Some Thoughts on Conspicuous Consumption – and Less Expensive Ways to Show Your Status

A few days ago, I commented on a friend’s wristwatch. I happened to notice it because the face of the watch was black, which actually stood out on his wrist.

It turned out that this watch was a Rolex Submariner, something that often sells in the five figures. He was quite proud of it.

I mentioned to him that I had noticed he usually wore two other watches, one with a blue face and one with a white face, and he laughed. “I actually have about 10 watches that I rotate, mostly with white faces.”

Were they all similarly expensive? It turned out that this Submariner watch was actually in the middle of the road compared to the rest in his collection. His most expensive watch was a Patek Philippe, which was pretty high into the five figures.

Why? I couldn’t help but ask him that. He told me that he honestly didn’t know, aside from the fact that they looked good on his wrist. “I suppose that people who like nice watches will appreciate it.”

(At the end of this conversation, my friend, with a laugh, said, “You’re probably going to want to write about this on The Simple Dollar, aren’t you?” I nodded and he told me to go for it, because even he recognized that a six-figure watch collection was perhaps not the smartest financial choice.)

I completely understand where my friend is coming from. The watch he wears on his wrist is aesthetically pleasing. It stands out a little, enough that I even noticed it, and I’m usually oblivious to such things. My guess is that the watch makes him feel very good about his appearance and that boosts his personal confidence, although we didn’t directly dig into that issue.

But why do those things happen? In the end, what real advantage does a five-figure watch have over a three-figure watch (or even a two-figure one)?

Other than some extremely minor aesthetics, the biggest advantage that the expensive watch has is that it gives an appearance of wealth. For those that notice it and realize what it is, it’s an indication that this person has the resources to pay five figures for a watch.

In other words, it’s conspicuous consumption. From the Wikipedia definition:

Conspicuous consumption is the spending of money on and the acquiring of luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power — of the income or of the accumulated wealth of the buyer. To the conspicuous consumer, such a public display of discretionary economic power is a means either of attaining or of maintaining a given social status.

The purpose behind wearing such a watch isn’t the functionality of the watch. The functionality can be obtained at a much lower price. It’s about attaining or maintaining social status through a public display of spending power. It is a public display that says that the person wearing this watch is valued or valuable enough to be able to afford a five figure item on his or her wrist.

It’s similar to the reason that people wear expensive clothing or expensive jewelry. On a lesser scale, it’s why people tend to use high end electronics. None of those things provide any sort of meaningful functionality that surpasses less expensive versions (in fact, I’d argue that they’re less functional because there’s a financial reason to be much more protective of a five figure watch).

It’s not about what the item actually does in terms of functionality. It’s about status. It’s about appearance. It’s about self-confidence, in other words.

In other words, would you pay five figures for an item that made you feel substantially more self-confident in any situation? There are a lot of people who would do this… in fact, there are quite a few people who do this.

There’s a problem with that tradeoff, though.

For starters, such items often don’t lead to sustained improvements in self-confidence. They might help with your self-confidence over the short term, but something else will need to sustain it long term. Because of that, many people who buy items to improve their self-confidence often end up buying a string of them over time. When the self-confidence boost from a watch fades away, you’re either left accepting a reduced sense of self-confidence or you buy another item to artificially boost it again. (I should know; I have been caught in this cycle myself in the past.)

Of course, there is a third option.

The most powerful type of self-confidence booster isn’t conspicuous consumption. It’s self-improvement. It’s about genuinely improving aspects of yourself that bother you so that they no longer detract from your self-image.

There are many, many ways to improve your self-image and thus your self-confidence without conspicuous consumption.

You can try hard to always do the right thing and build a positive reputation. Few things feel better than knowing that you’ve done the right thing in a lot of situations in life. Doing so can build a strong sense within that you are a good and worthwhile person, plus it can help build a positive reputation for you which makes self-confidence much easier.

You can improve your grooming habits. Simply adopt a more thorough personal hygiene and grooming routine at the start of your day.

You can nip negative thoughts in the bud. Whenever you notice yourself thinking negative thoughts about yourself or about others, consciously shut down those thoughts and consciously look for positives. You’ll find that the whole world begins to look better.

You can lose weight. Not only does this provide health benefits, it can provide a powerful boost to self-confidence.

You can consciously work on your social and networking skills. Being able to put aside personal nervousness and actually talk to people in a social setting can completely change one’s worldview and one’s self-image.

You can engage in an interesting hobby. This often gives a person something to talk about and to share with others. It gives you a starting point for conversation, if nothing else. I can’t tell you the number of great conversations I’ve had about hiking or even about tabletop gaming.

You can actively practice self-appreciation. Simply list three things you appreciate about yourself every single day.

You can accept imperfections. No one is perfect – not you and not anyone else. That’s okay. Accepting that can do wonders for a person’s self-confidence once they realize that they don’t have to be perfect.

All of those steps add up to one key thing: self-confidence. In the end, that’s the real purpose of conspicuous consumption: it’s a substitution for self-confidence in order to gain the respect and admiration of others. A status symbol isn’t true status – it’s merely a substitute for it. True status comes from the person behind the status symbols, and if you have self-confidence and good character traits, you have everything you need.

At that point, status symbols become nothing more than overpriced trinkets; their value for increasing self-confidence basically vanishes because you already have that confidence. Their value for displaying status basically disappears because you already have that status.

The best investment you can make in your future isn’t to buy a status symbol. The best investment you can make in your future is to improve yourself. That turns out to usually be an investment of time rather than money.

Instead of buying that status symbol, use that money elsewhere to eliminate debts, build an emergency fund, and begin paving the life you want to live.

If you already have all of that, sure, buy yourself a five figure watch if you want one, but at that point, you can see it for what it is: a very expensive trinket on your wrist. It’s not self-confidence. It’s not status. It’s just a watch.

Self-confidence comes from within. Status comes from sustained self-confidence and other positive character traits. You can’t buy those things permanently; a status symbol is just a temporary boost at an extremely stiff price.

Good luck.

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.