My brother-in-law, a successful senior executive, is a careful spender. An accountant by training and now the chief financial officer of a large corporation, he is just as discerning with his personal purchases as his company's capital expenditures. He and his wife, my husband's sister, seek and enjoy the thrill of a deal, big or small. But there are some items that he considers too important to skimp on.
"Chairs, mattresses, shoes, and tires," he's often told us. "You spend most of your life on a chair, in a bed, on your feet or in a car, so make sure you have the best you can afford."
I love a good deal as well and rarely buy anything, outside of basic household goods, unless it's on sale. But I agree with my brother-in-law in that there are some things in life worth paying more for. These are the things that will invariably cost you more in the long run if you try to cheap out now. Here are my top tips on where to spend and where to skimp.
When to spend
Windows One of the best features of our 25-year-old home when we bought it three years ago was the recently replaced windows. Installed throughout the house, the windows are well-insulated, with double panes and fiberglass frames. High-quality windows should last at least twenty years and save you money along the way by preventing heat loss. Many windows - especially the cheaper, vinyl kind often installed in new houses - will need to be replaced every five to ten years. It costs tens of thousands of dollars to replace windows in a home. If you plan to stay in yours for a while, get the right windows the first time around.
The power suit I often wear suits for work and have, in my younger years, tried to make do with cheap business wear from trendy stores such as Zara or Mango. After a few wears, they looked as cheap as they cost. The hems frayed, the material pilled, the zippers got stuck. I'm now a firm believer in the investment power suit. I buy fewer of them, but they are of a higher quality. I look for suits that have classic fabric and lines, smooth zippers, French seams and linings. I also try to find jackets with matching skirts or pants that I can wear as separates, mixing and matching with the rest of my wardrobe.
A good mattress I'm going to agree with my brother-in-law on this one. When my hours of sleep are already limited by household chores and work to six a night on average, I want to have the most restful six hours possible. My Simmons Beautyrest, with its independently pocketed coils, helps me get them.
A professional haircut Home barbering is growing in popularity, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. Sales of electric hair clippers in the U.S. have grown in inverse proportion to the contracting economy and self-styling devices such as the RoboCut are experiencing a boost in revenues. The article goes on to warn, though, that salons are being called upon to fix a growing number of home hair care disasters. To save money, I let the time between haircuts lapse longer than I should. But when I need a cut, I go to someone who's been trained to do it.
A warm winter coat A friend of mine who lives in Chicago only buys her trendy clothes on sale or at discount chains, but will spend a week's wages on a good winter coat. For those of us battling the elements of cooler climates, a warm coat - the kind with tightly packed goose down insulation - is our only weapon against shivers and frostbite. Even my thrifty parents bought my brother and me expensive jackets designed for the Arctic Tundra every winter.
When to skimp
Paper towels Did you know that paper towels were invented by accident? In the 1930s, Scott Paper Company produced a role of toilet paper that was accidentally too thick. They realized that by perforating it and creating sheets, they had a new product on their hands that could be used in the kitchen. It seems so sensible now, but paper towels took a long time to catch on. Know why? Because cloth towels work better and can be cleaned after each use. (Though, in a flair for thrift I can only admire, my mother-in-law air-dries paper towels if they're not dirty and uses them over again.) I say the pre-modern kitchen towel is ready for a comeback.
Lip gloss There's a scene in the movie Mean Girls in which Lindsay Lohan's character stares at a female opponent in a math tournament and snidely notes the cheap lipgloss caught on her rival's snaggletooth. It is a bad moment for economical lipglosses everywhere. But, really, good lipgloss doesn't have to cost a lot. I've tried many expensive, designer lipgloss brands that are overly goopy and sticky. My favourite lipgloss right now is from the new Joe Fresh makeup line. They come in several colours and are high-shine and non-sticky. At $8 a tube, I can buy a few and not feel like screaming when my three-year-old puts it all over her face the next day.
Premium gasoline Unless you drive a high-performance vehicle whose manufacturer stipulates it be treated to the highest grade fuel, you don't need to spend more for premium gasoline. In fact, most cars are made to run on regular fuel that has an octane rating of 87 and won't perform better, go faster or run cleaner with higher octane gas. According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the only time you might need to switch to a higher octane level is if your car engine knocks when you use the recommended fuel. Otherwise, buying higher octane gasoline that costs 15 to 20 cents more a litre is a waste of money.
Stockings Another one for women: If you're not allowed to flaunt the bare-legged look at the office, or if you just prefer the look of subtle shimmer, you probably spend more than you'd care to admit on stockings and pantyhose. Still, no matter how much the limb-shaped tubes of nylon and lycra cost you, they will snag and run within three wears - if not the first time you try to wiggle them on. I have learned that the Shoppers Drug Mart brand at $7 a package lasts just as long as the pair of Donna Karan Essential Toner Ultra Sheer Leg Pantyhose for $30. No one will notice the $23 difference except you.
Stemware When we were preparing for our wedding, we put three sets of beautiful crystal stemware on the registry. That was nine years ago and today we have five glasses left. That's actually a record among our friends, most of whom have long replaced their expensive crystal with glasses from IKEA. My collection fell victim to the dishwasher, clumsy hands at the dinner table and young guests who inexplicably chewed at the delicate rims. The last thing I want to worry about when throwing back a bottle of Chardonnay is my irreplaceable stemware. I'm planning to stock up on cheap wine glasses that won't make me cringe at every wobble.