‘What Was I Thinking?’ The Big-Ticket Items People Regret
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‘What Was I Thinking?’ The Big-Ticket Items People Regret

People spend a lot of money on all sorts of things, only to later ask themselves: Why?

By BETH DECARBO
Tue, May 21, 2024 9:01amGrey Clock 5 min

While it may be true that money can’t buy happiness, that doesn’t stop people from trying.

And then wishing they hadn’t.

Many of us have had a big-ticket expenditure that we later come to regret. Maybe it’s something meant to convey status, which we realise later did nothing of the sort. Maybe it was to fulfil dreams of a luxury lifestyle, only to discover that we’ve bought a bottomless money pit.

We asked Wall Street Journal readers to share their stories of pricey purchases that ultimately led to disappointment. Below are some of their stories and reflections—with some free advice to their younger selves.

The wristwatch of his dreams

“It was back in day of wingtip shoes, white shirts and red ties,” says Bryan Desloge, who began his career at IBM in 1984. And like many rookie employees, Desloge wanted to fit in. “I bought suits. I took my earring out. I cut my hair and I registered in the Republican Party,” he says. To complete the look, he paid over $7,000 for the wristwatch of his dreams—a Rolex Submariner. It was a hefty sum, considering he was making roughly $18,000 a year.

Now 64 and retired, Desloge says his younger self saw the stainless-steel watch as a status symbol. “The older guys had nice dress watches already, while I wore a Casio or a Timex.” Just two years after buying the Rolex, however, Desloge realised the timepiece was impractical for him. “The Rolex is great, but I don’t want to look at a clock face,” he says, “and the glow-in-the-dark hands are hard to read at night.”

Desloge, who lives in Tallahassee, Fla., recently tried to give the Rolex to his son, who turned him down. So it remains tucked away in favor of a Garmin smartwatch, which has a fitness tracker, alerts and email, among other features. Purchased for about $500, the Garmin can multitask in ways his Rolex cannot. “I will probably wear that watch for the rest of my life,” Desloge says.

Cabin fever

The family called it “the little brown house,” says Michael Kotas of his vacation cabin in the mountains overlooking Tucson, Ariz. In 2005, Kotas and his wife paid $120,000 for the 1950s cabin, and it needed a lot of work.

“We bought it from an older couple, who had dark rugs and wood paneling,” says Kotas, who is now in his mid-60s and retired from a job in technology sales. He redid the cabin “with a cool Manhattan vibe,” updated the electrical wiring and corrected a flooding issue in the basement. In all, Kotas estimates he spent $60,000 in upgrades.

But his financial headaches were far from over.

Even though Kotas owned the cabin, the federal government owned the land it sat on, since it was located within the Coronado National Forest. Leasing the land cost $800 a year when the cabin was purchased, but eventually grew to $3,600 a year by the time it sold.

During that time, two fires came within 100 yards of the cabin, jacking up Kotas’s fire-insurance premiums. Then, a species of bark beetle attacked ponderosa pines there, and the Forest Service required cabin owners to remove infested trees around their property, costing $1,000 to $1,200 a pop. “I counted all my trees around my house and thought, ‘I can’t afford this.’ ”

Over time, Kotas’s children didn’t want to go to the cabin anymore, saying “there was nothing to do,” he says. “We ended up spending about five nights a year there for the last several years.” Kotas, whose year-round home also is in Tucson, came to the realisation that he wasn’t getting his money’s worth. “It became an albatross,” he says.

The tipping point came when a man parked his truck just 100 feet from the cabin and lived out of his vehicle on the side of the road. Kotas sold the cabin in 2022 for $195,000.

“I would probably never buy a vacation home again,” he says. “It was a tough lesson to learn. I wish the [new] buyers well, but all I can say is, ‘Good riddance!’ ”

RV to nowhere

After retiring from a career in ophthalmology, Gordon Preecs bought a large pickup truck in 2013 and a 22-foot travel trailer in 2017 with the dream that he and his wife, Connie Preecs, would visit national parks around the country. Combined, the new vehicles cost around $50,000.

Living in Seattle at the time, the couple started out by taking the RV on short trips, such as an event for woodcarvers in Washington state. It didn’t take long for them to feel pinched in a 120-square-foot RV. “I thought we’d have our own hotel” with an RV, says Preecs, who is now 75 and living in Round Rock, Texas. “But we had to just shove things in there. The kitchen counter was hand’s breadth wide, and the bathroom was like a phone-booth shower. If I dropped the soap, I couldn’t pick it up.”

Three years after purchasing the trailer, Preecs and his wife relocated to Texas to be closer to their grandchildren. Still, they were able to visit Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks in the Northwest. That’s when they felt the financial pinch of RV ownership.

“At 6 miles per gallon and $60 to $80 a night at RV parks, the expenses really added up,” he says. “We found it was an inefficient way to travel.” Some of the RV parks are located in funky, backwater places, he says. And setup and breakdown at every stop became a hassle. “You want to be free, but you’re not.”

In 2020, they sold the trailer, which had less than 5,000 miles of use, and the pickup for a combined $32,000. With the proceeds, Preecs bought a Tesla.

Outfitted and outwitted

As a vintner in California, much of Pam Starr’s work takes place outside among the grape vines. “I live in jeans and winemaker vests, T-shirts and sometimes boots,” says the 63-year-old. “So I can tear my clothes on a vine or get barrel slime on me” and it doesn’t really matter.

A few years ago, a well-heeled friend with an eye for fashion convinced Starr, who lives in Napa, to join her in San Francisco for a meeting with her couturier—a person who creates luxury clothing to the client’s specifications. The friend had told Starr that she wouldn’t have to buy anything, but this particular couturier was very persuasive, Starr recalls.

For example, the couturier held up a gauzy swimsuit coverup with white sequins and said, “You have to wear this swimsuit coverup by the pool.” Starr paid $1,800 for a custom coverup, but later it hit her: “I don’t wear a coverup when I’m at the pool because I’m actually in the pool.” To this day, it has never been worn. Starr says she spent another $1,800 for an off-the-shoulder silk shirt with three-quarter length sleeves.

The quality of the clothing was low, Starr says. “That silk shirt turned out to be my most disappointing piece,” she says. It didn’t clean well, and hasn’t retained its shape. Many of the pieces she purchased haven’t held up well, she says, even though she rarely wears them. “Out of the 15 items I had made for me, I loved maybe three,” Starr says. “That’s more than $20,000 worth of clothes, and I should have gotten more out of them.”

If she could go back in time, Starr says, she would say to herself, “ ‘Listen, Pam. Pick two things and start slowly. If you like them, you can expand into other things.’ ” Also, she would pause to ask herself how often she would actually wear the clothing.

“Because of a friend, I ended up in a couture shop,” Starr says. “In that world, it’s uncharted territory for me. The couturier pulls you in really hard.” Knowing what she knows now, Starr says, “if I needed someone to design a gown for me, I wouldn’t go back there. I would go to a seamstress locally.”



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How the Middle East Became the Latest ‘Gold Rush’ in Marketing

The Middle East is set to be the fastest-growing marketing region in the world, driven by momentum in countries such as Saudi Arabia

By MEGAN GRAHAM
Tue, Jun 18, 2024 5 min

Saudi Arabia’s fledgling advertising industry and continued growth in the sector in the United Arab Emirates are helping to make the marketing business in the Middle East the fastest-growing in the world.

Ad spending in the Middle East is projected to increase 8.1% to $6.6 billion this year, up from 3.5% last year, according to advertising research firm WARC.

That expansion is building from a much smaller base than in many other ad markets. The Netherlands alone will generate $6 billion in ad spending in 2024, up about 2.3%, WARC said. But it is also enough to outpace every other region in 2024, the firm said.

“It reminds me almost of the gold rush,” said Reda Raad , chief executive of TBWA\Raad Group, an ad agency based in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, that is part of the U.S.-based ad holding company Omnicom Group . “I don’t think we’re going to see this type of growth again in our lifetime.” TBWA\Raad has won eight new clients over the past year, with an increase in head count of 17% to accommodate the new work, Raad said.

Some international brands have long maintained a presence in the region. PepsiCo has considered the area a strategic market for decades, said Karim Elfiqi , senior vice president and chief marketing officer at PepsiCo Africa, Middle East and South Asia. Sponsorship deals with local stars such as Mohamed Salah , a soccer player from Egypt, “are a testimony of how over time, we have been part of the cultural fabric of the region,” Elfiqi said.

Other major brands have formed a more recent focus on the Middle East. The Lego Group opened a Middle East and Africa headquarters in Dubai in 2019, citing the size of the region’s young population. That office has developed work such as a Ramadan-themed campaign that ran in the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia, among other locations.

‘Massive growth’

The Middle East’s ad market has lagged behind regions such as North America and Europe partly because of stricter cultural norms and regulations that affected business, as did a more limited media landscape and economic instability, according to Raad.

But marketing growth in the region is now being driven in part by newfound marketing interest in Saudi Arabia, where ad spending this year is expected to reach $2.1 billion, nearly double its level in 2019, according to WARC. Growth is also coming from the U.A.E., whose ad market is expected to reach $1.7 billion in 2024. Smaller contributors include Qatar and Kuwait.

The landscape has changed now because of economic diversification, increased connectivity and a move into the digital world, leading international brands to enter and invest in campaigns tailored to the region, Raad said.

Four years ago, Saudi Arabia made up a small proportion of business at Lightblue, a creative experience and tech agency based in Dubai. These days, 40% of its business comes from the country, says co-founder David Balfour , who opened an office in Riyadh last month as a result.

“The conversation used to be, ‘We’re going to do this in Dubai.’ Now, it’s ‘We’re going to do this in Dubai—and in Saudi.’” Balfour said. “We’re seeing massive growth in that region.”

There have been speed bumps. As government spending reaches huge levels , Saudi Arabia experienced a rare economic contraction in 2023.

But the country’s efforts to expand its economic pursuits beyond oil have led to the creation of new brands, which are seeking the help of marketing agencies to get the word out.

Marketers in the region are seeking help to stay on-trend in areas such as generative artificial intelligence and social media, said Greg Paull , principal of R3, a consulting firm that helps match advertisers with agencies.

“U.A.E. has been a magnet for the region for 20 years as more investment has come in—but with the new leadership in Saudi since 2017 [when Mohammed bin Salman was named crown prince ], this market has gone through remarkable growth,” Paull said.

Saudi Arabia has faced criticism for its human-rights record under the crown prince, the day-to-day ruler of the kingdom, especially over the 2018 killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the more recent jailing of women’s rights activists.

Mohammed has outlasted the international isolation that followed Khashoggi’s killing, however, and continues to pursue an economic diversification plan dubbed Vision 2030. The country last year unveiled plans for a new international airline called Riyadh Air, is investing billions of dollars to build its tourism and videogame industries, and in March hosted a golf tournament in Jeddah under the auspices of LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed league that has both challenged the PGA Tour and struck a deal to unify with it.

Changing tides

Vision 2030 also calls women’s empowerment a top social priority and seeks to increase the country’s employment rate of women.

Nada Hakeem , CEO and co-founder of Saudi creative agency Wetheloft, said the perceptions of hardships for women in the marketing and advertising industry are outdated and inaccurate.

“As a Saudi woman who founded my company in 2012, I’ve always felt supported by the creative community and the industry as a whole,” Hakeem said. “While every society may have its challenges, I can confidently say that these challenges have not hindered our growth.”

A progression of new laws, policies and incentives are making the industry in Saudi Arabia more inclusive and supportive for women, she added.

In certain parts of the Middle East, “absolutely, it’s still challenging, but they are making the right strides, and they have the right quotas and ambitions in place,” said Rebecca Bezzina , CEO for the EMEA region at R/GA, an agency owned by Interpublic Group of Cos.

“They’ve got wealth, they’ve got world-class ambition, world-class budget. They’re not shy of doing things in the right way,” Bezzina added, speaking of the region overall. “But they still have a talent shortage, especially from a creative and design and product point of view. So often what we’ve found our success has been that they’ve come to us and said, ‘Oh, we want a world-class agency to help us launch this new venture or do this new brand.’”

R/GA said it sees 69% more requests for agency work from marketers in the region today than it did five years ago. It recently handled a brand redesign for Banque Saudi Fransi, which wanted to reaffirm its Saudi roots with a modern identity, and created Weyay, the brand for a new digital bank from the National Bank of Kuwait.

The agency hasn’t notably increased its regional workforce, but it has made changes to facilitate working across Europe and the Middle East.

Other Western players are making moves to capture a piece of the growth. Advertising giant WPP has long worked in Saudi Arabia through units such as Ogilvy and GroupM, but in 2021 established a joint venture with a local company to create ICG Saudi Arabia, a communications and media company based in Saudi Arabia. Ad holding company Stagwell opened new offices for its media agency Assembly in Riyadh in 2021 and in Cairo in 2022.

Regional hospitality

Some executives said certain facets of business dealings in the Middle East are different than in other parts of the world.

Bertrand Morin, a group account director for R/GA who is based in London and works often with Middle Eastern clients, said he spends much more time speaking about personal lives and families with those clients than those in the U.K. or U.S. He has been invited to Middle Eastern clients’ homes to join their families for dinner, something that has never happened with clients elsewhere.

But others say it can feel surprisingly familiar.

Balfour, the Lightblue co-founder, said he was struck by the number of ad-agency workers recently having dinner at the Riyadh location of steakhouse chain Beefbar, and the scene’s similarity to far-off locations.

“The staff are from everywhere in the world. The service and the food is unbelievable. There’s a DJ playing,” Balfour said. “Apart from not having alcohol, you could be anywhere in the world.”

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