Have you ever seen a coat, pair of shoes, shirt or bag – and felt love at first sight? Isn’t it wonderful? We all catch fashion fever sometimes and resistance is futile. We just have to have that item, and we cannot explain the urge on any rational level. We know deep down that we don’t really need that extra addition to our wardrobe, but hey! Style isn’t about common sense. It’s about being fun and fabulous and splashing out when the moment takes us.
Well, that’s the popular theory anyway. That’s what the fashion industry would like us to believe. Have you noticed how clothes – and keeping up appearances generally – have become one of the nation’s few acceptable addictions?
Since I started researching my first book on managing money, I have noticed the same old trope in many other books in this field. Women, it seems, just love to buy shoes, most of which end up in the back of the cupboard gathering dust and sparking marital rows.
But in many people’s eyes, this trend isn’t particularly worrying. Never mind that extreme shopping can lead to devastating levels of debt and can be a signifier of bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. No, we tend to treat this as a common source of light-hearted comedy, rooted in the belief that overspending on clothes is normal behaviour.
Think about it. We feel enormous pity for people who struggle to give up drink, smoking, porn and overeating but laugh with those who keep buying clothes they don’t need. Young women who lust over Louboutins and pine for Prada are the norm. I blame Carrie Bradshaw. The main character in TV’s Sex and the City was bursting into the mainstream just as I and millions of other girls were growing up, with her famous (or should that be notorious?) obsession with high heels. It didn’t really matter that the low-earning columnist maxed out credit cards and couldn’t get a loan because she didn’t save and bought stilettos that cost her entire monthly rent. The show wore that very dark theme in the lightest manner possible. (Don’t forget that everything works out wonderfully in the end – Ms Bradshaw gets a book contract and bags a wealthy husband.)
Similarly, have you noticed that Confessions of Shopaholic was a laugh-a-minute romcom about a young fashion addict who spends her way into crippling debt before rehabilitating herself and becoming a responsible financial journalist? If the film was about a young woman who almost drinks herself to death before turning things around, it would be the most serious drama you’ve ever seen. In fact, this film has already been made – Smashed – and I highly recommend it.
(By the way, any similarities between the redheaded financial journalist in Confessions and me are entirely coincidental. Honest.)
Clothes are characterised as the financial Achilles heel of women everywhere. This pervasive narrative means that we tell ourselves that the occasional shoe splurge is natural, even if those wedges fall out of favour faster than a Lib Dem deputy prime minister. Many of us make fashion a big exception in any careful spending rules we form. We might count the pounds on a night out or compare prices in supermarkets. But many of us throw out budgets up in the air at the sight of a swing coat.
It is against this backdrop that a very popular clothing brand sent me a letter last week. Very.co.uk – an online store I have never used – has somehow obtained my personal details so they could invite me to take out a Very Credit Account, giving me £20 off my first credit order of at least £40. They have even informed me that I can spread my payments, should I take up their alluring offer, over three months without paying any interest.
Of course, should I miss those payments for whatever reason, I will have to pay a representative interest rate of 39.9 per cent APR.
It wouldn’t necessarily cross my mind to use Very.co.uk or its credit account if that missive hadn’t dropped on my doormat. After all, it’s a big enough job to stay away from all those online stores in my spare time in an economic climate where wages have flatlined and job security has become more precarious. So this store puts – very helpfully – one more spending temptation my way, on top of all the other advertisements and inducements to part with my money that I see in any given week or month. So that £33 that could have gone into an emergency savings account, pension or insurance plan could be put towards Carvela’s latest Lux Animal Skate Shoes (originally priced at £99 when I got this letter but now half price. Anyone who bought the shoes at full price will be fuming now…)
Of course, letters like this don’t make my life, as a normal young woman who wants to look good without breaking the bank, harder. And I am sure that no-one, absolutely no-one, who accepts this deal could end up spending more than they bargained on and/or missing payments, thus making Very.co.uk a tidy profit in interest.
By ‘discovering’ Very.co.uk, I also discover a new way to avoid saving up for what I want. I discover how to avoid walking away from purchases outside my budget, waiting for payday or finding out if there are cheaper options out there. I discover that no trade-offs are necessary, no dilemmas about how to live within my means while having everything that marketers make me feel I need.
Debt charities were not able to disclose the true level of store card debt when I was researching a story on this topic earlier this year. Perhaps that is because experts now deem store cards and credit accounts to be a thing of the past. Not so.
According to the aptly named middleman Pay4Later, the amount lent through its panel to customers at big high street stores was 123 per cent higher this winter compared to last. Moreover, it expects “strong growth” according to a cheery press release issued last month, as over a third of retailers expect store credit sales to grow by at least 10 per cent. So clearly the death of store credit, predicted after immediate discounts for new applicants were banned in 2011, has been exaggerated.
A spokesman for the FCA – Britain’s big financial watchdog – told me that this market won’t be central to its consumer credit review, a huge investigation into whether consumer credit is sold responsibly in the UK.
So does that mean that this kind of mass marketing from Very.co.uk will NOT be scrutinised by the FCA? If so, this review will be hopelessly inadequate.
It looks like fashionistas who don’t want to ‘buy now pay later’ will be facing an uphill battle to resist our fast’n’easy credit culture for many years to come. Let’s hope that more shoppers remember how much debt is like weight – incredibly easy to acquire and incredibly difficult to shift.