Hard Lessons On the Difference Between Price and Quality // Our Next Life // Tanja Hester, author of Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way // early retirement, financial independence, adventure, happinesswe've learned

Hard Lessons On the Difference Between Price and Quality

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.

But first…

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.

Hard Lessons On the Difference Between Price and Quality // Our Next Life // Tanja Hester, author of Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way // early retirement, financial independence, adventure, happiness

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.


On our glorious sofa paradise, in a photo we staged for the New York Post story about Work Optional (hence the plugs for friends’ books and The Fairer Cents) ;-)

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.


My everyday carry setup reveals my love of pens and quality paper

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.

The Watch

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.)

The Sofa

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!

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29 replies »

  1. “…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)”

    Curious statement. Last time I looked there was a huge variety out there with a very broad price span.

  2. I take quality/lifespan into account when considering purchases. At least, as much as you can estimate lifespan at a glance. Like you said, looking at warranties helps. I’m a big review reader, which has its ups and downs since reviews can easily contradict each other. Case in point, I was shopping for pillows online and found multiple reviews saying the pillows were too hard and multiple ones saying they were too soft. Not terribly helpful there. But usually reviews are a great way to see if the product lasts/breaks easily and its overall quality.

  3. Surprised to see the sofa is the one that had the best warranty. That’s not one I usually think about needing much care, but that’s some impressive service. We ran into our own quality/price discussion recently in buying a blender. Research constantly pointed to expensive Vitamix ones ($600), while we could get something that does a similar job for $50 at Target. In the end we went with the cheapest model that got great reviews (~$70). For something that is that difficult to move, I like the idea of basing the decision more on warranty and a proven track record of care.

  4. These are somewhat tough questions to answer as it can certainly depend greatly on the product. I’ll just give a few thoughts.

    Sometimes it’s quality how easy it is to repair/maintenance. For example, leather shoes I wear have to have be able to be resoled. Then I all I need for maintenance beyond that is saddle soap for the leather and replacing laces. My $195 shoes have already paid for themselves over the $50 pairs I used to buy. And this is that deal where having money versus truly being poor is so brutal. I can take the $195 risk that my shoes get damaged, stolen, or whatever. But some people just can’t make it happen and have to go very cheap.

    I think in the end I’m shopping for something that brings value to me for the price I pay. Or at least my perceived value as I could totally be getting ripped off and not even know it. I tend to think in categories. So instead of this or that beer even, it’s more of this or that refreshment, in which case I usually go with a few drops of peppermint extract in water instead.

  5. My high-end heartbreak was over a pair of Frye boots that I bought brand new for a steal. After hearing stories of women who had worn them for multiple decades, I was excited to have found a pair that was neutral enough to wear with almost everything. About few months later, one of the spurs broke and I was disappointed to find out that it was a ceramic-like material with some sort of metallic coating. The company said they couldn’t repair it or replace it, and they wouldn’t refund me anything since I hadn’t bought the boots directly from them. Lesson learned. I’m keeping my other pair of Frye boots, but no more boots from them.

    I’m glad to hear you love your C&B sofa. We’re having that conversation right now at my house, whether to “splurge” on something other than standard Ikea now that the kids are older and more responsible. Even “higher end” Ikea has a 10 year or longer warranty and we’ve always been satisfied with the cheap stuff, so it’s hard to argue for spending a lot more.

    Just realized I’m in DC for work at the same time as your meetup, will see if I can make it happen!

  6. I am so proud of you for that Kree reference :D

    This is kind of a tough question for me. I try to be brand agnostic overall precisely because I don’t think a brand name confers quality (as your small sample size experiences have borne out). There are a few brands that have both stood the test of time and have my loyalty as a result – Victorinox is one. I have a 12-year old piece of luggage from them and a 10-year old backpack and I’ll be hardpressed to change brands when it’s time to replace them, though the suitcase looks like it’s going to work just fine for another 12 years (yay!)

    I am occasionally tempted by new brands that seem to have long term warranties or high quality reputations (Fjallraven) along with socially conscious reputations, so I might branch out despite their higher price tags.

    We still make low-price mistakes though. I had to head that off recently when I bought an off brand charging pack because it was so cheap! Then I recovered my senses and returned it because saving $20 now isn’t really worth a pack that will just crap out in 2 years. My desire to save money and get the best deal will always war with the desire to find the right mid-range high-quality item.

    Have fun at those meetups!

  7. Hello,

    Again, thank you for the good reads that brighten up the day as I march toward my FIRO…

    I think I purchase in terms of both quality and total utility value.

    I wear blue jeans most days, and I have decided to purchase the $60 dollar Express ones that provide both comfort and longevity for use.

    That being said, I dont enjoy spending money on clothes, so I buy them at a minimum 40% off…

    I bought my car based only on logic and longevity, (Toyota Corolla) but I’ll admit that when I go out of town for vacation, I treat myself to a fancy rental car that’s fast or extra comfy.

    Keeping myself in check at times does take work, but I want my freedom like everyone else still on the journey. The balance between what is fun now and smart now is my struggle.

  8. Yes, the most expensive purchases do not always bring the most joy and satisfaction, and some of the best bargains cannot always judged by the initial price tag. Besides initial purchase price, product quality and warranty, there is also the cost (and inconvenience) of upkeep and maintenance. Some examples:

    Just as Tanja is a fan of her fountain pens, I adore my wristwatches, of which I own several and rotate through them as suits my mood. (This, by the way, is why I could never own a smart watch, since I couldn’t just wear one watch all the time.) However, the self winding watches would unwind if I didn’t wear them daily, and the battery powered ones would stop running at the most inconvenient times, often when I was wearing one and depended on it for keeping time (too much trouble to pull my phone out of my pocket). My favorite watches now are the solar/light-powered Citizen Eco-Drive watches. They are not crazy expensive, come in a variety of styles, and have given me years of trouble-free service. There is no battery to replace, and they just need a few hours of daylight to run for weeks. (Now if only we could get rid of Daylight Saving Time to save me having to reset all of my watches twice a year…)

    We currently have two cars, a fairly dependable Japanese mini-van that is about 12 years old, and a more recent vintage electric car, a 2017 Chevrolet Bolt. The mini-van needs an oil and filter change every 5,000 miles or so, plus other routine maintenance and repairs. Our recent major service at 105,000 miles set us back nearly $3,000. Maintenance-wise, the Bolt EV needs its tires rotated every 7,500 miles, which I can have done for free. That’s pretty much it, plus refilling the windshield wiper fluid. Of course, both cars need a new set of tires periodically, but even the brakes on the EV have less wear and tear because of regenerative braking. And charging the EV at home is perhaps 30% of the cost of putting gas in the mini-van for the same number of miles.

    In our kitchen, my favorite cooking utensil is a generic, black plastic spatula that I paid less than $5 for at a specialty store 25 years ago. It has not be melted or warped by heat, still has a good edge, and I use it for nearly every stovetop session unless I’m using cast iron or making soup or sauce. In contrast, over the years, I’ve worn out and replaced name-brand pots and pans, various small appliances, other utensils that proved less durable, and added a few new kitchen gadgets to the mix. But this cheap-o spatula brings me joy every time I use it. When it finally breaks, I will be heartbroken and not sure how I will be able to replace it. It’s hard to find good quality spatulas for under $5 these days.

    • Your love for your spatula made me smile because I have a similar love for my white (now yellowed) plastic spatula. It’s at least 20 years old. I have bought others thinking I needed a backup and none could compare. My husband would just shake his head when I would talk about the lack of decent spatulas whenever we’d go into a kitchenware store. Then, one day last year at our local grocery store there was a whole cardboard display full of MY SPATULAS!!!! And they were only $1!
      Needless to say I bought several and am now set for life. It’s the simple joys!

      • You’re so lucky! Spatulas for life — I can’t even imagine. Just don’t get me started about my favorite 30-year old colander…

      • I’ve got this whisk and I adore it as much as you do your spatula. It’s super easy to clean, does not bend, and can mix even the thickest batter. Also from a garage sale.

  9. I have found that good quality, classically styled shoes (purchased on sale!) make a big difference here in Alaska. I go for real leather or natural material uppers, and brands known for quality and comfort. There are some brands that never go on sale, such as Icebug (Scandinavian snow boots in general are very high quality) that are worth every penny in terms of the wear and tear, comfort and functionality they provide year after year. With a little bit of leather lotion for my leather shoes in the spring and fall, they continue to look new every year. In contrast, there are folks who purchase new boots each year only to have the fake leather and synthetic materials stained, torn and worn by the time spring breakup comes around.

  10. I cut my own hair, but have to have the fancy vegan shampoo. However I use way less of it than the cheap stuff, so in the end I figure it only adds about $6.00 to my monthly budget. Worth every penny.

    I also had a $2.50 paring knife that I loved for over 15 years (until I lost it), whereas its $125 counterpart (wedding gift) fell apart after two years.

    I factor potential cost-per-use/wear into many purchases, and it seems to serve me well.

  11. Tanja do you have any tips on how to shop second hand? I’m outfitting a Van. I looked for drawer organizers at Goodwill and I was very quickly overwhelmed! I know I’m a sucky shopper but there have got to be some helpful tips right?

  12. I asked my husband for a crock pot for Christmas one year about a decade ago… (no “This is Us” references please) and he bought me an expensive pot with too many bells and whistles at Williams & Sonoma. He was trying to be a kind gift giver and I love him for it but I took it right back and went to Kohl’s for a simple, warm, low, hot setting Crock Pot and spent one fifth of what the gift cost. Still use it every week and for all tail gates and parties. Simple is often less costly and runs forever. Flashy seems to have a much shorter shelf life!

  13. You keep talking about these magical fountain pens. One of these I will try them out myself…

    For us, the big(ger) money has gone to appliance replacements when ours have died. Instead of finding a washer and dryer on Craigslist, we upgraded to big, fancy front loaders 5+ years ago. We were planning on having a child and I knew I’d be cloth diapering, so I wanted something solid. Have definitely never regretted that choice.

    Same goes with our 98% efficient furnace, smart(er) thermostat, and refrigerator. Looking back, I realize we’ve spent more on appliances/HVAC in our home than our two cars are worth….

  14. Yike Tanya, this seems like it could torpedo your tax payer subsidized early retirement. If they could rid of the pre existing conditions it wouldn’t matter if you saved 50x, still wouldn’t be enough.

    Hopefully someone wraps the notorious RBG in bubble wrap till this gets through the Supreme Court, amiright?

    Thoughts and prayers for you and yours,

    Deplorable Texan

  15. When it comes to quality we buy quality food as much as possible. Turning to a plant based diet really changed our life’s for the better in 2017. Long story short, treat your body well as it usually has better returns than most material things.

  16. I’ve never been one to buy expensive furniture, but when my first-couch-out-of-college died in a year (thankfully it only cost $250), I decided to upgrade to a nicer than IKEA couch. Had some pretty specific design requirements and ended up with a small Jonathan Louis sectional — now, 4 years later, I’m totally loyal to this brand! Everything is custom-made in the US, so you can choose exactly the fabric you want, and at $1200 the price is more affordable than the next level up (Crate & Barrel, etc.). I have a light gray microfiber sofa which my cat throws up on not-infrequently, and with enzyme cleaner all of the stains have scrubbed away like magic. I also chose a tightback design which means the back cushions don’t sag with use (one of my pet peeves, albeit probably avoidable at the C&B price point).

  17. Like you, I trade off price and value depending on the item. I don’t have many material items that I spend on, but experiences and entertainment are priorities. So I will pay for Broadway shows, though I try to get a discount. Another metric I weigh in addition to price and value is Cost. This is not the same as price as cost is the all-in, not just the financial. Some items have upkeep. Some items are harder on the environment than others. And some items have maintenance costs over time that need to be factored in — I’m into Pilates and specifically classes on the reformer, so unlike other exercise modalities where I can downgrade to a video rather than the live class experience, I can’t do that with the machine classes. So there is the higher price of the class, plus the transportation costs and commute time, which are all higher than my neighborhood gym.

  18. We try to get the best price on items we think can last 15-20 years. Then we can send our destroyed furniture, cars, etc. off to college with our kids and finally buy nice things.

  19. This is always a potential source of conflict between my wife and I. I love a ‘bargain’ whereas my wife would tend to buy quality regardless of price. Fortunately I rarely buy anything other than food and my wife recognises that she already has most of what she needs. Nonetheless, friction can occur on the rare occasions when we are out shopping together

  20. The commenter Fast Science, Slow Life talking about their boots reminded me of something I now have to pay attention to: Before buying through Amazon, check if the manufacturer will honor the warranty. Several items I’ve bought lately I bought directly through the manufacturer or an authorized retailer because it was explicitly stated on the manufacturers website that warranties would not be honored if purchased through Amazon.

    I also like buying things at Nordstrom because their return policies are tremendously generous. Now, I’ve never needed them to be tremendously generous, but I like the customer service behind the policy.

    • Love Nordstrom, but learned the hard way with my Frye boots that Nordstrom Rack has a very strict return policy! They did not budge for the boots which I purchased from them and clearly had a manufacturer’s defect.

  21. I second not understanding the American obsession with ice in beverages. On a hot summer day, I’m on board, but the last thing I want on a freezing winter day is a cup full of ice!

  22. My wife wanted a home gym. I bought a consumer grade treadmill and it was always blowing up. I spent 5K on a gym quality TM in 1993, and we use it every day. It has an odometer and has taken me 3/4 the way around the world. less than 200/yr. I bought a weight machine the next year also light gym quality like you might find in a hotel. $4500 I’ve easily lifted 1M pounds and no need to be spotted, less than 200/yr What is the cost of belonging to a gym/year? Just the convenience makes it worth it. I bought my wife a kitchen gadget for mixing and chopping think it was a Kitchen Aid, POS! I bought her a German made mixer I call the kitchen tractor, indestructible. I bought her a Vitamix indestructible and has lasted decades. I always buy new cars for cash. They come with a warranty, new tires new brakes, new battery etc. Cash lets you deal a bit. My retirement car is 4 years old has 38K on it and will easily last another 4 years. You can finance a car up to about 60K miles so I’ll trade it off about then while it can still get financing and buy another. You always have a pretty new and reliable car and you get back on the sale part of what you lost on the purchase

  23. I completely agree when it comes to the sofa, and try to convince my clients of that as well. But I usually err on the side of cheaper, but more because of it being a habit. I prefer quality.