The role of emotions in buying a McMansion

“Financial journalist and author” Jean Chatzky discusses her rules about money and hints that buying a McMansion and working with money in general is complicated by emotions:

Have money rules changed with the recession?

I don’t know that the money rules have changed, but I think the recession has made people realize the importance of some of the money rules. For example, Money Rule #26 is “Just because someone will lend it to you, doesn’t mean you should borrow it.” I think it’s the lesson of the housing crisis. We over-borrowed. We took out bigger mortgages than we could truly afford because the banks were willing to give it to us. Every unfurnished McMansion proves that point. For everybody who’s ever felt house-poor or student-loan poor or credit-card poor, the recession has hammered that home.

Why do people tend to overcomplicate money?

It’s really emotional. If I had a bottle of champagne and I opened it with a group of friends, there would be this feeling that we should divvy it up fairly. But if I said, “I have some extra money,” people start making value judgments. There’s morality involved with how we divvy up the money.

Combined with that is the fact that we’re not taught about money as kids or in the schools. There’s not room for it in the curriculum. Getting financial literacy into every school in the country is a very important thing to do, but it’s an uphill battle. The combination of those two things makes many of us feel insecure when it comes to making the right decisions about our money, whether we’re spending it, saving it, or investing it.

Her rules seem meant to limit the emotional side of money. If you have rules to follow, you can sidestep the emotional aspects. While the rules may be helpful, this is a good reminder that economic activity is often emotional. We often talk as if humans make decisions purely for economic reasons when the real story is much more complicated. Stock trading and investing in stocks, purchasing consumer goods, and saving money are laden with emotions.

So what emotions lead to purchasing a McMansion? I haven’t seen an academic study that addresses this. However, critics of McMansions have made a number of arguments about why people buy McMansions: they want to impress other people, they have little sense of style or design, they have money to burn, they don’t realize they can get by with less space, they are unaware of how others might negatively view their home, and they are obsessed with getting a deal without thinking about quality. Critics generally argue that McMansions are attempts at displaying a particular status to others and this causes the buyer to overlook some concerns to which they should pay attention.

I’m guessing that McMansion purchasers wouldn’t give the reasons that critics suggest. At the same time, purchasing a home, usually the biggest purchase of someone’s life, is full of emotions. Buying a dwelling is one thing but when you add up a mortgage plus the idealization of a home in the American Dream and it becomes much more than that.

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