Which Shoes Do I Buy? Rethinking the “Quality” Card

The minimalism movement suggests making high quality purchases that will save time, money, thought, and the environment. The idea is to “invest” in quality clothing, gear, and home goods so you don’t have to shop or think about replacing them for a long time. It’s savvy and appealing, but is that pair of shoes actually going to last “forever”? And are marketers using “minimalism” to get us to spend or even consume more?

Take shoes, for example, since we all have them and wear them every single day. Unless you’re my 3-year-old, who might get through a day completely barefoot now and then.

It doesn’t take much worldly wisdom to figure out that cheap shoes are awful. I swore off Payless shoes at the ripe old age of 17 and have never looked back. I do not hate my feet that much.

That said, I owned a pair of shoes from Walmart that lasted 7 years. They cost all of $20 and were perfectly comfortable.

So how do those $80 Clark’s (insert Keens, Merrills, Birks, or whatever you’re into) stack up again my $20 Walmart shoes? The Clark’s would have to last 28 years to be a better value. Just thinking about that makes my arches ache.

Now let’s chat about undies. A $10 pack of 10 women’s Hanes will last at least one year. If you are spending $30 per pair for “durable” undies, you’d have to wear them for over 30 years to outperform the Hanes. Please do not wear the same panties for that long!

Yes, this is anecdotal evidence, but it offers a cautionary tale none the less. The claims of high quality and durability may not live up to the price tag—or the hype. I believe marketers are ploying consumers with the minimalism/quality card. Here are some points to consider before spending all your dollars on a better garment, gadget, or gear:

A numbers game. How many pairs of “high quality” garb are you “investing” in? Sure, your stuff will last a long time if you have fifteen pairs of expensive shoes to choose from. My BFF has foot problems that require her to wear shoes like Dansko clogs or Birkenstocks. She wears these almost exclusively, so they aren’t going to last 20 years. If you wear them out because that’s all you wear, you might be getting a better deal than the person who has them around forever but doesn’t get regular use.

Baby maker? I would highly recommend NOT purchasing “forever” items if you might ever have children. (After kids I suppose is different.) Most women I know have changed shoe size during pregnancy. Your joints and muscles loosen during pregnancy and the bone structure of your feet, hips, or even ribs can widen, never return to their original size. Not to mention the rearrangement of flesh! I escaped two pregnancies without a change in pants or shoe size, but my ribs (of all places!) are now wider, thus rendering some of my “forever” dresses unwearable.

Know thyself. Ask: am I really the person who will wear this forever? If you really enjoy fashion trends, timeless items may not be for you. If you’re going to feel like a nerd wearing shoes that are 5 years old, don’t spend a lot of money on them! Even pieces that attempt to look timeless may feel dated long before you get your money’s worth, especially if you’re influenced by the ebbs and flows of style.

Who wants to live forever? Your undies don’t. Don’t overspend for durability on items that you DO NOT WANT TO USE FOREVER. You do not want to wear the same underwear or athletic shoes forever. That’s gross. And why do you need a $500 stroller unless you’re planning a very large family? Do you know how many used Gracos are on the market in perfectly good condition? They last just fine. Don’t go crazy on high quality baby gear. That phase is over before you can even use all the gadgets you got from your shower.

The things that really last forever are from your parents’ and grandparents’ generations. I have some 1970s Tupperware, for example. That stuff is indestructible! I should know, I’ve broken more than one Pyrex 🙁

Nothing is guaranteed. That’s a bit over-dramatic. But read the fine print and take brand’s guarantees with a grain of salt. They can use weasel words or vague promises that actually guarantee nothing. For example, one quality clothier promises “customer satisfaction” on products, but that doesn’t exactly mean they’ll replace your decade-old bathrobe when it wears out. Policies can also get watered down over time.  Craftsman is the perfect example. Now that Sears sold the brand, Black & Decker is free to change the replacement policy.

Know what you want? Shelling out more for that “forever” item can also put undue pressure on purchases that I believe can lead to materialism, or an undue focus on stuff. If you’re decisive and know what you want, this may be less of a concern. If you’re like me and can’t figure out what the perfect style is that will stand the test of time while also matching the rest of my stuff, it might not be worth the mental energy.

When it’s worth it. If it’s comfort and functionality you seek, the high quality items might be more for you. But don’t get bamboozled by the empty promises or brand prestige. Run the little equation I alluded to before. How much can you get a less expensive but decent equivalent for (considering secondhand where appropriate) and how long can that be expected to last? How many times more does a quality product cost? Is it really four times better and/or will last four times longer? Read reviews, ask people for recommendations, and guestimate based on your experience. Naturally you’ll put more thought into larger purchases than small ones.

Sometimes it’s a no brainer. For example, I limped my $2 thrift store boots through the winter before deciding that having cold, wet feet is bad way to save money. I purchased good quality boots for $45 at the end of the season. I don’t expect them to last 20 times longer than my thrift store sieves, but having warm, dry feet really is 20 times better than not. It is, after all, the purpose of boots.

I did not consider it worthwhile to spend $100+ on knee-high, -30 degree-rated boots, because I do not live in Wyoming. I’m not wading into standing water or working outside in sub-zero temperatures. I just need to get my kid to the bus stop. It cracks me up seeing moms stand around the suburban library in Hunter boots that have never stepped off pavement.

We’ve spent more for quality on a select few items, but have found that our discount, off-brand, used, or freebie items often do the trick just fine.

How do you decide when to spend more for quality? What low-cost items have you found surprisingly durable?

33 Responses to “Which Shoes Do I Buy? Rethinking the “Quality” Card”

  1. Kate says :

    Yes! This! I agree with the argument that you shouldn’t purchase disposable items (particularly fast fashion) and go in favor of quality. However! As you aptly point out, the quality item doesn’t last 20 times the non-quality item, it usually only lasts 4 or 5 times as long. So fine – I’ll buy three of the cheaper item over the years and it still won’t cost as much as the “quality” piece. Also, this is especially effective when you shop mostly second-hand. I’ve had multiple thrift store shoes last for YEARS at a fraction of the cost.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, I agree that fast fashion and clearly low quality items of any time are poor choices financially, but secondhand or lower-cost items aren’t always a bad option.

  2. Stephanie Manley says :

    I feel this way about knives. I do have some super nice and expensive knives. Cooks in restaurants typically use the knives found at restaurant supply places and they aren’t nice, but they are available at a fraction of the price.

    Now when I need a knife, I have learned to sharpen my existing ones, and I will purchase knives at a restaurant supply store. There is nothing like a super sharp paring knife.

    • David says :

      Professional chefs often have their own high quality knives that they don’t allow anyone else to use. Lower paid kitchen workers usually use knives owned by the restaurant which are the knives you are talking about. The restaurant doesn’t want to buy expensive knives that will be abused by employees but someone who is making a career of cooking will usually get frustrated enough with cheap knives to buy his own and take care of them.

    • Kalie says :

      I agree that good knives can make preparing food so much easier. I have found the Victorinox knives to be a good, low-cost option.

  3. kddomingue says :

    I research compulsively for appliance purchases. That’s a fairly big ticket item that I expect to last for a good long while. Unfortunately, most newer appliances don’t. Would I sound like an old fart if I said that they don’t make stuff like they used to? However if you research long enough, sometimes you stumble over a gem that you didn’t even know existed. I needed a new washing machine. I didn’t want fancy, I don’t need something with a motherboard that could pilot a spaceship so nothing computerized. Man! Finding a simple, mechanical washing machine with knobs is nigh on to impossible. Then I stumbled over Speed Queen. For about $700 I got a simple, mechanical machine built like a tank that does all that I require a washer to do…..wash my clothes and linens well. The machine will probably outlive me it’s so well built. The company has been supplying washers to commercial laundromats for decades so I guess they’ve got it down to a science. Anyway, I could have spent twice as much for a machine that only worked half as well and would have cost a small fortune for the inevitable repairs….but I got something simple, well built and with fewer bells and whistles and am as happy as a clam!

    As far as clothing goes, I think a lot of companies that sell “ethical” clothing may have their heart in the right place but I simply can’t afford the prices that they’re asking. I don’t know about anyone else but one $100 t-shirt, one $200 pair of jeans, one silk cami at $85, one pair of dress slacks at $200 and two shirts at $150 each and I’ve already gone over my yearly clothing budget for myself and the hubs combined! So I shop the end of season sales and I shop at thrift stores. I hang our clothes to dry which increases their life span tremendously no matter their provenance. Dryers are terribly hard on fabric according to my friend who is a repairman. Panties leggings, camisoles, slips…..all hung up to dry. Dryers do a number on elastic. Skip the dryer and you undergarments will last longer and retain their shape better for much longer. And $30 for one pair of panties? Seriously?

    I’m shutting up now. This is one of my favorite subjects and I could ramble on forever but I’ll spare y’all, lol!

    • Teresa Baker says :

      Agree! Being mindful and a little research goes a long way. I bought a Maytag recently without all the bells and whistles but with a 10 year warranty onthe drive motor and basket. Not the most up to date washer but I feel good that it was money well spent.

    • Kalie says :

      We have purchased all our appliances used with good results.

      I can’t spend the big bucks on super high quality, ethically sourced clothing while I’m a mother to little kids. I will only buy those type of items at the thrift store because I wear holes and get stains in my clothes pretty quickly at the stage of life!

  4. Oldster says :

    I think what you are saying is that some common sense can go a long way here. You are absolutely right that savvy marketers target folks like us who are trying to buy products that last. I think that when you are evaluating everyday wearables, you have to have a shorter term frame of mind. Don’t go too far out on the financial limb. It won’t be worth it. Boots, walking/running shoes, or any footwear you work in, don’t hesitate to spend a little more. It is almost always worth it. Big ticket items like mattresses, appliances or vehicles need research and investment. Good quality and durability matter more on these purchases.

    • Kalie says :

      Good summary–consumable items make less sense to spend a lot on compared with more long-term purchases. I don’t see clothing/shoes as long-term purchases in most cases, for most people.

  5. Linda Sand says :

    I wore my hunter’s boots to the bus stop. Because why would I buy a second pair for wearing in the city?

  6. Hannah says :

    Every once in a while I’m shocked by how high quality the “low quality” item is. I had a pair of pleather boots from Target that I wore for 7 years. Instead of buying specialized weight lifting shoes, I just bought a pair of $6 Walmart Keds-style sneakers that seem to work great. I even run in them, and I don’t have arthritis yet.

    I’m willing to pay more for a more durable item if I also plan to pay to maintain the item. For example, we bought a Toyota Camry rather than a Kia Rio even though the Camry cost 4 times as much. On the other hand, I would never pay for a higher quality coffee maker.

    Of course, I’m also willing to pay for other dimensions of quality too. For example, I pay 10-15X as much for Spice Island or other gourmet spice brands compared to the Aldi spices, and they don’t taste 10-15x better, but I’m still happy to pay it (except cumin which tastes no different). I also pay more for pants that I think look better on me, or for a roof that will make it easier to keep the house cool.

    Having said that, I’m not exactly the world’s savviest shopper.

    • Kalie says :

      Great point about spending more if you plan to maintain something, vs. consumables. And of course pay more for pants that look better–within reason. I’ll never be a $200 jeans girl.

  7. Amy says :

    I’m pretty cold-intolerant, so I’ll pay up for clothing/shoes that keep me warm. (I live in upstate NY, where winter can be quite long and intense.) I shelled out $130 for insulated, pull-on Bogs boots last fall, and I wore them almost every day October-March. They’re warm, waterproof, and have great treads, so I’m very happy with them. The same is true for coats and sweaters. I happily pay more for down/synthetic down and wool, which will actually keep me warm. I do try to buy these things at end-of-season sales, though.

    I love my Hanes undies!

    • Kalie says :

      If you live in a cold climate you absolutely need decent gear for winter. I definitely look for down and wool, especially at the thrift store and end of season sales. I’m kind of a fabric stalker at the thrift store!

  8. NZ Muse says :

    I am hard on my shoes so I typically don’t spend much on them … even expensive pairs don’t last. Plus I have a fairly minimal shoe wardrobe. I’m okay with frequent repurchasing.

    • Kalie says :

      I’m the same with jeans, especially since having kids and playing on the floor and being up and down a lot. I realized I was wearing holes in the knees of decent quality jeans within months, so why not get less expensive ones. And I usually only have 2 pairs at a time.

  9. Sarah says :

    I have been “blessed” with a slight figure, which means cheap shoes gape on my thin, bony feet. That said, my first pair of walking shoes were £45 and they lasted years. When the bottom came off, I had to accept they weren’t even any good for gardening any more. But my not even 2 year old ones are not looking rosy, and they’re a more exclusive brand and cost nearly twice the price. I think you’re right when you say that brands know they can charge more without providing the quality. Socks from next used to last forever, now I’m lucky if they last the year.

    • Kalie says :

      It’s sad that some of the older, good brands are compromising quality. I’m sure part of it has to do with competing with fast fashion. It’s interesting to hear how much more clothing used to cost in proportion to people’s income in the past.

  10. Kalee J says :

    Thanks for these thoughts. As someone who is building a more minimalist capsule wardrobe, I think you left out one important aspect for many consumers with a similar mindset-ethics! For many people who develop these wardrobes, myself included, we want to support companies and clothing makers who are transparent with their business practices, and are working to change the fashion industry. I’m willing to pay a little more to support someone who has made my product in the US, especially if it’s better made. All that being said, I still need to watch that I’m not over-consuming, and that I’m still looking at second-hand options whenever possible. thanks again for this post!

    • Kalie says :

      Good related point, Kalee. I buy secondhand as much as possible–almost entirely–because it reduces the demand for new goods and thus is better environmentally and ethically.

  11. Melanie says :

    This is a thoughtful and comprehensive article on an important subject. I think there is an important distinction between quality and price. And there is a need to find the kind of balance you describe with these decisions.

  12. Prudence Debtfree says :

    My husband bought me my first pair of Brikenstocks for my birthday this summer, and I have hardly taken them off since. My feel are starting to do crazy things, and having them comfortable is one of those high value things. I’m hoping they will last forever because I’m sure they were expensive.
    Very interesting observation about marketers playing on society’s current love affair with minimalism. They are brilliant! Always at least a few steps ahead of most of us, even using anti-materialism sentiments to sell their materials.

    • Kalie says :

      Glad you like your Birks! Comfortable shoes seems to become more of a priority as we get older, doesn’t it? I hope they last for you!

  13. Nadine says :

    In my experience you in the US still have better (more durable) clothes than we have in Europe. I spent a year in the US as an Au Pair in 1995/1996, and I can still wear some of the clothes I bought back then at Gap and Target and so on.. But I do not own one single piece of clothing that I bought here in Germany that dates back to 1996.Except the Birkenstocks that I got while I was still in school. They really seem of “good German quality”. But other clothing/shoe brands…. naaaah!

  14. Emily says :

    I think about this often, especially as I’ve gotten pickier about the shoes I wear. The Target brand sneakers for $35 are pretty tempting…and if they last half as long as the $80 name brand running shoes I’ve come out ahead. But of course the most frugal thing is to simply make the ones I already have work for as long as possible. So I’m off the hook for right now, simply delaying the purchase until my old running shoes literally fall apart. It’s kind of liberating to not always be thinking about the next purchase and if I’m making the right choice or not! That said, I’m trying to convince my hubby that maybe buying sneakers at Goodwill isn’t the best idea and that they’re there because there isn’t much life left in them…

    • Kalie says :

      Running shoes are the only shoes I always buy new. (Though I wouldn’t mind secondhand ones if they didn’t seem to be used.) It is important to have proper support for exercise, especially running. I usually replace them when my feet start hurting, even if they look fine. I’ve had good luck at Kohls getting on sale brand names with a coupon, but now they aren’t accepting coupons on some of the bigger brands 🙁

      I agree it’s nice to just not have to think about buying the next thing, and that is an upside of buying durable items. Good luck trying to convince your husband!

  15. Bethany says :

    I am trying to figure this out with cloth diapers. One of my friends recommended the Thirsties brand, which run about $20.00 brand new and $5.00-$15.00 used. Even though disposables ARE expensive ($0.20 per diaper), you can buy a lot of disposables for $20.00. Not only that, but it’s best to use store-bought detergents on cloth diapers (my cheapo homemade detergent’s not good enough). The detergent is an added expense, plus all of the cool accessories like wet bags and Snappi/Boingo clips.

    For a $20 diaper, I’d have to use it for 8 months (washing every other day) in order to break even with disposables. For one baby, the savings are not that significant, and cloth diapers are more work. It’s pointless to spend $20 each on diapers that my baby will only use for 6 months (a “size 1”)- I won’t save any money at all.

    My friend encouraged me to buy name brand diapers because they are good quality and have resale value. Obviously you don’t want leakage, but do I even want to resell if I’m going to have more than one kid? And if I go to resell in 5-10 years, will the diapers even have resale value?

    My other choice is to buy the (decent quality) cheapo brands that don’t have resale value, but are only $5 each. Brand new cheapo diapers will break even with disposables in less than 2 months. They might only last 6 months before falling apart, but by that time I’ve still saved money AND I won’t have to bother with reselling to get some of my investment back.

    Thanks for posting this article! It’s been food for thought on my cloth diaper conundrum.

  16. Ember says :

    I am with you. I’m a mom of 3, plus have dogs. So new or forever items in our house are not happening for a long time.
    And again, as a mom, my body has most definitely changed since having kids. Forever items are not to be.
    I think there is a time and place to spend a bit more for some items. We’re a frugal family, but we spend on the things that are important to us.

    • Kalie says :

      Good point that little kids (and pets) don’t really mix well with “forever” purchases. Even though we try to teach them to take care of things, kids are hard on stuff!

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