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Every day, we find ourselves at the mercy of our own purchases. Living within the clutches of consumer capitalism means we’re subject to the forces of production, price, and planned obsolescence. Food will spoil in our fridges before we realize the crucial moment has passed. The clothes we order online will likely fall apart when we wear them. We’re in constant danger of being scammed. We can only hope our bets pay off and that we aren’t buying something that will bite us in the end.
Here at The Goods, we have a recurring essay series called The Best Money I Ever Spent, in which we publish pieces that really try to examine the value of the things we purchase and the good they have added to our lives. Here, we’ve flipped that, asking a few of our favorite people about the worst money they’ve ever spent. From skin care mistakes to bad sneaker investments, the question of how much better life would be if we could just get our time and money back is one that haunts us.
—Melinda Fakuade, associate editor of culture and features for Vox.com
$2.92: a ride on a Revel scooter
My favorite penny-wise, pound-foolish decision I’ve ever made came on Christmas Day 2019. My fiancée and I were getting married in a few days, and I had just enjoyed a lovely dinner out with my extended family, who had traveled for the occasion. My apartment was about a mile from the restaurant, and given the holiday the bus was running only every 15 to 20 minutes or so. It was cold and I didn’t want to wait for the bus, but I also didn’t want to spring for a pricier-than-normal Lyft. So I tried DC’s newest transportation option: a dirt-cheap rental of one of those electric mopeds that the company Revel had been placing everywhere. It was only $1 per ride, plus 25 cents per minute — way cheaper than a Lyft. I hadn’t ridden a moped before, but how hard could it be?
As it happens, the acceleration on those things is kind of finicky. I quickly lost control, fell off, and ran the scooter directly into a bus going the other direction. Somehow, I fell in front of the scooter, and the back wheel was able to run over my pinky, resulting in what a surgeon would later call “a cloud of bone dust.” A few months later, I had the last knuckle of my pinky removed.
I wound up getting a Lyft to go to the hospital, a much farther distance than to my apartment. On the ride over, I got an email receipt, hoping that I enjoyed my $2.92 ride on Revel.
—Dylan Matthews, senior correspondent for Vox.com
$3,000 for my dream tattoo
As a young 20-something, there was nothing I loved more than spending money that should’ve been used on rent or student loans to go on cheap, short trips. This was back when you could hop on a Spirit flight with just a bookbag and get an Airbnb without paying hundreds in cleaning fees. At the smallest inconvenience in life — boss was annoying, someone ghosted one of us, general mania and/or depression — my friends and I would throw together a quick, cheap trip to Denver, Minneapolis, or wherever you could get on a plane for $50 roundtrip. I also got in the habit of using these trips to cover my body in tattoos, which is my favorite way to process trauma. I’d scout the best tattoo artists in the area and see if I could get in with last-minute notice.
On one trip to Denver, I noticed there was an artist who was specializing in X-Files tattoos. Being an absolute nerd, I knew I needed him to complete my dream tattoo: Scully but she’s a skull. I emailed him my idea and a few days later he came back with an absolutely perfect sketch. With my deposit, he was only charging me $300 for the piece, which was an amazing deal.
At the time, though, I had an entry-level job and was not rolling in disposable income. A responsible person would’ve moved the appointment, but I was not responsible. I was someone who’d just binged every season and movie in the X-Files franchise to cope with a depressing break-up. This Skull-y tattoo represented a whole new start to me. So, I went to this absolutely shitty loan company — one of those horrible ones that preys on people who have life emergencies — and applied for $1,000 to cover the tattoo and the trip.
I had no idea what I was agreeing to really, but it ended up costing almost $3,000 with interest over, like, five years. Was the debt worth it? I absolutely love the tattoo. It also has been great for my dating life (nerds love making out with Scully; anyone who hates it isn’t worth dating). But mostly, it’s my perfect, expensive reminder that a new tattoo or haircut isn’t always cheaper than going to therapy.
—Ashley Ray, writer, comedian, and podcast host
$140 for Jordan 1 Retros
Back in May, I decided to buy a pair of Jordans through the SNKRS app. Somehow I “won” the privilege of being able to buy Jordan 1 Retros — and I’ve been trapped with them ever since.
Forgive me, I’m not a sneakerhead, but they’re absolutely beautiful. They look not unlike if Spider-Man turned into a shoe (they’re actually composed of the colors used by the Chicago Bulls, but I have more of an affinity with Peter Parker). I bought them for $140, and I wanted to wear them but was alerted by my friends who know more about sneakers than I do that I should wait to see if they would go up in value. Then, they assured me, I could sell them for a profit. Ever since then, the Retros have wavered in the $170-$200 range on Stock X, which is enough to make me wait. Now I’m trapped in an endless game of waiting for the selling price to go up — it never goes up enough for me to want to sell them — and not wearing these gorgeous shoes because of said waiting.
Maybe I should’ve gotten another pair.
—Alex Abad-Santos, senior correspondent for Vox.com
$500 for two chemical peels
I consider myself a pretty frugal person. My car is pretty old, and my purses are always secondhand. However, when it comes to my skin, “the limit does not exist.”
This is because I’ve had acne since I was 11 years old and always struggled to keep my skin clear. I’ve tried every product from the drugstore and tested every DIY recipe on YouTube (0/10 recommend, by the way, do not DIY, ever). I saw multiple specialists and was disappointed every time.
As any reasonable person would do, I decided to spend thousands of dollars on esthetics school because if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. While esthetics school taught me a lot about skin, any good esthetician would tell you that the education doesn’t stop there. Since graduation, I’ve spent more money on advanced education than I spent on school. Acne-prone skin is something that is managed, not cured, and that includes the hyperpigmentation that comes with it. I’ve wasted a lot of money along the way, and one of the most regrettable purchases in my professional career was definitely VI Peels.
I spent about $500 total for two peels that were spaced about a month apart. Not only was it a waste of money, but it was a waste of time considering the downtime that comes with it. The peel itself was relatively painless, but the amount of skin that shed off hurt the eyes of everyone who saw me. It was a heavy peel and I had to trim off the skin hanging off my face with scissors for about a week.
After all of the dramatics, my hyperpigmentation still did not budge. Since trying many other peels, I’ve concluded that the best chemical peels for hyperpigmentation are the ones with hydroquinone. While there are a lot of fear-mongering myths about the ingredient, you cannot doubt its effectiveness. One Enlighten Peel, which is 8 percent hydroquinone salicylic acid, cleared about 85 percent of my hyperpigmentation within one session. I wish I would’ve found it sooner.
—Tiara Willis, esthetician and skin care influencer
$1.99 for extra Gmail storage every month for the rest of my life
I don’t know when my personal email inbox tipped over from “messy” to “completely untenable.” It must have been somewhat manageable at one point — I remember when I first signed up shortly before I graduated college, and how it felt like a small, untilled plot of land, only occasionally disturbed by marketing blasts or missed Gchats.
Now, more than a decade later, it’s overgrown and wild, completely unrecognizable in comparison to the work account I keep at a tidy Inbox Seven-or-so. No matter how diligently I try to prune the spam and the stores and the invitations and the updates, they keep on coming, irrespective of the unsubscribe button. I know I could just delete it all and go full scorched earth, but there are precious little things in there: love notes for and from me at all stages of several long-gone relationships, gleeful transcripts of gossip and plots with my closest friends, plans made with someone who would pass away the next year. I don’t ever look at any of it — hell is rereading a dramatic email you sent when you were 23 — but I do like knowing it’s there, a flimsy archive, a testament to an old life.
So I fork over a couple of bucks for the preservation of this record every month, refusing to accept the slightly cheaper pay-per-year plan. That would feel too much like a deliberate choice. Still, the slow drip of the cost is its own tiny torture; every month, when the charge appears on my credit card statement, I am reminded that I am, in some small way, a failure, unable to do the mental and logistical legwork that would save me $1.99 times however months I will be alive, probably.
The new emails accumulate on top, faster than ever. One day, maybe soon, I might even upgrade to the $2.99 plan.
—Alanna Okun, deputy editor for The Goods by Vox
Over $500 a month for AT&T’s family plan
Like so many Americans, my family lives inside the tense web of lies known as an AT&T family plan. I don’t even really know how I became an official AT&T customer; in 1998, I was getting my first cellphone from a regional phone company in Wisconsin called Ameritech, and then a wave of mergers and acquisitions crashed over me, delivering almost every member of my family into the hostile embrace of a newly reformed AT&T, melded back together like a hapless corporate Terminator.
We pay AT&T more than $500 every month, and every month I regret it. But I can’t leave without replacing everything from my wife’s phone to the absolutely miserable U-Verse broadband and TV service at my parents’ house. This is why family plan discounts exist: Every line you add makes it less likely you’ll leave because you will have to call your mother and explain that she needs a new iPad because you’re mad at a cellphone company. I know this. I know I’m only stuck because I’m lazy. I know that laziness is what AT&T’s executives are counting on to fund boondoggles like buying Time Warner for $85 billion, bleeding all the talent from HBO, and selling the whole thing for $43 billion three years later. “That’s my money!” I shout fruitlessly into the AT&T support page where people have been begging since 2014 to disable the shitty U-Verse TV screensaver. “Don’t spend it on media companies!”
Anyway, it’s fine. We understand each other. AT&T tried to win the fake “race to 5G” by simply renaming its 4G service “5Ge.” They will always be the same, and I will always be trapped.
—Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief of The Verge