, and once we started using them, we understood why they cost more! Worth every penny.

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avatar Jon

One thing I’ve always paid more for the best quality is kitchen knives. As a former chef, I hate messing around with low quality knives. In the last few years, though I would still balk at a $600 pair of shoes, I’ve crossed the $100 barrier a couple of times and invested in Red Wing boots and work shoes. They wear like iron and the service from my local store is fantastic – free re-dyeing and laces for life!

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avatar Anthony @ DYL

I bought high-end sunglasses a few years back, and they definitely have been worth it! In the same period of time, my wife purchased a dozen or so cheap sunglasses. Like you, she loses them or scratches them or they just fall apart because their cheap quality. For me, one pair of high end sunglasses is better than a dozen pairs of cheap sunglasses.

Also, I bought a $90 printer versus going with a $30 one. The cost of ink alone made the purchase worthwhile. But really I have a quality printer that has already lasted 3x longer than a cheapo one.

Other than those, I’ve been able to go “cheap” without worrying too much about quality. My knife set was a set on sale at a kitchen close-out store. Although I’ve used better knives before, the knives I have now do exactly what I need them to do without any fuss.

I can’t imagine paying $600 for shoes. I would rather buy 10x $60 shoes. The $600 pair may actually be of such great quality that they will last you decades, but then: 1) you’ll be stuck wearing the same shoes for decades, 2) although they will last for decades, what condition will they be in?, and 3) a 20-year pair of shoes, even in good condition, is likely to be out-of-trend.

Like I said, I would rather buy 10x $60 shoes. If a $600 pair lasts 20 years, I could buy 10x $60 shoes every 2 years. I could mix up the styles a little bit and keep up with the trends.

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avatar Anthony @ DYL

I bought high-end sunglasses a few years back, and they definitely have been worth it! In the same period of time, my wife purchased a dozen or so cheap sunglasses. Like you, she loses them or scratches them or they just fall apart because their cheap quality. For me, one pair of high end sunglasses is better than a dozen pairs of cheap sunglasses.

Also, I bought a $90 printer versus going with a $30 one. The cost of ink alone made the purchase worthwhile. But really I have a quality printer that has already lasted 3x longer than a cheapo one.

Other than those, I’ve been able to go “cheap” without worrying too much about quality. My knife set was a set on sale at a kitchen close-out store. Although I’ve used better knives before, the knives I have now do exactly what I need them to do without any fuss.

I can’t imagine paying $600 for shoes. I would rather buy 10x $60 shoes. The $600 pair may actually be of such great quality that they will last you decades, but then: 1) you’ll be stuck wearing the same shoes for decades, 2) although they will last for decades, what condition will they be in?, and 3) a 20-year pair of shoes, even in good condition, is likely to be out-of-trend.

Like I said, I would rather buy 10x $60 shoes. If a $600 pair lasts 20 years, I could buy 10x $60 shoes every 2 years. I could mix up the styles a little bit and keep up with the trends.

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avatar Bucksome

I agree that it is worth paying more for better quality for many things (not things you lose). I wouldn’t pay $600 for shoes because you can get wonderful shoes for 1/3 the cost.

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avatar kl

I also like to buy high quality. It isn’t always the most expensive either, if you keep your eyes open for sales. And sometimes, low-quality is quite good enough. ( This is evident in, say, clothes, where price tag does not always correlate with quality.)

One thing I used to buy cheap (well, during my student years that was everything) was furniture. I’ve ended up giving away most of cheap furniture that I initially thought was a bargain, and those more expensive versions are with us to last. Most of them are from sale though, 50% off, which still did not make them cheap…

I do think good furniture can be found at lesser prices, but that means a lot of hunting. Most cheap stores that sell new furniture make crappy quality (again, keep your eyes open – there are exceptions. Ikea hard wood furniture is sometimes good, and my second-hand Ikea book shelf will last to the end of time. Unfortunately, that model is these days made cheaper and is no longer good quality while it looks the same.) In yard sales you may make good finds (look for solid wood and good overall health, ignore minor damage that can be repaired), in second-hand and antique stores you may have to pay a little extra.

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