Old Money: The allure of vanity economics
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I need a 30cm chainsaw. A neat, battery-powered tree trimming device. One could be mine for just under £300. But do I really need it — or do I just fancy wielding a bit of power and thrust to make up for the decades that have passed since I last rode a motorbike?
On the one hand, a chainsaw could soon pay for itself. Just look at the price of tree surgeons (£300 a day plus VAT, for heaven’s sake). By doing the job myself, I’d also save on the cost of buying wood to see us through another winter (£250 — this is the Home Counties).
But in my attempt to justify this purchase, am I engaging in vanity economics?
Riffing through the calculations, I am unclear. The capital cost of the chainsaw and related safety equipment has to be set against capital depreciation — not to mention the personal costs of physio sessions, hot baths and potential accidents — all to be added to the cost of charging out my time.
This presents another quandary: when accounting for my time as a writer-doing-some-logging, should I factor in the (lost) opportunity cost of being paid to write articles, or the rates of pay an actual logger would get?
Still mulling this over, I went for a stroll along the Thames path west of Oxford with two male friends of a certain age (let us call them George and Sam). They, too, are engaged in vanity economics — but theirs is a far more extravagant version than mine.
“Yuh, the washtub has had its day,” says George, referring to his Abeking and Rasmussen-style superyacht moored variously in London, Port Grimaud or Antigua. It is chartered from place to place by a professional crew because George enjoys being on his yacht only so long as it stays in port. He is a thalassophobe. His fear of water is a well-known “secret” that no one is allowed to mention.
“I’ll put it on the market now and it’ll make a mint. And it’s been washing its face . . . I chartered it out for 10 weeks last summer, so we’ve had free holidays,’ says George, somewhat unconvincingly given his wife’s tendency to jack up costs by redirecting the floating gin palace to ports with the promise of buying Fleabag-style jumpsuits in designer outlet villages.
Sam’s waterborne trophy is an elegant steam launch, complete with canvas canopy, which chugs up and down the river stopping off at water meadows for tasteful picnics.
“You can take it out, have a few libations, come back or leave it downriver and have it picked up,” says Sam. “The kids used it most of last summer. Haven’t used it all winter of course, and I can’t see us using it much this year,” adding that his wife has already booked up art tours, wine tasting in Puglia and white water rafting in the Grand Canyon.
Incredibly, this litany of swanky pastimes is not an end in itself so much as a potential justification for the Next Big Purchase.
“I’m beginning to think that boats aren’t good value,” says Sam. “A light aircraft’s the answer.”
I resist asking what question could possibly have inspired such an answer.
“The thing is, neither of us can stand airports. It makes our trips to Deauville ghastly.’
“But you’ll still have to use airports even if you own your own crate,” says George.
As they debate the merits of landing at private airfields, we pass a field packed with about 60 swans but these go unnoticed as the two consider whether they would get good use out of a plane.
The late lamented Sir David Tang, always brimming with top tips and advice — particularly when playing for time while I was trying to make him file his column to deadline — was clear on both matters.
Do you or anyone you know suffer from Vanity Economics Syndrome? Please let me know the symptoms and cure below, or email me at oldmoney@FT.com
“Never own your own yacht or plane. Never worth it. Just hire them.”
But Sam is set on buying and already has his eye on a Cessna 180. I am far too English to ask the price. But he drops in he would need a further 10 grand for the PPL. The what?
“Private pilot’s licence,” says George, who already has his.
They proceed to convince each other that, long term, they will save money by buying an aircraft each mainly because of all those trips from Gloucestershire to Deauville and to Nelson’s former watering hole on the north Norfolk coast.
While this echo chamber discussion rages, I continue to wonder about the chainsaw. Unlike the boats and planes, I’m unlikely to be able to hire it out. Yet my purchase seems positively frugal. So why am I struggling so hard to spend on something that is financially justifiable, as well as being fun?
Although I am nowhere near Sam and George’s league, my bank balance has become marginally less disastrous as I have clocked up the years. All the same, I have difficulty spending money on “luxurious necessities” such as high-end clothes and haircuts, and as for manicures, no way: I just keep my hands from view and have learnt to hold drinks in such a way that my garden-grimy nails don’t show.
I’m not mean. But I find the thought of spending large amounts of money (by my standards) on myself alarming. Hence the use of vanity economics to justify the expense. I suppose it’s the “does my bum look big with this chainsaw” school of financial management.
Jane Owen is an author and FT Weekend’s former deputy editor. She is on the board of Women of the Year and has presented various TV programmes. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @Jane_Owen