Cosmetic Surgery as Investment

Recently, I received an email from a reader – let’s call her Denise. Here’s her story (edited slightly to remove a few personal details):

Here’s something I’ve been stressing about for a month or so now… I recently lost about 80ish pounds & have a ton of excess skin on my tummy. To “fix” it all is a cool $17,000. I’ve been debt free for several years now but remember clearly when I wasn’t & what it took to get out of it. Your Money or Your Life was a huge catalyst for making that recovery process possible and helping me get my head right about money’s role in my life. I haven’t owned a credit card for over 10 years, bought my first home 3 years ago, paid off my car, and only have about $8.7K left on my student loans. I have a wee little emergency cushion, but no retirement savings.

I know most people consider this a vanity issue, but it seriously effects my self image and my relationships… which is the only reason I am even considering hurling myself right back into debt. It’s really that important to me. But then, so is being able to pay all my bills.

What’s also interesting, of the people I solicit advice about this, most people say “Do it!” However, they all tend to be people who have never had to dig themselves out of serious debt, and/or are people who see how I tend live pretty frugally anyway and just want me to be happy. My “rich relatives” even compared this to the social stigma attached to people with significant overbites, clef palates, “and other disabilities.” As offensive as it might be, their point was that even if I overcome the body
image and self-esteem challenge, the society we live in will continue to make decisions about me based on my appearance which could affect everything from my job prospects to my marriage prospects (I’m 41 and single). They see this as a $17K investment in my future.

I’m interested in hearing a fresh perspective from someone who knows how devestating debt can be, that it can be overcome, and that happiness isn’t about money.

I know this is a highly personal decision, but then, isn’t that the whole point of processing all this? What would you do? What you advise your wife or sister or, in a few decades, your daughter to do?

There are actually a number of simultaneous issues going on here that need to be looked at individually.

First, the surgery itself would have some personal emotional value. No matter who you are, removing a large packet of loose skin from your body will have a positive impact on your self-image. You’ll feel better and more confident about your personal appearance and that can manifest itself in a lot of ways.

I’ve witnessed how a change in weight has completely altered the personality of an individual. I can think of one friend of mine who lost 120 pounds and became incredibly arrogant – she wound up alienating pretty much everyone around her. Another friend of mine lost about 90 pounds and basically went from being a wallflower to being an incredibly outgoing and kind person – it brought her out of her shell. Another person I know gained about 50 pounds but in the process became a happier person because he was no longer “possessed” by the need to maintain a great body, a pressure that he felt he constantly needed to live up to.

Why is this worth discussing? In modern society, body image is intrinsically tied to our sense of self and thus when we change our body (and thus our body image), our sense of self changes as well – and that changes how we behave. If you’ve lost a ton of weight, sit down with a close friend that you trust and ask some honest questions: how has it changed me? A dramatic change in your body and personal appearance can be a great thing, but it’s not worth alienating the people around you or building up a negative personality.

Second, an improvement in personal appearance does affect how others perceive you. Regardless of how you feel about yourself, others do use your personal appearance as a factor in their impression of you. Removing a large amount of excess skin is likely to be an improvement in this area.

In our society, again, such a decrease in weight is a net positive, as would be the loss of the excess skin.

Third, there’s that pesky debt. Obviously, it’s never a good idea to go into debt, but it’s quite reasonable to think that an appropriate cosmetic procedure such as this one does have some significant return on investment.

The question is whether this return on investment is enough to make the surgery worthwhile. It’s only a positive return if the surgery itself is a net positive, and part of that relies on the changes in your personality. Have you personally changed in a positive way because of the surgery, or at least in a neutral way? A two hundred pound person with a positive attitude is much more valuable than a one hundred and twenty pound person with a negative attitude.

Given that you’ve already lost the weight, you have a good indicator as to whether your body changes have affected you positively. Talk to your friends about it. If it’s been a net positive, then the surgery is probably a good idea, as you’re quite likely to continue that positive mindset and have the benefit of a better body. Added together, it will certainly add enough value to your life to make it worthwhile, even through the debt.

On the other hand, if your friends report that you’ve changed in a negative way, listen to them. Don’t blow it off as “jealousy” or something like that, because it’s not – it’s genuine concern from people who care about you. Your best approach is not to gain the weight back, but not to immediately have the surgery, either – instead, seek counseling and work through the reasons why this weight change has altered your personality in a negative way. If you can work through the issues, then consider the surgery.

What about the finances? If you have cosmetic surgery that brings about genuine and dramatic change (removing significant excess skin would fall into this category) and it’s accompanied by a genuine positive change in personality (or at least not a negative change), then, in my opinion, it’s worth it to find a way to finance the surgery.

However, Denise really needs to get on the retirement savings ASAP. Go to your employer and start a 401(k) or 403(b) now, not later. Get it done today – don’t wait another second. If you don’t know what you’re doing, just use the recommendations of the plan’s manager at your workplace – you can change most of this later on.

What about people who need cosmetic surgery and don’t know how it will affect them? Cosmetic surgery should always be accompanied by (at the very least) significant self-analysis – spend time reflecting on the changes it has brought to you and also ask friends and family about the changes they observe. If there are any bumps in the road, a psychologist should be sought out – you’re dealing with a major change in body image and that can affect your personality significantly.

Good luck, Denise! I’m sure the readers will have many more comments than I (and probably a few disagreements, too)!

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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