My morning commute consists of a 30km bicycle ride. This gives me time to plan my day, and to muse on anything that happens to be running through my brain. Today I was thinking about sunglasses, and quality.
You see, I have a pair of Rudy Project sunglasses for the bike. They’re awesome. They fit really well, and have interchangeable lenses so I can swap dark sunglass type lenses for yellow, high contrast lenses when riding in the dark. I’ve had them for 3 years, and unfortunately I’ve worn out the little pads on the nose piece. One of them has fallen off, and while I can continue to use them, I really need to replace the nose piece in order to have the right comfort and fit.
Ms. A suggested that I could just replace them with a $30 pair of cheap ones from an online discount gear merchant. I’d already tried that once (I wanted a backup pair of cheap emergency glasses), and they were awful, so I sent them back. I don’t want to trade down to something that’s not as good, just for the sake of saving a couple of dollars.
On my ride today (using my slightly sub-optimal Rudys), I was thinking about why that is. Is it really about the comfort, or was I just being a cycle snob? Are the cheaper sunnies really all that bad? I realised that it’s not just the lack of quality that bothers me, but the inconvenience. Here’s why:
I’ve spent about $300 on my Rudys (base model plus the yellow lenses). That’s not cheap, but it works out as $100 a year, so far. I need to replace the nose piece, so let’s say that costs $30 (I have no idea what it will actually cost). That means that I’m paying about 10% per year for maintenance of my sunglasses. Over 10 years, that’s the price of an entirely new pair. If I bought a new pair of $30 glasses every year, it would only cost me $300 for 10 years, not $600. So it would appear that buying cheaper sunnies is more cost effective.
This assumes that the cheaper sunnies work as well as the more expensive Rudys. Let’s ignore the effectiveness for the moment and concentrate on the longevity of the cheaper option. Often, the cheaper version of something isn’t built as well, so it won’t last. Because it’s cheap, you don’t feel so bad about just throwing it away and getting a new one. That’s quite wasteful, and there’s enough crap clogging up landfill as it is. Let’s also ignore that aspect, because it dawned on me this morning that there’s another issue here:
The Hidden Cost of Throwaway Purchases
Going and buying a replacement every year takes time. And time is money. My time is worth something, so if I have to spend time finding a replacement thing every year, that’s a cost that should be added to the price. To really get your economist on, there’s also the opportunity cost of spending your time finding a replacement thing when you could be doing something else. For me, shopping for a replacement for a broken thing isn’t much fun. There are lots of other activities I’d rather be doing.
And here’s the real kicker: the problem gets worse at scale. If you consistently go for the cheap, throwaway option, your life is probably filled with a bunch of cheap crap, and something is always broken and needs replacing. Worse, because things are less likely to break if you don’t use them, the things that break are the things you need. Now you’ve got a bunch of broken stuff you can’t use, but need to, so you have to buy replacements now. Now you’re replacing things under duress, so you’re less likely to make informed purchasing decisions and instead just get the first thing that is ‘close enough’, which may no longer be the cheap option. Sound familiar?
I see this kind of bad tradeoff being made in businesses all the time. If you’ve only got a limited budget, it’s very easy to make a short sighted decision to save money in the short term, yet that decision ends up costing a lot more in the medium to long term (and sometimes sooner!). It takes a superior decision maker to look at the longer term situation and more accurately forecast the real cost of a decision. And it takes a person with superior negotiating skills to justify the decision to spend more up front in order to make a longer term saving.
There are situations where a quick, cheap, throwaway solution is all that’s required; not everything needs to be gold plated. However, if it’s something that is either quite important, or happens a lot, the solution needs to be more robust, and is worth spending a little more on. Then, the stuff you really need will be working when you need it too. You won’t be spending all your time finding replacements for broken stuff, so for the things you do need to replace, you can take take a bit more time finding the right item at the right price.
So what are some of the things you’ve bought with an eye on short term savings, but that ultimately cost you a lot more?
Update: I’ve found a site online that sells replacement nose pieces for $16.90, plus $8.50 shipping, so my maintenance cost estimate was pretty close. I’ll let you know how the order goes.