The Nice Pencil Principle

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog writing about saving money and living a lower impact lifestyle. But sometimes I find strange anomalies in my life worthy of sharing. It has taken some time, but as I mature, I’ve realized that I’m becoming much less “cheap” than I once was, and I’m starting to view objects, purchases and experiences through the lens of total value. I went though a period of my life always looking for the least expensive solution to any problem I encountered. And I still value that perspective. However, occasionally I would end up making purchases or repurchases of objects that provided both an inferior experience and cost more in the long run.


So what is the “Nice Pencil Principle”? I’ll define the NPP as: Buying and using a high quality item can often be the most rewarding and cost effective way to utilize an object (or experience) over time. By purchasing the object or experience with rearguards to its total value instead of simply its price or quality, one can often come out ahead in the long run. And I’ll add the idea that sometimes paying a little more up front can actually be a cost savings proposition.

My fancy pencil example. I actually remember doing a little back-to-school shopping when I was in elementary school. I remember going to office depot and getting a large box of nice wooden #2 pencils. I had a whole box. I remember being excited and I used them every day for a month or two before I realized they were running out. I’m not exactly sure what would happen to them but they would slowly get borrowed, broken or sharpened until they were all gone. When I ran out I would just simply go get another box. When I reached middle school, I moved up to the five packs of cheap bic mechanical pencils and used those (or ones I found/borrowed) until the end of high school.

When I started college I decided I wanted a nice pencil. I was going to be a grown up and wanted to try it out. I ended up selecting a nice Pilot Mechanical Pencil. I didn’t know it at the time but I ended up keeping and using the same pencil daily for almost eleven years and it would become one of my favorite things. I had never owned a nice pen or pencil but using a fancy one was a much better experience than using the cheap disposal ones. The Pilot Pencil a better writing utensil than the #2 and it was nice enough that I took extra care of it and went out of my way not to lose it. Not only that, when you let someone borrow a regular wooden pencil they easily forget, but when you hand over a nice one they always return it. Because it is nice, it is actually easier to keep.

So, why would anyone spend $10 on a pencil if you can get one that preforms the same task for $1? For me, using a fancy pencil to do a lot of writing is great. But not only that, over the last ten years I have saved a lot of money and had a better experience! That is a great combination. Often, disposables provide an inferior experience and are more expensive over time!

I think tools can be another example of this. Or watches (but be careful). Or even, for me, sunglasses. Often, a really nice set of tools will last longer and perform better than the cheapest set possible. In some cases it makes sense to just get a cheap object for a single-use specific task. But if you plan (and actually will) to use something for many years it can be worth the extra expenses to get a quality product. As an added bonus, many quality products come with extensive or lifetime warranties and can be repaired rather than thrown away and replaced. I enjoy this concept because I dislike waste and prefer the idea of having quality things that I’m not throwing away every year.

I don’t want this to sound like an excuse to buy the most expensive things! In fact, I think the idea would be to evaluate, as precisely as possible, the value of an object and purchase according to what you expect to gain in return. Because cost is often a consideration, I am learning more and more that I would rather purchase a high quality used item than a new cheap disposable one. And to mitigate the risk and expense of buying high quality items, I always try and get the best deal possible.

The middle ground. There are times when I still have the debate about where to shell out big bucks, small bucks or tiny bucks on an object that I’m not sure if I will enjoy or not. Like the guitar. I decided that I wanted to learn a little about playing guitar. Now, you can get a guitar for $10, $100 or $10,000. So where do you start? Very few people want to spend money on a really expensive guitar if they might not end up liking it or decide that practice is simply not that fun. But you have to be cognizant of the fact that a really cheap guitar will not sound very good, loose its tune, and might be frustrating enough to make you want to quit. My traditional approach was going with a really cheap one, trying it for a few weeks or months then buying a fancier one (or three) if I liked it. And that works alright. But I’ve changed my tune a little bit and now I tend to just look for a really great deal on a used mid-range guitar that I could sell back for about what I paid for it (or more). This gives me the luxury of being able to try a decent instrument without the risk of a huge investment. I don’t always go for complete cheapness anymore.

So, in essence, buying and using a high quality item can often be the most rewarding and cost effective way to utilize an object or experience over time. Do you agree? Are there things you purchased that have lasted a life time? Or things where you over purchased? Which objects in your life exude the Nice Pencil Principle?


6 thoughts on “The Nice Pencil Principle

  1. I would agree that I have been shifting more towards total value vs just being cheap :-/ The Cragslist/Amazon valuation is definitly a tool I use a good bit where I compare my resale price to the purchase price and divide by some sort of use factor (hours used, years lasted, etc. . ). That way I get a better idea of the actuall cost. Consumables are definly last on my priority list. I have spent more on tools/equipment that will save me time over inferior products as well as I am valuing my time more. One example would be buying a dedicated film scanner that can do Infrared defect removal vs spending more time post processing using a cheaper flatbed scanner to do the work.

    I had a nicer bike that i bought used for $100 (in 1996) as well that lasted me for 17 years 🙂 It was a sad day when that bike died.

    • I love using amazon/ebay completed listing/craiglist to get an idea of the true value of objects. I tend to do a fair amount of reselling also so they plays into my decision on what to buy.

      What kind of bike were you riding? I still ride a 1980s roadie that is about 2000 miles past its last leg. I enjoy vintage bikes.

  2. Totally agree with you. I try to either look at everything I buy (except food) as either disposable or permanent. If it’s permanent, it needs to be very high quality and last basically forever. If it’s disposable, I look for the cheapest possible thing that will work. It does get a little tricky with things like electronics, but it works great for things like furniture or kitchen equipment.

    • I think that is a great way to look at it. I think you are right in the fact it helps to break it down into items that are permanent or disposable. It makes it easier to decide on how much we want to spend on an object. Electronics are a bit tricky but I’ve changed a fair amount in that regard as well. Previously I would buy the least expensive, but now I’m realizing that often I can get a great deal on something, use it, then resale when I finished and come out ahead compared to buying something cheap that has no value when I done with it.

  3. I’ve noticed my mindset shifting this way in the last few years, especially when it comes to shoes and clothing. My job involves a lot of walking, and at first I was purchasing low-cost shoes from places like Payless. I ended up paying more over the long term, both in purchasing shoes every few months and in leg/back pain. And I noticed that purchasing cheaper clothing usually meant that I wound up with something that didn’t fit well and wouldn’t last beyond a season or two. I still am sure to shop for the best deals and use coupons as much as possible, but my choice is usually a higher quality outfit. Now I have the added benefit of feeling more confident and put-together at work, which I feel has made me a better worker.

    I think part of that longer view has a lot to with with growing up and settling into a career and life rhythm. Once things stop changing so quickly in your life (as they tend to do in college and early career), you can more easily see the cycles your spending takes and make better decisions for the long term.

    • The final point you made is a really good one. It probably does make it a little easier as we get older to buy nicer things. I know my tastes have developed and evolved over the years and I have a pretty good idea what I’ll be needing/using in the next several.