Boots Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness

This is why poor people can't afford to save money. (Tom Hoffman, dec 2019)

Terry Pratchett was an English author of fantasy novels, best known for his Discworld series of 41 novels. For those of you familiar with Terry Pratchett's novels, you may recognize the "Boots Theory." For those of you unfamiliar with Terry Pratchett, you better write off the next few months of your life as you're about to undertake some serious binge-reading.

The "Boots Theory" comes from a simple piece of dialogue in Men at Arms. Published in 1993, the novel features a City Watch commander named Captain 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 goes on to read:

"Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. 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 ten dollars. 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 fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten 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 the Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

The Boots theory seems intuitive, but many people fall victim to the trap laid out by the theory.

Wealthy people with access to capital and disposable income can make decisions with their money that leave them richer and better off.

One of my favourite 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. Those with less 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 understand the time and money saved are significant

Wealthy individuals might not see doing laundry at home as a luxury, but understand the time and money saved are significant. If you can afford the price (and you have the room at home), a laundry machine can save you hundreds of dollars ever 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."

Cars are another obvious example. If you can't afford a car with a good warranty, you can easily buy your car two or three times over in repairs and emergency towing. A good, reliable new car is cheap to maintain and it's considerably less likely to break down.

Captain Vimes from Discworld knew that he should buy the good boots, but he simply couldn't afford it. 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: more savings over time, better comfort, better performance, and fewer repairs.

The next time you're on the lookout for a new pair of boots, remember Captain 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!