Friday, February 22, 2008

Consumerism vs Frugality

I'm frugal, and I also regularly thrift shop. However, if I was able to afford $500 jeans, I would buy them. No hesitation. I’m a great fan of fashion and good clothing, and while I wouldn’t stop thrift shopping, I would definitely buy more high-end clothing if I had the disposable income to do so.

Last night, I read Being Frugal's post on What Are You Paying For?, and it riled me up. While I generally like and enjoy and agree with much of what she writes, well...this time, I'm on the other side of the fence and I have to respectfully disagree.

One thing I've noticed is that when people become uber-frugal, is that their scope of interpreting how other people spend money can often become highly critical towards people with more money. "Oh, I could live for a year on the cost of that socialite's dress!" Very true. If someone likes to spend the financial equivalent of the GDP of a small third-world country on clothing or other “status” items, that’s their choice. Whether it’s healthy or not, if someone is obsessed with the current fads and has the money to do so, why is it bad if they are pursuing what is obviously important to them? (Yes, I agree that if someone can’t afford their purchases and are making them to “keep up” with others is a negative thing.) If someone wants to engage in the game of consumerism one-upmanship, and they can afford it, let them. Pursuing fads clearly isn’t as important in the grand scheme of things as finding a cure for AIDS, or fighting global warming, but just because it doesn’t have the same weight as “acceptable uses of money according to frugal spenders” doesn’t make it bad. Sure, excessive consumerism isn’t great on any number of levels (hello…environmental concerns), it still doesn’t mean that that consumer is a bad person. Too, if someone finds happiness in having bought a $10k pair of jeans, why should they feel guilty about that?

I disagree with the assertion that spending an “excessive” amount of money on purchases is always linked to trying to buy status, and I think it’s a dangerous assertion. This behavior does occur, to be sure, but does my desire for the expensive Louis Vuitton skirt I saw a few months ago mean that I wanted that skirt solely for its status as an LV skirt? Emphatically not. I just loved the color, material and design of the skirt. That it was an LV skirt actually meant nothing to me. Honestly, I love reading fashion magazines, and some of the most beautiful clothing I’ve seen is all quite expensive. If I could afford items like the LV skirt, I would buy them – not out of seeking out a status symbol, but as a way to make myself happy by surrounding myself with things I enjoy and find beautiful. If these purchases raise my self-esteem (because I'm proud of my ability to buy something I really enjoy and want), that doesn't automatically equate with my self-esteem naturally being low and only being raised because of the money spent, or that I have a psychological void I'm trying to fill by shopping.

A few years ago, I spent what could’ve been used as a down payment on a condo as money to “retire” for a year and spend 9+ months travelling. Is someone [living a more traditional life] going to criticize me for not buying property and doing [what they may call] the “smart thing with my money”? I made a personal dream happen, and I’m very proud of that – it was one of the smartest and best things I’ve ever done. Yes, I’m now basically starting from scratch to save for property, and yes property is more expensive now. So what? I spent that money (and it was a lot) based on what would make me happy – not my neighbors, not my friends, not someone in Kansas or someone in Mongolia. Different people tried in different ways to talk me out of that decision. I can imagine an aggressively frugal person cringing at my choice. I recognize that my priorities are mine alone and perhaps not shared by a great percentage of the population. I also recognize that given the same choice of mini-retirement or home ownership, many people would not make the same choice I did. I’ve chosen to live my life in a way different from many people I’ve works for me and I’m happy with my choices.

I don't think living a frugal life means being anti-luxury. If the perfect pair of jeans can be found for $50, great. Does that mean, though, that the person who finds the perfect pair of jeans for $250 shouldn't have them because they can find an acceptable [yet less perfect] $50 alternative? I would disagree. Especially with clothes, wearing good clothes and clothes you take pride in is significant on a variety of levels. Just because something of good quality exists at a lower price doesn't mean someone is making a terrible mistake by buying the more expensive item.

My point isn't that everyone should be jumping for joy with another person buying $10k jeans. Odds are that person buying the $10k jeans has the money to make that purchase, so if that's how they want to spend their money, big deal. If someone wants to flaunt their wealth by dressing a certain way, let them. I don't have to like what someone else does, but I respect the [legal] choices someone else makes in how they want to live their life.

Part of my point is that just because someone spends an “excessive” amount of money on something doesn’t mean they are doing so for the “status” that purchase may give them. Was the LV skirt emblazoned with the LV logo? No – someone would have had to recognize the skirt as LV or look at the inside tag to know that. If someone is happy and takes pride in "keeping up with the Joneses" and can afford that, then let them. You don't have to approve of someone else's lifestyle. So often, people I've talked to who criticize such decisions in others have a certain amount of jealousy of the resources the other person has (“Yeesh. If I had that kind of money, I wouldn’t spend it that way!”), though I'm not always sure they recognize that. Yes, I envy the women who bought the LV skirt I coveted, yet I don't resent or think ill those people.

All that said, I think people just need to live their life as they want to, and let others do the same. If someone wants to live a frugal life, regardless of their income, that’s what they should do. We all don’t have to like or advocate the choices of another, but we should accept and respect the different beliefs and desires of others. It’s more important to spend time and energy pursuing what is important to each of us individually, than it is to criticize what is important to others. Those with the discretionary income and desire for extravagance should not be condemned for their extravagances.


lynnae @ being said...

Thanks for the rebuttal. :) You've given me a lot to think about. Though I doubt we'll ever agree about a person spending $10,000 on a pair of jeans, I can definitely see where spending a bit more for clothes of high quality is worthwhile.

And I honestly put spending 10K on a pair of jeans and taking 9 months to travel in way different categories. 9 months of travel probably gave you experiences and new perspectives on life that you never would have had otherwise. In a way, traveling is very educational.

Again, thanks for writing this post. I love hearing different perspectives!

Shana said...

Hi Lynnae,
I agree that $10k for a pair of jeans is rather extreme, and there are certainly better uses for the money. Yet, if someone has $50mn in the's probably like $50 to the rest of us. :)

And yes, nine months of travel gave me perspectives on life (including my own) that I never realized I was missing or realized that I even gained until they were pointed out to me by someone by a close friend. Travelling internationally is highly educational and I recommend it to all. :)

alice said...

See, I disagree for very different reasons that Lynnae - to me, the part of spending 10K on a pair of jeans that rankles is the waste. Globally, using resources for things like that as opposed to figuring out better ways to contain pollution/get food to folks who are hungry/insert other tree-hugger thing here is troubling for me, because it seems to be *such* an indulgence relative to what we need to be happy.

I'm not an ascetic, and I try not to judge individuals because I don't want to get all holier-than-thou about this stuff. Plus, I know that there are many people who would look at my lifestyle and cry 'indulgent!' - I've got a car, take planes, etc..

However, the phenomenon of people spending large wads of cash on items that go beyond necessities and beyond 'reasonable' indulgences is something that conflicts with my values. The resources (money, time, etc.) that go into that consumption and the way that society often celebrates and encourages that consumption necessitate less effort going to things I see as worthwhile. That's not the focus I want my society to have, so I try to advocate for less of it.

Now - what's 'worthwhile' and what are 'reasonable indulgences' or even 'necessities'? That's a pile of worms I won't touch even in this long comment! And thanks for getting me thinking about this in more specific terms than I often do.

Rick Francis said...

Better quality does have greater value, but at some point it becomes ridiculous...
For $10K, I am sure that you could buy the best quality materials and hire a tailor to custom make a few pairs of jeans of the highest quality. The ONLY thing you wouldn't be getting is the designer label. So, it's really back to just what are you buying?

Fabulously Broke said...

I suppose for me, it'd be all about priorities and the type of good I'm buying.

I partially agree with the both of you...

For e.g. I'd want to buy a pair of $250 jeans if that's the ONLY pair I wear for a good 5-6 years (cost per wear) instead of buying many $25 jeans for 5-6 years which add up to the same amount.

And if the $250 jeans make me happy each time I put it on because it makes my butt look curvy.. then all the better!

But $10k on jeans is a bit mind boggling... Anything over $250 has to be really thought about and considered esp if it's going towards a piece of clothing for example.... but $10k is way too much for me. $500 may be my max, and that's for a full out winter jacket!!

Anyway, it's all dependent on your perspective