Is Our Drive for Higher Income Ruining Our Culture?

by David Ning · 15 comments

When was the last time you attempted to repair instead of buying a new replacement?

Back in the day, my grandfather owned a tailor shop. He sold custom suits, pants and the like, but a big part of his business was actually in repair. His customers would routinely come in to get their garment fixed, like having the zipper repaired. Right next door was a shoe repair shop, and his business thrived. Customers would always go back to have their shoes re-polished, or have the sole of the shoe replaced. After he was done with your shoe, you could hardly tell it from a new one.

Things have changed through the years however. Repairing seems to have become an lost art. When was the last time you actually thought of getting something fixed instead of just buying a new one? Shoe repair shop? Do you even know where to find one anymore?

The Unintended Consequence of Our Good Life

Make no mistake. The typical American lifestyle became tremendously more comfortable in the last 50 years. Instead of working at the factory, many of us are now white collar corporate executives. Instead of being maids, we became chefs in high end restaurants. Instead of being a blacksmith, we became small business owners who hire other people to do what we used to do.

As the typical middle class job increased in income and importance, so has our expectation of what is deemed “worth our time”.

  • Sewing was once very common, and actually a celebrated skill. Nowadays, good luck finding someone who will even be willing to buy a sewing machine.
  • Repairing your shoe was a no-brainer once. These days, you will have to actually search for a shoe repair shop. Once you find the location, you better enjoy the drive because chances are good that the shop won’t be too close to where you live.
  • Blacksmith? What? Many people don’t even have a knife sharpener.

Wait, But It’s More Than That

You might think that these are relatively small problems, but what I’m referring to is far more important. One example is that more and more young couples don’t even know how to even cook and worst of all, they are unwilling to learn. Though we all enjoy a good meal at home, society, as a whole, is losing its ability to make good food.

Over here in Southern California, my friend once made an astute observation that many of the cooks in every type of cuisine are Mexicans. It doesn’t matter if it’s Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, American or Brazilian food. If you walk into the kitchen, most of them speak Spanish.

This would not be a problem normally, and my intention is not to make racial remarks. After all, culture sharing is both good and enriching. But what if we aren’t really sharing and instead just transfer our knowledge without gaining any? As we slowly transfer our food culture south of the border, are we actually losing our own? What if no one in Japan knows how to cook Japanese food anymore?

Sure it might not happen in our lifetime, but I bet the blacksmiths didn’t think it was a problem until, well, there just aren’t any left.

Just Stop and Think for a Second

As we make more money, simple logic tells us that fewer and fewer tasks become “worth our time”. But next time something comes up and you are thinking about ROI, think of not only the immediate need but the long term benefits.

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That restaurant may know how to cook a good steak, but you can always make a better one.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Wes June 14, 2010 at 6:00 am

I wonder if part of the reduction in repair shops is due to the abundance of information available now compared to 50 years ago. the “how to” section on youtube is hugely popular, and I think it possible that many of the simple repairs which made up the bread and butter of those old shops are being handled by the end user.

When complexity or cost rises, we still need repair shops: take for example auto garages. I bet that’s a category where there are actually MORE repair shops today than there were 50 years ago. Cars are far more complex now, and gone are the days where you call over your neighbor to help you loosen the distributor cap on your 57 Chevy. Ever try fixing a modern ignition system? Nope, you called your local garage.

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MoneyNing June 14, 2010 at 8:04 am

Good point about the how to guides, but while there are many people who would do it themselves, many would still hire others to do simple repairs.

I believe another reason that more car repair shops exists these days because there are simply more cars. All the modern technology complexity is still not repaired by the shops, but instead replaced.

I’ve heard that the systems are so complex that most repair shops just don’t have the capability to repair ANYTHING. They buy a machine that can diagnose a problem, and all they can do is order the parts and replace them for you.

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AW July 4, 2010 at 1:34 pm

It’s true about car repair shop. They replace parts instead because that’s how they make profit; if you were them, you will do the same. It’s about business.

When I was a very poor college student, I was lucky that my friend introduced me a small Chinese car repair shop. They could totally tell me replacing parts is the only solution, but they didn’t. After few visits and chats, they asked me how long do I plan to drive this car, why didn’t I just get a new car, or a better used car, when is my next smog check notice, etc. They evaluated my situation and decided to fix my car without replacing parts, dude, the things they were doing require real skills. They are awesome and they saved my life (money and car).

Later I just realized the one who actually fixed my car obtaining BS degree in Double E. I wouldn’t have imagined a super small hidden shop has a very skilled/educated worker. Lucky me. Look and ask around, you never know.

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Cd Phi June 14, 2010 at 9:39 am

I actually just came across this problem recently. I have a pair of boots that I absolutely love and the soles were getting quite worn away so I wanted to get them repaired. I brought them to my local tailor store that also has a person who repairs shoes. She told me the total cost to replace the soles would be about $50….The boots brand new only cost $30. In this case, it wouldn’t make sense for me to repair them so instead I just bought a brand new pair.

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CreditShout June 14, 2010 at 10:24 am

Your first question was very thought provoking. It is often worth trying to fix or at least attempting to fix before jumping the gun to buy a replacement.

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marci357 June 14, 2010 at 1:40 pm

I wonder if this is more prevalent among different age groups?
Among different economic groups?
Among living areas – like urban versus rural… ?

Seems my older generation very much is still into – can it be fixed first?
And even before that, can I fix it myself???
I have the money to have things repaired, but why would I spend good money when I can do it myself? And don’t give me that my time is worth more scenario…. if it is time away from work, time when I am home and not generating money, then the time is NOT worth money. If I needed to take time off work to do it (without pay) then that time is worth money, and that is a different situation.

And rural versus urban? In a county of 20,000 – and a town of 4000 – we have a couple shoe repair shops that do a thriving business. We have seamstresses that do mending and alterations as a business – and we have 4H clubs teaching the kids sewing, cooking, and basic maintenance and repairs. We even have someone who does blacksmith work, and we have farriers who make their own shoes.
If the whole world went primitive, I think our little community would survive just fine, even without electricity. We don’t get far away from the basics here. It’s not a matter of money, it’s a matter of tradition and mindset. The crafts and skills are passed down thru the generations.

I have two sewing machines and a serger. My granddaughter, 9, received her first sewing machine (used from a church rummage sale) this year cuz she was on mine when I needed it :) She is being taught how to run up curtains, make pillows, quilts, baby gifts, and repairs to jeans and seams. Hopefully what I teach the grands will be passed on by them to their kids and grandkids also. It’s just basic survival.

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NYC GUY June 14, 2010 at 2:22 pm

I think CD Phi is correct, often replacing something is more cost efficient and less time consuming that having soemthing repaired. The driver of this would be the technological advances in mass production.

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Squirrelers June 14, 2010 at 7:09 pm

I think drive for higher income is not a bad thing, but if it overwhelms life then things get out of balance. Frankly, I belive that life is a balance of wealth, health, and relationships. They all interrelate, and to the extent one benefits, the others can too. That said, too much time and energy spent on one will take time away from the others. In this case, taking a calculated value of our time in all situations is penny wise but dollar foolish, to use a financial analogy. It’s thinking situationally, but not long-term.

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Zaboozie June 15, 2010 at 6:32 am

I think the others are right…a lot of the problem here is the advances in mass production and the desire to buy cheap whenever possible. When it’s cheaper to throw an item out and replace it, than it is to fix it, then we will continue to trash things. This is not only a problem with the lost art of repair and restoration, but an overall global problem of consumption and waste. Consumption is not so bad, but excessive waste is. Mass production has brought with it more problems than it solved, in my opinion. But we just have to choose to make better decisions and not buy into cheap is better. Buy quality and let it last, we’d be more likely to hold on to items that cost more and are of greater quality.

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Doug Warshauer June 16, 2010 at 10:51 am

There seems to be two separate issues here. One is whether repairs have become less cost effective over time, and how that impacts society. As many readers have noted, when manufacturing costs drop, people are less inclined to have their product repaired. This applies not just to technological products but to virtually everything, including the garments that your grandfather’s shop used to repair but now are manufactured overseas at such low cost that replacing them makes more sense.

The other issue relates to individual’s ability to perform their own repairs, which is tied to the question of whether repairing something is “worth their time.” As the number of consumer products continues to proliferate, it seems inevitable that this trend will continue.

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Olivia June 17, 2010 at 9:27 am

Sometimes it’s the dumb stuff that gets us. My elderly mom had a pair of soft soled shoes she wanted re-soled. It would have cost $60. The shoes cost $79. Shoe Goo is $3.99 a tube. It may not be beautiful but it’ll do the job.

Recently the belt on our clothes dryer snapped. After experiencing the joyful forking over of $80 on a washing machine repairman’s visit to inform us we needed a $4 part, we asked a handy guy we know to help us take the dryer apart. (It is an unconventional set up and the charts online we not helpful). After he figured it out we had a $24 part mailed to us and we installed it ourselves. That one repair saved us four hours of after tax income. Well worth an hour of time.

Sometimes like someone else mentioned, it’s that no one was taught how to do something. I went to our local thrift store recently and came across a dress. The hem was duct taped up.

Before they leave home bothour boys will know how to thread a needle, cook a meal, balance a checkbook, make and work with a written budget, change the oil and tires, grocery shop, and rewire a lamp. Apart from saving money it will build their confidence to tackle more complex things. I would have loved to have learned these things growing up.

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Victoria June 19, 2010 at 11:07 am

Well, its up to people if they want to save money or they want to waste. For me if the item can be repair then why not? especially those items got a sentimental value to me :)

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Cath Lawson June 24, 2010 at 3:36 pm

My mother made many of my clothes for me when I was younger and I loved it because nobody at school could copy me. I am not good on a sewing machine. But this morning I found that an expensive top that I really love has somehow got damaged. A while ago, I would have thrown it out but I’m going to attempt to repair it.

I recently read an article that said the revenue of shoe repairers has gone up significantly recently, so it looks like more people are repairing instead of replacing since the recession.

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Slinky July 12, 2010 at 4:06 pm

This article made me laugh. I sew (and knit, crochet, and quilt) and my fiance blacksmiths. Most of my family has some sort of productive hobby like those. I’ve always thought that everyone should have at least one practical skill – something that’s useful to you and other people in everyday life. I can make blankets and clothes and sweaters and socks and hats and mittens. What can you do?

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Kashif March 2, 2012 at 10:04 am

In developed world cost of repairs, is often, higher than cost of replacement – both in terms of money value as well as individual time spent on the task. This could be one of the reason people prefer to replace than repair, along with easy replacement terms by most vendors.

In developing countries, on the other hand, people prefer to repair – till the stuff wore out.

Consumerism to blame?

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