Sunday, August 14, 2011

Spend where it counts (or, a $45 band on a $13 watch)

The watch I wear every day is a cheap Timex Carriage model that I bought nearly ten years ago at Target. I think I paid $13 for it, on sale. I chose it at the time because it met my fairly basic requirements:

1) A dial face with an hour hand, a minute hand, a second hand, and all twelve numbers. (You'd be surprised how hard this last feature is to find in a women's watch.)
2) A bracelet-type metal band. (Cloth ones wear out too quickly, and the metal "expansion bracelets" always seem to snag the tiny hairs on my arm.)

Those were the only features I specifically wanted, and they're pretty much the only features I got. The watch does also have a little built-in night light that has turned out to be handy. But other than that, it's got no bells and whistles: no calendar, no calculator, no stopwatch. It's just a very basic watch—about as close as you can get to the Platonic ideal of a Wristwatch.

For a cheap watch, it's held up surprisingly well—or at least, the timepiece itself has. After a few years of everyday use, however, the plating on the two-toned metal band wore completely through, exposing the base metal underneath, which gave me a rash as it rubbed against my skin. My first attempt at an ecofrugal fix for this problem was to paint over the exposed metal with nail polish, and that kept the watch wearable for a while—but eventually, the links got clogged with dried polish. So I replaced the band with a similar one, but within a year, the plating on the new band started wearing off just as the old one had. Rather than buy another cheap band, I went back to the store and asked if they had one made of solid stainless steel. They did—but it cost $45, more than three times what I'd originally paid for the watch. And I had to make a hasty decision: is it really worth it to put a $45 band on a $13 watch?

My conclusion: not only is it worth it, it's the only choice that really makes sense. What I need from a watch itself is extremely simple: all it has to do is keep good time, and a cheap watch does the job just as well as an expensive one. A cheap band, by contrast, doesn't meet my needs, at least not for very long. Buying a new, cheap watchband every year would cost more in the long run, and surely be more wasteful, than investing $45 in a good one. For my needs, a cheap watch and a high-quality band is simply the best combination.

It seems to me that the same principle applies to most purchases. It almost always makes sense to spend money on the features you want and skimp on the features you don't want. For example, if you have an old car you're happy with, but it lacks some new feature you want (say, cruise control), it makes sense to spend the money to have it added, even if it's more than the value of the old car itself. It will still cost less than a whole new car, so why trade in an old car you're happy with for a new one with lots of features you don't want just to get the one that you do?

Of course, sometimes in order to get the one feature you want, you have to accept some others as well, because the manufacturer doesn't give you a choice. On a new car, for instance, a feature you want (such as extra airbags) may be available only as part of an "option package" that also includes power windows and GPS and other assorted bells and whistles. But by looking carefully at all the alternatives, you should at least be able to avoid taking any features you actually prefer not to have. For example: as some of you may remember from my "Repair or Replace?" post, I recently bought a new computer. All I wanted was more memory and faster processing speed, but buying a new Mac Mini meant that I also got all the additional "features" of the Lion operating system—such as a complete lack of back-compatibility with all existing PowerPC applications. Besides having to abandon my beloved Eudora mail client for a new one, I couldn't use my existing version of Office, and the new version I was forced to "upgrade" to crashed all the time. So I sent it back to Apple and then, after a bit more research, bought last year's Mini instead from a reseller called PowerMax. (Note to anyone in the market for a computer: I recommend them. Their prices are good and their customer service is terrific.) In my case, this "downgrade" was actually an upgrade.

So now I'm happily settled in with my one-year-old Mac, running seven-year-old software, hooked up to an eight-year-old monitor and printer. Because after all, if all I need is a better band, why replace the watch?
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