The cost of wanting to look good

Jo and I recently bought a car, our old one was getting a bit tired so it was time to start the search for a new set of wheels. It’s fair to say that both of us are the complete opposite of the stereo typical ‘petrol heads’ so when we sat down to think about what we needed in a car it was a very  practical thinking process. The questions we asked ourselves were; What do we use the car for? How much are we able to spend based on our savings? What are the practical considerations we need to consider? How much do we want to spend per week on petrol?. After coming up with the answers to these questions we had a good idea of what we were looking for so the search began. 

Over the next few weeks Trade Me motors became one of our frequently visited websites and as a car is a one of the more ‘bigger ticket’ items to spend money on, I found it interesting to become aware of the thinking process I went through during this time. While we had determined that we wanted quite a practical car, we did want something that we liked the look of as well as staying within the budget we had set, not hard criteria at all! As my side of the search was mainly online, I found myself spending more time looking at cars that were above our price point, subconsciously I was starting to want the cars that were well outside our set criteria. 

We went to car yards and test drove a few cars that ticked our practical boxes but we always found  a reason why they weren’t quite right. One car may have been a little too small, the other may have been a bit older than we wanted and while this was happening I found that my attraction to the cars that were well above our budget increased. In my mind I was planting a seed that was justifying why we needed the more expensive car and I was also subconsciously comparing the ones within our budget to these - they never had a chance. At the same time I was starting to think of how we would be able to make the financial burden of a bigger spend work. 

As I said at the beginning of this article, I’m not a petrol head and I can honestly say that I never look at a car with admiration, so why was I shifting the goal posts with the cars we were looking at? To be completely honest I think it’s because I wanted to look good to others. I was attracted to representing myself at a certain level to the world based on the type of car that I drove. What was really interesting about this situation is that we had the money to buy our car without borrowing but if we bought a car that I was becoming attracted to we may have had to borrow money. This is fascinating to me. I was contemplating borrowing money to show people that I was doing well, even though this ego boost would have been created by going outside our financial means. 

Many people do this, they buy things that are well outside financial reach, we want to show the world that we are doing well with material representations and while the motivation may be different from mine the need to borrow to do this often happens.  

The questions that come to my mind are - what cost does this have on our lives when this happens? What’s the cost of you spending more than you earn so you can represent yourself at a level that you aren’t currently at?  The answers to these questions have many levels, there’s the financial restrictions that debt can bring to your life, there’s pressure of maintaining a stretched representation of yourself to the world and there’s also the pressure of not being able to look for support during tough times because you don’t want to look like your world is weak or failing. 

It’s appealing to want to show the world that we are doing well and in my mind there is nothing wrong with being proud of where you are in life, but if you know that you are building a world that is about impressing others that comes at a cost that is unhealthy, maybe you’d be better off spending your energy finding ways to be content with your current self.

In the end Jo and I went with a very practical car, within our budget and it ticks all our boxes. We won’t be turning any heads on the street, but we are happy and content with our decision and it has been an interesting reflection for me on the types of judgements that really matter in my life.


This piece orginally appeared in The Press


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Bevan Eyles