There was once a time when wealth was hard to fake. For example, in the Gilded Age, the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers, among others, floated far above the masses living in their own, untouchable world. Several layers below those elites were the plain ol’ rich, but they weren’t obscenely so. These were the executives, the entrepreneurs, and others who made a great living, living it up in mansions and even owning cars.
No matter how many boom and bust periods the country went through, you could still spot the wealthy a mile away. It was them and everyone else.
This continued right up until later in the 20th century, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. That’s when something very interesting began to change: the advent of Easy Credit. Suddenly a lowly office drone could drive to work in the exact same car as the owner of the company. While their financial situations may have been very different, if you saw them stopped next to each other at a stoplight, you wouldn’t be able to tell which was which. This was new. In fact in the ’80s I was working in fast food and our manager drove a new BMW convertible. A fast food manager. Of course he also burned out his nose on cocaine, but that’s another story…
We are, after all, just animals
In the natural world, animals employ various tactics to attract a mate. The male frigatebird inflates a large, red sack on its chest, dancing about to bring on the ladies. Male rams famously crack heads with competitors until the strongest stands alone, thus impressing the females. And the male cichlid fish prefers females with a large pelvic fin, causing the ladies to sprout outsize fins to attract the boys (and probably starve themselves to make the pelvic fin look larger).
Even in the human world, we see the same approaches, although it’s harder to recognize them in ourselves. For example, the Maasai tribe in Africa uses a jumping ritual where the males compete to show their prowess. The higher the jump, the more attractive you are to the girls. In western culture, we do crazy stuff as well. Mostly geared toward looking wealthier than we are. If we spend a lot of money on haircuts, fancy clothes, gym memberships, flashy car, etc., on some level it’s just the human equivalent of flashing our plumage. (Which in turn is a proxy for better genetic material, according to the scientists. Wealth is an indicator, however subconsciously, that this mate was stronger, smarter, whatever and therefore is someone we want to combine DNA with.)
How humans choose a mate
Which brings us back to the world of personal finance. For quite some time, people were able to discern wealth (and by proxy, desirable DNA) by easily identifying those individuals by their trappings. Mansions, beauty, cars, leisure time, etc. But in the era of easy credit, beautiful jaw structure or a sleek black Mercedes could be presented as wealth with no way to tell how real it was.
HOWEVER, like any animal, we can’t be fooled for long. Certain things we do to present that fake wealth are now easily able to be seen through. Once symbols of wealth, they’ve become symbols of stupidity. Ways to be targeted for Loserville by potential mates, even as we’re still doing them in hopes of mating success.
So with that very long introduction, I present Ten Awesome Ways to Look Like a Total Idiot and thus be overlooked by potential mates. (Full disclosure: I’ve done more of these than I want to admit. I’ll leave it to the readers to guess which ones.)
Keep in mind, we’re talking about things that people do to make themselves look rich but actually make them look poor and stupid. There are a lot of dumb things people do, such as not investing in their retirement plans at work, that are private. That’s a different post.
1. Buying a brand, new car
Once upon a time showing off that flashy new car to your friends was a sign you’d made it. But in the era of easy credit, your new car just screams “I’ll always be poor!” Your polite friends might compliment you on your new purchase, but inside they know you’ll be asking to borrow money someday. It’s probably the most vivid example of an item where the consumer thinks everyone else thinks they look rich, yet we all know what’s really going on.
2. A perfect lawn
No one is denying a perfect lawn looks nice. But that lush green patch also looks like you don’t know how to manage your money. There’s nothing more pathetic than watching someone dump gallons of water on their green patch just so they can trim off the excess growth they just caused and throw it in the yard waste bin. Even worse is watching someone sacrifice the health of their pets and kids by covering the lawn with chemicals. Here’s a tip: If a plant doesn’t grow without unnatural intervention, the plant doesn’t belong there!
3. An expensive coffee habit
Look, an occasional treat is one thing. But we all know that person who can’t stumble their way into work without their triple-Venti-no-foam-half-soy-half-nonfat-extra-hot latte. These people can’t function without their morning milkshake and they carry their disposable cup around all day as if to say “look how rich I am, I can’t function without my fancy coffee milkshake every day.” Newsflash: everyone knows you’re buried in credit card debt — we can tell by your decadent wasting of money every morning.
Some business genius started this madness in the 1980s when Evian bottles became the hottest thing to make sure people saw you holding. Never mind that it tasted like shit. For awhile it got so bad that just having a water bottle in your hand was a status symbol in and of itself. We’re finally at the point where most people acknowledge bottled water is one of the worst things you could do to the planet and it’s started to disappear. Except! Now we’re also seeing the arrival of new, fancier bottled waters, with morning dew shaken from the leaves of gorgeous plants in the most exotic locations. Just stop. If you’re thirsty, grab a glass and put some water in it.
5. Whipping out the store credit card
Ugh, when will this die? Whether it be accidentally pulling out a fancy store’s credit card at dinner or simply using that store’s card when shopping, this ridiculous phenomenon must be stopped. With very few exceptions (I can think of exactly zero right now), store cards are for SUCKERS. For a large purchase, it can be worth it to apply for and use a store card just to receive the discount. However, after the purchase is complete, cancel the card! Keeping a wallet full of various store cards is absurd. And while you think your fancy wardrobe is making you look rich, your idiotic store cards make you look POOR.
6. Driving gas guzzlers
I’m not sure what is going on in America these days, where certain individuals are threatened by anything environmentally friendly, but it’s super weird. I see people all the time who love to mock gas-saving cars and then rumble away in their giant trucks, the ash from burned-up dollar bills coming out of their tailpipes. My favorite is the Hummer, the ultimate car of the fake-rich. Bought, no doubt, on credit, the fools that drive these giant machines get a little ego boost every time they get behind the wheel. Meanwhile the rest of us are snickering at their stupidity.
7. Kids buried in toys
This one really gets obnoxious at Christmastime. Spoiled little American brats find themselves awash in plastic crap from China. It’s quite amazing to watch this ritual each year. The pile of presents is slowly processed into two piles: one of shiny, crumpled paper and the other of shiny plastic. The excitement of anticipation on Christmas morning lasts about 0.3 seconds per gift as the item is ripped open and quickly thrown aside as they go on to the next one. Later the pile makes its way into a basement or bedroom, where it’ll be occasionally played with, but usually forgotten as the kid searches for the next thrill.
I’m actually a little bit amazed that people still consider name-brand clothing a status symbol. It is well understood now that the jeans with the fancy label on the butt were made in the EXACT SAME factory as the cheap version of the same item. We tend to think of women and their shoes and purses when we talk about name-brand money wasters, but if we’re honest, men can be just as bad. Really, you’re going to go in public with the word “Abercrombie” emblazoned across your chest? Why don’t you just wear a shirt that says “Idiot”?
9. Ridiculous car accessories
The U.S. is nothing if not a car culture and it shows in how we pamper our vehicles. And this treatment all too often goes to ridiculous levels. When you put spinners on your 1989 Honda Civic, you’re not showing the world how rich you are, you’re tell them how POOR you are. I wince whenever I see headlights covered in colored shrouds, bits of chrome trim added around taillights shining above a coffee-can tailpipe. Cars that glow, flash, thump with horrendous base, or even that bounce, are all really just messages saying, “I never want to have any money!”
10. Smoking cigarettes
Cigarettes are still the best way known to science of turning cash into lung cancer. Even so, millions are still hopelessly puffing away, quite often outside the doors where these people work. They gather in small groups to bitch about the latest corporate outrage, blind to the fact that they are breathing in their early retirement dollars as they complain. How much quicker could they retire if they invested their ciggy money instead? They’ll never know because they’re too busy complaining about how broke they are.
I mean, really, time to give it up already, people. What are you doing??
OK, I couldn’t resist adding in an extra bonus item:
11. Plastic surgery
Sure, some people actually end up looking better after plastic surgery. And certainly in many cases there are legitimate medical reasons to undergo various procedures. But I’m talking about the endless pursuit of stretchy-faced fake youth. The women who look surprised and bored at the same time. The men who look like they couldn’t close their eyes if they tried. Maybe there was a time when potential mates were fooled by these techniques, but today people see right through it, always too happy to shout “Wow, she’s had some work done!” (Meanwhile thinking, “No wonder she doesn’t have any money!”)
What are some other ways people inadvertently show the world how financially dumb they are?