Article Thumbnail

The Sweet Satisfaction of Splurging

‘Retail therapy’ is probably the last thing your therapist is going to suggest to improve your mood, but even when you have little money to spare, treating yourself can sometimes be the best medicine

Few acts are as derided in the Puritans’ America as that of buying yourself something you don’t need. The culture has developed a number of defenses against this derision, and those defenses are often wildly popular. Consider the 2011 episode of Parks and Rec dedicated to “Treat Yo’ Self Day,” a fictional holiday that the show’s characters celebrate by buying themselves trinkets and spa treatments all day long. The bit is a fan favorite, and its popularity speaks to our discomfort with buying ourselves trinkets just for the hell of it — why else would we long for an entire holiday dedicated to the practice? 

Or, as David Foster Wallace once noted in the essay he wrote during a luxury cruise, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” all the passengers who were boarding with him insisted on explaining why they were there — why they’d earned the right to be there. A luxury cruise is such an over-the-top splurge that people feel the need to justify it, even to strangers.

It’s rare that people of relatively small financial stature are interrogated about their splurges in the way that this behavior seems to combat. Nobody’s ever knocked my $5 cold brew out of my hand and demanded to see all my charitable donations from that fiscal quarter, but I’m on my guard for it constantly. I buy myself a chocolate croissant and smell judgment on everyone’s breath immediately. It seems that guilt is every splurge’s shadow — this despite the fact that most of us are one or two financial catastrophes away from never being able to splurge again. Is it even possible to take guilt out of the equation? (The answer is probably something like “yes, Rax, as long as you remember to just be normal,” but I’m not capable of that, and I bet you secretly aren’t, either.)

To take the edge off that guilt, I spoke to my friend Sophie, a server. She spends a lot more money than I do on pointless crap and yet never seems embarrassed by it. She was good enough to remind me that she makes less money than I do, too. “People act like throwing money away is a rich person thing. When you’re rich, you’re not throwing it away,” she points out. “If you have a lot of money, you have a lot left over, too, after you buy something stupid. I don’t have a lot to begin with. I might as well buy the stupid things I can.”

It’s true that splurging involves a little light nihilism about the future. Like me, Sophie assumes that today’s $20 vintage vest was never going to be tomorrow’s fully vested 401K. “Food is the big one for me,” she says. “That’s the one those ‘how to save money’ articles always jump to first, right? Millennials buy too much avocado toast to buy a house. But I’m on my feet all day for work, and I don’t want to cook when I come home. Some things are more important to me than having money just to have it.”

“Having money just to have it” seems to be the key phrase in understanding why people splurge even when they don’t have much to spare, and the amount of money that someone like Sophie or I could have just to have it is also critical. An upwardly mobile person with a whole bright career track ahead of them can afford to think in terms of having money just to have it. When you earn a comfortable surplus with every paycheck, you can think strategically about the leftover money. You can “make your money work for you,” a piece of oft-repeated financial wisdom that always fills me with despair.

Sophie and I do not earn comfortable surpluses. We don’t have mortgages to pay or grand vacations to plan for — hell, we don’t even have primary-care physicians. Everything we buy that we don’t explicitly need is, by its very nature, a splurge. Every one of those objects puts a measurable dent in our bank accounts, the contents of which we always know down to the last cent. That’s a given, and it limits our options. We can squirrel away our pitiful extra dollars every month, saving for a retirement that our miserable contributions won’t ever be able to fully finance anyway. Or we can invest that money instead in something that cheers us up. We take the instant gratification over some hazy faith in the future. We buy the avocado toast, not the house.

Tenured professor Derek earns substantially more money than either of us, and the violence of his response to this idea surprised me. “I’m sick of these white kids,” he (also white) says. “I see it in my classes all the time. Complaining that they have no money, but they have new stuff from Shein every week. If you’re going to be broke, it should be from giving that money to people who need help, not from spoiling yourself.”

A compelling point, though it means a little less coming from someone who is in no way broke himself. Still, it holds up even if you look at it from the perspective of someone who wants their purchases to feel good, often the stated goal of a splurge. Doesn’t it feel good to help — to, say, give your Shein money to a homeless person instead? Don’t you want to splurge on being a good citizen rather than an immaculately outfitted clothes horse?

First and foremost, yes, you should absolutely give money to homeless people every single time. Carry around an amount of cash that you feel okay about losing, and hand it out until it’s gone, then repeat. You can manage this at nearly every income level, and I don’t want to hear otherwise. But more to the point, Derek is being criminally obtuse. College sophomores and their Shein purchases aren’t the thing preventing those who need help from getting it. And, frankly, I’ve heard just as many Derek types complain that homeless people will only spend the cash they’re given on drugs — in other words, that they’ll splurge with it. “People who need help” are a handy rhetorical device for the sanctimonious spoilsports of the world, but the last thing those spoilsports want is for those people to actually get help.

Splurging won’t make you happy, to be clear. I’ve done it anytime I’ve had cash to burn, and it’s never made me happy. But the things you splurge on do have the potential to make you feel good in a totally uncomplicated way. It’s enjoyable to wear a cute new shirt out of the store. It’s warm and pleasant to hang up a brand new plant in an otherwise uncozy room of the house. None of this crap can solve your problems, but you live a life with so many problems, many of them caused by forces entirely outside your control (bosses, governments, etc.). It’s reasonable to want to dodge the hard, painful work of confronting all those problems by throwing a few coins at them once in a while. 

So if you clicked this link looking for permission, here it is: Go ahead, splurge a little. Buy yourself something nice and eat eggs for dinner the rest of the week if you have to. Treat yo’ self. In a world that’s hellbent on killing us, what’s the harm?