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28 August 2000

Men who spend too much

A new survey shows that "retail therapy" is now a male thing. Quentin Lettsreports

By Quentin Letts

This month, stereotypes are being crunched under the heel faster than wasps under a plum tree. First, we learn that future Conservative Party leaders can be 14-pints-a-day sozzlers. Then, with the Headingley Test, we discover that West Indies fast bowlers are fallible. Now the third thunderbolt: men are more profligate than women.

A survey claims that, of the £137m that is “frittered away” by Britons every day on needless knick-knacks, £76m falls from the fingers of feckless, spendthrift blokes. Given that the survey was published by Barclays Bank, which knows all about frittering away millions on directors’ emoluments, it is presumably accurate.

But surely it is not meant to be this way round? Surely it is women who blow their money on hairspray, glossy mags and hand cream? So what is going on?

The prime place for male splurging, the survey found, is the petrol station, on such “inessentials” as sweets, crisps and fizzy drinks. Women’s extravagance was found to be linked to “emotional or hormonal conditions” – whatever they might be. Women spend more when they are “depressed, tired and stressed”. If that stress is caused by a husband’s inability to stop wasting money, we could be looking at a vicious circle.

The great modern role models David and Victoria Beckham reinforce the survey’s findings. If Posh feels the odd grand or two burning a hole in her pocket, she catapults it down Bond Street; but if Becks is feeling lavish, he goes out and buys a new £100,000 sports car.

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Public perception of what is “essential” has broadened. About 30 per cent of Britons are now said to consider a dishwasher an almost fundamental right. Tumble-dryers, second televisions, beauty treatments and eating out are also fast becoming must haves. How long before basic state benefit packages have to include dinners for two at a local bistro?

Dr David Lewis, a “leading consumer psychologist”, has talked about men falling for “self-prescribed cash therapy” and argued that this is a Bad Thing linked to “youth culture” and instant gratification. If there is a Mrs Lewis, don’t hold your breath for an impulse-buy birthday present this year.

It is not quite clear where women first gained the reputation for heavy spending. In the Bible, it was the prodigal son, not daughter; and in the old childhood fable, it is the male grasshopper who fritters away the summer months, while the mother ant goes out looking for food for her winter larder.

The Great Gatsby is a heterosexual white male. And so was the late Richard Burton, the actor who hosed away crazy amounts of cash. Burton bought Elizabeth Taylor a $1.1m diamond in 1969, and she promptly legged it. Shocking running costs, though. When Taylor wore the sparkler to Princess Grace’s 40th birthday party, she had to be followed around by two knuckle-dragging security guards: Lloyd’s of London insisted.

Although sexism may be responsible for women being regarded as financially flighty, historic gender inequality worked the other way. It meant that inherited wealth went to men, who often proceeded to blow it in the grand style. In the 1920s, Howard Hughes set new standards for wastefulness when, in the course of a mad 24 months, he spent $4m on flop investments, $20,000 on furs and jewellery, $20,000 on hotel rooms, $25,000 on a personal Wall Street ticker-tape machine and $550,000 on building a steam-powered motor car.

How many Regency and Victorian follies were built by women? How many “inessential” stately homes and gloriously impractical gardens were designed for female clients? To this day, how many Rolls-Royces and yachts and private jets are sold to power babes?

Male spending sprees can sometimes be linked to empire building. When running the Combined Operations Headquarters during the Second World War, Lord Mountbatten was notoriously lavish. Mountbatten’s biographer, Philip Ziegler, cites the remark that COHQ’s motto under Mountbatten was “Regardless” – as in “regardless of effort, risk or cost”. Lord Lovat, a Scot, was aghast at the spending that went on, and spoke about the “powder-puff character of the place”. But Mountbatten’s men loved his splashy flamboyance, and the old goat realised that, if you start by spending a lot, the accountants will get used to the idea and put you down for a bigger budget next year.

Two final things to say about this survey and its findings. One: men buy chocolate “inessentials” at petrol stations because they are greedy and tend to be less concerned about their waistlines than women. These little indulgences would not be necessary if, as a nation, we still ate good, leaden lunchtime puddings.

Two: men so loathe shopping that they do not notice what they are spending. For them, if given the choice between an afternoon’s “retail therapy” and a trip to the dentist, it is no contest. “Open wide please this won’t hurt” wins every time.

So when men do find themselves in a shop, they panic. You know the feeling. Your upper lip starts to sweat, your collar prickles, and that acrid cloud from the perfume counter becomes too much to withstand. So you seize the first item to hand, pay for it with a spilling fistful of banknotes, and leave pronto. Only outside do you discover that you have bought the most expensive frippery in the whole department store. Result: a skew-whiff survey about spending habits, and a moralistic lecture from some egghead called Lewis.

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