Should you buy the best? Should you look at ratings?: A deliberately controversial post

This post suggests that not trying to buy the best will decrease your stress.

It is true that we on the blog are big proponents of satisficing.  The paradox of choice is awesome. (Here’s our book review.)  For many things we’re happy to just buy what’s good enough rather than trying to optimize.

However, sometimes spending a little extra effort and money to get quality is worth it in terms of happiness and decreased stress in the long run.  Unlike the author of the original post, I get a lot of pleasure out of using a high quality pot or pan. We’ve had the target knock off Le Crueset and we’ve had the genuine Le Crueset, and after a couple of years there’s a big difference between the two. Sometimes spending the extra money and research is worth it.  (And maybe we are still technically satisficing with a high bar.)

Our method of satisficing is usually to go on Amazon and look for the highest rated item in our price range and just buy that.  (#2 does that sometimes when the method below fails; I trust Amazon reviews far, far less than #1 does.  #1 notes that the important Amazon reviews are the negative ones, not the positive ones, so it is important to check out the one and two star reviews before committing.)  We used to use Consumer Search but then they stopped updating as frequently so we don’t use it as much.

#2 says:  my answer to what to buy is usually on either Sweet Home or the Wire Cutter, depending on the item.

Do you try to buy the best?  How do you feel about optimizing vs. satisficing?  Does it vary by the decision you’re trying to make?  How so?

24 Responses to “Should you buy the best? Should you look at ratings?: A deliberately controversial post”

  1. bogart Says:

    Satisficer extraordinaire here, but yes, it varies by realm. Over the years (and it’s taken many) I’ve realized that “quality” matters in inverse proportion to how much I like what I’m doing. Thus, I’ll ride in pretty much any saddle/pair of breeches/boots because … who cares: I’m on a horse (obvious deal-breaker, though — stuff must be in safe condition, within my ability to evaluate it. And obviously care to avoid things that cause me pain. But beyond that, eh. Full-seat breeches will neither make me a better rider nor make me happier.). In contrast, I care about having good knives/cookware/kitchen appliances b/c I do not want to spend time in the kitchen, full stop. So anything that makes food prep easier/faster is worth getting. But at the same time — right, sticking with known brands that have worked for me previously is generally good enough; I pretty much don’t bother with reviews or, well, anything else. And most kitchen stuff is inexpensive enough (at least what I use) that if I buy it and don’t like it, I can just pass it along and replace it.

  2. The frugal ecologist Says:

    I do this less now since I have less time but I drive myself nuts with this sometimes – recently researching the best pair of headphones to replace my apple earbuds that stopped working. I also obsessively research kid gear – def not necessary. I do really like the sweet home & wirecutter sites – my husband swears by them.

  3. becca Says:

    We need a workhouse nonstick pan, that can be used for omelets. We buy these every year or so, and Carebear is buying more expensive ones each time trying to solve the problem. I did not see an exactly suitable Le Crueset (though there is a nice nonstick wok that I was tempted by) but thought I’d mention it in case somebody has solved this by throwing enough money at it.

    In general, I don’t look for the highest quality, but I do ask around on things where going cheap seems to be a problem.

    • bogart Says:

      Have you tried t-fal? We recently got such a pan of theirs (our first t-fal product) and are loving it.

    • chacha1 Says:

      I got an OXO nonstick pan (with glass lid!) at Bed Bath & Beyond and I loooooove it. Perfect omelets. I think it cost less than $30.

    • accm Says:

      Scanpan. Fairly expensive but isn’t (a few years later) getting all scratched up (which always seemed to happen wtih T-fal even using only wood or plastic utensils).

  4. Beth Says:

    I’m a big fan of the Wirecutter/SweetHome sites, though they are dangerous for me too as I appreciate all the shiny goodness. I used their recommendation when I was buying a sit/stand desk (I work from home and my new job came with a LOT of desktop gear requiring an upsizing) and while it was not cheap (~800) I think it was reasonable for the category and I love it. Plus, I figured if I did not like it, buying the top-rated one would make it easier to resell.

  5. Debbie M Says:

    Wow, I’d never heard of Consumer Search, Sweet Home, or the Wire Cutter. Woo, new information!

    I try to buy the best, based on multiple considerations (durability, price, convenience, sustainability, and more), so because convenience is one of the factors, that makes me a satisficer.

    One problem is–you never know. For example, my microwave is whatever is the opposite of a lemon. A previous boyfriend bought it for me for my birthday. It is from a very low-rated brand, but it has lasted me at least 18 years and I still love it. Who knew?

    One problem is–how do I define “best”? Sometimes my standards change (I now want unbleached toilet paper and I want my dairy products to have no growth hormones and, ideally, be organic and from grass-fed animals, but I’m kind of poor right now, so I go back and forth). I just got a rewards credit card from a credit union and will cancel my two from big banks–because I’m looking for a company that doesn’t keep financing dirty energy pipelines after we know about global warming or profit on bad mortgages that they can bundle and sell off before they implode, even if it means my rewards aren’t as big, and I think my rewards might actually be bigger than on one of my old cards anyway.

    For big things that I plan to buy only rarely and use repeatedly, I try to look at durability. That includes my car, my roof shingles, my water heater. And I also look at maintenance – how hard is a thing to wash or dust, how expensive are the printer cartridges?

    For things that I buy over and over (cheese!), I can do a lot of experimentation, which leads to optimization.

    I rarely buy plane tickets, so I mostly go for whatever’s cheapest and/or most convenient. I do have favorites (I think it’s frontier that gives you warm chocolate chip cookies and bigger seats) and ones I don’t like, but usually only the ones I don’t like are going where I want to go.

    For things I get used for super cheap and thrift stores and re-use stores (clothing, craft supplies), I don’t worry so much about durability beyond what I can guess by looking. If I make a mistake, it didn’t cost me much (mostly just time). And it’s actually less risky to buy pre-washed clothes because you know they can survive washing.

    When bogart talked about buying known brands, I do that too for some things (pants, undies), but sometimes quality diminishes as companies try cost-saving measures and sometimes companies go out of business or get bought by wiener-heads, so you have to start over with the research.

    Another strategy is to buy less and do more processing yourself so you actually have fewer decisions to make. For example you can just figure out your favorite flour, baking soda/powder, sugar, cocoa, and oil/butter (and recipes) and not have to figure out your favorite cake mix, biscuit mix, pancake mix, banana bread mix, cookie dough, pie crust, etc.

    • Debbie M Says:

      P.S. I also like Amazon reviews. And I’ll google phrase like “least poisonous sunscreen” (mine is no longer on the list, because it might be poisonous if you breathe it, but I love having a spray-on sunscreen, so I’m not switching) or “most humane [whatever]” or, of course, “best [whatever].” I also ask friends on some things (“hey–do you like that washer?”).

      One thing I really, really don’t want to do is replace something old that works with something new and pretty but crappy. I’m afraid to replace my single-pane windows–they still work after 60 years and some double-pane windows crack and then it gets foggy inside. I have a cast-iron kitchen sink and bathtub. They are stained and scratched, but also sixty years old and not rotting or rusting or leaking or anything. I’ve heard of re-surfacing, but it sounds like it’s not people re-enameling it, but just putting on some fancy paint (which lasts great for a couple of years), poisoning themselves while doing it.

  6. chacha1 Says:

    I do look at ratings/reviews, but I am a really convenience-oriented shopper. SOOOO not a perfectionist. Just as an example, we are buying a lot of house parts right now because we’re helping renovate an old rental we’ll be moving into. I got almost everything for the bathroom from Home Depot. Are they the “best” possible products? I don’t care. They are available, they are economical, and our contractor can pick them up when he needs them.

    Couldn’t get the medicine cabinet at Home Depot, because I want a recessed one and the rough cavity is a non-standard dimension. So I searched for that dimension, found two sites with some options, one was annoying as hell with a pop-up every few seconds; went to the other site, found three possible cabinets, got the one that looked the nicest and had adjustable shelves. It didn’t have to be perfect, it just had to be something that would work with the other components AND come in under $150. Conveniently, that site was also the one selling the drawer pulls we wanted, so I knocked that item off the list at the same time. :-)

    If I tried to get the “best” of everything, I would live in a state of constant frustration. Ratings/reviews are helpful, but ultimately price & convenience make most buying decisions for me. There was one review for that medicine cabinet and it was positive – the buyer had the same issue I had, a non-standard cavity – but if there had been no reviews that wouldn’t have stopped me.

  7. Anu Says:

    Definitely a satisficer here for the most part, but I do have categories of items that I devote more attention to. Anything that I’ll use over and over again I am willing to do research on e.g. laptops, a new dutch oven, whether I really want an Instant Pot etc. And certainly now that I’m expecting a baby in September, I’ve spent a lot of time researching different options for sleeping (it seems like a crapshoot, so I’m just picking up a couple options used and seeing which one he takes to), diapering (disposable all the way and the cheapest seem a tossup between Costco’s brand and buying using Amazon Family) and feeding/pumping (still a huge mystery to me – and I hate doing research on this one). But even there, I’m not necessarily looking for the best, just the best value – e.g. for a car seat I just asked people what car seats would fit into my small car, got a couple suggestions, then picked the one with the best reviews. Then that narrowed down my choices for strollers, so I went with what everyone seemed to give great reviews to and looked for it used. I tend to trust other people’s reviews – I think I read in a Dan Gilbert book that people overestimate how much they will be able to glean from feverish reading of the specifications of a product and underestimate what they will be able to find from just asking people who’ve already been through it. I tend to take that to heart and rarely read product specs super carefully.

    Sometimes I wish I’d spent more time on researching whether something would work for us e.g. I bought a bookshelf for the living room only to find that it simply didn’t work with the molding. It’s now relegated to the garage. In that case, it was a matter of reading all the reviews but not really paying attention to the dimensions and look of the bookshelf and where the top of it would be in relation to the molding. But most of the time I’m happy with my quick decisions and buying of stuff after reading Amazon reviews. I do pay special attention to negative reviews though – trying to sort out the reasonable ones from the ones that just don’t apply to my situation or seem like people who just want to be disgruntled.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Sorry to have to dig you out of spam (and there was a LOT of spam).

      Congrats on the baby!

      Medela is still pretty much the best re: pumping these days. Get a PISA if you can (electric dual pump)– there is are reason this is the one you see professional women carrying at the airport (it may be worth buying out of pocket if your insurance company doesn’t cover it– but do check with your insurance). Carrying case is unimportant. Get an extra packet of the white flappy things (you won’t need them for a few months– at which point you will know what I’m talking about). We liked Lansinoh bags, but there are many bag options. If it’s your first baby get some soothies (cold gel things to put over your breasts ~the first week) and a boppy (circular pillow to help with nursing an infant). I think that’s all you need for feeding other than to have someone who knows what they’re doing (a lactation consultant, friend, doula, LLL) help you out until you get the hang of it. Here’s some tips from us.

      Brown’s bottles are a lifesaver if you have a spitty baby (they slow down how fast the baby can drink which reduces spit-up), but otherwise bottles are really just personal preference for the baby.

      • Lisa Says:

        My Medela pump is fabulous – used it for 3 babies over 11 years and it never failed me. I thought all insurance was required to cover a pump nowadays. Although things may have changed by September? :(

        With diapers I tried all of the major brands and found that some resulted in MANY more blowouts than others – it seems that diaper fit matters, at least with my kids. So I’d suggest you don’t buy too many of any one brand until you decide what you like best. The Costco brands gave my kids a rash, too, although I know many people who love them.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        All US insurance is required to cover a pump, but I don’t know if they’re required to specifically cover a PISA. (And yeah, keep calling your senators about health care! 15 min on the phone could save you from bankruptcy in the future…)

        Completely agree with Lisa on diapers. I can’t remember exactly, but I *think* Huggies/Target was good for my skinny baby and pampers were better for my pudgy baby. But don’t quote me on that. Modern cloth diapers are pretty awesome so (once the baby’s poo is solid) I wouldn’t discount them entirely. At the very least it was nice to have some as back-up when we just could not make it to Target. I think we had something like 5 cloth diapers for DC1 (fuzzibunz), and probably twice that for DC2 who had more skin allergies (fuzzibunz and bumgenius) and was also doing elimination communication. (We have a ton of potty training posts if you want to check them out.)

      • gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

        We used a cloth diaper service—nothing sent to the landfill! The price was similar to using disposables, but I’ve no idea whether there is still a cloth-diaper service in our town (our son is now 21).

        My wife was not working outside the home at the time, so did not need an electric pump (they were not covered by insurance in those days). She did have a manual pump, but did not use it often. Breast-feeding was close to a full-time job (over 30 hours a week).

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        … I don’t think the 30hrs per week thing lasts very long for most people. It certainly couldn’t have been the case for me or I wouldn’t have been able to exclusively bf my first kid for 8 mo (zie started solids late) without maternity leave.

  8. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    I see I should have titled this: what omelette pan should you buy! (DH picked tfal- I prefer using our regular cladded stuff with eggs since I don’t make fold over omelettes and I like using metal spatulas and the dishwasher. I have yet to use his nonstick pans, but they make him happy enough to hand wash them.)

  9. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    This is from July 2:

  10. solitarydiner016 Says:

    I tend to avoid buying things out of fear that I’m going to buy something bad by mistake. When I need something, I love it if I can find something at a garage sale, as I won’t feel bad if it isn’t good quality and doesn’t last. I also tend to buy the same things from the same stores over and over again when I need to buy something consumable (e.g. food) or with a short lifespan (e.g. clothes). I hate when I need to go out and make a major purchase that requires research and effort and risk of error.

    Interestingly, my partner is the exact opposite. She loves to spend hours researching the best of something (kitchen gadgets, camping supplies) online and then enjoying said item once she has bought it. She’s definitely an optimizer, while I’m just avoidant.

  11. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    I go back and forth. We waste (spend?) a TON of time trying to find the best things for the house in the compressed amount of time available. This limit on time means we are inadvertently satisficing and I’m wondering where we’ll regret it.

    We lowered the bar on the workhorse nonstick pan and it sucked after 4 weeks so I feel like that was a waste of money. But we did the same with our casserole dish that’s now going on year 5 or 6 and it’s still fantastic. I’m learning to spend money on things that bring me physical comfort because though it’s all temporary, any break in constant pain does have value. We’re still figuring out where to set the standards on most things.

  12. Lisa Says:

    I spend a lot of time reading reviews, trying to sort the helpful from the unhelpful. I’ll almost always search for something on Amazon even if I’m going to buy it elsewhere because of the multitude of reviews. Haven’t used Sweethome or the Wire Cutter much, but now I’ll be going down that rabbit hole. I like to think that I’m getting something that will meet my needs, so reviews that address my specific concerns are the most helpful. I can’t think of a time when Amazon reviews led me astray, but there are a couple of things I bought in the last few years that I LOVED but wouldn’t have purchased if not for the great reviews. The bottom line is that I’m obsessed with getting the best thing for me (as opposed to just “the Best”) and use online reviews to help pinpoint that.

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