Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Her Open Bag: An Interview with Judie Lipsett Hughes of GearDiary

I've previously mentioned that I used to spend a lot of money on PDAs. While in that phase, I was a voracious reader of several tech/gadget sites, some of which I still follow. Though becoming a money blogger was not yet even a glimmer in my eye back then, one of the most memorable reviews I ever read on a gadget site caught my interest because of a financial angle. Why? Because it was about a $5,500 bag!
I had often thought it would be an interesting story to blog about, but I held off, thinking I didn't really have enough to say about it from my own perspective... however, the wonderful thing about the internet is that sometimes, if you want to know more about someone, you can just write to them and ask, and they might write back, as Judie Lipsett Hughes did to me! So finally, I can tell this story, in the form of My Open Wallet's first-ever interview!

Judie is a well-known reviewer and opinion-maker when it comes to gadgets and technological gear. I always enjoyed the reviews she wrote for The Gadgeteer, and now Judie has her own site called Gear Diary. One of the reasons I think I've always enjoyed Judie's writing is that she has a broader focus than just the nuts and bolts arcana of operating systems and hardware-- in Judie's words:

We all have gear that we use daily - some of it electronic and some of it organic. I think it is fascinating to explore the equipment that makes our lives easier, more entertaining, more productive, and more manageable.
And more expensive, one might add! So what's the story with the $5,500 bag? Many women, and even, I suspect, many men, can identify with wanting to have the perfect bag in which to carry around all your stuff. If you're into gadgets, it's even more of an issue-- you don't want PDA's, cameras, cellphones and iPods all floating around and getting lost or damaged in some big shapeless bag along with your wallet, makeup, used tissues and 14 pens. And on top of that, a bag can be something you wear like clothes, so for many people, its looks matter. As Judie said in her original review:
I didn't want an over the shoulder Cordura or leather bag that shouted Geeky contents inside...even though there are. I didn't want a modified briefcase, messenger bag or sling thing. I wanted something fashionable, feminine, and luxe...and it had to have enough pockets and slots for the daily things I carry.

Judie decided that the answer was to have a bag custom made for her, and she chose the Alexandra Knight Taylor Tote shown to the left (there are lots more photos in the Gadgeteer review).

But, guess what: a custom-made bag like this that is both beautiful and functional isn't cheap. And some commenters at the Gadgeteer forums had strong reactions to the $5,500 price tag:

Hawkeye: < typical guy response > You seriously dropped $5,500 on a bag? I would custom make you a bag with my own skin for $5,500.< /typical guy response >

ChrisSpera: The price almost made me soil myself...

Reading all this made me want to ask Judie some questions from a personal finance perspective, which she graciously answered:

Madame X: First of all, you bought and reviewed this bag back in 2004-- do you still use it? How often?

Judie: Oh, I absolutely use the Taylor Tote; in fact I have been carrying it for the past few days. Since I own quite a few bags (although none of them cost as much as this one did), I try to rotate them all. It helps to keep the bags from appearing worn, and it makes me feel like I have a “new” bag when I can pull out something that I have not carried in a while.

MX: Do you still feel it was a good decision to spend that much money on it?

J: Well, the way I looked at it when I bought the bag was that it was a timeless design I could carry for decades; it would never go out of style. I definitely still feel that way, and I am glad that I got the bag when I did. Fortunately, Alexandra Knight offered a no-interest payment option, so I was able to break the total cost into three installments; this helped make the purchase a little less painful. I can still remember agonizing over the cost of the bag to this day, it was definitely not a decision that I made lightly; I probably would not do it again, but I am very glad that I did it then.

MX: You must get compliments on the bag...

J: I have received many compliments on the Taylor Tote, but mostly from people who think it is a sharp looking bag, or those who get close enough to notice its organizational features. With that said, it isn’t a bag to carry if you want strangers to walk over and compliment you while they speculate on your bag’s cost. I had a Louis Vuitton Suhali Le Fab that got way more attention than this bag does, and I found that I didn’t like it; I actually returned that bag.

MX: Exactly-- it's not a logo-brand item that shouts that it is expensive. I'm sure people can look at it and see that it is very well made of beautiful leather-- but part of what made it worth the money for you is the hidden stuff on the inside that people will never see...

J: You’re right…the Taylor Tote doesn’t have a trendy or attention grabbing design, nor is it an obviously branded bag. What makes this bag worth it for me, is that even though I am not carrying a single device anymore that was shown in the Taylor Tote’s review back in 2004, the way that I configured the bag’s pockets still works for me with the equipment I am now carrying. Since I have almost owned the bag for three years, its price is starting to average down for me; after I have owned it and used it for ten years - or even twenty years - I won’t even remember what the fuss was about when I agonized over buying it…or at least, that’s how I justify it now. ;-)

MX: What about the comments in the forums: it seemed that men reacted differently than women? My impression has been that the audience of gadget sites skews more towards males-- do you think they'd have been more understanding if you'd spent $5,500 on something other than a handbag? It seemed like some of the women who commented were more appreciative of the value.

J: Well, the short answer is that I think women are a little less affected by sticker shock. Women who follow fashion tend to be pretty savvy about the prices of high end designer handbags, and whether or not we would be willing to spend the money, we are at least aware of the prices out there. With that said, I think every person has a price threshold for the items they buy, whether they are aware of it or not. Male or female, we’ll hear a price for a particular item and say to ourselves “yeah, okay,” or “there is no way!”

I think that while some of the commenters were shocked at the price of the bag, the reactions were skewed by the audience. For instance – where is the better value? A bag that might last 30+ years? Or a high end desktop that will be obsolete in 2 years. It’s all relative, but not everyone gets that. I can’t even remember how many laptops, PDAs, and gadgets I have bought, used for a while, and then given away. If I had all that money back, I could buy the Barenia Birkin I have always wanted - with all the matching accessories, and still have money left over. But I sure did enjoy all those gadgets…

MX: That's a great point about what lasts vs. what becomes obsolete. At least one female commenter seemed to be impressed that your husband "let you" buy the bag! Do you and he have an agreement about how you pool or divide your finances and make spending decisions?

J: Yeah, I think it was pretty shocking that anyone would be surprised that my (now soon-to-be-ex) husband “let” me buy anything (the feminist in me gags at the thought). Without going too deeply into it, I certainly never needed his "permission" to spend my own money. I didn’t really delve into it in the review or forum, but when I am about to make a major purchase of any kind, I will generally use my partner as a sounding board. I am basically listening to myself as I justify why I want to buy the item. If my reasons sound acceptable as I list them, and if the person listening doesn’t look at me like I am completely crazy, then I will chew on the idea a little bit more and then decide. But no one gives me permission to buy or “lets me” buy anything, except myself as my finances dictate.

MX: What are some other items you've purchased where you felt a high price was worth it?

J: Definitely vacations and travel. Sometimes I just need to get away from the computer, away from the internet, away from being plugged in – and being able to lie on a beach with my daughter, or discover a place that we both find interesting is a great way to unwind. Travel is definitely something that can take priority over even the coolest gadget, and it is worth every penny.

MX: If you had to name one "thing" you've bought that was truly worth the money, what would it be?

J: Well, I recently purchased a vintage Alfa Romeo Quadrifoglio. This particular model car had a lot of sentimental value to me, as I had owned the same model 19 years ago; so I think that was a purchase where the high price was worth it. Of course, “high price” is relative: the Alfa cost much less than the average used car, and even though it was a bit of an impulse item, I am pleased to have it. The Alfa is my “ultimate gadget” at the moment, and I am going to have fun playing with it.

MX: Do you have the same philosophy about spending money on technological gear as you do on other things like food, clothes, home furnishings etc? Do you or would you make sacrifices in other areas of your spending in order to be able to afford the latest technology?

J: Well, I would never go without food or shelter to own the latest gadget, and my house is pretty much furnished thanks to various furniture sales where they offered 0% interest for a year and I paid everything off under that time frame. Notice a trend here? I am all about the zero finance charge – in fact, that’s how I got my current Fujitsu Tablet PC, too. But I digress…

Sacrifices I have made haven’t been too lifestyle cramping: like maybe I went without a certain designer bag that caught my eye, because I wanted a wide camera lens. Since I don’t wear a lot of high-end designer clothing, and since I live in a city with a much lower cost of living than most urban areas, my gadget habit hasn’t really cramped my style too badly. I enjoy my gadgets, but I will not hole-up in a basement or live in a tree house to indulge my habit.

MX: What gadgets do you think offer the best value for money?

J: Those that will be used repeatedly (preferably daily), that will last for a few years, and that do exactly what they are supposed to do – almost every time without fail. Unfortunately, this very definition excludes many of the PDAs I have tried. The good news is that since I often give away my old gadgets either directly to friends or in contests on Gear Diary, they get used for much longer than they might have otherwise. Whether I got the gadget from a company to review or I purchased it myself, passing things on to the next user is a great way to spread the love, foster excitement, or pay it forward – however you want to look at it.

MX: Are there any gadgets that you think are a total waste of money?

J: I would never pass that judgment; just as one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, for every gadget made there is a person that needs it or wants it for a particular application; while someone else might never need anything like it, and wouldn’t understand why the first guy would want it.

MX: Surely you have some stories about stupid expensive gadgets?

J: Okay, I did buy a bread machine once. I wound up giving it away after using it maybe…twice? Maybe three times. It was expensive, and I regret the purchase.

MX: Any tips on how to get the best price on electronic gadgets and related gear, or other advice for my finance-minded readers?

J: Of course the best way to really save money is to not shop, because it is always too easy to find things you just have to have…but that’s not always realistic. As far as gadgets – I have found that it is almost always less expensive to buy online rather than in a brick and mortar store. You should be smart and use services like pricegrabber.com or shopper.cnet.com to compare prices – and also run Google searches for the best price. Sometimes you can save a bundle, other times the prices will be standardized- but at least you’ll know you got the best deal that you could possible get.

Also when shopping, the best advice – which I have so much trouble following myself – is to wait. When something is brand new and in demand, it always costs a premium. If you can wait a while – sometimes a few months, sometimes up to a year – the prices will almost always come down. This works for everything from gadgets to most “It” bags. Also, you should never underestimate the power of eBay. So many times I have found something that I really wanted there, and since I didn’t mind buying it slightly used, I saved a bundle.

MX: To what extent are you spending your own money on gadgets? Do the reviews you write cover the costs, either by free goods received or ad revenue from your website?

J: I do spend a lot of my own money on my own gadgets. I think that there is a big misconception out there that bloggers are given every device that they review, which is definitely not the case. I do occasionally get free devices which I will disclose receiving in their review, but the majority of the PDAs and PDA phones that I own are purchased by me because I think I will like them; they might also be loaned to me by a PR company, the manufacturer, or a retailer, which I will also disclose. I generally get to use “loaner devices” for 14 – 30 days, but then I must return them.

I do receive ad revenue from Gear Diary, and I do use that to buy all sorts of gadgets, but there are also a lot of other site-related expenses that crop up which I cover with that money. It’s okay though: making money to pay for the gadgets that I would have bought anyway isn’t the reason I write, and I am not trying to grow rich by blogging about the gadgets I enjoy using.

MX: Could you estimate how much of your income you spend on gadgets? If you weren't a professional reviewer, would that change?

J: I’m not sure if I would count myself as a professional reviewer, simply because this is not my ‘day job’ – I also manage my family's ranch. I don’t even try to make enough money from Gear Diary to sustain myself, much less a full staff. I prefer to think of myself as a consumer who writes reviews. I am in the company of 11 other regular writers who also feel the same, as well as occasional contributors. We write because we enjoy using and trying new technology, we want to share our experiences with others, and yes…because we enjoy seeing our name in lights, so to speak.

If I had to estimate the percentage of my income that I spend on gadgets…I’m guessing it would be in the 20% range…but realize that this includes laptops, desktops, home gadgets and accessories, PDAs, PDA phones, photography equipment, digital music players, trips to gadget shows…you name it! There are certain genres of gadgets that I am not overly crazy about – they just aren’t my forte, but there are plenty of others that spark my interest. Nine times out of ten, if I really want to try out a particular gadget, I will figure out a way to justify buying it.

If I wasn’t a reviewer, I would probably spend about the same as I do now…which is the whole reason I started writing reviews in the first place. I figured that if I was going to buy these items anyway, I might as well write about them. My hope is that if I find a product I love, it will encourage someone who is on the fence to make the plunge. But if I find flaws with a product and report on them, it might save another consumer the trouble and frustration.

MX: Well, I'm sure you've saved me some trouble, frustration, and money over the years! Thank you, Judie!

If you enjoyed Judie's comments, check out Gear Diary to learn more and read her latest reviews... but watch out! You might be tempted to buy some new toys!


Anonymous said...

nice interview. nice bag too.

Anonymous said...

Just thought I'd leave a message and say .. "I loved the interview!"

Keep up the good work :)

Anonymous said...

Nice interview. The $5500 bag did surprise me a bit but in general, I try not to judge people on what they spend - if you can afford it and you want it, well, why not? Having said that, I don't think I would have "let" my husband spend that kind of money on a bag, even though we can technically afford it, and he would also certainly have tried to talk me out of such a purchase - we have joint finances and we make any big $ purchase decisions jointly.