December 17, 2006
While plunking down a bunch of dough at Design Within Reach for a new dining table, I was disproportionately pleased to realize that I’m over being cheap. Or rather, I’m over what bothered me about being cheap.
Don’t get me wrong, I still hate waste and smugly enjoy the occasional display of thrift — for instance, I got some expensive scented soap as a party favor last year (in fact I more or less beat up a fellow guest and took her soap too) and I’m still using it with glee. And recently I’ve begun to nag people, especially younger women, about the advantages of investing in index funds rather than designer clothes (remember what Madonna said, girls: earrings don’t make you pretty… money makes you pretty).
But being a tightwad isn’t all fun and games. What I deplored in myself was a tendency to spend way more time than it was worth to “save” irrationally trivial sums of cash; and also the inability to enjoy the finer things in life due to my attitudes about money. There was a period in my life where I genuinely needed to engage in ferocious internal debate about whether I could afford to buy a bottle of drugstore makeup or a pair of sneakers — and let this be a lesson to anyone considering a PhD program in the humanities! — but I didn’t want to hold on to old habits from that unhappy time.
The funny thing is that frugality is actually less irrational than ever before. 20 years ago, inexpensive stuff was just shoddy and a rip-off and not even that cheap when you factored in the frequency of replacement. The difference in quality between what you could get at the low-end discount store and the high-end boutique was vast: the kitchen equipment we got as wedding gifts from Williams-Sonoma is all still working great (modulo reasonable care and maintenance), while the stuff we bought for ourselves from Woolworth’s (and on the South Side of Chicago at that time, there was nowhere to shop BUT Woolworth’s) had to be replaced within mere months. Companies like Land’s End, which offered T-shirts that might actually last a few years rather than a few washes, were a revelation at the time. But due to worldwide economic development and trade, it seems like the goods offered at discount stores like Target or Costco are now pretty much the functional equals of those at the specialty retailers like Williams-Sonoma or Marshall Field’s. And due to innovations in distribution, like Ebay and outlet malls, high-quality goods are cheaper than ever before.
But now that American mass-market consumer culture is a material paradise unlike any ever seen in the history of the earth… the fascinating thing is how relentlessly people’s tastes continue to march up-market. Remember when I bought that Coach purse last winter? Until that point, I wouldn’t have recognized a Coach purse if I’d been hit on the head with one; but after minutely perusing a whole shop full of the damn things, I became au courant with all the designs. And what I realized after my purchase is that literally every other woman I saw at Chevy’s or the grocery store or the movie theater had one! And most of them were significantly more expensive than the one I bought. And the owners weren’t Silicon Valley trophy wife (or trophy “niece”) types — whom I’m told carry purses worth thousands of dollars! — but ordinary-looking moms and office workers.
When did mass-luxury take over the world? I have that Rip van Winkle feeling… as a consumer I more or less went to sleep 15 years ago, and have awoken to realize that society has changed. So it could be that while I was working on becoming less cheap, standards for conspicuous consumption were skyrocketing… so despite my new dining table, I might be relatively cheaper than ever.