Monday, March 12, 2007

Deconstructing the PSAWSWLD*

I've been thinking quite a lot about Walmart's description of me - and a whole lot of us - as *"Price Sensitive Affluents [sic], Wealthier Shoppers Who Love Deals." There is a whole literature of dollar stretching to get out of debt and simple living on low incomes. There is another literature of eco-chic: expensive consumption for well-to-do people with money and conscience. But I've never come across such a vivid description of the hybrid of these two types, people who are price-sensitive out of choice, not necessity.

Firstly, "price-sensitive" is a much more upbeat adjective than some of its synonyms like cheap, frugal, penny-pinching, and tight-fisted, all of which have negative valences in contemporary society. Our consumerist culture thrives on excess, so anything which smacks of self-discipline sounds dreary.

How do people become price-sensitive affluents? My hunch is that it's a learned behavior, probably from a lower income past. Obviously during the Great Depression thrift was a near universal necessity. However many of us have maintained this behavior beyond the point where it is a necessity, so it clearly has some staying power.
A few preliminary thoughts:
1. It is a challenge, hobby, and sport. Some people enjoy comparison shopping, researching, and networking to find the best products and deals. I am not a neuropsychologist, but I am quite sure there is a part of the brain which lights up, at least for some of us, when we find a really smart buy.
2. It is a proven strategy to create and preserve wealth. To accumulate wealth, one must earn more or spend less. If you do both, the results are even better. Spending less without sacrificing quality of life is a smart life style, if you enjoy the process. Thomas Stanley's bestselling The Millionaire Next Door lets us all in on the big secret: accumulating wealth requires that you live below your means. Big earners who are also big spenders rarely accumulate anything other than stuff. For example, Stanley reports very wealthy people rarely buy new cars. They prefer buying high quality depreciated cars at significant discount.
3. For those of us who are ambivalent about having enough, or more than enough, being price-sensitive can serve to distract us from the act of consuming, since we focus on how much we're saving, rather than on what we're actually spending. "Look how much I saved!" is a lot more palatable than "Look how much I spent!"
4. Since women do the majority of purchasing and for most of history have been uncompensated or undercompensated for their labors, shrewd purchasing is a way of accumulating reserves, and therefore resources and power. It is a classic way of contributing to the family's bottom line.
5. For some it is a time/money calculation. When I earned less, my time was less valuable and it made sense to invest it to stretch my income. As my time became more valuable, I dropped behaviors like coupon clipping. For some, that day never arrives, or even if it does, the habit is too ingrained to drop.
6. Since it requires self-discipline in order to defer gratification, for some this gives a sense of pride, satisfaction and power
7. For me it seems like common sense, especially since technology has made comparison shopping online just a question of few clicks. Not using these tools seems like a waste to me. My utlimate goal is to have more money to use philanthropically. I do not need to skimp, but I am perfectly happy to get shoes at a clothing swap, Google a model number to find which website has it for the lowest price, or spend time switching my long distance to a cheaper provider.
7. I sense an aspect of humility in price-sensitivity, a kind of recognition that one needs to spend money wisely and having enough is a blessing, something not to be taken for granted. Even if you have enough, money is not to be wasted.

Anyone have additional motivations for the list?

Of course there is a time and place for being a PSAWSWLD. Other times it is mal-adaptive. More on that tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Thomas Stanley's millionaires all had what must be considered at least reasonable - and in most cases, above-average - income. I didn't see any hamburger flippers referenced in his books.

Betsy Teutsch said...

It's true that The Millionaires Next Door, in stanley's classic book, are generally business people, but occasionally one does read of much lower income people who, through extreme frugality and much to everyone's surprise, leave large fortunes.