Finances: the way my mother puts it, they’re simple. Take in more money than you shell out.
But what happens when something essential arises that I need to spend money on? I’m not talking the strap of a Louis Vuitton bag or a fancy wine, but things like health care, home appliances, or cars. I’m trying to watch what I spend right now, but when I absolutely need something, what should I actually spend more on—rather than logging onto Craigslist or doing without—because it might last longer or because the quality is better?
1. A Mattress
It’s the place we go to drift off to sleep, roll over to start each day, and do many other, ahem, activities. This isn’t somewhere to cut corners. “A high-quality mattress will have features that make it worth more than the cheaper or used versions,” says Trudi Davis, a former mattress salesperson. She says a good mattress will be consistent in firmness—meaning the corners and the middle have equal give. It’ll also have thicker, higher quality padding that prevents sagging, making it last longer and helping you avoid back and neck problems. We spend about a third of our lives in bed. If we do it right, we can spend the other two-thirds well-rested.
2. A Refrigerator
I’d probably go without a bed before I’d go without a fridge. According to Lowe’s refrigerator buying guide, a fridge for two people should have eight to ten feet in storage space, with an additional foot for every additional person. Make sure your fridge has an Energy Star rating. This means it’ll save you money the entire time you own it since Energy Star fridges use 10% to 20% less electricity. A good refrigerator will also make your food last longer, with frost-free features, temperature control, and drawers that keep delicate foods at stable temperatures. That said, there’s absolutely nothing vital about some of the latest inventions I saw in my local Sears—I’ll probably forego the customizable digital displays, flat panel TV mounted on the door front, and built-in filtration.
3. Running Shoes
As a runner, I learned the hard way what scrimping on running shoes will do to your body. When training for my first marathon, I went to Payless and bought a pair that cost about thirty bucks. My first thought: sweet deal. Three weeks later? I’d developed shin splints and runner’s knee. After a scolding from my doctor and being forced to take two weeks off from my training schedule, I went to my nearest running store and picked up a quality pair, plus pads to put inside of them for more cushioning. I never had shin splints again.
Whatever your workout is, invest in the right equipment. Otherwise, you’ll be spending money down the line on medical bills and the equipment you should’ve gotten in the first place. You’ll run for a good six months in a quality pair of shoes—and contribute to your health and happiness.
4. Food. Sometimes
Speaking of health … choosing quality food over cheap, processed stuff translates to lasting health benefits (and less medical bills down the road). This doesn’t mean making hundred-dollar restaurant bills and gourmet salad bars part of your routine, but it does mean shopping smart at the grocery store.
When funds are limited, nutritionist Jane Davis says the organic priority list should look something like this: fruits and vegetables, meats, dairy, eggs, then grains.
In the produce section, go organic first on thin-skinned fruits and veggies, since they absorb pesticides at the highest rate. (Things like strawberries are very absorbent.) If you still can’t swallow the Whole Foods prices, check out a nearby farmer’s market. They’re usually cheaper than any grocery store and you can ask the farmer directly whether chemicals have been used on the food you’re about to buy.
5. Preventive Health
Even with healthy eating and exercising, we’re still bound to end up at the doctor’s office eventually. How to preempt paying for an ambulance, emergency room visit, physical therapy, and anything else that comes along with an unexpected illness or injury? Regular doctor and dentist visits, of course. (It’s another one of those things that our mothers always told us.)
If your health insurance doesn’t cover the dentist, like mine, check out other plans. I found that many do cover 100% of preventive checkups. At the least, you can deduct what you pay from your taxes. Regular cleanings and checkups can catch a health problem early, which not only saves money, but possibly your life.
6. An Accountant
“I do all the bookkeeping for my family business,” says Karen Hastey, who owns a photography business with her husband. “But we have an accountant do our taxes each year to make sure we’re getting all the deductions and returns we possibly can.”
Unless you have formal training, you should have a professional take you through tax filing at least once. There are tons of deductions for which you may not even realize you’re eligible. When I bought a Prius a few years back, I would never have known that I could get almost $1,000 back had my CPA not pointed it out.
7. Mental Health
Can you put a price on acquiring the tools and techniques you need to live a happy life? “Therapy helped guide me out of a depression and taught me triggers and ways to cope when I’m feeling down,” says Sarah Segal. Therapy definitely isn’t cheap, but the healing process it can take us through is often necessary to living happily and successfully. Check with your insurance provider for details on your coverage; if your primary physician recommends it, it will often be covered.
8. Quality Furniture
As any former college student can attest, cheap furniture is best avoided whenever possible. Do you really want your future mother-in-law to come over and sit in a chair that collapses, or deal with constant backaches because of the lawn chair you’re using at your desk? Whether you’re talking kitchen table or couch, getting one that lasts and makes you comfortable means spending a little more.
“I got a fake leather couch because it was significantly cheaper than the leather version of an armchair,” says Bryan Silverman. “Unfortunately the fake leather started to smell funny within a few months, and I had to replace it with the nicer version anyway.”
9. A Hybrid Car
Yes, they’re sometimes more expensive—especially with the current gas crisis—but hybrid owners end up having the last laugh. (That said, make sure the hybrid you’re looking at does actually have low gas mileage. Some, like SUV hybrids, do not.)
According to Consumer Reports, the Honda Civic Hybrid has the lowest total ownership cost—everything from sticker price, insurance, repairs, and resale value. The Toytoa Prius has the highest gas mileage. Spending a bit more now will undoubtedly save you money later—and it’s good for the earth.
10. Durable Pans and Knives
Cheap knives and pans will burn your food, cut your fingers, rust, and warp, leaving you in need of new pans and knives before you know it. Honestly, scrimping on these items is not worth it. Pay more for quality cookware and it’ll last years. “A cheap knife will blunt quickly, and is probably not formed to best cut whatever it is that you’re working with,” says culinary student Natasha Costa. She advises maintaining nice knives by hand washing them straight away instead of soaking or dishwashing them. (Both will dull and corrode knives.) Keep them in tip-top shape by picking up a small sharpener to use daily before cutting.
While it’s always a good plan to look for the best buy before shelling out cash, we shouldn’t feel bad if our research ends up showing that paying full price (or a higher one) is actually the best option. Financial success in tight times means avoiding the frivolous—even though I want to, I won’t be picking up fancy wine or designer bags any time soon because I don’t need them. What I do need, however, is a place to put my food, a place to sleep, my health, and some comfy furniture to sit on. Who says when times are tough we can’t shop at all?