Editorial Policy

How Much Do Status Symbols Cost You?

Kristin McGrath

April 12, 2013

I didn’t get a smartphone until just over a year ago. This meant I was walking around in 2012 with a phone that flipped open and could be used for nothing except phone calls and text messages (of limited length). Yet I paid less than $30 a month for the thing, which was good enough for me — until it wasn’t.

My little yellow and silver phone, which came free with the cellphone contract I signed in 2006, increasingly became an object of ridicule. Then I lost it in an airport in early 2012. And if this doesn’t tell you how undesirable my phone was: Someone turned it into the lost and found. I made a joke to the airport security guy about how I almost wished it had stayed missing so that I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about upgrading.

“I haven’t had a phone like this since high school,” the airport employee said, laughing. “I gave it to my grandma, like, three years ago.”

When my own father (who raised me to cling to outdated technology for the sake of frugality), got a smartphone, I decided it was time. My old phone worked just fine and cost me less than half of what my contract costs now, but I was embarrassed to take it out of my purse, was convinced others were judging me for it and was sick of the modern-day isolation that comes from hanging out with friends who are constantly whipping out their phones to do important things.

In other words, I gave into my desire for a status symbol.

Turns out, smartphones are one of the top modern status symbols, according to Quidco, a cash-back and voucher site in the UK. Its March 2013 survey also revealed tablet computers, huge TVs, swanky gym memberships, dog walkers, hot tubs and a certain handbag I’d never heard of that costs $1,500 are the hottest items and services purchased, not out of necessity, but to impress others.

New technology is particularly good at getting people to part with their money, according to this March 2012 South University article. While many purchase decisions are fueled by advertising, those who purchase new technology are more influenced by wanting to fit in with their social groups. In the article, Paul Boag, founder of Web design company Headscape, admitted his own decision to get a Mac was motivated by the desire to be like those he admired.

“Emulation is a big part of the equation,” he said. “Technology is a way to aspire to the status of others or associate oneself with a particular group. It is also a way to impress others.”

If you can afford it, purchasing status symbols isn’t a problem. Yet, according to research that appeared in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2010, status symbols can often get those who can’t afford them to take their eyes off their financial pictures. That’s because the acquisition of status symbols is related in disturbing ways to your self-esteem. The research found that when participants got negative feedback, they were more willing to buy goods that conveyed status. And it wasn’t the cheap fixes they were looking to purchase, but those who felt that their self-worth was being attacked specifically sought out expensive, status-building items.

I’m starting to understand why that airport employee’s jibe made me head straight for the store.

Have you ever splurged on new technology, even when an old gadget was working fine? How do you fight the impulse to buy a status symbol?

Here are some blogs from others who have struggled with the issue:

Saving Advice lists 10 “lifestyle investments” to avoid.

Free Money Finance describes how overwhelming that “gotta-have-it” feeling can be.

Sustain, Create and Flow explains how a frugal lifestyle itself can be a status symbol.

Squawkfox expresses annoyance at the constant push to upgrade.

Being Frugal warns about the danger of tying your worth to the things you own.