Like many women in America, from the time I was an adolescent until a few months before my mother died, she and I shared a shopping ritual. My mother’s oasis was the top floor of Macy’s in downtown Spokane, an entire floor stuffed with deeply discounted clothes. Whenever we weren’t getting along, or when I was in town, we would go there together. The aim was to get the largest number of items for one’s money, usually with a total investment of about $50 per trip.
While many in the blogosphere decry decision fatigue as anathema to success, for my mother, the challenge provided stress relief, similar to playing chess or knitting. Over the years, I found a few things that I wore (and wore out), but most of it ended up going to Goodwill. (I learned thrift from my mother, who never ever paid full retail, but I had to figure out minimalism on my own.)
She died in February 2014, and missing her included missing the shopping times. I missed how we would find the ugliest appliquéd holiday sweatshirt (they still sell those things!) and laugh about it. I missed spending time with her in an activity she enjoyed, especially the year when we knew it would be her last. Shopping without her would not replace that experience. My mother was dead, and on top of it, I was single, and my friends were spread out all over several time zones.
I decided in the summer of 2014 that I would upgrade my image and “get myself back out there” – in business networking; in dating. It would be a boost to my confidence and disrupt the weird flatness of grief.
I went to the shopping destinations my mother always thought were too overpriced and shallow and bought a few things. It was harmless until I decided I needed a certain designer handbag to dress for success in business and dating in the city. It wasn’t my taste, and way more than I normally would spend, but I was willing to see if others were right about this kind of thing and if I had always been wrong. Maybe I needed to try being the “It Girl” for a change, not the nonconformist, Daria-like girl. I could afford it, so I bought it. This would be a life experiment.
It was $1,982 with tax. I felt sick to my stomach as I left the store. What. On. Earth. Had I just done? My grandparents survived WWII and the Great Depression. I had survived the Recession, working my way up from unemployment, to a port-in-the-storm job, to starting my own business. This superficial handbag wasn’t what I really valued. But I rationalized it as an affirmation of my “worth” by buying “quality” in defiance of the folly of buying $20 pants that never quite fit or a $5 top in a color that wasn’t quite right. Looking back, it was just my grief and loneliness that told me this would do something for me.
And when I carried it, it did attract attention from people who cared about such things. That felt weird; they had never noticed me before. It didn’t take long, however, before I remembered all the reasons why, historically, I didn’t give a shit.
De Tocqueville, a Frenchman observing Americans, could have said the same things about Americans today as he said in 1845: “amongst democratic nations ambition is ardent and continual, but its aim is not habitually lofty; and life is generally spent in eagerly coveting small objects which are within reach."
Ouch. I felt like a bourgeois bonehead, baiting the hook with meaningless ornaments, just to catch fish I couldn't throw off the boat fast enough.
It goes on:
"What chiefly diverts the men of democracies from lofty ambition is not the scantiness of their fortunes, but the vehemence of the exertions they daily make to improve them.”
After owning the handbag for three years, at least I could say I “got my wear out of it” (one of my mother’s favorite phrases). I stopped carrying it eventually. It was too small to hold my scanner on days I needed to bring that with me. I had adopted a more utilitarian briefcase for everyday use, one that is better suited for my muddy, snowy, sandy, salty Northwest work-from-the-road M.O.
So, recently, I sold that handbag in an online auction for $671. I resisted selling it at first because I had paid so much for it.
But there was just no point in keeping something around out of guilt that was not my style. I mean no insult to the buyer; that person got a great deal and they will enjoy it. (My mother would approve.)
I was inspired by Go Curry Cracker's discussion of "Joe Average" to openly analyze the after-tax implications of my extravagant purchase and take a peek at what would have happened had I invested the money.
How many “vehemently exerted” hours did I work for that “coveted small object” – that designer handbag? Let’s do some quick math that is easy enough for English majors:
$1,982 divided by hourly billing rate of $350 = 5.7 hours.
Not so fast. I paid for the bag in after-tax dollars. Let’s just use an easy number of 25%, so each of my hours pays me more like $262.50.
So, $1,982 divided by $262.50 per hour after taxes = 7.6 hours. Whoa! That’s a little different. Normally in an 8-hour work day, not all of the time you spend is billable. Realistically, I worked a day and a half for that bag.
What if I had invested the $1,982 in June 2014 instead? Let's take a look at what would have happened had I invested my $1,982 in the stock market. I used this S&P 500 dollar cost averaging return calculator to discover that I’d have $2,587 today, instead of $671. (That's the second picture.) And additional food for thought: I included the 5-year performance of the [redacted] stock of the company that manufactures the handbag. (That's the orange graph in the third picture.)
Now suppose I have $671 to invest today. Who knows what the stock market will do next, but let's assume a simple 7% rate of return, using this calculator. (That's the turquoise chart in the fourth picture that shows me it will take a long time.)
You can see that it is hypothetically going to take me sixteen years to get back my initial sink of $1,982 if I do nothing but let compound interest simmer.
Now, there is nothing wrong with spending money you can afford on a quality item that represents what you value and will serve you well for many years. I tend to keep my skis for 10 years, a good coat for 5 to 10 years, and a good pair of boots for as long as possible. (I have one pair I call my “life boots;” the style name is “NW Magic,” and I couldn’t agree more.)
Ironically, I still have the free tote bag that a bar study course handed out to people on the first day of law school in August 2002. It’s sturdy and hauls a lot of groceries. It's a lot more useful, and attracts no attention.