There’s an expensive, pseudo-frugal trend floating around out there referred to as “Buy It For Life” (BIFL). The idea behind this proclamation is that you should buy expensive, high quality products for everything you need–from hair dryers to frying pans to bookshelves–and then never buy that item again. Ever. For the rest of your life. As a devoted non-shopper, I like this concept in theory, but I also have a sneaking suspicion that I’m catching the oh-so-elusive scent of a falsely frugal rat. Methinks BIFL might be good in some instances but not all.
Don’t Start With Buy It for Life
My first objection to Buy It For Life: it encourages you to overspend on high-end products when you can get ‘good enough’ products at vastly cheaper prices.
What I propose is a slight modification to this catchy phrase. Instead of the quippy “Buy It For Life,” I propose the equivocation, “Maybe Buy It For Life, But Not Immediately.” Good, huh? Bear with me, I swear I’m going somewhere with this. When we need something, we have a tendency to become mono-focused and, dare I say, desperate. Allow me to illustrate with my mattress. Six years ago, Mr. Frugalwoods and I had just bought our first home (which is now our rental property in Cambridge, MA) and we moved in with the approximately eight pieces of furniture to our names. Not one of those eight pieces was a bed. Thus, we needed a bed like yesterday. When one is in the mode of obsessing over one’s requirement for a soft spot to sleep on, one can become like a ferocious beast of a greyhound tearing through internet reviews in search of THE BEST BED ever made, invented, and sold on this green earth. It’s intense.
It’s from moments of raw desperation, such as this, that the seductive siren song of “Buy It For Life” begins to permeate our brains. Seemingly innocent, this concept calls out to us from customer reviews and forums and our best friend’s aunt’s neighbor who also really needed a bed really badly. We start to rationalize and say things like, “well, since I need a bed and am going to need a bed for the rest of my life, shouldn’t I buy the best, the most expensive bed I can find? Won’t this mean I’ll never ever buy another bed?” And hey, maybe you won’t ever buy another bed! But hey, you also might and you will have spent thousands of dollars on something you decide is too firm and too weirdly conforming to your body.
What I propose is that instead of going for the whole hog, priciest, top-of-the-line option at the outset? Bide your time (for at least 72 hours, to be precise). Source what you need through frugal means and then wait and see. Wait and see if your cheap Craigslist couch will cut it, use your free hand-me-down hiking backpack for a few hikes, try out a cheap mattress for awhile and see if it’ll work for you. In this spirit, Mr. FW and I purchased this knock-off King-sized memory foam mattress on Amazon for a cool $279 (with free delivery!). We reasoned that if we genuinely hated the mattress, and needed to spend more, we could re-sell it on Craigslist (it’s a myth that you can’t), or put it in our guest room. But on the off-chance that this cheap-o mattress was comfortable? That was thousands of bucks we’d save!
As it turns out, we’re going on six years with our dirt cheap Amazon mattress and we love it. LOVE it. We love it so much, in fact, that I devoted an entire post to how wonderful it is: Our Amazon Mattress: A Five Year Update. This could’ve gone either way and we had no idea when we bought the mattress if our gamble would pay off. But when something is that much cheaper than its competitors, I feel it’s worth the gamble.
I’ve discovered that quite often, in fact, the cheapest option will work. Take, for example, our humble cooler. I call it humble because, even for a cooler, this thing is a humble bumble. We got it for $0 from the free pile at a yard sale a few years ago and have used it to ferry food around on long distance car trips ever since. It was free, it is ugly, it is a bit odd-looking, but it works. There’s no need for us to buy the greatest cooler ever made when a free cooler serves our purposes perfectly well. As I look around my house, I realize that nearly everything I own could be categorized as ‘good enough.’ Most of our material possessions were either free hand-me-downs or were purchased used. And in almost every instance? They work just fine. One element of successful frugality–and a lifestyle of lowered stress–is letting go of the drive for perfect. The state of perfect is unobtainable and we can waste a tremendous amount of time, effort, and money in this futile quest.
Are You Really Never Going To Buy It EVER Again? Really?
My second objection to Buy It For Life: most stuff does not last forever.
Your life, hopefully, will be long. Given this, is it likely you’ll use the same spatula for the entirety of that life? In some instances, I will grant you, YES, you really might! However, I gotta tell you, my frugal radar is ridiculously suspicious of this claim for a number of reasons:
1) Things Break
Even high-quality “unbreakable” items bite the dust. Allow me to share an example. Mr. FW and I decided a few years ago to upgrade from our plastic college-era dishes to the indestructible, un-stainable glory that is Corelle plates and bowls. I freaking love these things. They’re plain white, which means they’re classy in all seasons and styles, they’re lightweight, they don’t stain, and they are almost unbreakable.
I say “almost” because of the great bowl-shattering incident of 2015. I (yes, I’ll admit it was me… ) inadvertently dropped one of our Corelle bowls on our granite countertop and it broke into 9 million pieces. I counted, there were that many. I still love our Corelle set, but it made me realize the ephemeral nature of material possessions.
Even though we spent a bit more money on these bowls and plates, they’re still not top of line or astronomically expensive. Good thing too since apparently, they can break. To redeem myself, I will note that the other week Mr. FW accidentally dropped a Corelle plate on our tile kitchen floor and it too shattered. So, there you go.
2) Things Get Lost
It’s undeniable that stuff just plain gets lost. I run what I like to think is a pretty darn clutter-free, somewhat minimalist, organized home and yet, things still get lost in the morass of household events and occurrences. I don’t know where this stuff goes, and it doesn’t happen often, but every now and then, things are simply gone. GONE, I tell you. However, this is rarely an issue worth grieving over in the Frugalwoods home since most of our stuff was either free or cheap.
Let’s explore flashlights as an example. I have no idea what happens to our flashlights. We use them a lot–what with living in the woods and having minimal outdoor lighting (no street lights, people)–but where it is that they disappear to remains a mystery (although I did find one on the floor of the backseat of the Prius last week… hmmm…. ). If we bought Buy It For Life flashlights to the tune of $857.25 a pop, we’d be sweating it hardcore when they got lost. As it is, we buy middle of the road, fairly cheap flashlights that don’t cause a national disaster when they go on hiatus for months at a time/permanently.
3) Needs Change
What we think we’ll need for the rest of our lives is highly likely to change as our life circumstances change (which they inevitably will). Mr. FW and I adore our couch. It’s an awesome couch! It cost us, oh I don’t even know, maybe $150 on Craigslist five years ago and we’ve enjoyed sitting on it ever since. It’s quite comfortable, it’s a nice microfiber suede (which cleans off well), and it’s a good neutral color. Everything you could want in a couch, right?
Well, yes, everything a family of two adults and then two adults and one baby could want. However, as the three of us were snuggling on the couch reading books the other day, Mr. FW and I had the realization that four people–which our family will soon contain–will not easily fit on this couch together once the two youngest people are out of diapers. It’s more of a two-cushion, two-person type of situation. And so, in a few years, we’ll be looking for a larger couch. No big deal since we spent so little on this one and we’ll resell it on Craigslist anyway. If we’d instead tried to go the Buy It For Life route and spent, I don’t know, $10,000 on a couch? I think we’d be feeling some pain at the prospect of upgrading in a few years.
Yes, you can (and should) resell items you purchased new, but you’ll never reap anywhere near what you paid for them. Material goods depreciate the minute they’re used and people are unwilling to pay anywhere close to the original sticker price. Reselling used stuff, however, will often net you a price very close to what you originally paid since the initial depreciation happened on someone else’s watch (and wallet).
4) Tastes Change
It’s true, we’re mercurial little beings and we change our minds. We adore orange patent leather boots one year, and the next? We realize we look like a terrible remake of a 70’s sitcom. Just saying.
I’m not an advocate of buying new clothes/furniture/decor/cars any more often than strictly necessary (certainly not annually or even every five years), but I am a real live person whose tastes change over the years. My clothing is a prime example of this. I cannot/should not wear the same stuff I wore in college. I mean, some of it is fine, but there’s not really a place for a gold lace dress here on the homestead. Just, no.
Hence, it’s a good thing most of my clothes are from thrift stores and garage sales. The total cost of my wardrobe isn’t very high since most of the items were under $10 (and in many cases, were in fact, free hand-me-downs). When my tastes change, it’s not a big deal to give away miniskirts in favor of maternity tops. Oh yeah.
I know there are folks who advocate buying only a few very expensive wardrobe pieces and wearing those items for decades. This system might work well for you, but for me, this would not work out. For one, my tastes change, and for two, my size keeps changing owing to the fact that I’m pregnant for the second time in as many years. And another thing, my lifestyle changed dramatically in the past few years. I went from working a white-collar job in the city of Boston to being a work-at-home parent on a homestead in the middle of nowhere. Slightly different clothing requirements, in case you’re wondering.
But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that I’m perfect (HAH). I fell victim–very victim–to the Buy It For Life temptation with my pair of $285.49 leather boots. Oh yes, you read that right: $285.49 leather boots. Six years ago, I decided I needed stylish, comfortable, low-heeled leather riding boots to fashionably crunch leaves underneath as I strolled around ultra urban Cambridge sipping a $7 latte, walking my greyhound, holding hands with my bearded hipster husband. Full disclosure: I do love these boots and they are amazingly comfortable. But, am I really going to wear these for the rest of my life and NEVER buy another pair of boots ever again? That’s still to be determined, but I’m going to guess it’s a pretty hard no.
5) Your Kids Probably Don’t Want Your Stuff
Speaking as a kid who LOVES hand-me-downs from my parents and in-laws, I include this point tentatively. I greatly appreciate the towels, sheets, kid stuff, kitchen implements, and more that my folks have passed on to us. But none of this stuff is super duper high-end because there’s no need for it to be. My parents don’t purchase extraordinarily expensive skillets and salad spinners with the thought that they’ll one day pass them along to their children.
Why? Because their children often don’t need or want the stuff they’re getting rid of. Our lives are different, we live in different parts of the country, and what worked for my parents 30 years ago might not be what their offspring need in 2017. I think that buying over-priced material goods with the thought that you’ll one day gift them to your children is nothing more than a justification for spending lots of money because you want to.
There’s nothing at all wrong with passing items down to future generations, but the issue is when we overspend on the premise that our children will one day use this lamp/chair and so we’ll get our money’s worth. There’s simply no guarantee that’ll be the case and, more likely than not, your kids will want you to stop texting them photos of some lamp you bought 40 years ago for their first home. Note that I exclude family heirlooms and antiques from this example.
Do You Require The Very Best?
My third objection to Buy It For Life: do you actually need top-of-the-line products?
There are some circumstances in which you actually do need the best of something. Say, for example, you’re a professional carpenter and you swing a hammer all day long, every day. If this is you, then you just might want to buy a $200 lightweight titanium hammer in order to reduce the strain on your shoulder over the course of a lifetime of swinging that hammer. But does someone who only occasionally uses a hammer need the very best in hammer technology? I think not.
If you casually/sporadically do something–say, fishing–you probably don’t need top of the line fishing poles in order to conduct your hobby. And this applies even to activities you do every day. For example, I hike with Babywoods 1 every day. Every single day. All year long. Unless it’s torrentially raining. But I don’t own expensive hiking shoes or a brand new jogging stroller. Why not? Because the old hiking shoes I have suit me just fine. And the jogging stroller I found at a thrift store for $5 is perfecto. I’m not hiking Mount Everest over here with a toddler. Thus, high-end equipment is totally unnecessary. We have a tendency to want to rush out and outfit ourselves with the very best, most very perfect stuff the minute we take on a new hobby/job/house/baby. But try to restrain yourself. Explore if things you already own will suffice. Examine if you can find whatever you desire used or as a hand-me-down. If, after that, you find you really DO need to buy something? Find a reasonably priced option that’ll suffice.
Especially as it pertains to hobbies, start cheap and escalate from there if you find that you need to. Mr. FW, for example, enjoys cutting the wood that we burn in our woodstove to keep warm every winter. Last year, he bought a moderately priced, middle-of-the-road used chainsaw, which works OK, but isn’t great. What he’s learned after a year of using that saw is that he’d prefer a higher-quality, lighter-weight saw, which he’s currently looking for on the used market. He’ll keep his first saw as a back-up (good to have in case your main chainsaw gets stuck in a tree). This realization that he needs a nicer saw only came after a year of using a cheaper saw. During this year he learned that: 1) he really enjoys cutting wood and plans to do so long into the future; 2) a lighter-weight saw would ease the pressure on his back of bending over felled trees to buck them. Don’t get carried away with purchasing for a potential or nascent hobby. See if you like it and if you actually do it all the time first. And, of course, assess whether or not your cheap gear will do (as I’ve found with hiking) or if you need to upgrade (as with Mr. FW’s chainsaw-ing).
Let me further illustrate this point with my food dehydrator. Last year, faced with an inordinate number of apples from our apple trees, Mr. FW and I began a frantic search for ways to process said apples. We landed on the system of dehydrating, which appealed to us because it’s cheap, easy, and doesn’t involve any added ingredients (such as loads of sugar, which we try to avoid eating… fairly unsuccessfully if you’re me… ).
The only problem? We didn’t own a dehydrator. I began a wide ranging search. I first attempted to find a dehydrator to borrow from a friend/neighbor. No luck. I next tried to find a used dehydrator through our community listserve, Craigslist, and our local thrift stores. Nope again. Finally, I resorted to my last resort: I bought it new. With all of our new purchases, Mr. FW and I attempt to hit the middle ground and buy something that’s not the very cheapest but not the very most expensive either. Cheap stuff is often, well, cheap, and expensive stuff is often unnecessary for our needs.
We’re not professional fruit dehydrators, we don’t dehydrate thousands of pounds of fruit every year, and so we don’t require a premier dehydrator. We just need a dehydrator that works and this one does! If, in the future, our dehydrating needs change, we’ll sell or give this one away and buy a better one. But for our first foray into dehydrating, there was simply no need to over-engineer the situation. This isn’t to say that you should always go for the dirt cheapest option with everything you buy. But rather that there’s a balance to strike and that probably, not very many of us actually require the very best.
When Do I Buy It For Life?
Believe it or not, there are times when I spring for the Buy It For Life option. Shocker, I know, but I’m all about analysis and efficiency and sometimes? BIFL actually is what I need. The rules are:
- I don’t do this often.
- I’m discerning about what items make this cut.
- I never BIFL the first time around.
Allow us to reflect upon my relatively expensive $80 electric kettle. A ludicrous amount to pay for something to boil your water, you say? Perhaps. But it’s worth it to me.
You see, we previously owned a very cheap, very dinky, very un-cooperative kettle. It was plastic, it always spilled, and it didn’t hold enough water. We (or, I should say, Mr. Frugalwoods) use our kettle every single morning to make two coffees and three bowls of oatmeal. The kettle is also employed throughout the day to provide coffee and tea for guests and then again in the evening for my tea or hot cocoa. And our $80 kettle works perfectly. It heats water to precise temperatures so that our coffee isn’t too cold or our tea too scalding, it’s stainless steel throughout, and it has a generously-sized carafe. The knowledge that we needed such a precision machine only came through field testing the cheaper analogue (which we keep as our emergency back-up kettle).
I’m glad that we first went the cheap-o route since it provided us with the data we needed in order to make an informed purchase of the more expensive kettle. Not only did cheap kettle serve to show us that we needed a nicer kettle, it also provided us with the crucial environmental information of exactly what it is that we value in a kettle. This is similar to my recommendation to wait at least one full year before performing any upgrades or renovations on a new home. You need to live with something before you know how you use it. The features that other people need in a kettle might be irrelevant to your use case. By gathering first-hand knowledge of what you need in a product, you can then make an informed decision on a more expensive model. Customer reviews are nice and all, but they might not be relevant to your real world usage.
It’s also important to consider the longterm costs of ownership for a product. For example, the energy usage of a large appliance. A few years ago, we bought a brand new, Energy Star certified efficient chest freezer. Sure, we could’ve picked up a used chest freezer for cheap, but when we calculated the energy usage of an older, less efficient freezer, we realized we’d save in the long run with a new, efficient model. For reference, at the time we bought our freezer, used freezers were going for $100 on Craigslist and we bought our new model for $159.36. Knowing the used vs. new rate, along with the longterm expected costs, are crucial data points in deciding whether or not to BIFL.
I’m gonna throw another example at you: our underwear. Fortunately for you, I won’t go into quite as much detail as I did re. the kettle. What I will say is that for years, Mr. FW and I bought cheap cotton undies that wore out after a mere few months. And then we’d buy more undies, which would wear out and require we buy still more undies. Also, these cheap undies were not comfortable. Also, I really hate to shop. So, we took to the internet and did research on what might potentially be a long-term undergarment solution. We came up with the Ex-Officio brand of undies and, in order to test them out, each ordered one pair (his and hers). We wore these test pairs, washed them, wore them again and made notes (mental, don’t worry). Deciding that these were, in fact, pretty magical undies, we ordered a full suite for each of us. Seven (eight? nine?) years later, we are still wearing these same sets of underwear and they show nary a sign of wear. I would include a photo, but this is a PG website. Suffice it to say, other than the colors fading a bit, these underwear remain as good as new. Plus they are mega comfortable, plus they can be worn throughout a pregnancy, plus they are excellent for hiking/yoga/chopping wood/exercising. The end.
Thoughts For Life
Buy It For Life is one of those pseudo-frugal philosophies that I don’t disagree with wholesale, but that I advise prudent caution before pursuing. In some scenarios and for some people, BIFY might be the right answer. But I’d wager that in the vast majority of purchasing decisions, falling back on the trope of BIFL is an excuse to spend more money than is strictly necessary to meet a need.