I got my first job when I was 15, answering the phone and working the cash at a pizzeria. I was paid $2.85 an hour. Ever since I can remember, I’ve always had a job. And I’ve always worked hard to save what I’ve earned. Even today, I don’t really have any debt. I’m not somebody who runs up a lot of credit card bills. I’m very prudent, very risk-averse, and very, very, very conservative in my investments. I’m not a speculator—I don’t feel that I have the knowledge and experience to hedge or do riskier things—so all my investments are in mutual funds or blue-chip things, very long-term-oriented. I don’t even like to gamble! When I’m in Vegas, I feel uncomfortable putting $100 down. Say I win, and it’s now $400, and then I lose—now I’ve lost it all, and I’m like, “Ugh, I could’ve had that $100.” I just don’t enjoy it.
But one lesson I’ve learned is that it’s better to spend your money on an item of worth and value than to say, “Well, I’ll just spend a little here and there.” For me it was a Matisse. Nu Couché (1906), or “reclining nude.” It belonged to someone I knew who had passed away and it was up for auction. I knew that if I didn’t get it at that time, it would disappear into somebody’s private collection. It wasn’t actually something you could save up for, or wait and buy. You either had to buy it that day or not. I wanted to have it for my daughter, and her future generations of kids.
It’s important, when you’re bidding to know how high your threshold is, and not to exceed it, because that’s when buyer’s remorse sets in. I was on the phone as an anonymous bidder at Sotheby’s while I was working. I put a Do Not Disturb sign on my dressing room! I had my business manager do the talking because if the other buyers knew I was bidding on it, then the price would go up. And we got it! It was a big risk, and a really big expenditure: I’ve never bought something like that when it didn’t come with wheels or a roof. I’m happy I was able to grab it, though. It’s something my daughter and I will enjoy for years to come. Why? Because the money always goes: it goes to living, it goes to dinner, it goes to trips. But it can be nice to buy something tangible, something you can pass down, even if you have to tighten your belt in other areas. A good meal is wonderful, but afterwards, you don’t have anything but the memories.
Padma Lakshmi’s new book, The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavours of the World (HarperCollins, $49) is in stores October
As told to Briony Smith
More on Spending: