Yesterday I watched a friend who was struggling with homelessness unpack her few belongings. Inside her purse was a large, rather expensive, luxury-brand chocolate bar. She held it up and twiddled it back and forth in her hands, letting the silver foil catch the light. “Sweetie, I’m homeless,” she said, very matter-of-fact. “You’d better believe I’m getting the good stuff.” And boy was she making a great point.
Everybody’s got their thing: a small indulgence that they could do without, but also can’t. For this woman, struggling to keep up with the high cost of rent in one of the most expensive cities in America, a $7 chocolate bar was a very affordable consolation. It set her back from her financial goals by $7, but almost certainly gave her a boost of morale, energy, and a sense of control that was worth far more than she paid for it.
I’ve heard too many financial gurus scold people for buying small luxuries. And it’s true that you have to keep any eye on such things and make disciplined decisions about what those things are. (As a former marketing professional, I can assure you that we work hard to plant the phrase “I’ve earned this” into your brain. Learn to ignore us if you haven’t already.) The well-meaning (if completely off-base) advice extends into what’s known as the Latte Factor.
But sometimes, when money is very tight, it can feel like drowning—like all your options are slipping away. You may not be working in the job or the career you want; you may not be living where you want, or with whom you want; you may not be able to make the choices you wish you could. Being able to spend your money the way you want to is one of the most essential freedoms of living in a modern capitalist society, and it erodes your sense of self and autonomy to feel those decisions being made for you. Buying something you don’t need is an act of personal definition, and can even be an act of defiance against your current situation.
When times are tough, or the outlook is dark, most people are wise enough not to run out and buy that house, or that pony, or that diamond encrusted bidet they’ve had their eyes on—but they might find something cheaper that could still give them the same rush of pleasure and control. Leonard Lauder, of Estee Lauder, coined the phrase the “lipstick index” to describe the inverse correlation between the strength of the economy and the sale of cheap cosmetic items such as lipstick. Sales of lipstick doubled in the months following the attacks on September 11, and nail polish has seen an enormous boom during the weak economic growth of the past few years.
Life is long, and sometimes it gets scary and hard. Money is a constant throughout it: it comes into and out of your life, in greater or lesser ratios, every single day. If you find yourself in a position where a $7 chocolate bar can give you the emotional strength and sense of self you need to plunge ahead into the storm, you have my full-throated blessing to do so without guilt, self-flagellation, or feelings of failure. It’s a helluva lot cheaper than therapy.