Cheap is More Expensive

Cheap is More Expensive

“Sticker shock” is the term for the disgust and frustration the average person experiences upon learning the price of an expensive item or service. If only it was just a sticker we were upset about. I’ve yet to find an equally fitting term for the disgust and frustration a person suffers while knowing before shopping that, “This will hurt”. Sticker Pre-Traumatic Stress? In all seriousness, there’s a usefulness to knowing what you’re getting into when it comes to large purchases. It hurts less when you lay the cash down or make a deal with the Devil (creditors, en masse) to buy said products. Sure, you’re jumping off a cliff, but you didn’t fall, you leapt headfirst, right? In addition, it gives you the ability to research, so your final decision is an informed choice, not a hurried, sales-gimmick, pressure-cooker, guilt tornado.  

If those benefits aren’t sufficient to assuage your teary-eyed wallet, you’re in good company. Over time, I’ve perfected a process, albeit brief, to quiet your flailing conscience. Best of all, it’s free. Here’s an illustration:

Friend: So, we finally found a new dryer.

Me: That’s great!

Friend: Yeah, no more trips to the laundry mat. No more stopping by your house with a wet load of laundry to beg dryer time off you.

Me: I never minded. But you don’t seem happy about the end of that era.

Friend: Well, it costs almost $700. It’s a great dryer; awesome reviews, and my brother-in-law, who services dryers, has said he almost never gets a call for this brand. Even that price is great; usually it’s $400 more. Still, it’s sooo expensive!

Me: I feel you. You know what I do when I feel bad or angry about buying something expensive? I divide it by the number of times or years I’ll use it. That dryer is costing you, what, a 100th of a cent for each load if it lasts as long as it should? And no more lugging your laundry around like an unwanted third child! It’s almost like you’re getting paid, eh?

Friend: You’re right! I feel better. Weeeh! A new dryer!

We seem, as a whole, to have a strange aversion to paying for things. Especially good things. By good, I don’t mean adhering to an objective standard of quality or craftsmanship, though that goes hand in hand with a higher price. I mean those tools we depend on to continue living, to reduce stress, to communicate long distance, to go to the bathroom inside, to keep our food cold, to see at night, and get from point A to point B. The important stuff. Most of us would agree that these things are valuable and, based on our responsibilities and manner of living, necessary. So, where’s the great gulf of logic that fails to cough up the cost for these myriad benefits?

I grew up poor. I don’t mean destitute, just very, very limited. Beans and rice for dinner, a lot. New clothing was a novelty only made possible by the use of an interminable layaway. I was exceptionally proud to purchase an outfit in whole, in cash, after saving for some time as a young teenager. We only went to the doctor if we couldn’t stop the bleeding. I don’t recommend that approach. Fifty cent tacos (one apiece) were a big treat, akin to Halloween. Which is great, because we weren’t allowed to trick-or-treat (please observe a moment of silence for my monastic childhood). We bought dollar store Christmas presents for the fun of laughing at a sibling’s rage over receiving a squeaky dog toy. We also bought dollar store spatulas, tinfoil, toilet cleaner, pencils, notebooks, etc. Because cheap was all we could afford. Cheap is better, right? Cheap gets you what you need without breaking the bank.

Cheap as a necessity isn’t the issue here. Ramen noodles and rice have their place, and it’s hopefully a temporary one. The problem is cheap as a limitation. Cheap as an approach and manner of thinking. I didn’t realize the fault in “cheap” until I became an adult with a little bit of disposable income. The conditioning of my dollar store mindset hit “Play” and I only bought furniture on sale at discount lot stores. Did I also hurriedly toss rain-damaged, puppy-chewed desks and nightstands into my vehicle from the side of the road? Maybe.

It didn’t take long for me to learn that bargains have an additional cost. Namely, the time spent fixing them, returning them, complaining about them, finding another “bargain”, paying for replacement parts, the anger over discovering the replacement parts are knock-offs of knockoffs, the necessary jerry-rigs to keep aforementioned bargains “working”. You get the picture. If you don’t, go back to your gold mines.

There is an encompassing term for this, though I don’t believe it originated for these scenarios:

Total Cost of Ownership, or asset costs over long term.

It’s the principle of “Pay now AND later”. Or, rather, the rule of, “You will pay now AND later.” This sounds like a cloak of doom, but there is, generally speaking, an aspect of agency within this equation. You can pay for a quality product up front and continue paying for standard upkeep and associated running costs. Or, you can pay for a cheap product and reap all the benefits of its false promise (review above list of crappy consequences). Though there is a strong correlation between initial cost of a product and its quality, it’s not a perfectly direct relationship. You can pay a lot of money for beautiful, shiny junk. It’s up to you to figure that out the risk of this as best you can beforehand.

I went to have my truck serviced a few months ago. As I spoke with the service manager, I mentioned a couple new noises I’d been hearing. They were slight enough and of the wrong quality to cause me strong concern, but I still wanted the assurance brought on by identification.

“I’m a little paranoid,” I confessed. “Lots of broke cars as a kid, lots of pushing them along a road, being stranded. We had a car for several years with a transmission problem. Couldn’t go in reverse. We had to push it out of the driveway. We lived on a busy street, at the bottom of a hill. Stuff like that gives you a complex. My truck is getting old. I just want to make sure I don’t end up stranded.”

He nodded. “Trucks and cars usually end up with new noises as they get older, but we’ll check it all out so you can have some peace of mind.”

“Thanks,”, I sighed. “It’s too bad I can’t get one of those newer models. No issues and sexy, to boot.”

He scoffed. “Sara, you’ll have this truck longer than the lot of them. They’ve changed the design and all the new stuff is causing so many issues. I have people come in here needing entirely new engines after a year of owning them.”

Let’s just say I strutted away from that conversation.

Why is all this important, really? Because total cost of ownership matters to your everyday. “Quality”, or the lack thereof, affects your quality of life. Even more importantly, this principle of “pay now or pay later” is applicable to other areas. Your health is cumulative and operates on a “pay now or pay later” basis. If you refuse to invest in the small, seemingly insignificant interactions with a loved one, child, or spouse, you’ll pay the price. Broken, bleeding-out, or destroyed relationships cost much more in the long run than the consistent engagement and applied integrity necessary for healthy ones. Ignore a water leak in your home at your own peril. What would have been a $300 patch job is now a week-long rehabilitation totaling $17,000.

If you think of the pay later model like debt, the cost for quality is not as much as you think. If you pay upfront, you are avoiding all the interest of a delayed payment via debt. Would you rather have a house for $250,000 or $250,000 at 3.6% interest? No big deal. Just add $159,000 to the initial price. And a whole lot of rageful handwriting on those monthly mortgage checks. 

Every time I’ve bit the bullet and purchased thoughtfully, it was worth it. The initial sacrifice, whether it be delayed gratification, actual upfront cost, the judgment of others, or some nagging, misguided self-loathing, was exceeded by the advantages. I will confess one exception. Bed sheet sets. The thread count conundrum is enough to drive me bonkers. I’ve purchased expensive sheets and ripped a hole in them in four months. Alternately, I’ve used $8 sheet sets for eight years. I’ve had the inverse happen. It’s a world gone mad. If you figure this out, please will you let me know?

While mortgages and Ramen are often unavoidable, relegating your life to “cheap” is not. Money is recoverable. Money is replaceable. You aren’t. Neither is time. Remember that you are paying to serve something of infinite value: Yourself and your one life.

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