Pound Wise and Penny Foolish

A few days ago there was an encouraging little post on The Wallet about how we’re spending more on life’s smaller luxuries in the face of the Great Recession. I call it encouraging because I think it is the direction most people should go in their spending, more on the small stuff, less on the big things, Mansion - William Helsen and I like reading positive articles about how consumers are doing this. Not that I really think this is going on.

My theory, admittedly not based on much science, is that we’re happier if we spend more on the smaller things we like than on the big things. A great big house may indeed add joy to our lives, but not as much as the equivalent in nights out on the town. (Or rounds of golf, or manicures or whatever floats your boat.)

Happiness is obviously completely subjective and unquantifiable. Which is why it is so hard for us to think analytically about how to spend our money to maximize it. The $750 car payment for that new set of wheels seems like a good idea. We think that we will enjoy driving it. And we are probably right about that. But the question to ask is not whether or not the car will be enjoyable but whether or not it will be as enjoyable as other possible uses for $750 a month. And that’s really a hard question to answer.

In many ways this is the flip side of The Latte Thing. There are people who enjoy depriving themselves of small daily luxuries because it makes them feel like they are virtuously saving money. But the money saved is unlikely to be significant. What they’ve managed to do is save in a noticeable way that frequently reminds them how good they are being. It is as if they are keeping score not in dollars but in acts of frugality.

The same dynamic in reverse implies that spending on little things makes sense. You notice them. The same reasoning that concludes that cutting out the $5 a day on coffee isn’t going to make much of an impact on your wealth tells you that the $5 is a cost-effective route to happiness.

So reacting to the Great Recession by cutting back on big-ticket items like vacations to Tahiti and spending more on things like eating out would be, in my view, a welcome development. That’s the gist of the post at The Wallet, which bases this on data from "Sageworks Inc., which aggregates data on private companies."

The first two items on their list of "basic luxuries" that have seen sales growth in the past year don’t sound particularly luxurious to me: on-line shopping and gym membership. Maybe that’s just me. The next three sound more likely: drinking in bars, sports and hobbies, and dining out. They are each, we are told, up between 3% and 6%.

That’s interesting. Most of the articles we see these days about the "new normal" say the opposite, that we are cutting back on such things. And sales for The Cheesecake Factory, PF Chang’s, Brinker Int’l, California Pizza Kitchen, Footlocker, Nike, and, of course, Starbucks have all been flat to down lately. Then again, business at McDonalds has been off too. There’s a recession on, you know.

So the proposition that Americans are now spending more on smaller luxuries is one of many that I am skeptical about. But it would be nice.

[Photo: William Helsen]

No Comments

  • By Rob Bennett, September 1, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

    In many ways this is the flip side of The Latte Thing.

    I take a third view.

    I think that a lot of us spend far too much on houses and cars (big stuff). I also think that a lot of us spend far too much on repetitive luxuries (small stuff).

    I think that what matters is the impact of the purchase. I justify spending a good bit on vacations on grounds that I usually find them memorable. And I could justify occasional luxuries on grounds that those would be memorable too. What I don’t like about spending on lattes is that the expense becomes big in the long term but the impact is diminished as the latte buying becomes a habit.

    I also like spending on things that can be characterized as “investments” (books, little league fees).

    Rob

  • By Steve, September 1, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

    I was about to say the same thing as Rob. I would rather have a big vacation every now and then than a latte (or another minor luxury) every day.

  • By Jack @ Master Your Card, September 1, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

    I think it’s heartening, too. But I wonder if it’s just like the hybrid cars thing – I think I remember reading that as soon as gas prices started going up again, people started eyeing those SUVs once more.

    Speaking of cars, it’s nice to see people holding off on the tropical getaway for awhile, but that Cash for Clunkers things went so fast it made my head spin. Sometimes I wonder if a brand new car (with a brand new auto loan and insurance policy) is really what someone who is down and out financially really needs…

  • By Kosmo @ The Casual Observer, September 1, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

    I agree with Rob and Steve. Certain small investments have a large impact on my life. I pay the huge sum of $15/yr for the ability to listen to MLB games over the internet (my team is out of market). In a good year, I’ll probably listen to 40 games (if I was single, it would be closer to 150 :)

    This $15 is money very well spent. Other times, $15 has been spent on things that ended up having very little impact.

  • By Shogun @ Financial Samurai, September 1, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

    Car payments = the worst thing ever. Your euphoria peaks the week of receiving the car (straighline down with Time on the X axis), and your payments stay flat. The intersection for me is 6 months, but for others, it’s longer.

    Best investment?

    $75 pair of hiking boots.
    $600 full suspension bike.
    $500 Canon SLR camera.

    These items are relatively cheap, and have kept on giving for years!

    Shogun

  • By Kent @ The Financial Philosopher, September 2, 2009 @ 10:07 am

    This is an important discussion. Self-knowledge and self-awareness are the essence of prudent financial decisions.

    Knowing that happiness is subjective, contextual and quickly consumed can reform the imagination so that one may envision their happiness diminishing as the “expense” of a large purchase, such as a car or home, continues long after the initial euphoria of the purchase has passed.

    Being aware and mindful of our own nature can prevent large financial mistakes.

  • By bex, September 2, 2009 @ 10:54 am

    I think its more about teaching people to ENJOY saving money…

    If you spend every penny you earn it doesn’t matter if its on daily lattes, clothes, or car payments… the point is that you’ve learned well how to enjoy SPENDING money, but you’ve never learned how to enjoy SAVING money.

    Sure… cutting out the morning latte isn’t going to make you a millionaire. But if you have a chance every morning to learn how to enjoy saving cash, then I say crush the morning latte. Get coffee. Or brew your own tea at work. Simple and cheap.

    After a few months of that daily practice… THEN you’re able to make real decisions with real money.

  • By Mark Arsenal, September 2, 2009 @ 8:51 pm

    Why should people work harder for more money when they can work less for less? What if they value naps and sunbathing more than lattes and gym memberships?

    Your (repeated) screeds bemoaning the penny pinchers seems predicated on a consumerist philosophy that more is always better, waste is always justified, and irrational hedonism will somehow be rewarded (regardless of the laws of physics and thermodynamics).

    In any case, there is something to be said about cutting back on small luxuries. Just because one cuts our the lunches and lattes does not mean one will be buying plasma TVs and McMansions. Me – I take the money I save brownbagging and living in a 10′ x 10′ SRO and put it in a CD every month. I’ve yet to buckle and spend it (that 10′ x 10′ SRO helps, of course).

    I know my generation won’t be able to retire, but there’s still plans for that cash, assuming the banking system still exists a year from now: emigration.

  • By DT, September 2, 2009 @ 9:18 pm

    Jack @ Master Your Card:
    “I think I remember reading that as soon as
    gas prices started going up again, people
    started eyeing those SUVs once more.”

    Huh? You’re saying when gas went up people starting buying SUVs again? This seems to defy common sense if not reality. Perhaps a mis-type?

    As Clinton might say, it all depends on what “eyeing” means …

  • By Larry, September 2, 2009 @ 9:45 pm

    I’m of the (counter-intuitive) belief that the best thing to do when times are good is to save, and the best thing to do when times are bad is to spend. If no one goes out to the restaurants, the bookstores, the theater, then those businesses contract, put people out of work, and perhaps shut down. Of course I’ll be the first to admit that I took the natural approach rather than the counter-intuitive one, spending when times were good and being afraid to open the wallet when the recession hit. Advice like Frau Orman’s “Can I Afford It?” (the answer almost invariably being no) does not help either, and is the more dismaying coming from a former waitress whose income was largely tips. But without putting myself into credit card debt, and without feeding my emergency fund, I still think the healthiest thing I can contribute to this economy is to keep up some modest spending.

  • By Larry, September 2, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

    without feeding my emergency fund

    Correction: without neglecting my emergency fund

  • By fern, September 3, 2009 @ 10:14 am

    I disagree. You say it’s better to spend on smaller things than big things and you seem to be making a value judgment that small things, becus they cost less, are somehow uniformly “better” than big things.

    I do just the opposite. I forgo the frivolous expenditures like frequent eating out, meals on the go, clothing, useless “stuff” and the like but i willingly spend on big things, such as the sun room i recently put on my house. I will get lasting, daily pleasure from sitting out in that sun room, whereas the burger i had at the local restaurant is soon forgotten.

    In addition, not all big expenditures are made for the sake of fun or pleasure. So if you need to spend $750 on 4 new tires, it’s not something you will “enjoy,” but your safety is the issue here.

    Eating out is not at all a small expense, especially if you’re more than a party of one, so i wouldn’t suggest people should feel ok eating out frequently instead of taking the Tahiti vacation. Both will dig deep holes in your wallet if money is limited.

    the bottom line is, most of us have limited amounts of money and so must prioritize how we spend that money. If daily lattes are a must for you, god bless, but for many others like myself, there are more important things.

    I spent a lot of money a number of years ago, about $1500, on a kayak and roof rack, and i treasure those days i’m on the water. Ditto for the sun room.

  • By gpr, September 4, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

    Frank: welcome back. Hope your vacation was a small thing that was well spent.

    Mark Arsenal: that 10×10 living space may be awesome for you now, and you may get pleasure from that growing CD. But what if you meet a girl/boy that you really, really like? I bet he/she would be more impressed with living space than big bank account. Plus,I doth think you protest to hard.

  • By Fortune Ezeoha, September 6, 2009 @ 9:10 am

    There is a way and a formula for every thing including financial or prudent money managing. There is a science of getting rich, you just have to do thing a certain way some do it by accident and become rich and some have to learn to do it, as long as you do it that same way you will definitely become rich.

    A knowledge of how to manage what you already have, wise spending, buying what you need instead of what you want, lol the opposite of what the sells person what you to do, letting your money work for you and keeping it simple. Self education is where it all is.

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