The Moneyist: I have a ‘mundane’ First World problem: Should I buy a $30,000 bracelet during a global pandemic?

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Dear Quentin,

I have a mundane First World problem that may or may not warrant your attention. But I read your column and thought you could help me. It’s something that has been troubling me for some time. Should I buy a $30,000 piece of jewelry?

I have a $500,000 stable annual income and no debt. My kids have their private college tuition and retirement fully funded, and I have an additional $1 million in investable assets in various bank and brokerage accounts. My husband and I are in our late 40s, early 50s.

We have always lived a financially disciplined lifestyle. We avoid impulse buys while spending liberally on things we truly enjoy and care about, including annual multi-week vacations for the family, organic food, home upgrades for our hobbies, and support for our favorite charities.

‘The good news is, this particular brand of jewelry has been holding its value very well over a long horizon.’

I personally adore quality designer jewelry, and get a little thrill every time I look at them on my wrist and finger. I have never spent $30,000 on one piece of jewelry, and I feel some guilt spending that much money on something primarily for myself, not the family.

This particular piece, a bracelet, has been on my radar since 2019, and I found myself coming back to it time and again. I spent hours following online discussion threads, researching its resale value (in case my daughter doesn’t want it) and insurance against loss, etc.

The good news is, this particular brand of jewelry has been holding its value very well over a long horizon; in fact, it boasts the highest resale value in the last couple of years, according to top luxury resale and consignment sites.

However, I just can’t bring myself to pull the trigger: Spending almost 3% of our investable assets on a piece of jewelry just feels very excessive to me. I tell myself to reconsider in a few years when we get to a higher net worth to make the purchase easier to justify and stomach.

My husband said I should buy it sooner, and enjoy it for a few more years. I realize the jewelry aspect makes this a highly personal-preference question. I guess a more generic question could be, does a $30,000 discretionary spend sound reasonable in our financial situation?

A Bracelet Lover

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at [email protected], and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

Dear Bracelet Lover,

Before the world and its mother comes down on you like a ton of bricks for asking this question during a pandemic — and before said world and its mother comes down on me for answering your question — I will say that I find your letter curious. Not “$30,000 bracelet” curious. But curious, nonetheless.

The reason: I don’t believe this magnificent, guilt-ridden obsession is really about the bracelet at all. The object of your desire could be anything: It could be a Tesla Model 3 or a used GT-R. It could be a Fabergé egg, aluminum siding, or even a $30,000 Hermès Kelly clutch bag.

It’s extravagant in the way a motor vehicle or kitchen reno is extravagant, for different reasons. Did you know the average cost of a light vehicle in the United States is over $40,000? You can’t drive a $30,000 bracelet, but you can wear one and drive a $10,000 car to get you from A to B. Who’s more mundane now?

Millions of Americans have the $30,000 bracelet dilemma every day, even if they don’t recognize it as such, like when they spend $4 on a frothy coffee.

I get it. There is a thrill in buying something so outrageously out of your price range, or a minor extravagance that adds up to hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, over your lifetime.

For instance, cupcakes, it has been argued, encompass everything that’s wrong with America. There is a Magnolia Bakery at the end of my street and almost every evening people patiently stand in line waiting for one of those empty-calorie sugar bombs, and every evening I say, “That’s crazy.” Personally, I don’t eat anything that looks more delicious than it tastes.

And then? And then I see myself in those people every time I buy a meal that I know I can make myself at home for a fraction of the price, or I want to treat myself to something that I don’t know, but in that moment I want.

Millions of Americans have the $30,000 bracelet dilemma every day, even if they don’t recognize it as such, like when they spend $4 on a coffee with a fancy name and sprinkles of flavors and froth. A coffee drinker would save $150,600 over 40 years if they were to brew their own coffee, according to one calculation. It’s insanity, but we do it without thinking.

The Starbucks logo, per this report, was inspired by a siren of the sea first found on a 16th-century Nordic woodcut. It’s a seductive piece of marketing genius. And, honestly, if you were talking about spending the same amount on a piece of art that is trumpeted by galleries because curators say that artist can do what no one else can do, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Coffee. Cupcakes. And bracelets. So what does it all mean? How will that piece of jewelry make you feel when it adorns your arm? What kind of connection will you have to this object? Will other people notice it? Will you tell them how much it cost? Would owning it confirm any privately held ambitions you have for yourself?

Precious family heirloom vs. pandemic extravagance

You are not just buying a $30,000 bracelet. You are, perhaps, buying your way out of an old way of seeing yourself. That may or may not last. Or maybe you truly believe that it will bring you joy as a family heirloom, and you can resell it at the same or a higher value if a prospective buyer or the real world come knocking, like it did for this woman who donated half her stimulus check only to find herself swimming in medical bills.

Will wearing such an item give you more confidence to sail past the snootiest members of your tennis club or the maître d’ at the most popular Michelin restaurant in town? Please know that I’m not speaking about you here. I’m talking about anyone who splashes out, during a pandemic or not.

About the pandemic. Researching this purchase may lift your spirits, and actually help you escape the mundane. It may or may not be a coincidence that you choose now to do something so bold and new. It’s a $30,000 sop to coronavirus. A million-dollar spit in the ocean during a truly difficult year.

It may or may not be a coincidence that you choose now to buy this bracelet. It’s a $30,000 sop to coronavirus during a truly difficult year.

— The Moneyist

For some people, spending $30,000 on one luxury item is a way of showing their spouse or, indeed, themselves that they are worth that much. The diamond industry, for better or worse, is based on that conceit. You need a rock on your finger to show the world that it’s true love.

For others, it’s about showing the world that you can’t mess with them and, like Leona Helmsley, the Queen of Mean, will show the world there are no little people, only big handbags — like this woman who sued a country club in New Jersey after a waiter spilled wine on her $30,000 Hermès Kelly clutch bag.

Would I spend $30,000 on a piece of jewelry if I were in your position? Probably not. I’d likely take a photo, salivate over it, and get over it. For that reason, my iPhone

 has saved me hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in unnecessary impulse purchases. Should you buy it? That’s not for me to say. That’s for you to find out. Suze Orman would probably give you a “yay” or “nay” on the matter, but I’m not Suze Orman. That’s not my gig, nor is it my style.

I’ll tell you what is my style: a pair of chocolate-brown Donna Karan trousers that I bought for a friend’s wedding in New York 20 years ago. I had traveled here from Dublin, and a friend took me to Saks Fifth Avenue. I was fresh out of college and thought, “How expensive could they be?”

You have formed an attachment to this bracelet, or at least to the idea of this bracelet. Let that go for a moment. What else you could do with $30,000?

I rolled up to the cash desk after they were adjusted three ways from Sunday, and the clerk told me they were $450. I handed over my fresh-out-of-college credit card and watched in horror as the cashier rang up the equivalent of one month’s rent. I loved those dress pants. They moved like slow motion. I was Jason, and those threads were my golden fleece.

What has all that got to do with your $30,000 bracelet? Three things:

1. This piece of jewelry has something to teach you, and you don’t have to buy it to learn what that is.

2. This is a judgment-free zone. The Moneyist will answer questions about luxury goods and people on the poverty line, like this woman who earned $15 an hour, had no college education or home to call her own. They represent two very different Americas, and the gap between the two is something we should never take our eye off.

3. Our monetary dilemmas are rarely about what we think they’re about.

You have formed an attachment to this bracelet, or at least to the idea of this bracelet. Let that go for a moment. What else could you do with $30,000? Something different, but equally novel, that perhaps could also have an impact? You don’t even have to spend the money on you.

Buy it or don’t buy it. Whatever you do, remember this: However it makes you feel, you can feel that way without it. Whatever properties, provenance or millesimal fineness this piece of silver holds, however many carats its diamonds embody, your own qualities as a human being outweigh it. Whatever obsession it sparks in you, you can out-spark it.

About those $450 Donna Karan dress pants. I cared for them like priceless silk and, one fine day, I dropped them at a dry cleaners in Dublin. I noticed some of the lights in the cleaners were out as I took my ticket, but I paid no heed. Big mistake. It was 2008. The dry cleaners went bankrupt and padlocked its doors. I had 10 years of loyal service, but I never saw those trousers again.

Next up:COVID-19 was never going to have a Hollywood ending

Hello there, MarketWatchers. Check out the Moneyist private Facebook

 group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

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