Recently I started spending money on a bunch of things that might seem a little extravagant:

  • House cleaner
  • Massage therapist
  • Psychotherapist that is not covered by insurance
  • Professional organizer
  • A nearly $3,000 mattress cover (cools/heats bed)

My impression is that they're all the sorts of things that are mostly purchased by rich people. Not upper-middle class people like me. Rich people.[1]

So it felt a little uncomfortable to pull the trigger on each of these purchases. In my mind's eye I imagine people learning of these purchases and passive-aggressively saying "must be nice". And I doubt that I'm alone in these feelings of discomfort.[2]

In this post I'd like to argue that such purchases shouldn't be seen this way. 

Value-oriented perspective

Let's look at each purchase individually:

House cleaner

The house cleaner I use costs $30/hr. Since she's a faster and better cleaner than I am, what takes her one hour maybe would take me two.

I can make maybe $100/hr programming. Dirty things make me feel somewhat stressed.

Why wouldn't I trade money for time and peace of mind here?

Massage therapist

I have chronic Achilles tendinitis. It's not the worst thing in the world, but it's also certainly not the best. If the tendinitis mostly went away that'd be a nice improvement to my life.

I've tried tons of things to improve it and nothing has worked. In reading a resource I trust, I've come to believe that it's not entirely implausible that massage therapy would work. So then, as an experiment, why wouldn't I spend a couple of months giving massage therapy a shot?

Psychotherapist

The ROI of psychotherapy is just very clearly very positive.

As for in-network vs out-of-network, I've tried a few in-network people who haven't worked out. For various reasons I'm not optimistic about being able to find a more affordable in-network therapist who will work out, and this particular out-of-network therapist was recommended by someone who I trust a lot. So then, it seems easily worth it.

Professional organizer

My apartment feels way too cluttered. The clutter makes me feel a surprisingly large amount of discomfort. It's not intense, but it's a sort of perpetual, constant, slow burning discomfort that I think is actually a pretty big issue.

Yes, perhaps this could be addressed by simply 1) asking what sparks joy and 2) getting rid of the things that don't. But that isn't always possible when you live with a girl.

Anyway, the professional organizer I found seems very competent and is $70/hr for a minimum of three hours. I see this as having a very large expected value.

Mattress cover

I love my $3,000 mattress cover. It's genuinely improved my sleep, and sleep is very important.

If I lived alone, I'd sleep with it at maybe 60-62 degrees Fahrenheit. I like it cold. My girlfriend on the other hand likes it at about 70 degrees.

Before having the mattress cover we'd compromise at about 66. Neither of us were ever particularly comfortable. Since having the mattress cover, we are always very comfortable, and it's glorious.

If you'd like to purchase one, please use my affiliate link.

Status-oriented perspective

We've viewed each purchase through the lens of what I'll call a "value-oriented" perspective. Now lets look at them through the lens of what I'll call a "status-oriented" perspective.

I think the status-oriented perspective looks something like this:

A house cleaner? People who have house cleaners are usually rich, successful, and high-status. You're saying that you belong in that group?

Actually, I'm finding it difficult to express what I mean by "status-oriented perspective". Bear with me.

Maybe the examples I gave earlier aren't the best at demonstrating the "status-oriented perspective". Perhaps something like restaurant spending is a better example.

Let's group restaurants into four tiers:

  • Tier one: ~$12 entrees ($)
  • Tier two: ~$20 entrees ($$)
  • Tier three: ~$35 entrees ($$$)
  • Tier four: ~$80 entrees ()

If you see a coworker eating at a tier three restaurant by themself on a Tuesday afternoon for lunch, I think a lot of people think to themself something along the lines of "must be nice".

If you see a neighbor eating at a tier four restaurant with their partner on a Wednesday night for dinner, I think a lot of people think something to themself along the lines of "must be nice".

I'm having trouble articulating what I mean here, but I think that these sorts of purchases are often perceived as an attempt to grab social status. And like other situations where someone makes a move to grab social status, onlookers observe carefully with an eyebrow raised and a hand in the air ready to slap down the attempted status grab.

But what if your coworker only treats themself to this meal twice a month? What if they treat themselves more than twice a month, but compensate by not drinking coffee or alcohol?[3] What if they are a huge foodie and eat lunch at this restaurant every day, but compensate by riding a bike instead of owning a car?

Or, more to the point, what if they don't compensate at all and just have the money to afford it? Who cares!

There are some situations where I suppose playing the status games that we're evolutionary predisposed to play actually makes sense in the 21st century. Such spending decisions don't strike me as one of the appropriate situations though.

Self-policing

Part of the notion I'm hoping to express is that you shouldn't lean so heavily into the status-oriented perspective when observing how people around you spend their money. But the bigger thing I want to express is that you shouldn't lean so heavily into it when deciding how you yourself spend money.

I suspect that there is a decent amount of self-policing that people do when making decisions about their spending. In particular, avoiding certain purchases because they feel too much like a status grab. There's a certain dissonance of "wait, I'm not that type of person, am I?"

I ran into it myself. I was hesitant to hire the house cleaner. I was hesitant to hire the massage therapist. The psychotherapist. The professional organizer. To purchase the expensive mattress cover. There was a little voice -- perhaps a largely subconscious one -- that asked "is this really the type of person you are?".

I don't endorse that voice though. If I see it popping up in the future I'm going to try to shut it down.[4] I'm going to try to be pretty limited in the amount of time I spend taking a status-oriented perspective, and focus heavily on a value-oriented perspective instead.

  1. ^

    It's not entirely rich people, of course. I just get the sense that it's mostly rich people. Or maybe just that "rich person" is a more central example.

  2. ^

    I don't know how many people experience this sort of discomfort. 10%? 50%? 90%? I'd guess something like 80-90%, but I'm not sure. I do feel reasonably confident that it's not 1% and that it's a large enough niche to justify writing about this topic.

  3. ^

    Spending $600/month on coffee and alcohol is something that I sense is a lot more accepted, at least in the sense of not being a grab for social status. Expensive restaurants are different, I think.

  4. ^

    Well, perhaps I'll take a page from IFS and try to be more understanding and empathetic with that voice.

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I am confused. None of these are particularly social-status-improving, or, for that matter, social-status-worsening, because none of them are conspicuous. If you buy a tailored suit or an expensive car or an expensive house, people can see that you own it, and the extravagance signals wealth (or can be interpreted as materialism or lack of prudence); none of the things on the list seem to qualify. What am I missing?

Yeah, more visible things like suits and cars are more status-signaling than something like hiring a house cleaner. The latter could be status-signaling if it comes up in conversation, but I that's a little limited, and so I don't think they were great examples for me to focus on in the post. They're just what came to my mind.

The first somewhat contrary thing that comes to mind here is whether visible spending that looks like a status grab or is class-dissonant would also impact your social capital in terms of being able to source (loaned or gifted) money from your networks in case of a crunch or shock. If your friends will feel “well I sure would've liked to have X, but I was the ‘responsible’ one and you weren't, so now I'm not going to put money in when you're down” and that's what you rely on as a safety net, then maybe you do need to pay attention to that kind of self-policing. If you're reliant on less personal sources of credit, insurance, etc. or if your financially relevant social groups are themselves receptive to your ideas on not caring as much about class policing, then the self-policing can be mainly self-sabotage like you say.

That makes sense as a consideration for some people. I suspect that it's usually a pretty small one though.

It seems to me that hiring a cleaner or organizer would have a lot of overhead, to make sure everything is legal, to communicate your quirks so they don't clean/organize things in ways you don't intend, to make sure they are not doing things like dragging out the process to get more billable hours, and to make sure they're not actually going to harm you. Much of this overhead would require a lot of expensive-in-time personal attention from you, and a lot of unknown unknowns.

A lot of it is also much less of a problem for a rich person.

Not upper-middle class people like me. Rich people

Yeah, at some point through spending on these extravagances (I'd say probably around the "professional organizer"), you ought to just bite the bullet and accept that, yes, you're rich, and yes, it is nice. 

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Disagreed. I think the thing is that a lot of these things aren't actually expensive and are instead just associated with being rich. For example, I think many people could come up with $210 to pay for a professional organizer.

It's not just a question of "can I buy this and still make rent and keep the light on?" If one is making luxury purchases like that, he has bigger problems than a "little voice."

That you assess these purchases (typically associated with "rich people") to provide more value to you (more comfortable sleep, the comfort of having an uncluttered apartment, whatever you imagine therapy gets you) than the money they cost or the time it'd take to do it yourself, that's usually what being rich means. 

I question the premise of trying to justify them any more than you'd justify, say, buying the nicer brand of bread at the grocery. (Unless you've criticized people richer than you for spending on things you'd consider extravagant, in which case you're rightly feeling guilty of hypocrisy.)

If your point is just that "some expensive things aren't just status symbols, and worth the price even to the merely middle class," fine, I agree with that in general, though perhaps not in the specifics.

If your point is just that "some expensive things aren't just status symbols, and worth the price even to the merely middle class," fine, I agree with that in general, though perhaps not in the specifics.

This is how I read the argument: Hiring a house cleaner is actually a reasonable thing for a middle-class American to do. Note that "middle class American" is still objectively ridiculously rich.

I do think there's something weird about treating $25k+ cars and hundreds of dollars per month on restaurants and alcohol normal, but drawing the line at $100 per month for house cleaning.

Good post on the whole, but I downvoted for the "affiliate link" rickroll. I was genuinely curious, and if it was a real product that seemed good enough to buy I figured I'd make sure they'd tracked my click to get you a payout as a favor to show appreciation for the recommendation. Is that really the kind of behavior you'd like to punish for a laugh?

Or, more to the point, what if they don't compensate at all and just have the money to afford it? Who cares!

We as social animals care if someone else is getting more, because we're wired to want to do what they're doing. In a flock of chickens, when one of them finds something delicious, all the others immediately want some too. Imagine how this impacts the group's survival in the wild, vs if each individual ignored the others' discoveries. 

Money decouples earning behavior from spending behavior in a way that those ancient survival-relevant artifacts of behavior habits don't follow well, of course. Just saying it makes sense to me that we have a "that member of my group has what I want so I am going to try to do what they do" reaction wired in at a pretty fundamental level. 

With the mattress topper you'd describe buying, I'd say congratulations -- amortize the amount you'd spend to climate control your whole room to the target temperatures over the expected life of the item, and it's probably a pretty efficient way to address the consideration at hand. 

With the services, I think it's also worth considering framing them as education -- buying the opportunity to watch experts do a thing, so you can learn to do the thing better yourself. Ultimately I think the role of many experts -- therapists, sports trainers, home organizers, whatever -- has a large element of education/tutoring/training: offering you the opportunity to inherit the relevant portions of their skillset in a more efficient manner than going out and studying the whole skillset from scratch. 

but I downvoted for the "affiliate link" rickroll. I was genuinely curious, and if it was a real product that seemed good enough to buy I figured I'd make sure they'd tracked my click to get you a payout as a favor to show appreciation for the recommendation. Is that really the kind of behavior you'd like to punish for a laugh?

I appreciate you being upfront about this. Maybe you missed it, but I included an actual link earlier on at "A nearly $3,000 mattress cover (cools/heats bed)".

I don't have an issue with affiliate links in general for the reasons you began to describe. In practice though I think they're usually kinda sketchy. An example of this is when someone writes a blog post or creates a video where it seems like they're intrinsically motivated to talk about the topic, and then midway through it you realize that they have something to sell you. I was kinda making fun of that here with the rickroll.

Not that I think it's a great joke or anything. I think it's pretty marginal. But I personally enjoy that sort of joking around, don't see a downside in general (perhaps there is one here with the possibility of the reader having missed the first link to the actual product), and am ok with whatever the consequences of the jokes are.

We as social animals care if someone else is getting more, because we're wired to want to do what they're doing. In a flock of chickens, when one of them finds something delicious, all the others immediately want some too. Imagine how this impacts the group's survival in the wild, vs if each individual ignored the others' discoveries. 

I agree that in the ancestral environment there was probably a good reason for this. But in our modern environment, I'm not really seeing it. Maybe in some uncommon situations it's justified, but not frequently.

With the services, I think it's also worth considering framing them as education -- buying the opportunity to watch experts do a thing, so you can learn to do the thing better yourself. Ultimately I think the role of many experts -- therapists, sports trainers, home organizers, whatever -- has a large element of education/tutoring/training: offering you the opportunity to inherit the relevant portions of their skillset in a more efficient manner than going out and studying the whole skillset from scratch. 

That's an interesting point. It sounds plausible in general and something worth keeping in mind. But for the examples I discussed:

  • Even if I got to be as fast and skilled as the house cleaner, I think it'd still be worth paying the house cleaner as a way of trading my money for time.
  • Massage therapy seems a little awkward to perform on oneself, even if you had the skills. I also think I remember hearing that like tickling, it doesn't have the same effect when you do it to yourself.
  • I've read a lot about psychotherapy including various "be your own therapist" sort of books and I feel pretty confident that it unlikely to work for me.
  • I think it is definitely worth doing with the professional organizer. But at the same time, I don't think I should hesitate to re-hire them if I'm feeling even a little bit stuck since the amount of value I get from reduced clutter is very large compared to the cost.

downvoted for the "affiliate link" rickroll.

 

(Epistemic status: shitpost)

You know the rules, and so do I

Is what you do as a programmer a programming task that would make the world enough-better-off if you to quit, that it would be an effective marginal donation to the world for you to simply quit, rather than earning to give? I found that I couldn't find any way to argue against being a significant marginal net negative as a programmer, and as such have been living off savings for a few years since I quit, and I expect to do so for about two more years before getting a run of the mill job if TAI hasn't hit by then.

I don't think I understand. Would you mind elaborating or rephrasing?

I believe gears is saying he feels any software product he contributes to has negative value to the world as a whole, at least with respect to gears marginal contributions. So gears to ascension has quit and intends to return to the job market in 2 years if transformative AI is not available.

I see from gears' reaction that they endorse Gerald's position here.

My feelings are any software product that I am paid to pursue is probably going to have a negligible impact on the world and a pretty nice benefit to me, and so it makes sense for me to pursue them.

That said, I think there are some projects that have non-negligible negative impacts on the world, especially those that push AI forward. Other times the actual impact is negligible but is still just icky. I kinda take these things on a case-by-case basis and try to weigh the pros and cons.

Burnout isn't uncommon. I have a coworker who quit and came back to the industry after taking a bit over a year off. What gears is saying sounds like what someone burned out might say.

With that said, I kinda also feel like anyone who isn't one of the less than 5000 SWEs allowed to work at elite AI labs may not matter at all..

yeah that's fair and on point, it's possible that I irrationally overupdated about how bad of a thing it is for me to be employed as an industry SWE because it was unambiguously bad for me :p

The first sentence here is very confusing and I think inverts a comparison—I think you mean “would make the world enough worse off”.