Today’s post is by Adam Kamerer. Read more about him after the post.
Is it frugal to buy a $100 backpack if a $20 backpack is available? Most people would probably say no. But what if that $100 backpack lasted for 30 years? What if the $20 backpack was lucky to survive three?
Today, I’m talking about “Buy It For Life” items. Don’t take that term as a literal — nothing lasts forever. But some products are so well-made or come with such great guarantees that you can reasonably expect to buy one of them and never need to buy another one. Others still need replacing, but only rarely — sometimes after a decade or more of use.
In Terry Pratchett’s book Men at Arms, the character Samuel Vimes has a particular view on topic:
Take boots, for example. [Vimes] earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.
What Is Buy-It-For-Life Quality?
A BIFL item is an item that is made with high-quality methods and materials to ensure that the product will last for a very long time, often longer than the average lifespan for a product of its type.
Until recently, I bought my jeans at Wal-mart for about $15 each. I wear jeans every day, so they get put through a lot of abuse. Within six months to a year, my Wal-mart jeans have usually started to fade, and two major failures start to show — the crotch wears thin and eventually tears, and I wear holes in the thin material of the pockets.
The last time I bought jeans, I bought a pair from Duluth Trading Co. that cost about $45. As soon as I opened the package, I could tell these jeans were much higher quality than my old Wal-mart jeans: the seams were triple stitched, the crotch came reinforced with extra fabric, and the pockets were made of a thick, durable material that I’d be hard-pressed to cut through with a knife.
To be worth it, my jeans from Duluth Trading Co. need to last three times longer than the cheap jeans I’ve been buying at Wal-mart, but I have no doubt that they will. And here’s the fun part — even if they don’t, I can return them for a free refund or replacement. Enter the lifetime guarantee.
The Lifetime Guarantee
Some companies, like L.L. Bean, Duluth Trading Co., Jansport, and Darn Tough Socks, offer a lifetime guarantee. If your product ever breaks, wears down, or fails, you can return it, and they’ll repair or replace it. It doesn’t matter if you bought the product 15 years ago — that’s where the term “lifetime” comes in. In many cases, you won’t even need proof of purchase.
Be sure to read these guarantees carefully. Many of them are pretty simple — if you’re ever dissatisfied, return the product — but some do have the occasional exclusion or caveat. In some cases, you may be required to pay shipping. Also beware of companies who claim a “lifetime” guarantee, but saddle that guarantee with so many exclusions and restrictions that it’s really just hype. What you want is the true lifetime guarantee — full refund, anytime, for any reason.
And of course, a lifetime guarantee is only as good as the company that offers it. A company like L.L. Bean that has been in business for over a hundred years isn’t likely to vanish overnight; a lifetime guarantee from a brand new startup that might not exist 5 years from now isn’t worth quite as much.
Some Items Will Never Be Buy It For Life
Some items, by their nature, will never be truly BIFL. Even the best made clothes will wear out if worn daily. Electronics are so sensitive that they will eventually succumb to wear and tear (and even if they don’t, they’ll become obsolete as technology progresses). Pillows and mattresses accumulate contaminants as part of their daily use and should be replaced regularly.
Anything will moving parts will eventually fail. That said, even among items that you can expect to replace, there are products that are built with quality and durability in mind.
How Can I Tell If A Product Is Buy It For Life?
Start by doing some research. Find out what materials and methods are the best quality for the type of product you want to buy. If you’re going to buy an electric beard trimmer, learn the difference between motor types: rotary, pivot, and magnetic. If you’re going to buy a leather backpack, learn the difference between full grain leather, top grain leather, genuine leather, and bonded leather.
Once you find a product that exhibits the materials and methods you want, check out the company. How long have they been in business? What’s their guarantee like? Read some reviews — not just about the product, but about the company and their customer service. When in doubt, ask around at /r/buyitforlife, a Reddit community focused on BIFL products.
Finally, do the math. An expensive high-quality item is only worth if it ends up being cheaper in the long run than buying several iterations of a cheaper item. Don’t forget to look for deals and sales!
Expensive Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Quality
Don’t assume something is high-quality or BIFL simply because it’s pricy. Expensive doesn’t say anything about a product except its price tag. There are hundreds of companies that produce expensive luxury goods that are shoddily made and only command high prices because they’ve been effectively marketed to people with too much money to spend. Do the research!
Quality Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Expensive!
While many BIFL products are more expensive than poorly-made counterparts, this isn’t always true — or if it is, it’s not true by as much as you’d expect. Take beard trimmers, for example.
A cheap off-brand electric trimmer can be found for about $25. With regular use, it might last a year or two. For $10 more, though, you can buy a trimmer by Wahl, a company that frequently makes products for professional barbers. My last Wahl trimmer lasted for 12 years before it developed a short. With a little technical know-how, I probably could have repaired it and it would have worked for another 5-6 at least, but I opted to replace it because I wanted a model with a cord instead of a battery.
Some items are so well made, they aren’t so much Buy-It-For-Life as Buy-It-For-Lifetimes. Your grandmother’s cast iron skillet. A Hudson Bay point blanket. Your grandfather’s straight razor. Believe it or not, some of these items are still produced and are still available today. Properly cared for, they’re the types of items you could actually pass down to your own children.
Old cast iron cookware and quality straight razors can actually sometimes be found at thrift stores. They may require some elbow grease to recondition, but with a little luck and some work, you can buy a lifetime product for as cheap as a few dollars.
Do you own anything that you think is a BIFL item? What is it? Tell us in the comments!
Adam Kamerer wants to help you find solutions for money-related anxiety and financial uncertainty. Read more at his blog, Stop Worrying About Money. You can also connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.