Aspirational Spending

by Katy on September 11, 2010 · 17 comments

The idea of Aspirational Spending has been swimming around in my head lately. I re-read The Millionaire Next Door while on vacation last week, and this style of conspicuous consumption was touched upon a number of times throughout the book.

What on G-d’s green earth is Aspirational Spending?

It’s when you make expensive purchases to match the lifestyle you want to be living, instead of the life you’re actually living. You see yourself as a style maven, so you buy a closet full of expensive shoes and purses, or you see yourself as a successful business person, so you lease a brand new BMW. But in reality, you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck. (The most common vehicles driven by actual millionaires are domestic cars such as Fords and Jeeps.)

We all know people who live this way. The friend who gets her real estate agent’s license and thinks her Toyota Corolla is not high brow enough to chauffeur her clients around town. So she purchases a Lexus SUV before even making a sale. The straight out of residency doctor who buys a luxury home while still shouldering a mountain of student loans. (These are actual examples from people I know.)

Or, as the authors of The Millionaire Next Door put it:

Big hat, no cattle.

Then, I started to think about the way I live my life. I definitely want to have my belongings reflect a higher income level than is true. I want to live in a nice neighborhood, dress my family well, and furnish my home with craftsman style antiques. So I scour thrift stores to buy this stuff for pennies on the dollar.

However, the “live in a nice neighborhood” aspect pretty much backfired on us. Our fixer-upper has drained at least $100,000 from us over the years, (not counting lost income) and has kept us from putting our income and energy into quality of life, both in the present and future. If we had been willing to live in a less desirable neighborhood, we could have bought a move-in ready home that only needed cosmetic changes. Of course, we had no idea how much work this house needed, and it’s easy to look into the past and see what decisions should have been made.

Was this aspirational living on our part? Yes and no. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone, I really liked the house, and I was completely naive. The condition of the house when we first bought it would not have impressed The Clampetts.

Do you know people who subscribe to the Aspirational Living style of spending? Or I guess I could phrase that as:

How big is your hat and how many cattle are in your pasture?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Tracy Balazy September 11, 2010 at 1:50 pm

I feel as if many of my friends have become this way. Several 12-year-old daughters of friends carry iPhones or whatever’s the next “best” thing, and all of them wear nothing but new (they’d NEVER wear used) designer clothes. When I said my Saturn was 8 years old a couple of years ago, one mid-20s co-worker at my former job expressed shock and said she’d never driven a car older than two years. So.


Laure September 11, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Yes and no. I prefer to wear only genuine (not fashion) jewelry and nice clothes. So I have very few of both and simply wear them all the time. I’d rather have 1 high quality swimsuit than several cheapies, for example. I like to think it’s the European way – high quality, low quantity…


Raffaella September 12, 2010 at 1:13 am

Not in Italy! Many people spend their money on designer crap (with a logo on), even in a recession.


Jen September 12, 2010 at 5:05 am

This honesty is refreshing. I think we Americans idealize Europeans, as if they are all into quality and living green, etc. but I have spent enough time in Europe to know many Europeans are are just like us and mostly buy only less because they have less space and money.


Nienke (from the Netherlands) September 12, 2010 at 12:10 pm

I think so too. Often, the term ‘European’ on an American blog just puzzles me. For example: “Oh, this *random object* looks so European!” I never quite get what that means. I see Europe more like a political concept, not a lifestyle. ‘We’ behave really quite a lot like ‘you’. I do like the sentiment, though.


Laure September 14, 2010 at 11:06 am

My time in Europe has been mostly spent in cities…in VERY small apartments where my friends and relatives live. I know a family of 4 in Milan who lives in less square footage than I have alone. They simply don’t have space for all the stuff I can pack in to my much larger American space.
However, I agree, my relatives/friends who live in the country – and have large homes – accumulate every bit of kitsch. As I live in the city – Chicago – I compare myself more to my city-dwelling European friends/relatives.
That said, I didn’t mean to idealize anything European, just saying that it’s a way I prefer to live. No judgment of all the collectors out there; I just prefer to live with fewer, higher quality items than an abundance of lower quality items.

Practical Parsimony September 11, 2010 at 2:45 pm

Some people buy books so it will appear they read…lol. I know a guy who bought leather-bound books because they were classy looking, according to him. However, he had never read any of the sets of books because they were not what he like to read. I thought it was rather pretentious since I had read most of his classics in paperback or lesser hard-cover editions. He had a floor-model victrola that I got eventually on a trade. No, not that kind of trade. We traded pieces. Nope, wrong again. He got my furniture and I got his. We both were supremely happy. His one-bedroom apartment lost its cachet when the Victrola came to live in my home.


Maniacal Mommy September 11, 2010 at 5:48 pm

Big hat, no cattle? Having lived in Texas, that cracked me up!

When I was working in the concession stand, part of our volunteer hours as soccer parents, I overheard a conversation between mothers about their vehicles. One commented that she HAD to have leather seats. I could only shake my head.

I don’t mind making material sacrifices to live the life I want. I stay at home with our youngest, and our two older children go to Catholic school. Do I wear the latest fashions? No. But my kids only have 10-15 kids in their classroom, and flourish.

My 9 year old minivan doesn’t have leather seats, but it is paid for, which is the best kind of vehicle to have in my book. I get to watch my children scramble off the bus every day and race into the house to see me. I can’t see an iPhone or fancy car making me smile as big as when my boys tell me what they did at school while they wolf down their after school snack.

Spend it and be it? I can’t even imagine.


MovingSeas September 11, 2010 at 6:55 pm

First of all, thank you for this fabulous blog. I am a huge and grateful fan!!

I’ve been reading lots about conspiculous consumption lately(“Affluenza,” “The Overspent American,” “The Waste Makers” — library books, all!). Given that I live in the infamous “OC” and am a VERY busy bankruptcy lawyer, I feel, quite literally, surrounded by this very human (American?) phenomenon.

I still drive my 10 year old stick-shift Hyundai, shop at Goodwill, and frequent my city library to curb my nasty reading habit. Nevertheless, at least HALF of my (modest) income goes to paying off crushingly-large student loans (law school was long and expensive).

I so wish I could sock it ALL away and retire early, but I am afraid I must pay off a VERY big hat first…


Annie Jones September 12, 2010 at 5:21 am

Your line “I definitely want to have my belongings reflect a higher income level than is true” bothered me at first. It didn’t seem to fit a “non-consumer advocate”. Then I started thinking about it in terms of my own situation and decided that I agree somewhat.

I want people to see the nice, well-kept, but rarely brand new things we have in and around our home and think we make more money than we do. But then, I want them to learn what our income actually is so that they can see how far a dollar will go when you’re creative about the ways you spend (or don’t spend) it.

I guess, in some ways, we have more cattle than hat.


Katy September 12, 2010 at 8:54 am

I suppose I should have elaborated on that point. I want to have beautiful, high quality items, and I have a certain aesthetic that I like. I guess a good example of this would be our dining room chairs which are from an old Carnegie library. (From 1880’s – 1920’s) They are sturdy as all get-out, and look perfect in my Craftsman-style house.

I spent $75 for eleven of them, and had to sacrifice a couple for parts.

Had I gone to Ikea, Target or Wal Mart for chairs, I would have spent more and bought lesser quality items.



Beth D. September 12, 2010 at 5:52 am

My husband and I are looking for our first home right now and so your posts lately about the house choices you made have really inspired me. I have been idealizing a certain town to live in, but just can’t afford a decent house there. So now I am looking at less desirable places (not the slums!) with nicer houses. Sometimes it’s hard to trade in your idealized life for reality, but I don’t want to be house-rich and everything else-poor!


My Roman Apartment September 12, 2010 at 11:41 am

I live in Los Angeles, which is an entire city built on aspiration. Even with the crap housing market, homes here are exquisitely overpriced compared to most other places. We’re all house poor here.


Tiffany September 13, 2010 at 6:24 am

We just bought our first house and now that we’ve moved in I realize we spent more than we should have. It’s still below our budget, but we did not need such a big space. People say we’ll “grow into it”, but I don’t want to put my hard earned money into buying furniture for rooms we don’t need. So it’s pretty much empty right now. And that’s the way it’s going to stay until we actually need something.

I think we should have gone about 500sf smaller….

but…the outdoor space is tremendous! that’s what we LOVE about it…and we got a GREAT deal in the recession…so I think in terms of investment it was the best buy for our money…

but man do i hate vacuuming it 🙂


Rachel September 13, 2010 at 7:12 am

Your comment about the vacuuming made me think about something I read in the book How We Decide. The author discusses how, when choosing between options, people can get caught up in irrelevant details that lead to making a choice they later regret: for example, buying a large house with an extra room for relatives who visit once a year, while failing to weigh in the long commute that occurs 5 days a week (or the weekly vacuuming). But, hey, it is was a good buy, then maybe it’s worth it after all. 🙂


greenstrivings November 15, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Once again, late to the party, but your comment about wanting to live in a nice neighborhood struck me. I think there’s a difference between buying too much house — a house that you can’t afford because it’s too big– and buying a house in a neighborhood that suits you, but is expensive compared to other neighborhoods. Having bought and sold two houses in different, marginal neighborhoods, I wouldn’t do that again. I like living in a neighborhood where I feel safe and feel that my children are safe. I like knowing that our neighborhood schools are strong. I like having neighbors who, in general, share my values.

From other things I’ve read on your site, it sounds like you and your family really enjoy your neighborhood and it gives you a great deal of what you want in order to enjoy your daily life. You have good neighbors and you’re in a great location. So, I don’t see your purchase of your fixer-upper as aspirational in the same way that I see my acquaintance’s purchase of a 3500 sq foot house in a so-called “exclusive” neighborhood. But maybe there is a less-desirable neighborhood that would have given you the same quality of life for less money and home-repair toil, in which case, I rescind everything I just said. 🙂


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: