Law and Conversation

July 3, 2010

Frittering it away

The revelations over the last few days about the spending habits of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who’s currently on trial in Chicago on federal corruption charges, reminded me of how easy it is to fritter away money on a smaller scale, say, on lattes, salon services, meals out, entertainment, or a thousand other things.  It’s so easy for so many of us–as advertisers know so well–to justify buying a small, or not-so-small, luxury item or service by rationalizing “I deserve it,” “I should be nice to myself,” or “I don’t usually do this.”  Ouch!

Edith Wharton provided a devastating picture of a character frittering away her money and her life in her novel, “House of Mirth.”  Her heroine, Lily Bart, is as human as anyone, imperfect but certainly not bad-hearted.  Her only crime was being raised to do what women of her social time and class were supposed to do:  get enough of an education to attract and enamour a man of her class sufficiently to marry her and then be a beautiful, useless ornament to him.  Incidentally, Lily’s best friend, who tries as best he can to get her onto a better track, is a lawyer, Lawrence Selden.  SPOILER ALERT:  every time I read the novel, I wish that the two of them would manage to pair off and live happily ever after.

Two other novels I enjoyed also come to mind for pictures of characters who find it terribly difficult to curb their spendthrift habits.  The excesses of “Masters of the Universe” living in 1980s Manhattan that Tom Wolfe depicts in “The Bonfire of the Vanities” are unforgettable.  Closer to Wharton’s time,  “An Old-Fashioned Girl,” one of Louisa May Alcott’s less famous, but quite delightful, juvenile novels, depicts a poor relation showing a young woman from a wealthy family that’s suddenly fallen on hard times how to enjoy her life without the expensive fripperies she’d been brought up to regard as essential.

Barrie Davenport wrote a good essay, “How to Simplify When You Love Your Stuff,” on Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits blog a few days ago.  In it, she provides some good factors to consider when we’re thinking about buying something, some common rationalizations that should be red flags that we don’t need whatever it is and ought to keep the money in our pockets, and excellent arguments for diminishing the importance of stuff in our lives.

What other writers have portrayed spendthrifts in fiction?


  1. Helen-

    Thank you for these inspiring words. We all love America, but we live in a society which guages success by fame and fortune and all one need do is turn on the television set or open a magazine to be reminded of that. My literary heroes are the transcendentalists, who, of course, eschewed the material. However, as much as they are the fabric of my mind and soul, I am reminded by my best friend in the craft that I need to buy an 85,000 beemer in order not to look like a “loser”. We become slaves to our property, our insecurities, to our lifestyles, or to the lifestyles which society suggests that we should have. I dare say that if American society abandoned its material ways, the ecomonic calamity which would result would make the depressions of the 1830s, 1929, and the current mess appear insignificant in comparison.

    Again, thank you for your excellent analysis on a topic of great importance, and for the literary recommendations.


    Comment by brian — July 3, 2010 @ 12:58 pm | Reply

  2. Brian, thanks so much for your very kind words. Alas, I can’t hold myself out as any paragon!

    Comment by helengunnar — July 3, 2010 @ 1:03 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: