Looking around me daily at Singaporeans around me on buses and the MRT, I have come to realize that possessions do indeed constitute a form of “signalling” to tell others more about yourself. Whether it be branded goods, an iPod or a luxury car, all these material possessions are a way of declaring your financial status, or in some cases, showing off how indebted you really are! I was mulling over this over the last few weeks, and decided to write something on it which is appropriately titled “Functional Versus Status Items”. I will seek to explore items which many possess which can be classified as just being functional, as compared to having some sort of status attached to it. For each category, I will state the functional items within and the approximate cost, then compare this to a similar “status” item and state its cost as well.
Clothing is arguably one of the true bare necessities of life, other than food, water and air. For to be clothed is to be protected from the elements and their harsh effects, and to prevent our skin from the harmful effects of radiation from the sun. But for some, clothes are also used as a means of expression of taste, style and individuality. For myself, I usually dress in a simple T-Shirt with Bermudas or for working sake, long-sleeve shirt and long pants. These are usually not branded and the long pants are from G-2000. Functionality would be simply to make one look presentable and to ensure one gets protection from the elements, but for people going after status, they could spend in excess of $150 for a shirt and probably $200 for a pair of “branded” pants. For my shirts, they are mostly in the $30 to $500 category and for pants, they range from $49 to $69 at G-2000 sales (GSS is still on as I type this). Thus, one could conceivably spend 2 to 2.5 times more buying branded clothing as compared to non-branded ones.
For casual wear, bermudas for me usually cost $30 to $40 a piece while T-Shirts can be from various tourist destinations like Redang, Phuket or Cambodia and cost less than S$5 a piece. I am not aware of the cost of a similar “status” T-Shirt and Bermuda but I am sure it could be more than twice or thrice the amount.
Spectacles (and LASIK)
The basic aim of spectacles is to improve your eyesight, but there are those who would make a fashion statement out of it nonetheless, which truly baffles me. Most of the time, I would visit my nearby neighbourhood spectacle shop to have a pair of lens and frame made for about $200/-, but moving around the MRT I have seen young adults wearing a particular brand of Emporio Armani spectacles which I guess could cost in excess of $500? The frame is thicker closer to the lens and has the symbol of the black eagle on white, and it looks more sturdy than normal frames, but otherwise still manages to sit on the bridge of the nose and enables the eyes to focus through the lens. So functional versus status implies a cost saving of about 50-60% in this instance.
And for those who do not wear glasses, ask if they have gone for expensive LASIK treatment to permanently correct their eyesight. The treatment is much cheaper (and safer) now (compared to 5 years ago) and costs probably around $999 per eye, for a total of about $2,000+ (including eye-drops and follow-up clinical sessions). The reason I avoid it is not because of the cost (pretty expensive in my opinion and no guarantee of permanent freedom from short-sightedness as it can still relapse), but also due to safety issues such as blurred vision and complications. Call me risk-averse but I’d rather save my money and my potential anguish and stick to my tried and tested spectacles.
I lumped these three items together because they usually come together when one shops, especially for men. I tend to buy a new bag cum wallet and shoes at the same time if I need a change, but I know women probably have very different shopping habits. For functionality, a wallet is simple a place to store your cash, credit cards and coins; while shoes are to protect your feet. Yet many also choose to indulge in the status aspect of wallets and shoes. For ladies, the most obvious would be the purchase of a branded handbag, be it Coach, Prada, Miu Miu or the ever-famous LV. This aspect differs from that of men as women usually tote their bags around and having a beautiful label usually boasts of spending power and wealth. Such bags can cost in excess of a few thousand dollars, compared to the around $100 discount handbag (which may be a remnant of last season’s fashion statement, perhaps) which my wife purchases at Robinsons or Isetan. So that is a premium of almost 30-40 times just to “look good”. Wallet-wise, I stick to Braun Buffel around $98 as it is made of good leather and has enough compartments + an easy to access coin pouch. I’ve seen more branded wallets such as LV going for a few hundred, so I figure I’ve saved about 50-60% by sticking to functionality over status.
As for shoes, my belief is that they should look decent for work, and for leisure they should have the effect of protecting you from many hours of walking (yes, I am a walking freak). Thus, a decent $49 to $69 pair of black working shoes will suffice from OG or Robinsons (during a sale). The more expensive working shoes can cost up to $89 to $149. For casual shoes, I buy those costing at most $89 for decent comfort and soft material, and I guess in this area I don’t save that much; but brand wise it is not anything status-related like Hush Puppies.
Oh, now we have come to the mother of all status items – the mobile phone. This probably constitutes the most pervasive and conspicuous status item which everyone on the street is carrying but which not everyone is aware of. Most of the newer models of smartphones (including Blackberry, iPhone 4 and Android-based phones) are considered status items as they include functions like surfing the net, taking photos, downloading music and other nifty programs. To me, a phone is basically a tool for communication; thus the basic functions would be to call and SMS. Hence, I have retained my 5.5 year Nokia model from the dinosaur era and it still works very well, has a decent battery life of 2-3 days without recharging, and can withstanding quite a few occasional knocks without complaints. My phone came FOC (of course) with a new contract donkey years ago, while the new smartphones like iPhone 4 usually come bundled with data plans and cost $400-$500 upfront with a $49 monthly subscription before GST. I think I probably saved about 60-70% in the long run in terms of total costs by avoiding functions which I can live without (like MSN on the go and updating Facebook with every single morsel you chew on).
This also happens to be (unsurprisingly) the item which everyone else seems to badger me about. In order to keep up with the crowd and the so-called “status” of being a manager, I am constantly asked to upgrade to a snazzy-looking smartphone by concerned colleagues and close friends who hand me that “oh you are so pathetic” look. Trying to manage the handful of them has kept me busy enough without even considering the upgrade to a “better” phone (no, this is NOT a joke). After some moments of reflection and intense contemplation I concluded that I did not need those functions anyway and I was very contented with my Nokia phone, and I remain happy and satisfied to this day. The “harassment” continues unabated, however, but this is part and parcel of living in a society which places “status” over “functions”.
The basic function of a watch is to tell the time, but as usual there are many functional watches and there are also many status watches. There are some who argue that watches like Rolexes constitute a viable investment, as their value will not depreciate and it can be handed down to the next generation. But for myself, I used to own a watch which told the time but ever since that broke down, I relied on my (old but trusty) mobile phone to remind me of the time; and those who see me in real life will not that I do not wear a watch, and have not been wearing one for more than a year. I still am punctual for all my appointments and am hardly, if ever, late for work; so it’s a matter of discipline and having that innate sense of time and how long it takes to engage in certain activities.
Status watches can range from anything around a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars, so I will decline to speculate on how much I saved by not owning a watch; but you get the idea.
Well, I could go on, but I think the above is a simple laundry list of items which one can choose to be purely functional, or having some sort of status element attached to it. Some may even argue that a hybrid exists – functional items with a hint of status (mid-range watches and wallets), and I do not deny this. For myself though, I am a bare necessities guy and I hardly spend on anything deemed status-worthy, thus this post is just to share how much one could save if one drastically cut down on his status “wants” and lived a simple yet fulfilling life based on family, friends and relationships. Possessions may fade but the joy of experience persists – clichéd but very true in my opinion!