Has the time come to once again embrace discretionary spending?
"I'll never forget the time a very well-heeled woman came into our shop to buy a blouse,” relates Susan Schwartz, owner of Sophy Curson, the elegant boutique off Rittenhouse Square. “She loved the one we showed her, but decided it was too expensive. Instead, she spent three times as much on a coat — for her dog.” People will almost always splurge on their pets, Schwartz asserts, adding that her store no longer carries pet products now that Doggie Style has cornered the market.
“Other motivational factors are special occasions,” says Schwartz, listing weddings, parties, graduations and anniversaries as potential reasons for self-gifting. “And being honored at a public function is always a reason to pick out something special.” But for those impulse splurges, she explains, nothing beats a visual aid. “Our windows sell our merchandise: 70 percent of clothing and 30 percent of accessories.”
We all have a weakness for something, be it dogwear, clothes, cars, jewelry or art. Schwartz and her son, David, who co-runs the store, both say they splurge at Joseph Fox Bookshop, down the street from their 83-year-old family business. “I also splurge on garden trips abroad,” adds Susan.
Why We Buy
Longtime adman Elliott Curson admits that he splurges on cameras, which are his passion. “I may see an ad that will persuade me to buy a new model,” he says. “No question — product placement in movies, ads on billboards, in print, online or TV shape our desires. We are persuaded we could look better, play better, drive better and, in my case, photograph better. In short, be happier.”
Does money buy happiness? According to the April-May 2013 issue of AARP The Magazine, numerous studies have indicated that those who use their money to better others’ lives are more likely to be happier people than those who spend only on themselves. It cites Brazilian doctor Jorge Moll, whose research demonstrated that altruism stimulates the same pleasure centers in the brain as sugar and cocaine do. “On the other hand, the thrill of a new item wears off in about a year,” he claims.
That may be true in many cases, but the majority of folks interviewed for this article are convinced their occasional splurges will bring them a lifetime of happiness — or, at least, a season’s worth. “I’ll admit I bought a cashmere sports jacket at Boyd’s that I couldn’t possibly afford and which cost an embarrassing amount of money,” says Jim, a young father who would rather withhold his last name. “But my wife told me I looked so handsome and I had to agree.” A longtime Boyd’s sales associate, who also wishes to remain anonymous, says that men will often be persuaded to buy an expensive item like a cashmere sweater or a shearling coat because their mate encourages them. “This is especially true as we approach the holiday season,” he says, “but chances are the item in question will be worn for decades. I see that as an investment.”
So does Stuart Weitzman, the New York-based shoe designer who is opening a boutique in Center City this fall. “We always strive to combine fashion and fit,” remarks Weitzman, who took over his father’s shoe business not long after graduating from Wharton in 1963. The MBA comes in handy, of course, but one of Weitzman’s favorite sales metrics was never taught in business school. “My eyes automatically travel to a woman’s feet first,” he emphasizes. However, it’s not so much to admire them as to check out the brand.
If the shoe fits, then why not wear it — indefinitely, he would argue. “Women will splurge on their wedding shoes, which is reasonable,” he notes. “But I’ve found that women don’t need an occasion to splurge. If they’re excited by the purchase, they’ll indulge.” By indulge, Weitzman may mean spending between $300 and $3,000 (for pavé styles hand-set with Swarovski crystals) on shoes. “If you take care of things properly, they are always a worthwhile investment,” Weitzman believes.
Of course, many people prefer driving to walking. Take automobile aficionado Ronald Lorch. “I have four luxury cars,” confides the insurance maven, who can count a Fisker, a Maserati and more than one Mercedes in his garage. “But I had a health scare this year and my priorities are different. My wife, Karen, and I are downsizing, and we now splurge only on our children and grandchildren. As you grow older, your values change. It’s family that really matters. Anyone out there want to buy a Fisker?”
The House Rules
For those who can manage the hefty mortgage payments, a home could very well be the ultimate splurge. To get a distinctly Philly take on what makes a purchase over the top, we talked to Center City Realtor Jody Dimitruk. “My clients generally shop for a neighborhood and a price they can afford,” she says. “But when they do spend more than they planned, it’s because it’s something they really love. I wouldn’t say that my clients splurge, because they don’t go beyond what they can afford to pay.” Dimitruk, who has been in the business since 1986, contends that when people find the perfect place and pay full price, they never have any regrets. (The New York Times reports that buyer’s remorse often kicks in when new homeowners realize they have to give up travel and entertainment in order to pay their mortgage.)
Once you’ve bought a new home, it’s not unusual to customize it. Rich Siligrini, a popular local contractor, notes that his clients tend to splurge on kitchens and bathrooms. “They want a kitchen that is functional with a great layout where they don’t have to move around a lot because everything is in the right spot. Bathrooms are important because they’re so personal. I designed one that led into a large dressing room and closet. Some clients choose large Jacuzzis and others a fabulous shower and sauna. Visions are different.” And that also applies to the once-lowly basement. “A storage area is now a thing of the past,” he adds, citing the ascent of the luxury recreation room and entertainment center. And they no longer have to be inside the house. An increasing number of people are building lavish facilities devoted to hosting guests in their own backyards.
Big-ticket items like homes, art and jewelry are usually bought with a great deal of thought. Philadelphia-based interior designer Bennett Weinstock points out that it’s important to know whether you are making a considered or an impulsive purchase. “I never buy anything that I’ll worry about paying for later,” he says. “If I’m walking down the street and fall in love with a piece of jewelry or an antique in the window, I’ll make sure it is genuine or has solid provenance. I’ve never purchased something that I later thought was a mistake.” But on further reflection, Weinstock admits he has a real weakness for Italian gelato and will occasionally splurge. “I did have some regrets when I came home from a trip to Rome and found my pants were too tight.”
Paying for the Intangibles
What you splurge on says a lot about you. Weinstock’s mother, the late Lucille Berger, who was known for her extravagant hats, spent lavishly on charities, including the Federation of Jewish Agencies (the forerunner to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia), a habit she inherited from her mother. Says Weinstock, “When it came to giving to charity, my grandmother would constantly make a personal sacrifice in order to be philanthropic. I have friends who will forgo an expensive purchase in order to give away more money.”
As the AARP article points out, giving almost always yields more happiness for people than any object they acquire. But whether you are shopping for yourself or for someone else, splurging on charitable gifts or investments, the bottom line should be, well, the bottom line. Consider carefully what you can realistically afford before splurging, sleep on it, and then go for it!
Jane Biberman, the former editor of Inside, is a freelance writer.