Paying top price on certain items can actually save you more money in the long run.
First published on 21 April 2016. Last updated on 13 January 2017.
Not all expensive purchases are bad. In fact, sometimes a purchase is expensive in the short term, but saves you money in the long run.
Some purchases are also a form of investment, ultimately generating more money than they cost. So if you’re going buy one of these things, it’s worth considering the pricier versions:
1. Proper, Healthy Food
It’s often said that you shouldn’t ask why healthy food is so expensive, but rather why unhealthy food is so cheap.
In 2014, a study by Cambridge University found that a junk food diet costs three times less than a healthy diet. The year prior to that, the Harvard School of Public Health surveyed supermarkets and found that a healthy diet will cost only S$2 more per day (that works out to around $60 more per month).
While both those studies were conducted in the UK and US respectively, the food prices there are comparable to ours. The fact is, healthier food is more expensive. They are not processed in bulk like junk food, and use fewer preservatives and substitutes. This means there is less economy of scale, and hence higher prices.
But consider the long-term effects of eating junk food. The Duke-NUS Medical School has found that the lifetime medical costs of an obese child is S$24,000 compared to those of healthy-weight children. In addition, a Body Mass Index (BMI) above 40, or records of medical conditions caused by unhealthy eating (e.g. hypertension and diabetes) can render a person uninsurable, or drive up insurance premiums.
Overall, junk food offers false savings. You may seem to spend less; maybe even a lot less. But in the end, it will cost you more than just money.
2. Travel Accommodations
When it comes to hotels or Airbnb, the cheapest option is seldom the best. When prices are low, there is often a good reason for it - either the accommodations are in non-central areas (i.e. you will spend a ton of money on cab fares every day), or the room is almost unlivable. Airbnbhell (the website) has many stories of cheap rooms that turn out to be the size of a closet, or are infected with lice.
As to hotels, we don’t want to point fingers, so we’ll just advise you to read the one-star reviews on TripAdvisor. Many of the cheapest hotels are not actually interested in the hospitality business; some may just be a convenient way to launder money, or for a landlord to scam tourists while waiting for the lease to run down (and the place to be demolished).
There are also safety concerns involved. If your accommodations don’t have safekeeping options, you will have to lug your passport and cash around everywhere - or risk getting it stolen when left in the room.
This doesn’t mean you should spend S$600 per night on hotels. It just means that, when picking the hotel, don’t automatically choose the cheapest. Review everything within your budget range. Sometimes, an extra S$20 or S$30 a night is well worth the cost. And even if you're looking at pricier accommodations, there are ways to save money on Airbnb bookings.
3. Dress Shoes
If looking sharp at work is a must, a good pair of dress shoes is worth buying. It’s not uncommon for some brands to start at S$200. But here’s the thing: it may save you more money in the long run to get the expensive dress shoes, than to buy the S$50 “intermediate” pairs.
Dress shoes that are in the S$200+ range are of good enough quality to last, and many will survive over five years of use. When they are damaged or worn out a cobbler can fix them, often for less than S$40.
Dress shoes in the S$50 range, however, seldom last for more than two years. Because of the cheaper way they are built, there is also a limit to what a cobbler can do (and they look a right mess when the mending is done).
But you’ll note that S$50 is not exactly cheap either. As such, it may be better to spend more on quality shoes that will last, than to spend a few hundred dollars on a compromise that won’t.
If you really want to save money on this, you can try using a credit card that gives shopping rebates. Pick one that gives you rewards for the merchant you frequent, or a high cashback limit.
Never, ever, buy a discount tattoo. It’s well known that there are unlicensed tattoo parlours operating in the back alleys of Geylang, as well as some questionable parlours in nearby Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Thailand (although those countries, even the locals will warn you away from unlicensed practitioners).
First, there have been confirmed cases of Hepatitis C via dirty needles. That should be the only reason you need, since the medical costs of dealing with liver failure (a symptom of the disease) is assuredly not worth the savings. Other problems include skin diseases and blood poisoning. A licensed tattoo parlour, which is often more expensive, is tightly regulated to prevent these incidences.
The other case for expensive tattoos is professionalism. It is expensive and difficult to undo a tattoo when it goes wrong, or just looks outright hideous. There’s no point saving S$20 an hour on tattoo services, only to need a S$6,000 treatment to get a botched job lasered off your skin later.
Cheap sushi is not worth the risk. Even if you don’t die, you could end up wishing you did. Salmonella and parasites are some of the most painful experiences you will suffer.
Sushi is inherently a high-risk food, because it is raw; the fish used needs to be fresh and clear of parasites. This drives up the cost of supply, which is why proper sushi restaurants will never be the cheapest option.
Outlets that use cheap sushi often use questionable sources. Some research indicates that cheap sushi is sourced from low-grade suppliers. This can mean farmed fish that come from contaminated water, and that have been in contact with dirty ice, bacteria, and various other biohazards before it arrives on your table.
In July 2012, cheap sushi in the form of scrape tuna (literally tuna bits scraped off the bones) caused over 425 people to get sick with Salmonella in the United States. In December 2015, Singapore banned the sale of raw saltwater fish in food stalls, after one of the biggest outbreaks of Group B Streptococcus (GBS) took place here. Sushi restaurants were not affected, as the outbreaks didn’t come from there - but it does send a strong message about cheap, raw fish.
With the right dining credit card, you save a lot of money on sushi from a good restaurant. Compare credit cards in Singapore and see if the cards you like give cashback for dining or discounts with the establishments themselves.
For instance, the American Express Platinum Card comes with Palate Dining Privileges, which gives 50% off Singapore’s best restaurants when you dine for two. Among these are Kinki and Shima Restaurant, which have solid reputations for delicious food and fresh sushi.
6. Musical Instruments
This operates on the same logic as dress shoes (see point 3). If you are a serious musician who will be using your instrument heavily, the “mid-range” products are seldom financially prudent. They don’t last as long, have little to no resale value, and may leave you unsatisfied anyway.
For example, consider the purchase of a cheap S$80 guitar made from plywood.The sound quality tends to degrade after a year, and the resale value is effectively nil. But a S$5,000 guitar will last a generation or two with the right care. In addition, the wood matures and improves the tone, which means you have a chance of selling it at the same price you bought it (in some cases you may even make a profit).
The same applies for most instruments - ask a professional musician for their advice on brands and models.
It is better to save up for a while and get a quality product, than to repeatedly spend money on instruments that you need to replace. In the long run, the former could end up saving you more.
7. Outdoor Gear
One of the silliest ways to save money is to buy low-quality tents, hiking boots, or (for those with truly no sense of self-preservation) rock-climbing gear.
The fastest way to lose money on an outdoors adventure is for your gear to break down. If your tent collapses, your sleeping bag leaks, your hiking shoes fall apart, etc. it often means a drive into town. This can be expensive, if you happen to be in the middle of the Australian outback or the Grand Canyon. After that, it means repurchasing your equipment, hence wasting more money.
In extreme cases, cheap outdoor gear can mean real physical danger. Snapped guide ropes or an exploding portable stove can cost you more than money, and endanger others as well.
It’s no surprise that many veteran hikers and mountaineers “talk equipment” for hours. They know that a bad investment in outdoor gear will quickly result in a canceled trip. When you’re picking out your gear, consult with these seasoned travelers first; pick brands based on trusted recommendations, not on price tags.
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