Get What You Pay For

Why bargain hunting isn’t such a bad thing.

There’s an old saying everyone seems to know: “You get what you pay for.” It’s normally applied to situations where you buy something at a low cost and it breaks. “You get what you pay for” is supposed to explain why it broke — you apparently didn’t pay enough money for it.

Lots of people use this logic when they shop. If something is cheap, it must be crap because “you get what you pay for.” If someone else is selling the same thing or something similar for more money, it must be better, right?

Not always.

My Hair

Yes, I’m going to use my hair as an example.

I dye my hair. It’s no secret. I’ve been doing it since I was in my 20s when those first few grays started making their appearance. I did it myself for at least 20 years, using a reddish shade of brown that got even redder when exposed to Arizona sunlight. The color looked at least somewhat natural — at least no one ever commented on it looking fake. I’ve since switched to a browner color that’s more in line with what I remember my hair looking like. It’s been so long, I’m not sure. And those few strands of gray now account for about 75% of my hair.

Last year, I began living in an RV full time after leaving my Arizona home and waiting for my new home in Washington to be built. If you know anything about hair dye, you know that good water pressure is a must-have for rinsing that crap off your hair. So is a good supply of hot water. My RV is weak on both counts, so I began getting my hair dyed “professionally.”

I put “professionally” in quotes, because I started going to the local Beauty Academy. These are highly supervised girls (mostly) who are training to become beauticians. They do everything, from hair trims to dye jobs to perms. They don’t mix a color without consulting with a supervisor. The “classic color” service I needed cost $28.

I went every 6 weeks for quite a while. There was a different girl doing my hair each time. Based on observations, conversations, and chatter among the dozen or so girls working there, most of them were under 25 and apparently had at least one kid but no husband. Young women learning a good trade to support themselves and their families. We had nothing in common so conversation was minimal. Each girl took a long time to get the color in — a typical dye job would take over 3 hours. But it came out good each time and the color lasted. I was satisfied.

Then I succumbed to peer pressure. (Can you believe it?) When I complained to one of my girlfriends that it took so long to get my hair dyed, she ridiculed me for getting my hair done there. She recommended her woman at JC Penney’s salon. So I figured, why not?

I went to Sally (not her real name) and she did my hair. Although she was closer to my age than the Beauty Academy kids, she didn’t seem interested in striking up a conversation with me. While the dye “processed” in my hair, she disappeared into a back room. I learned to read a book or play a game on my phone.

The first time I went, she insisted on cutting my hair and waxing my eyebrows. I was trying to grow my hair long, but when I came every six weeks, she’d cut off 5 weeks of growth. And I don’t usually mess with my eyebrows. I let them do their own thing. But after waxing, they needed maintenance, so I had to have them waxed every time. The bill? $90. When I cut out the hair cuts and waxing, it went down to $70.

And I didn’t feel as if I were getting any better service than those young girls practicing on my hair.

So yesterday I went back to the Beauty Academy. The girl who did my hair was young but she had a professional attitude and would be graduating in just two weeks. She already had a job lined up. She did a great job on my hair, matching my existing color so she only had to do the roots. Because it was Customer Appreciation Day, the dye job only cost $18.

That’s more than $50 saved. And I got a pumpkin muffin to snack on.

I don’t think Sally will be seeing me again.

As for my peer pressure friend — well, I don’t talk to her these days anyway.

Harbor Freight

I was out with some friends last night, all sitting around a big table in a restaurant. I got into a conversation with a friend who was telling me about a crane he’d bought at Harbor Freight and had attached to his cargo trailer. He’s been collecting and selling scrap metal lately and needed something to lift engine blocks.

Harbor Freight, if you aren’t familiar with it, is a company that sells “quality tools at ridiculously low prices.” That’s what it says on their website. I can confirm the low prices, but I can’t agree about the quality. Most of what they sell is pretty crappy stuff.

But not all of it. My friend and I chatted about this. The “you get what you pay for” phrase was thrown around a bit. We both agreed that you had to think about how you planned to use what you were buying when making that purchase decision. If it was something you’d use occasionally and rather lightly, Harbor Freight was probably a good source. But if it was something that you needed to use hard and frequently — something you wanted to last a good, long time — Harbor Freight probably wasn’t the place to go.


Most of my friends hate Walmart. It’s a policy thing — low pay and questionable promotional practices for employees, an abundance of cheap, low quality merchandise, and an atmosphere that appeals to the kind of shopper that most of us simply don’t want to get too close to.

I hate Walmart, too. But I have to admit here that I do occasionally shop there. Why? Because it sells two things I use every day at a price too low to pass up:

  • Eight O'ClockThe first is coffee. I like Eight O’Clock coffee. It’s a medium or perhaps light roast Arabica bean. I grind it myself and brew it strong, by the cup. I’ve been doing this for at least 15 years, if not longer. I’ve tried other coffees over the years but always come back to this one. And if there’s one thing that’s important for me to get right, it’s that first cup of coffee in the morning. Trouble is, Eight O’Clock coffee isn’t easy to find. And when I do find it, it’s expensive. Walmart has it for $4.99/package. That’s $2/package less than I can buy it directly from Eight O’Clock’s website.
  • Penny eats Cesar dog food. Yes, it’s the foo-foo dog food that comes in tiny plastic containers. She eats one every morning. They come in many flavors and are easy to store and serve. And travel with. It just makes sense. Unfortunately, Safeway and Fred Meyer sell it for $1.29/container. Cesar Dog FoodSometimes, if it’s on sale, I can get it for 10 for $10 ($1/container). But Walmart sells it for 70¢/container. So let’s do the math here. Suppose I’d always buy it on sale at Fred Meyer for $1/container. Walmart saves me 30¢/container. 365 days in a year is $109 saved. And since I’m going to Walmart for my coffee anyway…

Yes, there is a point here. By buying these two things in Walmart, I’m getting exactly what I want for less money than it would cost elsewhere. Quality isn’t an issue — it’s the same exact thing I could get somewhere else. In this case, I’m getting what I pay for but I’m paying a lot less.

Is my monthly shopping expeditions to Walmart to buy two things is supporting Walmart policies? Maybe. But hell, I need my coffee!

More Examples?

I can probably spend weeks blogging about other examples, but I think you get the idea. You can probably even come up with a few of your own examples.

I think the point I’m trying to make is this: when shopping for what’s best for you, it’s important to not only consider price, but to also consider the quality of what you’re getting. Don’t assume that low price means low quality — often, it doesn’t. Often, you can get the same quality for a lower price.

But not always. A smart shopper — especially someone who wants (or needs) to save money — has to look at the big picture with every purchase decision.

The Joys of Online Shopping

Why visit stores?

I have gotten to the point where I do about 75% of my non-grocery shopping online. I’m willing to bet that a good portion of the folks who read this are in the same situation. The rest of you might wonder why.

The Shipping Cost Argument

Most people use this as their argument against online shopping: if you shop in a store, you don’t pay shipping.

Okay, this is true. But I still have to get to the store. That takes time and costs money for fuel.

While I’m more concerned with the value of my time than the cost of fuel to drive to a store that has what I need, I won’t deny that I probably would have to drive at least 80 miles roundtrip from my Wickenburg home to find the item I’m looking for.

Let’s do the math here.

First, my time. Suppose I have to drive 80 miles round trip to get to a store that might have what I want to buy. Suppose I can get to the store in about an hour and that it takes me a half hour to find what I want to buy and pay for it. Then another hour to get home. That’s 2-1/2 hours. But what if the store that I thought had what I wanted didn’t have it? Then I have to go to another store, which may or may not be nearby. Let’s estimate 30 minutes for each store I visit. Now let’s estimate 2 stores per item I need to buy. So if I have to buy something as simple as a pair of jeans, I might be spending about 3 hours to get to the store, find them in my size and color, buy them, and get home. In 3 hours, I can write a how-to article for publication on a Web site that pays me several hundred dollars per article. So I’m potentially losing out on several hundred dollars of income.

Okay, so suppose I wasn’t planning on doing anything else that day. For the sake of argument, let’s assume my time is worthless.

But let’s look at the fuel costs. Suppose I drive that in my Honda, which gets about 20-25 miles per gallon highway. There’s some highway driving and some nasty “city” driving in terrible traffic where I usually shop. To make the math easier, let’s assume 20 miles per gallon. That’s 4 gallons for the 80 miles. Fuel prices for premium (which this little car takes) have ranged from $1.50 to $5.00 per gallon over the past year. We’ll use today’s price, which is about $2 per gallon. That’s $8 in fuel alone.

How much is the shipping cost for that pair of jeans?

It’s Not Secure

What? Get with the program. If you shop smart online, your transaction is secure.

In fact, it’s probably more secure than handing your credit card to a waiter in a restaurant where it’s all too easy to copy down credit card information before running a charge for your meal. Or reciting it over the phone, in a place where it could be overheard, or to a company that may or may not have honest employees or good intentions.

What’s risky is entering credit card information in unsecured forms online. Look for the lock icon on the edge of your browser window to ensure that a form is secure. You can also look at the URL; it should start with https (note the all-important “s”). Another thing that’s risky is putting your credit card information in an e-mail message. There’s no reason to do it, so don’t.

It Doesn’t Support the Local Economy

Well, that’s certainly true. But neither does shopping at the mall. Or at Wal-Mart.

And neither does hiring staff in India or China or Pakistan to provide telephone support or make products.

Let’s not go there, okay?

Today’s Purchase

Simply said, online shopping is fast, convenient, and affordable. Here’s an example.

Chef PantsI just bought 3 pairs of the “chef” style baggy pants I like to wear. (And no, I didn’t buy them with this crazy pattern — although you have to admit they look pretty funky.) As I was buying them online, my husband pointed out that he knows a place in Phoenix that sells “those kind of pants.” But do they sell the brand I’m wearing right now? The brand that seems to be cut perfectly for my middle-aged body and relatively long legs? And how much do they sell for there? These are all unknowns. There’s a chance that I could track down the store he knows and spend 30 minutes in there only to find out that they don’t have what I want. That my time wasted.

I found an online retailer that sold the pants I wanted by doing a Google search for a brand name. I immediately saw a store I’d bought from in the past, as well as a bunch of other online stores. Within about 10 minutes, I confirmed that the store I’d used before had the colors I was interested in at the best price. (You want to buy your own pair? The pants are from Five Star Fundamentals and the online store is AllHeartsChefs. These a great pants.) The entire shop-and-buy transaction took 15 minutes of my time as I sat at the kitchen table, enjoying my morning coffee.

Shipping on these three pairs of pants was a hefty $12.50. That’s a lot more than the $8 of fuel that I use up on a Wickenburg to Peoria shopping trip. But guess what? There was no sales tax added to my purchase. That saved me about $4.50. Oddly enough, when you add the cost of fuel to the sales tax I saved, it results in exactly $12.50 for this purchase. So the net savings was just my time.

And I’ll continue to argue that my time is of value to me.

The Death of Brick and Mortar Retailers

Online shopping is going to put a lot of brick and mortar retailers out of business. It’s sad, but is it such a bad thing? Don’t you think we have enough strip malls in this country? Aren’t you sick of seeing “big box” stores popping up all over the place, causing traffic jams during the day and blotting out the night sky with their parking lot lights?

Yes, there’s a loss of jobs. Or maybe it’s just a shift of jobs from malls to warehouses.

The benefits — as far as being green go — are real. People argue that when you buy online, the item has to be shipped to you and the shipper has a carbon footprint. That’s true, but don’t I have a carbon footprint when I drive my Honda down to Peoria and back to buy a single pair of jeans? The UPS guy, in contrast, is bringing goods for dozens — if not hundreds — of Wickenburg residents every time he comes to down. He’s doing the driving for all of us. And the more online shopping we do, the more driving we don’t have to do — while his driving remains almost the same.

This is the same argument the railroads have been using lately to say why shipping freight via rail is more green than shipping via truck. They’re already making the trip; adding more items doesn’t substantially increase the carbon footprint.

Personally, I’d like to see malls go away. I’d like to see downtowns revitalized. I’d love to be able to go to downtown Wickenburg and shop for things like clothes and shoes and books and music. I’d love to sit at an outdoor coffee shop with friends in my own town, with shopping bags at our feet while we discuss the bargains we’ve found. None of that kind of shopping is available in my town or anywhere near it.

Just as malls are killing downtown shopping, online retailers are killing malls.

And the way I see it, I’ve wasted enough time and money shopping. When I want to buy, I’ll buy it online.

What do you think? Use the Comments link or form to share your thoughts.

Christmas Off-the-Grid, Part III

It can’t all work right at once.

I woke early Tuesday morning with a bright light in my face. It was the light of the full moon.

A Winter Morning at Howard Mesa

View from ShedWe sleep on a loft in the camping shed. There’s a wall to wall carpet up there with a mattress on top and a pair of very short night tables, one on each side. We make the bed just like we make our bed at home: with sheets and blankets and a cosy comforter. Our heads are right beneath a window that looks out on my favorite view: northwest toward Mount Trumbull.

We usually sleep with the blinds open so we can look out at the night sky if we happen to wake in the middle of the night. On a moonless night, its very dark outside, with just a few pinpoints of light representing far-off ranches. The sky, of course, is full of stars and the glow of the milky way on most moonless nights. If it’s cloudy, we can see the reflection of the lights of Las Vegas, at least 100 miles away, on the cloud bottoms out to the west.

But the moon yesterday morning was so bright that I had to shut the blinds to get another hour of sleep.

It was cold in the shed: in the 50s. The heat was on and set to 70° but the shed, which is insulated, was no match for the 27° cold outside. I changed from my pajamas to a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt. Since the power level was a bit low, I made my coffee with a stovetop percolator. I heated up Alex the Bird’s scrambled eggs — which I’d made in the microwave at home before coming to Howard Mesa — in a piece of aluminum foil on top of the heater. I let Jack the Dog out and then back in. With the critters fed and Mike still up in bed, I spent some time working on a blog entry.

Toilet Woes

[Note: The following is a somewhat graphic description of a sanitary problem we’re having at the shed. If you’re easily offended by discussions of toilet operations, please skip this section.]

The toilet was not working properly. The shed has an RV toilet, which we installed because it would use less water.

Now most folks reading this probably know how a standard toilet works. There’s a fixture with a seat and a bowl and a tank on back (or up high). You do your business in the bowl and then use a handle or a pull-cord to flush. The water in the tank rushes into the bowl, flushing the bowl’s contents down the drain and filling the bowl with fresh water. Pretty basic stuff.

An RV toilet works a bit differently. There’s no tank of water. Instead, there’s a foot or hand pedal that lets you put water from your water source into the bowl. You do your business and then use the pedal to open the bottom of the bowl so the contents drop out. Clean water swooshes around the bowl to clean it a bit, but it goes down the drain, too. So the bowl is usually pretty empty between uses. The benefit of this system for an RV — or cabin where you have to haul your own water — is that you can use as much (or as little) water as you like to take care of business.

The problem with the toilet was that the valve to let water into the bowl wasn’t working. You’d push the foot pedal and the bottom would open to drop the bowl contents into the septic system, but no water would rush in to clean the bowl, etc. We used what we called “manual flush” — we kept a bucket of clean water in the bathroom and used that to add and flush water down the drain after using the toilet. Sanitation was not impaired; the bathroom was still clean and the toilet was still flushed.

And the rest of the plumbing worked fine — right down to the water heater.

We figured that the toilet’s valve had water in it that had frozen, thus preventing the flow of water. But the shed had been above freezing for close to a full day, so the chances of it still being frozen were minimal.

After breakfast, Mike worked on the problem. He removed the valve. The plastic pipe had bulged and cracked under stress where water had frozen in it. The valve was broken.

It was the day before Christmas, on a Monday. We worked the phones, using our Flagstaff phone book. The one place that was likely to have the part was closed. No other place that was open had the part.

Mike put the bad valve back on so the pedal would work. (I was not interested in reaching behind the bottom of the toilet to manually twist and untwist the valve control after using the facilities.) And we realized that we’d be on manual flush for the rest of our stay.

It seems to me that every time we come up here, something isn’t working right. Last time was the heater — Mike had to remove a mouse nest from it before it would work. On other visits, it was the water heater not relighting automatically when it should, the water pump cutting out in the middle of a shower, or cracked pipes.

It would be nice to come up here and have everything working right at the same time.


We spent a good portion of the day in Flagstaff, the nearest city to Howard Mesa.

Flagstaff is a great town, with a wonderful mix of people of different ages and nationalities and backgrounds. It’s a melting pot where young and old get together to steer economic growth. So you’ll find all kinds of businesses there, from hippie gift shops smelling of incense to book shops to sporting goods shops to natural food stores. It also has all the standard big box stores, including Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Target, and Sam’s Club.

Yesterday, we went into Flagstaff for lunch, to walk around the historic downtown area, and to pick up a few odd things we needed. There was quite a bit of snow on the ground, but it had been plowed or shoveled off the roads and sidewalks, leaving scattered ice and some very impressive icicles hanging from rooflines. Traffic was lighter than usual — probably because NAU was between semesters and most of the students had gone home. We still had some trouble finding a parking spot downtown, but soon were parked on Humphrey’s.

There was a Japanese restaurant on Route 66, right around the corner, that I wanted to try. When we got there, it was closed.

We walked around town. There was a Thai restaurant at the Hotel Monte Vista. I like Thai food, but every time we’d looked into the place at lunchtime, it was empty. On that day, there were about a half dozen people inside at noon. We decided to give it a try.

Good choice. The menu was extensive, the service was friendly, and the food was served good and hot. We shared a hot pot of soup, some spring rolls, and an order of short ribs. The ribs were good, but when the guy next to me got his curry, I decided I’d try that next time. I really like curry. Meanwhile, the place filled up. It wasn’t until we left that I realized the place was under new management.

We went into Babbitt’s and a few of the other downtown shops. They were all winding down from the Christmas shopping rush. There were other shoppers, but not many.

Wal-Mart and Beyond

Mike decided that there might be a chance of finding the toilet valve at Wal-Mart, since some Wal-Mart stores stock RV parts and supplies. He talked me into going into Wal-Mart with him. The day before Christmas.

We parked on the side near the garden shop area, which was full of Christmas stuff. One step inside and my stress level rose considerably.

I’ve been in Wal-Marts before, but the one in Flag has to be the worst. It’s an older store, much smaller than the Super Wal-Marts going up all over the country. To fit all that merchandise in the store, they have very tall shelves on rather narrow aisles. The result is claustrophobic. The store was full of last-minute shoppers looking for crap from China to give as gifts or to decorate their homes.

We found the RV Accessories aisle and realized after a moment that they wouldn’t have the part we needed. I immediately went into escape mode, plotting my way out of the store with the least interaction with anyone else. Mike, on the other hand, wanted to get all the items on our little list there: a pencil sharpener, RV antifreeze (to fill drain traps when we leave), distilled water (for our solar setup’s batteries), 9v battery (for our smoke/carbon monoxide detector), hand sanitizer. That would have us running all over the store, which was not a viable option for me. So when he found the antifreeze not far from the RV Accessories, I talked him into buying just that and stopping at a supermarket for the rest.

I endured the recorded sound of dogs barking to the tune of Jingle Bells at the check out area before we emerged back into the sunshine.

We got back into the truck and drove to the nearby Basha’s Supermarket. We got everything on our list there, then headed back to Howard Mesa.

Afternoon and Evening at the Shed

Back at the shed, it was nice and toasty. The outside temperature had risen to the 40s but the sun was very strong, beating on the front of the shed and coming through the front windows. It was in the 70s in the shed. The wind was blowing lightly outside — not enough to find the cracks around the windows and the rest of the structure.

We each took good, hot showers and changed into comfortable lounging clothes. I made up a little cheese platter and opened a bottle of wine. We relaxed and read and studied IFR charts.

We each opened a present. I got a bottle of absinthe from Mike. Mike got a watch-winder cabinet from me. We had three presents left to open: two for me and one for him. I’m pretty certain there’s a small pile of presents on my doorstep at home.

Mike made some pasta for dinner. I was still full from lunch and our snack, so I didn’t eat much.

For our evening entertainment, we tried to play a DVD we’d brought along. My MacBook Pro’s CD/DVD drive is dead — I discovered that just the other day and will be sending it back to Apple for repair next week. So Mike had brought his Dell laptop. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem able to play a DVD either.

So we played dominos and listened to music.

Now this might seem boring to you. I won’t lie and say it’s exciting. What I will say, however, is that it’s restful. Our place is small and far from neighbors and paved roads. No one drives by. The only sound is the wind and an occasional coyote howl.

The only thing that could make this a nicer place to spend Christmas eve is a fireplace with a real yule log burning in it.

And a fully working toilet.