Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Decision Making

Part of being frugal is using your money wisely and getting a good value for your money - regardless of the size of the purchase. Purchases can range from small to big in cost, whether you are buying something for a few bucks or a few thousand bucks, it is still important to use your money wisely. By getting the best value, I might spend more than I have to in the short term, but in the end I am getting something that works for me. Some people probably feel that frugal is synonymous with cheap, but I totally disagree. The way I see it, by being frugal and getting good deals on things, it frees up money that I can save or use for other things that I need or want.

Currently, one of those things that we want is a new play system for the kids. When my son wasn't quite a year, we got a Little Tikes Swing and Slide play set for the backyard as a gift. It has been wonderful for them. I can remember the first few months of my son playing on it, where I would practically stand guard at the edge of the "tall" platform out of concern that with his balance he might fall off. I had the same worries when my daughter was a toddler.

My husband and I had talked about when we thought they would outgrow the Little Tikes set and whether we would replace it and with what. We had thought that we would get one more year out of it for my daughter, but as she was sliding down the slide a few weeks ago, she showed me how when she sat at the top of the slide, her feet were at the bottom. Now, it was the smaller of the two slides, but either way, it was clear that she was starting to outgrow the set and my son already had.

I started looking into play sets. There are about 3 or 4 different lots that sell a variety of brands, styles and levels of play sets just a few miles from home. In addition, there are the sets available through the toy store and the hardware stores. With all of these options and such a range of prices, how do you find the best value?

Since I'm certain we are not the only ones that have faced this question (or really any, since this steps are pretty standard for most decisions), I thought I would share our approach in hopes that it would help someone else. I must say that I am a thorough person and that I don't make decisions without looking into things.

1. Identify what you need and want.

We knew that whatever option that we selected, it was going to be an investment for the family. As such, it was important to us to know that we would get years of use out of the play set. It needed to be something that they could play with now, but wouldn't lose interest in any time soon. We also needed to know that they could continue to play on it as they got bigger. We wanted a set that had both swings and slides. One slide would work, but two would be better.

2. Explore your options.

We started by exploring some websites for different brands of play sets. Then, we decided it would be best to visit each of the lots with play systems to get a better perspective. When we went to the lots, we allowed the kids to run and play, while we explored the sets and learned more about the features and getting feedback from the employees on the benefits and features of each play set. Allowing them to play, helped us see what features they were attracted to and played on over and over again. We asked a lot of questions. We explored questions around how to maintain the sets (staining, etc), weathering, how many kids (and of what size) could play on it at a time, what the warranties are, and more. We wanted to make sure that we were armed with the information that would help us make the decision that was right for us. To make sure our information was complete, we also looked at the sets offered through the toy store, warehouse club and hardware store.

3. Evaluate your options.

We evaluated two aspects for the play sets - the cost and the perceived value. The cost was pretty straightforward. We had price list information from most locations and even had the option of requesting quotes online for some of the systems that we were considering. To help us with the value piece, we wanted to learn more about others experiences and quality over time. We know a lot of people that have play sets. We talked to our friends, learning what brand or where they purchased their play set and finding out what they liked about their play set. We tried to do some exploration online of some of the major brands to get even more opinions. We were a little disappointed in that most of what we were finding in terms of reviews were all located on the manufacturer sites.

4. Determine which option is the best for you.

Because there was such a range of products (and a correlating range of cost), we compared on the simple play set that consisted of one tower with a slide and a swing set. This way, we knew from a starting point, which system was the best value. Anything we added, if we chose a modular system, would be an added cost, but it would have been unfair to compare sets of different sizes. Ultimately, the set that we decided on was an Ultra Built Play System. The cost was a premium to many sets, but so was the system from our perspective. We liked the modularity of the system, we could not only choose the components that worked for us, but we could also decide to add to the play system in the future or change out components. We liked that the swing beam had three swings and can support 1000#. That means that my husband and I could swing with one of the kids now and that long-term, the kids wouldn't get too big to swing and play on this play system. We liked that the product is designed and built in the USA. We liked that the lumber was pressure treated and "exceeds industry standards with environmentally friendly, non-toxic lumber, triple strength construction, glass smooth finishes and rounded corners."

Once we made our decision, we went back to the lot to make our purchase. We were still not 100% certain on exactly which system we would order. We knew we had some ideas of what we wanted but were concerned about the total cost. To help make some of our decisions, I climbed onto the Play System to check it out to see what it would be like for the kids as they got taller. We thought that we had wanted the tube slide, but after I went down the slide, we decided that it was a tight fit for me and that as the kids got taller it would be a tight fit for them and as a result, probably something that they might not use as often as they got older. We talked through it and decided that we would go for the second tower now, rather than plan to come back the next year. We watched the kids climb on the rock climber and rock wall. My daughter struggled with the rock wall (she is only 3), but we noticed that with the rock climber that she didn't use the "rocks" to climb, but rather used the slats in between as a ladder. That wasn't what we were looking for. We learned that there are multiple ways to lay out the panels of the rock wall to make it easier or harder to navigate, giving us the option to adjust it as the kid get older. We decided that adding a deck to the lowest level would be a help in maintaining the yard around the system and would give the kids an additional play surface.

After some playing and exploration, we went inside and priced out the system. The system that we first priced out was beyond what we were comfortable spending, so we started stepping back through some of the features to get to a unit that had a price that we were comfortable with.

Once we made the purchase decision, we decided it was time to get rid of the Little Tikes Play set. We weren't sure whether there would be a market for a 6 year old, sun-faded play set, so we listed it on Craigslist early in hopes that it would sell before the new play set came in. I must say, we were surprised at not only how quickly the responses started coming in, but how many we got. We even got replies offering more than we listed it for in hopes that they could jump ahead of the pack. We went with the first offer and it made me feel good to allow someone else to get enjoyment out of the play set that had served us so well.

Our new play system is coming this weekend and the kids are excited. My daughter keeps asking when it will be Sunday, in anticipation of the arrival of the new play system.

This post shared at Works for Me Wednesday and Frugal Friday.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this blog. We have three children (ages 7, 4 and 2) and have been going through this same process now that we have a yard big enough. It was interesting to read that you went through the same tedious analysis. We have also decided on an Ultrabuilt Play system for the same reasons you mentioned. Modularity, flexibility and quality. I would be interested in seeing pictures of your final product.