Status Symbols and Spending Less

I had a wonderful Facebook message exchange with a reader named Pete, who gave me permission to summarize our conversation but not to quote it.

Pete comes from a family where clothing is a huge status symbol. To dress in a nice suit at family events or in the community that he grew up in is a visual sign that you are an adult, that you’ve made it, and that you’ve achieved things that deserve respect. A cheap suit doesn’t convey those messages of status, nor do more casual clothing options.

In short, for Pete, the clothes themselves convey status and value that goes beyond the mere quality of the clothing.

Pete makes a good point, and it’s not just a truism for families, either. There are many career paths and community situations where the way a person chooses to dress conveys a certain status and can open you up to building certain relationships that would be otherwise closed to you if you show up in a rumpled sweatshirt.

Of course, there are some problems with that equation. For starters, it’s expensive. A nice suit can run into the four figures without breaking a sweat. That can seriously hamper the finances of someone starting out.

Another problem is that, even with a nice suit, there’s no guarantee of the status you want or the relationships you hope to build. You might have a great suit, but that won’t make a reputation you’ve already damaged and it won’t guarantee respect if you’re prone to sticking your foot in your mouth, for example.

None of those caveats change the fact that there are some benefits to investing money in certain status symbols. There’s no denying that. The question I’m much more interested in is how a person can get the maximum “bang for the buck” out of these kinds of status symbols.

In other words, how can our friend Pete get the maximum value for his dollar out of owning a “status” suit or two?

Here are some strategies I’d use.

Before you do anything else, decide whether a “status symbol” will really return meaningful value to you. Is a nice suit or a nice watch or a nice dress or a nice car going to open up enough community or professional relationships to really be worthwhile for you?

A person with a local business that thrives on community involvement and needs to cultivate a strong local reputation might find a great deal of personal value in appearing to have status in the community. On the other hand, someone who is self-employed or works in a research environment might find that status within their field comes from other sources and won’t get much value from a physical status symbol.

This is much more of an introspective thing. However, I will say that in my experience, status usually comes from reputation, and reputation usually comes from character. When I think of people I really respect in my local community, some of them do dress nicely and some of them do have status symbols, but many of them do not. The one person I immediately think of is usually found wearing a worn hat from the college he attended paired with a sweatshirt. His status is supported by a mix of friendliness and personal reputation, not by his clothing.

A status symbol isn’t “reputation in a box.” It’s a foot in the door, perhaps, but it’s up to you to build a reputation and it’s up to you to show character.

If you decide that a status symbol is right for you, first talk to a respected mentor with experience in this area. Find an older relative that you trust, or an older person in your workplace, and explain your situation. You’d like to buy a nice suit but you’re just starting out and you don’t have a ton of cash for it yet. Obviously, substitute whatever status symbol is necessary here.

What you’ll often find is that a good, trusted mentor will be able to find you that item you’re looking for at a surprisingly good price. They might even be able to give you one.

Early on in my career, one of my mentors helped me to find an amazing suit at a really great price, and another mentor simply gave me an amazing watch from his personal collection.

Why did they do that? Perhaps they saw some kind of potential in me. Perhaps they wanted to cultivate that relationship with me. It might have been simply a desire to pay things forward, or perhaps to give to me something they wish had been given to them early in their life.

Whatever the reason, mentors are often extremely helpful in situations like this. Don’t be afraid to talk to a trusted older relative or other mentor when you’re trying to “dress the part” or establish status in some other way.

Second, be patient and shop slowly. Don’t just run to the store immediately and throw cash at a problem like this. Remember, you don’t need that status symbol. Far from it. It’s something that will perhaps be useful, but it’s not something that you need to run out and pay full price for.

Instead, spend your time doing research and figuring out exactly what you want or need. Give yourself a variety of options. Then, start bargain hunting those options. You can sometimes find incredible discounts on things like fine clothing if you give it time and patience.

Don’t be afraid to utilize your mentors a bit here, either. Just let them know that you’re looking for a nice suit and ask them to keep their eyes open for any sales. Even if your mentor can’t hook you up with a personalized discount, they might be able to find you a really good sale.

Once you do decide to invest in a status symbol like this, use accessories to multiply the value at an extremely low cost. The example that I love to use here is using ties and shirts to add a great deal of variety to suits. Wearing a variety of tie patterns and shirts will make it appear as though there’s a great deal of variety in your wardrobe, when the truth is that you mostly just rely on one nice suit.

This is a huge money saver. It means that you don’t need to have a lot of expensive suits, just one or two. You just surround those two suits with a variety of different accessories – a variety of ties, shirts, watches, and so on – and you’ll pass off that single suit as being part of a widely varied wardrobe.

Also, take immaculate care of that status symbol so that you maximize the length of its life. If you’re actually investing a lot of money into something that’s largely for appearance and status, take care of that item. Maintain it properly. Clean it properly. Follow the instructions to the letter.

The reason is that you’re going to judge the value of an item like this by the number of times you use it. If you invest, say, $1,000 in a suit, if you wear it 10 times, it’s costing you $100 per wear. If you can wear it 100 times, it’s down to $10 per wear. Get it up to 250 and it’s down to $4 per wear.

Proper care and maintenance is going to extend the life of that status symbol. It’s going to enable you to get more uses out of that item before it begins to break down, look worn, or even potentially fail. The more uses you get out of that item, the better the value is going to be.

Think of it this way. Imagine your status symbol opens the door to one new connection each time you use it. That connection has value, right? The more uses you get out of that status symbol, then, the less expensive each connection becomes.

I want to conclude this article by clearly stating that I don’t think that status symbols actually build the kind of relationships that have value. They can help you get your foot in the door and can help boost your charisma, but they’re not required, and to actually build that relationship, you need to be bringing positive personal characteristics to the table, and no status symbol in the world can help you with that.

If you do decide that a particular status item is warranted in your personal and professional situation, be smart with that purchase. Seek help from a mentor. Shop around. Accessorize it rather than buying duplicates. Take care of the item. If you follow those strategies, you’ll maximize the value you get from that purchase.

Good luck!

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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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