The Recession Splurge

Just because you're supposed to be cutting back doesn't mean you can't indulge in cashmere socks

You shouldn't be doing this. You shouldn't even be here. As your eyes longingly study the caramel-colored curves a few millimeters from your fingertips, you can already feel the guilt welling up in your chest. You have a family. There are bills mounting like a ziggurat on the kitchen table. Your stock portfolio has been reduced to chicken feed, and every day brings yet another spurt of nauseating economic news. Now is not the time to succumb to some fleeting temptation, and yet here you are imagining the taste sliding across your tongue. You are weak, and you give in. You grab the bottle of single-malt Scotch, reach for your credit card, and pray that your wife will be too distracted to ask why, in the midst of an economic meltdown, you felt compelled to spend $100 on another bottle of premium hooch. You've surrendered to what might be called the Recession Splurge Reflex, an impulse to treat yourself to the very indulgences that we're all supposed to banish in the name of fiscal austerity.

Maybe the target of your splurge is a block of crunchy, nutty, super-aged Gouda from the cheese shop down the street. Maybe it's a pair of desert boots, or a digital camera, or a shiny new iPhone ("I need it for work!"), or a fragrant $40 tube of Tom Ford aftershave balm. Whatever it is, it can't be categorized as a necessity, which is exactly why you feel you deserve it. "Over time, Americans have become so accustomed to these small luxuries that we've stopped thinking of them as luxuries," says Eli Halliwell, 38, who, as the former CEO of the Jurlique cosmetics company, learned his fair share about consumer behavior. "They are now entitlements that we don't feel we should have to live without. This is part of the success of companies like Whole Foods—they are selling the luxury of treating yourself to healthier, tastier food. Montgomery Cheddar and Aventinus beer are now basics, not luxuries. I won't even drink a beer or eat a cheese if I think it is crummy."

What you buy is no longer just a reflection of what you can buy. It's a narrative gesture about your identity—a public statement about who you are. And after you've spent a decade being a Humboldt Fog and Art of Shaving kind of guy, it's a shock to contemplate a sheepish return to Kraft Singles and Barbasol. "The way we express ourselves is through these purchasing decisions," says Anya Kamenetz, the author of Generation Debt. "Everything that you buy is coded to express your values. So if you can't buy the certain type of things that do that, then maybe you feel like you're giving up your values."

Or at least giving up regular infusions of pleasure, which can be even harder to relinquish. "There's a bulimic kind of quality to a lot of people's spending today," Kamenetz says. "People are imposing really Draconian restrictions on themselves, and after a week of bringing your sad little sandwich to work, you're like, 'Oh, fuck this—I'm going out for sushi.'" Especially when you just had to postpone that long-planned week in the Bahamas. Luxuriating in bites and baubles can serve as a psychic stopgap measure when you can't pay for a bathroom renovation. "It's not necessarily an irrational thing or a bad thing that we're splurging on wine and cheese and a good meal out with friends, because that actually is money well spent," says science writer Jonah Lehrer, the author of How We Decide. "We very quickly adapt and habituate to material goods, and yet what we continue to enjoy are memories of that bottle of wine we shared with our wife or best friend."

There is also, of course, the ancient practice of getting drunk. It's no accident that battered U.S. citizens repealed Prohibition in the middle of the Great Depression. "People naturally self-medicate," Lehrer says. "You've had a long day, lots of gloom and doom, everybody's talking about layoffs, the stock market's going down, so you want a pick-me-up." Even the simple act of reaching for your AmEx card has become a kind of drug. "People in a recession are in pain," says marketing guru Seth Godin, the author of influential tracts such as Tribes. "Over time, we've been conditioned to solve pain of any kind by applying the joy we get when we spend money." Which means that the apocalyptic tone of a lot of business coverage may, paradoxically, be intensifying the splurge reflex. Consultant and professor Jean-Noel Kapferer, the author of The Luxury Strategy, compares the phenomenon to what happens during invasions and bombing raids. "This is the same psychological stress as in times of war," he says. "People lose their jobs, they feel very insecure about their future. The basis of optimism—which is 'The future is nice'—is lost for a while." In such a situation, he says, there is a common impulse to huddle in a bomb shelter, uncork the best bottle of red you can find, and share it with a tight-knit group of comrades. "People go out less, but they treat themselves with some very good friends at home," he says. "In times of crisis we need to be pampered somehow."

Besides, if your favorite mutual fund is turning into a sinkhole, you've got to find new things to invest in. Which might explain Kamenetz's doomsday plan. "I had a serious conversation with my husband about whether we should stockpile whiskey," she says. "In the event that the dollar becomes hyperinflated, we could trade our way out of Brooklyn with a case of whiskey."

"And even if that doesn't happen," she adds, "we'll still have a case of whiskey."

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