Sunday, January 8, 2017

Money well spent

Usually, the ecofrugal triumphs I post on this blog are times when I've managed to satisfy a personal need without buying something new. I'll write, for instance, about how we managed to repair our old Roman shades with an $8 ball of string instead of shelling out $100 or more on new window treatments, or how Brian built me a new desk organizer for my computer peripherals out of scrap wood and stain we had on hand. Small victories like this are the essence of the ecofrugal life. They show how it's possible to do more with less—to save money while also preventing waste. They keep your tinkering skills limbered up and encourage you to strive for ever greater feats of tightwaddery.

All that said, it's important to remember that frugality isn't about not spending money. It's about not wasting money on things you don't need. Sometimes, making a purchase—even a fairly pricey one—is clearly the wisest thing to do.

A case in point is my new winter boots. I've posted before about how difficult it is for me to find shoes that fit both my feet and my values (both of which are, shall we say, a bit out of the mainstream). For me, the ideal pair of boots has to be leather-free, comfortable, decent-looking, reasonably well-made, not too expensive, and available in my size—a combination that's about as rare as a green unicorn. Back in 2013, I concluded that if I wanted to make it through the winter with dry feet, I was going to have to compromise on at least one of these criteria.

At that time, I ended up buying a $50 pair from Payless that compromised just a little bit on several of them: the fit was acceptable but not ideal, they lacked in support but were okay with an insole added, and—the biggest problem of the lot—they weren't very durable. They held out for the rest of that winter and most of the next, but by the time 2015 rolled around, they were letting in water like a sluice gate. They were okay in dry weather, but stepping in one puddle (which is often unavoidable with our town's lousy drainage) would leave them basically useless for the next two days.

For the rest of 2015 and all of 2016, I managed with a pair of secondhand Timberland hiking boots that I'd picked up at Goodwill for $15. But the last time I wore those out in the rain, it was apparent that they'd fallen victim to the same type of leak as the previous pair. I could have tried to repair them with Shoe Goo, but that would leave me without boots for a couple of days while they dried, and there was no guarantee the patch job would actually do the trick. So, reluctantly, I started shopping.

This time, I thought I had a trick up my sleeve. I had discovered at some point that while a D width is "wide" in a women's shoe, it's actually the standard width for "youth" shoes. And since my feet are wide but not long, I can usually get by with a size 4.5 or 5 in a kids' shoe. And, as a bonus, these are usually cheaper than the adult version of the same shoe.

So after consulting The Wirecutter's report on the best winter boots, I decided to try the kids' version of the Columbia Bugaboot. While the adult boot sells for around $120, I was able to find the kids' version on sale for just $55—and, just to make sure I got a pair that would fit, I ordered two sizes, a youth 5 and a youth 6 (the largest available). The smaller pair ended up being canceled because it wasn't available, but the 6 was wearable—sort of. I could get my feet into them, but they were so huge and bulky that I felt like an astronaut. I had to sort of march instead of walking because my ankles wouldn't bend normally.

So those went back to the store and I tried a pair in a duck-boot style from Sperry Top-Sider. I had high hopes for these, because the entire base of the shoe was fully encased in rubber, which I thought was sure to be both waterproof and durable. Unfortunately, this design also made the boots stiff and inflexible, so it was very difficult to squeeze my feet into them—even with the kids' size 6. They weren't too uncomfortable once I managed to get them zipped, but I couldn't imagine going through that kind of contortion every morning—and with my thickest socks, I doubted I'd be able to get them on at all. So back they went to Zappos, which fortunately offers free shipping both ways, so I wasn't out any cash for that unsuccessful attempt.

After that, I wasn't sure what to try, so I tried doing a search on shoes for wide feet and found several recommendations for a brand called Propet, which offers shoes in a vast range of widths—from men's narrow to women's extra-wide. Back to Zappos, and I found a Propet boot that came in both wide and extra-wide and appeared to tick pretty much all the boxes on my list. It was completely leather-free; reviews described it as warm, dry, and comfortable for walking; and it looked unobtrusive enough to wear indoors as well as out. The only downside was the $80 price tag—but since several owners also said the boots were quite durable, I figured I'd probably get my money's worth out of them.

Since reviewers disagreed about the fit, I decided to hedge my bets by ordering both a 6.5 wide and a 7 wide—a sound decision, since the 7 turned out to be the better fit. So the smaller pair is boxed up waiting to go back to Zappos, and the larger pair has now been put to a trial by fire, or rather ice. It was 20 degrees out yesterday, with heavy snow and a stiff wind, and these boots kept my feet snug, dry, and skid-free through several rounds of shoveling and a trip to the train station to pick up my folks. Plus, I've walked a couple of miles in them and suffered no foot fatigue.

So this story has two morals. First, if you have hard-to-fit feet, Propet footwear is definitely worth a look; and second, sometimes spending more money up front is the most ecofrugal choice. I could have tried to make my old, leaky Timberlands last the rest of the winter, and I might even have succeeded—but it would only have postponed the inevitable, and in the meantime, my feet wouldn't have been nearly as warm and dry as I expect them to be in my new boots. They cost more up front than I've ever spent on a pair of winter boots before, but an $80 pair that should see me through the next several winters is a better deal than a $50 pair that will barely make it through one—and it means I won't have to go through this same shopping rigamarole again next year.

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