The Barbell Strategy for Buying Quality Stuff

When to buy quality: a barbell strategy for stuff


Imagine buying a cheap plastic laptop designed for children that constantly lags, and can’t open more than a dozen tabs without packing a sad. Now imagine you’re a writer, and this hunk o’ junk is the primary tool you use for several hours each and every day. Imagine how dumb you’d have to be to endure that much frustration and wasted time for the sake of a couple hundred bucks.

(I don’t have to imagine, because I was that dumb guy.)

After hitting peak pathological penny-pinching circa 2016, I’ve slowly but surely learned which things are worth paying money for. Sometimes, a lot of money. At first I found it hard to reconcile my growing taste for nice things with the frugal ethos. But there isn’t necessarily a contradiction here.

The general wisdom is that in the long run, buying quality stuff might actually save a lot of money.

The go-to explanation of this comes one of my favourite authors, the late and great Terry Pratchett. Here’s his reluctant hero Sam Vimes, a grizzled and working class policeman:

A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time – and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

This is cute and insightful, but also… not really true? Sometimes it makes sense to buy the good boots. But most of the time, it’s far more cost-effective to go for the equivalent of the crappy cardboard soles. Even for rich people.

For this latest instalment of ‘barbells in everything’, I hereby propose the barbell strategy for stuff: buy the very best-in-class for a small set of items, buy the cheapest possible version of everything else, and avoid the middle ground altogether.

The barbell strategy: quality stuff on one end, cheap and cheerful on the other, nothing in the middle

What sort of items clusters on the ‘best in class’ end of the barbell? I can think of two general guiding principles:

1. Buying Quality: Things You Use Every Day

Laptops, desks, phones, keyboards, or whatever tools of the trade you use daily. This applies to leisure time, too. As soon as I splashed out on a pair of good bluetooth headphones, I kicked myself for not doing so years ago. And obviously, sleep: you spend a third of your life in bed, so don’t settle for a crappy mattress. If you cook every day, invest in really good knives, and cast iron pans. And so on:

Buy quality when it comes to things you use every day


2. Buying Quality: Things With a Risk of Ruin

It seems like a really bad idea to pinch pennies on helmets or protective gear, bald tires, cut-price condoms, or anything else that could be ruinous to your life and liberty. If this wasn’t specifically about physical stuff, I’d include things like health insurance and nutrition here too.

It pays to spend more on things with a risk of ruin


The reason Sam Vimes’ boots are such a great (but unrepresentative) example is that they fit both categories: you probably wear shoes every day, and crappy footwear can screw up your health in all sorts of fascinating ways. If you bring the two circles together in a Venn diagram, it’s worth paying special attention to the things in the middle:

The venn diagram of things worth spending money on

 

…which just so happens to perfectly match the old-timey advice to ‘invest in things which come between you and the ground’. Neat!


Cheap is Cheerful

What goes on the other end of the barbell? I’d argue ‘basically everything else’. As a general rule, owning expensive stuff is a pain in the butt.

There’s the upfront cost: you have to stump up more cash (duh). But there are also ongoing costs: depreciation, maintenance, security, maybe even insurance. You’ve invested in something, and that comes with responsibilities. These mental costs tend to be less obvious.

I once met an American backpacker who carried her $400 designer boots everywhere she went, because she was too scared to leave them on the front porch of the hostel like everyone else. In the same fashion: you can hardly leave your expensive racing bike leaning up outside the 7-11 while you pop in for a cheese toasted sandwich.

There’s a very real sense in which people with a lot of expensive possessions forge the chains that bind them. Imagine the constant stress of having to think about security, making sure the insurance policies are up to date, the nerves of loaning something to a friend or neighbour, the upkeep on your big empty house. Cheap is cheerful.


Only Fools Rush in

stradivarius violin
probably don’t go straight for the stradivarius

If it’s not obvious whether you should buy quality or the el cheapo version, start on the el cheapo end. If you never have any problems, great! You just saved a whole lot of money. If it breaks, or it becomes clear it’s not fit for purpose, you can upgrade without having wasted much cash.

Another rule of thumb along these lines: be wary of buying anything ‘for life’ if it’s hobby-related or whimsical. As discussed in Goals Gone Wild, we’re pretty bad at predicting what our future-selves will enjoy. Preferences change over time, sometimes dramatically. This is why storage units and garages often end up as mausoleums to long-forgotten fitness fads, musical instruments, snowboarding gear, and other lifestyle clutter.

No matter how strong your burst of initial enthusiasm, try not to rush in. Get the entry-level version, preferably secondhand, and see if the passion persists. Once you get skilled enough to actually benefit from having triple-forged titanium alloy frames or whatever, go ahead and splash out.


Rags and Riches

Some classes of items are worth spending a lot of money on. Others aren’t. But there are also situations where you might own the same type of item on both ends of the barbell.

For example, I have a core kit of expensive travel clothes and accessories: a really good pack, boots, merino wool base layers, some technical clothing. But when I arrive in a new city or country, I usually buy a few extra bits and pieces to supplement my wardrobe.

I put very little effort or expense into this revolving cast of minor characters. If I spill food on them, or they get torn, or someone pinches them off the clothesline, who cares? Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m cavalier about it. I usually try to buy this kind of stuff from second hand stores to avoid waste, then donate it back again when I leave.

Rags or riches: nothing in between. The dreaded middle ground is the realm of brand names, in which the price decouples from the actual quality. I’ll happily spend $60 on a merino wool shirt, or $3 on a cotton tee. But I’m never going to spend $30 on a cotton tee, because it’s not going to last 10 times as long as the el cheapo one. Chances are both tees were made in the same shitty factories- the only difference being, one of them has a cool logo.

I can imagine similar barbells for kitchen utensils, tools, sports equipment, and various hobbies.

Let me know what I’ve missed on the Venn diagram, and any other examples of barbell strategies for stuff!

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Syjvc
Syjvc

I’d add a small clarification to buying “cheap”. Do consider the cost of things, not just the price tag.
Buying cheap electronics and then throwing them away is an environmental disaster.
A 30$ Cotton t-shirt with a logo is pointless. But rather buy a 20$ cotton t-shirt made of organic cotton by a “good” brand that respects workers than a 2$ t-shirt made of gmo cotton in a chemically polluted farm land.

It’s not about hugging trees, but paying full price for things and appreciate their worth.

Piki Living

This strategy saves a lot of time as well. Since you skip over a ton of the middle ground items when buying stuff. And we know MOST items out there are in that middle ground.

Although I agree for the most part, there are some items where the top quality stuff are priced like they’re made out of gold. Like fishing reels for example where even the most experienced fishermen hesitate to but the $1000 Stella reels and opt for middle ground stuff since they won’t break and still get the job done.

So for me it’s ‘Top quality for its use case’.

NWA-non

I follow this strategy with a slight twist. I’ll spend time researching the best item for a particular function. If the price is over a threshold, say $500, I won’t have any hesitation to spend a few hours, or a few days or even weeks, in finding the cheapest version of the the best item.

Max Out of Pocket

Good read! My wife is a teacher but has been dabbling in learning to cut meat at night at our local meat market. We actually were hesitant to invest too much into ‘work shoes’ since it was a new hobby and doesn’t pay much. We went with the ~$20 Wal-Mart shoes but after the second pair failed in less than 2 months, we upgraded to $55 Timberalnds from the ‘junior/kid” section. Since they have lasted over 8 months of harsh cleaners and are still in good shape, the ROI seems worth it so far! Cheers!

Ben
Ben

Is a wool shirt really 60 dollars of magical?

Grimelowe
Grimelowe

Yup.

NWA-non

Yes, but with a caveat. The fit of an expensive shirt is my biggest friend. The quality, after several washes, shines too.

The caveat is this: Buy them when they are on sale! Nowadays I almost exclusively buy Jos A. Bank shirts. They go for ~$90, regular price. The most I’ve ever paid for them is $19, and the least is $9. Seriously. For the exact same shirt. They have “sales” going on almost every other week, on different items.

Will
Will

I aspire to follow this strategy, and am usually pretty good about it. I do struggle however with things like clothing, bikes, and cooking utensils, where I find very attractive the extra features and artistic touches that add disproportionately to the cost of high end version (but that objectively add little or no utility).
For these, I accept that I like (and maybe covet) the expensive versions, but I can’t justify to myself the extra cost for the top of the line. Luckily, with bikes it seems that new features and styles are rolled out in the (expensive) high end products, but they follow quickly in the middle range models, so you can get top of line quality a few years old.
With some classes of things, a good option is to make or modify your own to save money and still get artistic value (furniture, sweaters, etc.)

Andy
Andy

I just spent 2.5k to fix my 2k car.. It was the right decision because I live in the car, so it has saved me from spending 5k on a *better* car that *might* last longer. On the other hand I go about in rags from the op shop, get a haircut 2-3x a year and eat the cheapest food. Is this a barbell strategy? Depending on where you find yourself in a society structure there is a great amount of force to push behavior driving purchases to the middle of the barbell.

LewisAlsoinNZ:)
LewisAlsoinNZ:)

I generally agree with this strategy and follow it, with some caveats. Some things depend on how long you’ll be able to use that daily item, and how easy it’ll be to recoup the investment. Eg., the bed is a good idea, but I’m not willing to put a ton of money into it now as I may only be in Auckland a couple years, so good enough is good enough. I also disagree with the car (and a house and whiteware could also fall into this) as top of the line is very expensive and generally means lots of fancy unnecessary bells and whistles, whereas middle ground tends to be where the real value is. These items are dangerous money pits.
I’d also like to add in a point about patience and leveling up, which this strategy can facilitate. It pays to be patient and keep an eye out for opportunities to level up those bottom of the barbell items for cheap-o prices from closeout sales or crazy second hand deals. If you spend long enough in a place with that mindset, you’ll eventually be surrounded by quality at a barbell price, and that can bring great satisfaction.

KenInNZ
KenInNZ

Nice article. I’m pretty similar in my choices. I buy quality bike tyres, the bike is 25 years old (but it was / is a quality bike).
I talk about bottom of the range quality. On bikes again for example you get the majority of quality engineering in a bike that will last you for many years for $2-3000 (especially if you buy end of range). You could speed up to $20,000 for marginal improvements after that.