Friday, February 26, 2010

On Utility and Boardshorts

This is an article comparing the relative utility of some of our purchases. It's pretty dry, so no ill feelings if you stop reading now.

What prompted this was an observation that the small-ticket items we buy either get quickly discarded or stubbornly used until they literally disintegrate. It's the big-ticket items we buy that we feel obligated to keep for a while, but end up getting replaced every so often because there's a bigger (or smaller), tougher (or lighter), shinier version that we just have to have.

We'll do ourselves a big favor and wholly exclude the black hole of fiscal hemorrhage that is camera gear.

I own one suit for dressy occasions. It fits me well, and I paid $250 for it, call it $300 with alterations. I wear it about twice a year, and I've owned it for 4 years. I'll probably replace it for no good reason after another year or two, which means I'll have worn it about a dozen times. Doing some extremely complicated math, that's $25 each time I wear it. I know that wearing a suit a dozen times is on the low end, but my circumstances don't compel me to wear it a few times a week. If I were wearing suits nearly every day, I'd also probably own more than one, and I'd probably buy nicer suits, so the end result of more use would be offset by these factors.

Moving on, the snowboard I have now cost me $250, but its actual price was $450, and most of the boards I've bought over the years have been in the $400-$500 range. Let's roll with $400. A snowboard, even if babied, does not last forever. The wood core wears out, the base stops holding wax, etc. A snowboard, not babied, is subject to damage from a variety of sources. I do not baby my snowboards, although I do all my own tuning, so the upkeep cost approaches zero. On average, I get about 40-50 days of riding before 1) catastrophic damage occurs, or 2) incremental damage and normal wear combine enough to warrant replacement. Actually, I've only ever retired one board. Three have experienced catastrophe, and another three are still in rotation. Again, complicated math, but that's $8-10 in snowboard cost alone every time I go ride, not even considering boots, bindings, helmet, gloves, pants, jacket, goggles, etc., all of which have discrete lifetimes.

Ambling further along, I've got a pretty nice bike that I train and race on. I bought it second-hand for $2000. We'll lump the daily upkeep, replacement tubes, tire wear, chains, cassettes, cables, etc. together and figure that I'll have spent another $2000 on it by the time I replace it. I got that bike 3 years ago, and with a broad-brush average, we'll say I ride it four days a week or 200 days a year. I'll probably get another year out of it, so that'll be a total of 800 rides over four years for $4000. $5/ride. Not bad for a big-ticket item.

At this point, these three examples serve to illustrate how considerable initial outlays of cash for gear or clothes work out over time, and they all seem to justify that outlay with reasonable per-use cost for what are high-quality products. Curiously, each of them cost more than the previous one in the list, but each of them also have a lower per-use cost than the one prior. You could draw a rudimentary graph and figger that cheaper stuff doesn't get used as much and ends up costing quite a bit more each time it gets used. Unfortunately, that's an egregiously wrong conclusion, and we'll use the Case of the Boardshorts to disprove it:

Image Hosted by
Exhibit A

What you see here are some Patagonia boardshorts. They're not billed as running shorts, but I prefer to use them as such, because Running Shorts and Runners in General Look Silly, or I Would Prefer to Sandbag and Not Let People See How Crushingly Strong My Legs Are, depending on the audience. I've got other boardies for beach days and other uses, but this is a designated running pair. With the exception of races, during which more "appropriate" garments are worn, I have run in this exact pair of shorts for every run I've done since I've had them. I bought them in 2003. Six full years they've lasted, and across three continents. And with that same broad-brush average, three runs a week. 150 runs a year, six years, 900 runs. And I bought them for $19. Which means they've cost me just over two cents, a measly $.02, every time I've used them. [A designated casual pair, purchased the same day for the same price, was finally retired in Fiji after five years of hard use when the ass literally fell out, much to the chagrin of my travel partners and to the amusement of the locals.]

And, lest you think this is a eulogy, just because the shorts are on a hanger in this photo doesn't mean they've been hung up in the proverbial sense. Still goin' strong, and gettin' cheaper with every mile.

Past Detritus