For decades, I've been a proponent of habit tracking. Habit tracking sounds and feels nerdy to a lot of folks, so many people avoid it. That's too bad. Habit tracking is a powerful tool that can help you make better decisions about your life.
Let me share an example.
Over at Reaktor, Olof Hoverfält recently published a long piece about why he's tracked every single piece of clothing he's worn for three years.
That's right: For 1000+ days, Hoverfält documented every garment he wore. (And, in fact, he's continuing to document his wardrobe publicly.) Using the info he collected, he's now able to make better decisions about which clothes to keep and which clothes to buy. I love it!
Hoverfält says people worry about how much time it'd take to do something like this but they shouldn't. Most of the time investment is in the initial setup, in that first batch of data entry. Actually using and maintaining the system requires about one minute each day. And the rewards are far greater than the cost in time.
Hoverfält's project is a perfect example of the power of habit tracking.
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.
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.
Ever since I cleaned out my closet, I've gotten more and more ruthless, editing more and adding less.
The result of deleting items from drawers and hangers is two large brown boxes taking up floor space in the closet, overflowing with castaways. The boxes have grown into mountains, and I can't walk to the back of my closet anymore.
My intention was to sell these items, which are the nicer things that I actually like, but don't work for one reason or another. I didn't want to drop them off at the consignment shop because the shop keeps 60% of the profit and only accepts in-season clothing, meaning I'd have to keep some of this Stuff in my closet for almost a year. So I planned to sell it on eBay, thinking I could make some of my money back and maybe sell the out-of-season items.
I spend almost nothing on clothes. According to Mint, I've spent $199.50 to clothe my family of five this year. They say the average U.S. household has spent $1258.62. That's more than six times my spending.
It's been years since I walked into a clothing store, tried on styles I liked and bought myself a new pair of jeans. That doesn't mean I'm content to dress like a slob, or wear the same tried-and-true favorites season after season. I change up my wardrobe every few months with a huge shopping spree — from my friends' closets.
The Clothing Swap
My friends and I hold clothing swaps at least once a season. We all clean out our closets of anything we don't love that's still in good condition. We get together and swap our cast-offs around. I'm a walking advertisement for the aphorism, "One person's trash is another person's treasure."
About a year ago, at the advice of GRS readers, I started an experiment. I took all of the shirts and sweaters from my clothes closet and moved them into our spare room. Whenever I needed something to wear, I checked the clothes closet first. If what I needed wasn't there (as was often the case at first), I went to the spare room to find it. After I'd worn a shirt or sweater once, it was allowed to return to its home in the main clothes closet.
The results of this experiment probably won't be very surprising. After a couple of weeks during which I was reclaiming my favorite shirts, most of the rest remained unused. For an entire year.
On Tuesday, I gritted my teeth, grabbed the 37 shirts and sweaters still left in the spare room, and took them to a local thrift store. Some of the things I donated had never been worn (or had been worn just a couple of times). It hurt to part with those clothes. I probably spent more than $750 to purchase them (remember, I buy a lot of clothes at thrift stores), so in a way it felt like I was throwing away $750.
Moving to the D.C. area after my twins were born, we transformed from a family of three living comfortably, to a family of five struggling to make ends meet on one income. I had to get creative with our family budget, and one of the biggest line items to tackle was clothing. Four years later, I finally have a handle on it. Shopping for clothes for my three kids has been fine tuned into a system that keeps us humming along season by season. How?
- I get the best quality I can within my budget.
- I take good care of what we have (and teach my children to do the same).
- I resell my kids' clothing in good condition to recoup my costs.
You can save on sturdy kids' clothing — I get great longevity from Lands' End and Gymboree — by only shopping sales and clearance. In her article about the best time to buy almost everything, April mentioned which days are best to shop the clothing stores, but knowing the seasonal clearance schedule is helpful as well. For example, I send my kids to their first month of school in shorts and wait for the jeans/pants/leggings to go on sale in late September and October. Winter coats are on clearance in February; be ready to shop ahead for next year.
You can shop online, but do it wisely. I never shop online without coupon codes, and I always shop through a cashback site like Ebates. Shopping online gives me a larger selection of clearance items than local stores. Additionally, shopping online helps me stick to my list and budget, whereas in a store I am tempted to make impulse buys. Finally, most online retailers allow you to return clothing to the store for free if they don't work out.<