I like to think that Mr. W and I do our best to resist consumerist trends and behaviors. For instance, we don’t own an iPad or an e-reader. I only have a smartphone because it is provided by my employer. My car is 11 years old and I bought it used. Mr. W’s car has an unsightly dent that he hasn’t fixed because the damage is purely cosmetic. We live in a part of town that most of our friends probably consider “unhip.” It’s perfectly safe, but it’s just not where most young professionals would want to live (one of our acquaintances smirked, raised her overly waxed eyebrows, and said, “ooooh… really?” after learning where we lived. Whatever).
That’s not to say, of course, that I haven’t followed consumerist trends from time to time: I definitely have. And, I’m ashamed to say that it was usually motivated by perceived peer pressure and my own desire to keep up with the so-called Joneses. My behavior was most egregious during college. When I attended college, I left my hometown in California to attend a university outside of Philadelphia. I found myself in an entirely new environment and part of an entirely new social circle. None of my new college friends were especially materialistic and they didn’t flaunt expensive purchases. However, trends on the East Coast were pretty different from the trends on the West Coast. I found myself wanting to follow along with the trends so that I would fit in with my new friends. I didn’t really care if I could fit in with the public at large, but I did care about the opinions of my friends. It was as if I thought that buying the same stuff everyone else had would help me to forge meaningful relationships (wow…was I in middle school again?).
I present to you, in ascending price order, a list of stuff I bought simply to keep up with the collegiate Joneses.
Soffe Shorts ($8/each):
Do you know what Soffe shorts are? I didn’t, until I started college. They’re just tight-fitting cotton shorts with an elastic waistband. Trust me when I say that there is nothing special about these shorts. They don’t even make your tail end look good, a la Lululemon attire. But all my friends wore them while lounging around the dorms, so I figured I ought to have them, as well. At $8 per pair, they didn’t exactly break the bank…until I decided to buy them in seven colors. And of course, I had to buy the pair with the name of my alma mater stamped across the rear (cue dramatic eyeroll, shall we?).
Nalgene Water Bottles ($17/each):
Nalgene water bottles were hugely popular on my college campus. The ones sold at our student bookstore were approximately the size of a Big Gulp, and virtually indestructible. Most students would take them to the dining halls and fill them up with soda/water/iced tea to chug throughout the day. The bottles came in bright colors, prominently displaying the name of our alma mater. They were $17 a pop, which seemed like a steep price for a plastic water bottle. But I figured that I would reuse a Nalgene bottle for years, so the cost per use would be minimal. With that reasoning, I bought myself a Nalgene. Within a matter of weeks, I accidentally left it in a classroom. Then I bought myself a replacement Nalgene. I lost this second Nalgene by placing it on the roof of my car and driving away. I hope that someone picked up those water bottles and is making use of the $34 I wasted.
By the time I was a senior in college, Nalgenes had been trumped by Sigg water bottles. Sigg was the new “IT” bottle. I’m not even sure why Sigg became so popular. It’s essentially an aluminum canteen that is 1) not insulated at all, 2) difficult to use while exercising, and 3) nearly impossible to clean. But they just looked so cool. And there was a scarcity factor, which made them seem that much cooler. Whereas Nalgenes could be bought en masse at the campus bookstore, Sigg bottles were much harder to come by. Theoretically, you could purchase them online – except that the Sigg website was always sold out. I checked Whole Foods frequently to scope out their Sigg inventory. I eventually bought myself two aluminum bottles at a whopping $19 each. I haven’t lost them yet, but I also haven’t used them in about a year.
Vera Bradley Totes ($42/each)
I had been familiar with Vera Bradley totes prior to starting college. My grandmother and her friends were fond of the floral quilted handbags, and purchased them in many patterns and styles. However, I had never seen someone my age carrying a Vera Bradley bag. In my experience, it was a brand that was marketed towards a more mature customer. Once I started college, it seemed like every female student owned at least one – if not several – of these floral quilted totes. Some of the floral patterns were fun, but some reminded me of a tapestry. At the end of my freshmen year, I purchased myself a preppy pink and green VB tote for $42. It ended up being a worthy purchase since the tote was the perfect size to carry a day’s worth of books and notebooks while trekking from class to class.
North Face TriClimate Jacket ($228)
When I started college, I didn’t own a “real” winter jacket. I simply hadn’t needed one in California. Sure, I had some sort of peacoat that I had purchased on sale for $30. But it was barely substantial enough to keep me warm during the mild Southern California winters. As Thanksgiving approached and the temperature dropped, I realized that my peacoat was just not going to cut it. I noticed that all my college classmates wore these nifty North Face “TriClimate” jackets. They were three-in-one contraptions consisting of a soft inner jacket and a lightweight waterproof/wind resistant shell. The two jackets could be worn separately or zipped together to maximize warmth. Voila – convertible outerwear! How ingenious is that?! (yes, I realize that convertible outerwear is passé to anyone who has grown up in cold weather. But it was a game changer to me). I decided I had to have one, especially since they were available in un-hideous colors. While I was home for winter break, I used my Christmas money and splurged on a North Face jacket. It was $228, which was at least four times more than I had ever paid for a single item of clothing. On top of that, I paid 8.5% California sales tax on the jacket. Pennsylvania doesn’t assess sales tax on clothing, so I could have saved myself nearly $20 by buying the jacket closer to school. I did wear the jacket frequently while in college, but ended up selling it on eBay for $50. I realized that parkas weren’t really my style, and saved my money towards better a better quality peacoat, instead.
Thankfully, I never indulged in the most expensive campus trends, such as Tory Burch flats or Chanel sunglasses. All in all, I don’t think I was too frivolous with money during my college years, although I definitely had some weak moments. Admittedly, the financial impact of buying an $8 pair of shorts was relatively minimal. However, the tendency to succumb to financial peer pressure -- real or imagined -- can be dangerous regardless of the dollar amount. Thinking back to the college years has helped me to identify ways that I have been susceptible to financial peer pressure in the past, so that I can avoid similar behavior in the future, when the stakes are likely to be much higher.