Monday, August 3, 2009

The Cost of Buying Cheap

NPR’s Talk of the Nation reviewed Ellen Ruppell Shell’s book the other week, called Cheap. Here is the NPR website’s description of the piece:

The words discount, half-price and final sale can get you running to the mall or reaching for your credit card. But in her book called Cheap, author Ellen Ruppel Shell explains why bargain-hunting may come at a high price.

"In a market awash in increasingly similar — even identical — goods," Shell writes, "price is the ultimate arbiter; the lower, the better." But the inexpensive Target underwear and the bootleg watches from street vendors quickly show their true value, and their production comes at a societal cost.

Shell discusses why consumers are so oblivious about prices – an attribute that we often consider to be the only objective qualifier of goods. In fact, Shell says, prices are extremely subjective. Shell posits that the haggling of old-world bazaars was a more organic and logical way to determine the price of goods. Arbitrary modern pricing allows us to feel like we got a good deal on an item marked down by 50%, even when the same item always costs that much at another seller. We assume that the marked-up item must be better.

Shell says that retailers encourage a mindset of disposability, enticing consumers to constantly trade up – though “up” may mean newer, not necessarily better. Ecologically, that means more consumption and more waste. And of course, the deals we get on goods often reflect conditions for the people who made them.

Discount chains appeal to our desire to get a good deal, and we’ve stopped investing in goods that will stand the test of time. This, she says, has perverted our sense of “value;” the word now exclusively conjures a price tag, with no consideration for quality.

A few months ago, my husband and I agreed not to buy any more furniture that we wouldn’t want to keep forever. Obviously, a lot of people can’t do that – we combined property a year ago, I’ve been collecting furniture for years, and we have our share of cheap placeholders, too – Ikea furniture I bought years ago to use “for now.” It’s the “for now” stuff we’d like to stop buying, and it could save us money in the long-term. I’m trying to refurbish well-built things I find on Craigslist, wait patiently for the occasional antique that doesn’t need much work, or save and invest in a decent piece that we’ll have forever. The work we put into the old pieces – which have, incidentally, already proven their stamina over time – endears them to us more. Shell extols secondhand stores and occasional antiques stores for this; I’d like to add Craigslist and yard sales to the list. And as far as the “investment” furniture goes – well, the saving is what’s keeping it from me.


  1. I found you through One Pretty Thing. I loved this essay - and your whole blog. I think we Americans forget that buying on sale is still....buying. I love your attitude about furniture. I came to the same conclusion a few weeks ago after putting together another "pour it out of the box and build it yourself" piece. I'm sick of spending time and money on things that won't last the long haul. Thanks for the motivation!

  2. I am retired and my husband semi-retired and we are trying to downsize our home and moving to a smaller place. In trying to decide what furniture we still wanted, we started discussing with our family how old some of our pieces were. Although we did buy some pieces that were less expensive, we tried to buy things that we really liked and knew would stand the test of time. It is amazing how time has flown by and the age of some of the furniture and that it is still in very good condition, even with kids and grandkids and now g-grandkids around.

  3. I absolutely agree. When my husband and I got married, we didn't have ANY furniture. I've rescued cheap pieces from the curb/ thrift stores on occasion, but as I find furniture that is well built and will last, I replace the junk furniture. We don't have much money, and we don't have a lot in our house after 6 years, but what we do have, we will keep forever. We have invested in quality pieces that will stand up to our pets, moving, and kids eventually. You're right about being more emotionally invested in your pieces. When you only choose things that you love, you appreciate what you have more, and it makes your home that much more enjoyable. It's a wonderful feeling coming home to your adorable dog on a beautiful sofa where you've spent many cozy evenings together.

  4. Thanks so much, yall!
    Jessica and I are so happy to have you reading and contributing to our blog. Thanks for the comments and support.

    And Keri, you're absolutely right - on some level I feel like I have a relationship with everything in my house, and I'm glad for that!

  5. This is a fantastic post. I came from a family of thrifty shoppers. While getting a 'deal' is satisfying, I've been thinking a lot more about about buying less of a good thing. In other words, quality over quantity.