If you’re a frugal person, the concept of planned obsolescence stinks. There’s no polite way to put it. Manufacturers create things to last a short period of time, forcing you to upgrade or buy a new one at regular intervals. It’s become common practice in everything from appliances to power tools to electronics. Nothing is built to last these days.
At the risk of sounding like an old person, I miss the days when things were built to last. My mother still has the same toaster that she received for her wedding in 1957. The thing is fifty-six years old and still turns out perfect toast. I, on the other hand, have been married much less than half that time and have been through seven (if I’m counting correctly) toasters. And we haven’t always bought the cheap models, either. In an effort to get more than a year out of a toaster I’ve sprung for the higher end models, only to discover that they don’t last any longer than the cheap ones, on average. And we don’t make that much toast.
I can remember that my parents had the same appliances for decades, and only got new ones when my mom couldn’t stand the avocado green any longer. They still worked when they were shown the door; they were only eliminated because they were ugly and refused to die. On the other hand, I am shopping for a new fridge and have been told by numerous salespeople that I can realistically expect five to eight years out of the current models. Ten, if I’m lucky. That’s just depressing. And expensive.
I understand why manufacturers have gone to this model. First, it’s cheaper for them to produce lower quality goods. Second, if you force your customers to keep buying new stuff, you increase your revenues. Lower cost to manufacture plus more purchases by the consumer equals “success” for the manufacturer and retailers. For the consumer, it means we pay more money. Consumers used to be able to dodge this bullet by calling a repairman to extend the life of their products, but repairs are now just as expensive as buying a new item in many cases (that, too, is by design). And that’s if you can find someone trained to repair your item. Repairmen are a dying breed.
This is another reason why emergency funds now need to be bigger than they used to be. It used to be that you could figure on buying a new major appliance every fifteen to twenty years. Maybe longer. You had plenty of time to save up for those replacements. Now with everything needing replacements every five to ten years, your window for saving up has gotten much smaller. Couple that with the fact that many homes have more appliances and electronics than they used to and you’re looking at a very aggressive and expensive replacement cycle. You need to save more than your parents did to cover these breakdowns and replacements.
So what’s a frugal consumer to do? Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do. The manufacturers are winning this war. However, there are a few things you can do to try to turn the odds in your favor just a bit.
Take care of your stuff
Take the time and make the effort to take care of your stuff. Don’t neglect your appliances. Perform routine maintenance such as cleaning the back of the refrigerator, having your air conditioner/heater tuned up and cleaned, cleaning your oven, and keeping your tools and yard equipment dry and protected from the elements. Don’t abuse your items by subjecting them to overuse or using them against the directions. The better you care for your items, the longer they will last. You may be able to extend their life by a couple of years with regular maintenance and careful use.
Learn Basic Repairs
Learn some basic repair tactics. Yes, there are some things that are beyond most people’s ability to fix. However, there are many simple things that can be learned. Replacing a heating element in an oven, for example, isn’t that big of a deal. I’ve replaced the timer on my dishwasher without too much trouble. Replacing a frayed cord on a vacuum cleaner can be done if you have a spare cord. There are many small repair skills that are easy to learn which can extend the life of your items and help you avoid having to choose whether to repair or replace.
Look for the simple fix
When something breaks or starts acting funny, don’t rush to replace it just yet. Sometimes the problem is simple to fix. Google your item and the problem (or drag out the owner’s manual) and see if there is a simple solution.
Do careful research
When you buy a new item, do as much research as you can on the manufacturer and the unit. Read reviews and try to find the product that has the best track record and a manufacturer that stands behind their products. Look for comprehensive warranties and reports of good customer service. You can reduce your odds of getting a crappy product by doing some research and choosing the best model (which may not be the most expensive).
Look for products that use standard parts
As an example, some products require special batteries which are not commonly available. When the battery dies, most people are forced to just buy a new one. But there may be competing products that use standard batteries. If you know how to work on cars, you might be better off choosing an older model that you can fix rather than a newer one that is computer controlled. When you buy something new or as a replacement, choose the one for which you can easily find replacement parts and that matches your repair skill set. Skip items that use proprietary parts or parts that cannot be serviced by the user.
Don’t assume that buying the high end model will save you. High end models are just as guilty of planned obsolescence as are the lower end models. Do your research and find the best model; don’t assume that the pricier stuff lasts longer.
Get off the consumer treadmill
After years of buying things like game stations, smartphones, DVD/BluRay/etc. players, and other trendy electronic products, I finally just stepped off the treadmill. I keep my lifestyle intentionally simple so there is far less junk in my life that needs constant upgrading and replacement.
Save, save, save
You know you’re going to need a replacement item sooner rather than later, so never stop saving for those replacements. The minute you bring your new appliance home, start saving for its replacement. The more you can save, the more you reduce the constant shocks to your budget.
Write to the manufacturers and let them know what you think of their practices. If you encounter egregious examples of shoddy workmanship, report them to the BBB. Write reviews on consumer review sites and social networking sites. It may or may not help, but as a consumer your voice and your money are your weapons. Refuse to buy from the worst offenders and let the world know what you think of their crappy products.
Planned obsolescence is a real problem for those who want to be frugal. Couple the high failure rate of items with the fact that you can no longer find repairmen for many things and it means that you’ll be spending more money more often. But if you shop wisely and take care of your items, you may be able to at least extend the life of your stuff. At the very least, brace yourself for buying more replacements more often.
(Photo courtesy of Jason Tester)