July 17, 2012

Startling Expenses

I would like to talk about perfume a little bit, because I just made an exciting (for me) perfume purchase and so it is on my mind, but here is the thing I need to get out of the way right up front: perfume is one of my Startling Expenses. And it turns out THAT is what I actually want to talk about, so the subject of perfume will wait for another day.

I remember learning about Startling Expenses back in elementary school, when a friend's Christmas haul was ten times the value of mine. I was indignant and jealous and upset, and I think what I wanted was for my parents to make condemning remarks about how out of line the other family was to spoil her so badly, and maybe also to apologize for not doing the same to me, or at LEAST take a satisfyingly superior tone about how our family was Keeping Christmas Simple.

Instead I got a Reasonable Explanation about how different families make different decisions with their money: one family might love Christmas and really have fun going all-out, so they skimp on other things all year to save for it; another family might go light or medium on Christmas and spend on a vacation; another family might go medium on Christmas, skip vacations, but go out to dinner, or buy new school clothes, or pay for private school, or save for college, or have parties, or make home improvements, or donate to charity, or get their hair cut at salons, or have a housecleaner, or get portraits done, or buy organic food, or have smart phones, or have cable, or replace cars more frequently, or have a gaming system, or live in a more expensive area of the country, or take more time off, or go back to school, or take music lessons, or buy casually throughout the year the things Family #1 saves to give at Christmas---or do any number of things the next family was not doing and so would consider a Startling Expense.

The things WE don't prioritize almost ALWAYS seem like crazy things to spend money on. And at this point I have a flashback to my late mother-in-law, who would literally gasp when she saw me getting a can of Contadina tomato sauce ("*gasp* Oh! Swistle! Don't you want the STORE brand??"), but would express equal astonishment that someone WOULDN'T pay the extra hundred dollars for sheets with a DECENT thread count.

It's important to realize that although such things seem like RIDICULOUS CONTRADICTIONS, they are not: thoughtful consumers save money where they don't care, so that they can spend it where they do care. The annoying thing about my late mother-in-law is not that she'd spend $100 more on sheets while not wanting to pay 15 cents more on tomato sauce; the annoying thing is that she would think everyone who didn't make the same set of decisions must be an idiot.

It might seem like this would only apply to well-off families and luxury items, but in my experience it happens nearly across the board: even my verge-of-financial-crisis acquaintances will periodically startle me with what they will pay for a product or experience, and education and cars and foods and homes can qualify just as the purer luxuries (perfume, make-up, liquor) do. Even though my starting example of perfume puts us in the mindset of total unnecessaries, notice that to my late mother-in-law, my Startling Expense was a can of tomato sauce. Other people's Startling Expenses seem like a foolish waste of money whether you're poorer or richer than they are, whether the item in question is a pint of ice cream or a college degree; it's the way Startling Expenses ARE. The instant temptation is to think that WE would not squander money that way if WE were in their shoes, and GOODNESS what a waste that spending seems to us when we can barely afford to buy our own Item That is a Good Value and Certainly Not an Equally Startling Expense!

If it is hard for you to think of what your own Startling Expenses are, because they just make so much SENSE you don't notice them or think of them that way, you could ask a frank friend (a friend who doesn't spend money the same way you do) to tell you. Or, think of times when you've said "You should never skimp on _____!," or "Well, it COSTS more, but it's WORTH it," or "I'd rather spend money on ____ than on something that's gone in ten seconds!," or "Well, TIME is valuable, too," or "Well, I think it's important to TREAT yourself," or "But it's important for the kids to grow up where...," or "But you can use/wear it forever!," or "Well, the per-use price isn't really...," or "EXPERIENCES are the really valuable things!," or "Well, it's IMPORTANT to ____," or "It's an INVESTMENT," or really any expense-justifying remark.

Such reasons are often TRUE; they also helpfully mark the areas where we know we spend more, and/or where we are hoping to persuade other people that they should do so too. And such are the things I say about my perfumes. Which we can talk about later.


BKC said...

I am nearly always startled by the amount of money people tell me they've spent on shoes. Shoes are not clothes, and by necessity they hang out in the dirt. I can't bring myself to care about them, and gasp involuntarily when my girlfriends tell me what their shoes cost.

BKC said...

Ooops, and my startling expense is massages, which is sort of ironic because I don't have health insurance but I will PAY OUT for a lovely massage. I think they make me a better person.

Alicia said...

Oh my god! I talk about this ALL the time. A distant cousin is very economically disadvantaged plus their kid is sick. People can die of what she has but generally don't. A Wishes For Kids-type organization spent $1000s to fly the family to an American Girl store and purchase multiple dolls for her. That money could have paid her rent on the house they're about to lose for a year. I CANNOT get over this. I know the kid deserves a special experience that has no bearing on what she can afford, but it drives me completely batty that this organization bought these toys when the $15 alternatives would have been approximately the same. And then they'd be able to have a roof over their heads!

I just have to always remind myself that you can't spend other people's money. You can't spend other people's money. You may want to, but..... ARGH!

Karly said...

Yes! This is a topic near and dear to me as a small business owner - I tend to BE the startling expense! Ha!

It's all about what you value. ;)

Tess said...

My Startling Expenses are travel and going out to eat/drink. In general, I tend to heavily weight experiences when making spending decisions.

Also, I always buy the brand name canned tomatoes.

Tess said...

Oh, and how could I forget my gym membership(S!)!! Yet another notch in the "experiences" column!

Life of a Doctor's Wife said...

My husband and I have opposing Startling Expenses. He is a scrimper when grocery shopping. And while I will happily spend $100 just on produce, he will think, "Do you REALLY need to buy strawberries AND grapes? Are you sure you want brie enough to spend $6 on it? Yes, I know those pomegranate seed things are your favorite breakfast food, but they are $4.50 per package."

But he will turn around and happily spend $500 on a surround sound system and an iPod is a necessity, whereas I have never owned an iPod and I could care less about sound quality when I'm watching TV/movies or listening to music.

I also feel strongly about buying good clothing, whereas he balks at any dress shirt that's not at least 30% off.

So we indulge each other. (Occasionally. Not regularly.) But it's very interesting, the things that are Worth Paying For!

leenie said...

Ooooh, I can't wait to read everyone's startling expenses.

Mine: restaurants/meals out. massages. monthly cross-country plane tickets to visit family or friends. mid-level hotels (I'm equal parts horrified by low-end motels and super expensive hotels)

Also, these were my Startling Expenses when I was poor (like POOR), and are still now that I'm just normal (like middle class). Their frequency has increased as my income has, but they are the same Startling Expenses.

phancymama said...

I always think that I should like to be someone who splurges (that is the phrase I've used for my Startling Expenses) on perfume, but just am not. Everyone else's splurges seem to be so fancy, and I love learning about it! One of mine is ice cream. I see no sense in eating ice cream that is not high quality. My husband however doesn't quite comprehend the difference. Therefore we currently have a store brand carton of ice cream languishing in the freezer.

SarahSews said...

I think about it all the time too. My startling expense is coffee (I buy expensive beans to brew at home) and organic milk for my son who drinks a LOT of milk. Oh and private preschool (though we don't qualify for free preschool so no matter where he went, we'd have to pay). I marvel at a relative's annual family pass to Disneyland for their family of 5. They live 300 miles away. Under no circumstance would that be a budget item for my family. Even if we lived 30 miles away (though maybe if we lived 3).

Susan C. said...

I love this post, Swistle! I've worked with people who are very, very judge-y about other's Startling Expenses, and it has always driven me crazy. The same way I try not to judge what other people are eating, I try not to judge what other people are spending, lest I be judged, etc. etc. etc.

That said, my Startling Expense is my yarn. I'm a knitter, and I spend hours and hours on a knitting project. So I tend to buy higher quality, luxury yarns when I can to make those hours even more enjoyable. But that's just me - to each their own!

Melospiza said...

I love this discussion, Swistle. And for the record I go to possibly mentally damaging lengths to both attain and avoid Startling Expenses. I have carefully trained myself to buy Muir Glen, for example, even though I get a physical pang every time I pass up the cheapo brand. I have actually never set foot in a hair salon, for fear that I will become dependent on salon haircuts (uh, I wear my hair long, well past the time of life when this is attractive and/or smart). I hate spending money, says I -and yet somehow I have granite countertops. I wince a little even to say that.

Gigi said...

Excellent and thought provoking post!

I am trying hard to think what my Startling Expense might be....but since we are currently POOR, POOR there's not much.

I would have to say my lipstick. I will spend the extra money so that I can buy the kind that doesn't wear off all day. To me, that is worth it.

Anonymous said...

Mine might be that I value professionals so I will pay lawyers crazy amounts to do things. I say "it's worth it for me not to have to worry about it." while the person is all "you spent WHAT on WHAT????"

Was totally giggling at this, btw. Great post,


Kenner said...

What a great explanation of something I've always been AWARE of but had never attempted to articulate :)

Dinsdale said...

Hmmm. I think my startling expenses are probably fancy health insurance (health care here is both public and private, so a lot of people don't have it) and foundation/concealer - because I'm so pale drugstore brands are ludicrous on me.

Having said that, I'm currently paying my way through grad school, so I'm having to be VERY frugal. If I had more leeway, I'd also buy organic farmer's market meat and eggs.

Magnolia said...

Mine is my yarn (god the yarn) my makeup which I buy once a year and spend hundreds on, and probably my hair.

I try to be frugal everywhere else though I have to admit I am terrible about not eating out.

This post though is -awesome- for articulating what it was that I knew but never knew how to say. I have linked it everywhere of course.

Erin said...

Haircuts. I pay DC prices even though I live in a suburb, because if I go to a Haircuttery type place I hate what I leave with. It took me until I was engaged and wanted to look good for my wedding to realize this and start going to a real salon.

Also, makeup. I have one color of Mac lipstick that is the only lipstick I ever wear, and I don't care if it's expensive because it's my perfect shade and no other shade comes close (trust me, I've searched). And I wear Bare Escentuals makeup because it's the only makeup I've found that doesn't cause my skin to break out insanely. I'll pay $20 for a jar of mineral foundation to save myself the pimples. Gladly. (I do use cheap eye shadow and stuff though.)

Bratling said...

Oddly enough, my startling expenses are things I save money on. Kids' shoes, for example. I prefer to have expensive, name-brand shoes on the kids' developing feet. But I refuse to pay retail for them and source them from ebay. I buy the sizes in advance and shop carefully and rarely spend more than $% over what the cheapies cost. You'd be surprised how many parent buy shoes that their kids outgrow before they wear them. I've gotten new pairs of Stride Rite and Pediped shoes for as little as $10 with shipping.

For most people, fabric would be considered a startling expense. I sew. By sewing, I can get nice, quality clothing for the girls that's the same quality as boutique clothing for about the same price as I'd pay for mall, target, or wal-mart clothes. I don't make all of them, but those I do make fit better and are exactly what we want. And to make it even better, the girls have input on what they want the finished product to be. And I tend towards the so-called "designer" cotton because it has great hand and drape as well as cute patterns. But the thing is, I tend to buy it from sources that charge way under retail. Or I wait for a sale and buy it on the cheap. This means that I buy without specific purposes in mind, though, which is why I have 19 15-gallon tubs of fabric in my sewing closet.

Of my sewing though, thread is a Startling Expense. Coats and Clark thread is the cheapest, but the quality has gone waay down since they outsourced it to Mexico. Because it now breaks, tangles, and otherwise gets on my nerves, I spend the extra money for Guttermann thread because it doesn't do that!

Another is patterns. I buy vintage for about half the patterns I buy. It's true that with dollar sales, I can get modern patterns for less money. But with vintage, I'm saving old patterns from landfills, and I get a greater variety. Little girls' clothes haven't changed much since the 30s. A few simple changes update the pattern to modern standards... so in effect, I have about 80 years of patterns that look good on my girls.

I scrimp and save in other areas and keep a close watch on sales to afford things. Right now, I'm saving here and there to afford dance lessons and gymnastics lessons for the girls. With the amount of people in the family who have feet that were never meant to go over our heads, we figure that it's a Startling Expense that will pay off when our poor girls get in the gymnastics unit in PE. I almost flunked and I'm not the only one! I'm not saying I want them to be gymnasts or dancers--but the general coordination and beginning tumbling that the lessons teach will pay off in the long run!

Christine said...

Eating out, movies, travel. I buy a mix of store and brand name products though... Not so much on the sheets.

Dying to know what perfume you bought. When I was in a perfume phase I bought mostly samples and swapped. I couldn't justify the price of full bottles that I knew I never would use totally... So... What's the perfume?

Christine said...

Also! If I could choose a random free bottle I would go with Stephen Jones, Comme des Garçons. :)

Nik-Nak said...

My startling expenses are my horses and anything that goes with them (tack, their pasture/land taxes). I scrimp everywhere else....small home, used vehicles, second hand clothes....just so I can afford my one luxury.

Susan said...

Love this post! The last bottle of real perfume I bought fell off a shelf above the toilet just as it was flushing and that was 15 years ago. My startling expense is probably coffee table art books and museum exhibition catalogs. I don't even look at the prices. It's funny to me because in every other arena I am so frugal. I even have secondhand sheets (they were my MIL's).

shin ae said...

I LOVE this post. I want to link to it, because it is perfect.

I have pretty much stopped discussing things like this with people in real life. I don't have much patience for it all.

My own startling expenses are: yarn, fabric, cosmetics, perfume, and shampoo. Also shoes, but only one or two pairs a year, so I don't think it counts much.

I am so excited about the upcoming perfume post. SO EXCITED.

shin ae said...

Oh, and I should say that the reason I don't have patience with the real-life discussion is because I get very tired of hearing other people condemned for not spending similarly to whomever speaking/judging at the moment.

d e v a n said...

Oh YES! It does help to think of it like this.

Joanne said...

My startling expenses are different than they used to be. I used to spend a lot of money on entertainment, and my husband too - like if we went out, we'd never share an appetizer and we'd always get a martini even thought it costs $15 or whatever the hell. Now with all these kids I don't spend as much money on entertainment but I will spend any kind of money on anything that will make them sleep or happy. I will pay for window coverings and exersaucers and bumbos and noise machines and etc., etc. I hope to get back to the entertainment expenditures soon!

Mrs. Irritation said...

LOVE this post. I love the term Startling Expense, too. It's all such a perfect explanation for something that has rattled around in my brain for years.

I would say mine are eating out, annual vacations and name brand tomatoes. (not really on tomatoes but always name brand toilet paper)

Arwen said...

Love this conversation! It's fascinating to read everyone's answers.

My Startling Expenses are salon-quality shampoo (yes, I'll pay $20 for a bottle of shampoo - worth it for my hair!) and department-store makeup (I don't wear makeup all that often, but when I do, I like it to be good stuff).

Also shoes for my kids - I have four kids, and I buy them all top-quality shoes every season. It's adding up to hundreds of dollars per year. Also clothes for them - a lot of my mom friends spend lots of time saving money shopping sales or second-hand, and I don't have the patience, so, eh. We spend more on clothes.

We spend a decent amount of money (much more than my frugal parents ever did) on take-out, and I've stopped feeling guilty about it.

Oh, and we're taking the private-school plunge as our oldest starts school this year. Whoa $$$$$! But we expect it'll be worth it in our particular circumstances.

Janssen said...

Toll Roads. I NEVER used them before I had a child and now I just cannot deal with taking twenty minutes to get home when for sixty cents, I can get home in seven minutes.

It's hard for me not to be judgey of our many friends who don't even HAVE toll tags (FREE! You only pay if you USE it!) and then occasionally want or need to take it and are digging pennies out from under the seat of the car. Psh.

Did I just write two paragraphs about toll roads?

Home Sweet Sarah said...

I'm startled when people don't buy in bulk. Food not so much, as I know not everyone likes to cook, but stuff like diapers and wipes and paper towels and TP. It's so. Much. Cheaper! in bulk, and yet people buy small packages of them and more often? Startling!

I don't know what my startling expense is. Food, probably. I spend a lot on food and never regret it.

Angela (@antiangie) said...

My Startling Expenses are mostly food-related. I like cooking and I like eating out and I feel it's money well-spent to buy good-quality/local/organic when I can.

Oh, and salon haircuts and color. Because someone once pointed out to me that you wear your hair EVERY DAY, therefore you can amortize the price. :)

Karen L said...

People would probably find it startling how much we pay to live in such a small apartment and have no yard for 3 small children. Especially our condo fees. I.e., our startling expense is living downtown. BUT I have a 7 min walk to work and DH has a 20 walk or subway ride. To afford anything bigger (without finding new jobs), DH and I would each lose 2h/day with the family. Deal-breaker. Never mind that I love our neighbourhood and our condo.

Also our YMCA membership. But, but, but (this is obviously going to be weak...) it includes year-round swimming lessons. Let's see at about 4 lessons of swimming per month X 2 kids, per lesson that's only ... oh man, we should sign them up for 5 lessons per week. And the inlaws, who do our childcare, love to take the baby there. They do go 4 or 5 times a week.

KSC said...

Oh boy, namebrand clothing is a huge one for me. I just placed a huge order for my soon to be 1st grader. I know people judge this by saying they just grow out of it BUT if I'm wearing it, so are they. I think it washes and wears better also :-)

Laura Diniwilk said...

Definitely makeup and beauty subscription boxes, currently. I also spend a ton of money on pictures of the kids - always the $300 package with the CD instead of the $10 package. No regrets there, I love pictures and I have so many beautiful pics I could never get on my own. Great post!

Slim said...

Hee! The Washington Post ran an article about a blogger who calls herself "Frugal Mama," and she's not. Frugal, that is. She has her areas of thrift and her areas of splurge, as we all do.

My startling expense is food, I suspect, because I tend to buy organic/local. (But it's worth iiiit!) We also save a lot for our retirement and our kids' college educations. Oh, and I am a great tipper.

I am tight in about a million ways, but the most notable are probably clothes (except for shoes, because feet must be comfortable), electronics, and cars.

Beth said...

it made me laugh that someone else above does not understand how you can't buy in bulk, and that is one of my splurges-not to ever, ever set foot in a costco again. i hate those! to your point, Swistle, everyone has their areas of "money well spent."

Saly said...

I always balk at what people pay to have their hair cut. I go to the cheapie place for my hair and brows and have had very few issues. I talked about this with one of my girlfriends a while back, who actually owns a salon. I don't do much with my hair, so I really can't see spending large quantities of money on it. she thinks I'm nuts to "trust those amateurs."

One of my own startling expenses are definitely clothes for my kids--I only had hand-me-downs as a kid and have some issues, so my kids get good clothes, and the best clothes (though I do get quite a bit 2nd hand and pay for them with the money I make selling off their old clothes.)

The other things I regularly spend big money on are purses, shoes (I like Ugg boots and Toms--not fancy heels) fancy coffee drinks, and books. Not that books themselves cost a ton of money, but I have a tendency to buy books rather than wait for the library, and I will buy them before I even have time to read them so I don't forget about them.

M.Amanda said...

While I just don't understand people who insist on having the latest phone or high-end appliances, I enjoy a swimming pool and zoo membership. We don't get into gadgets and are happy with any refrigerator that keeps our food cold, but during warm times we swim all weekend and several evenings during the week, not to mention the guests who love to come over. And sure it costs $10 in gas to get to the zoo and I then buy an overpriced lunch there, but it's a great learning experience and my daughter and I share wonderful bonding time.

vanessa said...

Rent! My rent costs a TON but I live in a beautiful, safe apartment, a 10 minute drive from where I work 3x a week and a 12 minute bike ride from church where I also work 2-3x a week, and a 10 minute bike ride from yet another place I need to be 3-4x/week. And I live right on a trail and near a daycare place where I can send my future offspring.
Also, massages (I have crazy strained ligaments in my back) and occasional road trips.

Magic27 said...

I'm clearly some kind of anomaly because I really don't think I have any Startling Expenses. I mean, obviously, years and years of being poor (and deeply in debt), coupled with increasingly chronic agoraphobia and major depression tend to make me not do much of anything, but I actually spend very little money. No fancy gadgets, no fancy clothes, no eating out, very, very few outings of any kind, no hair cuts, no gym, no anything, really. I do food shopping by internet so am not tempted to buy fancy stuff. I haven't bought a book, or craft supplies, or art supplies, or stuff for the house, in months.
If my life were different (read - BETTER) I would definitely splurge on nice clothes and a decent haircut, possibly make-up though I wear it little.
Yup. I'm obviously a freak (though I've long suspected it, actually).

Sarah said...

LOVE this post and all the comments! My parents, like yours, were very good about explaining the concept of priorities re: splurge and scrimp areas, and how they're different for everyone, so as an adult I have no qualms about paying whatever it takes for certain things while also not feeling a need to live up to certain "normal" standards for people in our income bracket if it's an area which I/we just don't care about that much. I so appreciate them for teaching us about this!
I definitely feel some judginess from other people about financial choices though. I get it, too- I'm sure it doesn't make sense to people that we will, for example, pay to have a doula at our birth (at which our hospital nurse commented, "You guys must be loaded!") and yet we still haven't installed central air and my husband drives a total beater. Or that for the last few months we have paid to have babysitters around for at least ten hours a week when I'm not working. To us these things are Worth It, but to others they might not be. Like the car thing. If Jim spent tons of time in his car, he'd probably care more, but he only uses it for work commute, which is ten minutes. Someone who spends hours a day in their car? Should have a nicer car!

Sarah said...

I think that last comment made me sound braggy... like the only things we splurge on are things of Meaningful Value or something. Not true. We also eat out a lot, or get take out, even though it's expensive and not very healthy. We both really hate the whole dinnertime grind and going out/ordering in makes it more bearable, though.
I don't get my hair cut except a few times a year because I'm too lazy to bother maintaining a style, but when I do get it cut I go to a salon- my hair is a very difficult texture to cut or layer properly, and I've had bad experiences at the cheapy places. And I will get massages or pedicures a few times a year, too.

Slim said...

"If Jim spent tons of time in his car, he'd probably care more, but he only uses it for work commute, which is ten minutes. Someone who spends hours a day in their car? Should have a nicer car!"

But you could also argue that all that driving would mean a lot more opportunities for someone to hit you, or the car's just going to get worn down anyway, or cars are a big expense, so drive the beater until the wheels fall off.

Nicole said...

This is interesting! I think I have a lot of startling expenses. I always buy the fruits and veggies I want, and I don't care about how much they cost - I realize it's a luxury I can do this, but I like me some good peppers and berries. Food, in general, I spend a lot on. We don't eat out very much at all so I justify it by thinking of it as all good, homemade things. Also, you are what you eat, etc.

Another startling expense is clothing. I love clothes. I love to spend on sweaters and boots, especially, with the justification that if I buy quality, they will last longer.

Yet, I go to Costco or Walmart to buy household staples such as shampoo, vinegar for cleaning, toilet paper, etc. I cannot pay the prices that grocery stores charge for those items. Also - medication like Advil. I will only buy at Walmart or similar because the grocery store/ drugstore charges like $2 more a bottle!

Charleen said...

This is a really interesting idea. I don't know off hand what my Startling Expenses are (though I know exactly what they WOULD be if I HAD the money to splurge on these things). Actually I think our "startling expense" might be the convenience of not worrying so much about money overall . . . we don't skimp and save in one area so that we can splurge in another area, but I know we spend more than we need to on everything in general. It's something I've been wanting to fix for a long time, but since the savings in any one area would be pretty negligible, it's hard to justify putting in the effort. And if we DID put in the effort, all that would happen is our debt would go down a little faster, or our savings would go up a little faster, and since both are moving in the right direction as it is (and by debt I mean school loans and car payments, not $10K in credit cards). So . . . as much as I know we SHOULD be better about where we spend our money, we really haven't had the drive to pick apart our spending habits to "fix" them.

Kalendi said...

Startling expenses from other people are shoes...maybe not so much how they spend, but how many pairs they own. I have very few maybe six and they are seasonal like 1 pair of boots and 1 pair of sandals. My startling expenses: yarn (I have a stash) and eating breakfast out every work morning (convenience mostly).

Maggie said...

Great topic and one I've talked with my husband about lots. We have at least three startling expenses I can think of: we pay someone to clean our house every other week, we buy organic/local groceries as much as possible, and we pay for private swim lessons for our oldest. In turn we are more frugal on lots of other things that don't matter as much to us - we drive cars that are 10 and 6 years old, we don't have the latest electronics, we don't travel often, etc.

Jenny said...

This is so a propos, because I was just visiting my sister and her family, who have been POOR poor for years because her husband lost his job. They cut back on EVERYTHING, managed their money very carefully, juggled bills, etc. But they had Netflix AND Amazon streaming! I was startled! There is so much overlap between those two, why pay for both? (Both systems are cheap, and it's their only entertainment, I was NOT judging. But startled.)

My family, too, has been aggressively saving. But our startling expenses are private schools for the kids (startling even to me, because I attended good public schools), really good loose-leaf tea, and expensive shampoo for me. (But it lasts longer! And... oh.)

The place you might think I'd spend a lot of money and don't is books. It's my only hobby, but I get everything I read from the library. And I'm regularly startled at what people spend on books -- I used to work at a Barnes & Noble, and some of our customers dropped hundreds of dollars a week.

Julie said...

Private school is our biggest startling expense - people must assume we're loaded to choose private school because we live in an awesome school district - until they see our house. Which is TINY but almost paid off, because we're ridiculously frugal in most other areas.

We also get a side of beef every year - locally raised, no hormones, etc - we did it a few years ago when we had an unexpected windfall, and now can't imagine not having a freezer full of beef. It's awesome.

Every work morning (3-4 days a week) I go to Starbucks. It's not even that expensive, and I fund my habit entirely with freelance $$ and gifts, but people think I'm crazy because I'm a decaf drinker. I don't "need" the coffee but it's such an ingrained, enjoyable part of my routine.

I very rarely buy clothes, shoes, or cosmetics...when I finally bit the bullet and spent $80 on a pair of Merrells last spring I thought I was going to have a heart attack. ;)

I think too, that for a lot of people tithing would be considered a startling expense - but for us it's a given. 10% off the top, given away to church and charities.

Anonymous said...

Love reading this post and all of the comments! I would like to add two thoughts:

Thought #1: How much does time factor into the conversation? Is there a concept of Startling Time Commitments?

For example, someone might be horrified to learn that I pay someone to mow my lawn (Startling Expense) because I don’t want to spend the time doing it. But, I might be horrified to learn that someone spends hours each week clipping coupons to save at the grocery store. Or – I love to read so I make time to do it, but we eat crap dinners because I won’t spend the time cooking. Someone else might have home cooked meals every night but never pick up a book. I think it is a similar concept to Startling Expenses.

Thought #2: How does the approach to Startling Expenses of our parents/childhood factor into our approach to Startling Expenses as adults? (This is similar to the question Swistle posed on childhood family size and how it impacts our views on family size as adults.)

Example: Growing up my mother would never buy overpriced food, like at an amusement park or concession stand. Everyone else would be eating their $10 hot dogs and we would make the long trek out to the parking lot to fetch our smushed, soggy PB&Js. To her, it simply did not make sense to spend that money on an overpriced (and likely terrible) lunch. As an adult, though, I do the opposite! I love the convenience and to me it is worth it for the few times we are in those situations. I eat my $10 hot dog with glee – it still feels forbidden!

MargieK said...

I've never heard of the term "Startling Expense," and I think it's hard for me to think of any of my own, because they're all justified and "well worth it" in my mind. You'd have to ask my friends. In fact it might be easier to answer this question if we were talking about "startling expenses" of friends or close relatives rather than ourselves.

I wish I could make my husband read this post, because he seems to be intolerant of or disdainful of how others spend their money (not to their face, of course, but I get so sick of him making comments about other drivers in their $$$ car -- I could care less what other people spend on their cars). We drive old beaters because he was a mechanic and can keep an old car running longer than anyone I know. Plus sales tax, registration and insurance is cheaper on an older car. Still, I'd really like a newer car with A/C for that 1.75 hour one-way commute I make twice a week.

I know there are things I spend money on that my husband wouldn't approve of, like clothes -- which aren't expensive; he just thinks I have too many. Same with shoes; I buy inexpensive ones, but he thinks I have too many. I wonder if he were a woman if he'd think the same way (probably, his sister is VERY frugal).

Our kids all went to public schools, and state univerisities. Our public schools are great, so it's hard for me to fathom spending money on private schools when you're already paying for pubic schools via taxes.

Is long term care insurance a "startling expense?" I figure I'm going to outlive my husband (watch me be wrong), and am more likely to need it.

Great topic.

Allison said...

Like others before me, my big expense is yarn. But I own a yarn store, so it's necessary. I also have a cleaning lady, whic I know some people balk at. But the biggest argument my husband and I use to have was who had more free time so who should be doing more cleaning. So now, not only do I have a clean house, but mine main argument point with my husband has vanished. Win-win.
I spend very little money on clothing. Target is usually where I find things. And shoes? I spend even less on those. So I am often startled by how much some people spend on those.
I do spend a lot on food though, cuz I buy a lot of fresh things. But we also have a huge garden, so it balances out.

Anonymous said...

If people knew exactly how much $$$ I spent on my hair (cuts, products) they would be shocked. But if they saw how my hair looked w/o they would be horrified!!

On the other hand, I can't possibly understand the $$$ people spend on a meal out. Sure, I like take-out and go out for a good meal, but spending more than $50 on a meal to me is nuts.

It's all about priorities.

MargieK said...

Oh, I just thought of something! I'm a big label-reader, and diligently strive NOT to buy anything with high-fructose corn syrup in it. There is only one kind of ketchup my grocery store carries without HFCS: store-brand organic!

I probably need to pay more attention to canned foods, as many cans (but not the pricey Muir Glen) are lined with BPA. We eat a lot less canned foods than we used to, so maybe we're not doing so bad in that department.

I also avoid hydrogenated oils, to the extent possible. So there are probably lots of food products I could get more cheaply, I guess.

And when I buy food to donate to the food bank I make sure to buy natural peanut butter, applying the same standards to donated food as I would to myself (I'd feel guilty otherwise).

Melissa Haworth said...

As a cheap-by-nature type person who married a spender-by-nature type person (we're both just like our families of origin in this way) I've had to come to terms with his startling expenses. $140 on an accessory for his BBQ grill, anyone? Yikes! So I have spent a good amount of time thinking of my own startling expenses to remind myself when I hear how much the grill accessory cost. Mine include: lunch out at work (cheap lunch but still not as cheap as leftovers), craft supplies/fabric, groceries (I don't budget at all for food and spend a lot), gym membership (although that's for the family), it goes on and on. I tend to have more, smaller things as opposed to his fewer, bigger.

Now that I've mentally justified hubby's startling expenses (and my own!) I need to do so with the in laws. I cannot seem to help but judge them (in my head!) for how they spend money. New, Cars, Twice. Each. Year!

Elsha said...

Very interesting post and comments!

Our big Startling Expense is electronics. My husband is a computer guy so he always wants the newest gadgets and technology. He uses them constantly, so I never feel like the money is wasted, but we definitely spend there instead of other areas. (For instance, he'd be fine wearing all wal-mart clothes as long as he has the latest iphone.)

g~ said...

I have entirely too many startling expenses. We only have Apple products. Super fancy camera equipment (although I do it professionally-on-the-side and make money doing it). Supah Nice Hotels. Frequent travel. Whatever food we want when we want it. Karate/Horse therapy for our kid(s). Piano lesson for both.
BUT, we only have Netflix for TV, we drive seriously crappy cars, live in a tiny house, and live completely debt-free. So there you go.

Melissa R said...

I think our biggest SE is college tuition. We have 4 in school right now and we are paying cash for all of them--however they are all at state schools but still, the $36,000/semester (for all 4) sure is startling! Even to us. One more will be in school in 3 years so there's a savings account for her, too.

My husband's SE is keyboards. He's not even in a band. He just.....likes them.

What is mine? Probably gadgets (specifically running-related), race entry fees and the like.

Plus, I spend a boat load on groceries and we go out A LOT. It's worth it to me.

I will say that our only debt is our mortgage. Had to throw that in there! Plus we have long-term health care insurance and save for retirement. Feels like we are doing OK, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

You come up with the most fantastic terms for things I have thought about, but was never able to put a specific name to. Any chance you might put things like "Startling Expenses" and other unique terms into a glossary for future use?

Also, your essays about life would make a great book or at least a fun instructional booklet of the way life works. I would give one to my children.

Anonymous said...

This is fun! I guess my Startling Expenses would be food. I love to shop at Whole Foods. It's something I have to do every week and I just enjoy it more than going to Giant. Besides, they have the cheapest organic milk. I also buy a lot of their store brands too. Considering the recent pink slime and meat glue controversies I think it's worth it. Oh and Mrs Meyers Fabric Softener. The new Bluebell scent (I used to get lavender) is so nice on our towels and sheets. A bottle lasts me about a month since I only use it on the linens and towels and not our clothes.

Angela said...

We are so dirt poor right now we've scaled back on everything. Except food, haha. My husband LOVES to cook and eat, and I have always felt rich when my fridge is full, even if we can barely pay our rent. We don't eat out...ever...but we do buy nice cheese, the occasional wine or beer, and name brand ingredients. Though (here comes the justification!) I clip coupons and we manage to enjoy delicious meals for a fraction of a restaurant's price.

Back when we had money, I guess my startling expense would be costumes. My hobby is sewing and costume-making, so I would spend hard-earned cash on fabric and notions and wigs for a one-day event and then never wear the costume again.

chrissy said...

I love this post- i came back to it specifically for the comments. My husband and I were just discussing the other day some friends of ours who are constantly shelling out $500 for things- a new puppy, a big above-ground pool, another puppy because the first one died, etc., and he was wondering HOW they could have so much expendable income when our jobs are similar. Then I look at our expenses and we have spent $6K on medical bills this year (surgery for my 11 YO) and now my 10 YO needs braces, the younger two need glasses, etc. So it evens out.

I'm always secretly jealous of 'high-maintenance' girls who have three colors of highlights and perfect nails and pretty purses, but I would not feel comfortable spending that much money regularly on those things. But put a road-trip idea in my head and I will plan for that sucker all year and then spend some serious dough on it. That is more 'worth it' to me. I still want the pretty hair, tho.

goingloopy said...

Very interesting post (and comments). I will spend big money on the One True Purse. I carried my first Coach for 10 years, and only bought the new one because the old one doesn't hold my Kindle. I drop major money on Amazon for books & music; I buy the new Kindle every year (but give away my old one); I will only buy good shoes because my feet are picky. But I'll buy cheap ass food and drive the car that's paid for until it dies. I wait for sales on almost everything clothing/shoe related.

In terms of household stuff, my boyfriend and I are dorks. Therefore, we have giant TV's, giant computer monitors, Blu-ray, console gaming, etc. These electronics are resting on hand-me-down furniture and/or shit that came in a box. We don't really want a house with a yard, because we both despise yardwork. Really, renting is pretty cheap and I like that if it breaks, it's not my problem.

We will also drop some cash on the pets, a/k/a "the kids."

I try not to judge anyone for the stuff that makes it worth it for them, lest they examine my vanity and discover my shameful collection of Urban Decay eyeliner. I am 38 and my eyeliner jar(s) look like they belong to an 8th grader.

Caitlin said...

Such an interesting topic!

Let's see. I think people might be startled at what my husband and I spend on food. We don't budget for it, and we buy local and organic pretty much wherever we can. We figure it's an investment in health, and like how it makes us feel, plus my husband is a chef so it's pretty much just how it goes in our house. We also eat out quite a bit, though eating out is the first area we cut back on when trying to save or for unexpected expenses.

We love to travel and take several trips a year. I imagine this is startling to people and am training myself to stop immediately defending it when people ask where we're going. (Paris, but it's a belated honeymoon! Napa, but it's partly for a family wedding!)

I pretty much wear basic clothes - jeans, t-shirts, cardigans are favorites - but splurge on scarves and jewelry (not, like, diamonds and fine jewels, but not from the dollar store either) and purses. Although I loathe paying full price and often score great deals. But still, I have MANY of these things.

We have someone clean our house every two weeks because we realized that spending our sacred, sometimes scarce downtime on cleaning was not worth it to us.

I won't even get into my husband's obsession with bespoke shoes, and his custom-made leather jacket. ("But they'll last forever!") (Irrelevant if you keep buying them.)

What do we save on? Our savings account is not where we'd like it to be, but we're working on it. (We also have both been pretty, well if not exactly poor, not with much disposable income, let's say, for most of our lives, so we've been enjoying the past few years.) I paid off my old car four years ago, it was pretty much a beater, but I kept driving it. Only recently when it started breaking did we get a new one.

We commute together. Our house looks nicely put together (in my opinion), but most of our furniture is old, cheap, handmedowns or a combination (though in good condition). Our tv is an ancient handmedown. My husband often cuts (buzzes) his own hair. We mostly bring our lunches, and we don't buy breakfast or coffee out.
We refinanced recently and our mortgage is really incredibly cheap for the area we live in.

We also get a lot of military discounts on things, which makes an ENORMOUS difference - we get to shop at the Commissary and Exchange and base liquor stores, and pretty much never have to pay for carry on bags. We also have very cheap insurance because of this. It adds up quickly and frees up some money for other things.

Alexicographer said...

I love this post, partly because it is so beautiful neutral in acknowledging that a "Startling Expense" might be a (gasp!) can of tomato sauce and also because the phrase is just perfect and the comments are fascinating. I have clicked through to, like, 8 new blogs and while I don't know that I'll go back to all/most of them, this is probably my highest comment to click-through ratio ever.

I guess I am startled by how many commenters have startling expenses that I just -- don't (like, I am startling in my non-expenses): clothes, shoes, hair care, makeup, household goods. On the other hand I until recently owned a horse (he died -- at a reasonably if not Startlingly ripe age -- following some medical events that themselves led to Startling Expenses). Also I think we spend somewhat startlingly on preschool, considering that DH is a SAHP and we have just one kid (though in its own weird way that may be part of the reason -- no siblings to interact with). But, no complaints. Also definitely some sorts of food some of the time and ditto, travel. And probably health care, too ... I am not someone who wants to feel like my choice of doctor, or hospital, or whatever, is made because of cost, (Which is not the same thing as saying I think cost is irrelevant, I am willing to consider it. But I am not willing to commit up front e.g. in my choice of insurance plans to having choices cut off for me.).

oilandgarlic said...

Just love the term "startling expense"!

Karen L said...

Great post and comments, I've come back to check several times. I already posted our Startling Expenses and it occurred to me the other day what I find startling in the expenses of other people:


Not that I ask people what they're spending on the underwear that I am not seeing. Even in the not-very-fancy places that I shop for clothes, there are lots of very expensive underwear. I do buy expensive bras - ugly, supportive bras. But panties? I guess I understand it. But I cannot relate.

Anne said...

I think that I need to send you (or someone) and itemized list of how I spend money each month, because just as you pointed out, I have NO idea what my startling expenses are as I obviously think they make so much sense. I'm actually glancing around my house right now, trying to figure it out.

Anonymous said...

Love this!

There's also a layer of self-bias when you begin to think of what your own Startling Expenses are and what you scrimp on. What we come up with for ourselves could be different than what others think of us.

I'm always amazed in life that as a couple/family, we are the scrimpers compared to certain couples/families... but compared to others, we are the splurgers!

We vacation on-the-cheap (no flights, no Disney-type hooha) but we're not camping or staying in yurts either.

We get the life out of our vehicles (we both have short commutes, so even if the fuel-efficiency isn't the best, a new vehicle isn't justifiable). We drive a 2004 Odyssey and a 1997 Explorer.

We like electronics, but are willing to wait a few months for a new version to come out, before we buy the older version (with nearly the same capability). Or, we hang on to the old so long, it becomes vintage (case in point... I stopped using a pay-ahead TracFone when I got an iPhone this year).

We pay for private school. Yeah, I'm so surprised people (in this thread) commenting about this being a splurge. Startling Expense? YES! Splurge? NFW. Our district is not great, though many districts aren't anyway. But, we chose to live in a not-great district fully knowing we'd be paying for private school. We, uh, splurged on the house though.

I'm hesitant to let people IRL know where we live, because if they've seen the cars, and the Target/Kohls clothing, and the hand-me-down mixed with Target-brand uniform clothing my kids wear, they don't usually expect the kind of house we live in. We built it. It's nice. We also stayed in our previous house (3 bed 1 bath) much longer than we had to so that we could save up for the new house. All those years of avoiding Disney-type vacations and elaborate this-and-thats.

That's the "startling" thing for me. When you have something materialistic, people can see it (and make judgments), and you can't hide that you have it. If you spend money on travel, food, and other experiences, you're making a different choice, but you're not likely to get sideways glances or be questioned as to how you were able to afford those things (the enjoyment is spread out over time, much like the amortization of a mortgage).

We both scrimp and splurge with groceries and household products, just depends on what it is. Hey, cherries are expensive this year - but my kids love them, so we still buy them. We do shop in bulk, but I also run into Target for "2 things" and come out spending $100.

To each, their own!

Also, the cost of some kids' activities (dance, swim) is beginning to approach STARTLING EXPENSES! for us.

Jean said...

When I got to a certain income level, I quit buying cheap paper towels. It still feels like a splurge to me. I shop at thrift stores and garage sales and am amazed at how well I can dress myself (and kids - boys, they don't even care if their clothes are clean most of the time, let alone new) in other people's cast offs.

I'm boggled at the amount of money people spend eating out. My frugelness actually ruins eating out for me - all I can think of is how many great groceries I could have for the price of the meals we were eating.

Anonymous said...

Great post Swistle. . .you're brilliant I hope you know this. Me though, I am a wreck. I grew up in a house with a single dad. There were three of us kids and as much as he tried sometimes dad's are just clueless and especially when it comes to girls. My dad was never one to hand out extra money or spoil us and so I learned to save my money at an early age to get what I wanted. Now as an adult I still save my money and sometimes have a hard time buying something that I don't absolutely need. It might startle others to know that I buy myself an iced coffee almost every work day on my way to work.

Now my husband grew up the opposite of me. His parents were able to give their two kids any and everything they wanted and so I tend to believe he was over indulged. My husband has many "manly" hobbies to include hunting, fishing, motorcycles, golfing, and playing softball. He will spare no expense for a new set of golf clubs but he freaks out if he goes to the grocery store with me and sees the price of a gallon of milk. I could never understand how he could drop $5,000 on a four-wheel atv but bulk at the price of a gallon of milk.

We have a set if friends and I am quite startled at two of their "expenses". The couple has two children and the mother works from home. They pay their sitter in excess of $800 per week and she watches the kids together twice a week. So if my math is right that is $400 per day. It blows my mind, who has that kind of cash.

Their other expense that startles me is what they pay for food. They do not cook. . . .ever really. They eat out for all three meals and this includes the wife who again works from home. I just cannot wrap my mind around this. I would want to puke on eating out that much. Literally they buys "breakfast" items for the kids and things like juice, bottled water, and laundry soap when they go to the store. I just don't get it.

Ok. . . .I am done and thanks again Swistle.


Superjules said...

I like to buy clothes at deep discounts or thrift stores. I get my hair cut at the local cosmetology school. I buy store brand over the counter meds. I'm going to drive my old Honda with 228K miles on it until it dies.
I think my startling expenses are tattoos (because good tattoos aren't cheap) and organic foods (not all of them, just some). Oh, and one of my life goals is to someday make enough money so that I can hire a maid.

Doing My Best said...

My main Startling Expenses are related to Crappy Day Presents: the presents, wrapping supplies, postage. I do my best to buy things on sale/with coupons but the total price of a CDP box can be Startling.

It brings me so much joy though, especially when I've thought of the perfect gift(s) for someone, and I HOPE it will bring joy to another person, so it's worth it to me to spend money on those things while I use coupons as much as I can for food and household things, buy in bulk, and watch for sales. We drive our cars as long as we can, do not have the latest electronic anything, have one cell phone that only makes phone calls (and does texts?) that my husband takes with him as he commutes to work, eat 99% of our meals at home...

My other startling expenses would probably be books/things-related-to-learning since I homeschool, but those things don't seem unreasonable to me in light of education being so important and the fact that 5 children will be using most of those items.

This is such an interesting discussion =)!

Cayt said...

Like many people upthread, I spend on yarn. I like to knit with silk and cashmere, and I like to support local artists and artisans. To me, buying expensive yarn is worth it for the experience of using it - although I do have limits. I spend $15-20 on a skein without blinking, but I put down the skein that was $45 on its own. I also don't buy yarn very often so that I can buy more expensive yarns. However, working in a yarn shop I do often say that every yarn has its place.

I also spend on bras - the support and comfort is worth it to me, and I buy about three bras every two years. Pretty underwear can make you feel so good!

Until recently, I've also spent on travel. I've taken four trips across the atlantic to visit friends in the last six years, and while they have been expensive trips, I've found them worthwhile.

I also spend on books, particularly if an author is somewhat obscure but I love their work (eg N K Jemisin). I use the library a lot, though, too.

Also, I'm doing a master's degree which for some would be a startling expense.

Things I don't spend on: I cut my own hair, I make most of my own clothes, I don't wear makeup, I use cheap shampoo and conditioner, we use store brand groceries most of the time, I use clothes and electronics until they physically fall to pieces. We don't have a car (I used to have a motorbike but not any more).

Elizabeth said...

This was a wonderful post, and gave me so much food for thought. Thank you! I spend a ridiculous amount on groceries, particularly produce, and will go through a bottle of wine every day or two. I buy expensive running shoes every six months. I don't use coupons. I shop at Whole Foods and buy the expensive toilet paper/paper towels/kleenex/hand soap at Target. I will buy everything at one store, instead of buying the cheapest-priced item at three different stores, and I could care less about which gas station is pennies cheaper than the other (this makes my husband a little crazy). I spend more on my garden than I would spend on an equivalent amount of store-bought produce, and I don't hesitate to pay for a space in a high-quality childcare program/preschool/school/nannies/day camps and sometimes even skip days that I have already paid for if something better comes along (*GASP*).

But I am totally judgmental of those who pay for books instead of using the library, especially those who pay for ebooks, instead of just checking them out online from their local libraries. And I don't really get why people spend a lot of money on purses or shoes, or why they have so many purses or pairs of shoes. Gym memberships and paying people to clean my house seem extravagant, and I don't take out-of-state vacations other than annual trips to visit family. I usually wear clothes until they fall apart or are so unflattering that they can (should) only be worn as pajamas.

Jenny Grace said...

Shoes. I will spend plenty on high quality, comfortable, attractive shoes.
Organic food.
My clothes are either very cheap or very...not. I'm like a mashup of forever 21, thrift stores and Anthropologie.

For the shoes and clothes, I justify it by the cost per wear method. Spending $200 on shoes that I've literally been wearing for a decade does not really seem so silly when it gets right down to it. It's actually the same logic I use for buying really CHEAP things. Like this $10 dress? If I only wear it once or twice it's paid for itself.

I don't care two figs about having a nice car, fancy haircuts, manicures, or designer handbags. I also rarely (if ever) eat out. I assume it all evens out in the end.

My mother has some VERY nice jewelry and I had a boyfriend who expressed SHOCK that she wouldn't SELL it for the money, and it was like...that's her mom's jewelry, and he just could not understand. At all.

Rbelle said...

Coming a bit late to this, but I love this discussion. I try not to judge other people's Startling Expenses, but I will say that I can't help myself if they simultaneously complain about not having money for something else they want. E.g., good friends of ours have been trying to buy a house for about three years, but are having trouble qualifying because of CC debt and other factors. And yet they continue to spend money on fairly expensive hobbies that require lots of specialized equipment. That's really none of my business, but if you complain to me about how you can't afford a downpayment, please forgive me for rolling my eyes a bit in secret the next time you buy a new snowboard.

Startling Expenses for me tend to be clothes (my mom always brags about my sister's scrimping skills and how she hasn't purchased a new pair of jeans in 12 years or whatever, and every time she does it I kind of seethe a bit), but fairly cheap ones - I get bored of my clothing so quickly, I buy a lot of things from Ross or Target on clearance, wear them a year or two, then give them away. I feel horribly materialistic, but I just can't be one of those people who buys very well-made staples and wears them for a decade. Also, when it seems like everybody else in our income bracket is embracing do-it-yourself rennovations, we've hired contractors for almost all the major changes to our house. I just can't deal with the months and months of weekends it would take my husband to do the job a contractor can finish in 6 or 8 weeks (kitchen) or even a few days (bathroom).