If you’re low-income, you’re not supposed to want — and you’re certainly not supposed to buy — anything considered a luxury.
And yet the poor do buy pricy items and clothing, because they often need something to combat bruised self-esteem.
In the early 1980s, I was living off my summer-internship earnings and the tiny part-time salary I made as a receptionist at my University of Maryland dorm. I was fortunate to have a full academic scholarship that covered tuition, room and board, but I still required income for necessities.
My grandmother, who was my guardian, did the best she could to help me financially, but her funds were limited with three of my siblings still living at home. So, it was up to me to buy whatever I needed or wanted for school, including all my clothes.
Understanding my financial limitations, I generally stayed away from buying popular brand-name items. But there was one thing I desired — one designer brand I longed to have. I wanted Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. However, for the price of one pair of the trendy denims, I could buy several articles of clothing at a discount store. That was the responsible thing to do.
Then one day I decided I had to get the jeans with the gold-stitched swan in front and Vanderbilt’s signature on the back pocket.
Vanderbilt’s passing this week made me reflect on why it mattered so much for me to get that pair of jeans.
“What is most puzzling to economists and decision theorists is that it is often those earning the least that spend the greatest fraction of their income on conspicuous consumption,” researchers wrote in a 2010 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
To solve the puzzle, the researchers conducted four studies in an effort to explore the motivating factors that lead to high-status consumption decisions. Here’s what they found:
• Individuals conspicuously consume to signal their wealth.
• Status items feed ego.
• Luxury purchases nurse psychological wounds.
• Low self-worth drives the willingness to spend on high-status goods.
I knew Vanderbilt’s story. Her wealthy aunt had fought the heiress’ mother for custody and won. It was an epic and nasty court battle that resulted in the media calling Vanderbilt the “poor little rich girl.”
“I had no relationship with her at all,” Vanderbilt said of her mother in a 2016 interview with her son, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. “I felt no connection at all.”
I saw in Vanderbilt’s ordeal a little of my own life history. I, too, was estranged from my mother, who abandoned me at age 4 to be raised by my low-income grandmother, Big Mama.
I’ve longed for the kind of natural mother love that makes you feel secure. You could call me the “poor little poor girl.”
In the commercials for her jeans, Vanderbilt just seemed to want women to feel comfortable in clothing that could fit like a glove — no matter their shape or size. I wanted that feeling in my jeans and life.
My grandmother had taught me that what you wear is not the measure of who you are. “It makes no sense to pay more money for a pair of jeans just because somebody’s name is on it,” Big Mama would say. “The only one who’s going to get rich is the person whose name is on your behind. And that makes you the ass.”
But when I got to college, my self-esteem was threatened. Working at the front desk at my all-female dorm, I became depressed watching so many fathers and mothers pick up their daughters to take them out to dinner and then drop them off after a shopping spree. I didn’t get such visits.
I wanted to soothe my soul with a pair of chic jeans.
But, “inflating our egos through consumption, while helpful in the short-term, is an untenable long-term solution that only exacerbates the cycle of consumption and consumer debt,” the researchers wrote.
Although those Gloria Vanderbilt jeans made me feel good about myself, it wasn’t a pattern of behavior that I could afford to repeat.
“If the desire to repair self-worth is one of the impetuses for status consumption, then providing individuals alternate means to restore their self-worth should alleviate this need,” the researchers concluded.
I realized that completing my college degree and working in journalism gave me a purpose that I couldn’t purchase in a store. I also found self-worth in my community service and church.
I loved those jeans. And while I don’t regret buying them, I’ve tried not to let my emotions dictate what I buy. High-status consumption just isn’t worth your financial security.
Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.