Things wear out

Photo: Philip Brewer

I have a pair of shoes that are about to wear out. This sucks because they're shoes I wear pretty often (which is no doubt why they're wearing out). I'll probably have to replace them. I was mulling over a possible post on the universal experience of things wearing out, when it occurred to me that this experience may not be quite as universal as it used to be.

No doubt everybody has had some things wear out, if only a favorite t-shirt, but it's not like the old days when wearing out was the most usual reason that things needed to be replaced.

Failure modes other than wearing out

I bet that nowadays people much more often find that things need to be replaced for other reasons.

  • Things break.  This is different from wearing out. I've got some drinking glasses made of glass that will never wear out--there's no reason people can't be drinking out of them a thousand years from now if they don't break. Of course there's some overlap--some things break because one small part--a hinge or latch or switch or battery--wears out. (And this is not accidental--companies spend millions of dollars to make sure that the things they build will last long enough to make their customers feel like they've gotten their money's worth but no longer. Having a small but critical part that will wear out in a predictable amount of time--so that the item is broken and needs to be replaced--is the easiest way to do this.)
  • Styles or fashions change.  Any particular year, for example, fashion dictates that men's shorts should be some particular length (just now this seems to be 9 to 11 inch inseams). I try to stand unmoved by changes in style and fashion, and mostly succeed--I wear the shorts I've already got until they wear out.  When fashion turns sharply against my own tastes I've been known to let my wardrobe dwindle rather than buy stuff I don't like. Still, it has an impact on a lot of people.
  • Things become obsolete.  This does bite me. For example, I've got a couple of perfectly good computers that won't run the next release of MacOS because they've got PowerPC processors. I try to lean against the winds of obsolescence. For one thing, I continue to use obsolete stuff for as long as it still works, if I can. More important, I try to gauge a thing's "obsolescence potential" before deciding whether to buy it--and the higher the likelihood that it'll be obsolete before it wears out, the more disinclined I am to make the purchase.

Prefer things that wear out

Generally, I prefer things that wear out. It's not that wearing out is a good thing, it's just that wearing out is a pretty good sign that whatever it is doesn't suffer from one of these other reasons that things need to be replaced.

Of course, it's best if they won't wear out for a long time. Garden tools (spade, rake, hoe) will wear out eventually, but ought to be good for a generation or two. Well-made furniture can last for generations as well. Photos taken with old-fashioned film will last a hundred years with ordinary care and quite a bit longer if dealt with in an archival fashion. Well-made books can last a very long time indeed. (The University of Illinois library here in town has perfectly readable copies of the Proceedings of the Royal Society dating back to when Isaac Newton was publishing.)

But even things that wear out in an ordinary amount of time are still better than things that need to be replaced early because they're obsolete or out of fashion, for lots of reasons:

  • Things that wear out can be pressed into service even after they're threadbare. 
  • Things that wear out can be made to last longer with gentle use. 
  • Things that wear out can sometimes even be kept in service with simple repairs.

Things that go out of fashion are second best.  As long as you don't mind being out-of-fashion, such things tend to be perfectly serviceable long after you're supposed to have replaced them with some newer, trendier thing.

Things that become obsolete are less satisfactory yet--unless you're one of those rare people who can can go right on using an obsolete device that still serves its purpose.  (Grandparents seem to be good at this.)

Things that break are probably the worst--especially if the way they break is by having some small essential bit wear out.  Sometimes, as with glasses made of glass, it's kind of a trade off.  My glass glasses aren't going to become obsolete or go out of fashion, and they certainly won't wear out.  They will no doubt break eventually, but it seems to me like a reasonable risk to take--the need to exercising a certain amount of care is a reasonable price to pay for glasses that will never wear out.

Prefer things that wear out, because it's a sign that they don't suffer from the worse failure modes.  Then, use them gently so they last as long as possible.

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Guest's picture

Interesting points :) Lately, I've been aiming to wear things out. I sometimes buy things and then don't want to wear or use them for fear of damaging them. But what's the point in having something that just sits on a shelve or hangs in the closet? I didn't buy a dress to look at it, after all.

P.S. Have you tried taking your shoes to a repair shop? Sometimes they can breath new life into an old pair. In the past, I've had expensive shoes re-soled for a fraction of a cost of what a new pair.

Guest's picture

I try to buy good quality items as much as possible. When I see something wearing out, I can't help but feel pleased and think "I've gotten my money's worth out of this item".

Good post!

Guest's picture

As an ultrarunner, I do very high mileage, so go through running shoes, but I'm not the sort who buys into the shoe industry's mantra that they should be replaced every 300 miles. I buy the sort of shoes that work best for me, wear them until they almost literally fall off my feet, then replace them with the same kind. And I have and still use some running shirts I've had for 15 years.

Buying a new TV might fall into your category of obsolescence. Ours was bought in 1992, and replaced one that was 19 years old that still had the twist handle channel changer on it, but was working fine. We bought the current one just because we wanted one that worked with a remote. Real high tech stuff, eh? One day I was perusing the lovely flat screen HD devices at Costco when I struck up a conversation with another consumer who, like me, has a perfectly functioning older TV. I said to him: "Sometimes I wish mine would just break!"

Yet another reason to buy something new is just because you want to. We moved into our present house last August. While it's a terrific place that we love, it's not perfect. My wife just hates the kitchen sink, and frankly so do I -- for various good reasons. So we're thinking about ways we might remodel that part.

Guest's picture

I think one of the most interesting changes has been the nearly complete loss of tinkers and repairmen as a class. It used to be that when most things broke -- especially due to some minor problem -- it was worth getting them repaired. These days, it's not. The combination of cheap energy, cheap global labor, and rapid technology change has resulted in a culture of disposable items. DVD players are a good example: they're so cheap to manufacture, you can buy a new one for less than you'd have to pay a repairman to even crack the case. There are still repairmen for big-ticket items, like cars and appliances, but tinkers, tailors, and cobblers have nearly gone out of existence.

Philip Brewer's picture

It's certainly easy to be led astray.  Buying a cheap, crappy item that turns out to be so unsatisfactory that you never use it, so it never wears out, so you never get to replace it--it's a classic failure, and one that frugal people are perhaps more prone to than others.

Those no perfect escape.  It helps to remember that, putting aside the very few things you actually need (water, food), the only good reason to buy anything is that you want it.

For me, like for Guest above, "wearing out" is largely an after-the-fact metric:  If something wears out (as long as it doesn't wear out too quickly), it's a good sign.  It means that I bought something that I actually used.  It's always sad to find a "perfectly good" thing in the close--it means that I bought something that I didn't use.

Even better, of course, is to use something, and use something, and use something and have it just last and last.  Bicycles often fall into that category.  There's no reason that a bicycle can't last for decades (with occasional replacement of tires and handlebar tape, and less frequent replacement of cables, chains, gears, bearings, etc.).

@Lynn:  Welcome!  Good to see you here.

Guest's picture

A lot of things can be kept "alive" longer with good maintenance. I finally ran down the right Meltonian shoe polish (the best & in lots of colors) for a pair of my classic leather boar shoes and with some polish - voila! nicely respectable casual shoes again. You can also waterproof winter boots and protect them from salt damage. I spray fabric protector on canvas shoes and bags, etc. to help keep them clean longer. Learn which items can be handwashed. Just wore a linen blouse that said "dry clean," but you can certainly WASH & even bleach linen! Try to do as many small repairs as you can. I always keep needle & thread and a variety of glues on hand - as well as an assortment of nails & screws. Iron-on bonding fabric can be great for some rips. Cheap things for me are fashionable items that will only be ok for a season - so why splurge? I can then recycle them through a thrift shop! Remember, Goodwill, and so on have the capacity to sell used clothing as RAGS by the POUND - so a stained tshirt will have a 2nd or 3rd life after all!

Guest's picture

As far as technology goes, if that old computer gets you through the day, keep it. Word, Excel and Firefox will run just fine on a 5-10 year old PC running XP. In your case, running OS X, a G4 will run fine on Tiger and Office 2004.

Make sure you've got plenty of RAM, that's what will keep an older computer running well. Remember back to when you bought it - if it was fast then, go back to that setup.

You don't need to upgrade to the latest OS. In fact, the newest versions are made with faster computers in mind so their requirements are higher. All those new features take more horsepower to run. Just use the version that came with your computer and upgrade when it's time for a new system.

Guest's picture

I love your posts. I've read quite a few of them over the past months. I too value quality and long lasting stuff! I seldom buy "stuff" but usually get the best quality I can find within reason (diminishing return with price). I NEVER lose stuff, I NEVER abuse stuff, I NEVER put something away that is not clean/serviced & ready to go, I ALWAYS maintain stuff. I love to tinker so I'm happy t keep things properly adjusted/serviced. I hate shopping so I only want to buy something once, like my Henckle kitchen knives are my first set & still perfect (cost 400.00 25 years ago), same with my Revere cookware, and Craftsman hand tools: also with classic & quality items you can often just replace a single broken piece, such as a broken socket from a set or a plate from my open stock dishes that have been made for decades. Focusing on keeping your good stuff in order sure cuts down on chasing the latest fad. Also, anything that doesn't get regular use gets gone: no buying just to buy! My biggest problem with "stuff" is finding exactly what I want at a fair price, I NEVER buy anything that is not just right. My next biggest problem with "stuff" is people borrowing things & damaging them or failing to return them. I am soon to put a permanent end to this problem after a friend used lots of my tools to build her new house: cost me a few hundred dollars & lots of time to replace & repair mis-used stuff.

Guest's picture

There are a couple of good fix it guides out there, often seen at yard sales. Some repairs are very simple and need few tools. An older yard sale floor lamp of ours needs a replacement socket. It may take a bit of fudging to retrofit a new one in, but it can be done. Our iron finked out on us near the plug. So I cut the offending part off, striped the wire ends, and replaced the plug. It works fine. Our washer of 15 years sprung a leak. After checking hoses I called the repair guy in. It was a cheapo bladder like dohickey inside the machine. (Costing $5 with shipping). The guy's service call cost $80 and since he didn't have the part in his truck would have had to come back again. I asked to watch as he dis-assembled the machine, and he very kindly talked me through the whole process, then he had the part sent directly to the house. Well I was able to replace it and cancel the follow up call. So in 15 years when the part needs replacing again, it'll just take the $5 or so to do it.

Guest's picture

I've taken up darning those tiny little holes that tend to develop in socks, underwear, T-shirts and other clothes even though we could afford to buy new ones. Hubby bagged me darning his socks and was perplexed about why I would waste my time when WalMart has replacement clothing so cheap, but aside from the money saved (darned/repaired clothes tend to last at least another year) I've discovered a definite pattern to how garments wear out.

Anything that goes into a clothes dryer will have the elastic let go within 6 months to a year. Socks, skivvies, clothing with lycra in the fabric, it shrinks then lets go. Never put your clothing in the dryer. Elastic/lycra will last for many years if it never sees a clothes dryer. A dryer also kills anything chenille within a few months. Also, use 1/4 the amount of bleach, the minimum recommended washload dose of detergent (that tiny invisible line waaaaayyy down inside the cap), and don't hang your colored laundry directly in the summer sun, and you'll reduce clothing fatigue and fading dramatically. Also ... Americans tend to be in the habit of taking an article of clothing off and tossing it in the wash whether it needs it or not. If it's not stinky or dirty, set it aside and wear it a second (or third) time (we have a quilt rack in each bedroom to drape "wear again" clothing over to air out and keep it separate from the "just washed" clothing).

Socks usually develop holes where your big toenail rubs up against your shoes. Darn them and you'll get another 6 months out of them before you need to reinforce them again (I usually get 2 repairs of the toes before the rest of the sock wears enough to justify tossing them). Tightwad tip #1 is to always keep your toenails trimmed short (ignore foofy "pedicure" tips to keep them 1/8" long like your fingernails ... you'll burn through socks like mad). Tightwad tip #2 is that your feet continue to grow very slowly your entire life and you're probably 1/2 size bigger now than the size you wore in high school. A lot of people tend to keep buying the same size shoe for decades on end without checking their feet size, than wonder why their feet hurt and their socks keep wearing out.

Men's tighty-whities tend to go first where the knit fabric meets the elastic right under the size-tag in the rear. This is an easy repair if you catch it right away and reinforce the area with a double-whipstitch. Avoid skintight jeans or they'll also wear in the crotch, and don't use a "trifold" wallet or your right rear pocket will develop a hole.

Women's skivvies tend to get holes in front in the seam where the little cotton liner is attached. Silky underwear are almost impossible to repair so avoid buying them. In cotton knit skivvies, it's delicate surgery to repair the hole, but if you catch it right away they will last another year.

T-shirts tend to let go in the neckline where the body of the T-shirt meets the ribbing, or in a seam. If you repair them when you first notice the seam separating, you'll get a long happy life out of your T-shirt. If you wait, your favorite T-shirt will die young of a tragic, needless death. T-shirts with those plastic-ink logos (including size/brand stamped on the new "tagless" t-shirts) tend to get small holes right where the printing area meet the rest of the shirt. Invisible repairs are almost impossible because you're stitching into a plastic logo, so I try to avoid buying them (traditional silk-screen ink is OK, just not that plastic ink).

I've been keeping track of what is repaired and have computed I'm extending the wearable life of garments on average to nearly 3x what we used to get out of them before reaching true "wearout." Everybody (even the 3-year-old) now knows that as soon as you notice a small hole, toss it in the mending pile and once a month Mom dedicates an afternoon to mending the clothes and you'll get it back good as new.

Guest's picture

I really need to darn my work socks. Those are good tips. Thus far, I've just been switching feet so the holes over the big toes are on the other side of the foot near the pinkie toe.

Guest's picture

1) Never use chlorine bleach on linen! It yellows it.

2) Buy matching good quality socks a half dozen to a dozen at a time. Train the family to put dirty socks in mesh lingerie bags to be laundered. Never match socks again; as socks become unrepairable, toss them, and the remainder will still match.

3) Fray check and washable fabric glue are your friends. Dot them carefully on stress points and tiny holes from the back, using the smallest amount that will do the job to avoid discoloration. I have knit shirts "glued" five years ago that are still going strong. Fabric glue is also better for tights and stockings, as it isn't stiff like nailpolish.

4) Save a swatch of tough synthetic athletic fabric from a discarded item and use it to patch holes over the big toe from the inside. It's smooth and you won't be darning that sock again... ever.

5) Tie-die good quality knits when they get stained.

6) Before tossing a stained woven item, consider whether a well-placed applique, embroidery or pocket could cover the stain. A stained or damaged skirt might have some of the fullness taken in - or replace the stained section with a vertical or horizontal panel in a cool fabric.

Guest's picture

In our pre-kid life, my husband and I used to keep things forever. His favorite casual shorts have been with us for a decade; much of our furniture is mine from before we were married.

But now that we have an active 4 y.o. and not-quite-1 y.o., it is astounding how much more we deal with repairs, stains and related issues. While we always try to fix things first, all of a sudden we understand why families have to replace, say, dishes.

Which leads me to my point - in some cases, it pays to consider whether a replacement item will be available. Much like the big bag o' socks, we buy our plates, etc. from Fiestaware. (At the factory store or on sale, or we get them as gifts.) It is reasonable to assume we'll always be able to replace them, if need be. (Actually, make that when!) That way, there's no such thing as having mismatched plates.

Guest's picture

"Silky underwear are almost impossible to repair so avoid buying them"

Are you kidding me? What about getting SOME ENJOYMENT out of the undies?! What if, I actually purchased a THONG?

Guest's picture

We live out in the country, where folks tend to keep things in big sheds and piles. It's surprising how much of it can be reused eventually.

I remember having a supervisor who was astounded when he heard I was darning socks. He was a runner and bought his socks by the dozens and threw them out when they got holes. Well, I'm a walker, and I'm sure not going to replace my Thorlo's any more often than I have to!

Guest's picture

"What about getting SOME ENJOYMENT out of the undies?!"

Ahem ... 'fraid we got a little TOO much enjoyment out of the silky skivvies. After having three "surprise" kids in 5 years in our forties (after having already reared 3 older ones to college age) we decided maybe we should be instigating a little less "enjoyment" ;-)

Guest's picture

More importantly than darning socks, or mending tiny little holes in t-shirts, I think the point is to buy quality in the first place, something that is increasingly difficult to find, and that many people don't even recognize any more.

I spent years being "frugal" and buying very inexpensive ($20 or less) watches. One day as yet another watch died, I went to put in it my jewelry box and it hit me how many $20 watches were sitting in there--dead and unrepairable. I had just been with an older friend who 50 years later still wore the watch her husband had given her as an engagement present. The light went off.

My next watch had a much larger price tag--over $300, but it is made by a very reputable maker whose products are known for their long life and reliability, and because of sales and coupons, I purchased it for $200 and have been wearing it for years. It is better looking than any of my previous watches and with one more year of use I will have more than made up for the price difference.

I bought my couch for $35 off of Craigslist. It had already been around for decades, so I knew how it would hold up, it has a more classic design, so while it isn't trendy, it doesn't really go out of style.

I will, on occasion, find clothing at thrift stores or garage sales, confident that I know how this item holds up when washed.

I will confess that style is important to me, although I am not trendy, but I don't want to wear things that scream 80's, so if something is trendy, it had better be an excellent price, because I know it won't be around a really long time. I look at certain things as investment pieces. I once spent a week's pay on a dress. It was classic. I could wear it as easily today as 20 years ago. Unfortunately I didn't plan on my waist increasing.

But, I don't do things that make me feel cheap rather than frugal, and that is going to be a different point for each of us. It offends me to replace things that should have lasted, but I refuse to wear faded, dingy or holey underwear. Makes me feel bad about myself.

One thing that ticks me off is that over the past few years, my jeans, my wonderful Levis have been replaced. The heavy denim that lasted and lasted and felt wonderful and worth the price tag, has been replaced with a thin, cotton/spandex fabric that can wear out in months. I have been unable to find satisfactory jeans for at least 3 years, unless I find them at thrift stores or the occasional garage sale. I have even considered going and having them custom made just to be able to get good denim that fit right.

But I may not care about fashion, but women often do. If we buy good quality classic pieces they last. (I love a well-made classic white dress shirt for work, and own many of them.)

This works for kitchen appliances too. I saved and scrimped, working a second job for a while to purchase my Kitchen Aid mixer. I expect to never buy another mixer as long as I live. I am currently looking for a blender with the same reliability. I'm willing to pay more for it. I am also looking for a camera. I dropped my 35MM, which I had used for decades, and I have a very early model digital camera, but I can't blow up my photographs as I want to on that one because the quality isn't good.

Guest's picture

May I say, one of the most frustrating things to me, talking about planned obsolescence, is printers. I mean, for heaven's sake, dot matrix printers lasted forever, the HP IIs and IIIs, forever, but they were black and white and not suitable for much of today's applications, and the HPs were certainly too expensive for home use, but inkjet printers break and you can't even find someone who can clean them. Costs too much to take them apart! It annoys me greatly, just as today's phones do.

This is dating me some, but Bell Telephones were nearly indestructible. My aunt had the same telephone for over 30 years until her kids forced her to go from rotary to push button dialing. I can't get a phone to last more than a couple of years now. Cell phones, even less.

And were built to last. It was assumed that you would drive that thing for a long time. Some people seem far more concerned with whether it has satellite radio than if you can drive it for 300,000 miles.

This kind of frugality is truly green thinking. More so than the hybrid vehicles, keep vehicles in operating order longer. The longer that car stays running and out of a scrap yard or landfill, the better it is for the environment in general.

Also, don't we think of ways to reuse items? A torn or holey t-shirt becomes an oil rag or a dust cloth, a decent coat which has been outgrown, is passed along to a friend or to a needy child. My cowboy boots have been re-soled at least twice, maybe three times, I can't remember, and even though I only bring 'em out on occasion, I've more than gotten my money's worth out of them. But they aren't done yet. I plan to keep wearing them for another 15 years or so, whenever the occasion calls for it. At this point they have cost me about $6/year. Yeehaw!

And another thing...I love scented candles, but often toward the bottom of the jar, or the last inch or so of the candle, it just doesn't burn right. Every so often I will melt the candle bits together, but a fresh wick in a jar, pour the melted wax over it and--ta da--a new candle.