Years ago, I met a friend at work who was the ultimate Cool Girl. She was beautiful and hip, always taking weekend trips to St. Barth’s or going to parties with local celebrities. One day we took a shopping trip together, and I spotted a shimmery, sequined cocktail dress. She urged me to buy it. It wasn’t something I’d normally wear, but it was a total Cool Girl dress, and I thought I’d try on a new persona. But whenever I wore the dress, it felt like a costume — it just wasn’t me. It made its way to the back of my closet, along with so many other purchases that didn’t pan out.
If you want to appear to be a certain type of person — say, the kind of person who goes to fancy parties and is super fashionable — you can literally buy your way to doing so. Broadly speaking, researchers call this our “consumer identity.” The purchases we make communicate who we are and what we value. The bottle of Mrs. Meyer’s soap signals your eco-friendliness. The Louis Vuitton bag signals your wealth and taste. The sequined dress makes you feel like a fancy party girl, even when you’re not.
Don’t get me wrong: There are legitimate reasons to buy any of these things. But if we’re being honest, we all buy stuff with an awareness of what it says about who we are. And this behavior is related to a concept we refer to at TFD as “aspirational spending” — the purchases you make to become a different, better version of yourself.
It’s easy to overspend, or worse, spiral into debt when you feel like you can buy your way to being a different person. But there’s an added reason aspirational spending can be a waste of money: It can make you feel like a fraud.
Buying fancy stuff can make you feel like an imposter.
In a recent series of studies, researchers from Boston College and Harvard Business School looked at how our spending impacts our sense of authenticity. “Prior studies showed that consumers often buy luxury when they need a confidence boost, a pick-me-up, or to feel powerful,” said Nailya Ordabayeva, an associate professor at the Boston College Carroll School of Management and one of the study’s authors. “We were interested in understanding how wearing and consuming luxury would actually make consumers feel.”
In one study, Dr. Ordabayeva and her colleagues asked women to imagine they were buying a dress for the opera and considering a luxury option versus a non-luxury option. Then they asked the women to report how authentic they felt potentially buying each option, and the majority of women said the luxury option made them feel like a less authentic version of themselves. “To our surprise, we found that a lot of consumers do not necessarily experience the psychological boost that luxury promises, and instead feel inauthentic and like impostors when wearing luxury,” Dr. Ordabayeva said.
The researchers dubbed the effect “imposter syndrome from luxury consumption,” concluding that luxury purchases can, quite frankly, make people feel bad about themselves. “This suggests that luxury consumption may sometimes backfire and make consumers feel less, rather than more, confident and powerful,” Dr. Ordabayeva explained.
Of course, aspirational spending isn’t always about luxury. Sometimes when we aspire to learn a new skill or develop a new habit, the easiest thing to do is throw money at it. Researchers think the “imposter syndrome” effect translates to these other types of purchases, too. “Generally speaking, our work suggests that consuming something that doesn’t represent who you truly are will backfire and make you feel like an impostor, reducing your confidence and satisfaction with the purchase along the way,” said Dr. Ordabayeva. We’ve all been there. You buy expensive new workout equipment to motivate yourself to start exercising, then feel guilty for not using it.
Watch out for “you deserve it” marketing.
Not everyone feels like a fraud when they buy fancy stuff. The researchers found that people who feel “psychologically entitled” — that is, people who inherently believe that they deserve the best things in life — are less likely to feel this way. Advertisers use this information to their advantage by making consumers feel entitled. You’ve seen some form of “you deserve it” marketing. There’s L’Oréal’s “You’re Worth It” message, for example. And hey, maybe we do deserve it, but it always pays to be a savvy consumer. You don’t want to buy stuff you’ll regret later, even if you are worth it.
Influencer marketing does an excellent, subtle job of appealing to your aspirational spending. Someone you admire mentions a product or brand, and subconsciously, you associate their aesthetic with that brand. Suddenly, you think you need that contouring stick or those hip glasses. Again, there’s nothing wrong with buying these products, except that we often buy them without considering why we want them in the first place, how useful they are to our everyday lives, and perhaps most importantly, whether or not we can afford them.
You can combat this problem by being a more conscious consumer. For example, I make a running wish list of all the things I’m tempted to buy. When I see an Instagram ad for magnetic false eyelashes or feel like trying a new hair product someone on YouTube swears by, I add it to the list and see how I feel about it later. More often than not, I delete the item instead of buying it, having had time to think about whether or not I really want to spend my money on magnetic eyelashes. Even an hour of deliberation can be surprisingly effective for squashing your impulsive spending. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t buy things you want — even nice, luxurious things — but taking a moment to think about the purchase gives you time to ensure you’re not just being impulsive.
Spend for the current version of yourself.
Aspirational spending rarely works out well. You have all the hopes and dreams of becoming a certain type of person, so you buy the sequined dress, fully prepared to be a new, cooler version of yourself. You wear it once or twice, but mostly, you go back to being who you are.
One way around this, Dr. Ordabayeva says, is to spend on the current version of yourself. “Reflecting on how well a product connects to your identity and represents who you are before buying may ultimately boost your feelings of authenticity and happiness with your purchases.”
Problems arise when you make aspirational spending a habit rather than a treat — which is why it’s usually best to spend on your current life, rather than the life you aspire to have. On the other hand, sometimes you want to venture out of your comfort zone and try new things. If you’re interested in photography, for instance, it’s easy to throw hundreds of dollars into new equipment, because that will make you feel like a legit photographer. But that feeling can wear off fast and when it does, you’re several hundred dollars in the hole.
One way around this? Test out new hobbies, habits, and interests before you invest too much money into them. Don’t commit to spending too much at first. Start by taking pictures with your phone, or buy a cheaper, mirrorless camera rather than a full-fledged DSLR. If you want to try a new style of clothing, buy a couple of cheaper, secondhand pieces before you update your entire wardrobe. You get the idea: spend based on your current reality rather than the one you aspire to.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a fancy purchase, and the goal isn’t to continue feeling like an imposter. Ideally, we would all be comfortable with the purchases we make — even if those purchases are bright and loud and covered in sequins, I suppose. But the real goal is to separate the things we buy from who we are in general. Our purchases signal our values and taste, but ultimately, our identity goes far beyond the dollars we spend.