A couple of weeks ago Dustin Curtis published an article called The Best. Within it he argues the merit and freedom that one can obtain by spending the time and money required to purchase the best products. The idea is that if you can trust things you buy, these items become invisible to you in way because you don’t have to worry about them failing to do their job. This article became popular on Hacker News and many commenters seemed to agree with his view point.
Then along came The Worst, a post which pretty much dismisses Dustin’s argument as consumerism, and proposes to take the opposite strategy to achieve the same goal of not worrying about stuff. Buy the cheapest items that you don’t give a crap about, so no matter what happens to them, you won’t care.
My personal philosophy has always been one of “good enough”. In short, I don’t have any hangups or philosophical issues with purchasing cheap or expensive things, and unlike the writer behind The Worst, I don’t have too many problems with consumerism either. I take the following, arguably pragmatic, approach to this area of my life.
My decision process typically involves the following parameters:
Price of the worst, middle ground, and best options available
Estimated difference in user experience between these three “levels”
How often will I use the product
How serious the consequences are if the product fails to perform its duties
Useful life expectancy of the object
Using these considerations leads me to avoid purchasing ‘the worst’ in most cases. The difference in price between the worst and the “good enough” is usually not huge. The quality, reliability, and features, however, usually are. The absolute cheapest products tend to have poor performance and reliability, so what I end up buying most of the time is something that is not quite the best (with its ridiculous price tag), but rather something that’s sufficiently good enough.
I buy $100 headphones, not $1000 like an audiophile might. I’ll have a nice $50 per person meal at a restaurant, but I won’t unnecessarily indulge in a $300 binge at the priciest joint in town. I will buy a $500 compact camera, but not a $2000+ Leica X1.1 I bought a $80 tower fan this past summer, but not a blade-less Dyson. I have my eyes on the upcoming ~$2000 Canon EOS 6D, but I won’t splurge for a $7000+ 1Ds Mark III or even a $3,300 5D Mark III. I don’t need Dustin’s $50 per set cutlery2, I’m happy with a $5-10 setting and a KitchenAid steak knife for an additional $5. You get the gist.
At times I will buy the so called ‘best’, but it’s only for selected items I truly care about (e.g., my smartphone, my laptop). These items are fundamental to my day-to-day life and what I do for a living.
If I don’t care very much, I won’t spend time researching what’s good enough either. I’ll use price as an indicator of quality and shoot for the middle or just below it. The method is not foolproof, but it generally works for items that don’t really matter to me. Why spend scads of time obsessing over what’s the best item if it’s something that I’ll rarely use, or whose failings won’t affect me too much, or that I’m likely to replace in a year or so anyhow.
Psychological research tells us that we’d be happier to buy products without the due research and countless hours spent reading reviews and specs online. This is true, because the more you read, the more you realize even your “good enough” product has flaws and shortcomings. It’s draining at times, but after the purchase is made, and my expectations have been lowered a bit perhaps during the research phase, I often find myself very happy with the quality of the products I chose.
One case in point is that of our hand vacuum. We first bought a ($65) hand vacuum that died in about a year and which could barely keep a charge for a minute. We then replaced it with another one which had incredibly poor suction (to the point where it truly was unusable). The third vacuum lost suction power after 30 seconds and would only keep a charge for two or three minutes (a combo of both of the previous model’s problems). We were frustrated by how this seemingly not very significant household kept failing to preform properly, so I took the time to do more research online and discuss the matter in person with an expert vacuum repairman. We now have a very powerful Eureka 71B, which interestingly wasn’t more expensive than the ones we had already bought in the past. It may not be the absolute best in the wold wide world, but it’s good enough.
Likewise, when I was in the market for a car, I did extensive research and I ended up buying a Jaguar. All the time spent researching a safe, comfortable car paid off and I couldn’t be happier with my vehicle and its performance. It might not be a Lamborghini or a Bentley, but it is undoubtedly good enough. The research and investment was worth it for such a crucial purchase. The consequences of a bad choice here could lead to serious headaches and, in the case of an accident, it could make the difference.
I get most of Dustin’s benefits and comfort without spending as much time obsessing over relatively unimportant things like cutlery. And therein lies my approach, flawed or not, to acquire useful things that make my life simpler, more fun, or simply aid me in some capacity without necessarily splashing out great sums of money on everything I purchase.
 Disclaimer: This and other links within this post have my Amazon Associates ID. I get a small cut, at no expense to you, if you end up buying from Amazon.
 Nevertheless I have added them to my wish list as I’m curious now to try them.
Antonio Cangiano is a Software Developer and Technical Evangelist at IBM. He authored 'Ruby on Rails for Microsoft Developers' by Wrox (2009) and 'Technical Blogging' by The Pragmatic Bookshelf (2012). You can follow him on Twitter.