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Elegant Vs. Expensive: How To Know The Difference & Cultivate True Class

There are plenty of people in this world who would love for you to think that spending tons of money is the same thing as being elegant, classy, or sophisticated. Hopefully, most of us have figured out that this isn’t the case. Still, really knowing the difference between expense and elegance can be trickier than one might imagine.

This confusion is often because of the genuine need to spend some money in order to build the foundations of elegance in style and manner. It is, after all, a complete lifestyle – at least it is to aesthetes like me. But to characterize wanton spending as the height of sophistication is incredibly misguided.

There’s a lot more to elegance than the contents of your credit card bills each month. In fact, there’s a certain element of frugality to those who truly exude class in their day-to-day lives. This post will dive into the subtleties of elegance vs. expense, and by the end you should feel more certain of your footing on this topic. Let’s begin, shall we?

Where Our Cultural Myths Come From – How Elegance Got Hijacked By New Money Values

I’ll preface this by explaining what I mean when I say “new money.” It sounds snobby, but I’m not talking about people who are newly prosperous – on the contrary, good for them! By “new money values” I’m really referring to the concept of what’s commonly called nouveau riche behavior. This is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as being perceived as “ostentatious or lacking in good taste.”

For a long time, American culture was defined by values that celebrated thrift, humility, and a strong work ethic. When the economy expanded and the middle class grew in influence, the efforts of advertising and commercial interests instilled a desire in many Americans to imitate the flashy lifestyle reflected in magazines and on TV.

As a capitalist nation, America’s culture naturally began to lean toward consumerism over time. While “true elegance” and “old world class” were and are still respected, the surface level emphasis is on spending, earning, and living for money. This is not aligned with an elegant lifestyle. To be elegant, one has to do something radical in today’s warp-speed world.

Elegance comes from the ability to slow down. It is aligned with the cultivated ability to appreciate and gratify, and you’ll find it hard to do either of those things if you’re stuck in the endless cycle of buying, displaying, and chasing images of wealth.

I’m not suggesting we return to the dreary days of puritanism or become frontiersmen living in sod-houses. However, to cultivate elegance and the inner contentment and joy that it brings, you’re going to have to adjust your mindset quite a bit. It’s been said many times before, but true class – and true wealth, I might add – is a matter of quality, not quantity. Rather than focusing on the surface-level value of goods and experiences, elegant people learn to embrace a depth of values that makes simple, quality things into lifestyle cornerstones.

I’ll explain how this looks in the following sections. Just remember: you can’t be graceful if you’re consuming your life at breakneck speed. Take a breath. That’s the first step in becoming a more alluring and joyful person.

bouquet of white fragrant eustoma flowers in elegant vase on expensive marble table near couch
Photo by Max Vakhtbovych on

Fast Food, Fast Cars, And Fast Fashion – Being Elegant In A World That Can’t Slow Down

How do you slow down in a world that’s determined to exist in the fast lane? With a fair bit of effort. No one said that an elegant lifestyle was going to be easy to create. It may be easier than many people would have you imagine, however.

The reason most people never bother to cultivate elegance is simple. It takes more effort, consistently, to be elegant than it does to be average. To look, feel, and live with class, you have to spend more time searching for things, more time caring for things (and yourself), and more time learning life lessons than the general populace does.

I’ll give you a recent example from my own life. It’s been three years since I have bought new clothes, and much of my wardrobe is outdated. I’ve made a pact with myself to only purchase high-quality, majority natural-fabric clothing from this point on. This is a promise that aligns with my values on a deeper level, and I’ve been quite serious about keeping it.

So, the act of choosing and purchasing clothes looked very different for me this time around. Instead of simply picking what looks good and has decent reviews, I spent several hours of my time looking on various sites, taking every possible measurement of my body needed for each piece of clothing, and perusing product descriptions for fabric/material content and other information. I also had to wait longer to buy my clothes due to the increase in cost – for me, this means buying in “batches.” I organize shopping by categories that are engaged once I hit a specific savings goal.

For every $500 I save or invest in a given time period, I allow myself to spend $200-300 on clothes. One period may result in a “shoes” spend, another will be “tops,” and the most recent one was “bottoms and lingerie.” This system requires more dedication and patience than my old habits, but the results are impressive. I only need a few pieces of clothes from each category to create a very diverse and personalized wardrobe.

Beating Consumerism Is An Investment Of Time That’s Worth Every Second

It would be easier to go and purchase big, satisfying bags of clothes and watch the boxes pile up by my mailbox – everyone loves a “shopping high,’ myself included. But I know that the lifestyle I want goes a whole lot deeper than that. If you want to feel like a person of quality, you have to reflect that desire in every area of life. This often means avoiding “fast fashion” trends and instead looking for personally meaningful, unique styles as a consumer.

Instead of always using Wayfair, consider buying your home goods from Etsy, Ebay, Craigslist, or (post-pandemic) via antique malls and thrift stores. Purchase clothes based on research. Some of what I buy does come from Amazon sellers – but only if they use the labor practices, materials, and quality parameters that matter to me, and only after I’ve verified this from at least a few minutes of research. A lot of my clothing comes from sources like Etsy or Everlane (a store I discovered that’s focused on labor/price transparency and sustainable materials).

At first this focus on quality feels like a big time and money cost, but ultimately you’ll find that this initial impression is an illusion. I suppose it’s a matter of how much value you assign to things that are no longer “conventional” measures of success. I’ll use my own list of reflection questions to explain this more deeply:

  • How much value do you assign to dressing in a unique, personalized way?
  • How much value do you give to the sense of wearing high-quality clothes that require more care but which last for years without fading or becoming damaged?
  • What value do you place on knowing your home is filled with subtle markers of quality and elegance, such as hand-crafted furniture and fair trade linens?
  • What experiences have the most meaning to you – simple ones with depth, like spending time in a home that smells amazing and is full of comforts, or “big” ones that may not be as deep, like buying a new car?

There are no right or wrong answers to questions like these, and the ones I’ve listed are only examples. They’re simply meant to help you develop an accurate portrait of your ideal lifestyle and the things you should include in it. From these answers, you can begin to guess where your effort and time will be best rewarded.

Soon the effort stops feeling like an investment at all – in my experience, there is a great deal of pleasure in the habitual act of assessing priorities, products, and choices and aligning them with who you want to be.

elegant stack of neatly arranged high quality blue jeans
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

How To Keep Your Head Out Of The “Spending High” And Rethink Your Relationship With Money

When I think of elegance, I picture a person who cares about the way they look, act, and feel on a daily basis. They give others consideration, and they give themselves consideration, too. They are not always meticulous, but they consistently make an effort to maintain their belongings and relationships, and they regularly express their values in tangible ways.

This person cannot afford to fall into the “spending high” trap so many of us live in. To be elegant, you have to learn – actively – to become accustomed to long-term pleasure rather than bursts of it. A joyful lifestyle is a marathon, not a sprint, and this means you’ll have to go against the grain to cultivate it.

Consumerist culture would rather we live stuck in a cycle of dopamine “hits” that rely on purchases of one kind or another. This is an astonishingly easy cycle to exist in, and naturally we tend to behave in whichever ways create the least resistance. To choose another way of living, especially one requiring more effort, is not always this path. I’ll present you with a plot twist, though: this doesn’t mean you have to “work harder” to cultivate elegance.

It simply means you have to get creative. Make the harder path so rewarding it becomes sensible (at least so far as your brain chemistry is concerned), or make it easy and let your biology take over the rest. This can be done in numerous ways, practically speaking. Setting parameters is a major strategy I use: I physically write out my purchasing standards and limitations and make them my guidelines. I don’t even shop or look beyond them when I need or want something.

For example: I simply won’t buy jeans that aren’t at least 80% organic/fair trade cotton, but preferably they’ll be 90% or more. Levis usually satisfies these parameters, as does Citizens of Humanity or Rag & Bone. You only need about 2-3 pairs of jeans or equivalent pants at a given time, and proper care means they’ll last a literal lifetime.

Yes, these options are more expensive…but sales do happen, and promotional codes abound. I have managed to cut my spending by about 65% on these brands by making effort and exercising diligence in seeking deals or waiting for sale opportunities. I’ll certainly be writing a post on that topic sooner rather than later – for now, just spend time searching for deals, and you’re likely to find them pretty easily.

My parameters have become easy to maintain thanks to the dubious blessing/curse of online habit tracking and search preferences. At this point I’m rarely advertised to by brands or producers that don’t suit my values. It only took one long shopping sprint to make that happen. The other piece of this equation – and it applies to everything from furniture to skincare – is self-diligence.

By this I mean one thing only – planning. I don’t just buy clothes, I take my measurements and reference the manufacturer’s charts and cross-check them with reviews, too. I don’t just purchase furniture, I take measurements and sketch out my room’s theme and style to contextualize the choice. The same stock-taking goes for picking out perfumes (sites like Sephora have fun little quizzes for this kind of decision-making) or things like incense and essential oils.

What I cannot find, I make – DIY projects can be a wonderful, satisfying experience in and of themselves. I like crafting everything from linen sprays to cleaning products and have learned a great deal about all of these products from my experiments.

The Spending High can be a mighty temptation, but you end up getting more out of life by outsmarting it. And deepening your life experience? That is the key to the elegant lifestyle this blog represents.

elegant white wooden vanity table with pretty perfume bottles and pearl jewelry on it
Photo by Adrianna Calvo on

Keeping Your Signals Un-Crossed Is A Lifelong Commitment – Leave This Post With Intention As Your Takeaway

Values are not self-perpetuating, in most cases. They have to be reinforced. In our current global consumerist climate, you will be consistently moving against the current when you seek to emphasize a slower, higher-quality, elegant lifestyle as your norm. You’ll have to consciously say “no” to commonplace assumptions, and this habit of questioning is not always easy to maintain.

If you aren’t naturally creative, you’ll have to rely on others to support your goals and help you find ways to thrive. Blogs like this one and many other online communities are wonderful resources. Ultimately you have the freedom to choose the areas of your life and personal development that matter most to you and focus on those.

Each day you’ll be given messages that equate “buying” with “satisfaction” and “spending” with “success.” Refuting these messages has to be a priority if you want to create a truly joyful lifestyle to experience yourself and share with others. You can’t read a blog post like this and assume your work is done. This is hardly so much as a single step toward shifting your mindset and priorities.

Reflection, introspection, and overall commitment will show you the difference between spending money and building up an elegant lifestyle. Learn it well and you’ll be on your way to a classier, happier life!

Note: Some of the information here may SEEM to contain affiliate links, but I do not use these revenue sources and all recent links are un-affiliated in and on my blog. Thanks!

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