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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).

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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