Benjamin Wallace, author of The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine, has learned a thing or two about the finer things in life.
As our financial system was recovering from the depths of the Great Recession around 2010, Mr. Wallace set out on a mission to stimulate the economy, one ridiculous splurge at a time.
There were two questions he was hoping to answer.
First, could he get someone else to bankroll this Brewster’s Millions style spending spree? The answer, surprisingly, was “yes.” While there were some expenses that were deemed too extravagant, GQ Magazine actually reimbursed many of his purchases in exchange for an article.
Second, when buying the best of the best, do you really get what you pay for? Is it worth it? And would it make him happier?
I first learned of Mr. Wallace’s experiment from a TED Talk entitled The Price of Happiness. If you’ve got 15 minutes to spare, give it a watch. He’s a pretty funny guy.
In the talk, he casually mentioned that a magazine did indeed pay for the food, drink, and experiences that he talked about, a fact that led me to his GQ article, How the Other Half (of the Top 1%) Lives.
Intertwined into both the talk and the article, of which there’s surprisingly no material overlap, are his thoughts on the benefit (or lack thereof) of paying for the utmost in luxury over a wide variety of goods and experiences.
What’s missing, for the most part, is an overall summary of what it felt like to spend so freely, why some people choose to do so, and how value plays a role in these decisions. The talk ended rather abruptly without any real reflection of the lessons learned, but I recognize that there are time constraints with TED talks.
The article did conclude with a paragraph describing his ambivalence after having professional chef Pierre Schaedelin prepare a wildly fancy meal at his home for $100 a plate.
“Everything, without exception, was delicious. It was nice to be eating very well at home without cooking. And yet…I was nagged by a whispering, jaded voice, asking: Is that all? Because somewhat to my surprise, I found that I didn’t appreciate the dinner that much. Maybe it was because by this point I’d washed my hair at 35,000 feet and hooked rainbow trout in “trackless,” “achingly pristine” wilderness, been professionally ghostwritten and privately worked out and double-massaged, but an experience I had thought would seem novel turned out to feel more like an artful remix of the many fine meals I’d had in restaurants and even of some I’d cooked myself. It was flawless, but somehow, with my evolved sense of high entitlement, that wasn’t enough to merit more than an approving shrug.”
An approving shrug. When you pay top dollar, you might hope for more, but it seems that by the end of the experiment, Mr. Wallace had experienced rather profound hedonic adaptation.
Whereas some of these experiences by themselves may have been amazing, the amalgam of so many of them back-to-back-to-back made what could for a once-in-a-lifetime experience seem rather humdrum.
He Paid How Much for That?!?
Benjamin Wallace set out to sample the very best or most expensive or most coveted item in about a dozen categories, “a very grueling quest,” as he says in jest.
So what all did he splurge on?
Four Hands on Deck
For $782, and keep in mind this was back around 2009 or 2010, he was on the receiving end of a two-person, two-hour massage at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York City.
While it admittedly felt good, the massage came with a side of self-inflicted shame for the indulgence and excess of it all.
An Emirates First Class Flight
To Dubai and back in the upper deck of an Airbus A380 first class private suite. For $15,803, he dined on caviar and beef tenderloin, drank exquisite wines, took a hot shower, and settled into his lie-flat bed, complete with fine linens and a full-size pillow.
Mr. Wallace gave this experience a shameless two thumbs up.
An Exclusive Health Club
A person can join Planet Fitness for $10 a month. Or, if you prefer to work out in solitude with a personal trainer while drinking bottled water imported from Norway, you could join Sitaras Fitness for $1,000 a month and a $2,500 initiation fee, as Benjamin Wallace did.
Without really justifying the 100x cost of this particular gym, he strongly approved of this expenditure. I guess it helps when you’re spending someone else’s money.
Ask Jeeves flopped as a search engine, but for a $10,000 monthly salary plus benefits, Mr. Wallace could have hired a real-life Jeeves named Gustavo Pedernera.
It’s not clear if they had much more than a high-brow conversation in his apartment, but this experience was related as unnecessary obsolete.
Fifteen Thousand Dollar Fish
To be fair, the fish itself didn’t cost that much, and what he caught in the pristine trout streams of Patagonia was released, but the helicopter-enabled fishing trip based on a 150-foot yacht set him back $14,875 a week.
It was beautiful and relaxing, if not rather boring, but he gave it a “Heli yes!”
You Had One Job… And You Outsourced It
Mr. Wallace paid accomplished ghostwriter Will North to author the section on the fishing trip, cleverly revealing the true author after the reader had read the hired gun’s work. No, I didn’t notice.
After working with the likes of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, Mr. North commanded north of $100,000 for a book; I don’t know what he charged Benjamin for the article excerpt, but it wasn’t deemed to be worth it. Apparently a loss of control and ugly e-mail exchanges made for an unpleasant experience.
From coast to coast, Benjamin Wallace ate well. In Beverly Hills, he ordered a $160 Wagyu ribeye at Wolfgang Puck’s CUT restaurant. When it arrived, he wondered why the puck it was so small. After taking his first bite, he realized that his plate held more than enough of the extremely rich, overly marbled beef that barely resembled steak as he knew it.
At Mario Batali’s Del Posto in Manhattan, he ordered the $120 pasta with white truffles. There are few foods that cost more per ounce than the white truffle. When it was shaved over his pasta, he savored the ephemeral nutty, mushroomy aroma the truffle is known for, and it was gone in ten seconds, contributing basically nothing to the taste of the actual dish as he ate.
Ten dollars an ounce is a lot to pay for olive oil, but Mr. Wallace did so. The Per Me olive oil from Tuscany is painstakingly protected from oxidation, and it tasted fine but finished dead last in his blind taste test of five olive oils.
A knowledgeable wine consumer, he was keen on scoring a bottle of the most sought-after wine around, the 1947 Cheval blanc. He struggled to source a bottle for himself, but was actually invited by renowned collector Bipin Desai to a long-weekend’s tasting that included that particular bottle along with 29 other vintages of the same wine and 30 vintages of a second.
When it came time to partake in the coveted ’47, many wines and several fine meals had already been enjoyed over the course of three days. The highly-anticipated wine was tasty with a port-like richness, but it received mixed reviews from the table. You could say it was a bit of a letdown.
Did you know that coffee beans retrieved from the poop of an exotic feline species are sold as Kopi Luwac coffee at $600 a pound? I applaud anyone that can successfully market and sell that crap, but apparently some Australians are doing exactly that.
Mr. Wallace introduced me to the concept, but he didn’t review the coffee; maybe he was as turned off as I was at the thought of a drink made from the contents of wild animal scat.
Fine Threads and Silly Soap
In his TED Talk, Benjamin lamented the fact that no one had complimented him on the cleanliness of his complexion, despite the fact that he had washed his face that morning with $125 Cor Soap, a Boston product made with “silver nanoparticles.”
Nor had anyone complimented him on his $800 Jomon Jeans from Japan. Not on that day or any other day in the months that he’d regularly been wearing them.
Those both seemed like a waste of money, but he was impressed with the automated Neorest 600 toilet from Toto that went for $5,980 back in the day. He didn’t buy one, but he did use one in the bathroom next to the showroom, and the heated seat, bidet function, and heated drier was a nice pampering, apparently.
A $64,950 mattress? Like the toilet, he didn’t buy one, but he was able to convince someone to let he and his wife spend the night on one in the showroom. It was a comfortable night’s sleep on the Swedish Grand Vividus bed, despite the lights and sounds of the Big Apple all around.
He couldn’t get anyone to spring for the $30,000 a night Ty Warner suite at the Four Seasons Manhattan, but he did get a tour of the 4,300 square foot penthouse complete with a wine cellar and dedicated driver. The wine selection included Opus One, a wine I was personally treated to by some pharmaceutical rep as a resident at a conference in Florida. The wine, the rep, and whatever product he was representing were all unremarkable, but at least I remember the wine.
Ballin’ in a Bugatti
It’s tough to stand out with a supercar in a place like L.A., but with a Bugatti Veyron EB 16.4, a $1.5 Million vehicle back in the day, he managed.
This was another borrowed experience, but he did get to drive one up and down the Pacific Coast Highway with a chaperone, and he got a kick out the knowing nods he got along with the smoothness of switching lanes at 110 miles per hour.
Having It All
What I surmised from Mr. Wallace’s experiences and descriptions of them is that some of them were amazing, some were just OK, and a few felt too self-indulgent.
I would have loved to have heard a more in-depth discussion of value. Sure, the first-class flight to Dubai was top-notch, but was it worth paying 15x what a ticket in coach costs? What would he have to give up to afford such luxury for those 12 hours each way?
What’s a more affordable alternative to the $1.5 Million Bugatti? Is there a $150,000 luxury automobile that performs nearly as well while looking sharp?
In what areas of your life does buying the best of the best give you the most bang for your buck? Where, besides civet-poop coffee and stupid-expensive soap, does it make sense to splurge and when is it best stick with normal-priced goods or experiences?
That’s what I want to hear from someone who was given the opportunity to have it all. I do splurge a little, but within reason. As someone who could easily afford to make more fatFIRE lifestyle choices, I’d like to know more about the value proposition of luxury expenditures. Dan Bilzerian spent lavishly for years and realized that money wasn’t buying happiness for him. Did Benjamin Wallace come to the same conclusion?
The Role of Diminishing Returns
When examining quality and value in most things, there is a reasonably direct correlation between cost and quality, particularly when you start from the low end and work your way up.
Think of the last $1 burger, $5 burger, and $15 burger you had. Or the difference in quality and performance between a $5 saucepan, a $25 saucepan, and a $100 saucepan.
The more you spend, the better the item generally is, at least up to a certain point. There will be some variation, and a scatter plot would show that. Some $6 burgers taste better than other $10 burgers, but the overall trend would be a line heading up and to the right. But how much better is a $100 burger (or $5,000 burger) than the $15 variety? Or a $500 saucepan as compared to a $100 version?
As the cost of a thing rises to extremes, however, the quality may not be that much, if at all, better. This is the law of diminishing returns, and it has all sorts of implications when it comes to behavioral finance.
On the left side of the scale, spending a bit more tends to get you higher quality items or experiences, and the differences can be pretty dramatic. Once you’re halfway across the graph, however, you can double your spending and perhaps see only get something that is only marginally better. Or not.
Furthermore, when you’re always shopping at the right end of the spectrum, anything in that first half, even if it is of sufficient quality, can feel beneath you. You’re accustomed to the finest things that money can buy, and if it didn’t cost enough, it just doesn’t suit you and the persona that you’ve cultivated.
I don’t think you want to be like that, and I don’t think you want to spend like that. Not only will doing so inhibit your ability to build wealth, it may also leave you feeling empty. Empty enough to shrug with apathy after a five-star home-cooked meal.
Keep that in mind the next time you choose to go all out and splurge. Make it a treat and you will truly enjoy those rare extravagances. Make them routine, and that’s precisely what they’ll become.
How have you felt after splurging on extravagance? What has been worth it? Which costs would you never incur again?