Note: This is a substantial re-write of an article I first published more than twelve years ago. (Yikes, I'm old!) I've opted to keep some of the older comments if they had good suggestions.
Earlier this week, I wrote about my quest for quality pajamas. I recently paid $80 to purchase a pair from Filson, a company I trust for well-made goods. It's my hope that these will be the last pair of pajamas that I ever purchase. My goal was to "buy it for life".
This experience reminded me of two other companies that I love for their top-notch stuff.
- The first is a company called Best Made, which aims to make and sell "the finest, most beautiful and useful products made by any company anywhere". And they do. Best Made offers an esoteric collection of clothing and household items, all of which offer quality reminiscent of your grandmother's era. The catch? The quality comes at a higher cost.
- Or there's the Portland-based Schoolhouse company (formerly Schoolhouse Electric), which makes and sells a variety of lighting, hardware, and furniture for the home. I've purchased a few things from Schoolhouse over the years, and I've been blown away by the quality. The items were expensive up front and I was hesitant to purchase them, but my reservations have vanished with time and usage. The blanket covering my feet at this very moment, for example, cost $250 (I think) but will last the rest of my life.
Here's something I've learned over the past fifteen years: One way to practice financial prudence while living the good life is to buy quality products, products that are a pleasure to use, products that will last a lifetime (or at least a decade).
Today, let's talk a little about choosing quality over price. Let's talk about the "buy it for life" philosophy.
How to Find the Good Stuff
The first challenge is to figure out how to find the good stuff. When you're ready to make a purchase, how can you know which items are quality and which are run of the mill?
Sometimes you'll know which company offers a high-quality version of whatever it is you need to buy, either from personal experience or from paying attention to friends and family. Or, if you don't know off the top of your head, you know whom to ask for more information. If I wanted to buy audio gear, for instance, I'd ask my brother. He's an audiophile and could steer me in the right direction.
Most of the time, however, you'll have to do some research.
Yesterday, I spent $80 on a pair of pajama bottoms. (Or, as the company calls them, Alaskan guide lounge bottoms.)
On the one hand, this feels like an insane amount to spend on sleepwear. On the other hand, my last two pairs of pajamas -- both $20 specials from Costco -- have lasted no longer than a year because they've quickly fallen apart. They were cheap garments cheaply made.
Herein lies a question I frequently face: When does it make sense to pay more for quality?
I'm in Florida for ten days to attend a couple of weekend early retirement retreats. At Camp FI, about 50 or 60 people gather for three days of what Mr. Money Mustache calls "crazy rich people talk" -- real estate investing, travel hacking, gift card arbitrage, 70% saving rates, and the rewards of frugality and thrift.
One afternoon, the conversation turned to clothing. Given that so many people in the room had a net worth of more than a million dollars, a surprising number of us still bought our clothes at thrift stores.
"I can't bring myself to pay more than ten dollars for a t-shirt," one guy said. We all nodded in agreement.
"I don't pay anything for t-shirts," said another fellow. "I travel a lot for work. When I go to conferences, I often come home with three or five or ten t-shirts. There's no point in ever paying for them." Throughout the weekend, I noticed that a lot of us wore t-shirts we'd picked up for free. (Because we're money nerds, Choose FI t-shirts were prominent.)
"But what about quality clothes?" asked one woman. "I get why we're all so cheap on the everyday stuff. But sometimes, I want clothing that looks good, that I can go out in."
"I'm a long-time thrift store shopper," I said, "and it's taken some effort to allow myself to shop in regular stores. For quality stuff, I think it's important to find a store with styles you like where the clothes also fit well."
"I'll give you an example. In the fall of 2016, I made a trip to New York City. The forecast was for warm weather, so I took warm weather clothes. Turns out, temperatures were much lower than expected. And it rained. I was unprepared. My hotel was next to a J. Crew store, so I stopped in. I had never shopped there before in my life, but I discovered I liked the stuff they had and their clothes fit me well. I didn't like the prices, but I managed to find a few things on sale, so I bought them."
I paused and looked down at the clothes that I had on. "Ha," I said. "Right now, I'm wearing the dress shirt and sweater I bought that day in New York."
"I don't shop at thrift stores," said the man standing next to me. "I don't like to have a lot of cheap clothes. I like simplicity and minimalism. So, I'm willing to pay more for my clothes because I buy only a handful of items and expect them to last a long time."
"Can you give some examples?" somebody asked.
"Take this shirt I'm wearing now," he said. "It's a wool t-shirt from Icebreaker. And this jacket is from the same company. It's more expensive -- probably a lot more expensive -- but it lasts a long time, looks good, and is very versatile. Merino wool is warm when it's cold and cool when it's warm. Plus, I can wear it for days on end without it stinking. I think that J.D. likes Icebreaker stuff too, right?"
"I do," I said. "I brought two of their wool t-shirts with me on this trip. And because it's freezing here in Florida right now, I brought an Icebreaker jacket."
"I try to keep a small wardrobe too," said another friend. "For me, that means always wearing the same thing. I have like four or five of the same t-shirt. I have two pears of pants, and they're both the same. And all of my socks are the same. I don't even fold them. I just throw them all in the drawer loose since it doesn't matter which ones I pull out."
Sidenote: I didn't mention it during the conversation, but you can find quality clothes at thrift stores. They're more expensive, sure, but not nearly as expensive as buying them new. The key is patience. Sort through the racks. You might only find one or two items per trip, but that's okay. To increase your odds, find a thrift store in a nice neighborhood. Kim and I, for instance, recently discovered a consignment store near us called Simply Posh. It has lots of nice clothes at great prices.
The Quest for Quality
"You know, I read a great article recently," I said. "I just shared it with the Get Rich Slowly mailing list. It's all about how to shop for high-quality clothes. One of the points it made is that quality doesn't have to be expensive -- and that expensive doesn't always mean quality."
A couple of years ago, I had a Great Closet Clean-Out. My clothing racks and drawers were overflowing at the time, and some of it still had price tags. Hoping to accomplish that European knack for owning less and looking better, I donated, consigned, and gave away about 75 percent of my wardrobe. Today it's 100 times more functional.
But before we talk about the state of my closet today, here's an idea of where I started…
Three Closets, No Space
When I graduated from college, my first apartment came with three closets -- two in the master bath, and one in the hallway. I easily filled them all. Continue reading...
When we doubled our family size, we more than doubled the amount of laundry. And let's not even talk about the increases in stains and holes. Or the back-to-back phone calls from my son's principal: "Hey, Mrs. Aberle, your son was playing in the snow without snow pants. He is soaked. Can you bring in a dry pair of pants for him?" And the next day: "The button on his pants fell off and he needs another pair."
Because our kids are so hard on clothing, every time I evaluate my kids' closets, I'm glad we haven't spent lots of money to clothe them. Unfortunately, the items I did spend more money on were the items they lost, like the stocking hat I bought from L.L. Bean (stupid, stupid, Lisa!) that disappeared. Or they didn't like the clothes and wouldn't wear them.
We have all been there: standing in front of our closet or dresser drawers, looking at the contents, and waiting for something to emerge. That surprising dress or just-so shirt. That pair of pants that fits like it was tailored. That pair of shoes that is the sort of pair of shoes people refer to when they advise their friends to judge others on their shoes.
Once in a while, a surprising, just-so, tailored-seeming, universally impressive article of clothing appears, though rarely of its own volition. The rest of the time we just stare.
Maybe it's time to go shopping.
While on my way back from getting some hot tea in the break room at work, I noticed that one of my shoes was making a strange noise. Upon getting back to my office, I saw why: the heel cap had fallen off and was lying next to my chair.
Hmm, I thought. Maybe that's why I've been tripping so much lately. Because I had been tripping. Enough to be embarrassed. I had jokingly chalked it up to becoming klutzy in my "old age."
I took off my shoe to see if I could press the heel cap back in (at least to get me through the end of the day and back home), and I noticed something further. On both my shoes, the heel had worn unevenly. The inside part of each heel was worn at least a third of an inch lower than the outside part of the heel.
A few years back, I got a paycheck in the mail and went to deposit it. I left the bank, dropped off a rent check, bought groceries, a sandwich across the street, gas on the way home, and a new album from iTunes to listen to while cooking.
I forgot to endorse the check. Normally, this is no big deal for my bank. That day, they decided it was. Originally, they cashed the check, the money went through and popped up on my online banking sheet. Then someone else caught the check down the line and didn't like that it wasn't signed. They took the money out of my account, stamped the check to be returned, and sent it back to me for endorsement.
Here's the thing: I didn't have any other money in the bank.
It never fails. Whenever I venture into a store, especially a clothing store, I inevitably hear the phrase that makes me want to stage an impromptu personal-finance intervention: "It's an investment piece."
As in, "This jacket is a little pricey, but it's a classic — an investment piece." Or, "I need to invest in a pair of versatile black dress shoes." Continue reading...
An organized closet is a practical thing to have. It saves you time in the morning, since you don't have to dig through a sea of shoes for a sole mate. It can save you money, as well. I know I'm guilty of buying something without realizing I already owned something similar.
But a major closet overhaul can be pricey. Built-ins are expensive, and closet systems like those at The Container Store aren't cheap, either. The good news is that there are inexpensive solutions for closet organization problems.
Step One: Sorting
The first step is to clean out your closet. You knew I was going to say that, right? But it's crucial to distinguish between the good, the bad, and the ugly before you spend any time organizing.