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When Does Renting Beat Buying?

If experiences appreciate and things depreciate [3], is there a way for us to separate the experience of a thing away from the thing itself? Of course there is – rent it. If we’re going on vacation, it makes perfect sense for us to rent a car rather than buy it (though in places in Europe, for long “rental periods,” you actually buy the car and sell it back) and we don’t think anything of it. So why don’t we do it for things we use only infrequently? We don’t realize it’s an option.

Whenever you consider the financial trade-offs between buying something and renting something, it really comes down to a few a few factors and here’s what I think they are.

How To Decide If Renting Beats Buying

How much of a premium are you paying just for the right to rent rather than buy? This is best illustrated by a car lease. The typical car lease requires you to put down a significant down payment because you’re “paying” for the immediate depreciation of the car. That’s a significant premium over buying because, in theory, you can divide that cost over the life of the car. That’s one reason why leasing a car is a bad idea absent compelling reasons to do so.

How long will the product last beyond your regularly scheduled payments? The true value in owning a car comes in after year 5, or when the car note is paid off, and you can drive the car into oblivion. That “drive the car into oblivion” period is where buying is better than leasing because you’re getting the car for “free,” excluding gas and maintenance. With a lease, you are required to enter a new lease or begin a new set of payments if you buy the car directly from the company.

You have to look at how often you use the item. Your monthly payments won’t change but your usage behavior will dictate how much it costs per use (the same idea as maximizing your entertainment dollar [4]). If you live in a city and use a lot of mass transit, it makes no sense to lease or buy a car. If you drive everyday, then you’ll want to consider buying or leasing a car.

With a car, it sounds pretty easy, right? It’s been analyzed to death because it’s such a major purchase. You know where it hasn’t been analyzed to death? Almost everything else! This is especially true for entertainment media like books, magazines, movies, video games, etc. I would argue that in almost all cases, you’re far better off renting or borrowing something instead of buying it. Let’s take each item and make a case for renting.

Rent Video Games

Video games cost around $60 a pop for the new systems like the XBox 360 or the Playstation 3. For $15.95 a month (plus tax), you can get one game a month (sort of like Netflix, but for games). That means each month you’re paying a quarter of a game’s value to rent it. At first that sounds ridiculous, because after four months you won’t actually own that game… but think about how many games you play for more than four months. I don’t mean play every once and a while, I mean hardcore play all the time. There probably aren’t that many games. How many games are in the deadpool part of your library? Probably a lot. How many of those did you play for at least four months straight?


Just look at all the DVDs you own… how many do you watch? (oh by the way, they’re obsolete, time for Bluray) This is why Netflix [5] is popular. Enough said.


We are fortunate enough to live beside a library so we hardly ever buy books, but books are another entertainment media you don’t ever really need to buy. How many books do you read once and then never again? I would argue you should get your books from the library but if you aren’t near one and want an online book rental alternative, Bookswim seems pretty slick but it pricey. The base plan is $19.95 for three books out at a time (about the price of three paperback books). If you’re a voracious reader, that might be a good option is a library is ridiculous far away… otherwise hit the library and “rent” your books.

Clothing & Accessories

With the popularity of Netflix, plenty of other “things” are available for rent by mail such as handbags (Bag Borrow Steal [6]) and fashionable clothes (Rent The Runway [7]). If it makes sense for tuxedos, why not for women’s clothing and accessories? I’ve always wondered why they don’t rent bridesmaid’s dresses as often as they do tuxedos but you can rent handbags.

Think about some of the things you buy and use infrequently, see if there’s a way for you to rent it! Is there something else you can rent, rather than buy, that I missed? I’d love to expand this list.