The Upgrade Value

I’m learning a song on guitar because I’m going to play it on the JoCo Cruise, and I’ve been practicing it both on the Acoustasonic I got for Christmas, and on a travel-sized Washburn guitar that costs roughly a tenth of what the Acoustasonic costs. If you think this is going to go “and I could barely tell the difference between the two!” boy, are you ever wrong, because, wow, is there ever a difference, in terms of tone, feel, and ease of fretting.

There’s nothing wrong with the Washburn, to be clear; it’s meant to be a cheap and cheerful little guitar you can haul along with you on your adventures and not worry about banging up. It’s why I’m taking it on a cruise. I like it a lot and I’m glad I have it. It’s simply that, because I was practicing the song on both guitars, this is the first time I really had reason to make a side by side comparison of the two, and could observe the adage “you get what you pay for” is sometimes accurate. Is the Acoustasonic ten times better than the Washburn? Probably not, for whatever values you might assign to being better. But is it noticeably of higher quality? Yup.

Incidental to this is the question of whether I’m a good enough player of either instrument to make an accurate assessment — it’s possible that if I were a better player, I could make the Washburn sound better; it’s it’s very likely that at least some of the gulf between the two instruments is that the Acoustasonic is far more forgiving of my mediocrity. I remember watching a YouTube video where an expert guitarist is playing a toy guitar in a Wal-Mart and shredding on the thing; it’s a reminder that it’s the player as much and even more than it is the instrument.

I’m not an especially fancy person and there are a lot of places in my life where I’m not convinced that the upgrade value is there — I’m deeply unlikely to ever pay more than $25 for a t-shirt, as an example, because while a $100 t-shirt may be a joy to wear, I’m hard pressed to see that joy being worth $75 extra. Likewise, having ridden in very expensive cars, I recognize there is a material difference between a $100,000 car and a $30,000 one, but generally speaking the differences aren’t things I personally care much about. Guitars, it appears, are a place I’m willing to pay a little extra for that upgrade. If you have places where the upgrade is worth it to you, I’m curious to know what they are.

In the meantime, I’ll keep practicing the song, on the Washburn, because I’ll be traveling. Hopefully I can make it sound good, or at least better, before I have to perform it. The song, I mean. I’m not going to blame the Washburn if it doesn’t get there.


60 Comments on “The Upgrade Value”

  1. “…far more forgiving of my mediocrity.”

    Good gear helps you make the best of modest ability. Assuming you have *some*. No amount of ‘quality’ will turn the unwilling-to-practice into experts or even ‘competent’.

  2. > If you have places where the upgrade is worth it to you, I’m curious to know what they are.

    Shoes. I used to get a new pair of $20 Target shoes every year. They’d always fall apart after a year or so, and I’d pay another $20. Then I paid $150 for a good pair of shoes, and they’re still going strong a decade later.

  3. Joe D’s point is fight on in many ways. Disposable fashion may be cheap now, but much more expensive in the long run. And that does not even account for the increase in trash from throwing out disposable fashion!

  4. Never enough guitars.
    Some songs sound better on different guitars.
    I have a very cheap electric guitar and the AC/DC songs I belt out occasionally sound better than when I try same songs on the 12 strings or my semi acoustic. Similarly, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down is so much prettier on the 12 string.
    But traveling, tough choices

  5. Genuine maple syrup, man. If you grew up on that plastic-bottle corn-syrup stuff, just do yourself a favor and shell out the fifteen bucks for some of the real stuff. You will notice the difference. The best part is, unless you’re eating waffles every day or something, the extra expense amortizes over such a long time you probably won’t care.

  6. I feel your pain, John. I had a lovely classical guitar that got stolen years ago. I’ve never been able to replace it because it was broken in and it was *mine*. It knew me, my hands, fit me, etc. Nothing has replaced it since. Now I’ve got carpel tunnel so playing its frustrating even though the little I can do brings me joy (& pain).

    Ok, pity party, party of one is going to go sit in the corner and drink her coffee. Cheers. Lovely pic of your Spice Case.

  7. This one is going to be a little weird, but my upgrade is commuting. I take the Amtrak instead of local train transit or buses, because of the tray tables and the on-time ratio (only available on the Northeast Corridor). It’s not only worth it in comfort but also productivity: I’ve written 7 stories in the past 9 months and I have the train to thank for it.

  8. Cars. My first car was junk – a $250 1974 Vega with more rust than car. A disappointment that was all I could afford since my dad had recently died and money was tight. So, when I finally got financially stable, I went for a nicer car than I really need and I’ve always continued with that. I mean, I don’t really need a car with the 22 way seats with heat and massage I have now, but man, it certainly makes me feel good – beyond the raw physical comfort – to have it.

  9. Junk food. $30 a pound chocolates worth buying. $50 a pound chocolates even more so. Nothing wrong with the best $25 a pound chocolates. Don’t even bother with anything cheaper than that.

    Also, I went to my doctor about foot pain and she said, those shoes I was wearing SEEMED to have enough arch support. I said, yeah, but I spend 99% of the time in flip flops. She urged me to buy more expensive sandals. I said, yeah, but I can buy 30 pairs of flip flops for one pair of those. She said to just buy one pair of those. I did. My foot pain went away. Plus the one pair of expensive sandals is still going strong.

  10. When I was getting started in photography and buying gear, someone gave me this advice: “Buy the cheap(er) stuff, and use it until it’s the equipment holding you back, not your skill level.” Which I think is fairly applicable to any gear that requires skill to use, as opposed to clothing and the like.

  11. Shoes. Cheap ones don’t last and they hurt my feet and they suck. So I’m generally willing to pay better money in the $100-$150 range if necessary for a decent pair of running/athletic shoes. I initially learned to play guitar (such as I do) on a very old inherited Kay my wife had laying around the house, which is a pretty archtop, but not a terribly good guitar. So when I bought a new electric-acoustic, I bought a decent Taylor. I had arguments with myself at the time whether to drop another $100 on a cutaway, but didn’t, because I’m kind of cheap. I think guitars tend to get quite a bit better up to a certain point, where you get diminishing returns. Bicycles, if you’re a serious biker, tends to be the same way in my experience, but I’m otherwise pretty happy with my $1000 hybrid, although I have occasionally lusted after a gravel bike in the $2500 range and seriously lusted after a Trek mountain bike in the $5000+ range.

  12. Cheese.

    I mean, food in general honestly, but I really notice the difference with cheese. A good mature cheddar is worth eating but you also don’t need to eat as much to get the flavour; cheese-flavoured food is… not worth the calories.

  13. Running shoes specifically, athletic gear in general.

    The Army, and my desire to stay in shape, have put a lot of miles on these legs. I learned very early on that if I wanted to keep doing it for the long haul, going cheap on shoes would cost me my knees. Those seem to be far more expensive and more difficult to replace.
    I also play hockey, both as a defense man and a goalie, and the difference in quality for gear at one price point to the next is something you can generally appreciate. I saved and bought the goalie gear I wanted and knew would do the trick rather than risk injury. There are sub par helmets (*ahem* Bauer NME 4) that may be certified, but will save you from a concussion like a higher quality helmet. Like knees, brains are notoriously picky about their treatment.

  14. Camera and lens. When location, lighting, and all the other factors combine to make a good photo, I don’t want the lack of quality gear to be the thing that keeps it from being a good photo.

  15. I have two pianos – a 70-year old Steinway I inherited from my grandfather, and an electronic board – one that was top of the line when purchased 12 years ago. I love my Steinway, but honestly I use the electronic more. Largely because I can stick on headphones, and then no one can hear me practicing. I’m almost never alone in my house, and I do not like having my practicing overheard. At all.

    Flutes, otoh. I have a student Gemeinhart – a good sturdy, forgiving instrument, and a Haynes solid silver with a custom headjoint, which is finicky as all hell. I never touch the Gemeinhart anymore, unless the Haynes is in the shop. The Haynes tone is so much better, and the finicky aspect helps me become a better flutist, because if my technique is sort-of/kind-of right, the Gemeinhart will generally give me what I’m looking for, while the Haynes will reflect the so-so technique – sometimes drastically. I got that flute through a fluke, for far less than it’s worth, and I guard it with my life, and love it like it’s my third kid.

    It’s probably good that my other instruments are voice and organ, where I don’t get any say in what I have access to, and my only job is learning to make the best of what I’ve got.

  16. Dude, you’re going on a CRUISE….? Check the news headlines please. I love Whatever and enjoy its host’s musings on various topics but I SO do not want to read your thoughts on being quarantined on a cruise ship, etcetera….

  17. Oh, the difference is incredibly obvious in binoculars – not just the optics (although there it’s far more impressive than I expected at first), but also in the way the binoculars ‘feel’ in the hand. Some of that is naturally going to be personal preference, but little things like the stiffness of the focusing wheel/knob, the stiffness of the hinge, the ease of setting the specific focus to your eyes, and the degree it holds that focus so you don’t have to keep constantly adjusting it every day, etc., etc. It’s not always reflected in the price, either – I got a $100 pair now that are as good as the $300 pair that was stolen from me years ago, and hugely better than the $70 pair I have relegated to car duties. For me, this is about my only vice, being pretty low on money, but it’s an expense I have never regretted. Food, shoes, clothes, all those things are nice, but I can manage fine with lower-quality stuff. But good binoculars can make the difference between going “That’s a Violet-eared Tody-Buzzard! They’re not supposed to be found here!” and “Well, it looks like it might be either a woodpecker or an eagle, but I just can’t be sure..” And when it comes right down to it, what in life is more important than that?

  18. I tried several times to learn guitar. Only when I bought a quality instrument – a Taylor – has it begun to work. A Taylor GS Mini would be ideal for your cruise.

  19. Kitchen knives and stand mixers. The difference between my sturdy and powerful Viking mixer and the last Kitchenaid I suffered through is far more than the extra $200 the Viking cost. Viking doesn’t make mixers any more, so I’m hoping this one lasts another 10 years or that someone is miraculously selling a brand new one on eBay when I need to replace it.

  20. SRV. Walmart-style. Dig it.

    John, that hotshot probably tested a few of those Walmart guitars before he found one with decent action and serviceable strings. And I’m impressed that guitar actually held its tuning.

    I’ve discovered that quality always varies on mass-produced guitars of the same type. But it varies more among the low-end instruments. (There are gems out there among low-end instruments, but you have to drive more than a few Guitar Center employees nuts to find one.)

    One more thing: In my playing experience, tone comes from the fingers as much, and probably more, than it does from the instrument.

    Rock on.

  21. Blues musician R. L. Burnside built an entire career on a cheap as shit Silvertone guitar from the Sears catalog. An astonishing number of Delta blues artists at least got their start on Silvertones.

  22. Definitely shoes, but rather than athletic shoes (which are worth the expense, to be clear, not arguing that) I spend money on dress shoes for work. About 8 years ago I earned a substantial reward at a high-end store, and I indulged myself by spending $200 on dress shoes, which are still going strong and I’m still wearing them today. Men’s shoes, that is — our fashion changes very slowly, and hardly at all in the business wear category. The comfort was great but the durability is absolutely outstanding, and saved me a ton of money rather than buying multiple pairs of cheap shoes. It’s not something I’d have ever done without the initial discount, but after a couple of years I realized the math was actually working out in my favor. I’ve bought a couple other colors, and those were my last dress shoe purchases to date.

  23. For me it’s writing paper and writing implements. I write by hand a lot: for work, for class, journaling, etc. I’m partial to Clairfontaine paper, found in Clairfontaine and Rhodia notebooks and pads, Blackwing pencils, and Lamy Fountain pens. Handwriting is one of those mundane tasks that quality tools turns into a pleasure. The pen/pencil just glides over the paper; I’d say it almost floats. Writing takes less physical effort because you don’t have to use as much pressure. Even the sound made by good paper and good pens/pencils is more pleasant than that made by the cheap stuff. The cheap stuff is scratchy, and the sound is abrasive, like sanding wood. A Blackwing pencil on Clairfontaine paper sounds like a light breeze blowing through tall summer grass. Writing with a good fountain pen on good paper feels more like painting than handwriting. If you’re outside writing on a sunny day, the ink on the paper glistens with hundreds of little jewels while the ink is drying. It’s totally worth the extra cost for me.

  24. About that Washburn: you mentioned tone, feel, and ease of fretting. Well, I can’t help you with the first two, but ease of fretting can be greatly improved by a good technician.

    Like dchotin, I started with an inexpensive instrument (a ukulele in my case) and worked at it until I was good enough that I felt I deserved an upgrade. The “action”–how hard I had to press the strings to hit the frets–was high, and that made it somewhat fatiguing to play. I learned that’s common with inexpensive stringed instruments. To achieve low action, the frets have to be perfectly set and perfectly even; otherwise the strings will buzz. Making the strings higher avoids this and lets the instrument maker get away with looser tolerances, but at the expense of playability.

    When my playing had gotten to the point where I felt I’d earned something better, I bought a Les Paul ukulele–yes, they do exist!–and liked it a lot. It had much lower action and was a pleasure to play, compared to the cheapie I started with. But it did have an occasional buzzing problem.

    I took both instruments to a music shop and asked them to have their technician work them over. A couple of weeks later I got them back. What a difference! The cheapie was much more comfortable to play, and the Les Paul no longer buzzed.

    Moral: even an inexpensive stringed instrument can be improved by a good technician.

  25. Thanks for sharing some more thoughts on the acoustasonic. I love what dchotin said. I’ve always went cheap on tools, and been pretty happy with the results, but as my skills progressed, I realized the problems and/or limitations with the budget priced items were causing. They were great to start with but eventually I’ve had to upgrade a lot of them, and am planning on upgrading the remaining ones as finances allow.

  26. Apart from musical instruments, I’ve learned the hard way not to cheap out when buying tools. Sure, I know the old saying about a poor carpenter blaming his tools, but the difference between (say) the $11 Radio Shack soldering iron and a decent one with temperature control was the difference between frustrating, terminal-shorting blobs of solder and quick, easy, professional looking solder joints. I spent YEARS dreading any project that required soldering, and now I actually look forward to them.

    (Likewise with masonry drill bits, hammers, and such – but on the other hand, I took the advice of the hardware store employee who advised me that the less expensive router was actually better than the ones with household names, and I haven’t regretted it.)

  27. Change the strings on the Washburn. Try a set of Elixir Nanoweb light-gauge. (They make sets for both electric and acoustic guitars.) They’ll make any guitar sound better, they last longer because they resist finger-grease, and they’re more likely not to be dulled as quickly by salt air, though the last is just a guess. I have half a dozen guitars, electric and acoustic, and these are the only strings I use. (I’m not a professional guitarist, but I have played in various bands and solo gigs.)
    One other thought: Make sure the action (how hard it is to push the strings to the frets to get a clean sound) on the Washburn is decent. On many cheap guitars, it’s real work to fret the strings, which means you often get muddy tone. If that’s the case, you could have a guitar shop adjust the action. However, if it’s just a lie-around-and-leave-out guitar, go with extra-light-gauge strings. There is a near-imperceptible decrease in tonal quality more than made up by the gain in playing ease and clean contact with the fret.

  28. There are a bunch of things where I believe in paying more to get more, but the easiest example to me hasn’t been mentioned yet: boxed macaroni and cheese. Never bother with anything other than Kraft. It may be a difference of less than a dollar a box, but it is absolutely worth the extra dollar. (Of course, none of this compares to a good homemade version, but that’s beside the point.)

  29. Was just going to say what dontchawonder said regarding a little action tuning! A mid/lower level guitar can be helped immensely by a little work on the action!! I do mine myself, so not sure if it’d be worth it to you to have it done on your new Washburn. But damn, it helps.

  30. My policy is there is no point in owning a $5,000 guitar when I only have $100 hands.

    I have a lot of opportunity to play ridiculously expensive guitars. Having said that, my two favorite guitars EVAR are a $200 Epiphone Dot and a $150 Yamaha. Perhaps someday I will attain a level of skill where that kind of dollar difference matters, but right now (and for the last couple of decades) it doesn’t.

  31. I used to play the violin, when I was much younger. I was… workmanlike, at best. But I was the best violin player at my school for a year, and led the school orchestra (the poor fools!) The one perq of the job was the use of the school’s violin bow, which was about twice the value of my whole violin. Suddenly, everything became very much easier to play and I was twice the violinist I had been. (OK, maybe an extra 10%, but it was quite a nice 10% to have).
    I definitely didn’t like giving it up at the end of the year, though.

  32. Cameras definitely. I managed to break the lens on my SLR and was without it for a long time until I could replace it. Just did that. Magic ! My little pocket Lumix camera wasn’t even as good as my cheap android phone, just easier to use . The SLR blows them both away

  33. Lot of good points on a wide range of products. Good shoes make it. Good clothes last longer.

    Good gear, whether bows or cameras or writing software or fishing poles *doesn’t get in the way*, so you can focus on what you’re doing rather than fighting your tools.

    A.J. – try the ‘Great Value’ mac & cheese from Walmart – the ‘5 Cheese Italian’. Surprised me!

  34. It seems like an economy of scale thing. You will own a lot of shirts, probably, and that shit adds up. Cars are intrinsically expensive — if you buy a car new, even the cheapest one on the market is likely still the second-most expensive thing you will ever own. But as a hobbyist guitar player, you only really NEED one, maybe two in your lifetime (unless you have piles of disposable income and a guitar fetish and yadda yadda), so it only makes sense to buy the best one you can reasonably afford.

  35. Shoes. Good shoes are soooo much better.

    Musical instruments, yes, the best you can pay for.

    I could theoretically afford a Tesla, but I drive maybe 6,000 miles/year, as a heavy user of public transportation, so when I decided to replace my 19-year-old Accord, I bought a used Camry hybrid.

  36. Shoes, sheets, and chocolate. I see that plenty of people have already written about the shoes and at least one has mentioned chocolate, so allow me to throw in my pitch for good sheets: you will spend 1/3 of your life on your sheets (approximately) and high quality cotton is so dramatically different in terms of comfort than the cheap manmade fabrics. Midrange sheets — say $80 – 100 — are pretty good but really heavy, high thread count cotton — the kind that’s going to cost over $200, easily — feels so nice. They’ll last longer, too, but as you wash them and they get softer, they only get better. Totally worth the price, IMO.

  37. Shoes. They used to last longer. Lots of people above mentioning shoes.

    So is there a pointer to a good source? Because I don’t subscribe to “The more you pay the more it’s worth” which seens a widely held selling argument.

    What shoes held up well, folks? Name names?

  38. side note on guitars – regardless of quality, it’s always a surprise to hear what it sounds like in someone else’s hands; my old band had a song where the bass player and I would swap places, and hearing him play my guitar, through my amp & settings, and sound so different due to playing style, body mechanics, etc. was fascinating.

  39. Computers. I will absolutely spend more to get the model of my choice (and more for extra memory and sometimes more storage), because it makes a big difference to my efficiency (and how long I keep it for – my 8+ years laptop is still going strong at least partly because I maxed out the storage and RAM when I got it).

  40. Hank, I have a pair of low-end Rockport dress shoes that I’ve had for a long time. I don’t often wear dress shoes, but they are comfortable on my wide feet and stand up to my non-care (e.g. wear them twice in a weekend and tuck them back in a closet without any cleaning beyond brushing off dirt). When/if I need another pair, that’s a brand I’ll be looking at first.

  41. All of the comments about shoes remind me of the Sam Vimes Theory of Economic Injustice

    Samuel Vimes “earned thirty-eight dollars a month as a Captain of the Watch, plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots, the sort that would last years and years, cost fifty dollars. This was beyond his pocket and the most he could hope for was an affordable pair of boots costing ten dollars, which might with luck last a year or so before he would need to resort to makeshift cardboard insoles so as to prolong the moment of shelling out another ten dollars.

    Therefore over a period of ten years, he might have paid out a hundred dollars on boots, twice as much as the man who could afford fifty dollars up front ten years before. And he would still have wet feet.

    Without any special rancour, Vimes stretched this theory to explain why Sybil Ramkin lived twice as comfortably as he did by spending about half as much every month”

    I will pay more for good shoes, good bread, and good deli meat.

  42. A guitar setup for a cheap guitar can make it dramatically easier to play; the sound will stay the same. “silk & steel” strings are also much easier to play without affecting the sound as much.

  43. I’ll mention one thing I’ve learned not to cheap out on: spices. It’s totally worth it to order Penzey’s or visit a shop that carries fresh herbs and spices.

    That video was a lot of fun–it reminded me of when Carly Rae Jepsen went on Fallon and she did “Call Me Maybe” with The Roots playing toy instruments. And it sounded great because, well, they’re the freakin’ Roots:

  44. Good post and many, many excellent comments. I was not familiar with the Acoustasonic. Looks like fun to play. Interesting design.

    I make, but mostly repair guitars. As has been mentioned, the guitar setup makes a huge, huge difference in playability and even sound. Another thing is that just going by price is not a reliable indicator of quality. There can be lots of variation between individual guitars of the same model. I’ve seen top end guitars that I wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire. I’ve seen cheap guitars that are easy and fun to play. So play a guitar before you buy it.

  45. as per drsue above
    from Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett ‘The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.” I have found over the years that excellent quality is always a quality investment whether in Tools, Toys ,Trucks or Truffles whatever your into

  46. Tires. They are shoes – but for cars. There are a couple of accidents that I *didn’t* get into because of good tires that could have easily killed me.

  47. I’ve gotten into art a little less than a year ago, and have found that there are areas where you can go cheap (at least for practice) and be fine, and areas where you can’t.

    If you want to learn to draw, the cheapest way to get going is with a basic #2 pencil and a ream of printer paper. It works fine and it’ll keep you going for a lot of practice. Add an eraser, and maybe a fineliner when you want to learn inking, and you’re set for a few years of work/practice/improvement. If you have a little more money, a brush pen is fun, although it takes time and practice to learn to control it. Basic #2 and printer paper will keep you going for a while, though.

    Watercolor generally doesn’t reward going cheap. Cheap watercolors are generally marketed for kids. 99% of them are grainy little cakes that are mostly filler. They have little pigment, which means getting any kind of saturation in the colors is next to impossible, and they go on rough and grainy rather than smooth and creamy. Also, the brushes that come with these sets are usually crap. The bristles are trimmed unevenly, it’s impossible to form them into a point or a smooth curve, and there are often stray bristles that’ve been bent and stick out in weird directions, making it impossible to paint a clean line. And if you’re learning watercolors, you want to use real watercolor paper. Yes, it’s expensive. But if you try doing watercolor on regular sketch paper — meant for dry media — the water will soak into the paper pretty much right away. It’ll warp and blister, and you’ll never get your paper to lie flat again. And if you try doing layered washes, you’re likely to damage the wet and rewet and rewet paper, roughing it up, which changes the look of the colors; you can see the damaged bits very clearly when you look at the finished painting. Don’t bother with the cheap stuff. Don’t bother with watercolors unless you can afford at least mid-level paints, mid-level brushes, and some actual watercolor paper.

    Cheap watercolor pencils have some of the same problems as cheap watercolors. The pigmented core has a lot of waxy fillers and not much pigment; I actually had a set of watercolor pencils once with so little pigment that when I hit my finished drawing with water, nothing at all happened. The pigment is supposed to dissolve and turn into watercolor; it changes the look of the picture, and you can manipulate the paint with the brush. Nothing happened, nothing dissolved; all I had was a wet colored pencil picture. :/ I got a nicer (mid-level) set of watercolor pencils for Christmas. They’re better — I have to scrub at the pencil lines a bit with the brush to get them to completely dissolve, which is annoying — but not great. And the brush that came with the set was a horrible piece of cheap crap that I immediately threw away.

    Sometimes you can go cheap as a beginning artist, because a cheap tool works well enough (like a basic school pencil) that you can use it to work on your skills and level up enough that more expensive tools are worthwhile later. Sometimes, though, the cheap tools are so lacking in quality that they’re actually not fit for purpose, as with those ultra-cheap watercolor pencils I got, or thin, wrinkly/dissolving paper if you’re watercoloring, or using any wet media.

  48. Steak: absolutely the best filets we can find, about 1½ pounds for the two of us. We cook it sous vide at 119° and go to crazy extremes to get the best sear we can. The top steakhouses in the country no longer attract us; we can do as well or better. (We’ll still go to our old haunt in Tampa, Bern’s. It has steaks as good as ours and other attractions, like that wine cellar and the dessert room.)

    Suits: back when I was consulting (software) in Europe and Japan, I had several bespoke suits made at Gieves & Hawkes, No. 1 Savile Row. Oh, Mama! Comfortable for a 10-hour meeting in Bremen (ever hear the word sitzfleisch?) and impressive enough to overwhelm the attitudes of the technical honchos in Vélizy-Villacoublay. (Now 75 and 15 years retired, I don’t need suits, and nobody does bespoke sweatpants.)

  49. Someone mentioned knives above. If you cook, a really good set of kitchen knives is an amazing upgrade over a cheap set. Likewise, a good set of pots and pans. About three years ago I spent $100 on two of non-stick skillets. Unlike any other non-stick product I’ve ever had, they are still just as good after three years of heavy use as they were the first time I used them.

  50. Hank Roberts: What shoes held up well, folks? Name names?

    It kind of depends on what kind of shoes you are looking for–exercise? dress? work/walking? How many pairs of shoes do you want to own? Me, I like Clarks for leather shoes, or Dansko if I’m splurging, and I’ve rarely owned more than five-ten pairs of shoes at any one time in my life–but that’s me. I’ve got friends who think that anything less than 30-40 pairs of shoes is hideous deprivation, and who run the gamut in shoe-choice from cheap plastic sandals to fancy heels I’d have to take out a mortgage to own. My advice? Find an old-fashioned shoe store in what ever place you live–well, since they are hard to find these days, within a 100 miles of where you live–go in, pick a salesperson who seems to know what he’s doing, get properly measured and then ask for suggestions and advice. It might take a couple of tries until you find the right place, but part of what I’m paying for when I purchase good shoes is service; that’s a big part of why good shoes are worth paying for, in my opinion.

    And never EVER buy a shoe you haven’t tried on and walked around in, while wearing the socks you intend to wear with said shoes.

  51. Having been a musical instrument repairer (not now, as I can no longer play; would you go to a car mechanic who didn’t drive?) I would second all that stuff about strings and set-up on guitars. But the biggest difference between good and great is in the tuning heads. A really good set will tune easily and stay put a whole lot longer, and that makes the biggest difference. Who wants to go out of tune mid-song? Sorry, no punks here… New heads are easy to fit and always make the machine happier.
    Now I repair sewing machines – I can still sew. You would not believe how many people never oil and never ever ever replace the needle…

  52. I agree with the watercolour thing. I don’t get the expensive, artist quality, things, but I get the student quality as opposed to the children’s stuff. In a way I think it’s more important for beginners and students to have decent quality colours and thick, nice paper since they are more forgiving and it doesn’t matter that much if you accidentally put too much water or so. Also, since I don’t paint that much, my quality pencils and colours last a long time. (The paper not so much.) It’s the same with crayons.

    I used to buy shoes from the second hand stores, but as time goes on, my feet are getting crankier, and my last pair of shoes were also the most expensive. However, I recommend people who care about shoes to find out about the local low cost cobblers/shoe repair people. It’s not very expensive to repair shoes, and it can add years to the life of your shoes.

    As for drinks, I like to buy the nice, expensive tea now and then. Tea is joy.

  53. I hate to recommend shoe brands because what *fits* me well might not work well for you. Different shoemakers use different ‘lasts’ – models of the ‘typical’ foot. Difference between these can make a cheap shoe fit well and an awesome shoe fit poorly.

    It doesn’t always depend just on price either. One of my favorite brands, comfort-wise, is modest priced but just doesn’t hold up well. I found another brand, just slightly more expensive that is just as comfortable and has lasted me twice as long and still holding up. BUT, your feet might hate them both!

    If you’re really comfortable in low-priced shoes, thank your luck. But discomfort costs too much at any price point. Find what fits well and gives good value for your very own personal feet ;-)

  54. In almost any body-meets-object situation, it probably pays to pay for quality. For me that includes footwear and gloves (Minnesota, doncha know) and guitars. On the last category, I was less fussy when younger (though my ear was always demanding), but past 70 I’ve had to accommodate hands that aren’t as strong and flexible as they used to be. And even there, it’s less price than design that matters–I can’t play out on my lovely handbuilt Selmer-style any more because the neck profile stresses my left hand, so I use a factory-built Eastman archtop instead. (Though to be sure, the Eastman is a relatively-low-priced pro-grade instrument.)

    The price-quality connection is interestingly complex. Subarus are not particularly pricey vehicles (especially compared to, say, tricked-out pickups), but we’ve certainly gotten our money’s worth out of our ’06 Outback. And I’ve had really good luck with Rockport shoes–though ownership and design/factory changes provided some bumps in that road.

    Of course, being able to buy the better-grade, more durable, more functional/comfortable item is rooted in economic ability (I don’t like the P word in this context), and the marginally employed and chronically underpaid don’t have the luxury of buying a pair of Mephistos that will last decades, even at half-price at The Rack.

  55. “What shoes held up well, folks? Name names?”

    Church’s. Before Prada.
    John Lobb.
    Crockett & Jones.

  56. I’m going to happily pay $50 for a pair of 100% denim jeans because one of the pairs wore through in the inner thighs, but it took them 6+ years to do so. Sure I could get cheap stretch jeans but I don’t actually find them comfortable. Also the denim ones have functional pockets, which leads me to …

    I could carry a small spiral notebook with me, but I like having my A6 dot grid bullet journal; it’s more durable, it feels nicer, and it will last me a year. I’ve also accrued some Tombow brush pens, one or two at a time.

    Finally, when my current car dies, I want to get a Prius. My last two vehicles have been a Toyota and a Geo that is basically a Toyota, and they’ve both stayed running well into their 20s. And with my commute (2-3 hours round trip) the gas savings will add up.

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