Saturday, October 15, 2011

Repair or replace revisited

Over the past few months, I've done a series of posts on the question of "Repair or replace?" I discussed a series of decisions I've had to make about various items (an old bike, a computer, a pair of shoes, a coat) that needed repair, and how I went about deciding whether it was better to fix them or just go ahead and replace them. In one of these posts, I bemoaned the lack of any useful rules of thumb that can help with this decision (except for specific items, like cars and major appliances).

Well, it looks like I should moan no more. Jeff Yeager, the self-dubbed "Ultimate Cheapskate," has published a post on this very subject at The Daily Green, in which he proposes several guidelines for the repair-vs.-replace decision. According to Yeager, you should repair an item if:

1) the cost of the repair is not more than half the cost of a replacement item (he calls this "the 50 percent rule"),
2) the item itself is likely to appreciate in value over time (e.g., antiques of any kind), or
3) the repair is a fairly trivial one (e.g., replacing a faulty electrical cord or a missing shirt button).

On the other hand, you should opt to replace it if:

1) the cost of the repair is more than half the cost of a replacement,
2) a replacement will pay for itself in reduced running costs (e.g., a more efficient appliance), or
3) the replacement is fairly inexpensive (e.g., non-designer clothing items), so you don't stand to save much by doing the repair.

In light of Yeager's rules, it appears that our rather fumbling decision-making process did lead us to the correct choice in most of the cases I mentioned. Repairing my husband's old bike was the right decision, because we could do the repair for about $80, while a new bike (judging by what we saw at the bike shop) would cost at least $500. Replacing my old Mac, by contrast, was the right decision, because the slowness of the old computer was actually costing me money (by making it take longer to complete work assignments that involved a lot of Internet research, and thus cutting my hourly wage). Replacing Brian's old shoes was the right call, because the new ones were cheap (around $35), actually less expensive than repairing the old shoes. And by the same token, I'm better off replacing my old coat rather than trying to repair it, because the repair would cost as much or more than a replacement and might not work at all.

All that makes sense from a purely economic perspective. But what about the environmental costs?  Shouldn't I try to factor in the resources (materials and energy) that will be used to make the replacement items, and the problems associated with disposing of the old ones? As soon as I put the question to myself in those terms, the answer became obvious: only if I actually do dispose of them. If I simply pass them on to someone else, then there is no waste created—and the resources used in the manufacture of a new item will be saved down the line, because someone else will be buying (or otherwise acquiring) a secondhand item who might otherwise have had to buy one new!

So, I can buy myself a new computer, and Freecycle the old one to help out some impoverished student who just needs a reliable machine to type papers on; I can buy myself a new coat, and give the old one back to Goodwill (where I got it in the first place) to be bought by someone with bigger shoulders than mine; Brian can buy a new pair of shoes, but hold on to the old pair as a backup (thus extending the life of the new ones). In all these cases—counterintuitive as it seems—buying a new item is the best choice from an ecofrugal perspective; it saves the most money and, in terms of other resource use, it's a wash. Who woulda thunk it?
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