Boiling a frog

I’m not sure when it started to feel OK for me to spend £500+ on a pen, or when I started to think of a £100 pen as “cheap”. I definitely remember agonising about buying a £70 pen, not that long ago. But somehow my brain has gradually acclimatised to higher and higher prices, just like the proverbial frog in the pot of hot water.

I am a guy with expensive tastes, given half a chance, but I certainly don’t have a lavish lifestyle. I don’t wear designer suits or bespoke shoes, I don’t drive an Aston Martin, I don’t live in a big house or carry luxury briefcases. I don’t have a stack of fancy wines, expensive furniture, or musical instruments. I don’t go on expensive holidays (hell, with the amount I’m travelling for work at the moment, I’m happy not going on holiday at all). I don’t even get expensive haircuts.

Sure, I’ve got plenty of stuff, like most privileged middle-class people do. I have a decent laptop and tablet, a midrange camera and lenses, a Nintendo Switch, some good headphones, the usual. I have some nice EDC gear too – knives and flashlights – but no single item is over £200.

Basically, aside from my Tudor and Speedmaster, the only really expensive things I own are my pens. (I’m a terrible ambassador for the luxury lifestyle that Montblanc and co espouse, and I should hand back my Instagram handle, I know.)

This leads to some very odd mental shenanigans, where for example I will recoil in horror at the idea of spending even £300 on a new bag for work, while happily and simultaneously bidding twice that for a pen on eBay that I don’t need or even particularly want.

In short, something in my value calibration has gone seriously out of whack when it comes to fountain pens.

The reason I’m saying all this is because I wonder if a lot of other “pen people” are like this too. Certainly the folks I see at pen shows and meet at clubs don’t seem to be millionaires pulling up in a Rolls – they’re just normal people, in normal clothes, with otherwise normal jobs and lives, who happen to have £5,000 worth of pens in their bag. I mean, we all joke about being broke, having blown the budget on pens – but this is England, and we don’t talk about money openly, do we?

Is this a problem? Some kind of mental health issue? Or are we all allowed one area of our life where we indulge and splurge? Do we have an excuse with our hobby, in that investment in pens is relatively easy to liquidate?

20 thoughts on “Boiling a frog

  1. Over the years I’ve been spending more on all sorts of things like shoes, hotels and airfare. This has not yet translated to pens. But then, I’ve just really noticed fountain pens.

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  2. This is me 100%. I love the “finer” things, but am basically a cheapskate. I’ve wanted an Omega watch for years, but can just never justify the cost. I love name brand clothes, but never end up buying them.

    However, when it comes to pens, I find myself more and more wanting higher end, and feeling pretty much OK with whatever price they command. Sure, I try to be used, and save money when I can, but at the end of the day, it’s the one hobby that rarely causes me to blink in shock at prices.

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  3. you hit the nail on the head…we all have an area of our lives where we indulge and splurge. Mine are pens and shoes…the other half has motorcycles and associated paraphernalia.

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  4. I know people who own dozens, if not hundreds, of hand made green tea pots (all of which do exactly the same thing), and other friends who own more bicycles than they can ride at one time. And they love them all. And I have clients with more art than they could ever hang on their walls; most sits in dark storage somewhere. If you enjoy your pens/ink/paper and their cost isn’t at the expense of food or shelter, then why not? But your recent posts seem to suggest a re-examining of this whole hobby, a sort of bright light of morning squint at uninhibited indulgences from the night before. If having the next shiny new thing is starting to lose its post purchase appeal, then perhaps it is a good idea to step away from the credit card for a bit and enjoy what you already have, or at least bring some sober values balance to the decision. Just cut yourself some slack, as hobbies go there are a lot worse choices- dust catching shelf trinkets, things that require garage space (or worse, a dock moorage), or stuff that will bury your mortgage payment in one mouse click. You don’t have to Marie Kondo everything in your life!

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    • Ah Bruce, you bring some wisdom and mercy, thank you! You’re right, there are worse hobbies: I always say that pens at least can be used for something, and they don’t take up much space, wear out, or go off…

      And I have been questioning the hobby a fair bit recently, the constant pursuit of the next new thing, while I also have come to realise that I have a bloody good tray full of pens here, and really don’t need anything new to fill a gap or replace a pen that I don’t like very much.

      I will cut myself some slack as you suggest 😉

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      • I’ve thought more about your provocative post, about how most collectors at some point start to refine the goals of their collection. As regards fountain pens, I’ve thought of some gate keeper questions to ask before buying more pen/ink/paper:
        Will I use it; and where, and how often? (they are primarily tools and secondarily art objects for me, though that is not true for everyone. That keeps me from considering fancy carvings, taffy swirls in the body resin, shimmer inks, purple, green, or orange inks; one more sample notebook, and the like.)
        How does the nib feel on paper, how does the pen feel in the hand, how easy is it to maintain, how easy is it to carry around? If not good on all counts, then worth hesitating before buying.
        Am I trying to own the complete set of an item (every Lamy Safari color), or go deep on a specific feature (only demonstrators)?
        Is rarity or future value appreciation important? Do I really need the limited edition color of a pen I already own?
        Should I set a collection cap, at which point one in means one out?
        A dangerous problem with this hobby is that many of the items, esp ink, are really not that expensive, and it is easy to set aside judicious selection criteria for “its only $xx, I’ll get it and see…” and before you know it you have eight dozen pens and more ink than Shakespeare could use in three lifetimes!

        I applaud your self-reflection on this. The marketplace would rather you didn’t.

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      • Oh yes, the self-justification is most certainly true. The number of times I’ve made excuses and promises to myself…

        The questions you pose are good, but to that point, it’s very easy to talk yourself into practically any purchase. Will I use it? Of course!

        The collection cap is something I have worked to. I’m at about 25 at the moment, and honestly any more than that and I feel uncomfortable about being able to get sufficient use out of what I own. I know people with hundreds of pens that they use (in other words, not pristine collections), and I have no idea how I’d ever make a decision and leave the house in the morning.

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  5. Replacement for present shoes bought in a sale (though not needed yet) – check
    New office chair, carefully chosen then a sale waited for before being bought – check
    Books lined up at Amazon in the sales basket until the price drops sufficiently – check
    Go to a pen show with credit card and cash in the pocket a little self control – check, check, check ….

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  6. It’s a funny thing. I’ll spend two hours figuring out if some $30 purchase is worthwhile, or if I should buy $15 more stuff to get free shipping… then spend $4K on flights. And then not sleep all night because of the anxiety. And so on. Bags and knives and food and travel are my thing. We all have these anchoring recalibrations; as we learn more about a thing, or care about it more, we are more willing to pay what it might be worth.

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    • Oh boy, bags are certainly your thing :-D. You’re quite right – when you’re new to a category, you don’t appreciate what makes a ‘good’ thing ‘good’. But as you become more expert, you notice the differences between ‘basic’ and ‘premium’, and the basic becomes intolerable.

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  7. True that in some ways this is a ‘boiling frog’ thing. I started off with one euro wonders (including a Waterman red ripple and a Parker 51) but over the years I’ve ended up paying a lot more.

    But I think we all have priorities for our spending. For some people it’s clothes. For some people a car is a thing of wonder – for me it’s a way to get from A to B (though a motorbike, on the other hand…) It might be travel. Or it might just be a lifestyle in which you end up spending money on lots of Starbucks coffee, which strikes me as a complete waste 🙂

    I think the great thing about the pen habit is that most of us know it’s not logical. We know it’s a luxury. We know we *can* sell many of our pens, even if we don’t. It’s better than gambling or a drug habit after all.

    But yes, While most of us enter through the “Chinese cheapies” door, few of us stay in that room once we’ve got in.

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    • Yep, what’s coming through from all these comments is that everyone has things they deem (consciously or unconsciously) to be worth spending money on. Travel, food, cars, fashion, whatever. I used to spend far too much of my time and money on motorbikes too 😉

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  8. Yes, yes, yes. I spend ages dithering in the supermarket over a difference in pence but then spend thousands on a holiday. I think our internal value settings must depend on lots of factors. And they can go down as well as up. When I was an employee I’d buy pens without a second thought. Now I’m self-employed, spending £100+ feels more significant.

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    • Yes, it’s odd, isn’t it? I sometimes spend hours looking for the best place to buy something, to save myself a tenner, which is a staggering waste of valuable time, but in other circumstances am completely price-insensitive. We humans are funny creatures.

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  9. Nothing new to add to the above comments, except to agree and add my name to the list of people validating that what you are struggling with is actually quite common. Like you, I don’t spend much on what people would typically associate with high-end luxury, such as clothes, but I spend a lot on spirits to experiment with at my home bar, and I spend a lot going out to eat, on vacations and so forth. To me experiences are more important than things, and there is nothing I can really claim to “collect,” but I do have a notebook fetish. Given your love of pens, you would probably find my buying habits even stranger, because I think nothing of spending $25 on a notebook that extends my supply to five years from now, but to write in that notebook I wouldn’t spend anywhere near that much on a pen, as I am perfectly happy with my Uniball Signos 😉 It really is weird how we can all be bargain hunters and cheapskates with certain purchases and not others!

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  10. Seems to me that hobbies like collecting fountain pens have a lot in common with physiological addiction. People with addictions are not necessarily chasing the actual score of the next hit of whatever. They’re seeking the sense of satisfaction that comes well before and during the actual score. Look, I have a touch of this addiction too so I’m not judging nor do I want to overly compare a collecting hobby to the terrible impacts that ruinous addictions can have on people. But chasing the next pen purchase is every bit a part of this hobby as actually using the pens we already have. Perhaps, if the chase becomes more of a reward than the actual using it may be time to reassess priorities. We should also be more aware of how marketing forces, both overt (corporate advertising) and subtle (instagram posts, etc.), are influencing our consumer behaviors.

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