Some thoughts on “upgrading”

“Hi,” began the message on my voicemail: “I’m calling to talk about your car.”

Apparently, the nice woman from the dealership told me, my 2012 vehicle is in high demand by used car buyers, especially so because the model is no longer in production. She invited me to bring it in for an appraisal, to see what it would be worth in a trade-in — “just in case you’re thinking of upgrading.”

If it ain’t broke…

My computer — the one on which I’m writing this essay — is older than my car. It’s showing its age: it’s a bit slow at times, the battery doesn’t last, and the fan is loud. For a laptop, it’s heavy. The “f5” key is a bit wonky.

There are days when I think about “upgrading” my car, or computer. I rent a car when travelling, and get misty-eyed about things like Bluetooth connections, rear-view cameras, and (sigh) heated seats. Warm, warm, heated seats. I imagine how great it would be to casually pop my featherlight, streamlined computer into my bag and walk to a coffee shop to work, knowing I didn’t have to bring a charging cord because the battery lasts hours.

But here’s the thing: my car is great. It has fewer than 100,000 km after six years. It runs well — partly because I am obsessive about maintaining it. It’s good on gas. It has no rust. And, aside from that dent I put in it by backing into a tree that one time, the body is in near perfect shape. Sure, it’s a base model — the speakers leave something to be desired, the seats are cold. And yes, it’s suffered the indignities of two children. But it reliably gets me from point A to B, without me having to pray.

Ditto my computer. Yeah, it takes a while to warm up, and every so often it glitches. But, every day, it helps me crank out words and stories like this one. It’s set up exactly the way I want it. I never work at coffee shops, anyway — too distracting. And, when it finally does bite the dust, all my files are doubly backed up so I can easily access them on the replacement computer. (Which will weigh nothing and be superfast, right?)

And then there’s my basement. Frigid in the winter because the insulation, where it exists, is subpar. My hot water tank and boiler are pushing 20 years old. Some of the hot water pipes are flush against the concrete outside walls — it’s really fun to stand there with a blow dryer for hours when they freeze in the winter. The windows are leaky, likely because they’re nearly 70 years old. And then there are the floor tiles, made of — wait for it — pressed asbestos.

My car and my computer don’t need upgrading. Sure, it would be fun to drive around in something new and shiny, voice-commanding the stereo to play my favourite tunes, and parallel parking with the help of a camera. Sure, it would be fun not to need a wheeled suitcase to lug my laptop around.

don’t fix it?

But the cost of upgrading these things, financially and otherwise, simply isn’t worth it. The fun of something new isn’t really offset by the extra $500 a month in loans I’d have to pay to “upgrade” (did I mention that my current car is paid off?). And it isn’t worth the cash outlay for a new computer, and software, and set-up fees.

And then there are the environmental costs: another working computer shunted to the side in favour of one shiny and new, or worse, dumped into the landfill; yet another car manufactured and sold when no one really needed it.

On the other hand, my basement? Upgrade worthy. New windows and proper insulation will keep it — and the rest of the house — warmer in winter (and cooler in summer), and use way less energy. A new furnace/boiler (which also acts as — be still my heart — a tankless hot water heater) will be 30–40% more efficient, which means using and paying for less energy. By upgrading, I make the space more livable and beautiful, all while lowering my carbon footprint. Sure, I’ll have to invest some cash and energy into the project, but it’ll be worth it long term. (And the various environmental rebates offered by federaland provincial governments will help offset those costs anyway.) As for the asbestos, well, duh. (At least the tiles are easy to safely remove.)

So, there’s “upgrading,” and there’s upgrading. There’s replacing entirely decent and functional stuff with slightly different, new and shiny things. And there’s replacing inefficient, low-functioning items with options that improve our lives, and the world.

And sometimes, it’s hard to see the difference. It’s easy to get so distracted by shiny new things that we forget their costs. My goal is to try to stay clear-eyed in the face of shiny things and commit to improvements that make a real difference. (Pro tip: if an airline ever offers you a free upgrade to business class, say yes.)

So, for now, I’m going forward with the renovations, and I am chugging along in my reliable car, working on my acceptable computer, until they truly need to be replaced.

And when I finally get them, those heated seats will be sweet.


SUSAN GOLDBERG is a regular contributor to the Whole Family Happiness Project, where she is thrilled to be able to eco-geek out on composting, reducing plastics, and other low-carbon life hacks. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines,and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can often be seen picking up cans to recycle on her neighbourhood walks.

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The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.

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