Posted by: Hannah | 08/30/2013

if you don’t read Discworld…

… you should.

First, some background:

I have used this example on Twitter repeatedly this school-supply buying season, because I have seen many well-meaning and earnest parents saying things like “but if you buy a backpack at MEC / Lands End / LL Bean it will last for three to five years!”

And they are honestly trying to help, and are confused that anyone would ever buy the Wal-Mart $9.99 special with a Pixar character emblazoned on it.

  • LL Bean backpacks run anywhere from US$30 -$80, plus you need a valid credit card to order one.
  • A kids’ daypack at Mountain Equipment Co-op is CDN$42, and doesn’t qualify for free shipping because you need to spend $50+ for that. Again, you need a credit card, unless you live in a city that has a MEC.
  • The cheapest child’s backpack at Lands’ End Canada is $30, and would be too small for a kid in older grades

These are all outside the reach of many low-income families.

However, consider this from Terry Pratchett, OBE and all-around genius creator of the Discworld series. It is the “Sam Vimes Theory of Economic Injustice”.

Samuel Vimes earned thirty-eight dollars a month as a Captain of the Watch, plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots, the sort that would last years and years, cost fifty dollars. This was beyond his pocket and the most he could hope for was an affordable pair of boots costing ten dollars, which might with luck last a year or so before he would need to resort to makeshift cardboard insoles so as to prolong the moment of shelling out another ten dollars.

Therefore over a period of ten years, he might have paid out a hundred dollars on boots, twice as much as the man who could afford fifty dollars up front ten years before. And he would still have wet feet.

That’s it, in a nutshell. Lower-income families have to make do with lower quality items because they simply cannot afford the initial investment required to buy something well-made that will last for years.

This holds true for everything from sneakers to looseleaf binders to pencils. It’s the number-one reason why I approve of teachers who simply ask for a cheque so that they can buy school supplies in bulk for the classroom. For a lot of years I was one of the kids with the “Club Z” brand markers, and the orange one always died out half-way through colouring my Hallowe’en pumpkin. Did I want the Crayola markers? Of course I did. And my mom knew they would last longer, too. But one pack of Crayolas equaled multiple packs of El Cheapo Store Brand and with four kids guess which one we always got?

My parents would inevitably spend more in total that the ones who could afford the Crayolas, and yet our markers never worked.

So! Buy the good stuff, if you can. If you are planning to contribute school supplies to one of the many charities that stuff backpacks for kids this time of year, please buy the good stuff for them, too.



  1. My mom and I were discussing this (thanks to your brilliance) this week. Both she and my dad grew up DIRT poor and tells me this is EACTLY true. So my parents didn’t have much, but my mom was OBSESSED about buying quality when we were kids (for this very reason)
    We would have 1 toy, but by Jove it had better be fisher price and we had better treat it with GREAT care.
    And so now I buy the crayolas and the good Canadian pencils for unknown kids who are in the same boat my parents were in so many years ago.

    • Yes! In our house it was Barbies. We always had actual Barbie, not “Sandi” or “eleven and a half inch fashion doll” – reason being, Barbie was more durable and would actually withstand being played with.

      I love that you buy the good stuff for the charity bins. You’re good people.

  2. Yes. My parents were house-poor when I was little but my mother was big on this principle. She rarely bought me anything, but when she did, it was quality.

    Terry Prachett is just so awesome. It makes me so sad that he has alzheimers. Snuff didn’t quite feel right. ithink he has someone helping him now.

    • He does. He’s got a guy who “types as he talks” and I think that’s the problem… I’d guess that Pratchett, like many writers, does a fair bit of revising & changing as he writes, and that if he’s trying to dictate the whole story it would lose something.

      I found both “Snuff” and “Unseen Academicals” kind of rambling and disjointed. It is sad.

  3. I’m the reverse of the previous commenters: I have a mother who could/can afford quality goods, but doesn’t see that cheap sticker price often means cheap quality. I’m the one making the leap to paying for quality, but only because my husband and my father are deprogramming me. Erm. Did that comment just stray into the murky waters of therapy? Probably. But it felt good to off load.

    • I’m glad you commented, because Michael’s family is like that – and they have never known want, ever. His aunt is one of the most parsimonious, buying-cheap-because-what-a-bargain people I have ever met, and yet she could afford to buy the best quality everything if she wanted to.

      It’s very strange to me. I wish someone would research the impulses behind all of this. I find it fascinating.

  4. Man, I love Pratchett. I agree that Snuff felt odd. I grew up with schools that specified brands of supplies. Looking back, I suspect that my special school shopping outings with my aunts were as much to help my parents with that financial burden as they were about quality aunt/niece time.
    On a completely unrelated topic, I’m a loyal lurker (hi!) and am switching from nanny work to dayhome work now that I have my own wee baby. Is there any chance you would be willing to share a draft or outline of your standard contract? I’m looking for some pointers.

    • Good for your aunts, helping out!

      Congrats on your new baby! Email me at hrweagle AT yahoo DOT com, and I’ll send you my dayhome web page. I keep it separate from here since I don’t want any potential or current clients connecting this site to that one. 🙂

  5. Thrifting and second-hand stores have helped for us. For example my soon-to-be kindergartener needed gym shoes. The only pair I could find in our budget was a pair of $20 “junk” shoes – poor quality, poor styling. I went to Savers and found her a pair of Nikes PLUS good , almost-never-worn quality shoes for my two little AND myself for $28. Admittedly though I live in a town that has a good thrifting “scene” – good quality, low cost – so its easier for me then it would be in other cities I’m assuming.

    Last winter I couldn’t find a good used pair of winter boots for our oldest (a girl). When looking at new boots I was flabbergasted at prices vs. quality. There is NO WAY I wanted to spend $35 on a pair of princess boots that looked like they wouldn’t even make it through the winter so we opted for a $50 pair of Columbias. BUT I made her get them in black so they can be passed down to both her younger brother and sister. (I convinced her by telling her I’d add a girly pull to the zipper – she’s just that type of girl!) We do the same with soccer cleats, etc.. – all gender neutral so they can be passed down.

    But if we couldn’t have spent the $50? We would have ended up with lower-quality products like you said.

    Question for you…we always donate school supplies and I have been “guilty” of buying lower quality because we can get so much more. My thought process was that we only have so much to give, this spreads the impact out more. BUT now I’m doubting this approach because I don’t want the kiddos receiving them to be a) frustrated at the lower quality or b) feel its a reflection of their worth. Thoughts??

    • Second-hand shops & thrift stores really do vary in quality depending on the socio-economic climate of the area. I find purchasing kids’ items at our area thrift stores is very hit-and-miss, because by the time families donate their stuff it is often so worn out that it doesn’t really have any wear left. Either that, or it was not very good quality to begin with (think the Wal-Mart store brand) and the price differential isn’t significant over just buying it new.

      Opportunity costs matter, too. I know as a kid we almost never had new clothes, but I also remember my mom going thrift-store shopping at least once a week, sometimes coming away with nothing… but you had to keep checking because the stock was always changing, and you could find some great bargains if you had the time and patience to look.

      I really do think it’s better to donate a smaller total amount of good-quality stuff. It’s the same logic behind people who donate a case of Ramen noodles to the food bank instead of six cans of vegetables; yes, your total number of items donated is higher, but the actual value of each item is far less. Speaking as the kid who had the terrible pencils that splinter when you sharpen them, or the above-mentioned horrible markers, or those weird crayons made out of some strange kind of wax that don’t actually seem to make marks… you will do more good if you can outfit even one child with good-quality stuff than if you outfit six with the bad stuff. That’s my opinion, mind you, and other readers might have a dissenting one!

      The other option is to find a back-to-school charity that takes cash donations instead, because they can often get more for their dollar than the average consumer.

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