When to Buy Cheap Things vs When to Buy Expensive Things

When to Buy Cheap Things vs When to Buy Expensive Things

This is something I think about a lot. Sometimes buying something cheap means you’re spending less money, which overall is a good thing. You can’t buy “expensive” everything- with no limits, unless you’re Jay Z you’d eventually run out of money. Other times, investing in something expensive that you love and that lasts is actually a way to be spending less money in the long run.

“Cheap” and “expensive” are relative. My MacBook may have cost a lot of dollars (and before I got it I questioned the sanity of anyone who would spend so much money on a computer), but now that I have it, and appreciate it (the functionality, battery life, weight, integration with my phone, no endless Windows updates, etc), I wouldn’t say it’s expensive, I’d say it’s a bargain.

My backpack dilemma

I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’m thinking of replacing my backpack.  My old backpack is still alive. It has a couple holes in the lining between two of the pockets, but I can sew those shut.

I bought it 3 years ago for $25 or so on a whim in Chile- so it was really cheap. It’s a good size, really lightweight, has a hip strap, lots of pockets. But it’s not perfect. We’re about to leave to travel for a year, things are comfortable financially, and lately I’ve been having a lot of “you deserve it!” thoughts. I deserve the $150 Osprey backpack, right? I use my backpack a lot. A good backpack will last a long time. I can afford it if I want to. I deserve it.

…BUT. Why haven’t I bought the Osprey backpack yet? (1) I’m not sure that I’ll like it more than my current backpack (“it’s not as lightweight, will that interfere with Carryon limits, etc etc”) (2) It’s the type of item that never goes on sale, and it’s a bit pricey for what it is.

Things are good for us financially, but I still don’t have unlimited money. My old backpack is still fine, and I don’t like buying things unless I really need them, just for the sake of putting less shit out into the world. We won’t be carrying our bags as much this year, and I like how lightweight this bag is, and maybe I can just carry it until it really dies and replace it on the road.

After all those excuses…

Ok, as I’m writing this, after typing out all those excuses, I just went on Amazon and looked at the Osprey backpack I’ve been lusting after. And I’m thisclose to ordering it. Sigh.

During our year of travel, we didn’t buy much because we couldn’t fit much in our backpacks. And that falt really good. I walked away from SO MANY cute shoes and tops and dresses and sweaters… and in the end, it felt really good to have a year of quasi-monk-like non-consumption (if you don’t count the flights and the restaurants and the airbnbs and the 4 swimsuits I bought etc etc… sort-of-a-little-bit-monk-like).

Now for the past 9 months we’ve been in one place, knowing that at the end of the year we’ll leave with just our backpacks, so I’ve really held back on buying things. For winter clothes, I knew that we’d leave everything behind when we go, so I just bought a couple sweatshirts new and a couple sweaters at the thrift shop. I showed a lot of restraint!

But AFTER all that restraint…

A couple weeks ago, I went on Mango’s website and bought some clothes. Nothing crazy, just things I can bring with us to travel, just stuff I need, everything was on a crazy sale so it was the right time to buy them.

And then I bought some bras and underwear. Because it was a crazy sale and I really needed them (true story, I didn’t have any real bras left and I do love what I got).

And then I finally found the PERFECT shoes (I really need just one pair of versatile heels for a wedding + travel, these are perfect) and guess what? I bought those. And there was a t-shirt on sale too so I got that because I do need a t-shirt.

And NOW, when I think of buying a new backpack TOO I’m like, “woman, how much shit do you NEED?!?”

I really haven’t bought that much stuff compared to my “normal-ish” shopping habits back when I was un-homeless, especially if you average out the last year or two or three. But it feels like a lot, and making so many purchases in a row, I’m starting to wonder if it’s becoming a habit.


But I really would love to have a nice new backpack.

So what were we talking about?

Oh, right. When is it better to buy the cheap item vs the expensive item? Here is a roadmap:

  • Is the expensive item better than the cheap item? If no, buy the cheap one. If yes, keep reading
    • Does it matter to you, for the use you will make of the item, that the expensive item is better? If no (ie, you only need to use it once or you’ll need to give it away in a few months), then get the cheap one. If yes, keep reading
      • Do you actually need/really-really-want it? (We could spend all day defining need vs want, so this can be a tricky one. But sometimes it’s ok to buy something just because you enjoy it). If no, don’t buy anything. If yes, keep reading
        • Will you get enough use or enjoyment out of the item to justify its price? If no, consider getting the cheap one or not buying anything, unless that will cost more in the long run. If yes, buy it and be happy.

(If someone wants to turn that into a decision tree, that would be awesome. But I can just see myself fiddling with Paint for 90 minutes and making the World’s Ugliest Decision Tree. I have other stuff I should really start working on after this post!)

How do you define “expensive”? How do you define “better”?

Cheap vs expensive are very, very relative. It really depends on you and the situation. There are times when I’ve thought $2 was too much to pay for coffee (“why isn’t it free?!?”), and times when I happily paid $6. Depends how jetlagged you are 😛

There are also plenty of situations when you don’t know whether something “expensive” is better, or worth it, or when you don’t know how much better it is. You’ll never really know for sure how long your new pair of pricey socks or shoes will last until you buy a pair. I didn’t know how much I would love my MacBook until I took the leap and bought it.

I’ve bought plenty of shoes and clothes that I thought would be great quality or that I would enjoy a lot, in part because they were expensive; it turned out that some were and some weren’t. I’ve also bought some cheap things that have lasted way beyond my expectations (hello, $7 t-shirt that’s still going strong after 5 years!)

There’s no right answer to this, sometimes you just need to take the leap.

So what are you doing about the backpack?

Good question. Right now I’m thinking I’ll probably buy it. All those Amazon tabs are open and staring at me.

When I wrote above about how sometimes wanting something enough is a good reason to buy it, that really clicked. I don’t really need a new backpack right this second, but I am in a position where I might enjoy the new one a lot.

I do like my old backpack, and I’ll be sad to give it up (I’m not in a situation where I can keep both; once we hit the road I’ll need to leave one behind) but if the new one is wonderful I know I’ll appreciate it every time I use it, and I know I’ll use it a lot.

Off to Amazon…

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