Joe’s Rules for Buying Tools

So this is a post that’s kinda more in Joey’s Money realm than my Megabytes.  But hear me out.  Before I can write a post about computer recommendations1coming in 2 weeks, if all goes to plan, I need you to first understand what I value in a tool, and by extension, my philosophy on spending.  But hey, maybe if I post about money, I’ll get more than 3 people to read this post2Speaking of which, I was pretty proud of how my SSD post came out two weeks ago, so check it out if you didn’t get the chance to read it. Then check out the actual performance difference SSDs make in my last post 🙂

Definition: A tool is an object designed to augment your abilities to accomplish a goal by enabling previously impossible techniques or making tasks easier to complete.

Things you traditionally associate with tools like wrenches, shovels, and power drills easily fit under this definition.  But the way I see it, tools also include things like dutch ovens for breadmaking, musical instruments, photography equipment, and even dress clothes.  “But Joe,” I hear you say, “how do nice clothes possibly fit under the same category as your torque wrench?”  Well, for goals like acing a job interview or networking at a professional conference, first impressions are extremely important.  If you look unkept, it’s much more difficult to convince someone you’re worth talking to than someone who is dressed to impress.  So, even though a ratcheting socket set and a pair of brown leather shoes are polar opposites of one another, I find that I end up thinking about their purchase in the same kind of way.

Note that things like game systems, Televisions, trips to the Bar, and other entertainment-focused things do not fit this definition.  Tools should augment your existing skills so that you can develop new ones.  Tools are dynamic; they help with personal development.  Entertainment, however, is static; it is a luxury to be consumed.  IMHO,3in my humble opinion it’s ok to spend a little beyond your budget if it gets you a better tool.  Meanwhile, under no circumstances should you spend more on entertainment than you can afford.

So, here are Joe’s Rules for Buying Tools

Step 1: Do you need it?

1) A tool should have a unique, specific, and immediate application.

Unique: A tool should unlock new techniques, so unless you’re replacing a broken tool, keep clear of unnecessary redundancy.  If you’re counting shoes as a tool, you’d better not have another pair that fill the same role.

Specific: You should have a use in mind when you’re buying a tool.  “This oscilloscope will help debug the motor controller for my sister’s remote control submarine” shows a much greater need than “this screwdriver set would be nice to have”

Immediate: if you’re buying something that you might use later, you’re tying up your hard-earned cash in some useless clutter.  Cash that could be used for investing or something.

2) A tool should not be an impulse buy.

If it’s really worth buying, then it will still be worth buying tomorrow after a bit of research and a good night’s sleep.

I walk around hardware stores the same way a kid walks around a candy store.  So many awesome toys tools!  Look at those tiny wrenches!  Those will probably come in handy someday when I finally get around to building that laser harp …

This is exactly the kind of thought that results in garages and closets full of pristine, barely-used tools.  My dad has a set of special crescent wrenches that were supposed to be faster at removing bolts, but he barely uses them because they just aren’t as strong as traditional crescent wrenches.  He bought them thinking they might be useful someday, but didn’t have a specific use in mind.  So they sit.

Step 2: If it’s worth getting, it’s worth getting a good one.

3) A tool used for a hobby should be one tier better than you need.

At best, a broken tool will cost you several hours of lost time as you either have to replace it before you continue your task, or revert to a much slower and potentially inferior method of completing your task.  At worst, a broken tool will cause you actual harm.  For these reasons, it’s always better to buy a good tool once than two tools for half the price.  Additionally, if it’s a hobby, you’re probably going to improve over time.  So for me, it’s important to have headroom to grow.

4) A tool used to make you money should be two tiers better than you need.

Just like with a hobby, a broken tool will completely ruin your day.  Except now, because you depend on that tool to make you money, the time you’re wasting getting a replacement is costing you money.  In this case, getting a high quality tool will prevent costly downtime.

It’s really important to judge what you actually need in order to evaluate what’s one tier better.  Take these wrenches, for example.

Top: Flare nut wrench
Bottom: Crescent Wrench with Ratcheting Box End

The bottom one is for general use, so it’s used pretty frequently.  In my opinion, the bare minimum for a crescent wrench that gets frequent use is a trusted name-brand, so one tier up is a trusted name brand with a neat feature: a ratcheting box end!  If that means nothing to you, then this is a tier beyond what you need.  But for me, the ratcheting feature means I can quickly remove nuts in hard-to-reach places.  The upper one is a rather specialized wrench for removing nuts on car fuel and brake lines and the like.  I don’t expect to use this style of wrench too often, so this inexpensive set will serve me just fine.

Some people will seek out the absolute best tool available for their hobby so that they have plenty of room to grow.  I disagree.  Too much headroom can be daunting, and extra features you paid a premium for stay largely unused for the tool’s lifespan.  For example, my good friend who got me into photography had this amazing camera that had all sorts of bells and whistles just shy of a truly professional camera.  If I, an absolute beginner, had spent all my money on a camera just like that, my learning would have actually been limited just because there were so many things to learn all at once.  Not to mention, I’d be out $700+ when I wouldn’t have appreciated it’s performance for several years.  Instead I got an advanced point-and-shoot: a non-removable lens, but all the manual modes that taught me the basics of setting aperture, shutter speed, and sensitivity.  By choosing one step better than I needed, I got a tool that allowed me to grow over the course of 3 years.

Unsurprisingly, computers fall under this definition of tools, and should be treated accordingly.  Don’t buy a computer if you don’t need one.  Make sure you do plenty of research into build-quality and usability reviews before the final purchase.  And remember, it’s better to spend a little extra now for a high-quality machine than to buy two low-quality machines.


Joe thinks that classifying a purchase as a tool allows for a bit more flexibility in budget.

A tool purchase should prioritize longevity, quality, and its ability to help you learn something new over everything else, even price to some extent

Joe skimps on entertainment spending to fuel his tool-buying addiction

Of course, having good tools means fixing things is easier which means I have to replace fewer things which saves money, so hey, it works out.

2 response to "Joe’s Rules for Buying Tools"

  1. By: Joey Posted: August 22, 2018

    Great post Joe! Reminds me of this Early Retirement Extreme (very old) post that I recently read:

    Jacob may be the most frugal person on the internet, but he prefers to own “classics” that are higher quality, last longer, and often hold their value over time.

    • By: Joe Posted: August 23, 2018

      That was a good read, thanks for sharing! This line really stuck out to me:

      “I tell you the joy of using a superior product is quite superior to that of using an average product”

      This really can’t be overstated. High quality tools, or classics as he calls them, are just so much nicer to use than their cheap counterparts. If you buy a tool that costs twice as much but lasts twice as long, the total cost is the same, but you get a higher-quality product for the same period of time

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