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What is the 'boots theory'?

The "boots theory" comes from a simple piece of dialogue in Pratchett’s 1993 novel "Men at Arms." The book features a City Watch commander named Capt. Samuel Vimes. The captain is set to marry one of the richest women in the world, and he often opines about the differences between low-status and high-status spending habits.

At one point in the story, the captain ruminates:

The reason that the rich were so rich...was because they managed to spend less money.

In reference to the captain, the quote continues:

"Take boots, for example. He earned $38 a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost $50. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about $10.

"Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

"But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford $50 had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in 10 years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet."

This was Capt. Samuel Vimes' boots theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

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The boots theory in action

Pair of boots next to a desk on a carpeted floor.
David Lezcano / Unsplash

The boots theory may seem obvious, but many people fall victim to its trap.

The wealthy, who have access to capital and disposable income, can make decisions with their money that leave them richer and better off.

One of my favorite examples is the simple task of doing laundry. Wealthy people can afford high-efficiency modern machines and bulk-purchased, good-quality laundry detergent. They own their own machines, and the cost per load is minimal over the lifetime of any good washer and dryer.

The poor? They spend hours lugging their laundry to a laundromat and even more time waiting for the machines to finish. They can't afford to buy in bulk, so they often end up buying small packets of detergent at huge markups. They pay a lot per load, and they can't do it at home.

Wealthy individuals might not see doing laundry at home as a luxury, but the time and money saved are significant. If you can afford the price — and you have the room at home — a washing machine can save you hundreds of dollars every year, as well as many hours of your time.

When I do laundry at home, I typically spend about 95% of the total load cycle time doing something else worthwhile like cooking, cleaning or working. If you add up all of the hours in a year that I gain from having access to my own machines, it's easy to see why it's cheap to be rich and it's expensive to be poor.

When spending more makes sense

Cars are another obvious example. If you can't afford a car with a good warranty, you can easily pay two or three times the sticker price in repairs and emergency towing. A reliable new car is cheaper to maintain and considerably less likely to break down.

Capt. Vimes from Discworld knew that he should buy the good boots, but he simply couldn't afford them. This problem can be delayed by access to credit, but it's not the solution — nor should it be. Those with less immediate access to money can make their lives easier with proper use of credit, budgeting, personal savings and frugal purchasing.

When you can afford to spend your money in a way that saves you money later, you are much better off.

The next time you're on the lookout for a new pair of boots, remember Capt. Vimes and his boots theory. It may be beneficial for you to weigh the long-term benefits of spending more now to save later — don't just buy the cheapest pair.

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Tom Huffman Freelance Contributor

Tom was formerly a freelance contributor to Moneywise.


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