Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sept. 30, 2007, column reprinted by request of Bill

When my friend's father died recently, his sons gave a touching eulogy about him that reminded us of his service to the country in World War II, his flair for holiday decorating and his love of family and sports teams.
It made me think of our fathers' and mothers' generation, the so-called "Greatest Generation."
One of the things the octogenarian generation didn't do a lot when we were growing up is spend a lot of money — at least not by today's standards.
As kids, we didn't travel out of state, we only once had a new car (a station wagon) and we rarely replaced furniture or appliances.
For their generation, it's a very long psychological jump from growing up in the Depression to spending money like today's young and restless and entitled. I don't appreciate kids who think life owes them the latest i-Pod, North Face jacket and cool car at age 16.
Affluence (two-earner families, primarily) has given birth to a huge number of companies happy to take your premium-item dollars.
Today, you can spend $4.75 on a glorified cup of coffee at Starbucks. Premium bottled water can run up to $12 a gallon. Cable TV costs up to $150 a month. The same applies for wireless phone service, one of the largest legal fleecings of the American public ever conceived.
One kid, say, has unlimited text messaging. So she sends five text messages to a friend during class, but the friend's phone plan only includes 100 such messages a month.
Guess who gets hosed in this scenario: the second kid's parents. Then there are the fashion items designed to make us feel luxurious and project a certain image of money and status.
Clothing markups are huge. Name-brand jeans run about $28 at Sears while Abercrombie & Fitch jeans go for $80 there. Seeking the scent of success? A bottle of Dior's Cologne Blanche sells for $255 in Neiman Marcus, where you can also pick up a pair of Christian Louboutin Metallic Napa Slingback open-toed pumps for $770.
I'm lucky there was a picture of these because I wouldn't even know what Louboutin Slingback pumps do, unless it's rid your basement of water maybe.
Neiman Marcus also has a cashmere cardigan sweater for $525, an Indy handbag for $3,990 and a Valentino Embellished Evening Gown for $7,900 (which is what I paid for my last used car).
Only the upper crust in this country can shrug at those price tags.
Spending hard-earned money on ridiculous things reminds me of the Steve Martin "nouveau-riche" routine about making a lot of money: "I bought some pretty good stuff. Got me a $300 pair of socks ... got a fur sink ... let's see ... an electric dog-polisher ... a gasoline-powered turtleneck sweater ... and, of course, I bought some dumb stuff, too."
A new Cadillac Escalade will run you about $60,000 with tax and registration, which is almost as much as my house cost in 1979.
A big vehicle is like a high-definition TV for a lot of guys: It brings satisfaction. You'll give your wife or girlfriend grief for buying a $750 Ferragamo handbag, but you won't think twice about paying $2,750 for a big-screen LCD or plasma TV.
Madison Avenue, meanwhile, is marketing the hell out of us. Sneakers are "athletic shoes." Stainless steel frying pan: $35. All-Clad stainless cookware pan: $135.
But are luxury items necessarily better? Dana Thomas' book "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster" points out that many fine luxury goods once handcrafted in Italy are now often thrown together in a Chinese factory where wages are low.
Truth is, the luxury brands are selling the IDEA of luxury more than a quality product. And integrity is often sacrificed for the sake of higher profits and corporate greed, according to a published report on the topic.
We all want a piece of the luxury pie. Says columnist MP Dunleavy on, "The trappings of affluence are no longer limited to those who can afford them. Increasingly, middle-class Americans will pay top dollar just to have the veneer of luxury — and retailers, wizards that they are, continue to provide the fantasy of wealth, even when all you're buying is a garden trowel."
Not-so-frugal folks from Woodbridge to Cheshire to Madison are paying a premium for status and self-esteem.
It may be shallow and wasteful, but that's the game.
Consumers seem to understand that five times the price doesn't bring five times the quality, however. Which is why they buy black-market knockoffs.
I know one woman who went to a knockoff party where she purchased a fake-designer handbag. (Party: real. Products: fake.)
I know a guy who also made such a purchase while on business in New York. He had to follow a frontman around a corner to a doorway to get his expensive-looking knockoff. I like my gadgets, and a certain standard of living, but lately I'm forced (by car repairs, college tuition, etc.) to take on more of my father's anti-consumerist mentality. You spend money when you need to, with creativity in mind, not to complete you.
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1 comment:

Jerry D said...

I forgot how good this column was. Every day I see people working their butts off, not to support their families, but to support their stuff. It's madness, especially since the "stuff" is nowhere near as good as the much better everyday consumer goods from thirty years ago. Look at today's toaster or blender compared to the ones our parents bought. Simpler, sturdier and, yes, even greener because they had less content and weren't shipped halfway around the world from their country of manufacture. We don't need all this crap. Notice how many ads on TV now for storage units? There's the proof....