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.
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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?
31 thoughts on “The Curious Splurges of Benjamin Wallace”
The only real value prop for these purchases is bragging about them to other people.
Like something mentioned in the comments, the world’s best coffee priced at $10,000 per gram is worthless for someone who dislikes coffee or prefers tea in the first place. That applies to all the things on the list.
Hate fishing? Ain’t gonna do the helicopter fly fishing trip.
Hate traveling on a plane? I’d rather fly coach to a nearby ocean than 12 hours anywhere.
Hate meat? So long to the meat puck from Mr. Puck.
It’s entertaining to see people try to force a “successful” experience onto something they didn’t enjoy because it cost much more money than seems reasonable to them. Imagine the friend or relative who rarely drinks tasting a ridiculously expensive bottle of wine or whiskey and pretending to love it instead of just saying “Ugh, that’s really awful.” The psychological aspects are priceless.
I’m sticking with the coffee theme. This whole “Most Expensive Sh*t” series on GQ is great.
Nobody mentioned that coffee’s staring role in the movie “The Bucket List”. The most opulent experiences I have had were flying on private jets. No TSA, no lines, no cell phone restrictions, full wet bar and snacks, even sitting with the pilot. When you are ready to go, they go.
I’m honestly surprised he didn’t fly private or at least he didn’t write or talk about it if he did. I’m guessing the magazine would only reimburse one extravagant flying experience.
I haven’t actually seen the Bucket List movie. Would you recommend it?
Yes, it’s a good movie. Great actors, good comedy, solid moral message on values.
Like most others expressed, to me experiences over things are always the best & most memorable to splurge on & I’ve never regretted a one, esp with people you love. However, the toilet! That price is good value to me… We’re getting one when/if we settle down again! After using similar in Japan & even a mall’s public bathroom in Bangkok, we agreed on this one feature for our next home, lol.
You can get a toilet seat with many of those functions for hundreds, not thousands. It should be something you can add on to any toilet.
Without going into all the specifics, I have to say that I have traveled the world and gotten to do so many things. The point being, I don’t remember presents that I received or things that people gave me or that I bought.
What I remember are the experiences, like getting to climb the Eiffel Tower, and the Washington Monument,and Ben Nevis (the highest mountain in Scotland) and slip sliding on the snow and ice at the top in tennis shoes. I remember the activities and experiences – many of which were hard and challenging – but boy do they make for some great war stories after the fact – lol. And the sense of personal accomplishment is nothing to sneeze at either.
I hear that!
Planning to climb the 551 steps to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica to see Rome in all its glory two short days from now.
Not sure if anybody who lives in Cali, NY, or NJ like I do feel this way, but do you think our curve on that graph is like way to the right? Man I hate NJ!
I don’t live there, but I’ve visited all three, and I think you’re on to something.
Absolutely man Lief please feel free to use a curve moving to the right when you talk about geoarbitrage in the future.
Here are a few of my most worth is splurges that I really got value from:
-when I started using a nice chef knife it was a revelation (I use a Global G2)
-after decades riding cheap bikes I splurged for a Specialized Roubaix and it changed road biking for me.
-upgrading to a sonicare toothbrush I will never go back.
-Super expensive Luxardo cherries really do upgrade an old fashioned.
As you know POF, I am big on value always in my purchases. Most of the time I agree that your $1,5,15 burger analogy holds. But if you get into the $50 burger with gold flakes range maybe I’d rather just bring 4 friends along for a $10 burger instead 😉
We all use Sonicare toothbrushes. Pro tip for traveling: Take one base and charger and a toothbrush head for each member of the family.
I’ve got a chef’s knife that I use for most kitchen tasks, but it’s nothing fancy. I’m afraid to upgrade; I may never go back! Do you have a fancy knife sharpener to go with your fancy blade?
Nope just a whetstone. Super low tech but a great edge 😉
Get a decent quality knife set (potentially used). Pay to have them sharpened professionally once or twice a year.
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I did the “poo”-coffee. When we did it, it was a little cheaper. I think only about $200.00. lol
I do like coffee, but honestly, it wasn’t that good. But it was fun getting with a bunch of guys to drink a crazy, expensive cup of coffee.
Sadly, how I imagined they harvested the coffee did not live up to how it likely came to be. I’m not sure many places treat the little critters all that well.
Anyway, I know you can create great experiences and memories w/o breaking the bank.
I’m 62 years old, so I’ve lived a fair bit. I’ve indulged in my share of extravagances, but I can tell you the best memories / experiences of my life we’re definitely not extravagances.
Four years ago my son and I traveled to Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimmaron, New Mexico with 10 of his fellow Boy Scouts and one other adult leader. We hiked 10 to 12 miles a day with 35 to 40 pound packs in the remote wilderness of north eastern New Mexico. We covered 120 miles over the course of 10 days. We summited 10 peaks over 10,000 feet in elevation. I lost 14 pounds in 10 days. We slept in tents and ate really crappy camp food. It was hot during the day and cold at night. There were bugs and blisters. Every day was an intense workout. But the sights and the experience were exquisite. I think we spent $2000 on the whole thing including travel and gear. I will never forget the time we spent together in this beautiful place, being pleasantly exhausted at the end of each day, doing things most people never get to do. How I wish I could do it again. Priceless! A life well lived is filled with simple things experienced with the people you love.
I did the Northern Tier high adventure from Ontario to Ely with my son and 15 other scouts as a scout leader. This trip is fondly remembered as “death paddle 2008”. Absolutely tiring portaging heavy backpacks and metal canoes along goat paths, but the scenery and comradery was outstanding.
Happiness is just fully living in the moment.
Love it, John!
Kudos to you Jeff, I did it in 2014 at 54 and was exhausted, but as you say it was one of the defining experiences of my life.
“Defining experience of my life” !
Me too. I like that, and I’m going to use it!
Best way to say it! I agree.
Hat’s off to all of you! I’ve crew advised on a trek to Philmont at 50 and two treks to Northern Tier (Quetico Park and Crown lands) and once sailing in the Abacos.
Spending time and money to create memories is the high-payoff investment.
On a trip to Porto, I was able to taste successively older vintage port wines at one of the lodges. The 10 year old port was ok and the price was almost cheap. The 20 year old was more expensive, but I could appreciate the better quality and thought the price reflected its value. The same with the 30 year old, discernible better quality in the taste at a higher price. When it came to the 40 year old, I could not taste that much better quality to justify the significantly increased price.
To finish my thoughts. i wondered if I’d ever find an occasion to justify drinking such an expensive bottle of wine. I guess my boys could drink it after my funeral. But for now, I’d rather share a cheaper bottle while I’m with them. It is about experiences and who you share them with as well as the memories they make. They can be priceless!
For my 45th birthday I had gone to Bali and actually tried the kopi luwac coffee. It was much cheaper to buy it directly from Bali. To be honest the coffee really did not taste that much different than coffee from other places but had to do it just to say I did (I’m not a coffee drinker anyway so I probably would not know any subtle differences that were present).
I agree that splurges back to back do not have the same impact as ones that are more infrequent.
I have purchased an add on bidet/toilet warmer from toto that I put on my toilet and have to tell you it is an amazing splurge and well worth it especially during winter months
Ha! I used one of those toilets at a friend’s house in Florida not long ago. I never realized how cool a normal toilet seat feels until I sat on a pre-warmed one.
As for the coffee, I’m not a coffee drinker, and I’m definitely not a coffee-made-from-poo drinker, so I’ll never be in a position to comment on the taste of that nonsense.