The Life You Have vs. The Life You Want: Do You Spend on Your Imaginary Self?

Alden Wicker

woman at resortThere’s a concept my friends and I love to discuss called the Life You Have versus the Life You Want. Mostly it takes the form of long brunch conversations about who we could really be …  in our wildest dreams.

But sometimes those fantasies bleed into reality, and into our budgets, wreaking financial havoc. And somehow I think we’re not alone in these buying habits (in fact, marketing wonks love to call what we do “aspirational” spending.)

RELATED: 7 Industries that Prey on our Delusions

Not sure you would recognize your imaginary self if she showed up on your credit card statement? Let’s take a brief inventory of all the people I will probably never be—and all the things I’ve bought for them.

  • One plunging one-piece bathing suit with gold hardware, for the woman who spends her days lounging by the pool at an upscale resort somewhere in Italy.
  • Ten pieces of cold-weather running gear, for the woman who enjoys training for her half-marathon when it’s below 40 degrees outside.
  • One white marble pestle and mortar from Williams & Sonoma, for the woman who lovingly grinds pesto and other foodstuffs by hand for her elaborate dinner parties.
  • 15 hardcover books on topics like being your own publicist, organic farming and improving your writing, for the woman who’s moving to a self-sufficient farm and writing a best-selling book about it. You know, like “Eat, Pray, Love.” But with goats.
  • Three sets of personalized stationery, plus a monogrammed wax stamp, for the woman who composes thoughtful and witty correspondence to her friends, family and European lover in her ample leisure time.

Obviously, none of these women are me. I don’t even remotely resemble them. I spend most of my time in an office without a dress code. But I still own four pencil skirts and white blouses, just in case a women’s magazine calls and ask me to be their editor-in-chief. On weekends, I run errands and go to mundane bars where I drink cheap margaritas. And yet I have five cocktail dresses in case I start dating a VIP. I’ve gone running twice in the last year, when it was a perfect 65 degrees.

In fact, I couldn’t fulfill all my fantasy lifestyles if I tried.

RELATED: How the American Dream Is Keeping Us Broke

Sound familiar? Maybe for you, it’s a weight set for your inner go-getter who works out for an hour every day before he heads to work. Or a hardbound leather journal for the do-gooder who sweetly smiles as she jots down what she’s grateful for at the end of every day. Puh-lease.

At least wannabe rap stars get to return their fantasy sports cars at the end of recording a music video. Me, I paid for my fantasy life in full—and did it ever do a number on my budget.

Here’s what to do if you’re buying for the life you want, instead of the one you’re currently living.

6 Steps to Breaking the Spending Cycle

I haven’t quite brought myself to chuck the mortar and pestle. It makes a very attractive bookend for all the organic cookbooks I don’t use. But I have stopped adding to my collection of vanity junk and even purged a lot. How? I started asking myself some hard questions:

1. Will You Use It This Year?

Considering the next ten years of your life is essential when you’re buying a home. It’s silly when you’re buying books, clothing or electronics. Thinking about what I wanted my life to look eventually was what led me to buy a book on farming. Really? Farming? That was three years ago, and the closest I’ve come to a farm is flirting with the honey guy at the farmer’s market.

Now, when a pair of overpriced, white, see-through crocheted shorts calls my name (for my future beach home in the Hamptons, duh), I ask myself, “Will I actually be going to the Hamptons this summer?” No, no I won’t. And probably never, if I’m honest.

  • Colleen Oczkowski

    I feel like this was written for me. I’m often guilty of this. Great piece.

  • Mint and Honey

    This article was quite funny but only because I can agree with some of it…my problem is buying self-help books(find that great career, be a happier you etc) or books to learn something (like how to be six-figure freelance writer or learn Spanish verbs, etc). Even though I see it as opportunity to “better” myself, I never really read them or I will start and then not long afterwards I’d lose interest altogether (and never pick up the book again). So now I’m thinking about selling all of these books (some are in new condition) because otherwise they are just collecting dust.

  • tatum

    Take Reason Number Six seriously! My husband bought a new pickup truck from an online auction to the tune of $35,000. Imagine my reaction when I woke up the next morning with and invoice in my email box for something I new NOTHING about.

  • linda katz

    this would be so much funnier if it weren’t so true! Now that I (usually) buy for my real life, I have the perfect wardrobe for spending hours in Starbucks, along with the comfortable, boring shoes to walk an extra few miles. The only thing I splurge on these days is vintage jewelry – and even that collection is getting beyond my ‘lifestyle’. Thanks again for this brilliant reminder and your tips!

  • Matthew Gordon

    If you want to be a person, why not just be that person? You don’t have to move to a farm to have an organic garden in your backyard or on a balcony. Running’s a great thing to do. The only thing between you and “elaborate dinner parties” is picking up your phone or laptop. Even using that mortar and pestle once will make you either glad you had it for that party and/or eager to use it again.

    As for the six tips:
    1. I totally agree with this one. I only buy things I actually intend to use. Also, why buy cookbooks when there are online cookbooks for free that don’t take up space?
    2. You always have time. If you set aside a little time for something that matters to you, you can make it work. I’m also not sure why that’s such an obscene number of T-shirts – I have ~20 and I wear them all semi-regularly. If you feel like you have too many of a certain article of clothing, just stop buying them and let attrition do its thing.
    3. That’s too bad. Black tie events are fun!
    4. I have no idea what possesses people to wear Hawaiian shirts in the first place. Non-itchy wool sweaters are great just about anywhere, though.
    5. This is just a basic discussion of advertising techniques. Being that person you want to be might help you get into situations when this is necessary, so hold it off until you’re there, I guess?
    6. Drinking while online shopping can be fun but I agree it’s good to be constrained. What works for me is I plug an economic analysis of anything I’m buying into Excel to determine how it compares to other products in its market, what kind of use I can expect out of it, etc. If I’m incapable of doing that, I’m not sober enough to press the Checkout button.

    • Alden Wicker

      Good points, sir. I do use Google more than I ever crack open a cookbook.

      If you happen to live in the NYC area and are in need of a date for elaborate dinner parties and these super-fun Black Tie events, I know a little lady who is available.

      • Matthew Gordon

        You’re making me wish I was in NYC! Sadly, I’m in Toronto.

  • AnonT

    This was hilarious, and way too true. I placed myself on a Groupon (and similar site) moratorium. The only way I allow myself to purchase anything is if I know of a very specific time I will use it before it expires (e.g., a Groupon for flowers for Mother’s Day). I have no idea why I thought I would have plenty of time for spas and fancy dinners at places I’ve never been to that are not at all convenient to me.

  • lepm16

    I apparently inspire to be a writer or an artist that sketch things on a walk in town as I have 20 unused notebooks (but they are sooo cuutteee)- let’s face it I can hardly express myself nor have I sketch since the teachers made me to in High School (12 years ago).
    Face it, we all do it. Will I let go of my notebook… umm.. probably not this year just in case :)

  • Danie

    This was good! I laughed and cringed at all the truths!

  • Shameless in DC

    I agree with on everything except the exercise clothes. I have enough to last for two classes a day for two weeks. I also have enough t-shirts to make two quilts!!