In my hall closet are around 10 coats and jackets. On one end of the spectrum is a meadow-green coat of indeterminate fabric that I picked up at H&M a couple of years ago for, if I remember, $59.
On the other end is a black cashmere classic I inherited from my mom, who bought it about 35 years ago at the Marshall Field's department store in Chicago. She paid $280 for it -- the equivalent of two payments on her burnt-orange Plymouth Duster. At the time she was supporting herself on a fifth-grade teacher's salary of $8,000 per year.
Despite similar styles -- button front, knee length, cinched waist -- the two coats couldn't be more different. While the green one is already nappy, slouchy and yearning to be retired to Goodwill, its black sister is still soft and gorgeous. It looks as though I bought it at a high-end department store recently for, let's say, $1,346 -- what $280 would be today, adjusted for inflation.
The difference between my mother's generation and my own hangs in that closet. In a relatively short amount of time, experts have watched our nation swap the practice of investing in quality, long-lasting merchandise for the consumption of large quantities of mass-produced, highly designed merchandise.
Part of the issue is in the market itself, with the spread of mass production and wide availability of consumer credit. But consumers are also less knowledgeable, explains Paco Underhill, president and CEO of market research consultancy Envirosell and author of "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping."
Americans in their 20s and 30s are now at least one generation removed from the era of homemade clothing and hand-crafted wood furniture, Underhill says. "In the 1950s, 90% of homes had sewing machines, which means women knew something about how clothes were put together. They could look at something in the store and tell if was of good construction or crappy construction," he says. "In my office, I don't know anyone who has bought a custom suit. They don't know the difference between off-the-rack and custom."
You don't have to buy quality all the time -- and probably can't afford to -- but it's important to know when to shell out for the good stuff. A few examples of times to skimp -- or splurge:
- Mattress: SPLURGE. You sit, sleep and God knows what else on this item. Get a good one.
- Men's dress shirt: SKIMP. If your suit is well-tailored and the tie spectacular, the shirt will be an afterthought.
- Chef's knife: SPLURGE. One 8-inch chef's knife is all you need.