The Real Cost of Cheap

Today I found myself ruminating on the ideas of durability and quality versus availability and cheapness. We come across this dilemma rather frequently in our daily lives. Something breaks or wears out and we are faced with the decision of whether to spend a little now and pretty much guarantee that we’ll spend it again in the not so distant future, or spend a bit more now for a quality item that we know will stand the test of time. In the long-term, of course it’s a better investment to opt for quality, but who has the extra money to spend? If things break around our house, usually it’s not part of the planned budget and too often, cheap is the only option. But sometimes I wonder, why is cheap an option at all?  It never used to be. If a craftsman built something, they built it to last. They took pride in what they had made. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it had to be any more expensive to make. It it was just made with care rather than the understanding (and often the hope) that the buyer would most likely chuck it in a few years and buy a new one. Plastic and prefab have since replaced wood and steel. Machines have replaced hands. And because there is such a dramatic difference in quality, there ought to be a significant difference in price, right? Even if it didn’t really cost that much more to make. And no one seems to consider the fact that all of these products that are made to be discarded and replaced year after year end up in landfills and never biodegrade.

But what is the solution if you can’t afford the quality that used to be affordable and now seems to be elite? My solution is usually to search for second-hand or slightly damaged or refurbished items that still, despite their age or scratch-n-dent appearance, stand out against their cheap counterparts as objects of beauty and enhanced functionality. And, this way, I also reduce waste by buying things that others have discarded or no longer need. For instance, our coffee maker broke this week. A problem that needed to be remedied ASAP, since it was creating very crabby parents in the morning. But for the last decade, it seems, I have been buying a new coffee maker every couple of years because that’s about as long as the $30-$40 machines last. And I was tired of this cycle. Particularly because, when I was growing up, we had the same coffee maker for at least a decade because it was made to last, it was a Bunn. But I certainly didn’t want to spend $200-$300 dollars on a new coffee maker. (Let me rephrase that, I wanted to, but I have MANY higher priorities for that kind of money.) Even though the five machines I’ve already bought over the last 10 year (at approximately $45 a piece) add up to the same amount and created 5 times the waste! So I searched Overstock and Craigslist and Amazon‘s used sellers and found an Amazon warehouse deal of a new Bunn coffee maker in perfect condition but with damaged packaging for $65 – only $20 more than I would’ve spent on a cheap one that I’d have to replace again in a couple of years. Score!

Another example of this is my son’s tricycle. You can find any number of cheap plastic tricycles and big wheels out there whose plastic cracks, colors fade, and seats fall off within a couple of years. Or you could spend a hundred dollars on a nice steel, Radio Flyer Trike that will last through every single one of your children. But I don’t spend that kind of money on my toddler very easily. So I found one on Craigslist for $15 whose owner’s only son “never really liked it that much and barely rode it.” Sold!

So, let this encourage you to seek out quality and stop encouraging the production and sale of goods that we know are made to be quickly replaced. Even if you have to cut some corners or bruise your pride a little bit to get it, it will be well worth it in the long run. And, who knows, we might just change the ideals of our society in the process!

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7 thoughts on “The Real Cost of Cheap

  1. I think this type of “recycling” is making its way back into our collective mindset, thankfully. Perhaps it’s one of the silver linings of our economic crisis.

  2. have you heard of freecylcle.org? you should check it out… it just like what you’re talking about (taking other peoples’ cast-offs and offering your own)

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