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Planned Obsolescence: The Scourge of Frugality

By , March 20th, 2013 | 8 Comments »

Planned Obsolescence

If you’re a frugal person, the concept of planned obsolescence stinks. There’s no polite way to put it. Manufacturers create things to last a short period of time, forcing you to upgrade or buy a new one at regular intervals. It’s become common practice in everything from appliances to power tools to electronics. Nothing is built to last these days.

At the risk of sounding like an old person, I miss the days when things were built to last. My mother still has the same toaster that she received for her wedding in 1957. The thing is fifty-six years old and still turns out perfect toast. I, on the other hand, have been married much less than half that time and have been through seven (if I’m counting correctly) toasters. And we haven’t always bought the cheap models, either. In an effort to get more than a year out of a toaster I’ve sprung for the higher end models, only to discover that they don’t last any longer than the cheap ones, on average. And we don’t make that much toast.

I can remember that my parents had the same appliances for decades, and only got new ones when my mom couldn’t stand the avocado green any longer. They still worked when they were shown the door; they were only eliminated because they were ugly and refused to die. On the other hand, I am shopping for a new fridge and have been told by numerous salespeople that I can realistically expect five to eight years out of the current models. Ten, if I’m lucky. That’s just depressing. And expensive.

I understand why manufacturers have gone to this model. First, it’s cheaper for them to produce lower quality goods. Second, if you force your customers to keep buying new stuff, you increase your revenues. Lower cost to manufacture plus more purchases by the consumer equals “success” for the manufacturer and retailers. For the consumer, it means we pay more money. Consumers used to be able to dodge this bullet by calling a repairman to extend the life of their products, but repairs are now just as expensive as buying a new item in many cases (that, too, is by design). And that’s if you can find someone trained to repair your item. Repairmen are a dying breed.

This is another reason why emergency funds now need to be bigger than they used to be. It used to be that you could figure on buying a new major appliance every fifteen to twenty years. Maybe longer. You had plenty of time to save up for those replacements. Now with everything needing replacements every five to ten years, your window for saving up has gotten much smaller. Couple that with the fact that many homes have more appliances and electronics than they used to and you’re looking at a very aggressive and expensive replacement cycle. You need to save more than your parents did to cover these breakdowns and replacements.

So what’s a frugal consumer to do? Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do. The manufacturers are winning this war. However, there are a few things you can do to try to turn the odds in your favor just a bit.

Take care of your stuff

Take the time and make the effort to take care of your stuff. Don’t neglect your appliances. Perform routine maintenance such as cleaning the back of the refrigerator, having your air conditioner/heater tuned up and cleaned, cleaning your oven, and keeping your tools and yard equipment dry and protected from the elements. Don’t abuse your items by subjecting them to overuse or using them against the directions. The better you care for your items, the longer they will last. You may be able to extend their life by a couple of years with regular maintenance and careful use.

Learn Basic Repairs

Learn some basic repair tactics. Yes, there are some things that are beyond most people’s ability to fix. However, there are many simple things that can be learned. Replacing a heating element in an oven, for example, isn’t that big of a deal. I’ve replaced the timer on my dishwasher without too much trouble. Replacing a frayed cord on a vacuum cleaner can be done if you have a spare cord. There are many small repair skills that are easy to learn which can extend the life of your items and help you avoid having to choose whether to repair or replace.

Look for the simple fix

When something breaks or starts acting funny, don’t rush to replace it just yet. Sometimes the problem is simple to fix. Google your item and the problem (or drag out the owner’s manual) and see if there is a simple solution.

Do careful research

When you buy a new item, do as much research as you can on the manufacturer and the unit. Read reviews and try to find the product that has the best track record and a manufacturer that stands behind their products. Look for comprehensive warranties and reports of good customer service. You can reduce your odds of getting a crappy product by doing some research and choosing the best model (which may not be the most expensive).

Look for products that use standard parts

As an example, some products require special batteries which are not commonly available. When the battery dies, most people are forced to just buy a new one. But there may be competing products that use standard batteries. If you know how to work on cars, you might be better off choosing an older model that you can fix rather than a newer one that is computer controlled. When you buy something new or as a replacement, choose the one for which you can easily find replacement parts and that matches your repair skill set. Skip items that use proprietary parts or parts that cannot be serviced by the user.

Don’t assume

Don’t assume that buying the high end model will save you. High end models are just as guilty of planned obsolescence as are the lower end models. Do your research and find the best model; don’t assume that the pricier stuff lasts longer.

Get off the consumer treadmill

After years of buying things like game stations, smartphones, DVD/BluRay/etc. players, and other trendy electronic products, I finally just stepped off the treadmill. I keep my lifestyle intentionally simple so there is far less junk in my life that needs constant upgrading and replacement.

Save, save, save

You know you’re going to need a replacement item sooner rather than later, so never stop saving for those replacements. The minute you bring your new appliance home, start saving for its replacement. The more you can save, the more you reduce the constant shocks to your budget.


Write to the manufacturers and let them know what you think of their practices. If you encounter egregious examples of shoddy workmanship, report them to the BBB. Write reviews on consumer review sites and social networking sites. It may or may not help, but as a consumer your voice and your money are your weapons. Refuse to buy from the worst offenders and let the world know what you think of their crappy products.

Planned obsolescence is a real problem for those who want to be frugal. Couple the high failure rate of items with the fact that you can no longer find repairmen for many things and it means that you’ll be spending more money more often. But if you shop wisely and take care of your items, you may be able to at least extend the life of your stuff. At the very least, brace yourself for buying more replacements more often.

(Photo courtesy of Jason Tester)

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  • Good article. I completely agree with you that a lot of products nowadays are not made to last. I try to keep my things going just short of becoming a safety hazard, but sometimes still isn’t long as I would have hoped for.

  • Donna says:

    It’s interesting that you show cell phones in your post. My dad carried the same cell phone for 8 years until it literally fell apart. The cell phone companies are counting on us not being able to resist the lure of the newest feature. We have to differentiate between whether we really need to upgrade/replace or we just want to.

  • James says:


    Thanks for the great posting. One things I would add is that if you have a health balance of liquid assets (such as stocks or bonds) you may need less of an emergency fund, or no emergency fund at all.

    Also, can’t you find used appliances on craigslist? Otherwise I agree that planned obsolescence is a problem. My wife and I have an old fashioned GE toaster oven, its still working after 30 years.



  • jim says:

    Oh I so get this – and I’m beating it. For all of you with 10 – 15 year old dishwashers, you’ve no doubt noticed that sometimes (in spite of what you use as a “rinse” your silverware/glassware comes out cloudy). Do NOT replace that dishwasher. NO! Go buy a really big jug of white vinegar, fill a dish with about a 1/2 cup of vinegar, place it on the top rack and then run your dishwasher. ALL of the streaks/clouds will be gone. We’ve been doing that with our 15 year old dishwasher for quite awhile and it works wonderfully.

  • Kate says:

    I’m looking to buy my third laptop in 15 years, it sucks but given that my 2nd laptop came from Craigslist I really shouldn’t be surprised. I use velcro strips to keep the laptop open after its hinges broke, but when my nephew showed me how to use wooden toothpicks to safely add pressure to the plug between laptop and cable wire so power can keep feeding into the computer, that’s when it dawn on me that maybe it’s time for a new machine.

  • Jo says:

    What I noticed was not mentioned in the article/comments is due to where most of the merchandise is made – SE Asia. As an avid viewer of American Pickers on the History Channel, I noticed how 99.9% of their picks were made in this country. And, even though many of them show to be rusty (bike frames, lanterns, porcelain signs, etc.), brought to the right refurbisher or repairman, the item can turn out looking brand new and operable. Gas pumps with the glass globe on top dating back to the ’30s is a prime example. Yes, it’ll cost, but how old is the item to begin with? Usually 30-50 years old. Given another life, it’ll probably outlive its owner – depending on his/her age.

    That very old toaster mentioned by Jennifer (author)that is still functioning was more than likely manufactured here. And virtually everything manufactured here was made of very sturdy materials – largely, metal. Stainless steel, iron, wood. Today, unfortunately, it’s petroleum by-products, such as plastic.

    In today’s day and age, I’ve noticed that even when products are being made here, the people at the top are going for cheaply made garbage. There’s too much focus on the bottom line, using the same model for production in China.

    On the bright side, much is being done for non-sustainable broken down plastics by recycling and turning them into other products. What was once a 2-litre of Coke, is now a recycled barrel for an gel ink pen. Technological equipment is/are being recycled/refurbished as well.

    Just sayin’….. 😉

  • Gailete says:

    I have found that some things if you don’t upgrade, you get left behind in the dust. I bought, many years ago, one of the first sewing machines that could also do embroidery. Great! Then they came out with a converter box that would allow me to download designs from the internet and use them on my machine and I also ended up with a used scanner that could be used to make up my own designs and also as a link to download designs from the internet. What does this have to do about planned obsolescence? As our regular computers would die and since we had to have a working computer for our on line business, we got new computers. Soon the input devices between my sewing machines accessories and the computer didn’t work any more as there were no slots/holes for them. I was able to find one gadget to convert from one input to USB but not for another cord. I asked my sewing machine guy and he said those cords weren’t made any more and if I found one or more grab them. So I have thousands of dollars of sewing equipment (thankfully I bought used for much cheaper) that can no longer be used. Not that it didn’t work well, just because there are no more connecting cords to computers. Just like my first computer had a 5 1/4 floppy, 3” floppy AND a CD ROM, now you can only get CD’s and USB thumb drives. Anyone with the older floppies, unless they are good at keeping aging computers running, is out of luck as well.

    While many things with the computer age are wonderful, it is the worst case of obsolescence that I think we have ever seen. That and cell phones, ipads, etc.


  • Forced Obsolescence | forced obsolscence says:

    […] obsolescence wastes time and resources. Customers waste time by running around upgrading, fixing and replacing items that should last a lifetime. When I was growing up, my mother and my grandparents had the […]

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