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Wooden Spoons

Jim Wasserman

WE ARE STARTING from scratch. After living in Spain for three years, Jiab and I have returned to Dallas to be closer to family. We still have a home here, but—when we left three years ago—we sold all our furniture, cars and many other possessions to reduce storage costs. Now we have to reacquire those things that make living possible.

Fortunately, Jiab and I share a similar outlook as we reaccumulate. That outlook is inspired by Thorstein Veblen, who wrote the seminal 1899 work The Theory of the Leisure Class. His book is often considered the beginning of behavioral economics—the study of why people make both rational and irrational economic decisions. For instance, Veblen pointed out that a wooden spoon will serve most purposes just as well as a silver one, and yet it is the latter that’s more desired, despite costing far more. That’s irrational but very human.

Why do people value and desire silver spoons so much more? For Veblen, it came down to a single word, panache, or a way to flaunt our wealth and status by choosing to spend unnecessarily or unwisely. I would go further and add that the time needed to polish silver, the cost to safeguard it and the mental toll of worrying if the silver spoon is lost or damaged makes the silver spoon not worth it.

Jiab and I are secure in our finances, more thanks to Jiab, the realist. Meanwhile, I remain the economic theorist. We ran Monte Carlo simulations of our savings and feel we’re in a good position for retirement. Still, as we rebuild our things, we have chosen, whenever possible, to look for “wooden spoons.”

  • I sent word to friends that we needed a reliable car. One friend had a daughter looking to sell her 14-year-old Honda Element, which we purchased for $3,000.
  • Jiab scours Facebook Marketplace every day for deals on furniture. We have found everything from a Tempur-Pedic king size mattress ($450) to a large TV ($45) to a carpeted stand for our cats ($25). The cat stand needed a bit of cleanup, but the rest were pretty much good to go.
  • We’ve hunted Salvation Army and Goodwill stores. We even learned about the extra discounts, such as 25% off on Saturdays and markdowns for furniture unbought after 12 days. We got a hardwood dining table and four chairs for $117, and we found a four-piece wrought iron and wicker garden furniture set for $175, snapping it up an hour after it had been put on display. We bought so many items that I rented a van ($35) to pick it all up and bring it home.
  • When we have bought new items, like shower curtains and bath towels, we looked to no-frills discount stores that sell discontinued or off-brand items.

It may sound like a hodgepodge of cheap stuff, but I can assure you we (as in Jiab) have a tasteful eye and look for items that go well together. We also realize that most of our social interactions are now in outdoor settings, like cafes, so we feel no need to spend lots of money to make the home a “showplace.” We want comfort and likability for us (and the cats).

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When we sold all of our stuff three years ago, we netted about $10,000. We made it our goal to get established again by spending no more than that. We have yet to get some things, such as a motor scooter for short trips to the store and a full sofa set, but we are on course to stay within our budget, even counting the $3,000 car.

And then there’s the biggest “spoon” of all. We leased our home until September of this year, so we’ve had to rent a place for ourselves while we wait. There are plenty of Airbnbs and similar places available at monthly rates. Instead, Jiab and I found a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo not far from our home. It was on the market for sale, but it hasn’t been updated in several years, so it’s not moving. We purposely rented it so we can check it out. If we like it enough (and, so far, we do), we plan to make an offer to buy it, renovate it ourselves and turn it into rental property when we move back into our home.

Texas chili lovers will debate “with beans” vs. “without.” But however you like it, trust me, it tastes just as good no matter what spoon you use.

Jim Wasserman is a former business litigation attorney who taught economics and humanities for 20 years. Check out his previous articles. Jim is the author of Media, Marketing, and Me, about teaching behavioral economics and media literacy. His current book project: Finding Your Way: A Guide to Exploring and Teaching Daoism. Jim lives in Texas with his wife and fellow HumbleDollar contributor, Jiab.

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Olin
Olin
3 months ago

My wife and I like to go to estate sales (www.estatesales.net) for items we like to collect, or when someone asks to keep an eye out for something. These usually run Thursday to Sunday with the last day being 50% off, but the pickings may be less.

We’re also attracted to “road kill” items that people put out at the curb for trash pickup; especially in wealthy neighborhoods. Have acquired many quality pieces of furniture this way. Many times the furniture is broken and can be repaired, or repurposed.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

booch221
booch221
3 months ago

I did something similar. I furnished a second home on the cheap. I got a very nice set of stainless steel flatware service for 12 for $44. Dishes and glasses from Ikea. I did buy new mattresses and couch. I not sleeping on a used mattress!

Last edited 3 months ago by booch221
CJ
CJ
3 months ago

Interesting article – I’ve always been a diehard saver at heart but candidly, my history of chasing that wooden spoon has sometimes created more aggravation, time and hassle than the saved money was worth (and sometimes cost me MORE)

Figured a gently used dishwasher would be perfect to replace a non working one. Broke a few weeks after install w/parts that cost close to worth of the appliance. Wasted money on a plumber 2x – for original install, then to install new one. From now on, new appliances and electronics ONLY, most with extended warranty protection thanks to credit card.

Older cars. Tried to keep every car I bought for 10 years, 100k miles minimum – didn’t always work well. Nothing is walkable here, the climate is extreme/hard on cars and mechanics are expensive. Repairs are not something we can DIY. Not a good feeling to get hit with bills close to or above value of car itself- you fix one thinking you’re good for a while, then something else wears out or breaks. It’s stressful, hazardous and a cost issue to break down and juggle trips to mechanic/rides to work every time. From now on, I only buy gently used <20k miles & at least 1 year of bumper to bumper warranty. Then sell after 75-80k miles when it can still fetch a decent price.

Used parts – when I was in my ’20s, tried to save money several times by fixing cars with used A/C compressors, rebuilt auto transmissions, etc. Sometimes it worked out, but other times, I wasted time at junkyards (pre-internet you had to go there to purchase), then hauling it to mechanics, only to have it crap out 6-12 months later and back to square one.

Furniture or other hard goods with very little risk are indeed wonderful deals used! But for electronics, appliances, anything with a motor or bedding, I value the time saved and peace of mind I enjoy far more than a better “deal”. That’s what I always saved for and pictured retirement to be – more relaxing, more comfortable, more enjoyable.

Richard Gore
Richard Gore
3 months ago

Welcome home! Is it a culture shock to back in the USA?

Jim Wasserman
Jim Wasserman
3 months ago
Reply to  Richard Gore

Absolutely, and with all things, some ways better, some not so much. One particular thing that struck us was remembering the pace of the day here in the States. We are back to planning an errand circle to maximize efficiency and get as much done as possible. In Spain, getting one or two things done is good enough. It’s not a matter of laziness in Spain, it’s that their priority is family and chilling with friends. Rush hour was at 2:30, as everyone breaks to take a long lunch with family (kids get out of school then) and friends I miss that.

Ben
Ben
3 months ago

Jim, thanks for the article. Having read about the journey you and Jiab have been on in Spain for the last few years, I would love to hear more about your process of deciding to relocate back to the U.S. – what drove the decision, what were the factors you considered, the impact it will have on your early retirement plan, etc. Could be very instructive for many of your readers.

Jonathan Clements
Admin
Jonathan Clements
3 months ago
Reply to  Ben

The site will have a piece on that topic from Jiab next Friday.

rayanmiller6303
rayanmiller6303
3 months ago

I think that is pretty cool, one could even make a bit of a game or challenge out of it. You didn’t list it but you probably know community garage sales are a great way to see lots of stuff in a compressed amount of time and get a little free exercois/

Having done some of this when I was younger and broker often the struggle is to find not stuff at a great deal but stuff that matches the rest of your stuff.

Scrooge_McDuck88
Scrooge_McDuck88
3 months ago

I appreciated your frugality up to the used mattresses… some items are not to be purchased used IMHO unless you’re poor.

Ormode
Ormode
3 months ago

I recommend local online auctions with local pickup only. Frequently, no one wants to haul off heavy furniture, and good pieces sell for $1 or $5.

Guest
Guest
3 months ago

Mr. Wasserman –

Thank you for sharing this. My wife and I are in our 50s. Our house (including our children’s rooms) are 75% used furniture. We bought the bulk of it from Craigslist and yard sales over the decades. We don’t buy junk but instead buy nice things for short money. Indeed when someone wants to part with a piece of furniture they simply want it out of their house and are willing to sell for such a small price. We value experiences over stuff and are often willing to pay up for nice experiences for either all 4 of us or just her and I. So far it’s worked out just great.

Last edited 3 months ago by Guest
Thomas
Thomas
3 months ago

I’m going to borrow your approach next time I move!

IAD
IAD
3 months ago

Just to comment on the flipside of your experience. We are moving and in so being forced to downsize. Things that we spent thousands for are being sold for hundreds, if anyone wants them at all. A $3k treadmill was bought for only $150, sturdy oak furniture that cost upwards of $4k is a few hundred dollars. While its easy to nod at your approach and consider it a “one-off”, I’m seeing value in it as I sense we as a people are conditioned to pay more for perceived value. Thanks for the article!

Jim Wasserman
Jim Wasserman
3 months ago
Reply to  IAD

Thanks, Iad. To be honest, we also had “reverse sticker shock” when we sold off everything years ago. My vinyl record collection went for far less than I would have valued it, and nothing smarts like seeing people have that “I might be able to do something with it with a lot of work” at your favorite (and expensive) easy chair. Good luck!

Ormode
Ormode
3 months ago
Reply to  Jim Wasserman

You sold your records too early. Prices have tripled in the past three years – ordinary common rock on stock US pressings are selling for $10-20.

R Quinn
R Quinn
3 months ago

Sounds like quite a lifestyle change again for you guys. My intent is not to pry, but I am curious I admit. With being secure in your finances, are you saying that buying in Goodwill and used just about everything is simply a choice reflecting the frugal nature both of you share?

Jim Wasserman
Jim Wasserman
3 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

Even though Jiab and I grew up on different sides of the globe, we both grew up comfortable, if not relatively affluent. One of the things that we shared in common, however, was a disinterest in accumulating “silver spoons” and more on experiences (One of our favorite family vacations was “backpacking” NY, Philly, and DC with our sons, staying in hostels, etc.). We even probably “reverse brag” by telling people how little we spend on stuff! I’d add as a last note that if Jiab is motivated by frugality, I’m motivated by frugality and maybe a tiny bit of fear if Jiab sees the bill of me spending a lot! Thanks for reading!

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