For many folks, they don't want to keep up with the Joneses — they want to be the Joneses.
There are a lot of forces that drive us deeper and deeper into debt. The need to flaunt affluence (whether or not you have it) is among them. There is also that green-eyed monster of envy — warned about in both the 10 Commandments and Seven Deadly Sins — driving us to up the ante for our homes, clothes and cars to look just that much better than the neighbors.
Impulse buying hurts us when we hit the grocery store hungry or hit the "one-click" purchase button on Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN - News). But premeditated spending can add up to a whole lot more a whole lot faster. We may set out with good intentions. Dumping thousands into a kitchen remodeling project may be inspired by HGTV and justified in our own minds — we cook dinner almost every night, so why shouldn't we have the best of everything?
But the "best" comes with a price tag, and one that often doesn't "pay for itself." All too often we load up on purchases big and small to meet a goal we'll never even try to reach. Even the greatest gizmo, hottest piece of electronics, gorgeous antique or extravagant remodeling is useless if they go unused, underutilized or blend quickly into the background.
"Since the days of Cain and Abel we have been bickering and jostling over who has the better lot," writes Shira Boss in Green With Envy: Why Keeping Up with the Joneses is Keeping Us in Debt (Warner Business Books, 2006). "Wealth and well-being are largely a mindset, and how we're doing in relation to the company we keep is key to our contentment."
It is not the super-rich or celebrities whose lives we covet, Boss says, referring to the work of psychologist Herbert Hyman who, in 1942, wrote of what he called "the psychology of status."
"He said we compare ourselves within 'reference groups' of those around us and who are similar to us," she writes. "We look to our classmates, our co-workers, our siblings and our neighbors to see how we measure up and, secretly, who we must catch up with."
When looking to impress our peers combines with impulses driving us to rationalize major purchases, the end result can piddle away potential savings on things we never really needed after all.
Here are five ways some of us spend on things we rarely use and will seldom fully appreciate. Whether we have good intentions of getting our money's worth or the more selfish rationale of bragging rights, they are costs that might have been better left unspent:
In basements all across suburbia one can find the most expensive clothes racks ever produced. You'll find winter coats on rowing machines, dry cleaning slung over Soloflex gear and holiday tablecloths folded on the steps of a Stairmaster.
Last year the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association estimated that exercise equipment was on track to be a $4.4 billion business, with treadmill sales accounting for nearly 25% of the category. After treadmills, the next two largest fitness categories were elliptical machines ($913 million in sales) and exercise cycles ($442 million). Consumer/retail spending for exercise equipment accounts for nearly 80% of the entire exercise equipment category.
That's an awful lot of money spent on equipment that, for many, will be forgotten with New Year's resolutions. A study some years ago in the Journal of Clinical Psychology showed 25% of New Year's resolutions — with better exercise habits being among the most common — don't make it past the first week, and 54% fail after six months. That sounds like $1.2 billion wasted on exercise equipment each year. How much was yours?
The dog days of summer have a way of persuading us that a pool is a must-have item. For most, the beating sun of summer assures that a pool — and the upkeep it requires — is an investment that will be well-enjoyed.
Overspending on a pool bigger or more opulent than your belly-flopping, Marco Polo-playing kids can appreciate can be a sure path to drowning in debt.
A personal grotto may look spectacular, but is it any more refreshing than a far cheaper above-ground-pool? Worst of all, over time, as others around you up the ante with high-end pools and accompanying landscaping, you'll probably spend less time soaking in the view of your once-prized possessions as thinking about what others have.
At least your family will still get years of enjoyment out of your pool. The athletically inclined (or, perhaps put better, athletically hopeful) may spend at least $10,000 and up to $35,000 or more on a lap pool. A decent "swim current generator" is cheaper, but can still cost in the ballpark of $5,000.
They are great investments for those with not only the money, but the space to accommodate them and the real desire to use them. But be warned, if you are more likely to end up merely dangling your toes in the water while sipping a frozen daiquiri, it is unlikely you'll muster the ambition needed to make it a worthy investment.
So, you fancy yourself something of a wine connoisseur.
You are not alone.
The U.S. surpassed France last year as the world's largest wine-consuming nation, with wine shipments to the U.S. from California, other states and foreign producers growing 2% from the previous year to nearly 330 million cases, a record high for the industry. That's according to the Wine Institute, an organization that represents the California wine industry. The statistics were determined by wine industry consultants Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates in Woodside.
The estimated retail value of these sales was $30 billion, up 4% from 2009. Total French consumption was 320.6 million cases in 2010. California wine accounted for a 61% volume share of the total U.S. wine market, with sales at 199.6 million cases.
A lot of you readers are drinking more wine, more often. Well, perhaps you may be able to tell Boones Farm from Beaujolais nouveau, but will you commit to studying grape varietals and dish pairings with enough vigor and longevity for it to be more than just a passing hobby or occasional indulgence?
If plunging into the world of wine proves to be destined for that ill-advised attempt at home brewing — the buckets and bottles still litter your basement — perhaps you need to think twice.
A "passive" cellar is no biggie — all you need is to install shelves in an otherwise suitable basement. An "active" cellar will require remodeling and electronics to maintain a temperature of 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit and relative humidity of 40% to 70%. Getting fancy with glass and wood cases could set you back thousands (and that doesn't even include plunking down potentially hundreds per bottle of vino).
Even a small-scale, electric storage unit will require an outlay.
A Cuisinart electric wine cellar will cost between $150 and $350. The 21-bottle Caso Wine Cellar at Williams-Sonoma (NYSE: WSM - News) has a suggested retail price of $650 (but can be ordered for a bit less, $479.95).
For those serious about wine and prepared to grow that interest over a lifetime, this all may be money well spent. But if, ultimately, that wine cellar finds itself filled with Dr Pepper (NYSE: DPS - News) instead of chablis, it will be money poured away.
Blame it on evolutionary traits that have persisted since the days mammoth meat was seared over a bonfire, but many folks live to grill.
The problem, from a financial standpoint, is when that love of outdoor cooking runs amok. That simple charcoal grill is no longer good enough — you need a bigger gas grill, then a bigger one again. Three, four, eight burners may not be enough to satisfy grill envy.
Then there are built-in coolers, smokers and outdoor furniture. Then other kitchen accessories migrate outdoors with such flourishes as stone peninsulas and full ovens.
Before you know it, your backyard looks like a Bobby Flay restaurant and the costs have multiplied faster than you imagined.
It will be even more painful to survey your outdoor kitchen masterpiece if you really never needed any of it. Cooking two burgers with $5.99 ground sirloin from Safeway (SWY - News) on an elaborate grill that costs thousands isn't going to make them taste any better than on, say, a $20 hibachi. And all that fancy gas heat may never even adequately replicate the smoky taste and aroma of food cooked over coals.
So you love espresso. You really, really love espresso.
Do you love it enough to spend nearly $2,000?
That's the suggested retail price of the Miele CM5000 Espresso Machine offered at Williams-Sonoma.
To be sure this is a godly device among mere mortal coffee makers. "Each cup of coffee or espresso can be customized to your exact preferences for size, strength and temperature," we are told in a marketing pitch. A "powerful 15-bar pump" provides "maximum extraction of flavor."
For java junkies who entertain guests frequently (or, pehraps, run a small coffee shop out of their garage) this unit may make sense.
But most espresso makers can be added to that great and growing pile of kitchen accessories that seemed like a good idea at the time — ice cream makers, electric water kettles, fondue sets, chocolate fountains, the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie and so on.