If it ain’t broke, you don’t need a new one.

When I first started studying Chinese, I felt like somehow it just fit. I had found my niche–something that was difficult but that I really enjoyed, and that I was actually really good at. When I lived in Beijing, I realized this had a lot to do with the fact that I personally share a lot of values with Chinese culture more generally. One of the most obvious and interesting for me is cheapness.

At the risk of making gross generalizations, Chinese people are really cheap. This is not a negative stereotype. In fact, I really just mean that economy and thrift are highly regarded traits in traditional Chinese culture. Here is a good example:

The traditional Chinese view is that if something is working well enough, then it is working. Thus, you do not need something new to replace it. After I moved into the room I rented from an older Chinese couple, I noticed something about the table across from my bed: it wasn’t a table at all, but an old cardboard box with a decorative throw covering it. My first thought was, “Wow, this is really cheap. Why didn’t they just get a table? It’s not like they can’t afford it.” My second thought was, “Wow, what a great idea! This does exactly what a small bedside table is supposed to do, and it cost basically nothing. I didn’t even notice the difference at first.” The point was that something cheap or free did exactly the same job as something new and expensive.

Now, I’m not about to use a cardboard box as a table in my house because that’s just not quite acceptable in American middle-class society (plus I have two small boys who would crush it at the first opportunity!). However, I can still apply the principle “if it ain’t broke, you don’t need a new one.” Jennifer has mentioned before that we have an old hand-me-down coffee pot that all our parents frequently offer to replace. It is stained and dingy, and the warming plate is completed covered with rust. Weirdly enough, it still makes coffee the same way it did ten years ago. Since we only own it in the first place because it makes coffee, it serves its purpose flawlessly. This is why we refuse all offers to replace it. When the carafe breaks (which it will inevitably, since it’s glass) it will probably be cheaper to buy a whole new coffee pot than find a replacement carafe that fits. Hopefully we’ll be able to get another cast-off for free, and use that for even longer!

My room in Beijing (with cardboard "table" in the lower left of the frame)

My room in Beijing (with cardboard “table” in the lower left of the frame)

What other free or cheap solutions do you have for common household needs?


One thought on “If it ain’t broke, you don’t need a new one.

  1. I guess in a sense I [we] hold something in common with Chinese culture. Americans are wasteful and über consumerist to the point that it’s almost sickening. I was recently doing some stone work on the front of a fireplace at my sisters and there was a flat screen TV sitting on the floor. She has one on the wall, come to find out one of her husbands customers more or less made him take it, but it was broken. My sister wanted it gone so I took it and dropped it at a local TV repair shop. All it needed was a new power supply for just under $100. So, in essence we paid $100 for a 42″ Samsung flat screen TV. I can almost bet that the person who got rid of it wasted no time heading for Best Buy to get a new one. Now that my wife and I have become thrifty, living on a budget and paying off debt, we’ve learned to live without a lot of the things we used to purchase on a whim. Oh and about your coffee maker, I’m right with ya on that. We have a nice Kitchen Aid coffee maker that we got for a wedding gift, even though it wasn’t on the register. Last year I broke the carafe and instead of buying a whole new unit I found that we had a few spare carafe’s in our office. Oh no, my carafe doesn’t match the coffee pot…..that makes nasty coffee! [insert snarky] Good post.

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