I accepted some time ago that few people – including the people I know who are as interested in men’s style as I am – take the time to polish their shoes. Which is a shame because much of the value in good leather shoes is tied into how well you take care of them. The richness and depth of the leather, and the patina that builds over time, are all really brought out with routine polishing. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that a well-taken pair of mid-quality, full-grain leather shoes will always look better than a neglected pair made by some world-class cordwainer.
If you’re not going to polish your shoes, however, then I encourage you to at least take one step: every once in a while, when your shoes start to look a little dry, apply a coat of leather conditioner. Routine application will do more for the health and appearance of your shoes than anything else. It will help bring out the suppleness and richness in the leather, give the color some depth, and most importantly, prevent your uppers from drying out and cracking.
Many shoe enthusiasts prefer to condition their shoes with Saphir Renovateur. Indeed, it’s pretty nice stuff, but also a bit expensive. You’d be perfectly fine, in my opinion, with many of the cheaper options on the market. I prefer Allen Edmonds’ Conditioner and Cleaner, though Lexol is also pretty good (they have it broken up into separate conditioner and cleaner bottles). I’ve used all three brands, and they all perform well. The real advantage of Saphir, from what I can tell, is that it smells a bit nicer and comes in a prettier container. Not a totally trivial thing, since it’s nice to make the activity as enjoyable as possible, but if you can’t afford it, don’t sweat it. The most important thing is that you put some conditioner on once every month or two, even if you can’t be bothered to polish.