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Color of Money: Gloria Vanderbilt jeans made me feel good about myself

Michelle Singletary on

WASHINGTON -- If you're low-income, you're not supposed to want -- and you're certainly not supposed to buy -- anything considered a luxury.

And yet the poor do buy pricy items and clothing, because they often need something to combat bruised self-esteem.

In the early 1980s, I was living off my summer-internship earnings and the tiny part-time salary I made as a receptionist at my University of Maryland dorm. I was fortunate to have a full academic scholarship that covered tuition, room and board, but I still required income for necessities.

My grandmother, who was my guardian, did the best she could to help me financially, but her funds were limited with three of my siblings still living at home. So, it was up to me to buy whatever I needed or wanted for school, including all my clothes.

Understanding my financial limitations, I generally stayed away from buying popular brand-name items. But there was one thing I desired -- one designer brand I longed to have. I wanted Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. However, for the price of one pair of the trendy denims, I could buy several articles of clothing at a discount store. That was the responsible thing to do.

Then one day I decided I had to get the jeans with the gold-stitched swan in front and Vanderbilt's signature on the back pocket.

 

Vanderbilt's passing this week made me reflect on why it mattered so much for me to get that pair of jeans.

"What is most puzzling to economists and decision theorists is that it is often those earning the least that spend the greatest fraction of their income on conspicuous consumption," researchers wrote in a 2010 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

To solve the puzzle, the researchers conducted four studies in an effort to explore the motivating factors that lead to high-status consumption decisions. Here's what they found.

-- Individuals conspicuously consume to signal their wealth.

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