Are You an Image Spender?

I am going to venture a guess that one of the leading reasons many of us twentysomethings wind up buried in debt is because we spend above our means not because we have to, but to look good, fit in, and feel richer than we are.

Are you an “image spender?”

I’m not saying you have to be a superficial diva or high-rolling meterosexual. But from time to time, do you indulge, splurge, and overspend on clothes, jewelry, watches and other accessories; apartments, furniture and even pets; dinner and drinks and lattes; cars, vacations, and a whole lot else?

And do you do it to look good?

I don’t assume there’s anything wrong with image spending, per se—if you can afford it. (I’ll leave that debate for another time). But the trouble starts when you spend to show off but don’t have the savings. If you think you think you’ve ever been guilty of image spending beyond your means, even just a little bit, (I won’t tell), I’m going to suggest some ways to temper your urge to splurge but still look good.

First Of All, Take Stock

It’s natural in our advertising-saturated society to want to look good and keep up with trends. Choosing to tune-out all the consumist messages you hear and see every single day is difficult work, but well worth it. The less you care what other people thing, the more you can build a financial foundation that will let you spend money on the things you want—and actually afford them. And hey, if that still means the latest fashions, no problem.

But if you admit to yourself that you have a budget or debt problem because you overspend on your image; you do need to ask yourself: Why?

  • Are you trying to keep up with others?
  • Are you shopping to fill and emotional need?
  • Do you have a shopping addiction?

If you think you might have one of these problems, you might want to spend time addressing the deeper psychological causes of your spending.

Look Good, Spend Less

The good news is you don’t have to completely abandon your image to curb your spending. Here are some things you can do:

Keep Your Image “Classic”

One of the easiest ways to overspend on your image is to try to keep up with ever-changing trends. But if you create a style that’s classic and sophisticated, you can buy just one or two “hot items” a year instead of dozens.

Take Care of What You Already Have

Make the stuff you own last by caring for it well. After years of treating my clothes like old rags I’m finally learning to hang my nicest shirts on quality hangers and occasionally dry clean them instead of throwing them in the wash after every wear, meaning I only have to buy any new clothes once or twice a year.

Remember: Nobody Knows Where It Came From

My wife frequently gets compliments on how she dresses, yet most of what she owns comes from Target and Old Navy; not Fifth Avenue boutiques. Impress people with your personal style, not the brand name of the things you own.

If You Splurge, Do It Wisely

I once read a piece of advice in Esquire that comes to mind. It went something like this:

Time in your car every day: One hour. Time in your clothes every day: 12 hours. Spend accordingly.

I’d take this a bit further: What stylistic items do you use almost all the time? Your watch, your shoes, your coat? If you’re going to spend a bit more, do it on these items that you’ll get the most use out of, not items that you’ll wear once or twice a year.

What do you think? Have you found ways to maintain a sleek image on a budget? Or do you just say screw what other people think? Share your thoughts in a comment.

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About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.


  1. Great column David.

    I can attest to your 2 points on ‘keeping it classic’ and ‘nobody knows where it came from’.

    As a 23-year old male, all my friends are always trying to keep with the latest fashions in t-shirts, jeans, shoes, etc.

    I, on the other hand, have always keep it pretty simple with clothes from Gap, Old Navy, etc and yet receive more compliments about those than the ones from my friends!

    Advertisements are there to make us believe what is trendy and ‘acceptable’ even though a classic style (Solid color polo shirt/jeans) will always be stylish.

  2. It must be an age thing indeed. The older I get, the more I’m just happy looking homely with my regular old khakis, jeans, and a t shirt.

    I think it’s b/c us over 30 folks start accumulating so much JUNK, that we stop spending. Also, we feel more secure with ourselves, so we don’t really care as much any more.