This past weekend the battery in my cordless phone died. I thought, “No problem. I’ll just run out and get a new battery.” When I got to the store I was disgusted to find that a new battery cost $18.99. My disgust grew when I turned around and looked at the phone display. I could get a new, basic cordless phone without all the bells and whistles (which is what I already have) for $9.49. A new battery was almost double the price of a new phone.
So now the question in the household has become: Repair or replace? This isn’t the first time that we’ve faced this question. Several years ago the dishwasher went on the fritz. Replacement part: $250. New dishwasher, on sale: $500. Last fall the gear shift on my bike broke. New shift, installed at the bike shop: $50. New bike: $90. There have been many other instances, as well. Many times the price of the repair is less than the cost of a new item (unlike with the cordless phone) but so close to the cost of new that it makes you think about which is the wiser course of action.
In the case of the cordless phone and looking only at economics, it seems like the wisest course of action is to replace the phone because the repair is twice the replacement cost. But is the lowest cost decision always the right one? There are other questions that you should ask yourself when confronted with the repair or replace decision. Answering these questions may help you make the wisest decision, even if it isn’t the lowest cost decision.
Is the item under warranty or is there any sort of service bulletin on it that could get you a free repair? Obviously, if the thing is still under warranty your best bet is to pursue repair or replacement through the warranty program. But even if you think it’s out of warranty, you should do a little searching to see if there is some sort of recall or service bulletin on the item that might net you a free repair.
For example, a month ago the battery on my laptop stopped holding a decent charge. It didn’t have that many cycles on it, but the laptop itself was out of warranty. I was resigned to buying a new battery, but a quick check of the manufacturer’s support site revealed that my battery was part of a bad batch. A service bulletin had been issued and anyone with a battery from that batch who had a problem with it before a certain number of cycles was eligible for a free replacement, regardless of whether the laptop was still under warranty. I saved $130 bucks with just a quick look.
Will you save money by buying the new item? Replacing certain items will net you a savings in electricity or water use because many of today’s appliances are much more efficient than their predecessors. Even if repair is the cheapest option at first glance, take the time to crunch some numbers to find out if the amount you will save in other costs might outweigh the additional expense of replacement. How long will it take you to earn back the difference between the repair and the replacement? It might not be as long as you think.
What about the environmental impact? What stinks about the fact that many of today’s items either are not repairable or that repairing them costs more than buying new is that this contributes to the growing waste problem. We wonder why the landfills are filling up, but how can they not when you can buy and throw away three toasters a year but you can’t find someone to repair the first one so that you never had to buy the other two? If you’re like me and you don’t like adding to the waste problem, repair is the first choice when possible (and sometimes you have to face the fact that it’s just not) even if buying new might be cheaper. If I know the repair is going to work and that I will likely receive many more years of service out of the repaired item, I’ll probably opt for repair over replacement in many cases just to keep the item out of the waste stream. However, if the broken item can be recycled (or the manufacturer offers a “take back” program) and the newer item will reduce my energy or water usage (which is also kind to the environment), those factors also influence my decision and I might opt for replacement. It’s a careful balance to determine the best course of action for my wallet and the environment.
Is the thing you’re replacing so old that something else is likely to go wrong soon? If your item is old to begin with, repair may only prolong the inevitable death. You may find yourself pouring repair money into something that isn’t going to last much longer no matter what you do to it. In that case you’re better off replacing the item. Replacement may cost more in the short term, but it’s preferable to throwing money down the drain on repairs that won’t gain you much useful life out of the product.
What will you do with the old thing? If you replace an item, will the old one just sit around the house collecting dust? In that case, it might be best to opt for repair to keep from adding to the junk piles around the house. But there may be other choices. Can you sell or give the old one, “As is,” to someone who is willing to pay for the repair? Can you recycle the old one? Will the company that delivers the new one haul the old one away or is there a trade-in program? If you have a definitive way to get the old item out of your hair, replacement becomes an option worth considering.
Will the repair work? Some items are more difficult to diagnose and repair than others. It really stinks when the repair person tells you that, “All you need is widget X and you’re good to go,” only to find out that widget X doesn’t solve the problem and that you need widget Y and Z, as well. The job you thought would cost $200 ends up costing $500. If you aren’t confident in the technicians’ (or your own) ability to correctly diagnose and repair the problem on the first try, and the cost of repair versus replacement is close, you might be better off just opting to replace.
Will the repair compromise your safety? With certain items, if they break it’s best to let them go because opening them up or replacing their innards compromises the safety features, especially if you’re not a trained electrician or other specialist. Additionally, the use of non-standard parts may render an item unsafe. If you’re not sure, act with caution and simply replace the item.
How much is the repair going to inconvenience you? Do you have to ship the item to a distant repair facility (at your cost) and wait for weeks until it’s shipped back? Do you need the item on a daily basis and going without it is a hardship? Example: If your refrigerator breaks on Friday night and the repairman can’t come until sometime on Tuesday, this is going to be a big inconvenience for you. However, you can get to the appliance store on Saturday and, if you buy before noon, get same day delivery. Assuming you can find a model you like at the price you’re willing to pay, replacement might be the least stressful choice. However, if it turns out the repair would have only cost $100, you’re going to feel like an idiot. In a case like this you’re going to have to carefully evaluate how much inconvenience you can tolerate and what it’s worth to you monetarily. If you can get a ballpark estimate of the likely problem and repair cost you can make a more informed decision, but it’s still going to come down to how much inconvenience you’re willing to put up with in order to save money.
Working through these questions can help you solve the repair or replace dilemma. We worked through them in the case of the cordless phone. So what did we decide to do? For now, nothing. We hate the idea of throwing a perfectly good phone into the landfill and around here that’s the only choice. None of the recycling programs take telephones and the manufacturer doesn’t offer a “take back” program. I know no one will buy it because they can buy a new one for less than it will cost to get the battery. If we opt for replacement, we have no way to unload the old one except to throw it in the landfill, which annoys me. But if we replace the battery, I’ll hate the fact that I “wasted” money when buying a new phone would have been cheaper.
I’m undecided at this point what I will do, so for now I’ve just put up an old corded phone that I had in storage that does the job. As a plus, I’m not using electricity to power a cordless phone. It’s a little bit of a pain being tethered to the wall when having a conversation but I find that I’m more present for the conversation since my options for distraction are limited by the length of the cord. In the end I’ll probably buy a new battery, but I’m hoping to catch a sale or deal that will make it a bit more palatable.
It’s just a shame that goods have gotten so cheap that repair is no longer the “no duh” option that it once was. In addition to the space we’d be saving in the landfills, think of the jobs for repairmen that have been lost over the decades. In this economy, it might be nice to have those back.