Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Five Stages of a Product’s Life: Saving You Money on Replacing Expensive Household Items

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

comic 22 - product life stages

The end is near for my five-year-old laptop computer. I built this thing myself from parts just before my last semester of college. I’ve replaced just about every part since then at least once except for the casing and screen. Unfortunately I’ve just about reached the end of the line for what upgrades and repairs can do to keep it going. The keyboard is missing several key caps (I pulled off one of the “Ctrl” keys and put it where the “E” was), the power supply jack is wiggly, the memory capacity has been maxed out at 2GB, and the hard-to-reach internal Wi-Fi died long ago. Still, the laptop is capable of performing as well as a laptop you’d pay $800 for today, but it’s only a matter of time until a major component fails or more of the casing starts to fall apart and I’ll replace it altogether. My laptop is at Stage 3: Wait and See.

For a few years now, I’ve used a system of assigning ratings to expensive items I own in order to track where they are in their useful lifespan and make budgetary plans for items I may soon need to replace. For instance, a brand new item at the peak of its performance is in Stage 1: Good As New while that same item that just broke in half and no longer works probably belongs in Stage 5: End of Life (though it might only be in Stage 4: Obsolescence).

What exactly do these ratings mean, and how can they save you money? Let’s look at each rating and consider the circumstances under which you would use each of them.

Stage 1: Good As New

If you just went to the store and bought a product off the shelf, it should fall into this category. And if you properly use and maintain that item, it should stay in this category for a long time to come. Items that are Good As New are in flawless or nearly flawless condition and are as good as or even better than similar items currently on the market. Every feature of the item still performs as well as the day is was built. Good As New is obviously the best category of products to own, but it certainly isn’t the cheapest.

Product Examples:

  • A new car fresh off the dealer’s lot.
  • A refrigerator you just bought new at the appliance store.
  • A refurbished DVD player you bought for $100 less than a brand new model.
  • Your grandmother’s set of cookware, painstakingly maintained and better than anything you can buy on the market today.

Notice that Good As New doesn’t necessarily mean “brand new.” In fact, the age of a product is often irrelevant to its life stage. What matters is the condition. Some items, including many appliances and tools, can be kept in Good As New condition for decades with careful maintenance. (Others, like pretty much any consumer technology product or gadget, can be in perfect condition yet still fall out of Good As New status. More on that later.)

When to Replace: Items in the Good As New stage should almost never be replaced. Instead, money that would have been spent replacing the item can be used to repair and maintain the item to keep it in Good As New condition. If you’re in the habit of replacing items that are Good As New, you might as well take your existing products to the store, give them to the store for free, and then buy the items back from the store. Yes, replacing Good As New items is that dumb.

Less than 1% of new products you buy should be to replace items in the Good As New stage.

Stage 2: In Working Order

You probably think most of the items in your household right now fall into this product life stage. (And you might be right.) Products In Working Order still do the job they were originally tasked to do. They work well, they might be a little old, but there’s something newer or better out there. If you had an infinite supply of time and money, you would throw these items in the trash and buy some Good As New ones instead.

Product Examples:

  • A 12-speed whatchamacallit when they just came out with a 15-speed.
  • A fairly-equipped five-year-old car with no mechanical problems.
  • A basic toaster that still toasts toast.
  • Any functioning iPod that’s more than six months old.

Even without much maintenance or care, many products will stay in the In Working Order stage virtually forever. Unless something malfunctions or degrades due to wear and tear, that basic two-slice toaster could very well toast your great-grandchildren’s toast. Don’t try to tell them that though, because they’ll be using their 30-slice laser toaster while you’re still using Old Toasty.

When to Replace: If a product in your house is In Working Order, you should try to hold off replacing it for as long as possible. The toaster still toasts your bread like it did when you got it ten years ago; it just doesn’t toast the face of your child’s favorite Sesame Street characters into it like some of the new ones do. Or maybe it toasts 99 slices out of 100 properly, but it turns that unlucky one slice into charcoal. Instead of replacing In Working Order items with Good As New ones, you may be able to repair it or even enhance it with replacement parts (like I’ve done with my laptop).

Sometimes, though, it does make sense to replace In Working Items simply because newer versions with useful features or lower maintenance and operation costs exist. Since the current item is still doing the job, you should take your time to research newer versions and wait for a really good deal to come along. But only 5% of products you buy should be to replace items In Working Order.

Stage 3: Wait and See

Items that fall in the Wait and See stage of life are still quite useful and typically in fairly good condition, but they may have some problems or may be moderately out-of-date. You may be able to hold out for some time with an item that is Wait and See, but there are certainly a growing number of advantages to finding a replacement in Good As New or In Working Order condition.

Product Examples:

  • My good old 1991 Nissan Sentra.
  • A low-efficiency but working furnace that still keeps you warm during the winter.
  • VHS tapes, or any other entertainment medium for which players are becoming rarer.
  • My cell phone; it calls people and that’s about it.

Hanging on to items that are just Wait and See can sometimes be painful. Your neighbor certainly isn’t helping when he brings home a 10-speaker surround-sound entertainment system while you’re still watching TV on your 19-inch Sorny-brand tube.

When to Replace: Wait and See items belong on your Christmas list, even if Christmas isn’t for another six months. That said, you may want to replace the item yourself, especially if a newer item comes with great features that’ll save you time or money. But before you zip on down to the nearest big-box store, you’ll need to do your homework. Can your current product be repaired at a reasonable cost? (And if so, is there a good chance it will break again before long?) If repairs are out of the question, shop in-store and online for a replacement, comparing a variety of items and feature sets. Since your current item is still doing (most of) its job, you can afford to take your time here. Once you’ve found the right replacement product, consider selling the old one on your favorite internet market place or at a yard sale to help recoup some of the cost of your new purchase.

No more than 15% of products you buy should be to replace items at the Wait and See stage.

Stage 4: Obsolescence

You probably don’t have too many items in this category lying around the house; if you do, they’re probably gathering dust in the attic and you may have a bit of a pack-rat problem. Items in the Obsolescence stage suffer either from moderate to major mechanical failures that would be expensive to repair, very high maintenance or operation costs compared to newer versions, or incredibly outdated feature sets. Even if they still perform some of their original functions, you’re almost embarrassed to still own these products.

Product Examples:

  • The car you spend $4,000 to repair every year. And there goes the transmission…
  • Your desktop computer that can run Windows 98. Barely.
  • A two-slice toaster that only toasts one slice at a time, and it takes 15 minutes to do it.
  • Your 30-year-old vacuum that still sucks up 99% of dirt in your carpet… and redeposits 40% of it on your hardwood floors.

When to Replace: The typical item that has reached the Obsolescence stage in your average American household will get replaced inside of a week. That’s not always a bad thing, but it does mean that most people don’t shop around first for a good deal. Just because your washer and dryer are on their last legs doesn’t mean you have to replace them today. You might be able to bum a couple of loads off of neighbors, or you could always hit up your friendly local laundrymatista. For entertainment or convenience products, you may be able to wait quite a while for a bargain price to come along before pulling the trigger.

Still, you may not be in a position to wait months or even weeks to replace items you use frequently such as major appliances, automobiles, or computers. As usual, consider the repair cost and frequency before dropping a wad of cash for a Good As New replacement. If fixing the product isn’t possible and its days are numbered, start frequenting internet deal sites, keeping a close eye out for prices that are “good enough.” You might not be able to score the deal of the year based on your timetable, but you don’t need to settle for the first new item you see.

30-50% of products you buy should be to replace items at the Obsolescence stage.

Stage 5: End of Life

It’s over. Finito. Kaput. Your product has gone to that great junkyard in the sky. You might as well not even own the item anymore. (It might be cheaper that way for some things, since large appliances can be difficult to haul away.) If it’s a product you absolutely need right now, then you better hit the road (assuming it isn’t your car that bit the bullet) and do some serious shopping. Hopefully you saw the untimely demise of your product coming (i.e. it didn’t just jump from Stage 1 to Stage 5 overnight) so you’re already looking around for a replacement.

Product Examples:

  • The only thing coming out of your toaster toasted is itself.
  • Your car just exploded. A lot.
  • You now have two whole-house heaters: your furnace and your air conditioner.
  • You just burnt dinner, your whole house is smokey, and the smoke detector with the new battery just sat there silently.

When to Replace: As with items in the other stages, consider if repairs are possible and economical. If they’re not, determine your timeline for replacement. Much like items in Obsolescence, End of Life items may not need to be replaced right away if they’re products you don’t use all that often. If your portable MP3 player just played its last tune, you’re certainly not going to die if you wait a week or two for a good deal on a new one unless you have some sort of strange disease where you need to hear music all of the time or else your brain implodes, which you don’t. Even items you think you need to replace today—dishwashers, microwaves, televisions—can probably wait a bit… at least until you have a chance to scour the internet for a baseline of prices.

And if the idea of dropping a ton of money on a Good As New item makes your stomach turn, you could always look for an item In Working Order or Wait and See condition. Some products, like cars and electronics, are easy to find used at a good price and in good shape.

50% or more of products you buy should be to replace items at the End of Life stage.

By keeping your product replacement habits in line with the suggested budget percentages listed in this article, and by taking care of the things you already own, you can help control the natural consumer impulses to buy the newest, biggest, and best items available. And if following this advice means that you end up with a house full of items in Stages 2 to 5, don’t be embarrassed; be proud that you’ve resisted the urge to splurge needlessly.

As for me, I’m still on the lookout for a new laptop, so hopefully no more keyboard letters fall off until I can find one at a dcnt pric. Oh crp.

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