Doing without is often better than making do


For anything you might buy there are almost limitless choices. For purposes of argument, I'd like to group them into three categories: You can buy the best; you can buy some crappy imitation of the best; or you can buy nothing at all. People argue a lot about the parameters of the first two choices. I don't think the third gets the attention it deserves.

Buying the best is the right choice in many cases. For tools, it's a no-brainer. For something that you're going to be using for decades, the extra cost approaches zero when you figure it on a per-use basis. For something that's mission-critical (or life-critical), paying top-dollar for quality just makes sense.

Of course, in many cases, people can reasonably disagree about what's "the best" in any particular category. That's a good thing--if everyone agreed, whatever they agreed on would cost even more. There are plenty of more expensive things that aren't any better for your purposes than a cheaper one would be. There's not much point in thinking about what might be "the best" in the abstract--it's only a useful concept when you're thinking about something being best for a particular purpose.

There are circumstances where something just good enough to get the job done is the right choice. Something that's going to be thrown away after one use anyway, whether for safety reasons (like medical equipment) or just because you don't expect to need to do it again, just needs to be good enough to get the job done.

Sometimes, if you simply have to have one, and all you can afford is a cheap one, that's what you're stuck with.

Often, though, people only imagine that they need something. And, once they imagine they need it, it's easy to decided that, if they're going to buy one, they might as well buy a really good one. "But I need one" is probably the most common path to buying crap you can't afford (followed closely by "But I deserve one").

If you're going to live a frugal life, you need to break that chain before you start buying the best of everything, and the place to break it is not when you get to "I might as well buy a really good one." The place to focus is on the "If I'm going to buy one" part.

One trick that I find useful is to focus on the quality differential. There's hardly anything you can buy that doesn't have a better alternative available, if you pay enough. I've chosen not to buy an awful lot of stuff over the years, and pretty often part of the reasoning was along the lines of, "If I can't afford X, I'll just do without," filling in X with "the best" of whatever category I'm dealing with.

That's just a mental trick, though. The real key to making the right choice is to remember that acquiring stuff is not a series of yes/no decisions--it's an allocation of limited resources. You can temporarily hide the fact that your resources are limited by buying things on credit, but that doesn't change the underlying reality; it just means that you end up with even less in the long run.

Before you start the analysis of what's the best choice for your particular application, and before trying to decide whether it's worth paying extra to get it, think hard about whether you really need one.

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Guest's picture

Sorry to nitpick, but the phrase in the title should be "making due" rather than "making do." Why is that more correct? To be honest, I'm not entirely sure. Seems like an odd use of the word due. But, I thought I'd let you know.

Guest's picture
Mark A Lancaster

Brings along all the pros & cons of interpersonal relationships but you could BORROW an item of a neighbour, relative and/or colleague. Puts the unused item to good use and saves on landfill.

As a bloke who has walked into a home improvement store and got all excited about the power tools section when all I need was to put up a set of shelves. Turns out my brother/father both had required tools in shed.

Fifth way is second/third/etc hand stuff I have to plug the Freecycle network here

People often get rid of perfectly usable stuff.



Guest's picture

My apartment is the size of a shoebox. And anytime I "need" to buy something, I take a look around and realize I can't fit anything else in! That won't work for anybody who lives in a comfortably-sized place, but it's stopped me from buying all kinds of crap that I'd only end up tripping over.

Guest's picture

I chuckled when I read the last comment. Mark, you're exactly right, but your final phrase reminds me to be aware of one of my foibles. Someone (I forget who) wrote: "beware of anything you find youself describing as 'perfectly good.'" If you have hoarding tendencies that phrase can lead you to a cellar/attic/garage full of unnecessary "stuff."
Freecycle (I second Mark's plug) is not only a great resource for locating needed items, it can be a priceless outlet for some of that "perfectly good" stuff you're holding on to for no reason, and that somebody else might actually need.
Finally, working back--sharing, borrowing. This is a truly radical idea for most Americans today. Everyone has (or wants) a full tool set, major appliances, mowers, snowblowers...and a lot of it is used only occasionally because neighbors don't feel comfortable sharing the purchase and use of, well--anything! This goes to the root of consumer culture, disconnected communities, and a good thing like individualism taken WAY too literally.
Thanks for this post, and the forum for discussing.

Philip Brewer's picture

Good points on borrowing and sharing. I actually wrote a post on that just a couple of months ago:

Why don't people share more?

Guest's picture

I'm struggling with this now. My fiance is starting a side business and desperately wants to leave his day job.

We have to decide between buying 5K in equipment now so he can leave, or toughing it out three more months to buy 10K, and then leaving. Or taking a business loan. Or taking out a 0% business credit card. It's hard.

Guest's picture

Great post...this subject is a rough one for me. I try to remind myself to consider how much I'm going to use the item. A really, really nice refrigerator and dishwasher are important to me, but did I really need the pretty good sewing machine. I use the fridge and dishwasher daily, I use the sewing machine maybe 10 times a year. Of course, my rationalization at the time was that my old sewing machine had lasted 20 years - let's hope this one does!

I third (or fourth, or whatever) the freecycle suggestion. I find it much easier to part with stuff if I know that it is going to someone who will use and appreciate it, rather than some anonymous charity. An old basketball hoop is gracing a church shed, a crockpot is helping a busy mom, and that old dresser is holding gloves somewhere.

Guest's picture

If so, awesome! :) I love Gburg & I went to college there. If not, still a great photo!

Philip Brewer's picture

@CHB: Yep. My whole family visited Gettysburg in the summer of 2004 and we bicycled around the civil war battlefields. (It's a very bicycleable place--you get a much better sense of the scale of the battles on a bicycle than you do driving a car.) That cannon was over near the peace light memorial.

Guest's picture

This is one that needs to be added to the idiom dictionaries... I can't even find it on the linguistics sites, but I'm sure there's documentation out there somewhere. I've always understood it as "making [some other solution] do [the job of the ideal solution]." Online I can find the Cambridge Int'l Dic'y for "make do and mend" ( ). Also some attestation for the noun: . I wonder if any of the idioms and proverbs related to "living large on a small budget" have a cool history? That might be a fun post for someone.

Philip, thoughtful article as usual. Thanks!

Guest's picture

I love to do without; I almost make it a game to see just how much I can do without that others are certain they need. The challenge for me is trying to get my kids to understand. They think I'm a scrooge or tightwad and find no joy in it.

Guest's picture
Debbie M

I'd like to hear more stories about not buying stuff. Here are some alternatives I can think of:

* Repair what you have instead of buying another one. I've done this with clothes, appliances, and of course cars. Sometimes the repair doesn't have to be pretty, like it's okay to fix my laundry hamper with duct tape since it's usually in a closet anyway. Sometimes even paying a lot for a repair is worth it when it's hard to find a good replacement. Moorea just wrote about repairing shoes.

* Find some other way to achieve the same goal. The main time I do this is when I have some craving and want to go out to eat. I can often take care of a cheeseburger craving with a grilled-cheese sandwich or a cookie craving with a bowl of oatmeal, for example. If you're sad, you could go shopping or you could blast your favorite music and sing along. You can warm up by turning on the heater and standing in front of the vent, or you can put on a hat or make a cup of tea or use a hot water bottle. You can get together with friends at a restaurant or bar, or you can throw a board games party. I've used a coffee table as a bench, a stereo cabinet as a dresser, and of course the ever-popular (non-wheeled) chair as a step-stool. Sometimes, as with buying the best, the right tool for the right job makes a big difference. But sometimes it doesn't.

* Find some other goal you like better. I decided to quit earning degrees (unless someone was going to pay me) and just learn whatever I felt like learning. I've heard of people switching from more expensive hobbies to less expensive ones that they find just as fun.

* Put off buying stuff for a while. Many people do this right before a paycheck when they run out of money or when they get laid off. I tend to put off buying new shoes until long after others are disgusted with how worn out my shoes are, just because I don't like shoe shopping. If you replace things less often, you end up paying less over your lifespan than you would otherwise. And you may think of a better substitute during that period.

* Just doing without. A lot of times if you try doing without something you find it's not as bad as you thought. A friend tried riding a bus to work while his car was in the shop--now he always rides the bus to work, gets in some good thinking, and doesn't pay for parking. I was in the habit of not wearing make-up after working at summer camp one year, and I still got treated just fine, so I quit forever (except for dressing up).

Any other stories on doing without?

Guest's picture

"Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without" was a widely used slogan in the environmentally based frugal living movement of the 1960s-70s. It has a nice swing to it, and I suspect that saying "make it do," rather than just "make do" was more for the sake of rhythm than anything else.

Some actual research might be required to home in on the origin. Probably it was before World War II. Maybe Depression, maybe Colonial.

Guest's picture

@Matt: Do you have a citation for that, such as a grammar website? I only ask because "making do" makes more sense and also, for a quick internet search, appears to be very common.

Guest's picture

*from a quick internet search

Guest's picture

You know what else is wrong? To "pour over" a document; it's "pore over." Both make me a tiny bit crazy - and are showing up everywhere.

Guest's picture

There are many areas where the cost differential between good quality and crap is huge. One humble example is the dresser. A good-quality, functional dresser is a very expensive ($1K+) piece of furniture. The vast majority of moderately-priced dressers (from Ikea, etc.) are non-functional. The drawers are too shallow, they jam, the bottoms fall out. After suffering through the frustrations of using junky dressers for too long, I finally decided I was better off without them. I got rid of my dressers and replaced them with sturdy shop shelves and deep plastic storage bins.

I will never again buy a crappy dresser just to fill the niche of "dresser". I will use my shop shelves until I acquire a high-quality dresser through alternate means (inherit, estate sale, etc.), or until I have enough disposable income to buy a really high-quality one. It's not a priority for me right now, though.