Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Dirty little secrets about money: Frivolous versus conscious spending

I am a reformed (reforming?) hedonist.

Once upon a time, I was very, very frivolous (read: irresponsible) with money.

Other peers settled down. Saved up for houses in the suburbs. Started retirement savings plans. Bought a home. Learned how to sweep gutters and change air filters. Grew up. Became responsible. We partied on. We shopped on. We frivolity-ed on.

Look up hedonism in wikipedia and find my youthful face staring at you, careful high and low lights in my trendy-cut hair, skin glowing from the most recent facial, nails and hands good enough for an ad, and shirt fashionable and flattering (best rec by the Nordstrom's personal shopper) (also free of any spitup or food stains).

But...

I frequently bought knock-offs, clearance rack items, shopped outlets and otherwise tried to stretch my dollar as far as it would go. That I shouldn't have been spending that dollar at all didn't occur to me...and that was my trouble, as well as being caught in the "I want it and it's a great deal" trap.

Spend, spend, spend. Party, have fun, want it, get it. We spoiled ourselves rotten.

SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEECCCHHHHHHHHHHHHH

One day we realized we couldn't keep up that lifestyle much longer. We felt ready to settle down, and grow up.

That's when we finally understood that life, and finances, don't manage themselves very well.

So we reformed our evil ways. We studied finance, met with an advisor, and Glory Be, Praise Economics, we were saved.

Not in a flash, it is an ongoing effort.

As part of that ongoing effort to be able to afford to live as we believe we need to (which doesn't account for how we want to---a goal we keep ahead of us like a rabbit before a dog at the racetrack) I will click and read practically anything that promises to help me find a way to live fiscally responsibly or that guarantees ways to squeeze a dollar from a penny.

(That, by the way, is a real news story. Just google "value of copper pennies" and start reading. For example, see this news story, "US Mint has made it illegal to melt or export US coins in bulk, since the value of their constituent metals — in the case of pennies and nickels — now exceeds their face value.")

Most recently, I discovered a blog called I Will Teach You to Be Rich.

Money is on my mind every single day. I've read good and bad, and you never know what nuggets you might find (like the penny thing--don't think I'm not looking for scrap metal companies).

I read Rich Dad, Poor Dad (yeah, didn't work and did someone say Amway?). I read Dave Ramsey. I listen to the money show on the radio, and have used Clark Howard's Web site to successfully solve woes. I've begun searching MySpace for fiscally conservative accountants to add to my friends' list much as my friends and I once searched bars for hot boys.

I've even read Milton and Rose Freeman. I know, shoot me now.

It's brainwashing. Somehow I got the impression that only really conservative people can be smart about money. I'm working to correct that erroneous stereotype, and believe it or not, a Stanford-educated 20-something with more money that I've earned three years running and friends who spend over 20K to Go Out and over 5K on shoes annually had a helpful nugget towards that.

When I followed the link, I found a post about Conscious spending: How my friend spends $21,000/year on going out.

The author, Ramit Sethi, wrote about the wiggle room between frivolous spending and fiscal responsibility. If you earn enough, you have enough with which to be frivolous after you do all the responsible things you should do with your money. And it seems the people he knows earn plenty, all well over six figures. (Must be nice.)

The topic came to him when a friend hesitated to tell him about a trip he wanted to take. Ramit realized that his self-titled nickname of personal finance guy had earned him the rep of "the guy who tells me I can't do stuff because it costs too much money."

He says:

Nothing could be further from the truth. Now, I will call your ass out when you're being stupid about money. But I'm not the finger-wagging parent who tells you not to spend money on lattes. Instead of taking a simplistic "don't spend money on expensive things!!!" view, I believe there's a nuanced approach to spending. Today, I'm going to tell you about 3 friends who are spending lots and lots of money on things you might consider frivolous--like shoes and going out--but I'm going to tell you exactly why I think they're perfectly justified.


Sethi then brings up the idea of frugality (my daily mantra) and says:

I think you can have lots of fun debating the minutiae about which grain of rice is cheaper, but it doesn't really get you much further towards your goals. . .frugality alone doesn't get you to your goals. It's a helpful but not sufficient condition. So I take another approach of trying to write about money holistically, while urging you to make your own decisions about what's important enough to spend a lot on, and what's not.


As with most advisors, his point seems to be that "going cheap" isn't the sole answer to being wise with money. In fact, most advisors say that if you get too focused on "buying cheap-on sale-or off-season" you might blow your budget, or discover you have trouble making one.

The key is to have a budget that figures out what you need. You first and foremost allocate money that direction, and then decide what to do with the rest. The point is to have a plan, and stick to it.

Sethi's free-spending friends are allowed to be "frivolous" on their favorite habits because that is left over money. They planned that frivolous money; they aren't stealing it from elsewhere in their budget (or worse, spending with no plan), instead that money has its own line item in the financial spreadsheet. He smartly advocates for this idea.

In fact, Sethi put out a call to name 2007 the year of Conscious Spending:

That's why 2007 is the year of conscious spending, in which I want you to consciously decide what you're going to spend on. . . Conscious spending means you decide exactly where you're going to spend your money--for going out, for saving, for investing, for rent--and you free yourself from feeling guilty about your spending. Along with making you feel comfortable with your spending, a plan lets you continue growing towards your goals instead of just treading water.


That's a truly solid principle. In fact, it's pretty much the secret of success to any sort of budget endeavor or really, any endeavor at all. For example, members of Weight Watchers...isn't this also the secret to diet success?

I wish Sethi had been around when I was back in my salad days. I might have listened. I hope I would have. His idea isn't new but the medium and the presentation have, I think, an increased chance of reaching and succeeding with people who need good financial advice.

As interesting as the blog post was, the comments were even more interesting.

Do you remember earlier when I wrote that I was once very frivolous (read: irresponsible) with money?

I think those two concepts are intermarried in our minds. Reader comments support this. The idea of "fiscal responsibility" which really means "good personal financial decisions to best support YOU" morphed into the concept of "societal responsibility" which really means what I think of as The Robin Hood Principle:

"To those who receive much, much is expected."

Say you allocate 5% of personal income to charitable sources. Say you then have a fair amount of remaining disposable income. Say you then decide to allocate a budget of $5000 annually to Manolo Blahnik shoes. You love shoes, you love these shoes, and it's your fun weekend blow off steam hobby.

Have you then crossed over from fiscally responsible with a justifiable frivolous habit to socially irresponsible?

Should you allocate a greater percentage to charity?

A number of readers thought so. (I've italicized the points they make that I think are worth pondering.)

Joe wrote:

The judgment comes from the fact that they're spending so mcu and so *selfishly*. $21,000 a year on parties?? $5,000 a year on shoes?! Gimme a fucking break. Why not give a little to the local homeless shelter instead? And to fight malaria in Africa, and feed starving children in India? And if you're already giving to those causes, give some more, or find something else worthwhile to do with your money. As it is you're just frittering it away on shallow hedonism. . .Look, we're human, and not everyone is going to live like a monk or nun, so most people will treat themselves to needless frivolties on occassion. Or the $3 morning latte, or whatever. But this can easily reach a point where the spending becomes obscene, and your friends have long since crossed that threshold. People are bothered by this for the same reason they were bothered by Kozlowski's $6,000 shower curtain. I'm not concerned for their bank accounts; I'm concerned for their souls.


I admit it; I'm troubled by those Sweet 16 birthday parties and $500,000 Bridezilla weddings.

Tom wrote:
I think the reason why these purchases / costs outrage people is really more that most people consider this kind of spending wasteful. It isn't really about how much money it is or what percentage of income it is. There are all kinds of emotions attached to money, and to many people it's just out and out wrong to spend money in this way. It doesn't matter if you're lighting cigarettes with $100 bills or buying $300 shoes - many people consider that morally wrong.


The reason why those parties and weddings trouble me---despite plenty of people telling me "Hey if they've got it, who cares how they spend it?"---is because it does seem somehow morally wrong to me. Probably because I can't fathom having that much money, but more probably because even if I did have that much, I'm sure I'd find a way to do something that I thought looked just as nice for half the price. Then I shake off Old Mentality and remind myself, "Hey, girlfriend, you know? Even as a huge bargain, is that really necessary? What value does it add to life? Is it a choice worth making, regardless of whether it crimps your financial goal?"

Further, I recently watched a sort of "modern lifestyles of the rich and almost-famous but rub noses with the famous."

One featured man (boy?) displayed his collection of cars. He had imported this and limited edition that, all told about 8 cars, almost all of which were valued in excess of $300,000 each.

Excess indeed.

Seeing that amount of money on the screen was like a punch to the gut.

A quick mental calculation revealed that, if I had that $330,000, I could: pay off my mortgage (my only debt), remodel my house a la my dreams, beef up retirement savings significantly, and pad the kids' college funds.

We'd go from struggling and working hard to live on the very edge (but within our means) to very comfortable.

I hardly think I'm entitled to anything. This isn't my point. It was simply very emotional for me to realize that one of this guy's eight cars would sustain my family for years and years and years.

And I'm the least of the needy, in many ways.

As reader Susan wrote:
How does someone who makes six figures justify drinking $12/glass drinks to the tune of a person's entire salary for a year while there are people in this country who can't afford to feed their children? It doesn't matter if they're already giving to charity. If they've got enough left over for this, I guarantee they aren't giving enough. I'll say it again: Whole families in this country are living on the amount that person spends on entertainment every year. Families. Not individuals. And not just in areas where the cost of living is low.


Another reader politely told Susan to stuff it. This reader said he worked hard to earn his money, he gave what he felt was a morally correct amount and felt he deserved to spend the rest enjoyably, on himself.

I found myself (to some degree) agreeing with both the points and the counterpoints.

Both financial and physical healthy habit lessons have taught me that an austere existence---one full of denial and little indulgence or luxury---is a fast track to over-indulgence. In fact, last week my Weight Watchers leader told us to plan an indulgence. Yesterday I went all out. I had three donut holes and a margarita (not together, for the record, at opposite ends of the day). I think we need to build this sort of thing into all of our healthy plans, be they financial or health oriented. Frivolous is important.

We should enjoy what we can. That might mean a $12 drink here and a nice $200 blazer there.

I think my visceral reaction came when it wasn’t a little indulgence here or there, but rather a regular, expensive habit that was perhaps more indicative of a materialistic priority than a healthy enjoying of a planned affordable luxury.

As reader Jonathan wrote:
1. If your finances are in order and you have money to spend on 'silly' things you enjoy, that's not really a bad thing.

2. However, even if I was a billionaire, I would not buy $1,000 shoes and all that other nonsense. I don't enjoy having useless material possessions.


Despite my past, these days, I'm just not that into keeping up with the Joneses in that way. For one, I can't afford it.

But more importantly, I'm just not that into making sure people know how cool I am by what I wear or where I live or the things I do and clubs I belong to. I'm not sure how or when that got to be important to me, but it did. I'm also not sure how or when it struck me that it could no longer be important to me, but it did.

For me, it becomes a matter of finite time and resources (physical, mental and emotional) but more so, a matter of priorities and motivation.

Where do your thoughts fall on the moral imperative to share the wealth?

What about the line of "enough," "comfortable," and "more than is necessary?"

What do you think about this concept of okay frivolous spending?

What's your stance on finance?


P.S. A little funny? My most innocuous frugal tip is this: the more time I spend reading about financial responsibility, the less time I have to go out and spend. Plus, the Internet is free. If your spouse criticizes you for amount of time surfing blogs and other sites, simply remind him/her that, "Hey, I could be spending $21,000 annually on Going Out, instead." My husband was just thrilled.


copyright 2007 Julie Pippert

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14 comments:

Brent said...

Dollface, I'm big-time proud of you for starting to be more responsible with the dough. Deep-sixing debt is one of the keys to building wealth, so the sooner you do that, the better. Good luck, baby! www.debtective.com

Mary-LUE said...

Conscious Spending. Good idea. I have dubbed this year for me as The Year of Restraint and that includes diet, exercise and finances. Growing up with next to nothing, I have had a hard time denying myself some things. I'm so unstructured that I keep assuming the world will be as flexible as I am about money. Um... no such luck.

Now, we have way more debt than I am comfortable with but it was all our own doing. So, off we go, in to 2007. We are working hard to spend moderately, pay larger amounts toward debt and eat at home more. It is difficult sometimes but I know it will be such a relief when the debt is gone. Plus, we will be freed up to give more money away which is one of the reasons why the debt bothers me.

I think I would be like most of the commenters you mention. I don't want to have a judging attitude but when is enough good enough?

Thailand Gal said...

Mindful spending. Socially responsible spending.

I try anyway.

A lot of options were removed when I became disabled but I still try to spend my money wisely. Without a lot of disposable income, I have to choose carefully where and on what I spend my money.

It's a balancing act, like everything else. Saving is good but so is spending. I don't believe that living exclusively in the future is any better than living exclusively in the moment.


Peace,

~Chani

jen said...

oh julie.

i have so many thoughts on this. i think the cycle of production and consumption and filling to feel full and never being full and the root of it all - the me-ness in all of it. i want. i want. i want.

we need so much less. our footprints should be so much smaller. i am working on that for our family right now, and if i am successful, i will let you know about it very soon.

beautifully and consciously written.

bubandpie said...

What determines the level at which spending becomes excessive? From a global standpoint, all of us are overspending, whether we're living frugally or not - simply by virtue of being part of North American society, we are overspending.

I think that visceral reaction of labelling something as excess comes from the feeling that "I would find it very easy to survive without that particular item." The occasional latte? Hard to give up. The occasional $300,000 car? No biggie.

In many ways, though, what feels hard or easy to give up is dependent upon our standard of comparison. What feels "normal" and what feels like privation? You don't have to be status-driven or keeping-up-with-the-Joneses to look at yourself and say, "I'm 30 years old. I should be able to buy a home by now instead of renting."

But if your entire social context is defined by wealth, it might feel very difficult to say, "Thanks guys, but I can't go with you to Vale this weekend - I've decided to give that money to World Vision." No matter how luxurious and frivolous that expensive ski-trip might seem to an "ordinary" person, to that person, it might end up being a pretty lonely weekend.

I agree with the person (Susan?) who wrote that these big-spenders aren't giving enough to charity. But chances are, neither are we.

Julie Pippert said...

Mary-Lue, in the past I had such a weird "control freak here" with "fly by the seat of my pants there" thing it was odd. Finance was the latter. Unfortunately. I've had to try a lot of different things to find something that will work for me as a budget. The biggest key for me is the relief of living debt-free and within my means.

Chani, one of the commenters (jfpbookworm) made a similar point as you. It can sometimes be frustrating to have to balance so much, and to choose, but in the end, you are absolutely right.

Jen, I totally hear you. We have made such a major lifestyle change in so many ways in the last two years. Our goals have really altered. We're making so many different choices to fulfill our new goals and honestly. It doesn't feel like losing or denial...it feels better.

B&P and all, the big question does land on "who and what defines the boundary between 'acceptably frivolous' and 'excessive?'"

It is a judgment.

My very humble opinion is this:

In the end, it has to be up to you.

But I think there can be an acceptable general judgment and moral agreement.

I think for me that line is "perfectly good quality that I like" and "buying for prestige."

If I were to become a millionaire tomorrow, I'd certainly buy some things that have been nos and make some new decisions, but I wouldn't change dramatically. (I think.)

I'd like a new bed for Patience for example. Rather than not buying one at all because her current hand-me-down bed is perfectly fine and will last her all the way to moving out of her own probably...I'd buy her that "Princess bed" she dreams of. Frivolous. But fun. I'd be more likely, though, to get one that costs anywhere from $200 to $1500 because those are "good enough" than to get one of the $4000 to $6000 custom ones.

I'm having a hard time working up sympathy for someone feeling a little lonely b/c they donated to a cause rather than went to Vail for the weekend, especially if it is a regular event rather than a once-in-a-lifetime.

I think that's because to me, if your entire social context is defined by wealth, then it doesn't end up actually being a rich existence. Just a hedonistic one.

Julie Pippert said...

Oh knew I forgot something LOL.

Finance and weight loss really mentally and emotionally converged for me recently. Like you said, Mary-Lue.

I think of it more as conscious living versus restraint, but I've ended up there rather than starting there.

In WW, there is a "fullness chart." They teach that most of us consume more than we need becase we haven't learned when we have enough.

Every time I turn around I find another way we encourage over-consumption.

For example, eating, the 1st graders have set snack time. It has to be processed food (because it can't be homemade or organic, must be packaged for "safety reasons") and not all kids are hungry then, but because it is set, the kids are likely to eat, even if not hungry. And we go ??? about this increase in children's obesity. We're teaching kids to consume more than they need, to eat because it is there, etc. Not to mention the health concern for the food.

WW is full of tips about how to learn enough for yourself, and when to stop because it is enough.

Once I learned this about eating (again), it was like an epiphany for life.

All around me are messages about all this stuff I allegedly need, and must have to be happy. It's marketed materialism. It's easy to buy into, and costly to buy (in more ways than one).

I'm not going to compare myself to a poor villager in Africa as some of Ramit's commenters did because I'm not any of those things.

However, I am going to find that sense of "healthy full" before overstuffed and past "still hungry" for all aspects of life. It'll be an ongoing dynamic quest, I know.

And it's individual.

But I do think that there is a general range of enough, and beyond that, is "overstuffed" by any measure.

8-course meals every day for all meals...that would be more than anyone needs.

(And I am using food as a broader metaphor than just eating, as I'm sure you all got but I feel weirdly compelled to explain LOL at me.)

Rachel Briggs said...

great post!

Amazing what you can cut back on when you really try - it's also good for the soul to have a bit of frivolity now and again!

I work for an animal welfare charity in the UK. Nothing more likely to check your desire for frivolous spending than spend an hour opening mail from supporters with small change coins selotaped inside becasue that's all the spare cash they have.... Hope I give my kids a sense of what's really valuable...

Gwen said...

Having grown up in the jungle of a third world country (oh, are they called developing nations now? whatev), it's hard for me to be okay with the $5,000 shoe budget. IN THEORY. Because in practice, I over consume, too. It kind of goes back to what HBM alluded to with judgment: when is it okay? I guess it boils down to this: I am only responsible for me, and taking care of my own selfishness and materialism is difficult enough.

Living consciously, whether that means with eating or spending or working or whatever is a good ideal but so difficult to achieve. More yoga for everyone!

kim said...

Something we're trying to teach our kids regarding money is just because you can doesn't mean you should. Just because they have the money to spend (saved allowance)doesn't mean they should buy yet another video game.

To me the more you have the easier it is to give the standard 10% or so, but is that enough? People say "oh I would never spend that on shoes or wine or whatever", but really isn't anything above basic need of food, clothing, and shelter excess? It's all relative.

We give and yet still live an affluent life (or one of excess depending on your perspective). Wrong or right, we start from a minimum charitable contribution that for us personally is non-negotiable and from that base we work it out daily, one request or purchase at a time.

Heather said...

I am with you restraint in the food, exercise and money arenas. When I have control of one I tend to be better able to control the others. I make more money than I ever thougt I would but we somehow find a way to spend it all. I love the idea of concious spending (and eating for that matter).

Mama Drama Jenny said...

Wow. Fabulous stuff here. Not sure where to begin except that I must say that Rich Dad, Poor Dad is the worst book in the world. Blech.

Have you read The Wealthy Barber? Very interesting stuff there although it might be a little remedial for you since you've already got a handle on so much.

Personally i suck with money. I spend lots on stupid stuff. I eat out at EVERY meal. EVERY one. If I want a latte I get one. But I never spend a lot at one time. I don't buy brandnames and can't even make make myself spend more than $30 on a pair of shoes. Meanwhile Victor brownbags it and never buys new clothes but then drops thousands at a time on stupid stuff like luggage. We're awful together.

I need a consultant to just knock some sense into us.

Mad Hatter said...

Julie,
Great post. One thing that always gets me with questions of money, frivolousness and conspicuous consumption is the issue of power. In Rap culture, this concept is writ large: booty and bling as a means of sticking it to generations of oppression. But I think the same issues can be seen in the Trumps or the Prada-salivating upper-middle classes. Having THINGS ultimately does translate to feeling more worthy, more important to society, more entitled to those THINGS than others. I find this power dynamic extremely unsettling.

The other thing that was swirling through my mind when I read this has been touched on my some of your other commenters. We are lured by consumer culture to desire frivolity as a subsitute for meaning. (You touch on this in your post as well). Surely some one, some where has convinced us that $1,000 shoes or $300,000 cars or even $12 drinks have value. The system that brainwashes us to believe all this while others go hungry or wait for foreign aid is a very corrupt system indeed.

Gotta go with no time to proofread. Yikes. Once again, great post.

Julie Pippert said...

Rachel, thank you! Wow, I can imagine how affecting that must be to open donations that are so huge to the person sending it.

You make an awesome point. I also really hope I can teach my kids what's *really* valuable. Sometimes it feels like swimming upstream.

Gwen, you have a sort of advantage of a bi-cultural POV.

More yoga! Woo hoo!

You know, it is really difficult. Especially busy and harried with so many pulls, espcially by kids. It's hard to just THINK. And then if you get a moment to think, sheesh who wants to!

I think that's why planning, and budgeting help a lot. As does letting go of the sense of urgency. I think that bit is the key for me.

And letting go of guilt. Make my decision. Make the choice.

I'm hoping to hit a better percentage of actually managing that in 2007. ;)

Kim, that is such a piece of wisdom you teach your children. We aim for that too. A big concern of ours is this idea of disposability: go ahead, break it, don't worry we'll just get a new one. ARGH hard concept to fight. But we try. We also try to follow: Pay yourself, pay your community, pay your bills, and then deal with whatever is left (if anything LOL).

Heather, isn't it interesting how we always manage to use all the additional we acquire? My house has that issue too. I have this new thing about "empty cabinets are okay." LOL Welcome to the Conscious Club. :)

Jenny, thanks! Obviously I agree about the book. It felt like the emperor's new clothes LOL. I haven't seen that book but I'll look. Like I said, I check things out. Always find a nugget. I started using pre-paid cards for things. It's like cash, but easier to budget I think (plus cash scares me a bit, probably since I never have any LOL). You can usually reload gift cards. So I'd set up a budget, for groceries, books, Starbucks. Get a card, load my budgeted amount on it, and use it as much as I wanted until it was down to the minimum...then reload with the next month.

The idea isn't to deny deny deny, but to choose, and spend within your budget. Eating out is okay!

Mad, AWESOME point!

You know, upon reflection I think that is EXACTLY what gets me about this. It does create an emotional caste system...and is one of the reasons the "it's their fault they are poor" attitude gets to prevail.

And AMEN about the "need to have" culture.

In college (here I go rambling) in theater class we had to do a silent improvisation. It had to be well-acted enough for everyone to guess what was happening. One girl silently improved a quiet evening at home interrupted by a sudden fire.

At the end, we were all asked for comments. My comment was how impressed I was by the level of detail, and how clearly she conveyed her panic about the fire. The next girl said, "I just kept thinking, OMG how can you leave your DOONEY & BOURKE handbag behind!" Half the class agreed, and discussion about material possesions ensued. It was interesting. I had not even noticed the purse.

Thanks for all of the great comments!