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My 16-Year-Old Bike Explains Which is Best: Quality or Quantity (Hint: They’re Both Wrong)


There’s a silly debate that’s been raging since, I guess, the beginning of time. One side says, “Focus on quality! Always get the very best you can!” The other side says, “No, quantity is what’s important. The more the better!”

Both sides have fair enough points, and you can see the debate rage in almost every aspect of life from saving money on groceries (read the naysayers in the comments) to doing work to making travel arrangements. You probably even debate yourself on it each day as you make decisions for your own life.

What few seem to realize, though, is that—in the end—both arguments kind of suck. And a smart Riskologist knows that to get ahead in life, you must be able to look at the decisions you make for yourself through the lens of cold, hard reality.

Let me illustrate with a few examples.

The Folly of the Rolex Watch

What’s the point of a rolex watch? It’s fancy, it’s expensive, and many people (usually those who own one) think it the best of the best in how-to-know-you’re-late technology.

But is it?

Perhaps many years ago it represented a better time piece than any other on the market, but with the technology we enjoy today, you can get all the same quality and time-telling-fanciness from a $20 Casio. It won’t look as nice, but it’ll work just as well.

And there’s the problem. The quality argument is no longer about the quality that matters: telling time.

All of a sudden, it’s about more than that. It’s about making a statement and owning a status symbol.

There is not a Rolex owner alive that can look you in the face and tell you with honesty that they bought their watch because it tells time better than any other watch on the market.

No, they bought it to show other people that they have money. Only, now that they’ve bought a Rolex, they have less of it, which makes it hard to actually have it when people expect you to.

Next thing you know, you’re spending money you don’t have to keep up an image that isn’t honest and no genuine person cares that you have or not. Whoops!

I have a family friend that ended up in this very predicament. He spent his whole life trying to prove to everyone he had money he actually didn’t. He bought the “best of the best” in everything he owned.

Of course, it was all fake. He didn’t have any money, and now he’s about to go to jail because his addiction to keeping up appearances lead him to theft and fraud. Double whoops!

Sad story for everyone involved. Let’s move on.

The Truth Behind “Free” Frequent Flyer Miles

On the other side of the debate, the quantity lovers will say, “Your dumb friend should have watched his money better! He could have had the life of his dreams if he’d found cheaper ways to own the same things!”

An example of this concept in action is alive and well in the travel hacking community. Travel hackers will spend inordinate amounts of time searching for the best deals that allow them to travel for cheap. They find glitch fares, hoard frequent flyer miles, and do all kinds of funny stuff that make the average person scratch their head in disbelief.

They travel, and they do it a lot. According to them, it’s all freeeeeeeeee!

I’m a big fan of frequent flyer miles. In fact, they’ve changed my life. I’ve flown all over the world for nearly free because of them, but I don’t try to kid myself. There’s a whole world of other expenses that comes with that lifestyle once you’ve bought into it.

First, I would never pay full price to travel to all the places I do so, without miles, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to spend money on lodging, food, and other expenses that go hand in hand with travel. The more “free” travel I take, the more I spend while traveling.

And while I have zero debt and have never paid a penny in interest to anyone for anything in my life, there are plenty of self-proclaimed “frugal travelers” who are up to their eyeballs in debt after spending more and more on their frequent flyer credit cards to get more miles. They don’t realize their free travel costs them many times more than if they’d just used cash and paid full price.

I’m nothing but grateful for all the travel experiences I get to have, but I try to be honest with myself about just how free it all really is.

The quality lovers would argue, “You could spend the same amount and just take one lavish vacation each year and not hop all over like a nomad.” And they’d be right! Sort of.

Now the Answer: Value (As Explained by My 16-Year-Old Bicycle)

What all the quality and quantity loudmouths shouting over each other fail to realize is if you look at the argument as a one-or-the-other scenario, there’s no way to win. If you simply have to pick sides, you’ll always end up worse off. The same is true for most dichotomies.

In reality, quality and quantity exist on a spectrum, and the sweet spot you ought to land on is called value. This is a lesson I learned in 6th grade when I bought my first bike from the local shop in my hometown—a good ol’ Trek 420 that, 16 years later, I still ride every single day. Yeah, it’s a little small—like a bear riding a tricycle—but it’s perfect for me.

Even at age 12, I did a painstaking amount of research to find the bike that would be the best value for me. I wanted to spend as much as I needed to get the best fit without paying for an unnecessary status symbol or a bunch of bells and whistles that don’t matter.

The bike was $600, a princely sum for a 12-year-old who earned a “living” splitting fire wood. In the end, both my parents supported me in the decision, but my mom nudged me to save a little longer for a slightly nicer bike (quality), and my dad was ready to disown me for even thinking about spending so much on something I was just going to lose or sell in a few years (quantity).

Yet here I am, 16 years later, still pedaling it around every day. I suspect the same will be true in another 16 years. When my friends ask me if I’m ready to upgrade, my answer is always, “Why mess with perfection?”


Don’t get lost in the dogma surrounding the quality/quantity debate. The smart Riskologist need not choose sides. Instead, he should look at every aspect of his life on a spectrum, finding the option that satisfies every reasonable need without ever wasting time or money on extras that don’t actually improve his life.

Your Homework Today

If you’re a smart Riskologist yourself, I’d like you to leave a comment below explaining how you find the sweet spot of value in your life. How do you avoid being sucked into the quality vs. quantity debate?

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What smart people are saying about this...

  1. I like most people really wanted my own house someday. A few years ago I realized the single most important thing in a house to me was that it was unique. I ended up building a tiny house (now 200 sq ft) out of reclaimed materials and became a happy homeowner for about $10,000 and no debt.

  2. In addition to the money issue, it’s also important to factor in two other things: 1)the amount of effort it takes to achieve something relative to the amount of time & energy (both physical & emotional) you have available to give to it, and 2)your ability to appreciate the item or achievement.
    At one point last year you had a series about ways to raise lots of frequent flyer points for cheap travel. In addition to the points you have now raised about how it’s not really free (unless you are gaining points on things you needed to buy and had the money for anyway), my concern at the time was that I was extremely busy with a lot of other things that took up a lot of time and therefore didn’t have the spare time to research the best offers like you suggested. So for me, at that point, following your advice would have been an added stressor rather than something that gave me freedom. As things currently stand, we have all our frequent flyer points accumulated in one scheme, chosen because it is the scheme that is linked to most of the places we do business with and where we tend to spend larger amounts of money in the general scheme of things.
    Regarding point (2), I once heard a rather self-righteous person state that it was totally unjustifiable for someone to spend several thousand dollars on a sound system. My response to that was that it depended on the person. For most people, their hearing isn’t sensitive enough to make the expense worthwhile. But if someone has very good hearing coupled with a great appreciation for the artistry in music, that would be a different matter entirely. For such a person, the extra expense would definitely add to their enjoyment. (That said, this example is now rather like the example of the Rolex watch. With advances in technology over the last decade, it is much easier to get a great listening experience for relatively little money.)
    All in all, a great article.

  3. What you say fits in the accepted definition of quality which is: “Quality is fitness for purpose.” If you only want to tell the time a $20 watch is quality. If you want to tell and boast and show your wealth a $20 watch is not quality. First define what your purpose is and then find the article that best fits it. They you are getting quality. It may not be “the best”, but it is the best for you.

  4. Right after my son turned 16, I finally got the hybrid car I’d always wanted, so I gave him my old, paid-for car to drive. Four weeks later, he totalled it — he was avoiding two other accidents and wasn’t so lucky the third time. Even so, he knew he had to wait for another car.

    A year later he got a job a 20-minute drive away. I took him back and forth at first because it was only a couple of days a week. But once school got out, I was looking at a 40-minute round trip, twice a day, five times a week. Most of those trips would be during work hours, which would cause a big disruption in my freelancing business.

    So after much internal angst, I finally calculated the dollars and cents. The cost of driving him back and forth was MUCH higher than getting a car. In fact, it would take less than 2 minths of driving to recover the expense.

    That settled it. We went to a friend’s car sales/repair service and got a used car that’s in great shape, and my friend gave us a great deal. My son pays for his gas and half the cost of his insurance. A year later, he’s taken very good care of his car and is ready to take it to college with him.

    Once he got his car and started driving himself to/from work, a great deal of stress left my workdays. I didn’t have to worry about working my schedule around his, and I didn’t have to deal with traffic as much.

    Buying that car for my son was one of the best things I have ever done for myself and my business. The savings of time and sanity far outweighed the financial cost of the payments.

    • Totally agree Catena. We have done that with two of our daughters already because to do otherwise would have meant me and my husband driving well in excess of 1000km per week between us. We had to tighten our belts and go without quite a few things that people on our income normally take for granted in order to be able to afford it. Our girls were in High School and also had classes for their various interests outside of school hours so they only worked a few hours a week, so they couldn’t pay much towards the upkeep of the cars initially. Now they are older and out of school they have taken over those costs including insurance, so our budget has a lot more slack in it again, but for those few years it was well worth it to reduce the stress for us. And none of the things we went without were essentials, so on balance, the stress reduction was far more important to us.

    • You gave him a car, and he destroyed it. Then you became his taxi service?

      In your situation, I would have told him to take the bus or ride a bike. If he wanted to drive, then he’d have to save his pay and buy a car himself.

      I bet he wouldn’t wreck the second car!

      • Seems rather harsh Joe. Have you had a child go through this in the circumstances that Catena’s son did? It seems very evident to me from her description that it was inexperience in dealing with the other situations that were going on around him that caused his prang, not carelessness. And notice, she said that he did not expect to be given a new car.
        My middle daughter was involved in a crash 3 weeks after getting her licence. It wasn’t her fault either so I know what it is like to have a teen go through this and all the conflicting emotions they go through. They need support not criticism.
        In the case of both of my daughters, going by public transport wasn’t a practical option for them. In a tight schedule they needed their cars to get to all the places they needed to go. Most of their journeys were 10 – 15 minutes by car but would have taken 1 – 1 1/2 hours by bus because of the lack of a direct route. You have no way of knowing what Catena’s son’s schedule involved so you’re not really in a position to decide whether bus or bike was a practical option for him. If a teen has the offer of a job but lack of a car would leave them unable to take it up and therefore home idle and unproductive instead, to me it’s a no-brainer which is better.
        The whole point of this article is that what has value depends on your circumstances, and that those circumstances should be taken into consideration before making decisions. Catena made decisions based on what was of value both to her and her son.

        • I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be harsh. I certainly hope that Catena didn’t take it as a personal criticism; that was not my intention.

          When I was 16 I bought my first car using the money I had earned at my job washing dishes. It was a cheap car, just a few hundred dollars, and so rusty that you could unlock the door by reaching through the rust-holes and pushing up on the locking mechanism. It would break down on a regular basis, especially during the cold weather (in Bend, Oregon, this was about half the year). I, however, loved my crappy, junk car. It was much preferable to what I had been doing for the previous year; riding my bicycle to work (this was Bend; there were no buses).

          Sometimes I felt jealous of my classmates who’d had cars given to them by their parents. Their cars were clean and shiny. They didn’t need to braze closed holes in their radiators, tighten squealing fan belts, or replace cracked clutch plates. Often, however, my jealousy was tempered in no small part with contempt; they didn’t value their car (beyond the status symbol). Their parents gave them the car and, when it broke, the expected their parents to either fix it, loan them their car, or drive them to where they needed to go.

          Now I’m older and seeing things from the point of view of a parent.

          I have a coworker who’s adult daughter (along with the daughter’s boyfriend & baby) is living with her. The daughter can’t find work because everything out there either pays too little or is too much work, the boyfriend got a speeding ticket and is being deported because he’s an illegal alien, and my coworker is facing eviction for letting three people live in her apartment without the landlord’s permission.

          I had a classmate in high school who, 16 years later, is about to get his bachelor’s degree and can start paying off his $40,000 student loan.

          I have a friend who’s 22 year old daughter still lives at home, sleeps until noon, and watches TV the rest of the day. My friend cooks and cleans for her daughter, and even helps her bathe and dress.

          My son is 15 and I desperately hope that I can prevent him from becoming like the examples above. If that means that he must be discomforted by a long bike ride, or embarrassed by an old worn-out car, then so be it.

          As far as Catena’s specific situation goes, there are many things that I have no knowledge of. Catena is self-employed; perhaps her son did work in trade for the car. Perhaps Catena got an insurance settlement that paid for the second car. I don’t know how far away her son’s job is (just the driving time) or over what types of road (city, country, highway). I don’t know her son’s work schedule, or how much he earns. I can only go by what was mentioned in the story. What I read was:

          He was given a vehicle as a gift and within a month it was destroyed. I don’t know what she meant by “he was avoiding two other accidents and wasn’t so lucky the third time”. It sounds like an action movie!

          A year later he’s 17 and finds a job. Presumably it’s too far or dangerous for him to bike to, and would take too long to ride the bus. He hasn’t saved enough money to buy even the cheapest car, so he turns to him mom for transportation.

          Based on the scanty information available, it seems to me that he didn’t *earn* the first car, he didn’t *earn* the rides to work his mom gave him, and he didn’t *earn* the second car. While I totally agree that the value of her son having his own transportation clearly outweighs the cost of the second car, I think the value of having her son stand on his own outweighs the value of doing it for him. I don’t mean that she shouldn’t be un-supportive: I would have suggested to my son that he find a job closer to home until he can buy a car or, if this isn’t possible, loan him the money to buy the car.

          • Hi Joe. As a Christian the most beautiful and wonderful lesson I have ever learned is that the most valuable things we can ever have are not the things we have earned (where there is the danger it will lead to self-righteous pride), but those things that are given to us out of a heart of pure love and that we had no way to earn. For those who have developed a good attitude it is both a beautiful but also humbling experience to receive such gifts.
            Not everyone is like the people you mentioned above. My daughters were not raised that way and both were extremely appreciative of the sacrifices we made to get them their cars. From my reading of Catena’s post, it seems to me that her son is similar. She wrote “Four weeks later, he totalled it — he was avoiding two other accidents and wasn’t so lucky the third time. Even so, he knew he had to wait for another car.” “Avoiding other accidents” to me suggests accidents that happened in front of him not caused by him, as in a large pile-up or some such, that he was trying to avoid getting caught up in. And she states that he DIDN’T expect her to provide him with another car.
            We know nothing of his circumstances in his job when he finally got one. He may have had other expenses eg, books &/or equipment for a college course to buy, or he may have been only working a few hours (as was the case with my daughters) and not been able to save enough for a car initially. Both my daughters have now, in their late teens, paid us back in full and taken on full responsibility for their cars, including insurance.
            It’s important to realise that we tend to judge things largely on a subconscious level. Your last post put a very heavy emphasis on earning which suggests that your upbringing may have had a similar emphasis. You may be interpreting Catena’s post through the filter of that upbringing. If you have never seen positive examples (or seen them only rarely) of the effect a love gift can have, as I have on many occasions, you may be unaware how much more inspiring and releasing it can be than the earning principle. Sure, it can be abused – I’ve had that happen to me on a number of occasions too. We have to be wise and figure out who has the right attitude to receive the gift in a positive manner. But for those who are able to, watching them grow and fly, like a caterpillar morphing into a butterfly, is the most joyous thing you can ever do.

  5. For years I spent a ridiculous amount of money on my hair. And I didn’t even love it in proportion to the bill. So, I ventured into one of the cheaper places that someone recommended and started buying over-the- counter hair dye for a fraction of the cost. The results—better than big money saloon!

Founded with love by Tyler Tervooren

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