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The Diderot Effect – The Curse Of Upgrading Your Lifestyle

In the 18th century, French philosopher Denis Diderot received a gift of a beautiful scarlet dressing gown.  I know it’s not something your typical guy today would get too excited about, but remember this was the 1700’s.  In any case, he was delighted with his gift and promptly discarded his old dressing gown.

Within a short time he grew dissatisfied with his surroundings.  They didn’t reflect the elegance of his new robe.  In fact they were downright shabby.

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One by one he started to replace the worn furnishings in his study – the old desk and chairs, the threadbare and faded drapes, and even his old bookshelves – with classy, expensive, new items that properly reflected the look of his new robe.

Soon he plunged into debt.

Diderot wrote an essay called “Regrets on Parting with my Old Dressing Gown,” claiming his beautiful new gown had become a curse, not the blessing he first thought.

The Diderot effect

Have you ever noticed how upgrading one thing leads to upgrading something else?

Today, the need to up-sell yourself is known a the “Diderot Effect.”

You know how it goes:

  • You purchase a new house and you need new furniture to fill it.
  • A new skirt needs a new blouse to match.
  • An upgrade in china can’t be enjoyed without a corresponding upgrade in table linens, flatware and glasses for every drinking occasion.
  • A new washing machine needs the matching dryer.
  • That shiny new fridge looks out of place in your dreary kitchen.

As new items are bought the remaining items appear less attractive in comparison.  Each item on a wish list leads to another item, always ascending like an escalator.

Related: Why today’s appliances look good, but don’t last

It may cause you to spend more money than you anticipated for an entire chain of new purchases.  It’s easy to fall into the trap.

A work in progress

I fell under the influence of the Diderot Effect when I decided to repaint my living room.  To offset the new colour I painted all the trim a nice fresh white.  To paint the window trim required taking down the poufy window valance – a relic from the 1990’s, long past its prime – so I needed new window coverings.

The old doors looked ugly and dated with the new trim, so off to the home renovation store we went to purchase six new white doors – with all the hardware.  I decided to buy levers instead of round knobs thinking it would be easier to open doors when my hands were full.  (I didn’t consider that every small child that visits now has easy access to each room in my house.)

Related: Do home renovations pay off?

Next, the poor excuse for lighting became an issue and now the carpet is rearing its ugly pile.

Final thoughts

Diderot lived to regret his home improvement project.  He hadn’t previously noticed how tattered the old gown was because it was comfortable and blended into his surroundings.

But we have no regrets.  We did the work ourselves and opted for the pay as you go method.  It’s still a work in progress and I’m sure we’ll have to begin all over again when we’re done.

Diderot’s complaint was that his comfortable little study lost its original homey – if shabby – character.  Well, at least everything matched.

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20 Comments

  1. Dan @ Our Big Fat Wallet on February 18, 2014 at 10:33 pm

    This is the exact reason why we didn’t buy an older home that required some upgrades. Most older homes on the market have a renovated kitchen. Next to the kitchen is an older living room, older bedrooms and a backyard that also needs upgrading. So although the kitchen was renovated for maximum resale value, to bring the entire house out of the 1970’s it would likely require significant (expensive!) renovations to the entire house. Rather than walking into a long term project we opted to buy a new home. Not for everyone, but we’d rather avoid a costly renovation

    • Joe on February 19, 2014 at 6:08 am

      Saying “we’d rather avoid a costly renovation” negates the possibility that you paid far more for a new house than you would have for an old house + those renovations (plus, in Ontario, there’s HST on new homes). Time/effort is an important consideration but only as part of a cost analysis which is warranted since it’s a massive decision for most people.

      • Boomer on February 19, 2014 at 3:05 pm

        @Dan: While you do make some good points, and I love the idea of a brand new shiny house that doesn’t contain anyone else’s dirt, I have to say I agree with Joe in this case.

        Where I live all new construction is in the boonies – er, suburbs, with absolutely no services or amenities. In fact with our recent winter storms people in the new areas couldn’t even get out of their neighbourhoods because of lack of snow clearing. And, you still have to do new landscaping, fencing and basement development.

        My ideal would be a house in a mature, well-established area that has been upgraded to my standards.

  2. James on February 19, 2014 at 7:01 am

    I guess that is why the improvement stores run promos to paint a room for less then $200. Interesting bit of psychology to keep in mind with every new purchase.

    • lickety on February 21, 2014 at 7:58 pm

      I am loving making my home my own. I’ve slowly been replacing and upgrading. First, new screen doors. Next, new flooring for the bedrooms since the carpet is in such disgusting shape. And wood flooring is much easier to care for. Then the next thing is a new custom-made closet that I designed using sliding doors with frosted glass on casters. New window blinds. Rip up the carpeting in the living room and install specially etched wooden flooring. It will be money well spent when it comes time for me to sell down the road. Women will be falling over themselves to buy it.

  3. Kathy on February 19, 2014 at 7:01 am

    Oh boy … been there, done that. Didn’t know there was an actual name for this! First this happened to me with a kitchen makeover where all I wanted to do was replace the counter top … which led to new paint because the backsplash looked terrible which led to … well, lots more. Though that mini-renovation did last about 6 years, so perhaps it was worth it.

    Am fighting it now with my family room which definitely looks “lived in”. Wouldn’t bother me so much if I weren’t snowed in, so spring can’t come soon enough! 🙂

    • JohnnyStash on February 19, 2014 at 7:23 am

      I refer to the phenomenon as the “$40,000 can of paint…”

      Stay shabby, it pays off in the long run.

      • lickety on February 21, 2014 at 7:53 pm

        try selling shabby and see how much money you get out of it.

    • Boomer on February 19, 2014 at 3:10 pm

      @Kathy: I hear ya, especially about being snowed in.

      When we needed to replace our kitchen faucet, the one I coveted wouldn’t have looked good with our battered sink. If we replaced the sink, the counters would have to go, and the cupboards should really be repositioned which would require new flooring and on, and on.

      Instead we bought a cheapie $10 faucet, which will have to do for now, I guess.

      • lickety on February 21, 2014 at 7:52 pm

        My partner and I recently upgraded almost his whole house. We started with the main bath, giving it a fresh coat of paint, new blinds, new shower, new tile, new backsplash, new cabinet, new mirrors. Next came the bedroom with new flooring, furniture, blinds and revamping the closet. Then the living/dining room with new flooring and paint, ceiling fixtures. The kitchen got brand new cupboards, stove, pantry. The den got a striped paint job, new flooring and new furniture. The whole house looks fresh, current and to-die for and when he passes away I will make a shitload of money when I sell it.

  4. Tom on February 19, 2014 at 10:03 am

    Sounds like that old wood stove-chainsaw-pickup truck-wood lot story.

  5. CanadianDaniel on February 19, 2014 at 10:36 am

    Great article! It’d be interesting to valuate the benefits of these changes compared to the costs, particularly for real estate investors.

  6. Ant on February 19, 2014 at 4:17 pm

    Trying to see what to make of this-

    1. stay cheap and accept a lower quality of x to avoid the Diderot effect

    2. Anticipate the fact that performing any sort of upgrades will likely incur further costs because of Diderot effect

    Did I get it right?

    • lickety on February 21, 2014 at 7:49 pm

      yes, you got it right. Don’t spend money. Better yet, shop at secondhand stores that sell seconds. You will find clothes that don’t fit properly but hey, it was cheap.

  7. J. Money on February 19, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    If only Diderot had a finance blog back in the day 🙂

  8. Don on February 19, 2014 at 9:01 pm

    Reading this post reminded me of a series of youtube videos called “Real Financial Heroes”. The last one is exactly on point with this.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TxylHPnoloI

  9. lickety on February 21, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    There comes a time in life when you do need to toss out the old and bring in the new, freshness. There is absolutely nothing wrong with updating appliances, lighting, bedding, paint, flooring. It all needs to be done. When you have real estate it’s always a work in progress to maintain otherwise your home is going to end up being a place that can’t be sold. Likewise with clothing. Who in god’s name wants to be wearing clothing from the 70’s or 80’s? we all change and there is nothing wrong with being current.

  10. Free to Pursue on February 26, 2014 at 9:55 am

    Diderot effect is plain and simple. Something new gives you a short term high and represents a status symbol. Soon, you want that high again and you see many candidates in your surrounding that, if replaced, will give you that very temporary high.

    When we replace one item, we start seeing “wants” instead of “needs” around us. Our way of seeing the world changes and we crave that feeling again, we want an excuse to shop.

    I like to avoid that pitfall – though I’ll admit I am not always successful. I have a strong preference for old/used good quality furniture and wait (sometimes years) to find an amazing deal for home fixes & upgrades. It feels more satisfying and permanent. I make the decision once and I am done with it, sometimes for decades – depending on the object, of course.

    Our disposable society rewards new things at a high rate of turnover – resistance is futile…or so we think. Bide your time. Buy good quality once, take care of it and shop around/delay purchases to avoid buying on impulse.

    May the force (to resist) be with you.

    Side note: I’m surprised by the number of comments related to selling and moving. Anyone staying in the same home for more than 5 years?

  11. mistersquirrel on February 27, 2014 at 8:51 am

    The effect is also called the hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedonic_treadmill) and it describes exactly how, unless we take great care, we will always want more and more.

    That fantastic new purchase you just bought – it felt great at the time, but the pleasure fades away really quickly, leaving us wanting more. That, and the fact that we always measure our self-worth as relative to people either side of us.

  12. Patricia Gass on February 3, 2015 at 10:09 am

    Great post! Very easy to get carried away…think first, spend later! An excellent example of how excess spending can creep up on people unexpectedly.

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