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Discretionary spending and financial illusions

Happy (late) Independence Day to our fellow American readers. I celebrated mine quietly by visiting my parents for a small barbecue (plus angelfood cake and home-grown strawberries). Once it got dark, we walked along the street to watch fireworks.

My parents live in a well-to-do neighborhood on the side of a hill. As a result, we were able to see dozens of fireworks at a time, both from neighbors down the street and from the residential areas in the valley below. It was beautiful. “Think how many thousands of dollars are going up in smoke and pretty lights,” my husband said.

This annoyed me quite a bit, because instantly I did, and the fireworks became so much wasted money, the red and green bursts ephemeral delights that could have been money in a savings account, dinners out, college textbooks. Independence Day became an orgy of frivolous spending on only a few seconds’ worth of pleasure, a symbolic representation of a nation dedicated to overspending on unnecessary luxuries.

But as I continued to watch, I began to enjoy myself again. I love fireworks, and the kids down the street were clearly having the time of their lives watching them. And the view from the hill became a celebration, a few hours out of the year when we put some of our hard-earned money into lighting up the night in joy. I thought of how I would like my future children to see a sight like this. Suddenly the expenditure (admittedly not mine) was useful and noble rather than wasteful.

You may have seen the dancing girl illusion on the Internet, in which a figure dances either clockwise or counterclockwise depending on how you look at it. (The “left brain versus right brain” bit attached to it means nothing.) This is exactly what my brain was doing while watching the fireworks: switching out one interpretation for another, without specific stimulus for switching. As in the dancing girl illusion, neither interpretation had any more basis in reality than the other; no one can measure what it’s worth to celebrate one’s pride in one’s country, or to be part of a tradition that millions of people are participating in at the same time, even though unseen.

Unlike the dancing girl illusion, the interpretation I choose to accept will affect whether or not I buy fireworks next year, whether I’m willing to spend money on Christmas decorations, whether I tell my children about Easter baskets or take them to our family’s graves on Memorial Day. Discretionary spending is just that, discretionary; I can choose to spend it on things that are important to me, or I can save it for things I feel are more worthy. Are fireworks on Independence Day worth the money, money that you might otherwise put away to earn interest or use to buy fancy food or new clothes? Only you can say.

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One Response to “Discretionary spending and financial illusions”

  1. Alex says:

    I like how you saw it from both sides. I think being conscious of the financial factor while still enjoying the result is the best balance.

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