Choosing a Luxury Eccentricity

by Philip Brewer on 26 January 2011 15 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

One piece of the "keeping up with the Joneses" problem is external. It's not just that you're inclined to want what others have; it's that your family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, business contacts, and mentors tell you that you need to have certain things — otherwise you're a bad spouse or unprofessional or a blight on the neighborhood. I have a trick for dealing with that.

This is separate from dealing with your own internal wants. Those can also be tough to deal with, but at least there the path is clear: prioritize. When I was making the shift to spending less and saving more, I was able to deal with my own wants because I'd decided that what I really wanted was to arrange my life so that I could be a full-time writer. However much I wanted a faster car or a bigger house or a newer gizmo, I wanted to be a writer more.

But in the real world there are a lot of other pressures on you to spend money. Maybe your neighbors want you to have a weed-free lawn. Maybe your boss wants you to carry a nicer briefcase when you meet clients. Maybe your kids want you to own a cooler car. Maybe your girlfriend wants you to upgrade your wardrobe.

A luxury eccentricity helps you stand firm against those pressures while deflecting the ill feelings that can otherwise result.

The Luxury Eccentricity Trick

A luxury eccentricity is just some small area of your life where you pay up for top quality. Having one helps make other people more comfortable with your choices. It does this two ways:

  1. It makes it clear that you're not stingy, depressive, a miser, or a guy who has no life.
  2. It justifies your frugality in other areas.

When other people see you take joy in some little thing that obviously matters deeply to you, they're less likely to worry about you, and they're more likely to accept it with good grace when you don't act on their suggestions about other stuff you ought to buy.

What to Choose

To be effective, a luxury eccentricity needs to meet several criteria. It should be:

Something that you can sincerely appreciate

Otherwise, you're wasting money. Don't make fine wine your luxury eccentricity if you prefer beer.

Something that's comfortably within your budget

The whole point is to save money. If your luxury eccentricity is owning a private jet or a European castle, it's not going to help.

Something that other people can relate to at some level

The point is to make other people say, "What a charming eccentricity!" Collecting paintings is fine. Taking up painting as a hobby is even better — cheaper and more eccentric. Collecting string is a poor choice. Collecting stray cats is even worse.

Something where style counts

When there can be sincere differences of opinion, there's a rich middle ground of moderately priced options. When pretty much everyone agrees what's best, that choice tends to be expensive — and everything else is viewed as inferior. Ideally, your luxury eccentricity should be one where people agree that "the best" is a matter of personal taste.

Something where knowledge of the field matters

Knowing a lot about your eccentricity — and sharing that knowledge — is a big part of signaling that it is your luxury eccentricity and not just a whim. You don't want to annoy or bore people, but you do want other people to sense that you could bore them if you weren't so well mannered. This is how you make sure that people don't try to argue you into buying whatever they want you to buy instead of spending the money on your luxury eccentricity. They need to sense that any such attempt threatens to produce a long boring lecture on just how much more fun / cool / sophisticated / exciting / educational your choice is than theirs. Most people won't do that twice.

Keeping your budget aligned with your own needs and wants is tough enough. When there's external pressure — especially pressure from people who only mean to help — it's tougher yet. Choosing a luxury eccentricity is a useful tactic for deflecting those pressures.

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Guest's picture
Respectfully disagree

I appreciate the idea, and I think it's important for people to indulge in some treats now and then, and not be TOO tight-fisted, but in general I disagree with pursuing a "luxury eccentricity" so that others feel more comfortable.

I am doing everything I can to get rid of debt, including crashing with family for 3 years, so I can get rid of my student loans (almost done!!). I have reached the point where I do not care what others think about how I use my money. If they really care about what I do, I am happy to invite them to pay off the rest of my loans. Even a few dollars here and there adds up; why care what others think? Pursue your own goals.

Philip Brewer's picture

It's great if you can do it. I mostly do, now—I think my friends and family have given up on trying to get me to spend money on stuff that they think I ought to have. But I've gotten many, many comments over the years from people who have trouble resisting the pressures to spend on things other than what they most want.

Having come up with an idea that I thought might work for some of them, I figured I ought to share it.

Guest's picture
Dave

Mine is that I firmly believe that life is too short to drink cheap beer.

Guest's picture
Nate

I agree 100%. If you're going to indulge in beer, why not spend a little extra and make it worthwhile? Besides that, cheap beer tastes like garbage.

Guest's picture
michelle

Our luxury eccentricity is espresso. We have a mid-range DeLonghi espresso machine and a burr grinder. I usually buy eight-o-clock beans or whatever is cheap, but it still tastes miles and miles better than drip coffee.

Guest's picture

You got mine in the photo - I've always loved really "fine" fountain pens. That said, I don't own a Mont Blanc, but I do have a few really lovely Waterman's, and a few unique pens found at estate sales and on ebay, and it's also made for some easy gifts for family to get me - even if the pens are expensive, the ink in various wonderful colors is usually not too pricey. And pens are small so they haven't taken over more than 1/4 of a desk drawer vs. some of my husband's luxury hobbies that take up our entire garage :)

Philip Brewer's picture

Likewise! (Why do you think I went with that photo?)

What I found after a while, though, was that I could reuse my old pens. Whenever I started feeling like I really wanted a new pen, I'd get out my old pens. I'd get out some ink. (I have more than a dozen colors colors of fountain pen ink within arm's reach as type this.) I'd get out a fancy notebook.

Then I'd write something.

Usually, by the time I'd written a scene in a new story, or a couple of haiku, or the first paragraph of a new Wise Bread post, the urge to buy a new pen would have passed. Because, after all, I have some perfectly good pens.

Guest's picture

The brilliance of this is that it's not about social pressure, it's about conserving energy. Until we reach full enlightenment/samadhi/sainthood/whatever, it's going to require some energy to deal with other people's expectations and requests. Having an effective strategy for countering those demands without expending a lot of emotional (or financial) energy just gives you that much more energy to do what you really care about.

Elegant!

Philip Brewer's picture

That's a really insightful comment—you're right, and I not thought of it that way before.

Thanks!

Guest's picture
Mia

My husband and I already do this. We both have our one or two things were we like to have top quality. For me, I have to have a nice cell phone and good quality cosmetics.

Guest's picture
Geckotraveler

Usually DH and I don't worry too much about what other people think. Luckily our families are fiscally conservative and understand priorities with money, but when we meet new people or talk with friends and they find out that we LOVE to travel, and do travel as often as possible, many people do not understand how we can afford to travel when it appears we live like they do. We happily explain that we can afford to travel for 2 reasons. The first reason is we prioritize our money and instead of spending money on eating out at expensive restaurants (cook at home), buying new clothes (shop consignment and thrift stores), driving new cars (buy good quality used and take public transportation a lot to save wear & tear and gas), etc. The second reason is we travel frugally. We do not skimp on experiences (less expensive to pay $30 for the entrance fee now than $1000 to come back and see what we missed), but we might find out the free day to visit a museum, use groupon and/or coupons for a city we are visiting, create a budget and pay cash as we go, and thoroughly research where we are going and what is available. We will take a bus for $2 instead of taxi for $20, we will wash our clothes at a local laundromat instead if paying for additional luggage, talk to locals and find great inexpensive restaurants, instead of expensive low quality restaurants in tourist areas. We use travel guides specifically geared towards frugal travel, but we also have a standard of what we are willing to tolerate and will choose the options that meet our needs instead of just getting the cheapest. Going to a local grocery store in a foreign city is always fun and we look forward to at least one meal per trip of great local bread, cheese, fruit and wine.

Most people want to do it all and either use credit to acheive that lifestyle or float through life not really developing their own set of priorities and find it easier to "reward" themselves with inconsequential things that have no true meaning to them. Amazingly people that we talk to about our view of spending nod in agreement, but we have never seen any of them actually change the way they live. They still want to take the trips we do, but can not seem to find a way prioritize it.

Guest's picture
J.

This seems to be a special case of setting priorities and being clear about what you value. That's a cornerstone of the thrifty lifestyle.

Right now, we are sinking a rather ridiculous percentage of our budget into education, and we expect to do so for years to come, as my boys grow up and go to college. That doesn't mean we spend indiscriminately; we do seek value for cost. But having decided that an expense is consistent with our values, we find a way to meet it, even if that means scrimping in other areas. We don't currently have a hobby or material pleasure that comes close, although I do value good coffee :-).

When the boys are done with college, I could see funding activities such as travel, or hobbies such as renovating an Airstream trailer. But not now. I'm OK with that, though, because I'm clear about my priorities, and seeing the kids being educated in a way I'm happy about gives a lot of pleasure.

Guest's picture
Karen

My dad did this with travel, and it was a huge pain in the ass the other 345 days a year ("How can you say I'm cheap when we took a vacation to Europe?") A terrible choice, in my opinion, because I would have preferred a little more moderation in everyday life and half as many trips.

Philip Brewer's picture

The luxury eccentricity idea is really for use with people who aren't members of your household. Within the household, you're really much better off using communication and negotiation. I talk a bit about that in this post:

http://www.wisebread.com/the-line-between-frugal-and-crazy

You need to be careful about whom you negotiate with, though. People in your household understand (or should understand) that these things are all tradeoffs. People who are not members of the household, though, are only interested in whatever point they're trying to push. The neighbor who wants you to spend money on a lawn-care service has no stake in the tradeoffs that you'd have to make to afford that. That's where the luxury eccentricity comes in.

Guest's picture
Kate

I like fountain pens (and drool over the Fountain Pen Hospital catalog on a regular basis), but I only have a couple. But after reading this, I realized I *do* have a Luxury Eccentricity.

One of my prizes is a small inherited collection of bone china cups and saucers. I've added a few nice pieces from yard sales and such, and I've been given a few. Doing this regularly could get expensive; I almost fainted when I looked up the retail price for one of my prizes! But there's an ancillary luxury that goes with the collection: good tea, to drink OUT of my lovely cups. (I believe in appreciating things such as good china by USING them.)

I absolutely *sneer* at Lipton et al. :) I have three nice tea pots, and I know how to brew a proper potful. The flavor, and the elegance of my china, makes it both a Luxury and an Eccentricity. OTOH, you can buy very good teas for amazingly low prices. I can't afford the Hajua Estate Assam, at $35 a pound, but the Rembeng Estate Assam is only $16 and still makes any supermarket tea look sick. (It's also organic and fair-traded!) My standard cuppa, the Irish Breakfast blend, is still less expensive. And then there are such greens as Gunpowder, or Jade Dew...

What was that about actually knowing something about your eccentricity? (grin!)

Kate