Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture


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