Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

Cheap-Book In Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, author Ellen Ruppel Shell asks, "What are we really buying when we insist on getting stuff as cheaply as possible?" Her answer: a low-quality food supply, a ruined economy, a polluted environment, low wages, a shoddy educational system, deserted town centers, ballooning personal debt, and the loss of craftsmanship.

In the introduction to her book, Shell admits that she used to be obsessed with bargain prices, but says a "boot incident" changed her. She went to a shoe "mini-outlet" to buy a pair of boots for a New Year's party, and asked for "something special." The clerk showed her a pair of "buttery" leather Italian boots, but they were too expensive so she bought cheap knockoff boots from China that cost one-quarter as much as the Italian boots. After wearing the boots just once, she decided that they were "clunky and so uncomfortable" that she threw them into the back of the closet with the "heap of other unwearable 'good deals' in bad colors or unflattering shapes: a bargain hunter's pile of shame."

Cheapness, argues Shell, has ruined just about everything. Main streets, with knowledgeable clerks and friendly service, have been decimated by discount stores like Wal-Mart staffed with ignorant employees who don't give a damn. Customer service has all but vanished (A sign on the entrance of IKEA stores reads, "No One Will Bother You"). Factory outlets have become the "fastest growing segment of not only the retail industry but also the travel industry." Jobs were lost when manufacturers moved their factories overseas and used cheap labor to produce mountains of cheap junk. Products now come in two categories: stratospherically priced luxury objects or slipshod discount crap, with few mid-priced, well-crafted objects available, because craftsmanship can't compete in the mass market. (As Roger Price, author of The Great Roob Revolution said "If everybody doesn't want it, nobody gets it.")

So, how do we get ourselves off the cheapness drug? In her concluding chapter, Shell says individuals have to shake the habit themselves: "We can set our own standard for quality and stick to it. We can demand to know the true costs of what we buy, and refuse to allow them to be externalized, We can enforce sustainability, minimize disposability, and insist on transparency. We can rekindle our acquaintance with craftsmanship. We can choose to buy or not, choose to bargain or not, and choose to follow our hearts or not, unencumbered by the anxiety of that someone somewhere is getting a 'better deal."

For the last couple of years, I've been practicing pretty much what Shell recommends here. When I start thinking I need to buy something I first ask myself if owning it will truly make my family's life better in some way -- Will it save us time, or consume time? Do I have to learn a new user-interface to use it? What am I going to get out of it? What would happen if I put off buying it for a year? What else could I spend the money on that might be a better choice? Is it something I can hand down to my kids or will it break? Can it be serviced and repaired at home? Will it make our household environment more pleasant, or less pleasant? Will it clutter the house? how much storage space will it consume? These are then kinds of questions I now ask myself before buying something. The one thing I don't consider is how "cheap" something is. As a result, I don't buy nearly as much stuff as I used to (it turns out that my decision not to be cheap has made me more frugal and thrifty) and the things I do buy more often end up being well-made and improve the quality of my family's life.

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture


  1. The thing is, I really really like the fact that goods and services have stratified to the ultra-discount and the ultra-luxury.

    You see, there are certain things in life I really care about. For example, my computers. Being a computer scientist, I really care about getting something great. That’s why I paid over $2000 for my Fujitsu Ultra-Portable. When it’s something very important to me, I am willing to pay a lot to get the one perfect item.

    When I’m buying something I don’t care about, and doesn’t make a significant difference in my life, I get the cheapest option that gets the job done. For example, if I go to Home Depot to get a hammer, I’m going to get the cheapest one that will get the job done. The more expensive one might have a rubber grip, and be a lot nicer, but it’s not something I care about or use often enough to make a big difference.

    What use do I have for mid-range products? If I care about something, I just have to do a ton of research and get the perfect one. If I don’t care, I’ll only get the bare minimum that gets the job done. In what scenario do I care enough to get something that’s better, but don’t care enough to get the best?

  2. This is why I buy furniture used, preferably at antique stores. Altogether, the cost is about the same as new furniture, but the quality is so much better. After all, these pieces have already lasted a lifetime! The downside is you can’t get financing or delivery. I’d rather be inconvenienced now than to have my furniture fall apart later.

  3. In what scenario do I care enough to get something that’s better, but don’t care enough to get the best?

    The one where you don’t have $2000+ to spend on the perfect computer, but need a computer sooner than you can save up that $2000+.

    It’s not caring enough to get the best, it’s being unable to get the best. Having to settle for THE WORST because the only other option is the unobtainable best is not really acceptable, but it is, unfortunately, a fact of life for many people.

  4. The usual example of this problem is shoes.

    The poor man, who can’t afford $160 shoes, buys $20 shoes at Wal-Mart and needs to replace them every year as the soles wear thin or split, the seams burst or the fabric cracks or tears. The rich man buys $160 shoes and has them last for twenty years in good condition, and in the end pays less than half of what the poor man pays.

    If the poor man could afford $80 shoes, you could tell him to go shoeless for a year while he saves up the money, but that’s not a practical solution to his problem.

  5. Mass market cheapness doesn’t allow for conspicuous consumption. The upper classes have long been lamenting that society has given up the classist concept that richer people are morally superior to poor people. They have been looking for writers and philosophers to create a new “upper class is superior” ideology. To make it politically correct and palatable to modern people who accept a superficial pretense of egalitarianism, they dress it up in a pseudo-environmentalism and nostalgia for the “good-ol-days” (which where good, so long as you weren’t poor or black or female!)

    Now, the rich can sneer at the poor folks in the trailer park, and do it with a sense of moral superiority that all those stupid poor trash are the ones destroying the environment and ruining main street and messing up the economy. It isn’t the rich bankers or the government, it is the single mother that is waiting your tables who is responsible! And by purchasing things that are eco-chic (i.e. products that reject mass production and thus have built in scarcity) they once again can easily signal that they are superior to you!

  6. Having not read this book, I can only respond to the summary given here.

    The argument is valid, sort of. The missing piece is simply that, as long as there is a discrepancy of wealth, as long as some people have more than they need and others have less than they need, buying quality goods at higher prices is a luxury of the affluent. By “affluent” I include myself and probably most boingboing readers, even though we certainly wouldn’t consider ourselves to be “rich” people. Compared to most of the world, we are.

    In a truly balanced system, Shell is correct- we would put time and effort into everything we made, things would last, people would feel better about their craft, consumers would take care of their things. Clearly, we need all of this- but first (or at least, concurrently) we need to have a more balanced society. Given that our government and corporations are both uninterested in letting go of their toys, that ‘aint happening anytime soon…

    …not that we should stop fighting for it…

  7. “If the poor man could afford $80 shoes, you could tell him to go shoeless for a year while he saves up the money, but that’s not a practical solution to his problem.”

    Do you think there’s no good solution to this problem? I’m not being confrontational. I am curious if there’s a practical answer.

  8. When Gucci boots are made in China right beside the cheapies, why the hell should anyone pay the same price? Heck, these fancy companies pay extra to get rid of the “Made in China” stickers!

    Besides, do “high quality” products come with long warantees (if ostensibly, that’s what you’re advertising as to why I should pay all that much extra)? If not, then quit complainin’.

  9. oh, and don’t buy anything made in China unless it is an object exclusive to China. And even then, watch out for amoral manufacture.

    I’m finding the effort of looking for locally made (or closer than China) rather rewarding. Less is spent since it is frequently impossible to find a non-Chinese made consumer good in the lower categories at all, leading to realizing that it was an impulse buy or that there was a another way or the time just passed. Mindfulness has its own rewards. It also stimulates the local economy since every merchant is asked “do you have this made here?” Second hand shopping works too, since there are plenty of locally made durable goods out there that are, well, “durable”.

  10. Boots really are the perfect example. When I buy a new pair of hiking boots, I always ask myself “What will these boots look/feel like in 5 years?”. It’s an investment worth making.

    That said, there are plenty of counter-examples. I could buy an old Cutlass Supreme with a Chanel logo painted on the side for fairly cheap. Or I could buy a Bugatti for 1.7 million. Given my driving habits, the cheaper Cutlass would certainly be more “Luxury” after 5 years. Particularly with 1.699 million dollars stuffed into the trunk.

  11. Vimes usually adds, “and the poor man still has wet feet” (despite spending more on shoes than the rich man).

  12. Definitely a topic worthy of discussion, but there does seem to be a bit of the “Things Used To Be Better” sentiment, which always puts up flags.
    Also, “Rich Man” doesn’t buy $160 shoes to last 20 years. They just make his feet look fancy until the next fancy trend comes along.

  13. This isn’t new
    This has been a problem since the 1800’s. The link below is to “Cheap Clothes and Nasty” an essay written in 1850.
    Mass production and industrialization have brought us the standard of living we now enjoy. That has been accompanied by some nasty problems but most of us have chosen to ignore those.

  14. Put another way, are “high priced luxury goods” really worth their high prices at all? Shoes, handbags, fashion, Apple – most of these items are just as mass produced as the next.

    Anecdotes: I went to a high-end furniture store that wanted $1k+ for a simple wooden table. Ikea sells them for ~$200 (we’re talking solid wood, not pressboard). How is “cheapness” ruining this? If you ask me, excessive profiteering has ruined everything.

  15. “You pay for an expensive item when you purchase it. You pay for a cheap item every time you use it.” – Me

  16. “In what scenario do I care enough to get something that’s better, but don’t care enough to get the best?”

    I can think of lots of legit answers to this. But here’s the personal one that popped into my mind first.

    During the years I spent growing up as a poor kid (1981-to-approx. 2000) there was a huge shift in what “cheap clothing” meant. When I was in grade school and junior high, it meant hand-me-downs, thrift-store seconds, shapeless/style-less discount items, or damaged goods from the ABC rejects store.

    By the time I graduated high school, it meant fashionable, well-fit clothes from Target.

    Buying the best was never an option. But it’s hard for me to explain the huge emotional, playing-field-leveling impact of getting something a little better, for close to the same price as the crap.

    I know now that the benefits I got from this came at a cost to others. But I don’t think the solution to those very real costs is going back to a world where you can pick the poor kids out from halfway across the playground.

    In many situations, choosing cheap makes people’s lives better (even while it makes their lives worse in other ways).

  17. I find the luxury vs. crap argument is compounded by the fact that a lot of our “luxury” items are actually crap items with high-end brand names attached to the price tag.

    That $200 DKNY rayon t-shirt is just a crap t-shirt that doesn’t let *you* drink the coffee coming out of the New York loft espresso machine that you bought thinking you were getting quality goods.

    The art is to understand when you’re getting your money’s worth.

    I once worked for a guy who told me that he tries to only buy things that *appreciate* in value to replace his lack of confidence in areas where he did not know if he was getting his money’s worth. the end result was that he wore sweat pants nine times out of ten but his house was full of Gomer Bolstrood-quality furniture that would crush a child if it ever fell over.

  18. “In her concluding chapter, Shell says individuals have to shake the habit themselves”

    We’ve heard this argument before- if you don’t like what companies are doing, vote with your dollars. Where we were once citizens, we are now consumers. Eventually we’re expected to complain to our government the way a customer might complain to the manager of a store.

    I would rather not ignore the subsidies that the big box stores get, and that mass consumer culture gets, at the expense of human scaled commerce. A pound of twinkies is cheaper than a pound of carrots because my elected officials are subsidizing the soy, wheat, sugar, and transport energy costs. If all I do is vote with my dollars on this one, nothing changes.

    A couple years ago in Yelm WA, Walmart wanted to install a store- and the city council banned that topic from its meetings. It’s not enough that they put locals out of work in favor of poverty economics, they also blew a hole in local government.

    Every US citizen has a story that proves that we’re not like the ugly american who finances this racket. In the same way we all claim to shun Fox in favor of PBS. I’d sure hate for the conversation to end there.

  19. Someone who buys a pair of cheap shoes that don’t fit is more of the problem than the shoes. I get cheap jeans from Target, and they’re performing wonderfully – because I abuse them. I don’t have to worry about them getting stained, torn, or worn through. I also just recently got a $700 suit, and I worry a lot about getting it ripped, so it stays in the closet most of the time.

    Interestingly, most of my dress shirts were made in China, but they were bought from a tailor shop in Shanghai, not a sweatshop. They cost about $35 dollars, and fit perfectly. I feel zero guilt for having them made. By all reports, the tailor has a nice middle class lifestyle, and supporting him in China is no worse or better than paying $200 for a shirt made in the US.

  20. I also think part of the problem is that some Americans, particularly older Americans, subscribe to a sort of conventional wisdom where they think “the government” won’t allow shysters to sell snake oil in this country. Second, that they are “smart” when they figure out what the cheapest item in the product class happens to be. Third, the notion that “the story wouldn’t carry it if it was crap.”

    But, Mark–food for thought, maybe all this “cheap culture” is just interference, background noise. Maybe this is a part of an entirely different niche in our ultra-consumptive society. That is, cheap goods are not an alternative to quality goods, but an alternative to no goods at all. For example, the author has no business owning $100 Italian boots in the first place and should just resign herself to “not owning” in this product class altogether.

  21. Has anyone considered amputating the feet of the poor? Instead of shoes, they can wear sturdy, virtually free tin cans held on by duct tape.

    Cans are waterproof and UV resistant. The raised rims allow good traction.

    I am virtually certain that my foot amputation / tin can scheme will be adopted long before, say, raising salaries to the point where buying decent shoes isn’t a burden.

  22. Part of the answer lies, I think, in our basic American culture’s mentality. I sew my clothes up when they tear, for example. Most people don’t. For shoes, I wear chucks because they’re cheap, comfortable and cool looking. I buy last-year’s “model” at half off, usually multiple pairs if I can (I save some for later.) I hate the fact that they moved to China for production, but let’s ignore that for the moment.

    My shoes last me years; when they start to fray, I sew up the seams. Right now I’m wearing a pair I’ve owned since before 9-11, actually. Most of the sole is fine, but one edge of the heel is wearing out quickly- I’m still trying to find a way I could sort of “re-fill” that part of the rubber, because the rest of the shoe is good. In short, a new pair of $50 chucks cost me $25 and last me several years… but only because

    -I don’t throw away stuff that’s used, I fix it up
    -I save the money I earn, rather than spend it all right away, so that when there’s a sale, I can take advantage of buying multiple pairs, since I have it saved in the bank
    -I don’t spend my money on crap like new tv’s and x-box’s…

    These are just some factors in the big formula of “can we, as a society, all afford shoes?” but they are ones rarely considered when dealing with the big questions. We could also start programs that lend money to the poor for shoes, payable back in installments. We could have non-profits that take the old shoes and fix them up and sell them at a very cheap price… in short, there are several solutions to alleviate the burden, but we need to embark in all of them- not leave it up to a law, or an individual, or a generous charity. Nationwide programs are great, but they’re only going to really work if each of us makes a conscious choice to live a much simpler, less-wasteful life than we are used to.

  23. To Ryan’s point, the book “Deluxe” says exactly that: the high-end stuff has also become slipshod as companies has turned what were once exclusive brands into mass market goods trading what is now only a perceived exclusivity.

  24. It weirds me out that it now costs more to fix stuff than to replace it. I went to Home Depot last week to get a replacement handle for a shovel. They had some in stock, but right next to them were brand new shovels for less money than the handle alone.

  25. Is it at all possible that the poor man spending twice as much on shoes despite buying $20 pairs instead of $180 pairs also gets much more use out of shoes in their lifetime? I go through shoes less frequently now that I sit in front of a computer all day then I did when I was a line cook.

  26. What happens if the $100 shoes are shitty too? I’m sorry, but quality there isn’t that big of a quality difference between $25 payless shoes and $100 Nikes.

    Show me where I can buy a pair of shoes for $180 and they will last twenty years and I’m pay it in a second.

  27. Not everybody has the same values as the author.

    When it comes to furniture, I’m not that interested in something that will last a lifetime. If I can use it for 5 years, that’s good enough. I enjoy repainting and refurnishing and do so relatively frequently. Most of my clothes are older than my furniture.

    I come from a family of mechanics (auto and aviation) and they spend crazy money on tools. Me, I use a wrench 5 times a year and so the made in China stuff sold at Sears is good enough for me. Would I really be better off with a garage full of Snap-On wrenches gathering dust?

    I’m also getting tired of this romantic notion of main street shops staffed with people who care and want to give great customer service. Retail has always had high employee turnover. These jobs have never paid very well or offered even the meager benefits given by the likes of WalMart or Starbucks. At least not for the past 40 years that I’ve been around.

    I also now have far more food choices at my local mega-mart than my parents or grand parents ever had. I’m not sure where the complaint about a low quality food supply comes from. I haven’t noticed it. What definition of quality is the author using?

    Stop focusing on cost and start looking at value and utility (as Mark seems to do). Lots of times — surprise, surprise — a cheap made in China item makes a lot of sense. Other times, I will spend hours paging through Etsy looking for exactly the right item.

  28. The shoes example really may be the best here. It’s not that the $20 shoes only last a year while the $160 ones last. That’s how it *used* to be, in maybe the 80’s and early 90’s.

    I used to buy $4 Chinese slippers (if it’s good enough for 1bn people, it’s good enough for me!) which would last a year. But I would also pay $100+ for a good pair of shoes which I would spend money on, polishing, oiling, reheeling, resoling… and they lasted ages and ages. I still have some.

    Now, for women leastaways, even the $160 shoes are designed so that it is impossible to reheel, resole etc. They are held together with glue, made by people working in terrible conditions, and last me *maybe* two years tops.

    There are a few exceptions. I bought a pair of Fluevog shoes (no I don’t work for them!) which not only garner more compliments than anything I have ever worn and feel fantastic but can be resoled, reheeled etc… And they aren’t made in sweatshops. BUT they cost a hell of a lot (about $300). Are they worth it? Yes. Can I afford to get others? Not really, maybe in a year or two…

  29. Thank God someone’s brought up the issue of craftsmanship.

    The Economist magazine (among other people) have been arguing that America is going to have to do more than just bailouts and continuous spending to fix it’s economy. It’s going to have to start producing things again.

    While lucragtive, the top-end luxury market will never offer enough business to completely sustain a large economic superpower. Likewise, even if China lets the Yuan gain in value like it should, America will have trouble competing in the world marketplace on the grounds of cheap goods. The only answer is craftsmanship and service, both nearly a lost art in the US.

    My point is a return to craftsmanship is more than just important for the world, it’s also an imperative for fixing the American economy.

    We didn’t always have problems like this– my grandparents were part of a generation who knew how to turn clothes inside out to check the quality of the seam, or to pop the hood of a car before buying it. Consumer education is vital for turning around craftsmanship.

    Being a producer of goods which fall in the upper end of this middle bracket discussed, I know for a fact there is demand for well made goods which can be affordable, provided the consumer knows about its existence, and has been given enough understanding to know what to look for.

    If we can get the education of the masses right, I don’t think we’ll have any problems curing them of addictions to cheaply made goods. “Buy it cheap, buy it twice.” as the expression goes. Or, as another expression goes: “a luxury once sampled becomes a need.”

    As #18 mentioned, this may fly in the face of current multinational trends. But it doesn’t have to. Not every company competes on price alone, and the American economy as a whole has everything to gain from bringing back manufacturing to its shores.

  30. We don’t know that the “buttery” leather Italian boots that Shell didn’t buy would have lasted any damn longer than the cheaper boots she did buy. Somehow I doubt that buying very practical, but unfashionable footwear at any price was ever an option for Shell.

    She may be a fine and decent person, and the book may be wise and thoughtful for all I know. But this post gives me the impression that she’s selling a manifesto for snobbery.

  31. Sorry, I don’t think I even understand the idea she’s trying to sell. Just because something can be bought cheap does not mean it has to be inferior. In fact that is THE big misunderstanding.


    On the other hand, this is how I see it (living my low-middle class life without any book royalties and signing bonuses):


  32. My problem is every time I buy an expensive brand I get burned because the expensive brand is made with the same lousy quality as the cheap knockoff. Why would I, would would ANYONE buy a “good” brand when they are just slapping a label on the cheap Chinese import and charging more?

    How does a consumer know what is worth the price?
    We know when we are getting the cheapest item. We know when we are buying a brand that is famous for the ultimate in quality. In between it’s all smoke and mirrors. We’ve gotten so used to being lied to we ignore everything we hear.

    For example, if I want an MP3 player I can buy the cheapest no-name that will play music and last a few months. Or I can buy an iPod that will be great but expensive. If I try to buy a known brand like Sony or Creative Zen it is a 50/50 chance I will get a piece of junk that is hobbled by restrictions and money grabs for additional purchases and will break in a few months anyway.

    The name brand companies have chased themselves to the bottom by trying to rip us off with cheap quality, then being surprised when their manufacturers sell directly at half the price.

  33. This week I canned two lugs of fresh peaches that the local hardware store shipped in direct from the grower. People had to sign up to buy them.

    In the 50s and 60s, with transportation and communication so rudimentary that delivery of anything was a minimum of 4-6 weeks, we could buy truly fresh produce. Now we have GPS, computers, etc. and grocery store produce isn’t worth buying.

    We buy crap because in most cases it’s all that’s available. My community, a mid-sized Midwestern college town, has a Wal-mart and HyVee. We no longer have a craft store, womens, mens, or shoe stores. It’s either buy what we don’t want here or travel an hour or more or buy online.

  34. If you want to buy really *practical* clothes, and you don’t care about fashion, you can go to the section of Wal Mart or Orchard Supply Hardware where they sell the stuff that people who work with their hands — mechanics and carpenters — wear. Cheap and extremely durable. Never in fashion, so it never goes out of fashion.

  35. Economics is a matter of incentives. Unfortunately for the author, she and her book are not a big enough incentive to change the societal functions that she has issues with. I’d recommend to her an introductory book on economic based public policy.

  36. It’s not caring enough to get the best, it’s being unable to get the best. Having to settle for THE WORST because the only other option is the unobtainable best is not really acceptable, but it is, unfortunately, a fact of life for many people.

    Hear hear Jerril,
    As I was reading that article I kept thinking: That’s all wonderful but people who live paycheck to paycheck don’t really have a choice. One of the big advantages that people with comfortable incomes take for granted, is being able to buy quality items, or things in bulk, that save you money in the long run. The poor don’t have the money up front, and can’t wait for the long run.

  37. As long as retailers are basing their prices on their own name, it will be up to the smart shopper to do their research on what they buy.

    You can still find those well-made items without paying an arm and a leg. You just won’t find them as easily as the items meant to be sold to the wider public. To find those well-made items requires an investment of effort on your part; to sacrifice convenience.

    If you’re waiting for quality to return to the mass-marketed retailers, I’m afraid you may be in for a disappointment.

  38. I think Shell’s philosophy is very important when it comes to food. We may not want to buy gourmet food every day, but cheap food is becoming more and more unhealthy. We’ve already seen the way that cows given corn feed lack the Omega-3 fats that grass-fed beef contains. As more is known about how our food supply ails when taking the cheap route, the less I am likely to worry about paying extra for healthier food.

  39. The internet is the solution to the disappearing middle in product space.

    I was looking for a curtain rod for our new bathroom. The two local retail choices were thin, chromed aluminum with from Home Depot or Bed Bath and Beyond for $10-$15 OR $100 for a heavy chrome plated brass rod with escutcheon plates that were hand carved by blind italian monks that were $40 each from the local luxo-riche bathroom gallery.

    It took me 4 hours of searching, but I found a heavy chrome plated brass rod for $30 with very plain chrome plated brass plates for $5 each on-line.

  40. trying to educate people on quality vs. price is an uphill battle. yes the sword cuts both ways for luxury and cheap goods being inferior quality.

    this is nothing new, and without having educated consumers pushing back, you wont get any better.

    i think the middle ground of price/quality is where the best benefits can be reaped. knowledgeable sales people can help educate, but they are a dying breed in most industries. advocacy from manufacturers of ‘the good stuff’ as well as consumer education can help.

    sadly, manufacturers of quality goods in niche markets have a hell of a battle to get their products in front of people. i know, i manufacture guitar cables in the USA, and i am up against giant marketing budgets and discount asian manufacturing, as well as a public that has been burned by snake oil claims from my competitors.

  41. I agree with the complaint, but I don’t think there’s any simple solution (or possilbly no solution). This reminds me of the recent issues with illegal immigrants.

    The complaint of cheap goods or immigrants stealing jobs, etc. are just symptoms. Some observant commenter already mentioned the true problem — it’s economic inequality. This is a complex technological, sociological, and economical problem.

    So what’s the problem with the suggestion of not buying cheap?

    I would say that from way back in history to current times, our economy has been running on externalities (cheap/exploited energy, cheap/exploited labor, cheap/exploited resources).

    what kind of system allows exploitation?
    a pyramid where
    1) each level exploits those below
    2) how?
    2a) higher level has more wealth
    2b) higher level has fewer people

    If you can make the pyramid to something like a ball , then you have solved the problem.
    why the ball works?
    concentration of wealth and people are at the middle. the top- doesn’t have much wealth.
    and the bottom- have too few people to easily exploit (e.g. willingly exploit themselves for little money)

    okay, so the proposed solution – don’t buy cheap?
    the poor will still be poor or more so. the middle is spending more money buying from the top/middle.

    Doesn’t seem like an effective global solution – unless you’re waiting for the poor to die off.
    It may work if you can insulate from poorer nations, but protectionism may just be as bad — you cut the bottom of the pyramid and now the local bottom have no one to exploit.

    tough problem , aye?

  42. “It took me 4 hours of searching, but I found a heavy chrome plated brass rod for $30 with very plain chrome plated brass plates for $5 each on-line.”

    maybe the long tail is the source for quality.

  43. The book ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ addresses this question very well. It’s been years since I read it but it sticks with you. It’s all about quality, in things and in life. I am an artist and I am trying to replace all my cheap stuff with crafts that are made by artisans or craftsmen. It’s a bit more expensive but the quality is really terrific. Another benefit is that I can barter sometimes, and I only have what I really need. Do I NEED a new pair of shoes? It’s not easy but the time spent looking is time spent not buying.

  44. Places like Home Depot, Quadratec and Macy’s are the retailers to be wary of. I don’t mean to slander them or their peers; there are still a lot of good deals to be had from them. But they support the network of dishonest companies out there.

    DeWalt, Delta, Husky and such brands are all Chinese made but are priced at HD as if they were still being made in the US.

    Bestop, Warn, Steel Horse and countless others are Chinese made but priced as if they were still being made in the US (if they ever were at all).

    It should be common knowledge by now that nearly everything available at most clothing retailers – not just Macy’s – is made in China, Mexico, The Phillipines and India. But the brand labels are still being priced as if they were coming from manufacturers in the US, Italy, France and Spain.

    If the majority of people would use their brains instead of simply forking-over wads of cash, then this wouldn’t happen. If you want quality items in your home, you MUST research your important purchases.

  45. Caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware”.

    Never buy anything if you don’t have to. If you have to buy something, buy it from your neighbor if you can. You know where he lives, so you can help him improve the product if it fails you. If you can’t buy it from your neighbor, buy the highest quality at the cheapest price point available; that encourages quality production and fair pricing in the long run (that invisible hand is incredibly slow).

    Buying stuff you don’t need rarely makes sane people happy.

    On the other hand, sane people are boring.

  46. but buying does make people happy. That’s why they do it. The trick is to make it quality buying. Buy less often, but buy better. And I don’t mean product quality, I mean the experience. Perhaps get the pleasure from the human contact and exchange instead of the “owning”? The trip, not the destination.

  47. Is “X: the High Cost of Y” the new “X for Dummies”?

    Let’s try it:

    Uninspired Titles: The High Cost of Formulaic Writing.

    Hey, that went surprisingly well!!!

  48. I do not think this is a class elitism issue. Unless you think only rich people have the ability to enjoy quality.

    low price!=low quality
    high price!= high quality

    One is able to tell the quality of a product by other means than price. Examine it, feel it, research it if necessary.

    I live with very little disposable income, and am always looking for not just good deals but actual low prices. The thing is you can find something high quality at a thrift store or an outlet for the same price as a low quality item. And you will get more use out of it, more enjoyment (quality clothes feel better on, fit better, quality tools are more enjoyable to use).

    The other thing I wonder about is waste… cheap goods break quickly and then are not worth repairing. They become instant garbage. I had a folding camp chair that I (unwisely) spent $5 on. One plastic bit snapped that I couldn’t fix and the whole thing no longer was usable. That’s a lot of material to just throw in the trash. Sometimes I can strip usable parts or materials off things to go into my craft supplies, but most of it just gets tossed. Multiply that millions of times… where is all this crap going?

    But yeah, if you are poor, it is hard to get out of the cycle.

  49. That’s weirdly appropriate coming from someone named PANTOGRAPH.

    Taku-san, I derive no pleasure from buying things. It irks me, in fact, that I cannot make or grow everything my family needs, and must trade my knowledge and time for money to buy things. I’d rather be fishing.

  50. #9 posted by Mark Frauenfelder, August 13, 2009 9:54 AM

    “If the poor man could afford $80 shoes, you could tell him to go shoeless for a year while he saves up the money, but that’s not a practical solution to his problem.”

    Do you think there’s no good solution to this problem? I’m not being confrontational. I am curious if there’s a practical answer.

    Sure. The War on Payroll has been going on for thirty years. End it.

  51. @25 DAS MEMSEN

    Try applying Shoe Goo to the wear-spot and using some cardboard to press and hold it flat to the sole while it cures.

  52. “but buying does make people happy. That’s why they do it.”

    The quick, temporary thrill you get when you buy something is not happiness, even if people buy shit all the time believing it is. Our 50+ years of buying shit at an increasing rate should be enough proof of this, as we are no happier now than we were 50 years ago.

    But we’re definitely a lot more cluttered.

  53. what? No pleasure from receiving a master-crafted object from the hand of a maker? Of course one should study the ways of all artisans and artists to deepen one’s own understanding of the Way, but are we not also following the Way of society? Even Musashi accepted the lesson of the adder. Besides, the fish need a break too.

  54. Cheapness, argues Shell, has ruined just about everything. Main streets, with knowledgeable clerks and friendly service, have been decimated by discount stores like Wal-Mart staffed with ignorant employees who don’t give a damn.

    So…in about 1996 I moved to a small town (pop. 25K or so) that, at the time had one of the regular old wal-marts (not the ‘super’ version)

    The town had one grocery store (for 25K people) and the grocer was a crook, to put it simply. The other ‘mom & pop’ stores were also owned and managed by crooks who took advantage of the relative geographical isolation of the town to gouge their customers. The town council, was, of course made up of crooked business people – the leader of whom was the aforementioned grocer.

    Wal-mart had fought for years for a building permit to build a supercenter and was finally able to after much political wrangling. ‘Course the town council launched a major ‘you’ll put us out of business’ campaign but wal-mart still thrived by selling cheap crap BUT the businesses who adapted by providing quality products and superior customer service were also able to thrive. The grocer who still tried to make his living by screwing his customers – not so much and I hope he and his family starved to death.

    Take home message: Competition (even if you bill it as unfair) is healthy and can improve what is available to customers. Business practices and piss-poor management are more to blame for mom & pop stores going under than are some fictional strong-arm tactics from big retailers.

  55. Buy American-made stereo equipment, like Krell or Wilson or the hundreds of others!

    It’s more expensive but it IS much better than Chinese or Japanese-made stuff.

  56. I think this argument is based on
    cheap=cheaply made which is a false premise.

    However this isn’t always the case. You can buy cheap brand of electronics which to the average ear and eye are every bit as good as the expensive. That doesn’t mean the cheaper brand is manufacturered to break quicker. (Many electronics are made with the same specs as the name brands but just have different casings and advertising.

    Same thing with shoes. I bout $40 shoes and $200 shoes and the expensive ones where just as fast as the cheap. They might be more comfortable, but I found that to be very inconsistent as well.

  57. This topic is so relative to the individual.

    Having worked in the Chinese production industry for a Western luxury retailer I can say, yes, luxury and discount goods are made the same way. The higher price is an arbitrary IDEA that is associated to the item. Some of the materials that go into the product may cost slightly more, but not enough to justify the markup percentage of a luxury item. If an “expensive” shoe is $300, it only costs $40 to make. But if we’re talking about fashion like shoes, it has a whole “trend” aspect to it that muddies the water. You either pay the price of admission to wear the name-brand label, or you don’t. If you don’t and go the cheap route but have to update your shoes more often, don’t you want to update more often anyway because of trends/colors? But are you to believe the people paying for the pricy item aren’t updating as much as the poor person? So isn’t it all moot in the end? You either can or can’t pay more, and once that question is answered, or you either will or won’t. But there’s no good vs bad about it.

    Or, if you remove fashion from the equation and go utilitarian – there is no such thing as utilitarian luxury goods is there? If you buy the Range Rover to get you over the rocks and thru the woods, you aren’t ever driving over the rocks and thru the woods are you. You’re purchasing the IDEA of going over the rocks and thru the woods, but in style. But only “style” as set forth by your socio-economic peers, or those you aspire to make your peers. But the good vs bad of that scenerio is purely personal.

  58. One of my favorite Pratchett bits is The Commander Vimes Boot Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness. To paraphrase, it states that a poor man will buy a pair of shoes for $25 that will last a season. A rich man will buy shoes that cost $200, but last for several years. Poor people are poor (in part) because they spend more money than wealthy people.

    If I’m going to buy something, I will usually (within my means) ignore cost, and focus on quality, durability, and how well it will fit into my life. I also try to disregard marketing, shiny-ness, and other base urges, since they’ll pull you towards high-priced items that don’t rate well on the key virtues.

    A truly massive portion of what we call “intelligence” breaks down to accepting a short-term loss (more expensive shoes mean I can’t eat out this week) for a long-term gain (shoes that last and last, freeing money for other dinners).

  59. Then there’s the very curious case of products that are cheaper and far superior, but a bit less convenient. I’ve been going to farmers’ markets for the past 6 months for fruits and veggies. All are locally grown, and delicious.

    This week I moved to a new area. I arrived on Sunday. The next farmers’ market was Thursday (it starts in 4 hours). In the interim, I’ve had to subsist on stuff from WholeFoods and Ralph’s, which are generally considered to be some of the better markets.

    I’m appalled at the horrid quality of fruits and veggies at these stores. Mushy apples, hard peaches, wilted spinach, all anywhere from the same price to twice as expensive as the farmers’ market. (heck, $5/lb vs $2/lb for pluots this week)

    At the farmers market, I get out, have a nice walk, talk to the vendors, get to know them, sometimes get discounts because we’ve gotten to know each other, try new foods. And I probably pay half as much for things that are absolutely delicious and fresh.

    The only reason I can figure for grocery stores even bothering to carry produce of any kind is that few people have ever been to a farmers’ market, and are under the presumption that the grocery store is where to go to get produce.

    Of course, lots of people don’t even eat fresh fruits and veggies these days, which I think is at least partially due to grocery stores stocking disgusting ones. Could be a conspiracy to move more boxed products…

  60. Maybe it’s because I live in Canada, but I have no problem finding mid-range goods. It’s a false dichotomy.

    Also “cheap” does not automatically mean “shoddy”. Contrary to the beliefs of people who like to pay inflated prices, it’s entirely possible to find good stuff at really low prices.

    In many cases, especially related to food, there isn’t even any real difference between cheap and expensive. Remember Noka?

  61. rtresco: “if you remove fashion from the equation and go utilitarian – there is no such thing as utilitarian luxury goods is there? ”

    This is a false dichotomy. There are luxury (i.e. high quality) items that are aesthetically largely impervious to fashion trends. In clothes, and in cars, there styles that are classic or timeless.

  62. Takuan @24: Just try finding a cobbler, period. Our small-city metro area (pop. 160K+) has one shoe repairman, and his job backlog is well into three figures. Similarly, try to find a hatter who can replace a sweatband or ribbon on a fedora. (Yeah, I know, that’s a super-niche market.) Try to find an electronics repairman who can fix an old TV or stereo. (And in any case, repairs are discouraged by parts pricing by manufacturers.) Tailoring and alterations are easier to find–our local mall has an alternation shop in a fairly prominent location.

    It kills me to discard useful items, and it annoys me to no end to have to buy items that are designed to break or wear out. I enjoy using implements I acquired decades ago, and I treasure things passed on to me–my father’s Wittnauer military watch (badly in need of a cleaning and timing–try to find a watchmaker), the beaver-felt fedora my mother-in-law found in a Pittsburgh attic (it took a trip to Chicago’s south side to find a hatter who could rehab it), various fountain pens, my 40-year-old Sony multiband portable radio. (The 30-year-old model needs a capacitor replaced–fortunately there’s a guy who will do that.) I still wear the Rockport ProWalkers I bought in 1989 (it helps to be able to rotate shoes), and I plan to keep the Mephistos I found at half price at Nordstrom’s Rack (still the most expensive shoes I ever bought), and if they keep their promise to repair their shoes forever (for a fee), I’d be prepared to be buried in them–except that would be a waste.

    All that said, there are enormous benefits to having a cornucopia of affordable goods, particularly for those of limited means, even if it means that there’s less market for the more durable. Look at the history of clothing, at the resources and labor represented by even a handkerchief (a target of thieves in the 18th century), and think about what constitutes deprivation now.

    Since craftsmanship came up (@33)–I own a Chinese-made archtop guitar (an Eastman), produced in what started as a violin factory. It’s an excellent instrument, the equal in workmanship to any American-made factory guitar (including my beloved 1946 Epiphone), and good enough to pass along to whoever gets it when I (or my estate) might sell it. I understand that the factory guys are pretty well compensated, correcting for local social and economic conditions, so I don’t feel guilty.

  63. i’m sorry, but you can’t make me hate ikea. you can paint them as the demon all you want (it certainly is trendy to do so these days), but i have bought some very well-made, well-designed stuff from them. sure, not everything they make is like that, but if you look, you can find it.

  64. I’m surprised no one has brought up the fact that cheap consumer goods (and cheap unhealthy food) is one of the few things that has kept our middle class afloat and off the barricades during the last 20 years as all the real growth in income has been taken by the top tiers. Income for the middle 3 quintiles has been stagnant in real dollars for decades, so we’ve been shifting our consumption from quality American or European made goods to cheap Asian products as away of maintaining an appearance of lifestyle.

    Calling this growth of cheap goods in our economy a result of cheapness is like calling the growth of 2 family incomes the result of greed. They’re both of necessity to keep from obviously backsliding.

  65. Something to consider with the shoe example: if the cheap pair of shoes lasts a year, that’s not a year of perfect shoe and then a catastrophic failure; that’s maybe six months of perfect shoe and then six months of declining quality, the tail end of which, especially if you’re trying to stretch your shoe budget, is spent past the “should have replaced these by now” point. In other words, the person in that example is spending a disproportionate amount of time walknig around in worn out shoes, which has downsides that greatly eclipse the cash involved.

  66. #18 – Fashionable and well-fit for how long? The problem with cheap clothes is that they don’t stay that way. I have had polo shirts, hoodies, and even pants shrink a whole size or more the first time through the wash. For awhile, I was buying XXL because I knew full well I’d be lucky if it was an XL after I washed it. Sometimes it was an L at best, which meant my son was about to get yet another hand-me-down from his dad. Where did I get this crap? Target, or more likely, Wal-Mart.

    The shoes I’m wearing can be best described as disposable. I’ve had them about four months, but they look like they’ve got two years’ wear on them. I’ll probably go back to the Payless or wherever I got them and get another pair, and yet another pair in January (after the Christmas rush).

    It never ends with the crap. Yeah, everybody can afford a microwave oven, but how often do you have to replace the damn thing?

  67. #14 – Rich people buy stuff that’s timeless, that doesn’t go out of style. They know they’re loaded, their friends know they’re loaded, so they have nothing to prove to anyone. It’s ghetto trash that cares so much about “bling” and looking fancy.

  68. I’ve been saying it so much over the years that my coworkers have finally started to understand it and sometimes beat me to it in a meeting: “The cheap stuff costs more.”

  69. For working people living within their means (instead of charging things on credit), the more expensive well-crafted stuff just isn’t a realistic option. Yes, we know the fancy Italian leather boots will be higher quality and will be able to have the soles replaced and stay in service for us for years and years while the Chinese knock offs won’t be as nice and will wear out quicker. But we have 20 dollars in our pocket today and don’t have 100 dollars.

    For some things, saving up for a nicer one is a valid option, but for many if not most things, we don’t have a need to buy things until we actually need them and time is of the essence. We don’t need a new pair of boots until the old boots are too worn out to wear to work. So we have to settle for the cheaper Wal-Mart pair that we can have now. It’s not that we don’t know about or don’t understand the value of the lovingly hand-crafted pair that we could have in a couple of months or a year. It’s just that we can’t keep wearing the holey pair for a year.

    If you had a bunch of well-crafted higher end stuff to begin with, you could keep buying higher quality stuff when the old things are used up and wore out beyond repair and keep the cycle going and be really happy with it. But if you are like many of us working folks, most of your stuff that you already have is cheap stuff. The transition from a houseful of cheap stuff to a houseful of nice stuff isn’t achievable at a fast enough rate at an affordable cost to be realistic for many working people.

    Seems to me that maybe the author is either more financially well off than most of the folks who love cheap stuff the most or is willing to rack up a lot more debt than most smart budget-conscious people could or would want to.

  70. I wouldn’t buy an expensive pair of running shoes, but it’s worth it for dress shoes. I’ve had my Kenneth Cole double monks for almost twenty years. I just resoled them and they still look like a pair of expensive, new shoes.

    As to clothing, if you don’t have everything that you wear tailored, there’s no point in buying expensive. If it doesn’t fit, what’s the point? I spend $20 at the seamstress to have a $20 shirt properly fitted, and it looks better than a $200 shirt that doesn’t fit.

  71. #10, #19 (and I would assume others downthread) – There are all sorts of consumer goods that fit the general description “generic” nowadays. Clock radios, for example. What is the difference between one that costs six bucks (yes, I have seen them that cheap) and one that costs fifty bucks? Other than perhaps a CD player you’ll never use, nothing. The life expectancy of both is less than a year, so why spend more than you absolutely have to?

    This is what we’ve come to. Everything from garden tools to kitchen appliances to home entertainment equipment is a commodity, like frozen concentrated orange juice, gasoline, and pork bellies – one just like another. Brand doesn’t matter, price doesn’t matter, so get the cheapest one on the shelf like you were buying the store brands of cereal at the grocery store. Milton Friedman must be really laughing his ass off from the hereafter.

    Of course, you might still occasionally find that one last holdout that is still made in this country, for which you’ll pay triple and never have to buy another one. Ever.

  72. It’s not so much that the author is wrong, as the fact that the causes and solutions aren’t so simple. (Mind you, I doubt any one of us have read the book, so we could all be totally off.)

    I’m as thrifty as they come, but I’ve started springing for local, farm-raised milk, meat, bread and vegetables. The difference in quality is humongous; the difference in price visible, but not staggering. Our local CSA has a program to subsidize people that can’t afford fresh, local veggies- not a permanent solution, but at least it allows them to eat better, become educated, and spread the idea around. One small step for mankind.

    Point being, we can’t all buy the best of the best, but we can probably all change our lifestyles around to support a healthier, smarter way of life, even if it’s just a little bit.

  73. #28 is right: the problem with the Vimes Theory is that poor people are on their feet a lot more, doing messy work that does a number on clothes and shoes. Twenty-odd years ago, when I was doing lousy minimum wage jobs, I ruined a couple of my favorite T-shirts when I was working in the mail room of a newspaper and found out that that ink doesn’t come out of cotton. Same thing with taking out garbage that puts unidentifiable permanent stains in pants, or stripping and refinishing floors with caustic chemicals that eat through your shoe soles. Pratchett’s a genius, but I think it’s been a while since he made his living on his feet.

  74. “When you buy quality, you only cry once.”

    Most people have too much stuff, period. Some of the poorest people I know have the most stuff. Very few people couldn’t raise $100 by selling some of that stuff. Put that together with the $20 you were going to spend on cheap shoes, and you’re on your way. Buy better, but buy less. Each purchase becomes more than just another expense, it’s an upgrade to a better life. Now you’re wearing nice shoes. You feel better, you look better, you’re more comfortable. Next year you don’t have to spend the $20 or the time to go buy a new pair of shoes. You take that money and time and invest it in something else that makes your life better and easier. And the more you build, the easier it gets.

    Part of the problem is that we’re no longer wresting our survival out of raw wilderness. We don’t get that sense of building a better life, step by step. A homesteader on the frontier could remove a stump from a field, knowing that he would have that bit of cleared field to grow food on for the rest of his life. His offspring would be able to grow food on that little piece of cleared land. It was an investment, a legacy. Capital.

    The average American today thinks of income and expense, and very little about building capital, which is more than just stock in a company. Capital is any durable goods and tools that either provide ongoing income or prevents expense. Good shoes are a form of capital, one that’s well within the reach of the average person.

  75. I bought a pair of $200 shoes two years ago that I recently resoled for $40. For that price they also magically removed the nicks in the leather upper part.

  76. #68 said: A truly massive portion of what we call “intelligence” breaks down to accepting a short-term loss (more expensive shoes mean I can’t eat out this week) for a long-term gain (shoes that last and last, freeing money for other dinners

    This is so obnoxious. As many other’s have pointed out, poor people are often in the situation of *never* having $200 to spend at one time on such a thing as shoes. Suggesting they’re stupid shows that you really must be pretty ignorant about how little money a lot of people in our society have to get by on.

  77. “Do you think there’s no good solution to this problem? I’m not being confrontational. I am curious if there’s a practical answer.”

    I think there is no short-term solution. The poor man’s condition has been made worse in the long run by the continued reliance on cheap shoes. Maybe he bought cheap shoes in the beginning to save money, but now he buys cheap shoes because that’s all the economy will allow him to afford (which is in turn a consequence of his earlier actions.) There is a price to pay in order to break the cycle.

    This is true of all the problems highlighted in the book and the OP.

  78. Our economy is ailing, the people are unhappy, villagers hungry, and all we make is crappy cars and plastic goods that pollute our forests.

    WHERE IS CAP’N SPROUT?!?!?!!!!?????!!!!

  79. Bollocks, I say.

    The whole premise is faulty.

    “She went to a shoe “mini-outlet” to buy a pair of boots for a New Year’s party, and asked for “something special.”

    Now, I’m trying not to read too much into it, perhaps the party was just the trigger/catalyst for a purchase long planned, but why in heaven’s name was her lesson learned “I shouldn’t buy too cheap” (which is debatable) and not “Do I really have to get another pair of footwear because of a party”?

  80. Takuan, not to be argumentative, but the point is not so much that shoe or small-appliance repair has utterly vanished as that such services are often unavailable locally in smaller markets. I will have to package and send away my Sony SW-1 to have the capacitor replaced–I found the repair guy on the internet. But I cannot find anyone who will replace the rechargeable batteries in my Braun shaver (the design of which requires that a key part must be broken and replaced to access the interior). Likewise, a decade ago I could have the Wittnauer cleaned and timed locally, but the old watchmaker retired and no one took over his business. (Forget the jewelry-store repair facilities–this watch is older than I am, and in my experience, these outfits mainly replace 377 button batteries.) Ditto the 75-miles-distant hatter who could have rehabbed my fine German snap-brim.

    I realize that these changes are the result of economic realities–not enough business, (often artificially high) cost of parts, unwillingness of customers to pay even reasonable labor costs–along with quasi-marketing forces, such as items not being designed for repair or maintenance. I live with it, but I don’t have to like it.

  81. Where did Shell buy her rose-colored glasses? Lately I’ve been shopping around for a good, cheap pair.

    The past sucked. There were no inexpensive hand-built shoes, there was the expensive kind and the cardboard kind. There was no cheap, hand-tailored clothing – so you had to care for what you had or go bare. The proprietors of Main Street weren’t friendly wholesome folk, they were venal bigots you dealt with because that was the only choice you had. People didn’t eat (organic!) porridge and potatoes all day because they wanted to, but because that was all they could afford.

    Most of us still have relatives who lived through the Great Depression, who understand exactly what “doing without” implies. Sit them down and talk to them about this. Maybe they can help you understand that their life is not something you want to idealize.

    There’s a great deal of good to be said about the homemade, the durable, the locally-crafted and the unique. By all means, choose those options when and where they become available, if you can afford to. But don’t insult everything else because it isn’t. IKEA isn’t evil – they make cheap furniture, and don’t try to upsell you on it. Wal-Mart isn’t evil – they bring a wider variety of goods at cheaper prices than your grandparents would have imagined. McDonald’s isn’t evil – they provide *good* food to people who otherwise could hardly afford to eat out at all.

    It seems to me Shell’s real beef is that she thinks she’s too good for all the cheap stuff, but can’t afford true luxury goods.

  82. @50 “On the other hand, sane people are boring.”

    Well, having met some insane people and the “temporary insane” (a.k.a. drunks and the like) I have to disagree.

    There’s nothing more boring than someone one should be able to communicate with, but who acts like an Eliza emulation with a fixation on religion and conspiracy theories.

  83. OdeJoy, @28, you’ve left quality and durability out of your formulation. Those are major issues in both the original entry and the thread that follows. Your answer is no answer. (And by the way, if you think “book royalties and signing bonuses” automatically mean the author is rich, you don’t know squat.)

    Ms. Shell is talking about a real phenomenon. I noticed it the first time I spent my own money to buy a winter coat. Every clothing store at my local mall — we lived in a non-affluent tract-home suburb — was selling the same style of cheap, flashy coat, priced around $35. They were all made of synthetic fabrics that wouldn’t wear well, and were decorated with fake fur, single-layer machine embroidery, and big shiny pot-metal buckles. There were no plain solid coats. I came home empty-handed.

    Later, in a much more upscale department store, I found the plain dark wool coat I’d been looking for. It was on sale for $50. It was warm, durable, looked good, and never went out of style. I wore it for years.

    I defy you to call that elitism. I called it not letting myself get shunted into buying crappy goods that wouldn’t last. The real elitism was a retail system that gave me a half-dozen stores to choose from, then stocked the same cheap trash in every one of them. That wasn’t a choice. I didn’t want that stuff. The prices may have been lower, but the value per dollar was lower still.

    I’ve seen this pattern again and again. People looking for basic goods get sold trash. (Sometimes they get treated like it, too.) This is no favor to those of modest means. Their money’s as real as anyone else’s. Why shouldn’t they get real goods in exchange for it? Meanwhile, why are so many ill-paid overseas workers busting their butts to make crappy merchandise? Good plain materials and designs don’t cost all that much more than the stuff they’re using.

    (Maybe retailers think we’ll only buy new stuff if the stuff they’ve already sold us is unsatisfactory?)

    I’ve found you some examples. For clarity, I’ve limited them to a single subject: furniture that starts falling apart as soon as you get it home. As I noted earlier, the prices may be low(ish), but the value per dollar is abysmal.

    Bob’s Discount Furniture: one, two, three.
    Value City Furniture: one, two, three, four.
    Ashley Furniture: one, two, three, four, five, six.

  84. @95- Point taken, but let’s not look at the present with rose-colored glasses, either. The riding principles that existed then -and now- haven’t changed. Treat people with respect, with love, and compassion- basically, treat them the way you want to be treated (so said some Jewish guy.) Do what’s best for you AND the world around you, not one or the other only. Etc. Applying those principles to the past and present, you can easily figure out that:

    -some neighborhood shop owners were honest, hard working folk
    -some neighborhood shop owners were bigoted assholes
    -some people who work at Wal Mart are decent folk
    -Wal-Mart, as an entity (since that’s what corporations are, legally) is really fucked up, as is McDonald’s. There’s no 2 ways about it- they methods WalMart employs in bringing cheap prices to all are unhealthy, unsustainable, and are hurting, not helping, anyone, including the customers who are all too eager to shop there. Same with McDonald’s- they’re bringing seemingly-cheap food for short-term benefit (I feel full now) and long-term loss (I feel sick, I am obese, these cows are miserable, our planet’s getting hotter, our health care system is buckling under weight, our kids are full of toxins, the amazon’s trees are disappearing…)

    Let’s call an evil spade an evil spade when we see it, eh?

  85. Definitely a topic worthy of discussion, but there does seem to be a bit of the “Things Used To Be Better” sentiment, which always puts up flags.

    Not everything was better, but a lot of things were DESIGNED better and if you went up the price ladder a bit you did usually get better value for the money.

    I am in the process of buying a 40 year old Mercedes right now, the car was driven, doors have been opened etc. I already did a short test drive in the city and nothing rattled, the door closed reassuringly.

    Contrast that with a two year old Hyundai a friend of mine bought, after less than 30K the car already makes some noises on the highway, it feels cheap (plastic wise) and overall the build quality is far inferior to what Mercedes was able to crank out 40 years ago.

    The difference back then was that people did do with “less stuff”, they looked at things they could repair themselves (another example this 1500kg Mercedes uses 11l/100k (~30MPGs) in Highway driving and around 9l/100K (~28MPG) in city driving. Most cars of that size today aren’t doing much better if not outright worse.

    Reading an article on “classic Mercedes” yesterday the author has a good summary (paraphrasing here):

    “The cars are an example of a time where luxury didn’t mean to get your ass heated and massaged while driving down the highway, but rather that you got the best engineering and build quality possible to make the driving enjoyable.”

    We’ve traded gimmicks (in a lot of places) for quality.

  86. it’s a direction Russell, certainly worth exploring even if we know it ultimately doesn’t end in Nirvana.

    McDonalds is evil though, unutterably, darkly evil.

  87. It seems like she’s painting with a pretty broad brush here. There’s a conspicuous/excessive consumption issue that seems solvable with basic common sense. If she has a closet full of clothes that she purchased because they were “bargains” but doesn’t wear, then yeah, I’d say stop doing that.

    From an environmental perspective, one of the most difficult problems with “cheap” goods is the built-in obsolescence of electronics, especially things like cell phones and computers that many people replace every few years whether they’re still functioning or not. I know this is a big problem for people in waste management, since they contain toxic substances like lead and mercury, most people are too lazy/ignorant to recycle them and the volume of these things is just increasing.

  88. Personally, I reject the premise that you should buy expensive or mid ranged junk. There are a lot of products where I REALLY don’t care. Shampoo is a great example. I get the cheapest bargain bin store brand crap I can possibly get. Why? Because I don’t care. I’ll happily buy the cheap made in China dinner plates over the hand crafted dinner plates because hand crafted dinner plates bring me no happiness. The difference between the highest quality and the lowest quality in terms of my personal happiness is zero, so I save myself a few bucks and buy the cheapest junk I can find.

    Most of the cheap junk I buy falls into that category. The difference between the low end and the high end is basically zero in terms of my happiness, and so I opt for the cheapest option. I have a feeling this is how most people operate. If anything, you could see this movement towards the cheapest option as a REJECTION of consumerism. It shows a recognition that whatever object you are about to buy is unlikely to make much of a difference in your overall happiness, so you just opt for the cheapest.

    Sure, it sucks if you are a cobbler to find out that I am perfectly happy to buy a $20 pair of shoes that I abuse without a second thought and then throw out every year rather than a nice $200 pair of shoes, but for the consumer doing the buying, it is liberating. It lets you quickly and cheaply take care of your basic needs while letting you spend time and money on things that are likely to actually make you happy.

    For the few things that I actually do care about, I do indeed actually sit down and spend my valuable resources of time and money finding the right product and then plunking down the money to get it. My new MP3 player for instance is a great example. I looked at its reliability, features, etc, because I will use it a lot, abuse the hell out of it, and a good MP3 player will make me happier than a crappy MP3 player. On the other hand, I just tossed a pair of $20 shoes after having owned them for a year and replaced them with another pair of $20 shoes because I could not possibly care less so long as my shoes don’t make my boss think I am a vagrant. Could I find a $100 or $200 pair of shoes that will last me a decade? Sure. Do I want to spend the amount of time it would take to research them, waste my time shopping, and then have to worry because they got some paint splattered on them? Hell-fucking-no.

    Cheap mass produced crap might suck for craftsman, but for consumers who have to buy something with zero impact on their happiness, it is liberating both in terms of time and money.

  89. how about cheap, mass produced crap that either poisons you or doesn’t work from the moment is paid for?

  90. @#102- The only problem with that is that you’re not seeing the full cost and effect of your consumer apathy. I agree with your anti-attachment stance- people get really attached to their STUFF, and that’s not healthy- but unfortunately, buying cheap junk from china isn’t just “not caring about the junk” it’s also “not caring about the precious balance and connectedness between all animals, plants, and minerals.” It’s not caring about the ridiculous amounts of resources that went into your 99-cent plates; the miserable conditions the people that made your plate live in; all the gasoline wasted in shipping your plates over here, etc.

    If you really don’t care about what plate you eat on, then buy it at a thrift store, take if from a friend who doesn’t want his plates anymore, trade for it on craigslist, or something else equally as wasteless and resourceful. But that’s a separate argument from pointing out that all of our cheap junk is actually hurting us, which is completely true.

  91. This does not ring true to me. As a bunch of people have already pointed out, cheap does not equal shoddy, and good quality is not necessarily expensive.

    I’m continually amused that my Target clothes last longer than the more expensive stuff I’ve bought at New York & Company. My Sansa MP3 player has more features than an iPod Shuffle. And if you had me choose between a Ford Focus and a Chrysler 300 (even before the bailouts)… I’d take the Focus.

    You always pay for designer names. It works way better to examine the details yourself – maybe even to learn about the product you’re considering.

    But more than that, we just plain need to quit buying more stuff. Period. We don’t NEED twenty million pairs of shoes, or brand new cars every five years, and we really don’t need to eat out every day. We’ll save a lot more just by enjoying what we have and doing without all the trendy knick-knacks that take up space.

    Buy quality – absolutely. But don’t get suckered into paying more for a label, and don’t buy at all if you don’t have to.

  92. #102 RINDAN: thank you for your right on response. Sometimes all we need or want or can afford are the cheap, disposable items. But for those things we value, we spend the time and budgeted money for something of longer-lasting value, and sometimes have to wait to get something of value.

    #105: Oh, like I have time to post something on craigslist to buy or give away or sell my plates I need or don’t want? I have friends to trade with? My friends live across town, across the US.

    I don’t live in the same world as you. I live around the corner from a little 99 cent store, and believe me, that little store does a lot of good for a lot of people on limited income and time. I only wish it were like the two on Wilshire and Fairfax, or near Costco on Washington, Culver City, cos man, do they supply a ton of great stuff which I do use and need, at prices I can afford!

    I too care about the planet, but I’m doing the best I can. I love the glasses, plates, napkins, batteries, etc I get there, cos otherwise, what would I use? Don’t tell me to buy my batteries elsewhere, the ones I pay many times more run out just as fast as those from 99 cent store.

    Online, new products, used products, thrift stores, used furniture, yard sales, chain stores, indie stores: let’s buy ONLY what we need – not just want, recycle, RESEARCH, buy things which were made to last WHEN we need them to last, cheap things we don’t expect or need them to last.

    We see the world through our eyes. If and when we look through other’s eyes, we could learn a lot about saving money, and doing more with less. I love a bumper sticker on my car:

    “Consume Less
    Share More”

    It’s hysterically hypocritical the author bemoans the fact she wants quality shoes/boots for a party (who needs NEW shoes to go to a party?) and goes to a DISCOUNT store and complains? It’s like wanting a cheap, but low fat burger at a vegan joint. Or do I really expect a quality salad at McDonald’s??

    I think the bigger issues are these four:

    1 — We are forced to discard items, whether it’s electronic or a shovel, in favor of buying something new, because the items are built to be cheaper to replace than repair. That is HORRIBLE for our planet. Why should a shovel handle cost more than the shovel? Why should an electronic appliance, with its poisonous heavy metals and forever lasting plastic, be discarded for lack of a battery or small part?

    2 –Lack of choice! We find so many of the IDENTICAL objects, no matter where we go. A few years ago I lost 65 pounds. I was astounded that no matter which vendor, I was given the same choice for new white undies. Whether Hanes or Fruit of the Loom or whatever, they were all made from the similar patterns, just a different label slapped on them at Target. Online and stores, high priced or discount, I find the SAME cut for the little yoga or summer camisole tops. Different colors, same patterns. We are NOT all shaped the same.

    3 — LACK OF INFO ON THE PACKAGING. Sometimes it’s easier or cheaper to discard something than repackage, ship back or take back to the store. I love large tshirts, and still have wide hips. I wear men’s tshirts. My rock photos are on some tshirts. I constantly ask: are these long and narrow or short and wide, when I ask for my promised sample tees to wear or buy.

    I had to ask and get special permission to try on men’s tshirts at Ross Dress for Less, so I wouldn’t come home and find they didn’t fit. I can buy a package of men’s tees much cheaper than any woman’s tee shirts. That’s called saving money, ok? WHY can’t packages show accurate photos, drawings, descriptions?

    4 – Quantity packaging: Do I really need 100 Tylenol? I’m going to discard about 95 of them. Recently I had a really high fever. I got a few aspirin from my landlady, and when I could walk to Trader Joe’s, I bought the smallest bottle they had. I think Costco sells them in bottles of 500. Do you know how much of that goes down the drain and poisons the earth and each other? Who consumes 500 pills of anything before they expire, IF they are single and reasonably healthy??

    The response about the cheapest shampoo: kiddo, you need to read the ingredients. Nothing like putting crap into our mouth re toothpaste, shampoo/conditioner/soap/lotions on the outside. But that includes the higher priced stuff at the health food, drug and department stores. It’s healthier to ROTATE those brands and ingredients. And a little goes a long way, when you buy products with healthier ingredients. Could save money down the line, re health issues. I can find healthy personal items at Trader Joe’s. It’s just the fever reducers. How about a bottle for us single folks (yes, I know, the packaging costs more than the ingredients).

    Moving on . . .
    I bought the MOST AMAZING athletic/walking shoes at Ross Dress for Less (New Balance and K-Swiss). I also bought Vans some which didn’t quite fit right, but were cheap. I recently discarded them.

    Lesson learned: You CAN find great things at discount stores, just be sure they fit right!

    It took me a few years before I could afford a refurbished iPod. It will last me a long time. People can laugh all they want at my Birkenstocks, but they last forever and I’ve long used Shoe Goo for the soles.

    Last spring, I walked two miles into a great sale at Adventure 16, wherein I got two pairs of DURABLE, WELL CONSTRUCTED repairable Keen sandals for the price of one (about $100 total). They are made of recycled materials.

    Most of all, they give my feet the best support in my life! I don’t think they are very stylish, so I’m surprised at the many compliments I get all the time.

    BUT I had to put them on LAY AWAY, cos I didn’t have all the money for a few weeks. Last time I bought sandals was my first trip to NY, Spring 2007. NO local Birkenstock dealer would help me get them. I researched online til one store helped me. My sandals were sent from Germany to Kansas retailer to me in Santa Monica. That’s right, living in eco green Santa Monica, with Birkenstocks on the shelves of these small, not chain stores, I couldn’t find anyone to help me or order the model I wanted. So much for the small, indie stores and “helpful” employees.

    (PS my publisher sent me to NY, and I agree about book signings/royalties. I’m betting this author will make more than I did, but it takes time, promo and being provocative to make money from books.)

    I HATE the fact that most electronics MUST be thrown out rather than repaired, there are NO local places I can easily take them to, and I am FORCED to throw them into my trash.

    I wish the Salvation Army and recycling places would PICK up my goods, but maybe due to the cost of transportation, they tell me to bring things in. I have car repair issues (someone stole a lot of money from me a few years ago), bad credit, so I walk or take buses. And have to dump things because it’s impossible to fix them.

    Target and Walmart: for a long time, the only clothes I could afford were from those stores. But Target has gotten too expensive for me.

    The first time I was at Wal-Mart, I was teaching Y2K upgrades for CompUSA. They flew me to a southern state, and I found $15 dresses which fit me! I had $90 in the bank, called my then huz, who was teaching elsewhere in that state, told him not to spend a penny, and bought a handful.

    I wore and wore those dresses, teaching and other things. Broke my heart to discard them when I lost 65 pounds. But until then, I lived in them. I couldn’t find ANY dresses to fit me, with lovely little flowers, soft pastels, pockets in front, never needed ironing. I wore them teaching and socializing.

    Oh, I taught at colleges and training centers, all kinds of software. As much as I worked, I could NOT AFFORD anything better than Target in those days or the rare times I was near a Wal-Mart. I HAD to BUY computers and software, so I could learn more than I needed to teach!

    About 15 years ago I went to IKEA. I spent HOURS looking at the catalog, then checked out the merch in the store. They delivered the furniture in boxes and bags, which I realized was shoddy, with terrible instructions, and told them to pick everything up and take it back.

    I MADE furniture from scratch in college. I grew up FIXING things, sewing my own clothes, making my own jewelry, growing veggies. I’m a Do It Yourself gal for half a century. I know shit when I see it.

    I decided to look for used furniture. On my way to a place up Western in LA, I passed Wertz Bros. I walked in and fell in love. I also checked out their West LA store.

    For the same OR LESS than IKEA, I bought SOLID WOOD (real mahogany for one piece), with fingerlap joints. NOT stapled, and with real brass drawer handles. Furniture made from the 1930’s to the 50’s. I loved the deco, but settled for 1950s, cos I found some great matched pieces. Delivery was $25 to Culver City.

    Everything is a matter of perspective.

  93. There’s a *huge* difference between “inexpensive” and “cheap”.

    This leads to…

    Heiden’s Law:
    When you want it bad,
    you get it bad,
    and most people want it
    in the worst way.

  94. My Birkenstock story:
    I bought a pair of Birkenstocks 6 years ago for $120. I’ve had them resoled twice for $20 and $35, and they are now falling apart to the point of unwearability. Birkenstocks are supposed to be incredibly durable and environmentally responsible, but this pair lasted maybe twice as long as a pair of $25 Wal*mart shoes. I paid an extra $125 for a ‘feel-good’ factor, and I’m not sure it was worth it.

  95. My experience is that cheaper shoes actually last longer than expensive shoes.
    I had a pair of Rebok pumps as a youngster. 100 dollars shoes. lasted only 2 damn months! Every cheaper shoe I’ve bought since then has lasted longer. Screw high priced shoes! Price doesn’t equality quality all the time.

    I buy according to fit so if the 40 dollar shoe fits better than the 30 dollar shoe, I’m buying the 40 dollar shoe.

  96. @64, sorry if it’s been said, but you’ve got it the wrong way around.

    if a cheap item lasts just as long as a luxury item, the *luxury* item is generally of shoddy quality with a high price. it’s rare that you find a cheap item of high quality.

    i do find though, that since there are so many small issues like this in the economy and the general societal setup, that it would take a complete overhaul of absolutely everything in order to put things right.

  97. @107 i specifically want to address your comments on packaging.

    i, personally, buy advil and such in packs of 32/bottle. not 100/200/500/whatever. it is very much possible to find meds in smaller packs. as well, they *expire* longer than a year and a half from when i bought them. as a healthy, reasonable adult, i’m sure i will have enough headaches, or colds or whatever to use such a small amount in such a large space of time. and that’s not speaking for the mom with three or four kids, and they all share a bottle of 50/100 for a year and a half.

  98. This is ridiculous.

    The only difference between expensive and cheap items is marketing.

    Yes, all that advertisement that makes you believe that what you are buying is better than the stuff in the cheap shop.

    In Mexico City there are big companies making clothes for big name brands (one very famous blue jeans brand sources a lot of its stuff from there).

    Very often part of the production is branded with a level of an expensive brand, and the rest of the lot is sold to black market whole sellers in the “back door” so to speak, unlabelled, these items show up on street stalls being sold very cheaply.

    Big discount stores go through a similar procedure: they buy the lots of the known brand, put their own label, no label at all or a label that nobody will check, but it is exactly the same item as before.

    So, what are these cheap items that are destroying civilized life?

    Food? Well, what is the solution then for a family in low wages. Is the author seriously suggesting that they should buy expensive food?

    Clothes? (read above)

    Furniture? (Ditto).

    I frankly don’t know in which planet some middle class people actually dwell. Books like this are most likely patronizing drivel that offer no solutions to the people that actually find cheap shopping a god’s send.

  99. #107 posted by jennylens,

    Sorry, but if you can’t follow instructions it is not IKEA’s fault. Millions of people everywhere in the world don’t seem to have this problem, so most likely it is your issue, not IKEA’s.

    I have put together many pieces of furniture from IKEA and companies following a similar concept, and never had problems with the instructions (you claim to be a real DIY person, so how it comes you can’t figure out the function of all the pieces of a piece of furniture? It is not rocket science…).

    Many people are extoling the virtues of older, hand crafted furniture. Yeah, right. Furniture that most likely was made from wood that was not sourced sustainably, since people didn’t concern with such matters.

    I for example have a wonderful piano that I inherited, I real beauty, the keys made with ivory, and you know how that ivory was normally sourced. This nonsense about craftsmen back then (when?) where more ethical in some way is frankly utter nonsense.

  100. @117 While I agree that a lot the brand stuff is overpriced due to marketing, the fact that brand and brand x stuff sometimes come from the same factory doesn’t really imply the same quality.

    There are lots of variable factors, one of them raw material. The same jeans cut by the same machine will be quite different when different denim is being used. Ice creams depends on both the raw materials and how it is treated. Chocolate too – and conching simply takes time, which is money.

  101. Seriously, do you guys have a different kind of IKEA in the United States?

    While I’ve grown very of the IKEA stlye, I’ve still got stuff that’s 20 years, sometimes older, and which holds together after 3 moves. My parents outfitted to entire house (to be rented during tourists seasons) and AFAIK nothing really broke down in ten years of heavy use. (Lots of tourists with kids and renters usually aren’t very careful with things).

  102. I’ve got loads of Ikea 10 year old stuff too. It might be cheap and mass produced, but it is pretty good quality, considering it costs about 1/10th the price of furniture from a traditional furniture store.

    I built my last computer on the cheap 2 years ago. It’s performing way better than my 1 year old expensive Dell that I use for work.

    I don’t know where this author has been living, but over the last 20 years there has been a hige improvement in the quality of cheap goods. This is probably because Chinese/Indian manufacturing tech is are way better than it used to be.

    Some cheap goods follow Vime’s Boots theory, others don’t.

  103. More fuel for the Vimes Theory of Boots:
    I’ve bought a pair of Prada boots during a sale in 2000 or 2001. I can’t remember exactly how much I paid, let’s say 250 Dollar. They are extremely comfortable, the leather is amazing, they are still pretty and I still wear them, and I wear my boots a lot.
    Really, a lot.
    During the same time, a friend has bought eight or ten pairs of boots, occasionally with blisters and even bleeding feet, each pair fell apart after a season of wear or sooner.
    Ironically, my friend earns a lot more than I do, and likes following trends a lot more than I do. I have to think about every penny I spend and I don’t want to waste my money for stuff that is poorly made and will fall apart. It’s also the age old thing of “Fashion vs. Style”. “fashions fade, style is eternal” (Coco Chanel) and that is exactly how long I expect my boots to last.

  104. It’s funny, but I’ve only seen one or two comments here that think laterally about this at all. A few of the early commentors above me had it right: it’s not about cheap vs. shoddy, it’s about good businesses and good products vs. bad ones. Someone mentioned refusing to buy Chinese-made goods. That’s a start. Personally I *refuse* to buy anything at Wal-Mart, specifically, *Ever*. I’ll spend the extra nickel, ok, per product, to not have to deal with rude people or to support a monstrosity that gets sued constantly (and rightfully).

    It’s called not supporting the Worst Offenders. You pick your fights and decide to not support businesses or goods that are the worst, most flagrant ripoffs or the worst/most hateful towards paying customers (like the music business–I haven’t bought or downloaded a *single tune* in decades, because the RIAA won’t get one red cent of my money).

    It’s not snobbish–it’s the same idea people have when they tell you to *Not* buy from email spammers who are as likely to rip you off as not. Don’t give the Worst Offenders your money, and watch them go out of business…which sends a message to the survivors to stay honest and keep their noses clean.

    Sorry to go on so, but that’s just what I do.

    Bradley P.

  105. My mother one day brought up the argument that whenever she would go to the store to buy clothes she would sometimes by a pattern and cloth and make it cheaper than she could buy the actual garment. Last month she was complaining that now it cost more to buy the pattern (if she could find it now) and cloth than it is to actually buy the garment already made.

  106. A couple of tips for folks-

    SHAMPOO – you want the highest quality, cheapest shampoo possible? Combine 1 part baking soda to 1 part water. Shake vigorously. Rub on head.

    The first time I tried it I thought it was a ridiculous notion. As soon as I rinsed off my head, my hair felt cleaner and smoother than it ever had with any kind of shampoo. I swear to you, this is one of those life-changing little moments, when you realize cheap baking soda is better than all the “natural” shit companies mix together. There is no reason not to do this- it’s healthier, cheaper, better for the planet, blah blah blah. I only have to wash my hair every 3 days now- it doesn’t get oily or greasy before that. Crazy!

    For conditioner, you can mix 1 part apple vinegar to 3 parts water, and then add whatever you want for fragrance if you don’t like the vinegar smell (let it sit a week or two.) I used rosemary and dill and it worked great.

    I ‘aint bullshittin’!

    As for clothes, the truth is sometimes expensive clothes are the same as the cheap ones, and some times they’re much better. Anyone who works in the fashion industry knows which labels are truly quality labels and which ones are pure designer hype- but most of us average folk aren’t privy to such knowledge.

  107. #107:

    Who consumes 500 pills of anything before they expire, IF they are single and reasonably healthy??

    People who AREN’T healthy, perchance? There’s a LOT of us, and more and more as the baby boomers sprout grey hairs. People with arthritis. People with tendinitis. People with carpal tunnel. People who fucked up a knee playing football in highschool or who broke their arm in two places jumping off the garage when they were eight or who have a bit of shrapnel or a bullet still lodged in their body. People with various chronic inflammatory diseases or other sources of chronic pain, regular headaches, etc etc. People recovering from a car accident with an injured back or neck.

    You buy a package of 500 tylenol because you’re taking 4-5 a day, every day, and you did the math and realized you’re saving five bucks every three and a half months. And because you’re tired of going to the pharmacy every two weeks.

    The better question: Who buys the bulk package of Tylenol if they ARE healthy?

    If you’re one of those lucky people who doesn’t need it often, go ahead and buy the little travel package and immediately give half to your landlady who loaned you some pills. Or to the guy/gal in the apartment next to you or downstairs – he or she doesn’t have to be a friend, just someone who could use them before they expire.

  108. This brings up yet another point in this whole “spending our money wisely” debate- that Americans have forgotten how to share. There are very few spots in this country where people really understand the meaning of “community” – where people work together and share because it just makes sense. We’re so into our concepts of “free to pursue my happiness” and individuality that this is how we pay the price- every one has to own everything and buy lots of it due to lack of choice. We have libraries, but few people use them. We should have libraries for everything- shovels, tools, whathaveyou. No one needs a hammer ALL the time, so why not buy a few hammers for the neighborhood? Day care is expensive- why not take turns volunteering to take care of everyone’s kids? Imagine how great it would be to not have to pay for child care, and have days where you can relax and get shit done because your kids are being taken care of by someone you know down the street? And then when it’s your turn, you bite the bullet, but it’s only for a day.

    Sharing, trusting each other, working together- this would alleviate so many stupid issues we have to deal with, but most of us don’t want it, that’s the truth. We want our lives our way.

    I think that’s slowly changing, though…

  109. I’m surprised no one has mentioned buying items second hand. Except for electronics, everything I own from books to furniture is second hand. Instead of impulse buying large items I wait for them to be donated to one of the thrift stores in my area. Just last week I got a like-new jute area rug for $6. The price on the Pier One tag? $60.

    Shopping second hand allows me to buy quality items cheaply and saves the items from a landfill. Much of what I end up paying goes toward creating local retail jobs and to charity projects.

  110. I’m surprised no one has mentioned buying items second hand. Except for electronics, everything I own from books to furniture is second hand. Just last week I got a like-new jute area rug for $6. The price on the Pier One tag? $60.

    Shopping second hand allows me to buy quality items cheaply and saves the items from a landfill. Much of what I end up paying goes toward creating local retail jobs and to charity projects.

    My husband and I live primarily on his income (I work off and on) of 50,000/year before taxes. You really don’t have to be rich to have quality things.

    (Oops, this will be double posted since I first tried doing it anonymously. Sorry about that).

  111. @ Nanimo:

    Except for electronics, everything I own from books to furniture is second hand.

    Even toothbrushes and underpants? Ewww!

  112. @Teresa Nielsen Hayden, quality and durability are luxuries for the well-off. Perhaps a Chesterfield would be more durable and reek of quality when compared to a Bob’s sofa… but that in itself does not negate the idea of affordability.

    For people living paycheck-to-paycheck, the low-quality, less-durable items mean access to a quality-of-life (however they define it) that would be forever inaccessible were it not for the Walmarts and Bobs of the world…

    Just because you were lucky to find a $50 coat that lasted for 50 years does not mean someone who can afford to spend only $25 “today”, should go without a coat, any coat, even an el-cheapo faux-furball of an excuse.

    Of course, YOU don’t have to buy it, but don’t say that no one else should be able to buy it. That is being ELITIST in the worst sense of the word!

    The only life I live, is the life I live today. Sustainable development is all fine and dandy for a future that I may have to live through. But today is the day that winter bites through my old bones and that cheap coat is all I can afford.

    Oh and as for royalties and bonus checks… anyone who gets those is way richer than someone barely making minimum wage… if not, then they have to be a really lousy writer or very unlucky or both.

    It is all relative, you see. One man’s poorhouse is another’s Hyatt!

  113. This also ignores how branding has become an end in itself instead of a proxy for quality – even if you have money you can end up buying a nylon piece of crap with a Prada badge on it and think you are getting quality.

    So even the luxury market is corrupted with the presence of fakers – artificial supply, poor price signalling, made-up exclusivity.

  114. @137 Ah, but the whole point of many luxury items is mating display – people who can afford to purchase such items show how good they’d be as a provider (even if they don’t want procreate). Buying the cheaper, make-believe stuff, is just a form of mimikry.

  115. I just LOVE the fact that so many people that answered just proved your point to the max! They totally just DO NOT get it and what you are discussing is something they will never understand… that much is clear! OMG! So very clear with the mostly ignorant comments on here.
    I’m with you all the way on this article. I just recently bought some stuff from Copenhagen Furniture in Colorado and they are high end, expensive, but the real deal. I will ALWAYS spend my money with them before anyone else gets it. It may take me a little longer, but in the long run, I end up with something that is much cheaper over the long haul. I think the comments you are getting are from the people that would rather put duct tape on a window instead of fix it/replace it with something more efficient because it is “cheaper”… the “cheaper is best” crowd is NOT the focus of this article and I fail to see how any of them could even imagine that they are even the target of this article since they are so opposed to the very principles of a consumer based economy that provides the world with still the number one economy and the most freedom of anywhere in the world. If our economy is supplanted some day by another country… then I fully and completely blame those folks that commented on your article by saying they will just buy the cheapest hammer because it does the work cheaper. Cheapskakes and their whiny penny pinching ways are what weaken their opportunities and possibilities in this country… they just fail to see the complete picture and complete cycle and have blinders on to the real world. What fools. I wish they could stand line for toilet paper on red square and see what “cheaper” does for a society. I for one.. will always pay more for better quality and will continue to champion that we ALL should… just like your article says…. Keep up the good work and words!-Char

  116. I wish I made enough money (I’m a school teacher, after all) to buy all of the high-end stuff that lasts forever and ever, etc. However, unlike some people *cough* the author of this White Person (in the vein of Christian Lander’s work) book and the dolts who lap it up *cough*, I live in the real world and that means I have to have a real budget to spend money on real needs.

    So when I moved into my new place and needed an additional bookshelf, I didn’t agonize over the fact that there wasn’t an IKEA or an upscale furniture store for over 100 miles (the plight of living in Flyover Country). I just went to the local Big Box store and bought a $20 plastic shelving system. I know it may be a shock to some people, but that plastic shelf somehow manages to hold books just as well as something that costs five times as much. I still can’t figure out how that can be.

    Regarding the post regarding the purported logical conclusion to being cheap, I suggest you read up on economics and history. Muscovites didn’t stand in line for toilet paper because the Central Planning Committee was being cheap; it was because they had no hard currency to purchase either the products themselves, or the means to manufacture a true Western equivalent.

    But what do I know? I don’t live in an elitist utopia where I can affirm my self-esteem by purchasing items from the boutique at the upscale strip mall or salve my conscience by purchasing my organic groceries at that new organic market that getting all sorts of business after I found out Whole Foods is run by someone who has differing opinions than I have!

  117. ~~~♥•◘○♦♣♠☺☻ Well what i think is everyone wants to buy cheaper items even the most riches people on earth!(well maybe some ppl)when u buy a cheap item their not the best sometimes for example make-up u might get break outs what I mostly get scared of if u can get diseases from them. If it may be an expensive make-up they might have the good chemicals that u cant find most of the times so the might be healthier. Another example is clothes if u buy an expensive one and wash it it may still be good and new but i noticed is the cheaper ones get smaller and the cotton or fabric gets messed up. Now what i mean is i don’t always buy the expansive stuff i wait until their is a discount and buy it or look how much it coasted before and usually some brand names are pretty good and they last for ever (unless u grew)exp.Tommy Hilfiger my fav.
    well now a days ppl want to wear brand names if u dont they make front of u especially in schools and now that’s just plain dumb. So just try to get the good quality!~~~♥•◘○♦♣♠☺☻~~~~

  118. I’m disappointed that much of the commenting on this site is not in reference to the book.

    I read the book and unlike so many others on this topic it was NOT formulaic. It did not perpetuate classism, elitism, etc… as many people are implying. Most books on this topic are written by well-to-do people who are reprimanding people who are unable to afford more expensive products and blaming them for the ills of the world. Or there is the other preachy type of book where the author finds it cute and adventurous to write down their attempts at ‘slumming it retail style’ and giving the reader a point by point on very common sense things that the majority of the world does out of necesessity. This is neither of those and the author addresses her own economic biases in the very first part of the book.

    This book is VERY thoroughly researched and has an amazing scope. This is not the usual wal-mart=bad and (insert high priced luxury item or store) whole foods=good. The whole point of this book is that ‘cheapness’ is also defined in ways other than sales price.
    This is a GREAT BOOK and covers things from pricing theory, our food supply, to labor history, etc…
    Please read it before you decide you don’t agree with it’s message.

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