Why Vanity Keeps Us Poor

beauty_her-225x300Wanna save an extra $5,000 a year? Become a man!Seriously, I could be rich (or at least get richer faster) if I gave up my beauty routine. Currently, my daily self-prepping involves the following: shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, face wash, toothpaste, body lotion, face moisturizer, blusher, a bit of glimmer for my cheeks, eyeliner, mascara, lip gloss, and perfume. And I’m a basics kind of gal. Most American women also add in regular salon and spa stuff like spray tanning, waxing, highlights, haircuts, manis, pedis, microdermabrasion and Botox.

When I asked a few men about their morning beautifying rituals, the picture was slightly different: Deodorant, for sure. Shampoo, lotion, and shaving cream, most likely. Hair gel, maybe. Even the most metrosexual of men spends a fraction of what women spend to just bathe and beautify. It’s no wonder women — even corporate-climbing women with male-equivalent incomes — are more financially unstable than their male counterparts. Of course it’s important to note that men still make more on average, than women, but the women most likely to be shelling out a lot for products — that is, urban professionals — are also the ones closest to parity with their male counterparts.

Quite simply: It costs more to be a woman.

So, how much are we spending exactly? It’s a little scary, so I’ll ease you in with the most recent figure for British women: $6,000 to $8,000 a year on beauty and maintenance. US women? Ahem, $12,000 to $15,000 every year spent on products and salon services. Look at that number. Think about it. Try not to throw up. That could pay off your student loans, cover your past or future wedding (as long as you’re not, say, TomKat), give you a down payment on your first home, or — better! — it could start a sizable investment account, which could yield thousands more if invested properly. Ah, but that’s just it. Not only do women spend too much, but we pretty much suck at managing money, too.

Yeah, it’s tough to hear (and if you’re an exception to this rule, we salute you!) but the evidence is incontrovertible. When it comes to retirement saving, for example, the U.S. Department of Laborreports that in 2005, fewer than half of all working women in the United States contributed to or had some kind of retirement plan. Fewer than half. Where’s it going? You might want to check the till at Sephora.

We also dominate as consumers despite the fact that we still earn less than men do and spend less time in the workforce over the course of our lifetimes. And, speaking of lifetimes, we’re also more likely to live longer (hence: more non-income-earning retirement years). It’s a tough financial landscape we’re facing, ladies, but apparently we’re more worried about our future wrinkles than our financial security. (Men do, of course, spend more on wooing us, and surely they have their own special indulgences, but that doesn’t change that examining our beauty budgets could be the best way for many of us to save.)

If only we could give up some of these luxuries, right? But the truth is, regardless of what kind of financial pressure we may admit to feeling, most of us just like to look/smell/feel good. We splurge. We impulse buy. We go for the top of the line, even if we can’t quite afford it. And we justify it by telling ourselves: “I need it.”

And maybe we do need it. But we also need to get our financial shit together. Men are doing it, so why the hell aren’t we? I know what you’re thinking: “It’s so unfair! So much value is placed on women’s appearances, and men can get away with looking like crap if they want to!” There’s truth to that, certainly. Guys definitely have less pressure to look good, and it’s unreasonable to expect women to maintain the same simple maintenance routine as men. But men have their own extra expenses, too: paying to woo, date, and marry us, for example. So that $500 you dropped at Sephora, he spent on theater tickets and a five-star dinner for your birthday.

You know what else men are spending their money on, though? Stocks, mortgages, and life insurance, all those scary-to-us investments that offer a cash return the longer you pay in to them. Find me a bronzer that can do that.

So what do we do? There are basic saving tips for all women: buy only what you need, open an IRA, etc. But when it comes to our pricey habit of maintenance, the key is moderation.

“If I did as much as I wanted I would spend easily $200 dollars a month on just hair and bikini line,” says a young schoolteacher who loves her products, but loves paying her bills more. “It used to be that I felt like I was worth beauty splurges now and then. Now that I’m supporting myself, no way.”

Another woman felt the need to change her spending habits when her priorities changed. “When you do a really grown-up thing like buy a home or get married, you see money in a totally different way,” she says. “Of course I love expensive products and beauty treatments, but when I have extra money to spend, my instincts are to buy new blinds for the windows or paint the bathroom rather than getting a facial or buying the new Chanel fall palette.”

If nothing else, perhaps consider how many spa services you could do for yourself at home: waxing (we’re talking switching to tweezing the brows here, girls, not self-inflicted Brazilians), manicures, tanning, and highlights, to name a few. A few such switches could furnish the extra $500 to $1,000 a year that you instead put into an IRA, a 401(k), a mutual fund, or even just a savings account. Just, be careful. No savings is worth scars or balding.

So, yes, it’s doable. The online editor who’d rather buy blinds than bronzer can attest: “If you have a goal, you can absolutely meet it,” she says. “When it came time to save for my wedding, I had no idea how we would come up with $15,000. But we put together the necessary savings plan and it worked! Things were tight for that year, but I don’t feel like I sacrificed too much. And in the end, I’m getting a beautiful wedding and feel really proud that we were able to pull it off ourselves.”

So the next time you’re salivating at the Fresh counter or considering a blow-out, remember that the cosmetics and toiletries industry is a $45 billion to $66 billion annual business. How many of those dollars are yours?

– Molly Faulkner-Bond