Friday, May 10, 2013

Cheapness as a Virtue

The other day I was moving some plastic cabinets out of the bathroom so I could sweep and mop the floor. The cabinets are stacked one on top of the other, and you can detach them from one another (if you want stand-alone plastic bins, I guess). Anyways, as I was moving one of them, it sort of came apart, and the bulk of it dropped on my big toe. Predictable swearing and cursing ensued; I may also have yelled at the cats, who were sitting there watching the whole thing with wicked glee. One of the things I remember grumbling was, "Cheap pieces of shit."

A little reflection, though (and after my toe had stopped throbbing), caused me to reflect on using the term "cheap" as a pejorative, at least in this case. To be sure, a lot of the time when people say something is "cheap," they use it pejoratively, to refer to a product's lack of quality and overall inferiority to other products. But in these cases, to use the term "cheap" refers to a product's quality, not its price, as I did when the cabinet smashed by toe. In contrast, when applying the literal definition of "cheap," people are referring to price, not quality. And there the values applied to the word sort of get inverted.

For instance: in my bathroom there are the aforementioned plastic cabinets, which can appropriately be described as "cheap" in the sense that they're not very well-made and they're not meant to last forever. But they can also be called "cheap" in the (more important) sense that it didn't cost too much money to buy them. Looked at in this light, "cheap" becomes more of a praiseworthy label, because the cheapness of the cabinets allowed me to spend money on other things in which I place a higher value.

For instance: I could have bought very nice bathroom cabinets---I don't know where you find those, but I'm sure they're out there---for maybe twice or three times as much as the cheap plastic ones. But then I would have had less money, and I wouldn't have been able to, say, go out to dinner with my girlfriend. These things must be considered pre- and not post-purchase, and so I must weigh my values against each other: which do I like more, fancy bathroom cabinets or dinner with my girlfriend?

The answer is the latter, of course, and I'd suggest it should be the same for you, unless you're a dummy. But the point is, the "cheapness" of the cabinets, their toe-smashing tendencies notwithstanding, allowed me to enrich my life in other ways which I found more important than the quality of my bathroom furniture. The only downside was a busted toe (and to be fair, I can just be more careful in the future; problem solved).

There are, of course, things in which I do not look for cheapness but rather for overall quality---such as dinner with my girlfriend, for instance. Another product in which I almost always spend more in order to get higher-quality stuff is food, particularly local, pasture-raised meat and compost-fed vegetables. In these products I do not value cheapness. I also always buy Apple computer products, because they're better computers than the cheap gimcrack Windows machines from Best Buy. Yet in other products, such as bathroom cabinets (and clothing, i.e. from the thrift store) I have little problem buying things that are less fancy, in order to free up my money for more enriching pursuits. These are values, and willing to pay less for cheap stuff bolsters the values of the things I find more important.

To be fair, I'm pretty anti-materialist, so I don't place a lot of emphasis in things. And I'm not anti-materialist like the tiresome Fight Club-Tyler Durden "Burn everything omg we need to get primal" anti-materialism. I just find brand names and expensive clothing and the like to be irrelevant to my life. Hence why I spring for cheap in those departments.

I think that there are areas where people would do well to consider spending a little more (i.e. in buying better food instead of cheap food), but then again, lots of people probably think I should spend more on clothes so I don't look like a dope in their estimation. So that's a discussion for another time.

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