Should I Keep My Couch For 40 Years?
On investing in the future versus focusing on the present.by Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick
My parents are moving. After a decade of not having kids at home, they decided to sell their house – and that meant purging goods.
The process wasn't difficult, but my mother bemoaned one thing: her couch.
"We had that couch for almost 40 years," she told me, explaining how its low clearance wasn't good for bad knees.
The couch was purchased years before me or my siblings were born, when my parents lived in Germany during a tour in my father's military service. Now, the couch lives at a thrift store in Georgia.
Thinking about this couch, it's less impressive that it survived and more remarkable that my parents kept an object for 40 years. Their purchase was financially prudent, too, as they stretched, say, a $1,000 purchase in 1981 across four decades, netting the cost to roughly $25.25 a year.
When framed like this, the lesson is obvious: buy for long term. But, in a landscape of startup convenience, how — and why – should you invest in products?
Convenience and frugality are central to shopping today. If you wanted, a $200 couch could arrive at your door tomorrow, thanks to Amazon: Brands have groomed us for the empty-calorie, quick-hit, cheap and easy purchase.
Katherine White, professor of marketing and behavioral science at the University of British Columbia-Sauder School of Business, sees this all as a matter of messaging.
"Consumers are definitely receiving marketing messages that encourage 'buy now,' 'buy new,' and 'get the latest," White said.
Paired with Facebook and Instagram ads equating purchases with liking an image, we're predisposed to shop impulsively.
"Ask if you really need it," White said. She advises waiting a day before making a purchase, to take a break and do some research about the product you've been told to need.
White also pointed out that we often forget quality. One recent study noted a phenomena called "product durability neglect," where a shopper fails to see the longevity or life-cycle of a product, opting instead for multiple lower-priced, lower-quality products.
"Buy for quality, durability and timeless styles," White said.
There's also something behavioral scientists call "present bias," where shoppers obscure their own future as it relates to a product. Scott Rick, a marketing professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, explained how you can consider this factor while shopping.
"Thinking of the purchase as an investment might make big-ticket items less painful," he said.
To get an idea of how a product might evolve, Rick suggests digging beyond reviews and social media to talk with longtime users or industry insiders.
"By all means, seek their counsel first."
If you want to invest in a quality good but are on a tight budget, there are ways to make this work.
"Focus on one room at a time and slowly invest in good pieces," said Erin Lowry, author of the three-part Broke Millennial series. This is particularly great for homeowners who plan to grow into a place over a period of years.
But it might not work for renters. Durable, easily moved goods will shape how you shop, Lowry said.
"I live on a third-floor walkup, which immediately nixes certain styles of furniture simply because it wouldn't be able to come up the stairs in my building," Lowry said.
"Sometimes it makes sense to buy the furniture you know will last for this phase of your life."
Thinking critically and thinking sustainably
This subject gets at a big buzzword: sustainability. My parents were absolutely not shopping with a sustainable mindset but, because of economic insecurity, they invested in a couch so they'd never have to think about a couch again.
"Do you need to literally have eight pairs of cheap jeans or two pairs of expensive jeans?" said Tensie Whelan, director of the New York University Stern Center for Sustainable Business.
Whelan echoed how marketing is a part of the picture – but emphasized the ease and affordability of sustainable shopping. It might sound cliché, but buying secondhand is a great shortcut to sustainability.
Whelan also suggested renting household items like furniture (even bedding!) for those on a budget or those living in a space temporarily.
While it's easy to think stores like Ikea and Target and their affordable products are automatically non-sustainable, many large businesses are thinking critically about longevity.
By doing a little digging before buying — is the product certified sustainable? Is the product coming from a sustainable supply chain? — you can buy more consciously, from food to electronics to clothing to furniture. It takes some time to research, but many brands dedicate space on their websites to explain their efforts.
Shopping with a product's life cycle in mind can help. Whelan notes that a couch with multiple slipcovers can become multiple couches. Repair and reupholstery can make an old product new. When a product is broken beyond repair or simply doesn't work, do your homework and recycle smartly, as America's recycling system is problematic.
Know this isn't a you problem: this is an economic issue a century in the making.
"We all buy too much stuff," Whelan said.
"When you look at the economic development gaps, as countries move into higher GDPs, they both consume more resources and consume more waste. For us to have ongoing economic development, we have to decouple resources and waste."