Is it better to look rich, or be rich?

Our attachment to price tags is an attachment to appearances as a substitute of, and at the expense of, the actual wealth we want


Price is a market signal, not a meaning signal; it is useful for demonstrating what society values, but not telling you what you value

Price is a signal. Sometimes of quality. But rarely of worth. Substituting the measure of what someone wants to sell us for what we want to buy is the natural conclusion of the ways we’re wired to waste our resources looked at so far in this chapter.

A focus on price isn’t without advantages. It’s a shortcut. It’s common in decision-making in complex or confusing circumstances to look for – if not outright grab at – shortcuts. Sometimes this is smart. But when the complexity comes from dealing with humans, it’s smarter to look for better ways to work with it, than to pretend you can ignore it. Blind simplification takes shortcuts for the sake of it. It doesn’t worry too much if it ends up somewhere other than originally intended, as long as it gets there quickly. Sophisticated simplification cares where it’s going. It favours signposts over shortcuts.

Price’s correlation with quality is not what it once was,[1] but the two aren’t total strangers. If you can buy a whole chicken for less than a standard high-street coffee, it’s a sure signal that it is not terribly good for you, or for the world. In a world of imperfect information, there will always be snake-oil salesmen, but at some point you’ve got to take stuff on trust. The crowd, especially in a free market, has some semblance of wisdom in certain areas. But remember our asymmetry of enjoyment and the insecurity-exploiting lure of luxury: price signals are more reliable indicators of crap than quality.[2] A chicken that cost more than a car would not be worth it either.

A price is an indication of how much a society values something.[3] And we are social animals. The world may do things that appear bonkers to me, like value a Picasso more than transforming tens of millions of lives, but that’s the world we’ve collectively chosen to live in. Acceptance by society is a crucial component of a life, and part of acceptance by society is acceptance of society. There is therefore a not entirely daft case for basing our decisions not on what we value, but on what prices say society values. ‘In modern societies,’ wrote Sue Gerhardt, ‘survival depends on social acceptance and social status; it is very stressful when these things are at stake.’[4]

Using price to guide spending decisions can therefore ‘work’ in a limited way. But it is very limited. And these limited ways still only really work when they’re consciously chosen. The downsides of defaulting to price signals are far greater in scope, and not at all conscious. For every situation where shaving your head means life-or-death acceptance in a prison gang, there are a billion where you’re just buying some shit that’s making your life more expensive without making it any better.[5] Yet we are, in the words of the School of Life, ‘so dependent on the regard of others, [that we] forget the signals from deep within us that are hinting to us that we are not actually happy with the standard paths being proposed.’[i]


Worth is subjective. Life is lived in context. Ask any petrol-head what is the ‘best’ car, and they’ll likely spring to an answer. But they won’t have answered your question. Because they can’t. They can answer what’s the quickest, or the prettiest, or the most expensive, or has the combo of qualities that most pleases them, but without knowing what purpose the car would be serving, the question is unanswerable in a meaningful way. You don’t want a Ferrari if you’re driving through a farm.

What something costs is not what something is worth. Cost is calculated by the world’s supply and demand; worth is determined by a context-dependent contribution to your life. Cost is a number; worth is a narrative. In terms of our different ways to know something, cost is propositional; worth is participatory. Things have costs; things are worth something. Costs change when the world changes; worth changes when you do.

We always want what’s best for us. But working out what this is is often hard. So we sub in a search for the objectively ‘best’, even though this a) isn’t what we want, and b) doesn’t exist. So we go a step further down our simplistic path and look instead for something we can find: the most expensive. To choose based on price is to stop looking while also admitting that we’re not yet ready to start.

We blindly use price as an answer to what we value, when what we value is independent of price, and in any sane spending decision, has to come first. A price may help us decide if something is subsequently worth buying, but it’s irrelevant to something’s initial intrinsic worth. Price is a market signal, not a meaning signal.

Consider the pineapple

The main determinants of price, such as rarity and the input of time, do not have intrinsic subjective value

If you’ve ever been to St Paul’s Cathedral in London, you may have noticed the proud golden pineapples that sit sentry-like atop the western towers. Or perhaps you’ve noticed the ones that adorn the Wimbledon trophy. Examples abound of pineapples popping up in contexts unrelated to their fundamental fruity purpose.

When St Paul’s was built the punk-haired pineapple was just about the rarest – and therefore priciest – item around, so its fruit-based function was forgotten in the name of price-based posturing. ‘A single fruit,’ the BBC reports,[ii] could be ‘worth thousands of pounds,’ and ‘often the same pineapple would be paraded from event to event until it eventually went rotten.’

‘Less well-off folk,’ we’re told, could rent them for ‘a special event, dinner party or even just to jauntily tuck under an arm on a show-off stroll.’ Some came with their own security guards. In 1807, a Mr Godding was sentenced to seven years in Australia, one year per pineapple he pinched. ‘For a long time,’ the School of Life relates,[iii] ‘only royalty could actually afford to eat them.’ Poems were written and temples built in their honour.

Today, pineapples don’t cost £5,000. A fiver can get you three and still have enough change for a couple of bananas. Stripped of its ability to showcase a wasting of resources – to provide one of the best examples of James Carse’s assertion that wealth is not possessed, but performed[6] – the pineapple hasn’t changed. It’s still just a fruit. People nowadays even eat them before they rot.

To take another example, consider cacti. I’ve a friend that works in a garden centre. They tell me that people regularly come in and ask – without any sense of embarrassment – what’s the most expensive indoor plant they’ve got. It’s usually a bloody big cactus. Cacti grow slowly. That’s why they cost a lot. Not because they’re ‘better’. Better in houseplant terms is a function of how well it fits with where you want it to go and how its care needs fit with your conscientiousness.

Put so starkly as this, it may sound stupid to just pick a plant on the pot’s price tag. But imagine you’ve been given a voucher for a free plant. You can spend it on anything. Without playing silly games involving a second-hand houseplant market, do you go for the £40 one that fits best with your circumstances, or the £400 cactus? You may of course mix in circles where people will somehow think better of you after they know what your cactus cost, however out of place it looks, but who wants to mix in such circles, as opposed to ones that know your place is an awfully silly place for a cactus, and you’d’ve been much better off with a fern, or a palm, or an elaborate indoor shrubbery with two levels and a little path running down the middle…[iv]

David Foster Wallace tells of how ‘Up until sometime in the 1800s, lobster was literally low-class food.’ ‘Even in the harsh penal environment of early America,’ he continues, ‘some colonies had laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats.’[v] We eat lobster, but when we pay for it, we’re being sold a story. That stories can literally make food (and wine) taste nicer is no bad thing. But it’s only a positive when you use the story to save money, to make inexpensive things taste better (e.g. treating dinner-party guests to an extra special bottle by regaling them with tales from the vineyard), not when you do the opposite and shell out for the story, not the substance.

If you eat caviar, you're probably an idiot. If you want eggs, eat those of a hen. They are more nutritious and leave significantly more resources to buy other things with in addition.

What is price worth?

We use price to advertise qualities in us despite knowing it doesn’t advertise those qualities in others

Would you rather be a bum, a billionaire, or a billionaire bum?

We can – and should – laugh at people who parade pineapples. But we should not be too quick to dismiss the underlying life choice. After all, the behaviour is as common today as it’s ever been, and the symbols we’ve chosen to replace the exotically crowned fruit will doubtless seem just as silly to future generations. If the behaviour works – if it is an effective means of living a Good Life – we’d do better to mimic it than mock it.

We cannot easily dismiss the question of this section – is it better to look rich, or be rich? – just because everyone when asked individually would probably pick the reality over the appearance. Actions don’t necessarily speak more loudly than words, but they do tend to speak more honestly, and our actions are bankrolling Team Appearance.

So does it work? Does using one’s scarce resources to advertise one’s wealth (in the process directly diminishing the very wealth one is advertising) lead to a better result than alternative uses?

Considering the other extreme – being rich, but advertising the opposite – suggests there may be something in it. There was a tramp in the city in which I grew up who was something of a local celebrity. He was known as ‘Dirty Ron’. Dirty Ron was mostly famous for burping at people as they passed. It was taken as a sign of affection. The grander the belch, the more he liked you. It was quite the social barometer. Dirty Ron, the stinky man with a wizard’s grey beard and all his worldly possessions in a shopping trolley, was rumoured to be a millionaire philanthropist.

I’ve no idea if this were true. I’ve also no idea how Good his life was. I do know most people would not have swapped their life for his. While it may work for some, we do not, on the whole, want to be tramps, even millionaire ones. Though some do. And it’s impossible to say they are wrong to do so.

The point is not the difference between being a bum and a billionaire – the identities of which are both tied to the numbers. The difference that counts is about the choices you make that shape the narrative those numbers are a part of – subservient to, not the director of.

A better argument is that the performance of wealth is not a waste after all, but an investment. The showiness itself may detract from the Goodness of your life, but it opens doors that could lead to experiences and opportunities which do level-up your life in a way that justifies the price of the performance.

Imagine you own a Ferrari. It will probably fail by itself to upgrade your life, because you’ll adapt to it pretty quickly. But maybe the perks of being a member of the Ferrari Owners’ Club are a reliable, sustainable, source of life-enhancing enjoyment. Were this the case, it would be hard to criticise such life choices.

But I’ve been in the heads of these people. I’ve been to their homes, and to their parties. And if there is evidence, it’s damn well hidden.

Every generation bemoans the degeneracy of its successors. Calls for character-building national service accompany each new evidence of youthful transgression, believing it would instil lessons beneficial to society as a whole. If we were really serious about such things, however, we wouldn’t send eighteen year olds off to make their beds and do obstacle courses with rifles slung over their shoulders. We would put them on private jets and send them to Champagne-soaked parties to prove how much they’re not missing, and how much of their lives they don’t need to sacrifice to find out. If those doing the dreaming could experience the life of those living those dreams, they’d quickly come up with different dreams. Not because being rich is worse… but because it’s rarely better, and when it is, it’s not because of the ownership of the stuff those dreams are made of.

The appearance of affluence can open doors to real, positive opportunities. But in the vast majority of cases, it merely makes life more expensive (thus robbing you of resources to no end) and the doors it opens lead to more dead ends than exceptional opportunities. The appearance of being rich can only ever offer transitory pleasures, because even if it does lead to obtaining the money you were initially only pretending to have, so what? Does it cure the acquisitiveness? Experience and neuroscience strongly suggest not. Wanting more is because of your brain’s wiring, not because of how much you own… a lesson that my career in financial advice could not have taught more clearly.

Having money should – and can – help you become a better person. But when you live in a world focused on the having (which by our actions and language around income, expenditure, and judgment of every little thing, we all do to a greater or lesser extent) money only avoids terrible pains, while making it harder to live a truly flourishing life.[7]

Is being rich (or being seen to be) an end in itself?

It is fair to say, given the innumerable very rich and very evil or very dreadful people out there, that being seen to be rich cannot be an end in itself. And yet up to a point where to advertise one’s wealth is to make one a target for thieves or ostracism, exaggerating riches is as common as inflating skills on a CV.[8]

Whereas a philosophical worldview says there’s no point in having money if it doesn’t make your life better, the way we unphilosophically perform rather than possess wealth says there’s no point in having money if no one knows you do. So what is it we are trying to achieve? Why does anyone want to be seen to be rich?

We want, in some amorphous way, to be valuable, to feel as though our life has some sort of meaning. This is a judgment, being social animals, that we delegate in some degree to others, which turns wanting to be valuable into wanting to appear valuable. And money – or rather the things that money can be sacrificed for – is both the most visible ‘value’, and the easiest to fake.

Having resources is definitely useful for the tribe. Though while everyone likes to be useful, no one likes to be used. Otherwise we’d have far fewer saccharine films where the confused protagonist has to choose between their true love and a wealthy scoundrel,[9] and far fewer millionaires on psychiatrists’ couches wondering if people only like them for their money. I think there’s something else going on.

What do we want to be valued for?

In some societies, being rich is so intertwined with being intelligent that one is read as the other without any apparent need to make the argument, even though a five-minute conversation with the average millionaire should be enough to dispel this notion just as for Churchill a five-minute conversation with the average voter was the best argument against democracy.

For example, in Daniel Crosby’s The Laws of Wealth he casually writes:

As of the writing of this book, the median wage in the US is $26,695 and the median household income is $50,500. Let us suppose for illustrative purposes, however, that you are four times as clever as average and have managed to secure a comfortable salary of $100,000 per annum.[vi]

It’s not only America that believes cleverness = salary.[10] An all-too-common refrain among those in the UK that have done nothing to ‘earn’ their wealth save being born is that such inequality of opportunity is fine because intelligence is the only ingredient needed to stop being poor.

Perhaps because it was the chief source of judgment in those formative years before people began to be distinguished by anything else, accusing anyone of being an idiot is bound to piss them off. What luck that money – which any idiot can get hold of – can be used as a proxy for intelligence!

Do extrinsic substitutes for intrinsic value work?

Before concluding if, and when, appearances work, let’s return to your Ferrari. Imagine you bought it, as so many do, for people to think better of you. If you knew that the thing people consequently said about you was ‘they own a really cool car’ would that count? Would you feel as though you’d fulfilled a bit of your potential? Would it give you grounds for thinking that you were flourishing in some sense? Or would you rather they said that you were a great person?

The latter has never been attributable to owning anything. It’s a consequence of character, not cash. We use cash as a substitute, because we’ve deceived ourselves into thinking the numbers and the having are what matters. ‘Must be doing something right!’ we say… ‘right’ again being a proxy for ‘is an intelligent person’ and therefore, just as the weeds were breaking through, perhaps because of the breakthrough-riches of the latest reality-TV airhead, our brain’s ‘expensive stuff = intelligent person’ pathway gets re-paved.

The deception is so strong that even if we never see a great car and think the driver must therefore be a great person, we believe that we’ll be seen as an exception to this. We believe it so strongly we’re willing to bet potentially life-changing sums on the possibility.

The self-deceptive show is unsatisfactory and unsustainable

Appearances are proverbially deceptive. And in the relationship between money and the Good Life, the prioritisation of price signals is the clearest expression of our self-deception. It says the value of money is the number. It sees the worth of the world – including you – through what you have, and it acts as such a strong default, that we rarely question if using it as a proxy for value actually works. And it doesn’t.

Not all ways of wasting our lives in a desperate bid to look as though we aren’t are as silly as having people round to view rotting fruit. But subtlety is more dangerous than silliness; more modern manifestations of pineapple posturings are more pernicious for being less public.

Neither being rich nor being seen to be rich works on its own. But it is better to be rich than look it, for being rich at least provides resources that can be turned into a Good Life, if we use them wisely.

page2.2.3.2: Is it better to own or to rent?

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[1] ‘For most of human history, there truly was a strong correlation between cost and value: the higher the price, the better things tended to be – because there was simply no way both for prices to be low and quality to be high. Everything had to be made by hand, by expensively trained artisans, with raw materials that were immensely difficult to transport. The expensive sword, jacket, window or wheelbarrow were simply always the better ones. This relationship between price and value held true in an uninterrupted way until the end of the 18th century, when – thanks to the Industrial Revolution – something extremely unusual happened: human beings worked out how to make high quality goods at cheap prices, because of technology and new methods of organising the labour force.’ – The School of Life, The Book of Life

[2] This is not to say that all cheap things are bad. Far from it. All the best stuff costs next to nothing. But if there’s it’s reasonable to doubt how a good could be produced so cheaply, it’s probably not a good good.

[3] Crudely, of course. Economists talk of ‘externalities’ – societal judgments that are not picked up by the basic supply and demand of something, which is why we tax smoking and subsidise energy-saving. I’m assuming here that whatever their faults, prices reflect society’s choices, even though it’s not quite as simple as ‘if people really valued nurses more than bankers, they’d vote for a government that reflected this.’

[4] Recall our earlier look at the role luxury goods play in societies where it is dangerous to be average.

[5] Recall also the difference between sticking to societal rules and choosing cultural expressions.

[6] Recall Part 2, Section 2.1.1.

[7] Biblically knowledgeable folk will be reminded of camels and eyes of needles here.

[8] I’m choosing to overlook those that would literally kill for money, or be a slum landlord, even if, as macabre Twitter polls hint, a terrifying number of people would press a button to make themselves an easy million if someone unknown somewhere drops dead as a consequence.

[9] Though of course even here the world still clings to its numbers obsession, and it’s always a ‘happier’ ending when the ‘poor’ true love turns out to be even more minted than the wealthy scoundrel after all.

[10] I realise there may be artistic licence involved here, but that does nothing to diminish the cavalier linking of the two.


[i] The School of Life, The Book of Life

[ii] Bethan Bell for BBC News online https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-53432877

[iii] The School of Life, The Book of Life http://www.thebookoflife.org/how-we-need-to-keep-growing-up/

[iv] With apologies to Monty Python, and the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’

[v] David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster

[vi] Daniel Crosby, The Laws of Wealth

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