Don’t Buy Cheap Items When You Can Buy Items For Life

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.

The Heirloom

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.

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  1. I gave my sister a Jansport bag as a birthday gift for her. What I like with that brand even if its expensive but it has a lifetime warranty. And by the way, thanks for the sub reddit, I immediately checked it out.

  2. Are you even going to want that backpack in 3 years, let alone 5? Pay the $20, save $80. Tools might be worth more, but most accessories probably not. Who even uses a backpack after a while? Fashion goes out of style, and a backpack will too.

    I have purchased items at Duluth Trading too. Solid company. Good products. I still buy Sam’s club jeans.

    • I think it totally depends on your lifestyle. I’ve carry a backpack all the time — usually because I like to take my laptop, books, and a notebook with me when I decide to spend a few hours at a coffee shop.

    • Clothing, especially jeans can be one of those BIFL items, too. Quality jeans will last ages. I just recently got rid of a pair that I had since High School, almost 15 years ago that I wore regularly. I got rid of them, not because the fabric was wearing out, but because they had an embroidered design that was finally looking ratty and snagging that I couldn’t fix anymore. I have wool skirts that I have owned for just as long and vintage ones in better condition than half the crap on the racks today. Same styles.

      It really is a lifestyle thing, though, as with anything. 90% of the internet doesn’t apply to me. If you don’t cook why buy cast iron cookware either? But it is good to have the information available for people who do. I don’t carry backpacks, but I recently washed a messenger bag for the first time we were using for my son’s diaper bag and it fell apart…the first wash! And it wasn’t $20, it was twice that. You can’t buy adult backpacks for $20, the cheapest at a place like Target is about $40.

      The thing with BIFL products is that their styles are timeless. You can buy a brand new rucksack today in the same style as you could 40 years ago. Backpacks have been used since ancient times for carry loads, so I doubt they are going anywhere. A cargo messenger bag? A black pencil skirt? A collared shirt? Black dress shoes… buy the basics that you can layer under your trend pieces for years to come. That is the mentality behind spending the extra money on things.

      The more discussions like this are had, the more people will start making better decisions about where to put their dollar and maybe more companies will listen and start making products with a little more substance to them instead of things that fall apart the first wash, but only when people stop buying them. Commerce is built around planned obsolescence anymore, but businesses listen when the money stops coming in and may change their ways or die out in favor of companies who do listen.

      Additionally, lots of BIFL products are created by small, independent companies with sustainable business practices. They create products they are proud to put their mark on and ones we can be proud passing down to our children instead of Sam’s Club jeans created by children in sweatshops.

  3. I know designer handbags get a bad rap in the personal finance community, but I have a few Coach bags that I’ve had for nearly 20 years. They withstand all kinds of handling plus the company will refurbish and clean the leather if you send it in to them. At about $200-$300 when I bought them, it averages out to $20-30 a year. The key is to buy classic instead of trendy. My husband always bought Craftsman tools from Sears because they lasted, but if they did break, he simply returned them to the store for a new free one.

    • Kathy, my wife recently bought a used Coach purse on eBay for about $50, but it arrived with some discolored leather. I wonder if they would refurbish it, despite not having the original receipt. Worth a shot!

    • We bought my mom a coach bag for her birthday this year because we knew it would last much longer than buying one from Target. We ended up getting a great deal on it, and as Kathy says, it comes with free cleaning and some simple repairs.

      • I think deals are one of the things that make these kinds of items so worth it. A sale on an already-cheap item doesn’t drop the price by much, but many buy-it-for-life items have much more room for steeper discounts, especially around end-of-season or special holidays. And if you can find those deals, you can often get a buy it for life item for much less than its retail price.

  4. I go back and forth on this. I’ve moved so many times in my life — often under far from ideal circumstances — that I’ve had to give away or throw away so many things that I had originally thought I was “buying for life.”

    There are small pieces, of course, that I’ve carried with me… but not many

    • I think if you’re the nomadic sort, you do have to sacrifice some of this in order to maintain your mobility. In that case, you can focus on high-quality portable items that are easy to take with you.

  5. Many times, I think people would purchase the expensive item, but the up front cost can be prohibitive. In your example, many people may simply not have $100 that they can put towards a backpack, even knowing full well that they’ll have to go back to the well in a couple of years with the $20 laptop. This is the issue I often don’t see addressed, that it’d be nice to buy many things that would be ‘lifetime’ items, but the funds needed to do are often not present.

    • That’s such a great point, and this time last year, my wife and I would have been focusing on the cheaper items, because that’s all we could afford. By working hard to increase our income (and developing some good saving habits), we’ve been able to bring many of these products into our realm of purchasing power.

  6. I bought a pair of Chacos for $100, which I’ve been wearing since High School. I love them and I definitely plan on keeping them for life. With their lifetime warranty, you can get new soles or straps whenever they wear out. But mine barely show any wear after over 7 years of use.

  7. Ridgid Power Tools are great for the long term. Lifetime Warranty that covers batteries as well as the tools. You have to register to get the Lifetime benefit, but I’ve already gotten 4 batteries at no charge. The retail cost of those 4 units is roughly what I paid for the drill combo package.

    While Sears may not be as solid as in years past, Craftsman tools are the gold standard of a lifetime warranty.

    Also a big fan of Columbia Sportswear. Replaced a coat free of charge because the zipper pull broke.

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