Monday, December 28, 2009

I Don’t Know How I Lived Without It

A few years ago I bought an expensive (for my budget) vacuum cleaner. My choice can be justified in sort of rational terms. I was tired of vacuums that didn’t work well, and wanted some particular features that I felt sure would ease the chore of vacuuming. Making the work easier would translate into more frequent vacuuming, and a pleasanter and more hygienic home. I also felt sure that buying higher quality would result in a longer service life with fewer repairs.

But my real reason for deciding to spend more money and get a ‘nicer’ vacuum was different from any of that. It made me feel good to be able to buy a product that represented a sort of utilitarian luxury. I enjoyed that the vacuum was well-designed, and that its injection-molded parts fit well. And it was more powerful and more effective than my previous vacuum, and was generally easier to use. 

It wasn’t perfect. In fact there were things about it that were simply poorly thought out and didn’t work as intended, but I almost didn’t notice because I was so pleased to have purchased a quality vacuum. In retrospect I’m quite certain I could have gotten as much carpet-cleaning effectiveness, ease of use, and durability out of a cheaper machine.

The weird thing is that I don’t regret my decision at all. As a matter of fact I caught myself looking at newer, more expensive vacuums by the same manufacturer just the other day. I wanted to have the same experience of purchasing quality all over again.

We’re all familiar with the concept of conspicuous consumption and how people desire to signal their position in the tribe with cars, clothes, etc. But there is another kind of signaling that we do through our unseen consumption. These are the signals we send to ourselves that help us to feel that we are OK. Safe in our own hands.

The title of this post illustrates what it really means to us to be able to provide ourselves with luxuries. I feel so contented now with what I’ve been able to provide for myself that I don’t know how I lived without this feeling.

It is irrational, because I had the ability (and with it the security and the option) before I actually made the purchase. I should have already felt the benefit. And I did. I immensely enjoyed the process of shopping for my vacuum, even of looking for the best price possible. But I knew that if I decided against buying it that it would be because I couldn’t quite stretch that far, and that would tell me something about the limits of my resources, and my own exposure to the vagaries of chance.

Can’t we do better than that?

Hat tip to Eric Falkenstein for ideas about consumption and envy.


  1. Great post!

    In hopes of counteracting this bias, I once tried to make a list of products where I think it is rational to not pick the cheapest version. It was a short list (and I should resurrect it sometime), but I remember it included paper products (paper towels, TP), and top of the list was Q-tips -- it is definitely worth a few extra cents to splurge on better q-tips! :-)

  2. Yeah, for some things you just have to go with quality!

  3. I agree, great post!

    I identify completely with your feelings and thoughts on this one. I just bought a top of the line Arai helmet: I convinced myself I needed it because they are the only helmet maker that provides a design that best fits my shape of head, but really I just wanted to splurge on myself and have a top quality product I could be proud of. It feels good!

  4. Anonymous,

    A thing of beauty is a joy forever, in its own right.