I loved my first car. It was a 2004 Acura TL, handed down to me from my automotive-obsessed father. He used my 16th birthday as an excuse to buy a (used) BMW and pawn off his Acura on his ecstatic teenage daughter. Mary, the frugal overlord of House Gatti, was onboard with the plan, making it even more attractive.
*I'll note here that there is inherent privilege in this anecdote that I was given a car when I began driving, so whether that was your experience or not, I'm acknowledging how fortunate and—honestly—rare it is.*
The car had over 100,000 miles and was about 8 years old when it was given to me, so it was well past its prime—but it was a car, and a pretty cool one. It had some door dings, the leather seats were ripped up, and there were coffee stains on the floor mats in the backseat from my dad's rowdy ride-group pals.
More memorable, though, than being given the keys to the TL, was the day I was handed the keys to my 2017 Acura RDX. It felt like a dream come true. (In the years leading up to turning 16, all I wanted was a white RDX, but it was firmly out of budget and, therefore, out reach.)
In the time I owned the TL, it was hit while parked on the road—taking on about $3,000 in body repair work. Because the car wasn't even worth $3,000 at the time of the accident and we had JUST taken collision insurance off, we didn't fix it. I drove around with a bashed rear end for almost a year.
To be honest, if it had gotten hit again, suffered a smoothie spill, or smelled like an old yoga mat, I wouldn't have cared. The car's purpose was to take me from point A to point B. I didn't care much about its condition. I think it got maybe one proper car wash after the accident.
Everything changed when the RDX came into the picture.
It promptly earned a garage spot, exiling my mom's practical Subaru to the driveway when I'd visit home. Free street parking? No. No way. Pricey covered parking (or, at least, a proper lot) was the only place for my baby.
There was even an incident my college friends love to remind me of in which I took them out for tacos about a week after I got my car, and I made all of them wash their hands after eating before getting back into the car so as not to grease up the handles and interior. (I've since abandoned this demand.)
So while I love my RDX, it carries a whole different set of stressors than my didn't-care-much-TL.
Why? Because that TL was worth about $2,000. The RDX is probably worth around $30,000, nearly 15x the value of my old car.
I get it washed monthly, so that's a 30-minute task at $20/pop. It requires the more expensive Premium gas—you can bet your butt I was putting regular in the TL. I still don't like parking it on the street and, when it incurred its first door ding in a Target parking lot, I was distraught. My insurance went from $600/year to $1,500/year, because now there's more to insure.
It's never just the UPFRONT higher cost. Every cost you incur down the metaphoric road is higher, too.
I hope you can see where I'm going with this: The more you own, the more owns you.
There's an odd liberation to owning low-value stuff. To driving a shitty car. Sure, everyone, pile in with your dirty shoes! Workout friends with sweaty clothes on? Welcome! Let's all eat a four-course meal in my sedan.
Again, I am happy and grateful for my car—it's my favorite possession. But it definitely stresses me out more than my old one did.
But if you own, say, a $50,000 BMW, you're probably going to think twice about parking it in a tight spot. You're probably going to buy the nicest gas. You'll probably pay to get it washed and buy the highest-premium insurance and take it to the dealer for the most expensive maintenance.
Imagine getting in an accident with a new $50,000 car and how much worse that would feel than a used one worth $15,000.
But it's not just cars and other things of that scale—consider a designer handbag. I've told this story before, but when I got my job offer, I drove straight to Louis Vuitton and purchased a $1,300 Neverfull I'd been lusting after for as long as I can remember.
This bag, oddly, represented the pinnacle of wealth and success to my 22-year-old self. Chic, beautiful, rich women carried them (and young women my age with chic, beautiful, rich parents ). I had to have one!
Now, I have a $1,300 wall ornament.
(I used it a lot when I first got it, but it turns out tote bags are not all that practical or comfortable for every day life.)
When I took a $700 Louis Vuitton crossbody bag to a Cowboys game, it was one inch (ONE INCH!) too big to be taken into the stadium. The security man informed me I'd have to walk it all the way back to my car before entering.
So there I was, walking the half mile back to the parking lot as the game started and Amari Cooper caught a touchdown pass—losing my $10 beer buzz—to drop off my fancy purse.
I passed women facing the same decision at security, taking their wallets and phones out of their $20 Mossimo purses and throwing them in the garbage, continuing merrily into the stadium.
It was a moment where I really asked myself--
What's the point of owning something so fancy and expensive that, even when it majorly inconveniences you, it's too prohibitively valuable to simply discard and move on?
It's hard for me to identify with the young woman who gleefully spent $1,300 on a Louis Vuitton. I could never see myself doing that now—maybe it's due to *actually* working for that much money (not just receiving an abstract offer on a piece of paper), but the value of $1,300 feels so much more acute.
As a particularly masochistic exercise, let's see what would've happened if I would've invested that $1,300 in a low-fee index fund instead and waited 30 years:
$1,300 becomes $13,000. Instead, I'll have a weathered handbag and a fond memory. Not bad, but not a choice I'd make again.
The rare positive example...
In fact, I've fallen victim to this trap so many times as a self-identified reformed materialist that I can only think of one category in which I've seen the opposite prove true: shoes.
I never spend more than $100 on a pair of shoes (except for my running shoes and cycling "cleats," but those fall more into the category of sports gear, IMO). Usually, my price point hovers closer to $50. I'm pretty rough on my shoes, so I tend to break them quickly.
In Mexico, I was walking down the beach in a pair of 3-year-old rubbery Jack Rogers—I think I paid $40 for them. One of the straps finally surrendered to my constant whap-whap-whapping of the flipflop, and popped right out of the shoe. I literally went, "Oh, well!" And took off the other one. Trash. Another mojito.
My black suede pumps that I got on sale at Dillard's in high school were stolen from a night club in Atlanta when I left them on the ground to stand on a table (true story! Wholesome!) and I just went back to the hotel barefoot, bummed that I couldn't stay out on account of my shoeless-ness. The shoes were basically worthless, so I can't imagine the thief did anything but throw them away disappointed.
The point is: My shoes serve me. They make my life easier. When they stop fulfilling that purpose, disappear, break, or no longer serve me, they go in the garbage without a second thought.
I don't think I'd feel that way if they were $300 Tory Burch sandals or $800 Louboutin pumps.
Without question, there are definitely times you get more for your money.
And a lot of the time, it's a balancing act—if you buy stuff that's TOO cheap it'll just need to be constantly replaced and cause more of an inconvenience as you spend money and time fixing or replacing it.
But it's almost like that rule for what to bring in checked luggage: Don't buy anything that you'd be too devastated to lose.
There's middle ground between a broken-down Chevy Impala and a new fully loaded Range Rover. There's middle ground between a canvas tote bag and a Louis Vuitton one.
You can still be satisfied with your purchases without buying on the Kardashian end of the spectrum, and I'd argue you'll be happier in the long-run when you detach from the notion that the more expensive = the better.
I've even seen this in my SKINCARE recently: I used to spend a lot of money on heavily branded products from Sephora, disappointed time after time. When I finally realized that the scented, beautifully packaged "jojoba-infused" moisturizer was just a $50, highly complex version of an $8 product you can buy at Whole Foods in its pure form, I shit you not—my skin improved markedly.
Investing in things of true value vs. perceived, wordly, showy value makes things easier, more convenient, and less stressful.
Consumerism tells us that nicer things will make us happier, but remember who profits from you believing you need to splurge on the fancy car—the car company, the insurance company, upscale car washes... the list goes on. The person at the bottom of that beneficiary list, is you.
The young woman's money guide for all the things you're too embarrassed to ask your friends. Build the life you thought you were too broke to afford through managing your spending habits, travel hacking, and simple, smart investing.
Full-time Brand marketer at Southwest Airlines, part-time Yoga Sculpt teacher, occasional Waffle House Model and reformed materialist.
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