John Walsh: This epidemic of big-spending madness

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The Independent Online

Say goodbye to the piggy bank, farewell to the savings account, toodle-pip to the nest-egg and auf weidersehen to the pension scheme. Impulsive spending has taken over from prudent husbandry as the watchword of the well-off British middle classes.

According to Barclays Premier Banking, there's a whole new sector of consumers who like to chuck money around rather than save it. They spend it on holidays (three a year minimum) and chronic dining-out (£150 a month minimum). They are apparently called the Affluentials.

And though they may sound simply like Rich Fat Bastards, they're not. They don't consider themselves rich; their average earnings are £90,000 pa. They don't deal in vulgar display, don't swig Piper Heidsieck from the bottle or drive a Maserati. They just believe in spending money, where once they would have said, "How much for this shirt/ bottle of wine/ weekend in Sardinia? Don't be ridiculous".

But we're all heading that way, aren't we? We find ourselves acquiring expensive things without experiencing that gulp of panic, that internal alarm-bell of remorse that used to announce you'd done something terribly silly.

A woman friend told me how she came to spend just over a thousand quid the other day on a Dolce e Gabbana gown and a pair of Patrick Cox shoes. "It was like an out-of-the-body experience," she said. "I just watched myself doing it. I didn't ask myself 'Can I afford this?' I just thought, 'Can I pay for this?' "

Precisely. Years ago, I would laugh out loud at the price tag on a Paul Smith shirt (£95!). Now I feel rather cheap if I pick up any halfway-decent chemise for less than a hundred notes. We dispense ludicrous sums on everyday things. We have two courses and the amusing house red and find ourselves crashing through the £100-for-two dinner experience.

It hurts at first, and your super-ego smacks you around the head for being so profligate, but you get used to it. There are still some uncharted territories where we haven't been (Josh, the new bloke on Big Brother, stunned the company by announcing that his Gucci slacks set him back £2,500. You could buy a small flat in Wandsworth for that) but we've checked out most of them.

How do we justify such behaviour? We have a narrative in our head, and it tells us the most shocking porky pies. It goes like this: "I cannot afford to spend £1,300 on an iMac computer. £1,300 is too much. No, it's not too much ­ you could earn that in an evening by writing one article about British fashion for Talk magazine. But I've never written for Talk magazine. Okay, two articles, about the Summer Season and, er, bee-keeping, for the Dulwich and Herne Hill Advertiser, one broadcast on Radio Five Live and sell your first edition of Artemis Fowl, and then you can afford it, easy."

And suddenly you're £1,300 worse off, because you have a) no sense, and b) a limitless capacity to delude yourself. A fool and his money, they used to say, soon part company. But so does a perfectly sensible, educated modern consumer.

We are educating ourselves to spend money we can only just afford on crazily expensive things. We didn't used to feel we had to have a Bang & Olufsen wide-screen TV, a Fender Telecaster, an Ozwald Boateng leather coat and a rented villa on Ithaca, but we sure as hell will in the next few years. A kind of urgent, acquisitive madness is taking over the Affluentials, and do you know why? I suspect it comes straight from the style and fashion magazines, with their iterated tropes of "I can't get through June without my Jimmy Choos", and "I'll just die if I don't get to Mauritius this year", and "What does your choice of hi-fi say about you?"

It was only a bit of hyperbolic fun, chaps. Really. It was only journalism. You weren't supposed to take it seriously.

j.walsh@independent.co.uk

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