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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Being Contrarian

There is an interesting article in The Straits Times, December 2, 2009. It's about people's tendency to spend more and more on "quality" goods when they perceive that others are spending more on "quality" goods. Over time, things cost more and more, and the people who can really afford luxuries are STILL those who earn more. The relative position of how people stand in relation to each other does not change. Only that everyone needs to pay more even for poor quality stuff.

It's crazy... but it's true.

I grew up in an entrepreneurial family. That is to say that family fortunes were made by men who started finance houses, dabbled in property development, rubber plantations and what-not. It was a family where women wore jewels (not diamond bits) and were conversant about the latest brands and fashions. It was also a family where I saw women pawning their jewelry and scrimping on housekeeping money when the men made big losses and were in debt. You hid those hard times from the world. And then there were the long-drawn legal battles over inheritances.

It disgusted me.

When times were good, there was so much to show off and when times were bad, there was so much shame to hide... and people forgot to love each other.

I developed my own psychological defenses against this sort of emotional trauma. I decided that I was not ever going to envy another's wealth, nor be ashamed of my lack thereof. I will spend my money when I feel like it, and not when someone else spends on "high quality". Fortunes rise and fall in an uncertain world, why have one's happiness all tied up in THINGS?

Such an attitude allows me to be genuinely happy for the person who has enough to splurge on the things he/she feels like buying... and it allows me to respect those who have not enough to buy article luxuries.

But of course, such equanimity vis-a-vis wealth cannot be maintained beyond a certain point. I do everything I can (and more) to ensure that there is enough for food and books and that we don't sleep in the rain. Things are important after all when it comes to food and lodging.

Over the years, I developed a perverse pleasure in spending my money in the opposite way that everyone else would spend it. If everyone was going for hair rebonding at $350/= (in those days, that was how much rebonding cost) I would cut my hair myself. When everyone was into ********* brand of briefcases, I would go to France and buy back a Tessier... a very old and established artisanal brand of leather goods with strong stitches and well worked leather. When I went into Takashimaya to compare workmanship, the Tessier I bought for a $300/= had not a single frayed stitch, whilst the ******** brand (priced at $1200/= had three frayed stitches (yes, I counted). The sales person said it was because it was a showpiece. When everyone took $100k worth of renovation loans, I put in a vinyl floor and lived without a sofa because I did not want to take a loan.

The funniest though was the time the imposing Sikh jaga at the hotel lobby refused to allow us to park our little Suzuki Swift in the VIP lot meant for us. Our little car took up about half that lot. I had a tinge of embarassment then but it quickly passed.

And I didn't buy my first diamond until after I bought my first investment property. And since I've not developed the habit of wearing jewelry, it didn't make sense to buy more than a few pieces.

What matters in life should be true quality and not the aura of quality created by savvy marketeers. Or the heady feeling of being swankier than your friends. So, if a pair of slippers is a quality product, does it matter that it costs $2.90/=? And if a bra provides good chest support and is made of breatheable cotton, does it matter if it costs $3/=? And if a Tessier has thicker leather and sturdier stitches, then so what if it is not $1200/=? And so what if no one in Singapore has heard of Tessier?

If everyone thought this way, then merchants would have no excuse to charge close to S$50/= for a pair of children's jeans when the cost price is a fraction of that. Come on! I once bought from a pure cashmere Ralph Lauren pullover (leftover stock from 3 seasons back) for S$50/= that I still wear today... and for $50/=, I could maybe get 2 or 3 pairs of Osh Kosh B'Gosh kids' jeans from a factory outlet. And at Walmart, I could get t-shirts for S$3.50 that looked really nice and didn't change shape in the wash.

$50/= for a pair of kids' jeans. Hmmmmmmmph!


Fresh Fry aka 福星 said...

the world need more people like you. am glad i'm not in those traps too. heh.

Blur Ting said...

Indeed you're a wise one. It's funny you mentioned about this trait of yours.

When I was in Hanoi, I bought myself a woven bag used by the common street vendor because I found it so practical, charming and almost fashionable. It's only US$6. I should have bought you one!

In comparison, the Bottega Veneta costs a few thousand bucks!!

petunialee said...

Fry - Actually some people may call me cheapskate. Hee! I've gotten used to it though.

petunialee said...

Ting - Thanks Ting for the compliment. Welcome home! I can't wait to get on your blog to read all about Hanoi AND the cute bag.

Open Kitchen Concept said...

Such a nice sensible post - I so agree with you! I believe in spending only what you have.. and when you spend the money, spend it "heartily" and with a clear conscience... Too many people nowadays spend unwisely then feel guilty over it!

Ivana said...

Bravo dearie! It does get a little tiring being around the other type of people. I'm toting around a Monoprix bag around Raffles City... the land of Coaches and Kate Spades...

petunialee said...

Heeeeeeeee! The Monoprix bag may well look chic in Singapore since it's from exotic France. Like Marks and Spencer's is chic here but not in Britain.

KT said...

Careful now. Reverse snobbery may not be any better than snobbery?

petunialee said...

Yes dear.

Gerald Giam said...

I agree! Life is so much simpler and carefree when you live simply.

daelight said...

Where are the cheap and good $3 bras? I want!

Any recommendation for cheap, good , comfortable and supportive footwear too? =p

petunialee said...

I bought the bras at a corner shop on the left when driving into the Northpoint Mall carpark.

Later, I found better ones at the Marsiling wet market. That's also where I buy my $2.90 slippers.

The bra stall is a roaming one. I see it sometimes only.

daelight said...

Hmm... Will check out the neighbourhood stores when I next pass them by...