To paraphrase the early-90s hip-hop group Black Sheep, "You can purchase this, or you can purchase that." Do you buy the thing that will last forever and costs 10x as much, or do you buy the cheap thing that will break within a year? And if you buy the more expensive option, when will your investment "pay off"?
Here, we've taken 10 of the most common purchasing trade-offs and run the math-numbers on them to see when — if ever — the more expensive choice will pay for itself with long-term savings! We'll try to avoid getting too math-y or going off on too many tangents. (That's a math pun!)
Renting vs. Buying a Cable Modem
How Quickly a Cable Modem Pays for Itself: 9 Months
To some, the $7.95 a month you pay to "rent" your cable modem is just an irritating inconvenience that you learn to live with, but to Comcast, it equates to about $1 billion in revenue every year! Very few people even know that you can buy your own modem, to avoid that fee; fewer still actually do it, because the up-front cost of the hardware is more annoying than the smaller monthly charge.
For our comparison, we chose an after-market modem that has the highest level of certification by Comcast (and we chose Comcast, because it's the largest broadcasting and cable company in the world by revenue), the ARRIS/Motorola SB6121 SURFboard DOCSIS 3.0 Cable Modem, which we routinely see for $69.99 (this time with free shipping at Walmart, a low by $10). Because of math, that means it'll pay for itself in only nine months!
A potential pitfall to buying over renting is that if it breaks, you're on the hook for the full cost of another one, but if you rent, you can upgrade as often as you'd like. However, as long as the modem doesn't break sooner than every nine months, you'll still be breaking even.
Starbucks vs. The Machine
How Quickly a Coffee Machine Pays for Itself: 16 to 26 Days
According to Starbucks, a 1-lb. bag of their coffee yields approximately 64 5-oz. cups or 320 ounces of coffee. To purchase that much coffee pre-made at a Starbucks, you'd have to buy 26 tall, 20 grande, or 16 venti coffees — which would cost you $59.54, $55, or $49.28, respectively. (Prices may vary depending on the location.) A Starbucks Pike Place 1-lb. bag costs $11.95, which means that you're saving $37 to $47 overall for the bag, and you'll recoup your upfront cost after just four to six days (assuming a daily coffee intake).
If you want to consider the cost of the coffee maker, too, then as long as your machine didn't cost more than $37, you're still saving money overall with your first bag. And naturally, at that price, you'd break even after 16 to 26 days of daily coffee.
Illuminating Stats About LED vs. Incandescent Bulbs
How Quickly an LED Bulb Pays for Itself: 2 Years
The estimated cost of one LED bulb plus the energy it takes to run it across its lifespan will cost you a total of $27.97, whereas the total cost of buying and using one incandescent bulb is $7.79. Since a typical incandescent lasts for only six months, you'll break even with an LED bulb after two years. That sounds like a long time, but since an LED bulb is going to last for about seven years, you're getting five "free" years of light out of it and saving yourself about $86 in the long run too.
That might not seem like a lot, but consider that the average lifespan of a human is 84 years; over your life you'll save $1,032. (Still not impressed? Well, LED bulbs are supposed to be good for the environment, too, so try to think globally?)
H-2-Oh, The Savings!
How Quickly a Water Filter Pays for Itself: 5 Days
Let's make a couple of assumptions. First, you're not returning empty water bottles to get the deposit back, so you're paying the full buck, every time you buy a half-liter bottle of water in a store, like some money-wasting rich person normal person. Second, you follow the oft-quoted (and somewhat apocryphal) "drink eight 8-oz. glasses of water every day" rule of thumb, because hydration is very important to you.
If these are true, then a Brita Slim Water Filter Pitcher ($12.99 with $2.99 s&h at Amazon) will start saving you money on the fifth day you use it (assuming you're buying four half-liter bottles at $1 a pop, every day). That same filter will then go on to purify another 143 more liters, which is about 72 more days of free water and a savings of $286! Plus, for just the cost of seven more bottles of off-the-shelf water, you can buy a new filter which gives you another 151 liters of pure water and another wave (water imagery) of savings.
Tuxe-Don't or Tuxedo?
How Quickly a Tuxedo Pays for Itself: The Second Time You Wear It
The average cost of renting a wedding tux is $185, which sounds like a lot, until you consider that suits are, generally, pretty expensive... or are they?
In fact, we see penguin suits (metaphorically) around the $80 mark fairly often. You'll also need to buy a tuxedo shirt, for around $23; cufflinks and buttons, for around $13; bow tie and cummerbund, for around $10; and those super-shiny oxford shoes that you only see at weddings, for around $30. Then, to avoid looking like you're wearing a tuxedo bag, you're going to need to get that suit fitted to your body, which will add another $50. The grand total? $206! For only $21 more than renting, you can be the proud owner of James Bond clothes.
Of course, our build-your-own tux was put together using the absolutely lowest-cost items we could find. Will it all fall apart in the rain? Possibly! Another thing to consider is that suit styles change over the years and today's tux might look out-of-fashion in five years' time. However, we must look at the bottom-line and it does show that you can buy a tux for about the same price as renting one, so the purchase will pay off the second time you wear it. (And we're going to assume that if you own a tux, you're gonna find many more occasions to wear it "just because"!)
AppleCare vs. Out of Warranty Repairs
How Quickly AppleCare Pays for Itself: After Cracking an iPhone Screen Twice and Replacing the Battery Once
There are many permutations and combinations of device fixes that apply with AppleCare, but for simplicity's sake, let's choose a common example: Fixing a cracked screen on an iPhone.
For those that don't know, Apple will let you pay $99, on top of the price of your phone, to receive two years of device protection. For the iPhone, this includes "up to two incidents of accidental damage coverage, each subject to a $79 service fee." That means that, in total, someone with AppleCare protection will pay $178 to repair a cracked screen. Without coverage, that same fix costs $109 for the iPhone 6 and $129 for the iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c, iPhone 5 (plus a $6.95 shipping fee). Passing up Apple Care+ just saved you $62.
But what about multiple cracks? (You dropped your phone once, so it probably means you'll do it again, butter-fingers.) Surely you're going to make up the cost of AppleCare in bulk! Well, on your second screen fix, the grand total paid by an AppleCare person would be $271. Someone without AppleCare is paying $232 to repair an iPhone 6 and $272 for all other iPhones. Therefore, if you bought an iPhone 6, you might want to pass on the extra protection, but for all other models, it's equal.
There are other perks to the service, for example, free battery replacement which would otherwise cost $79. Provided you only need to replace a defective battery once, an iPhone 6 user can only get the full value of AppleCare through breaking the screen twice and replacing the battery — and what's the likelihood of that happening?
Is Money Put Into a Safe Safe Money?
How Quickly a Home Safe Pays for Itself: After Your First House Fire
Though we're being glib, there's some truth to it: You really will see the true value of a fire-proof safe if your house ever (knock on highly flammable wood) burns down. That's because most people put important documents like their passport, birth certificates, Social Security cards, and other hard-to-replace items in there.
The cost to replace your passport is $165; to get a new birth certificate costs $30; and, surprisingly, a new Social Security card is totally free. Considering we see fireproof safes around the $35 price point somewhat frequently, they're a potential "savings" of $160, if you ever experienced a fire at home. That won't happen to everyone obviously, but accidents happen; is $35 worth avoiding weeks of waiting and dealing with government agencies? Yep.
Snowsports: Ironically an Uphill Battle
How Quickly a Snowboard and Skis Pay for Themselves: After 13 to 16 Trips
Around these parts, snowboard and ski rental packages start around $40 per day. For the snowboard portion of this comparison, we assembled the cheapest gear (board, bindings, and boots) that Burton has to offer, at the time of this writing, for a grand total of $512. To spend more than that on renting equipment, you'd have to go to the mountain for 13 days — about seven weekend-long excursions — in one winter!
Skiing equipment isn't any cheaper. In fact, when we put together the lowest-priced gear from K2 (skis, boots, and poles), it came to $640; the equivalent of hitting the slopes for 16 days of rentals. Unless you're semi-serious about either sport, renting is probably the better way to enjoy this wintery sport.
Washing Machine vs. Laundromat
How Quickly a Washing Machine Pays for Itself: 1 Year and 46 Weeks
You can easily score a washing machine and dryer for about $400 apiece, so let's assume the equipment cost is about $800. Don't forget about electricity, though! That costs, based on national averages, about $0.50 per load. Let's also assume that you're a somewhat moderate washer, doing three loads of wash, every week; that's a total of $78 a year in electricity.
How does that stack against the laundromat? Well, based on local prices, the cost to wash clothes in a laundromat is $2 and the cost to dry, for 30 minutes, is a buck. With three loads a week, that's a total of $468 for a year's worth of clean clothes. If you're only going to want clean clothes for a single year, using the laundromat is smarter. However, most of us like to continue to have clean clothes for all of our lives.
The good news is that the break-even point of a washing machine and dryer occurs at the one year and 46 weeks mark. After that, each load you do at home saves you about $2.50 (you're still paying $0.50 per load, for electricity). Assuming the life of the dryer is about 10 years, and you're saving $2.50 per load after the first two years, at three loads a week, that's a total savings of $3,120!
It's Like Soda, But Without Flavor
How Quickly a Seltzer Maker Pays for Itself: The Third Time You Replace the CO2 Cartridge
The least expensive seltzer maker that Soda Stream offers is its Fountain Jet which retails for $79.99 (though Target and Amazon currently have it for $54.99 with free shipping). This model comes with a CO2 canister capable of making up to 60 liters of soda water. After that, replacement canisters cost $15.
Compare that to Vintage Seltzer, (which is this writer's favorite seltzer, because, yeah, some bubbly waters are somehow better than others). When you buy a case, Vintage generally sells for $0.67 per liter. [Math happens here!] Result: With a per-liter cost of $0.25, the break-even point of a Soda Stream occurs at the point where you've almost used up your third canister of CO2 .
Yep, that's about 180 liters of soda water that you have to drink; however, if we, again, consider the old saw of "eight 8-oz glasses of water a day", it's only a short, bubble-filled three months (95 days, to be exact) until you're seeing a return on your soda-vestment. After that, it's a pure savings of $0.42 per liter. (Sure, that's not even enough for a load of laundry, but you're buying a machine anyway, so you don't need laundry money anymore.)
Ultimately, Your Mileage May Vary
Though there are far more variables to making these kinds of decisions than we were able to cover — your Starbucks coffee might cost a little less, your electricity might cost a little more — consider these to be the broad strokes you'll need to understand what the trade offs are and when you'll make back that initial larger investment.