Good, Cheap, Fast: Choose Two

The good, cheap, fast triangle of trade-offs has many names depending on the application.  For my own purposes, I have generally called it an acquisition triangle since I think of it most in terms of acquiring a product or service, and this happens to be the most relevant application to everyday budgeting.  The acquisition triangle is an important framework to understand and keep in mind when making choices regarding spending. Most of us are working with finite financial resources at any given time, and have to make informed choices accordingly.  There are trade-offs made in every decision, which is where the acquisition triangle comes in handy.

The rules of the acquisition triangle state that there are 3 variables at play in every purchase situation: good, cheap, or fast, and you can choose a combination of any 2 out of the 3. If you need something good (whether that’s objectively high quality or just something very specific) and need it fast, it won’t be cheap. If you need something good, but on a tighter budget, it won’t be fast. And of course, if you need something fast and cheap, chances are, it won’t be very good.

My main financial goal right now is to cut back my consumer spending so that I can pay off debt and eventually build enough savings to be able to invest. These longer-term goals lead me to prioritize the cheap corner of the acquisition triangle in a lot of my recurring purchase decisions, such as food and clothing.  Having a clear preference for inexpensive purchases is where things start to get interesting, because now things are going to be good but sometimes very slow, or fast and generally disappointing.

Food is a clear example of the acquisition triangle at work in everyday purchase decisions. While everyone has different taste and preferences (and different skill levels when it comes to cooking), a fresh homemade burger with a perfectly runny fried egg on a toasted bun is an undeniably higher quality experience than a soggy, paper-wrapped fast food hamburger. The former just takes considerably more time and effort to prepare, especially when you factor in the time it takes to shop for groceries in addition to the time it takes to prepare the meal itself.  A smart shopper can make the previously mentioned eggy cheeseburger for about $1.50 whereas a quarter pounder with cheese from McDonalds will cost more than twice as much at $3.79. The trade-off of course being that a fast food burger is theoretically easy to get quickly.  Convenience always costs more. Further, the quality of two meals when measured by the overall experience as well as nutritional value are vastly different. In this case, fast becomes the enemy of both good and cheap.  

Clothing is another line item on the budget that can benefit from a long-game approach.  Fast fashion is at its peak with micro-seasons currently being pushed onto the sales floors of stores like H&M and Forever 21 on a weekly basis. These clothes are easy to get inexpensively and are often considered disposable due to their cheap materials and poor construction as well as their trendy designs that are out of style almost as soon as they are purchased.  Since disposable fast fashion must be replaced so frequently, it is more economical to stick with classic pieces that can be the foundation of a versatile wardrobe with some staying power.  A $10 top that is worn once is more expensive per wear than a $50 top that is worn 100 times.

Shopping retail sales off-season is a classic and proven technique for saving money on clothes, it just takes some planning ahead to be sure you have what you need.  In addition to shopping sales at regular retail stores, there are ever increasing options in the second hand clothing market. From brick and mortar stores like Goodwill and Clothes Mentor to online only Thread Up and even app-based C2C platforms such as Poshmark and Mercari, the wisdom of buying used now extends far beyond the car lot. 

The catch of course, is that if you like a specific pair of pants, the fastest way to get exactly what you want is to purchase them now no matter what they cost. If you are focused on the cheap corner of the triangle, you’ve got to be in it for the long haul. That could mean waiting out the sales and hoping the specific pair of wool dress pants you like are still available at the end of the season and also get marked down.  Or it could mean scouring consignment and thrift stores hoping to find something similar in your size at a more reasonable price, with the very real possibility that you could spend a long time searching and still come up empty handed.

Now that I am focused on cutting spending and trying to optimize the cheap corner of the acquisitions triangle, I find that I almost always also choose good as my secondary priority in hopes that higher quality purchases will last longer and therefore cost less over time.  Which means most things just tend to take time to research and shop around for a suitable combination of quality and price. Are there situations when a cheap solution is needed quickly regardless of long-term quality? Of course. And while the triangle follows hard and fast rules, my real-life application of the principles is not always so strict.  But overall, I try to do my best to plan ahead and avoid those situations, since just like fast fashion, a quick solution purchased cheaply will have to be replaced sooner rather than later and end up costing more in the long run. Planning ahead requires slowing down, considering the ultimate goals, and in this case sacrificing instant gratification more often than not. Which happens to align perfectly with the long-term investment goal that brought me to study the triangle in the first place.

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