Frugal Living 

4 Things You Shouldn’t Be Cheap About

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When I say you shouldn’t be cheap about something, I don’t mean you should pay through the nose. You should be prudent. Shop around, get several quotes or prices, and then buy at a favorable rate.

The tricky thing about pricing and quality is that they’re not necessarily correlated. We intuitively think that something that is more expensive is of higher quality (the Chivas Regal effect). That was probably true a hundred years ago until savvy marketers realized they could charge more for an inferior product because the higher price sent otherwise absent signals of quality. So while I say you shouldn’t be “cheap” about something, I don’t mean you should spend top dollar. You should be savvy and spent as much time as you need to make the smart purchase.

So, what should you avoid being cheap about?

A Mattress

MattressesHow much is a good night’s rest worth? $1? $5? $10? $50? Take that number and multiply it by 3,650 – or ten years. Now think about how much you’d spend on a mattress you expect to keep for ten years. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand how much we are willing to pay for something when you don’t do the math.

When I first looked at buying a mattress, the prices astounded me. The cheapest Queen-sized mattress started at $399.99, which seemed OK. The next one is $549.99, then $600, and goes to as much as $2,000. As a recent graduate who has never purchased a mattress, $400 seems high… until you calculate how much it costs per night. $400 for ten years of service comes out to less than eleven cents a night. At $2,000, it’s 55 cents a night and I can almost guarantee you the pricier mattress will last longer than the $400 one.

When it comes to sleep, don’t be cheap. (that was unintentional, I swear)

Professional Clothing

TuxedoIf you’re wondering why suits cost so much, it’s because when it comes to professional clothes, there’s a big difference between quality and crap. Some suits cost a hundred bucks. Some cost a few thousand. What’s the difference? The quality of the fabric, how it wears, how comfortable it is, and other factors you can’t necessarily see with your eyes.

If you only wear suits to weddings and funerals, the quality of your suits won’t matter that much. If you wear a suit every single day, then getting a nicer, more expensive suit will be worth the money because higher quality suits last longer. The materials are likely to breathe more. The weaves will be tighter and less like to get snags. I liken this comparison to CFL vs. incandescent light bulbs. CLFs cost more but will save you money if you use them often. Nicer suits will often be more comfortable, which is a nice qualitative difference.

Safety Equipment

Fire ExtinguishersAnything where safety is a factor, I recommend that you avoid looking for the cheapest generic products. Whether it’s a bicycle helmet, fire extinguisher, or fire detector alarm, you will want to make sure you get something that:

  • Won’t quit on you when you really need it,
  • Will withstand whatever it’s supposed to protect you from.

In the case of quitting early, a low quality product may have a much shorter lifespan than you’d expect. You’re supposed to replace fire extinguishers every few years, it should say so on the bottle, but lower quality extinguishers might lose pressure faster than they say they do. While I’m sure there are rules and regulations to prevent outright fraud, we all know that government watchdogs aren’t as mindful as they should be.

Items That Are Hard to Replace

Light bulbsIf it’s difficult or a hassle to replace something, it’s often better to pay for quality because it’ll limit the number of times you’ll have to replace it. This takes into account the value of your time, which is always important to remember. Whether it’s something small, like the hallway lightbulb, or something big, like your HVAC system, it’s important to buy something reliable and long lasting, so you don’t have to replace it too often.

Another item that fits into this category is your car. Think about the whole car buying process, it pretty much sucks. It’s a big ticket purchase that comes with a lot of stress, it’s not something you want to do too often. So when you’re buying a car, go with something that you like and is reliable. Go with a car that you can drive for a decade and you won’t have to shop around as often! A more reliable car means less time spent on maintenance. A more fuel efficient car means less time spent at the pump.

Are there other things you think you shouldn’t be cheap about?

(Photos: alanstanton, stevendepolo, perry-moore-photography, 123 look at me)

{ 54 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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54 Responses to “4 Things You Shouldn’t Be Cheap About”

  1. HedgeHoncho says:

    Hey Jim

    While I don’t have as much experience with 3 and 4…

    with # 1 – I bought a really expensive lifetime warranty mattress. I kind of wish I hadn’t but I guess it will provide more value in the long run. I worry that I will want a firmer mattress down the road though.

    with # 2 – I buy my work clothes only from banana republic and only when there is a sale and I have a coupon. So I guess they are cheaper because I get them at a discount, but they are by no means cheap.

  2. Aaron says:

    Other items I would include:

    Computers – sometimes computers are more expensive because they’re faster and have more features. Other times it’s because they’re built better. It’s hard to determine sometimes, but I don’t buy the cheapest around because it’s the cheapest around. I buy quality machines. If it happens to be inexpensive, all the better. If you depend on your computer for work or income needs (at this point, most do), don’t buy the cheapest computers unless you have several for redundancy in case one goes down.

    Honestly, this goes across the board with electronics, especially when buying new. A cheaper item isn’t necessarily cheaper if it costs more to maintain or replace because it dies sooner.

    Tires – I don’t buy top of the line tires, but I buy highly rated tires that last long. That’s usually not the cheapest way to go in initial costs. Tires stop your car, so considering your life can depend on that, I don’t buy the cheapest I can find.

    Other factors to help consider when to pay more:

    Energy efficiency – people often don’t take this into consideration. Sticking with computers – you can get free CRT computer monitors, as most people don’t want them anymore. Depending upon how much you use it, it very well could be cheaper BUYING an LCD monitor since they use 60% less electricity and generate far less heat you may be paying for in the summer months by running your AC more. Consider the increased energy costs on cheaper, but power hungrier choices.

    • Sun says:

      I bought my tires from Costco. Quality of the tires is less meaningful to me as the warranty. Even a high quality tire can receive an unpatchable nail puncture. I got a puncture 1,000 miles after I got new tires from them. They switched it out for free and the new tire receives a full warranty. I went shopping at Costco and it was ready by the time I was done shopping.

      • hdizzle says:

        Tires are essentially safety equipment for your car. The difference between the cheapest and a tire that is near top of the line is 20-30 feet of stopping distance in a panic stop in dry conditions. not to mention better handling in an emergency situation.

        People will spend thousands on cars with the latest and greatest safety equipment, but cheap out on a $150 difference in tire cost. Yikes.

      • Steve says:

        CostCo carries well respected, branded tires. Bridgestone and Michelin make some of the best tires, period. BFGoodrich is owned by one of them, i forget who.

        My point mirror’s Jim’s. Buying smart does not mean buying cheap and at the same time it does not mean throwing you money at the highest ticket item. It means making sure you money is well spent.

        Buy tires from CostCo is fine…expensive even since you can still get high quality tires from brands other than CostCo’s and for less money.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I agree with Aaron. I’ve always spent a little more on computers had them last a lot longer than my friends’. I think of it as a cost per use basis. For instance, my pricier laptop lasted be five and a half years while my friend’s cheaper laptop lasted her three. On a year per year basis, we’re paying about the same only I have more features, better quality and a more enjoyable experience.

    The other thing I’ll spend on is good quality materials for knitting, sewing, home improvement, etc. They’re easier to work with and create a better product. A lot of newbies think cheap tools and materials are better because “they’re just learning”, but they’re more likely to get frustrated, not be happy with their finished product or give up altogether.

  4. cubiclegeoff says:

    I’d add home repairs in general. If you are getting a contractor, if you go cheap, it may not be worth it.

    Also appliances. Sometimes the better quality are only a few hundred dollars more, but if they last years longer, then it’s worth it.

  5. Strebkr says:

    I’ve never thought of a mattress as a cost per night. I guess it makes the $900 I spent 3 years ago seem not so bad, but either way, I knew we wanted a good mattress and it was worth it!!!

  6. Jin6655321 says:

    I would also add anything that impacts your health in the long run- food, ergonomic office furniture, proper, well fitting shoes, etc.

  7. Shirley says:

    Properly constructed well fitting shoes can be costly but are well worth the price of not having foot problems later. You only get one pair of feet to put in them.

    • And I’m a firm believer that the feet can be a source of MANY other problems throughout the body. It’s amazing how all the systems of the body are interconnected. So, yeah, I totally agree that proper footwear is important. That reminds me… I think I’m a bit overdue for a new pair of work shoes. 🙂

      • Sun says:

        My fianceĂ© bought me Salvatore Ferragamo shoes. Like the suit, I thought it would be a luxury expense. I learned SF provides a warranty on the shoes for years — I can take it in to have the sole replaced and leather repaired. You just have to make sure you love the shoes and they are “classic” – never go out of style.

    • Wilma says:

      Working 2 jobs, I’m on my feet 6 days a week for at the very least 16 hours every day. A year and a half ago I bought a pair of Sketchers Shape Ups. WOW!!!! I was one big walking ouch till I put these on. My feet no longer swell up 2 sizes and a laundry list of other aches, pains & issues have cleared up. Shoes matter. Maybe not so much for the office worker but the ( factory-hospital-warehouse-etc ) workers on their feet long hours on concrete floors, good shoes are a must.

  8. billsnider says:

    I tend not to be “cheap” when it concerns things I eat and wear. This is important to me.

    I am very CHEAP when it comes to my cars. I buy the basic model and drive them until they die. To me a car is a bottomless pit.

    Bill Snider

    • tbork84 says:

      Thats a very good point about cars. They are one of the biggest money pits that the majority of people have in their lives. At least a house you can live in.

  9. PigPennies says:

    I’ll play devil’s advocate here and say no matter how expensive the mattress, it’s going to start caving in – and long before you hit the 10 year mark. Unless it’s a foam mattress (and I’ve never had any experience with Tempurpedic) it’s going to start sagging. It’s a matter of physics! We spent over $1000 on our mattress – maybe even closer to $2000. It was extremely comfortable to begin with, and has served us now for 4 years, but I’ll be surprised if we don’t purchase a new one in the next 2 years.

    Was it worth it then? Would a $500 mattress that lasted 3 years have been just as worth it – and more so, since we wouldn’t have spent the last 3 years complaining that we were going to need to buy a new mattress soon?

    The other thing mentioned in the comments – computers. I had a laptop I loved that was $1800. It lasted me 4 years, and then literally started falling apart. The hinges on the laptop broke and needed replacing – $300 repair. For $450 I bought a new laptop that has lasted me 2 years already. Even if it died right now as I type this, it has still been a better value than the more expensive laptop.

    • Shirley says:

      We bought a “memory foam” mattress six years ago and it is holding up fine. Following instructions, we rotate it every other month and flip it over every year. Thank goodness foam is lightweight!

    • Strebkr says:

      Do you follow the flip and rotate schedule religiously? Every 6 months you flip it over and every other time, you turn it around. We have had our mattress for about 5 years now and it is still as good as new. Its very important that once you spend the money on a good mattress you have to take care of it. You wouldn’t neglect your brand new car by not getting oil changes would you?

      • PigPennies says:

        Our mattress is a pillow top, so it can’t be flipped. We do rotate it regularly, though I have to wonder how effective that is since there are two of us and both sides are being slept on either way. If we were able to flip it, I think that would have extended it’s life.

        • Strebkr says:

          Rotating is still worthwhile. Think about how you laydown. 70% of your body mass is from your stomach up. So as you lay down the top part of your mattress is being constantly stressed by your body, while the bottom part (by your legs) is left relatively unstressed. By rotating the mattress, you are moving the stress to the unstressed side. It will help in the long run.

    • billsnider says:

      I flip and rotate mine every time I change the sheets. I also have a firm mattress with foam over it for comfort.

      Not sure the exact age, but am sure it is more than ten years old and it is still in good condition.

      Bill Snider

  10. skylog says:

    i completely agree with you on this post, although i will have to add shoes to this list. it is actually one of my mantras. you spend “roughly” one third of your life in bed and “roughly” another third of it on your feet. take care of yourself in those cases.

    not realted to the post…but spring training games are only a few days away jim. i am hoping they surprise a few people this season. i think they just may…

  11. Marilyn says:

    The most expensive bike helmets are not necessarily the best. In fact, often, the most expensive bike helmets have more and larger air flow vents, which makes them less safe. If you want to keep your head cool, go for it. If you want to keep your head intact, look at the cheaper models.

    FWIW, all bike helmets have to meet CPSC standards. Some but only a few meet the higher Snell standards. If I were to spend more money on a bike helmet, I’d spend more because it meets the Snell standards. If it meets CPSC standards and costs more, you’re paying for brand, looks, etc…


  12. Marilyn says:

    And as a woman who grew up wearing very cheap clothing and eventually started buying more expensive clothing, I never saw an improved quality for the money I spent. I have a 24-year-old shirt that I bought at Fashion Bug. I worry that the plastic zipper in my Ann Taylor skirt will break any day and I haven’t worn that suit that much.

    Maybe it’s true for men’s clothes and shoes but all women’s apparel is pretty much poorly made with bad materials.

    • Shirley says:

      I think that maybe the underlying current of thought is that women are more style conscious and won’t be wearing the same clothing for as long as men do. I do agree with you that women’s clothing is not as well made now as it used to be.

      • Sun says:

        By the time the clothing falls apart, it is out of style anyway. You could hang it for twenty years and hope it comes back in style…

    • Jane says:

      Ann Taylor isn’t good quality. It used to be, but has gone very down hill in the last 10 years. Even about half the stuff in Jcrew is better quality than that. It’s not really fair to call most (even expensive) items from chain boutique stores good quality. Go to Saks or Nordstrom and buy good quality clothes and they’ll last you 20 years and look good. Even their house brands (which are relatively inexpensive) are good quality. If you don’t know what to look for on an article of clothing to determine if it’s good quality, you really shouldn’t be disappointed when it’s not.

      • Marilyn says:

        I’m guessing that you wouldn’t think my 24-year-old Fashion Bug shirt was good quality.

        Sorry, but I do shop at high-end department stores and the quality is not better.

        • Debbie M says:

          I don’t know about Fashion Bug quality or Saks/Nordstrom quality, but I have found that clothes from LLBean last longer and wear better than clothes from Target, Walmart, or K-mart. For example, the edging at the neck stays flat, even if you hang your glasses from the neckline, no matter how many times you wash it. And the fabric is always cut so that it doesn’t start twisting funny after you wash it.

          LLBean is probably known for selling clothes for middle-aged fuddy duddies, but I like to think of them as classic. They can be dressed up with the accessories.

  13. SoonerNATX says:

    this goes with any backpacking gear (not spending alot… but getting higher quality gear)

  14. eric says:

    Good point. There are just some things where putting up the money is worth the quality.

  15. zapeta says:

    I definitely agree about shoes. Having a good pair of shoes can really help eliminate some pains. Also, I don’t think you should be cheap about your computer desk setup if you spend a lot of time at the desk. Get something ergonomic, a good chair, etc. and your body will thank you.

    I disagree about computers. I always buy the cheapest laptop and take good care of it. Laptops aren’t really cost effective to repair in my opinion so I see them as essentially disposable and don’t spend a lot on them. For desktops, I build my own so I pay for higher quality parts.

    • Shirley says:

      Laptop repairs can be quite costly unless they are for a simple inverter switch or backlight.

      A desktop on the other hand, is easier and more cost efficient to upgrade with additional RAM or drives and external peripherals are as simple as plugging in a cable. As long as the machine has the power that you require, and you keep it clean and maintained, it will last for years.

      • Strebkr says:

        The desktop computer is another great suggestion. I too build my own with only high quality parts. I built my first one in 2000 and every year I would upgrade one major item. To this day, I’m still running the “same” computer, but almost every item has been swapped out for new bigger better things.

        As for the laptop, I buy cheap, keep them nice and sell them a few years later. Even with my laptop, I still store most of my stuff on the desktop but I can access it on the laptop.

        As for the desk, yes I agree. A good desk is a great investment.

  16. indio says:

    Spending extra on something that promotes or ensures good health is a worthwhile expense for me. I agree with the previous posters about shoes and food. Not only am I willing to spend more for organic, pesticide free food, but hair and skin products that don’t have phthalates or parabens or other hidden chemicals are a justifiable investment. I hung on to a futon after college for way to long. When I upgraded to a natural fiber mattress, it was as if I had moved to a hotel. Sleeping was more restful than ever before.

  17. tbork84 says:

    As far as the mattress goes, I am just a short time away from replacing my “recently graduated from college” cheapo mattress. I am always tempted by the discount brands and all, but I know that a mattress is one of those things that a little bit of extra money will go a long way to keep me happier and healthier.

    • Shirley says:

      Once you’ve narrowed your choices down to two or three different types of mattress, if at all possible talk to people who use those types. An advertising brochure will never stand up to personal experience. If we had done that, we would have had a foam mattress long before we actually did.

      • Strebkr says:

        The problem with mattress buying is that it is almost as shady as going to a pawn shop or a used car dealer. I just didn’t like the pressure that I felt the sales guy put on us. Maybe it was just the guy, but I’m not the only one of my friends to think that either.

  18. Dave says:

    I actually bought a new mattress tonight. I read online that February was the best time of the year to buy them because for some reason, that’s when they are discounted the most. I was originally looking to spend around $700-$1000 on a King size, but I ended up getting a mattress that was normally $2300 for $1500 with free shipping and a free frame and no tax (I guess technically the price was $1300 something and the 1500 was with tax)… All in all, it was actually a pretty good experience and there was almost no pressure from the guy (he was actually the store manager, so maybe he doesn’t get commission?) Anyway, it was my favorite one there other than a couple that cost $4000-$5000, so all in all, I think I got a good price… Jim’s article reminded me to not be cheap about this sort of thing (I tend to cheap, or at least frugal on as much as I can be) and it was worth the extra money if I get a good nights rest – will my rest be $500 better? Who knows, but I’ll let you know in 10 years…

  19. I disagree with other comments that computers should be in this category. It’s much more cost efficient to buy a cheaper but solid working computer than going all out. Most computers, no matter how expensive, only run smoothly for about 3 years. After that, there will most likely be repair costs involved. Besides, technology is advancing so quickly that models become obsolete very quickly. You’re better off getting inexpensive newer models every few years than trying keep using an old but really expensive model. Besides, many companies have trade-in programs nowadays that allows you to get discounts in exchange for recycling your old one.

    Also, I second the shoes idea. Don’t go cheap on those!

    • Strebkr says:

      For $100 a year I do a major upgrade, bigger hard drive, new processor, new video card, etc. It will outperform anything out there right now. The trick is you have to know what you are getting yourself into. If you don’t know computers, then yes, buy a cheapo then get a new one in 3 years. Its good to know what you can do to save money and what you shouldn’t try and do to save money. If you didn’t know what you were doing, it would cost you more in the long run.

  20. Wenchypoo says:

    I splurge on organic food, but not just any organic food. I buy unprocessed, grass-fed, no pesticides stuff, because the entire family is eating it (cat included). Hubby and I have food allergies (and not the same ones), and the cat’s health is maintained with homemade food from a vet-made diet–high protein, no soy, no fillers, and no by-products.

    My splurge isn’t expensive because I shortened the shopping list, and buy only stuff that HAS to be organic–some foods are okay in commercial form (see “Dirty Dozen” online).

    Other “splurges” include Portugese flannel shirts from L.L.Bean every decade, because that’s when they wear out, Birkenstocks every 15 years, because mostly I get tired of them, and a Red Devil fork (gardening deep spader) for the garden, because it digs down 14″ and lets my plants put out better root systems, making better plants.

    Oh, and we also “splurged” on a custom-built computer about 7 years ago–it cost less to build than buying one off the shelf! It’s still going–in fact, I’m using it now. Our last one went almost a decade before the drives all got full, then a nasty trojan killed it off.

    We didn’t build the new one ourselves–instead, we paid a friend’s brainiac computer nerd kid to do it for us. Now, we’re looking at laptops with the same power and memory as our desktop, for about the same price as we paid for this one.

  21. Mikey says:

    Advice from an old lady: shop for your mattress at a mattress specialty store, at the end of the day at the end of the month, and preferably, during a football playoff. Mattress prices are at least as negotiable as car prices, and the salesmen there have quotas as well.

  22. Anna says:

    #1 is to me what #2 is to someone who only wears suits to weddings and funerals. My back is in excellent shape and I sleep like wood anywhere I get sleepy. Seriously, I once fell asleep leaning against a boulder in the middle of the woods. I’m comfortable cheaping out on a mattress. Literally.

  23. Debbie M says:

    Knives – get something that can be re-sharpened.

    Pots – stay away from aluminum.

    Furniture – I don’t buy cardboard or even pressed board anymore. By now I know what I want, and I buy all replacements to last indefinitely. Also, sofas have similar issues to mattresses.

    Jewelry – no cheap metals anymore for me.

    And sometimes lessons, even group lessons, are significantly better than learning from books.

  24. kim smith says:

    ditto on shoes. i ruined my feet with payless shoes (plantar fasciatis), and now can wear only birkenstock for work. they are expensive, but the soles are replaceable. the leather birks can be polished. i have a pair of 20 yar old paris for dress shoes and brown suede boston clogs.

    for church and non-walky situations i seek ferragamo, anne klein, chanel, and other “high end” shoes at salvation army and good will. rich women wear something once and throw it away. yesterday i picked up a pair of black peau de soie grosgrain bruno magli pumps for 3 dollars. i would say they were worn once. i plan to use them as church and dress shoes.

    furniture – i have a favorite salvation army that sells furniture. being patient is the key. from this salvation army i have obtained an eldred wheeler tiger maple highboy for 200 bucks, an ethan allen queen anne chair for 20, and a hepplewhite solid mahogany sideboard for 200.

  25. Hap says:

    You shouldn’t be cheap about purchasing/renting gear for activities that your children will participate in. If you are going to expose your children to different things in life through lessons etc., you should make the experience as top-notch as you can. For example, musical instruments should be of good quality, so the student can develop technique and the ear properly; otherwise you’re wasting effort, money and time.

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