I hate buying junk. And these days it’s easier than ever to buy something crappy, that will die on you in no time. It’s sooooo cheap, after all! Why would you spend $50 on something that will last when you could spend only $10 on something that might last?
I’ve always fallen on the side of buying quality (and secondhand, when possible) for things I hope to use for a long time, but this isn’t always a foolproof strategy, either. Today we’re talking about some hard lessons I’ve learned about price and quality.
Reminder about three upcoming events:
Portland! THIS WEDNESDAY, March 27, I’m hosting a casual meetup in downtown Portland. It’s 6-8 PM at Avid Cider Co. at 121 NW 9th Ave. My hair is especially fuchsia right now, so you’ll be able to spot me, even among the PDX haircolor spectrum. ;-) If you have a copy of Work Optional and would like me to sign it, please bring it with you.
DC! Thursday, May 23, from 6:30 to 7:30, I’ll be doing a talk and book signing at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle. Kramers is one of my favorite bookstores, and it’s definitely a “pinch me!” moment to get to do a talk there. When the book event ends, we’ll migrate to a nearby bar for a more casual meetup.
Reno/Tahoe! Thursday, June 6, from 6:30 to 7:30, I’ll be doing a talk and signing at Sundance Books and Music at 121 California Ave. Sundance is my favorite bookstore in the Reno/Tahoe region, so I’m stoked to get to do an event for local friends. Meetup to follow at a bar nearby.
As always, you can get the latest info on real life events and meetups on the blog’s sidebar, so check in over there from time to time.
Let’s talk about three expensive things I own:
1. I have always loved fountain pens. (My mom is German, and they still to this day learn to write in school with fountain pens, so I was exposed early. It’s also why I hate ice in my beverages and have a “j” in my name.) So for high school graduation, an aunt in Germany gave me a Mont Blanc fountain pen. It’s simple and beautiful, and while I never looked up how much it must have cost her back in the late 90s, it was certainly not a sum I’d ever spend on a single pen, no matter how much I might love it.
2. I am not a big jewelry wearer, but back in our baller years, Mark decided I ought to have a special occasion watch, and he got me a (notice a theme?) simple and beautiful Movado bracelet watch with a few tiny diamonds in it. (We got it for nearly half off retail, btw. Because even ballers can seek good value.) It’s not extravagant in its looks, but it also did not cost a sum I’d spend on a watch for myself.
3. When we’re home and awake, we spend more time than anywhere in the living room, either reading or watching movies. And after having had crappy couches in the past, Mark and I decided to splurge on a gigantic and massively comfortable palace of a sofa from Crate and Barrel. It’s the Lounge sectional (the current version is called “Lounge II”) and it probably cost more than all of our furniture combined in our first place together in LA.
I’m calling out these three objects because they’re notably out of sync with what we normally spend on things, or at least on things where you have a choice (not stuff like cell phones or laptops, where you have fewer options and prices tend to be similar). Most of the time, we’re aiming for middle-of-the-road products, price and quality, unless it’s an area where a little more money will get you something that will last forever, or on the opposite end of the spectrum, where you’d have to spend a ton more than the basic option to even get to middle of the road. We generally try not to buy anything that will soon end up in the landfill because it fell apart and couldn’t be repaired, and we also generally don’t care about brands or whether something counts as luxury (if that term even means anything anymore).
But these three objects have taught me some important lessons about price and value.
The Fountain Pen
So I admit it: I am a bit of a fountain pen hoarder. I love using multiple pens over the course of the day, and having only one pen on me at any given time (no options!) makes me feel like I’ve left the house unprepared. Though I have more pens than one person needs, most of my pens are inexpensive, under $20. The two that I’ve used the most for the longest period are both student-grade Pelikan pens from Germany that cost something like 10 Euros a piece, which is dirt cheap by fountain pen standards. And I’ve never had to repair either of those, or had problems with ink leaking. My current favorite pen is my TWSBI Eco with a medium nib, which I love because it doesn’t use wasteful cartridges and can hold a ton of ink, enough for a month in France, without having to lug along ink bottles. I have to take that pen apart to clean it, but it gives me no trouble.
Guess which pen has given me the most trouble, though? Yep. The most expensive one. The Mont Blanc. The ink converter doesn’t pair snugly enough, and ink leaks out. The ink flow in the nib isn’t consistent, and I end up cleaning it way too often. Whenever I use it, I end up with ink all over my hand, and it looks like I’ve just murdered a Kree. (#myfirstcomicbookjoke) The truth is I hardly ever use it, which makes it feel like having guest towels and guest soaps you never use, which is antithetical to my whole philosophy on life. I keep it because it’s pretty and it was a gift from someone I love lots. But it was so not worth the money.
I generally prefer to wear things that are durable and bomb-proof, because I’m clumsy. Anything that can’t handle getting banged around really doesn’t belong in my possession. Which is why I’ve never gravitated toward nice watches. I know I’d scratch them right up. When I first started earning money in eighth grade, one of the first things I bought myself was a Swatch (they were soooo coooool at the time), and I had scuffed up the face pretty badly before the first week was out. (Nothing a little toothpaste buffing couldn’t fix, but still a good lesson for me.) So given all of that, I rarely wear my Movado, because I don’t want to trash it. And yet, despite only wearing it a few times a year, it’s already had to go in for major service, to have its movement replaced, after owning it for less than ten years. And that was not covered by any sort of lifetime warranty, which you might assume comes with such a product but actually does not. For everyday wear, I toggle between a basic Skagen watch and a Timex weekender, and have I ever had to put either of those watches in for service? You already know the answer. (No.)
When we lived in LA, I got caught up in trying to make our condo as pretty as possible. (It did once land us a feature in Apartment Therapy and the Kitchn, which was pretty cool.) And so we decided to buy a stylish sofa, even if it was a bit pricey. We ultimately decided to buy a tufted sofa from Crate and Barrel, and it fit the look we were going for perfectly. It was also obvious that it was super good quality. First, it took nearly two months to arrive because it was made to order (in the USA of hardwood and quality upholstery materials), and a few months later, when one of the tufts started to come apart, Crate and Barrel sent a master seamster to our condo to repair it by hand and offered to do the same if any others had the same problem. We were impressed that they stood behind their products to that level. So when we bought our house in Tahoe, we knew we wanted to buy from them again, and we had a lot more space to fill, so could splurge on our monster couch. And unlike the pen and the watch, the sofa has been worth every penny. Our dogs’ nails don’t scratch it up, spills wipe right up and it’s comfy as all get-out. (The cushions are filled with feathers and down.) If you read Work Optional, it’s the couch where we found ourselves asleep by 8 PM most Fridays for the last many years of our careers.
The Lessons I Take Away From These Purchases
While a sample size of three is too small to draw definitive conclusions, two things are striking:
1. The two expensive items that fail the most are those on which a brand or logo is prominent. The one that does its job perfectly has no logo anywhere, and you would never know where we got it if I hadn’t told you.
2. Movado and Mont Blanc both offer two-year warranties, while Crate & Barrel has a lifetime warranty on upholstery frames. (I wouldn’t expect a lifetime warranty on the fabric itself.)
So now, when I buy things, I still look for quality, and that starts by looking at the warranty. Not every type of product deserves a lifetime warranty, but comparing one brand’s warranty to its peers’ warranties can be telling. I generally don’t buy anything I’m spending more than a few dollars on unless it has a legit warranty that tells me the company will stand behind it. And I look next at whether the brand is part of what you’re paying for, and not just the product’s underlying quality. It if it, that tells me I’m overpaying at a minimum, but might also be buying something poorly made just because it has a certain name associated with it. Some brands are known for their quality – Subaru and Toyota come to mind – so I definitely don’t dismiss the brand entirely, but just consider how it’s likely affecting the price and quality. Of course, once I’ve decided what I’m going to buy, then the hunt begins to get it as cheaply as possible! (That’s a whole different topic.)
How Do You Decide What to Purchase?
Do you shop for quality and value, or for price first? How do you decide that something is worth the price? How do you decide if the quality is high? Any stories you can share on supposedly high quality purchases gone wrong? Share in the comments!
Categories: we've learned