The 100-Dollar Dilemma: What It Is, And How It Is Ruining Your Financial Health


Last night, I was talking to a girlfriend over (reasonably priced, two-for-one) drinks, and we got into a conversation about our shopping habits. We both confessed, rather sheepishly, that we have a terrible tendency to regard any purchase of, say, 100 dollars as being unreasonably expensive, and yet be totally capable of spending that much or more, on insignificant little purchases, over the course of a few days or a week. Instead of making the conscious decision to choose an item, set aside the money for it, and buy it, we’ll write it off as being “too much,” and then quickly burn away its value in Starbucks, dumb H&M tops we bought on the walk home, or drug store makeup.

It’s a natural impulse, of course — spending 100 dollars all at once always feels like a lot, even if you have a good amount of disposable income. It’s just the commitment of it, the three digits, and the implied sentiment that “this is worth at least a few dinners out to me.” You are immediately placing a significant amount of value on the item, and feel almost morally obligated to weigh it out, and to often decide against it.

But 10 dollars here, 15 dollars there — that doesn’t feel like much. You can do Starbucks in the morning, Au Bon Pain at lunch, happy hour at dinner, and maybe a run to Duane Reade in the afternoon to try out a new shade of lip stain, and you’re in the hole for at least 70 or so bucks. Throw in a poorly-made dress you buy on impulse and immediately hate a few days later, and there is your hundred-dollar item. And what do you have to show for it? What did you gain from resisting taking the plunge all at once?

We know this, of course. We know that it’s a bad decision to waste away your money in easy, cumulatively terrible ways. But there is also a huge element of laziness to it. Sitting down and saying, “Alright, I would like to get a nice staple black jacket for this fall/winter, and I’m going to budget 100 dollars for it, and now I have to choose the best option within that range” is tedious and unsatisfying. Burning through a bunch of cash and then finding yourself forced into buying some crappy coat from Forever 21 at the last minute is terrible, sure, but it is filled with many moments of immediate gratification.

It seems obvious that the solution to many of these problems — and the 100-dollar dilemma in particular — is to be patient and deliberate. Know what you want to have in your closet, or your home, or your life, and plan for it accordingly. Pre-empt yourself by bringing your own coffee, or packing a lunch, or taking a route that doesn’t make you walk in front of a bunch of fast fashion chains. Resist the urge to satisfy your financial sweet tooth and take the plunge that comes with spending the money up-front. Avoid ending up with a drained bank account, a closet full of cheap clothes you can’t stand, and an overall sense of failure at your ability to budget.

Because no matter how you do it, you’re going to end up spending money anyway. You might as well do it in a way that feels good.

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  • Dust. Wind. Bun.

    I can see how this makes sense for you and your friend, and others who are thinking of it like you, and this is very helpful in that context. I’m still kind of baffled though, because for me, it’s not a matter of spending $100, it’s spending $100 *and only getting one thing*. Why would I want to spend $100 on a single item to wear? I can see winter coats, ballgowns, and to some extent fine jewelry, but otherwise? My favorite jeans are $56 at full retail price, usually on sale for between $35 and $40. I need another pair (gaining 5 pounds a month you don’t need is just so much fun, thanks chronic illness for this gift) but I won’t buy ’til they hit $20, because I feel like spending $50 on a pair of jeans is silly. It’s the thing that confuses me the most about even non-rich-people ‘street style’ fashion blogs: they point out something’s a good deal, but it’s still like $100 for a pair of shoes.

    So, any advice? I get the impression from others that my attitude is the problem here and not the prices…

  • shayelea

    I’ve found the Level app very helpful for cutting back on small expenditures. I’ll give myself, say, $150 a week in spending money, and the app tracks all non-bill purchases. It’s vastly cut down on the amount of money I spend on stupid crap, and it reminds me that if I spend $100 on something worthwhile, I’d better not ALSO be spending money on Starbucks iced tea that week.