Experiential “Spending”

Because I have, at one or two points, ordered something online from Athleta, I receive a catalog roughly once every three weeks from them. Because I have, at one or two points, ordered something online from Athleta, I also receive catalogs regularly from Title Nine and assorted other Look We Are Women Who Work Out And Yet Can Be Fashionable In A Really Sporty Way catalogs.

The Athleta catalog arrival in my house is met with trembling perspiration, as I tend to like the cut of the fabric and most of the designs even if I am not the highly-muscled size two twentysomething that graces each page. (The highly-muscled size two twentysomething comes in a variety of skin tones and hair styles but basically if you put them in greyscale and blocked their face and hair they are the same human). It usually results in me rationalizing the purchase of a sweater, a skirt, a top, etc. (usually just “a” thing) that I normally wouldn’t spend that much on. It also serves the same purpose as the gym membership: if I’ve thrown money at it, it clearly must be something I am doing and therefore I too can be a Woman Who Works Out And Yet Can Be Fashionable In A Really Sporty Way, if not a highly-muscled size two (almost) fortysomething.

(Anyone unfamiliar with the Athleta catalog should probably also know that most of the models in the clothing are NOT just standing looking cute. Usually they’re doing instructor-level Yoga poses, sometimes, you know, balancing on their head, or folding themselves into a pretzel. Or they’re actually running on a beach. Even their sweat is cute.)

This particular catalog has sat in askance at my chair side for about six days, with dog-eared pages indicating the latest Shiny Thing I Want To Spend On. And, like every other time, I’m obsessing over what will ultimately be a relatively harmless expenditure (call it about 2 weeks of skipped latte’s). This is because I am remodeling my kitchen.

For the analyst, any home improvement project is an invitation to insanity: you start at the project with very specific quotes, measurements, appliance model numbers, and expectations. And then, as each week unfolds, you find out you need another electrical outlet (so the price goes up) or that particular range does not have the expected rebate (so the budget goes up) or you waited too long to reply to that one email (so the project extends by three weeks) or you didn’t take into account that the flooring needs time to adjust (so the project extends by four more days). You also realize that everything in the kitchen needs to be packed up.

I have a roughly 7×10-foot kitchen, U-shaped, with about 20′ of linear cabinetry (if you add top and bottom), plus a pantry. I have also had a thing for cooking for slightly under 20 years. Ergo, I have a LOT of kitchen stuff: in packing my kitchen up (something not done in 9 years) I discovered I have not one but TWO ravioli rolling pins, a rice cooker (I have been cooking rice on a pot on the stove for the last 9 years), 5 jars of cumin (??), and a truly impressive collection of cookie cutters. That, plus everything else (minus a few plates and a cutting board and basically the kind of reserves you’d make for such a project), is now boxed up in my study. Every item that was packed (for the most part) incurred a fleeting thought of 1. what was I thinking when I bought this, and 2. have I actually ever used this (I have two mushroom brushes, I am not kidding), and 3. what can I do to make sure I don’t actually spend money on something I am not going to use?

I recently read “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending” and it (like every other book that offers financial advice) pretty much nails non-necessary expenses (e.g., discretionary expenditure) as a permanent exercise in opportunity cost analysis paralysis. I can, for example, obsess endlessly over whether or not I will be buying the super-cute boots on page 48 (I’m not) or what I could do with that money instead. The argument of this particular book is that if you’re going to spend the money, it is better spent on an Experience than a Thing. To wit: you can buy the boots but what kind of experiences will you have in those boots that you cannot have in other boots/shoes/footwear, and instead what kind of experience can you buy for $180 plus shipping and handling? Or, in my case, will it buy me a faster, quieter vent for the kitchen (a thing) that means I can actually cook AND hear my son talking to me (endless experience)?

The problem with a remodeling (or moving) exercise where you are required to look at your past purchase history and review each item (I have enough wine stoppers to stop the wine in an entire case) is that you realize you didn’t have this discipline in your younger years and now there’s a strong urge to hypercorrect in your more mature present. For a consumptive and excessive youth there is a penurious and stringent old age. This is antithetical to what most consider retirement and/or the higher-earning years: in my parents’ generation it was starve now and play later, which has (appropriately) afforded them lovely retirements (case in point: one set of parents is in Europe for 7 weeks).  And suddenly, those words of caution they offered when you were spendthrift in your twenties make sense.

All from a 72-page Athleta catalog, provided for free. That’s an entertaining experience.

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