How To Buy Stuff That Lasts Forever

by Julie Rains on 14 March 2008 28 comments
Photo: Julie Rains

My husband bought a pair of gym shorts for my oldest son a couple of weeks ago. The shorts lasted for one day before having a small tear at one of the critical seams. Contrast that with a shirt that I’ve worn and washed almost weekly for over 15 years with no seams tearing or buttons missing. How can I tell if something will last?

I wish I could give a precise formula for projecting the lifetime of any given object. I can’t. But I will share with you what I have observed:

  • Prices tend to be slightly higher on things that last forever, compared to their not-so-long-lasting peers; I have noticed a 10-30% price differential (more for furniture).
  • Paying more for an item, compared to its alternatives, doesn’t guarantee that it will last forever.
  • The more fashionable something is, the less likely it will last through several seasons.
  • Mass merchants tend to offer items that meet short-term, rather than long-term, needs (the shorts came from Target) with the exception of Joe Boxer (Kmart brand) socks.
  • If it looks cheap in the store, it won’t last long.
  • Things that are orange or yellow last a long time (see below in reference to my rust-colored London Fog raincoat, orange Tupperware measuring cups, and deep yellow laundry basket)
  • Companies known for quality usually make or sell things that last forever.

Here is my list of things that have lasted nearly forever.

  • Hiking boots from L.L. Bean: 21 years
    These are lightweight boots that have served me on mountain and forest hikes, traversing streams, keeping my footing on damp, muddy ground, and walking on gravel, on wet leaves, and over tree roots.
  • Bookcases: 24 years
    These are the heaviest, sturdiest particle-board bookcases ever; I bought them at my favorite home improvement store. Since then, I have purchased particle-board bookcases that have not held up and then moved on to real-wood bookcases. But none are as sturdy as my 1983 purchase: they just don’t make particle board like they used to.
  • London Fog raincoat with wool lining: 18 years
    I bought this coat at a Tanger outlet mall in Blowing Rock, thrilled to find a quality item of clothing at a great price. My mom encouraged purchase of classic, well-constructed clothing, calling such moves “investments." (see Jabulani's post on clothing )
  • Knit shirt from J.C. Penney: 15 years
    I received this long-sleeved, blue and white striped shirt as a gift. During the fall, winter, and early spring, I wear this shirt at least once a week (it’s very comfortable). Every button is still in place and no threads are loose.
  • Oneida stainless flatware: 22 years
    I became enamored with the Oneida brand when I did a research paper on the Oneida community in high school. (It was started as a utopian commune that made quality flatware; the commune did not last but the business did.) I have the Dover pattern and use these every day.
  • Pyrex bowls: 22 years
    I received these as a wedding gift – they have minimal decorative appeal but they last forever. Since then, I have received plain glass, truly elegant Pyrex bowls.
  • Tupperware measuring cups: 22 years
    Another wedding gift – I use these nearly every day. 
  • Keychain from UNC: 25 years
    I signed up to become a member of the Alumni association before I graduated. The keychain was a joining gift – it has the university’s address and a code unique to me so that if I lose the keychain, the finder can drop it in the mailbox, send it to the alumni association, and the association will return it to me.
  • Wine opener from a local winery: 15 years
    I got this when I visited a new winery several years ago. It is an unusual design. Vineyards were new to my area then, now they are ubiquitous.
  • Desk: 14 years
    I acquired a large, extremely heavy desk from a former landlord. It was easier for them to sell it to me than to move it. Now, it is part of a home office.
  • Clock radio: 20 years
    My husband bought this item for me. It has two alarm settings (according to the sales associate, his and her settings); I have yet to use this feature.
  • Large throw pillows: 27 years
    I bought these at a furniture store to serve as cushions for a patio frame that I converted to a sofa when I was in college. I still use these in my home; they’re not elegant but they are functional.
  • Laundry basket by Rubbermaid: 20 years (?)
    I can’t remember when I bought this so it must have been a long time ago. I have 2 of these baskets; my other baskets have torn plastic but the deep yellowish square ones are still in perfect condition.
  • Framed pictures: 20 years
    I have limited edition prints made by the son of one of my dad’s former coworkers. I had them custom framed and look at them every day.
  • Lane cedar chest: 25 years
    I bought this chest with my first credit card. I store my wool clothing in it and use it as a table.

Having stuff that lasts forever can save money and time by avoiding replacement-item shopping and item disposition. Sometimes it makes financial sense to buy the less expensive item that lasts for a few years because replacement costs over your lifetime may still be less than buying the incredibly durable but pricey alternative. Doing an inventory of my forever items made me realize, though, how much I can save by buying the right stuff.

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Guest's picture
Tyler M

I wish I could find a good laundry basket that lasts. It seems like every time that I go to do laundry, the basket has broken!
This is an interesting exercise as we often don't realize jsut how long we have things when we get used to seeing them around.
Case in point - I just realized my wife and I have been together for almost 8 years! :)

Guest's picture
Guest

...showing any signs of wear?

Guest's picture
Hannah

I, too, have had Rubbermaid laundry baskets crack after only a few months. Then I discovered that a local greenhouse/nursery receives flower bulbs from Holland in very sturdy black plastic totes. They were selling the empty totes for $2. I have had mine for about 10 years; they are great for laundry, gardening, etc.

Willow laundry baskets last a long time, too, although they are more expensive to buy.

Julie Rains's picture

is the type of laundry basket I have. The sticker is still hanging around and I noticed that it came with a 5-year warranty.

I didn't mention earlier but none of these items have required any special treatment or care. And, like you TylerM, I don't really know how long I'll need stuff -- I just walked around the house to see what has held up under my low-maintenance care.

Guest's picture
Guest

It seems like the things I like the most are the ones that end up not lasting, or maybe I use them to death. The less attractive things last forever! Our plain old, inexpensive corelle dishes lasted more than 13 years, with very few chips, before we finally decided to get more a "grown up" set. They're still going strong in their new home. Our new "nice" set of dishes have a couple chips and cracks after just a short time.

Guest's picture
Carol

I have pictures of me wearing this sweater dating back to 1997. It's not a "trendy" one, it's a basic sweater, and the material is kind of a terry-cloth type thing. It's baggy, so when I've gained weight or lost weight, I have still been able to wear it. I believe it's the longest lasting article of clothing that I still wear, that I own. But I have no clue why it has lasted so long. I have bought other sweaters at that same store (Mills Fleet Farm), hoping to (I guess) end up with an entire wardrobe that wouldn't have to be changed for 10+ years (yikes) or whatever, but I haven't figured out the secret yet.

My sweater is kind of a burgundy color, by the way. I wish I could find more of them.

Guest's picture
Guest

Revereware pots/pans: at least 35 years
Kitchenaid Mixer (one of the OLD ones): at least 40 years
LeCrueset: over 25 years
Chicago Cutlery: over 25 years
Rocking chair made by my Great Great Grandfather: at least 100 years

Contrast that to our Dishwasher sagas: average survival rate is 4 years. Sheesh. (Finally switched from Maytag to Bosch. Fingers crossed!)

Guest's picture
Ginny

I have a yellow Tupperware drainer (seive? hand-held colander?) that has lasted 35 years. I cook on a 1952 Chambers gas range, which works great.

Guest's picture
Jared

I'd really like to find jeans that would last as long as the ones I had when I was a teenager. I abused those jeans, and they still managed to last for three or four years, wearing them every few days. For some reason, the jeans that I buy now last for about three months before the knees start wearing out, and I don't wear jeans every day anymore. Does anyone have any suggestions for mens' jeans that last a long time?

Julie Rains's picture

Like Tyler, I determined how long I had owned something by life milestones: college, my first apartment, marriage, before kids, etc. That is, I bought those bookcases and the cedar chest when I lived in my first apartment -- no way I could pull the dates out of my memory any other way.

Oh, I noticed that my rectangular laundry baskets were also Roughneck Rubbermaid -- they have lasted well beyond the 5-year warranty but there must be something about 1) the square design and/or 2) the yellow dye that has made the yellow square ones last forever.

I have a couple drainers/colanders that have been around a long time: one is yellow and the other is orange. I have a newly acquired large stainless steel that I think will be around for a while.

My Corelle bowls lasted about the same time -- I bought them at the same outlet as the raincoat. I have Denby everyday china made in the UK -- great stuff and the stylishness has improved over the past several years. Still basic and classic but nicer, deeper colors.

Thanks for the kitchenware tips -- I don't think I have those brands yet

As far as jeans, you could try LL Bean or Lands' End -- some styles are more function and less fashion but hopefully you can find both.

Now that I think more about the lasting forever, here are more observations: 1) the main component (fabric, plastic, particle board, stainless steel) needs to be durable 2) the small components (buttons, lids) should be firmly attached 3) the product is only as strong as its weakest part (the breaks on my laundry baskets are where the plastic is the thinnest) 4) designers/engineers who don't rely solely on labels to describe intended uses but anticipate how people will really use a product make the longest-lasting ones.   

 

 

 

 

Guest's picture
suzy

but I have two pairs of cheap, pull-on workout pants that I bought at Target in '91 or '92. Other than looking a tad threadbare from so much wash and wear, they are holding up fine.
I guess they just don't make cheap polyester material like they used to :)

Guest's picture
Guest

Orange and Yellow - HA HA! Is there real science in that? It was the orange paint on toys that got China in all that trouble. Maybe lead leads to longevity.

The thing I notice about the durable stuff is that it resales for better prices even when it isn't an expensive name brand. I notice it most in my kids' clothes. Resalers and their customers recognize quality.

Guest's picture
Mary

I used to sell sewing machines and found that a good quality, mid-range mechanical machine will last forever. And it's a good investment because you can often make things cheaper (like curtains) and repair clothing and other items. (Computerized machines are great, but like any technology they won't last for decades).

Anyone looking for a decent machine (new or used) brand should check out Pfaff, Husquavarna and Bernina. Older Singer sewing machines are also tough little machines, but the newer ones don't match them for quality.

Guest's picture
Trish

My friend, who is a newspaper reporter, recently interviewed a woman who was celebrating her 90th birthday. She still cooks on and heats her kitchen with a Glenwood wood stove that was purchased by her father in 1917, the year before she was born. She keeps a fire burning in it every day, even in the summer. Her son cuts the wood for her and puts it in the wood box, but she carries it into the house and stokes the fire herself.

Guest's picture

I thought this was a neat exercise.

1. My "Space Pen" (10 Years)
2. Several Moleskin Notebooks (8 years)
3. My Rosary (28 Years)
4. Corduroy/Sheep Skin Jacket from Old Navy (5 years)
5. Drop-top desk my great grandfather made by hand. He was a black smith and even made the chains that hold the top. (80 years)

Julie Rains's picture

I love the old stuff that lasts forever -- stoves, desks -- I have some newer acquisitions that I hope last that long including some Amish furniture.

You're right Suzy that sometimes you can get stuff that lasts a while from mass merchants -- in addition to the Joe Boxer socks, my kids' Basic Edition shorts and pants), Route 66 jeans, and some shoes are well made and can be had for bargain prices, even at full-price and often at markdown prices. On non-clothing items, I have seen stuff that looks like it is already falling apart sitting on the shelves and a few other items (pillows, and just yesterday an acrylic frame that was scratched under its wrapping) that seem wasteful even to make, ship to a store, and allow a customer to buy. I just need to remember my words next time I am weighing between a rock-bottom price and a reasonable price!

Guest's picture
Zachary

This is excellent advice. We are collectively as a culture too obsessed with novelty and not enough with quality.

Guest's picture
Guest

I have a couple of waffle weave long sleeve shirts that were in style long ago but have kept wearing for the warmth and comfort. i looked at myself in a picture holding my son as a 1 year old...wow...those shirts are now 13 years old. i have worn them all winter for all these years and the amazing thing is that they are a cotton blend and have not faded much if at all. ( Navy and Red...navy seems to be faded before the season is over in current things that i purchase. ) Wish i could find the secret! FYI they were from NY and CO. and not very expensive at all!

Guest's picture
Guest

For work one can not beat a pair of Timberland Pro Work Boots. Mine have steel toes for safety but look for those with double soles. My pair has lasted 4 years with rougn use in a foundry.

Also Oneida Limitied Flatware is great. Growing up outside of Sherill NY we would frequently visit the "Morgue" (because that is where they sold the obsolete, dead patterns) for silverwear.

For kitchen appliances nnobody mentioned the Kitchen Aid mixers. My mother still uses hers and it is 50 years old. I swear they designed it for cement.

Guest's picture
Angela LaMunyon

For my wedding, I received my great-grandmothers kitchenaid mixer, and it still works great. Hildegarde worked as a cook a school cafeteria while raising 3 kids of her own and used it everyday. I don't know how old it is, but it still runs perfectly. I hope I can pass it on to my children as well. The only thing that bothers me is that the plug is not grounded, only two prongs.

Julie Rains's picture

Sounds like there are 3 votes for KitchenAid mixers, which have lasted longer than any of my forever stuff.

Guest's picture
ncbill

You'd have a hard time convincing me new furniture is worth buying.

Thrift stores are a great place to find sturdy older furniture.

Julie Rains's picture

I, too, am often disappointed with the furniture I see in regular stores (I am not particularly fond of wood veneers) but have been pleased with the Amish furniture I bought a few years ago; also picked up some nice, sturdy, hopefully long-lasting chairs from a sample sale hosted by a premium quality manufacturer last year.

Guest's picture
Jen

I've found that if you find something that seems like it will last forever and you think you might want another, go quickly. If manufacturers realize that it lasts and lasts they start changing it up -- making it cheaper so it doesn't last as well and you have to buy more.

I wish that instead they'd start advertising that it lasts forever, so that people that want that can pay the extra 10-30% and not have to buy one again!

Guest's picture
Donna

The house that we are living in came with a 1963 electric stove. It's the best stove I have ever used, and that's coming from someone who prefers gas and has bought two brand new stoves in previous homes. I hope this stove never dies.

A washer and dryer set also came with the house--they are from the early 70s. The dryer pooped out on us twice and we decided to replace because the expense to fix was outweighing just getting a new set. I have no doubt that washer would have lasted us more years.

LL Bean is great! I bought some solid color mesh polos from there for my son's school wardrobe. They still look brand new after so many washings. They also stand behind their products, which is a big deal to me. I have no problem giving them my money when we need to buy clothing and outdoor stuff.

Guest's picture
Hannah

This is an excellent article. Quality seems to be forgotten nowadays. It is so satisfying to have durable items, especially things that are designed to be repairable.

As ncbill says, old furniture from thrift stores is often better quality than the new stuff in some furniture stores. I'm always amazed to see sturdy old pieces that just need a bit of TLC and varnish, selling cheaply, while their previous owners are buying veneered particleboard with a doubtful lifespan.

I find LLBean clothes last forever, as several people have mentioned. We have Pyrex, Corelle, stainless steel; also some Flint vanadium knives that have never been sharpened in the 20 years, but still get used daily. A Singer sewing machine from the 1960's, an older Shop-Vac, plus the older furniture, still going strong. Fashion is just a game they want us to play... no thanks!

Guest's picture
Guest

Maybe not always, but "Made in the USA" is often a good clue. Because I've kept house since 1955, I still have loads of stuff that is old but well made. My Pennsylvania House sofa is 20 yrds. old, used almost daily, and still looks showroom new. Sears tableware I've had for 25 years still looks good. Sure, Id like a change sometimes, but hate the new junk on the market.

Guest's picture
Guest

Kilts!!! I have had mine for 25 years. They show NO SIGN of wear.