How (and why) to avoid the upgrade treadmill

   06.18.13

How (and why) to avoid the upgrade treadmill

This article might as well have a perforated edge around it, because it’ll save you money just like a good coupon. In my case, had someone told me this 10 years ago, I would have saved at least $350.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You are looking for a knife. You have a few bucks to spend, nothing crazy, around $40-50. You do some research on the internet and find a wealth of information. You see reviews of cheap knives, medium-priced knives, and knives that you think at the time are unobtainably expensive. Ultimately, you pick a knife in your price range and you think: “If this works out I’ll get something nicer down the line.”

I did this. Lots and lots of people do this. It is the way we work. I started off with a Kershaw Scallion. Then I bought a Spyderco Delica. Then a Benchmade Sequel 707. Then a Spyderco Calypso 3 in ZDP-189. Then a Bradley Alias II. Then, and finally, a Chris Reeve Sebenza. After every purchase except the last one, I thought, “If this works out I’ll get something nicer down the line.” My initial research showed me that the Sebenza was the knife for me to get, but I couldn’t afford it at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, I now know the Sebenza was the cheapest option.

Why? Well, I knew I was going to upgrade from the very beginning. I just couldn’t conceive of dropping $350 on the Sebenza right away. Instead, because of a lack of discipline and understanding, I spent rough $650 to buy a $350 knife (Delica: $50; Sequel: $100; Caly 3: $100; Alias II: $150; Sebenza: $350). This is the problem with the upgrade treadmill. Once you know you like a knife (or any other product, because this works virtually everywhere–cars, audio equipment, tools), buy a good cheap one and then save until you get exactly what you want. The high-end, final product may seem ridiculously expensive, but it is nothing in comparison to the cost of the upgrade treadmill. In woodworking there is a saying: buy your first tool last. This is very wise and thrifty advice, even if there is initial sticker shock. Over time, avoiding the upgrade treadmill will save you a lot of money.

The four steps for avoiding the treadmill

The first thing you have to do to avoid the upgrade treadmill is to figure out if you are going to get on it in the first place. If you aren’t, then don’t worry. If you are perfectly happy with a $25 knife, and there are a lot of them out there that could make you happy, then you’re done. But if you are reading this you are not likely to be happy forever with a $25 blade.

Suppose that you know you are going to get on the upgrade treadmill. In this case, the next thing is to find the thing you really and truly want. Not the thing you’d like. Not the thing you think is great in your budget. Find the thing you want, cost no object. Some folks are perfectly satisfied with a MagLite. Some want a Surefire. Then there are those that want a Tri-V v.2 (with its $2,000+ price tag). Whichever direction your tastes run, figure out what it is that you would buy if everything were the same price. I myself appreciate the technical achievement the Tri-V represents, but its fragility, size, and a few other aspects make it less than my ideal light, assuming all lights cost the same.

Now that you have the thing you want, start saving. There are a ton of ways to think about this, but the way I thought about it when I was saving up for my dream light (the Muyshondt Aeon Mk. II) was pretty simple. I spent probably $3-10 a week in snacks. Cutting those out not only made me healthier, but it also accumulated money quickly. $3 bucks a week is $159 a year. And while a year seems like a long time, we are talking about pocket change becoming a grail item (as in “Holy Grail”, as in “the search for the Holy Grail”).

The third step is to identify your “starter” item. I think it is beneficial to carry a knife, even if it is an inexpensive one. Getting one while you’re saving up for your dream item means that you can still be prepared for what life throws at you, but not sink a ton of money into the starter item. Note I didn’t write “cheap.” There are plenty of cheap knives and flashlights and multitools out there. The group of inexpensive ones is much smaller. Inexpensive, as opposed to cheap, means that the price tag is low, but the value is high.

A recent shootout review on my site demonstrated to me that the CRKT Drifter is an excellent starter blade. It is so good that I would imagine you keep it around even after you land your grail blade. I like the i-series lights from Olight or the Maratac series from CountyComm for starter lights. Finally, the Gerber Dime and Boker Toucan make excellent starter mutlitools. Having these starter items will also teach you what you want in your grail item. You might learn that you really dislike frame locks or that you love simple flashlight UIs.

Finally, while you are saving and paying close to attention to what you like and dislike in your starter items, you can do research. Personally, I find this endlessly entertaining. There are so many good sources of information out there: blogs, YouTube channels, and forums. Cutting through the clutter can be a challenge, but once you find a source that is clear and informative, they can be invaluable in researching if your ideal piece of gear is really want you want. Nutnfancy offers an opinion on a wide variety of gear. Selfbuilt’s flashlight reviews are amazing. Hey, even I have a site chocked full of reviews and opinions.

The rewards of waiting

Apart from the money you stand to save by avoiding the upgrade treadmill, the real reward of planning your purchases this way is that you end up getting exactly what you want. This may seem obvious, but it wasn’t until I got exactly what I wanted (at the end of a long and expensive search) that I understood what this really means. Yes, when you get the thing you want and it is very nice and will last you a long time, potentially your entire life. But for a true gear geek, the real reward lies in the fact that you didn’t have to settle, an you don’t have that nagging little note of disappointment every time you pick up the tool that you settled for instead of the one you really wanted.

For instance, most people buy an Alias II because they want a Sebenza but can’t justify the price tag. But if you are into knives enough to know that the Alias II is a budget Sebenza, in all likelihood you would appreciate the things that make a Sebenza better than an Alias. Getting 90% of what you want is good, but getting 100% of what you want is much, much better, at least for people that care enough to research gear purchases.

Another benefit is the process. You did the work. You saved your pennies. You did research. You honed your wants and desires. You understand the limitations of “average” gear. You now know why the Sebenza is not just a good knife, but a truly superior tool. In short you will earn and appreciate the final item that much more. You might also find that part of the fun in buying really nice gear is the waiting and wanting. And when you finally get that thing you wanted, the exact thing, you’ll realize that while waiting is fun, using is even better.

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