Sometimes the purchases that slipped away make all the difference
Social critics have rebuked Americans for decades about our freewheeling spending habits. We buy on impulse, just to satisfy our need to buy. Our homes are cluttered with stuff we don't want or don't need. Eventually, we get rid of much of it -- witness those unused Barney toys or racks of floral blouses at yard sales -- only to clear room for even more unneeded purchases.
For just a few minutes, though, let's think about the times we become too frugal for our own good.
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I remember driving through Memphis, Tenn., on our honeymoon nearly two decades ago and discovering to our delight that we had arrived in the middle of a blues festival. If we lingered for a few hours, we could hear Albert King perform. The tickets cost about $20, and for all we knew, the good seats might have all been gone. Maybe we'd have to pay a scalper to get in. But if we really wanted to see him, we could have made it happen.
My wife and I dithered for a few minutes and then talked ourselves out of it. We had a schedule to keep. Other friends expected to see us the next day. Who knows what the scalpers might charge, or what miserable seats we might end up with? Besides, we could always wait and see Albert King when he performed in New York City, where we lived.
Not long afterward, Albert King died.
A Lost Opportunity
There would never be another concert. And now, every time I listen to a recording of him singing "Like a Road Leading Home," I can't help but visualize that big sign in Memphis, inviting us to hear him in person. That lost opportunity is stuck in my mind. There's no way to recapture it.
Lately I've been asking friends if they, too, have lasting regrets about a long-ago purchase they didn't make. The stories start tumbling forth.
For a mid-40s executive I know, it's the little apartment in downtown Washington that she could have bought, early in her career. Not only would it have been a fine investment, it would have been a passport into a zesty, ambitious world, full of parties on Capitol Hill and nonstop political networking. She ultimately moved to California instead, where she has done well. But 20 years later, there's still a sense of "What if...?"
For Alan, it's the $500 wet suit that he could have bought in San Francisco as a young man, within minutes of great ocean, bay and river waters. He is a natural athlete who now gets some of his greatest joys surfing and kayaking. But that world has opened up to him only belatedly -- after moving to the suburbs. "How could I have missed it for nearly 20 years?" he asks.
For Judy, it's the $200 hat she saw in a Manhattan store at the start of her publishing career. The price was wildly beyond her reach, so she set down the hat after trying it on. Still, she loved the way it made her look. That one simple piece of clothing dissolved all her anxieties about being a nervous trainee in an industry full of older tyrants.
"Suddenly I was Daisy, and Jay Gatsby was just around the corner," she recalls. "I looked perfectly charming, bright, witty and ready for the best that life had to offer."
These days, Judy lives in Dallas and can afford any hat she wants. She has bought a lot. None matches the one that got away in Manhattan. Still, each new purchase rekindles that long-ago burst of millinery pride.
Why do such long-ago incidents still have such a hold on us? The most intense wistfulness involves what I'll call "crossroads moments" in our lives. Early on, all kinds of destinies seem possible. Then we rapidly narrow the alternatives, sometimes in our early 20s, sometimes later. Years later, as we belatedly understand how that process played out, we wonder whether a single, simple purchase could have changed many other choices, too.
For the ex-Washingtonian, that Capitol Hill apartment could have been a stepping-stone to political power. For Alan, that wet suit might have led to his greatest athletic triumphs. For Judy, the fancy hat represented all the lost chances to be the dazzling person who took Manhattan meetings by storm.
I'll Take Quick Thrills
And for me, skipping the Albert King concert on our honeymoon led to an overreaction on our part, a determination to show that married life didn't have to be about making the safe, dull choice. We've constantly opted for quick thrills anytime we get the chance, the shame of having made the wrong choice goading us to action. If reindeer meat is on the menu, we order it. If our boys want to build a flame-thrower, we don't sputter in protest; we look for a store that sells igniters and flash cotton.
The other kinds of regrets are more focused and typically involve faraway travel. When memories of warm beaches and exotic food start to fade away, we sometimes kick ourselves for not having picked up a wonderful item that would transported a bit of Asia or Africa into our homes.
My friend Blair still pines for a beautiful black sapphire that she saw 10 years ago at a Thai jewelry store just before going scuba diving. She almost bought it right away, but figured she might lose it in the water. Better to wait until the dive was over.
To her chagrin, boating delays meant that she didn't get back to shore until 9 p.m. The jewelry store had closed. Her flight home left the next morning at dawn. Heading back to the U.S., all she could think about was "her" sapphire sitting unclaimed in the store window until some stranger bought it.
For Christine and John, their lost opportunity came at the end of a Prague vacation in 2000. They loved the Czech capital. They hadn't been married long. On their final afternoon in town, John blurted out: "What if we bought an apartment here?"
Christine had plenty of reasons why that was a romantic but ridiculous idea. They didn't know Prague's neighborhoods in detail. They would need to make a decision blindingly fast. Even though a fine Old Town apartment could probably be had for just $50,000, would that really work out?
If they were going to be reckless, Christine said, what about Paris?
Instead, they kept their checkbook closed. Now, Christine figures, that Prague apartment would probably be worth $250,000 or more. It could have become an investment property for part of the year, and a steady European getaway during summers or holidays. In fact, it probably would have allowed her lots of short jaunts to Paris. But all of that was not to be.
Buy Now, Think Later?
So, what do these lessons in regret tell us? Certainly, it isn't that every nonpurchase should be reconsidered, that every time we keep our wallet closed we're sure to end up remorseful. We don't need to buy every T-shirt or formulaic watercolor landscape that's hawked at us. We don't need to think of every item we do or don't buy as having effects that will cascade through our lives.
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But perhaps we do have to be bold more often, and maybe even a little foolhardy when our gut tells us that this is important, or when we come across something alluring in our adventures. If something enchanting catches our eye -- whether it's a Ukrainian samovar or just a hat on your way to work -- maybe it's best to get caught up in the euphoria of the moment.
Soon after college, my wife visited Hong Kong as part of a low-budget Asian odyssey. She spent a morning at the pearl market, but couldn't imagine paying even $80 for the simplest strands. She left -- and then second-guessed herself for years afterward.
At age 33, she made it back to Hong Kong. This time she brought lots of cash and headed to the pearl market, eager to enjoy this rare do-over. Today, those pearls rest in a jewelry case, seldom worn. Pearls just aren't a big part of her "look." But she smiles whenever she takes them out.
She remembers the open-air stalls, the smell of the ocean and the merchants coaxing foreigners to buy. It's a scene out of a movie for her, and she had a momentary part in it. Picking up the pearls now is enough to bring it all back.
If such faraway acquisitions evoke warm memories years later, then it was all worthwhile. And if it turns out that we squandered our money on something idiotic, well, that's what yard sales are for.
--Mr. Anders is a news editor for The Wall Street Journal in Palo Alto, Calif.
Write to George Anders at firstname.lastname@example.org