Friday, February 29, 2008

I'll tell you what I want

Identifying your needs v. your wants is hard. But identifying your wants is easy . . . isn't it?

No. What drives the industry of consumer debt is not just a lot of people buying what they don't need. It's fueled by our inability to recognize when we're jonesing after things we don't even want.

For those of you who weren't English majors, my blog title is actually stolen from Vanity Fair (the novel, not the magazine.) It's one of my top ten fiction-for-personal-finance books.

The book's anti-hero, Becky Sharp, is the smart and unprincipled daughter of a drawing instructor and an opera singer. She's educated as a charity case in a girls' school and is expected to earn her meagre living as a governess, school teacher or companion for little old ladies. But Becky wants real money, not some pathetic stipend. And she'll do anything to get it.

Poor girl! She explains herself: "I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year. I could dawdle about in the nursery, and count the apricots on the wall. I could water plants in a greenhouse, and pick off dead leaves from the geraniums. I could ask old women about their rheumatisms, and order half a crown’s worth of soup for the poor. I shouldn’t miss it much, out of five thousand a year."

It's a lovely picture, isn't it? Gentle indolence, painless charity, a quiet life governed by the seasons. Maybe it'd work for some people, but for Becky Sharp, it'd be like trying to use a racoon as a messenger pigeon. Not only is the attempt doomed to failure, a racoon's not something you want hanging out in the pigeon loft.

We all have similar mental images of things we think we want. How about your kitchen? You'd like to take out the old cabinets and the lino floor. You want cherrywood, granite, a Viking stove, stainless steel appliances, and probably a marble board for kneading bread dough. (Bakers say there's nothing better.) Perhaps you have a mental image of yourself, channeling Julia Childs. You can see the bunches of fresh herbs on that granite countertop, almost smell the peppers you're chopping as you prepare for a dinner party. Your face is serene. Your kitchen is spotless. Your kids are behaving or have mysteriously disappeared.

If you are a lousy cook and dinner parties stress you out, spending a fortune on new countertops will not change Real You into Imaginary You.

Too many of our mental images of "living well" are from some car commercial or Martha Stewart magazine. You know what? Doing nothing all day sucks. I don't like to travel, unless it means I get to play in the ocean. I don't make my own bread. I have zero interest in a graduate degree. Think of all the money I've just saved myself on trips to Europe, KitchenAid mixers, tuition and early retirement.

Here's your challenge: look over your personal List of Wants and cut out what you don't actually want or wouldn't really use. (Hint: a huge amount of recreational equipment goes in this category.) Permanently eliminate three items. I think you'll be surprised at how much you think you want but don't.

Now take those three items and figure out why they were on your list in the first place. Did you list granite countertops, when what you really want is to be the kind of person who cooks with fresh herbs and throws dinner parties? Buy a cookbook instead. Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything is $14.93 at Twenty five square feet of granite countertop will run you around $2500. Yes, you just saved $2485.07. Congrats.

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