How Women Spend

A Bostonian by birth and training, the daughter of the late Charles P. Curtis, SALLY ISELINmarried a well-known New York sculptor and went to live in Manhattan, where she discovered that the women enjoy spending money with no thought of Yankee frugality.


MOST women think that when they spend money, they are saving it. They have to buy so many staples that they try to buy them when they are on sale. These sales often occur when the housewife can least afford them, but she is almost certain to buy anyway. The habitual auctiongoer finds it difficult to resist a bargain. If she goes often enough, she becomes quite an expert, thinks she knows as much as any dealer, and will excuse the purchase of a chair which she does not need or want by saying, “I’ve saved two hundred dollars.”

Women “save” this way in Paris just as they do in New York. The Parisienne has been trained to haggle over prices of everything, even her new clothes, and she would never pay the asking price. A saleswoman at the House of Dior told me a year ago that Frenchwomen who said that they paid far less than any Americans were simply not telling the truth. They pretend to their husbands, who generally pay their clothes bills, that they have been given a bargain. The wily ones then pay a small percent in cash out of their house allowances, leaving the remainder to be paid by the husbands. American women are not so devious. Nor do they have so much opportunity to haggle, because of our standardized prices. However, they are just as anxious to save and often get carried away into expenditures which would make a certified public accountant blanch.

Living in Manhattan, as I do, I am subject to temptation more than if I were living in the suburbs. I do not have to make an excursion by car to shop. By walking down any avenue and many side streets, I can spend money very quickly. The result, I am told, is that I am less gullible than the average suburban wife. Otherwise, I behave in much the same way. Here is a composite picture of what I call a typical “saving” and servicing day.

On my way out of the house, around ten, I noticed that one of the two big poodles looked shabby, the other, sick. So I took them with me. One was deposited with the clipper, who complained because I had not brought the dog to her earlier in the day, repeating her usual remark that it takes her all day “to do a good job.” I quickly made sure that she was not going to charge more than the usual $I2. She replied that she now charged $24, as opposed to ten years ago, when she first did our poodles, but she agreed unwillingly to do the job for $12. I thought to myself how fortunate it was that we had been taking the dogs to her for ten years, thus “saving” $12, The other dog was left at the vet’s, with whom I did not haggle. He charged $3.00, not including pills. This particular dog illness was not expensive, but it could cost over $50. Poodles are very expensive, not only because one buys them for $200, but because they seem to pick up every virus.

After disposing of the dogs, I took a taxi, for a dollar, to the bank, where, if I had known what I was going to do that afternoon, I would have cashed a check for $75 rather than $$25. I stopped in at an antique-repair store called the Antiques and Restoration Center. I had inherited an Early American side table in very bad shape. To fix it quite well, without spending a great deal of money on its finish, cost $125. I tried to haggle by remarking that my grandmother had never pointed it out to me as being a very good example, and asked whether it was worth repairing. The reply was that American furniture of all types had gone up in value since my grandmother’s time. This piece was probably worth $500. Hoping that this was true, I agreed to have it fixed. Certainly, it was worthless in its wobbly state.

While walking down the street I spotted a Brie cheese, “running” in true French fashion, in a window, and bought a slice, which cost the shocking amount of $1.25. To make it worthwhile for the store to deliver, I ordered some canned soups, which would be eaten during the year. Then I stopped off at Bloomingdaie’s and bought $100 worth of paper supplies. By buying a hundred rolls of each type, I “saved” $3.05 per type. It was now time to lunch with a friend from Paris, and I took another dollar taxi ride to her hotel.


There were three at lunch besides myself: my friend, a Greek friend of hers who had just come to live in New York, and an American friend who has three children and a house with two tenants, who depend on her for most repairs and for attending to catastrophes. She also has a full-time job. Conversation was rather disjointed. The Greek woman was distressed because the sheets she had ordered through a decorator had not come. We suggested renting them for a week, and explained it cost about $1.25. She was horrified at the idea of renting linen. The American discussed her various expenses: $250 a year for piano lessons for one daughter, $70 for dancing class, $12 for a relief nurse one day a week. My Paris friend had seen two advertisements for copies of the same Dior knitted hat and suggested we go look at them during the afternoon. She also thanked me for sending her to Ohrbaeh’s for copies of French clothes. She had taken there the wife of a French diplomat who had bought six or seven things to take back to Paris. “If she changes the buttons and the linings, they will look like the originals.” Europeans go to endless trouble to achieve the perfect effect. Americans, who are not so accustomed to expensive buttons, are likely to put up with what they buy.

It was just as well that we had a French lunch, because my Paris friend had quite a strenuous shopping tour planned. It was not that we bought a great deal; we just covered a lot of ground. First we looked at the copies of the Dior hats, which had collars to match. They were being sold for about $15 a set in two department stores on Fifth Avenue. My friend decided after some thought and much fingering that they would not compare favorably with the original in Paris because of the machine stitching. I bought one, knowing that it would be most unlikely that 1 would meet anyone who would know the difference. On our way in and out of the stores we looked at everything on the counters. Europeans are not accustomed to displays and treat them as if they were art shows.

Our next stop was a visit to a fashionable Fifth Avenue furrier named Georges Kaplan. We viewed the new minks with their rippling dressmaker detail, and also some less expensive furs, of lynx. When we deplored the fact that furs last longer than their styles, the furrier suggested turning them in, as we did with our cars. On an original investment of about $8000 for a mink coat, perhaps a lynx cape, and a jacket for spring and fall, we were told we should plan to allocate $2000 a year in order to keep being fashionably befurred. My Paris friend was dumbfounded but remarked that it sounded practical. “How wonderful it would be if we could do that with the haute couture!”

Our next objective was S. Klein, the famous bargain store on Union Square. We set off by subway. My friend found the ride thrilling and hoped that she could have the added experience of making the return trip during the rush hour. We toured the store, inspecting every item from children’s red party shoes to guest-towel sets made of flowered printed terry cloth. My friend bought enough of the towels to fill her Christmas list and a linen closet at Buckingham Palace. I, who had planned to buy nothing at all, found myself buying a wool blanket of a famous make which cost two thirds of what it would have cost uptown. My friend had brought cash with her, and she marveled at the fact that S. Klein took my check. We ended up on the subway, loaded down with bundles, just in time for the rush hour. After a cup of tea at Rosemarie de Paris, which cost just under a dollar, we separated. By the time I was home, I had worked it out in my mind that we really needed the blanket. A week later I noticed that many of the uptown stores were selling the same blanket at the same price as S. Klein.


With few exceptions, American women like to keep up with the Joneses. Those who do not care about the Joneses want to do more or less (depending on their income) what other women are doing. They buy new blenders, paintings, antiques, and built-in ovens with such inventions as drawers in which humidity cooks the food, so that it can be kept warm and juicy for as long as a day, thus allowing for late guests or a quick trip to the movies. A young doctor who practices in the suburbs said to me a little bitterly, “Some of them care more about their gadgets than they do their babies.” An interior decorator friend of mine who is very successful in New York City and I were discussing how much money the very rich spend on their clothes. Finally she said, “Well, at least they outfit themselves only twice a year, and I don’t believe they spend more than five thousand dollars each time. What about the women who do over their houses that often?”

I gasped, for I had never heard of such women. I have since discovered that they exist on many income levels. A $20,000 decorating job is quite routine. Four to five million yards of decorative materials are sold each year by F. Schumacher & Company, New York’s biggest firm of its kind.

The suburban wife is perhaps the one who is living under the most pressure from the Joneses, Her parents lived in houses which did not look like all the others and were not open to inspection in the same way the picture-windowed split-levels and ranch-villas are today. One neighbor could not figure out how well another was doing simply by staring at the house across the way. Also, the suburban wife’s mother was likely to stay in the same house for her lifetime. She redecorated it perhaps twice; now the suburban wife redecorates whenever her husband gets a promotion. In between times, she keeps up with her neighbors by turning in old gadgets for new ones.

If the suburbanite has no money in the bank, she is tempted to charge. “Charge it, please,” has become a slogan of the suburbs, as it has been for years in the cities. A friend who lives in a big development near Philadelphia told me of how she offered a neighbor her year-old stroller which her child had outgrown. The offer was refused because the neighbor’s husband would not approve. “Everyone would know it was not new,”because it would be seen outside the house. This is supposed to be the reason for the huge sales of barbecue equipment. It, too, is seen outside the house.

Almost as soon as she is settled, the suburbanite and her husband start thinking about landscaping. If her neighbors have trees and shrubs and a lawn, she wants them too. A lawn has become a must for the suburbanite. So the owner of a $75,000 home will spend about $7500 on foundation planting and about $1000 for upkeep annually. Along with the lawn comes the power lawn mower. On smaller places, with but half an acre, let us say, the upkeep is $200. If the wife runs out of ideas on gardening, there are myriad seed salesmen and stores to help her. The Long Island wife also can look for gardening ideas by visiting the big old country places now open to the public, such as the old Phipps estate, which has several types of gardens.

Besides a lawn — perhaps on it — she will want to have a swimming pool, even if she lives near the ocean. These used to cost around $10,000 and needed constant attention to keep them free of falling leaves and murky slime. They had to be refilled frequently. Nowadays, they cost between $2000 and $5000 and are made of pressed concrete, gunite, and liber glass. With vinyl linings (called “liners”), electric filters, and underwater vacuum cleaners, they are easier to keep clean. The newest chemical powders, which are put into the water each day, are guaranteed not to destroy the color of one’s hair or one’s bathing suit. For those worried about the safety of their children, there is a $1500 gadget, an aluminum platform which can be raised or lowered to the desired height, or even tipped at an angle for all ages of swimmers. It can also be used as a cover or a dance floor. There are some 240,000 private pools across the country.

The average suburban wife drives as much as fifty miles a day, taking her children to school, going to market, picking up her husband at the station, and so forth. One friend told me that the most restful, happy time she had last year was during the ten days that the car was in the repair shop. “I didn’t have to do anything but stay home and read a book.” It is difficult to say what kind of car the suburbanite drives. There are not any known facts about the subject, probably because her husband takes charge of the purchases. However, it is known that her dream is a Thunderbird or a Mercedes-Benz or a Jaguar.


There is one place where the suburbanite and the city dweller will get together happily, and that is in the kitchen. It has become very fashionable to get new kitchens, even if the one you have is perfectly adequate. The October issue of House Beautiful gave forty pages to kitchens of such splendor that I could not help but cast a critical eye on my own “perfectly adequate” one. There were kitchens in the round and “living room” kitchens with paneling of different types, including Formica. All were furnished with built-in everythings, including toasters which do buns as well as bread and a turnaround for mixers of various types. A built-in grill which heats ceramic briquettes by gas is popular. “Much cleaner” I was told. The briquettes look like any other briquettes when hot; when cold, like unborn guinea pigs, of an unappetizing pink color. You can spend from $2000 to $30,000 on a new kitchen. Most people install them with the help of an architect, and after looking at a list of the outlets necessary, I thought it would be wise.

It took some time for the kitchen craze to come to New York. Now, with many apartment houses turning cooperative, it is worthwhile to put in one’s own kitchen furniture. One woman who recently did over a house, who is most unlikely to darken the door of her kitchen, became so enthusiastic about the planning of her $20,000 one that she brought her husband along for the final itemby-item review. The salesman described him as “bored, standing first on one foot and then on the other” for two and a half hours. Despite his bored looks, it turned out that he, too, became infected with kitchen-mania, because he later ordered not one, but two smaller kitchens for his office.

House Beautiful also mentioned increasing use of a second kitchen. A friend of mine installed one in her already well-kitchened house in New York City. She had bought the antique paneling and fixings in France. She uses it when she is dining alone or with a friend or two and does not want to eat in the big dining room. When I first saw it, it seemed to me the height of extravagance. However, it appears she started a new way of spending money, or perhaps her servants did, because they did not want their routine interrupted by the mistress of the household. Besides the woman who wants to have her own kitchen, there are many who want to keep the family out of the main one. Second kitchens are being inserted in nurseries, game rooms, and workshops. With built-in cabinets and oven, you would never know you were in a kitchen at all.


Let us assume that Mrs. Gotrocks suddenly has $50,000 or more a year to spend, and she has moved to the city. (She has a house in Easthampton, where she goes on weekends.) Today’s city dwellers have certain things in common with the Gotrockses. They are fully aware of what is taxdeductible. They use more nylons than they should, despite frequently manicured hands. They profess to do a lot for charity, and many do, either by simply going to tax-deductible balls or working at fund raising. They have curious quirks, such as that of a friend of mine who has her MercedesBenz washed in a drive-in gas station while she waits because it costs less than at her garage. Another who owns paintings valued in the millions saves enough to buy a drawing by lunching at Chock Full O’Nuts rather than at the Côte Basque. These women are likely to be the first to find such things as 29-cent combs at the ten-cent store which are “exactly like those used by Monsieur Alexandre.” They are persecuted with requests for money from charities and sponging friends. They are under constant temptation to buy expensive clothes and jewels, but do not readily admit they buy them because they would find it difficult to refuse the ninety-ninth request for charity if they did.

They may keep their expensive clothes in the background — particularly those worn in the street — but they do buy them. Women used to this kind of wardrobe are as irritated with clothes which do not fit well as most people would be wearing an itchy sweater. The conservative Mrs. Gotrocks would like to go to Mainbocher, an American designer with Parisian training who has a small salon on Fifth Avenue. She would like to be painted by Simon Elwes, a British portrait painter who gets as much as $5000 for doing women in their favorite setting, surrounded by family, pets, and bibelots. She is very much concerned with looking like a lady, and a rather vacuous one at that. John Singer Sargent’s subjects had far more swish than she has. American women have an obsession with looking like ladies. The rich Parisiennes of any age never give this a thought and enjoy their haute couture with all its derring-do.

Mainbocher’s clientele is “très snob”; in fact, it is a sort of club. The members who buy regularly like to fade into self-imposed obscurity. They also take pride in the lasting quality of their clothes and boast of wearing them year after year. They like his skirts, which are cut wide enough to let them stride. Americans, incidentally, demand widely cut straight skirts. The French like them cut tightly, even if it is difficult to sit down or walk in them. Mainbocher customers also like his suits, which have printed blouses and linings to match. One of these outfits with blouse costs about $1300; without blouse, about $900. It has become a kind of daytime uniform and has been copied in many price ranges. The woman who likes his clothes is the same type who thirty years ago would have bought a good English suit.

The Mainbocher club members arc apt to look askance at the woman who plays Paris. I am using the word “play” because it is a bit of a gamble. To win you have to play reasonably well. The styles change twice a year, and you have to use your head about buying a dress that cannot be worn or done over the following year The Paris enthusiasts usually enjoy the hazards If they lose, they give the dress to a fashion library, such as that at the Metropolitan Museum or the Brooklyn Museum. The gift is tax-deductible, and even if the dress is out of style, it will be valued at almost what you paid for it because of the label and the design. Others sell their clothes to the chic secondhand stores on Madison Avenue. These do a thriving business with people like Mrs. Gotrocks who cannot afford to have such dresses made for them. There are a number of ways to buy Paris clothes. The best way is to go to Paris in person. Prices are half as much as at Mainbocher, the workmanship is just as good, and there is more variety, but it costs money to get there. Those who cannot go abroad go to Chez Ninon, which acts as middleman for all those who like to play Paris in the United States. The prices are slightly lower than Mainbochcr‘s. St-Maur is a dressmaker whose copies make a happy splash. If you have only $50 to $200 to spend, you go to Ohrbach’s. Along with a clientele of young marrieds and stenographers, Ohrbach‘s also has some of the Chez Ninon customers who are feeling the pinch of their children’s tuition bills.

In the normal course of events, these women buy clothes twice a year. A good customer will buy three or four things. She used to buy six or eight, but other interests, such as art. have bitten into her budget. If a special occasion demands it, she will buy more. One woman was said to have spent $4000 for a gold-embroidered Dior to wear to the April in Paris Ball last fall. This is the most glittery of all charity affairs in New York. Tickets cost $150 a person. It is safe to assume that many of the dresses cost $1000 and more. A fashion show was presented, and the clothes which were shown were auctioned off lor charity. Everything but the dresses being worn was tax-deductible.

Of course, there are a good many women who do not care for either Mainbocher or Paris. One such was reported in a society column as having bought a $10,000 Florence Lustig dress especially designed to wear doing the twist. Miss Lustig, who runs a group of eight stores located in the more expensive parts of Florida, explained its cost by describing the complications of the dress’s crystal beads, which were placed to go with the twist. She added that the price is not extraordinary for her clients. Many of them spend $5000 without worrying. When I commented that one could buy a mink coat for that amount of money, she replied, “My clients already have them.” She also does a big business in embroidered shrugs, which range in price between $90 and $1500.

Another uninhibited type is the young beatnik. Beatnik tights, slacks, and turtleneck sweaters can be bought as easily at Bergdorf Goodman as in the stores in Greenwich Village. Chic beatniks buy

surrealistically shaped jewelry designed by Sam Kramer, also in the Village. His prices range from $15 to $400, and his jewelry is studded with all types of things, from glass eyes to onyxes.

The more conventional clothes now cost about 8 percent of the consumer dollar, as opposed to 12 percent in 1957. One explanation for this drop is that women are more interested in spending money on things and activities connected with so-called “togetherness.” It may be that the wife would prefer, let us say, an expensive camera or a snappy outboard-motor boat or a power saw for her husband. It may also be that, because of togetherness, she has little opportunity to wear good clothes. It is interesting to note that the figure of 8 percent applies to the woman with $50,000 a year as well as to the one with a great deal less. The average sum spent by the madc-toorder types in New York or Paris is $4000.


The Madame Gotrockses living alone have a better time than they did fifty years ago. In those days, they were likely to be either old maids or widows, and in between those two categories were the Lucy Stoners or Hetty Greens, or backstreeters. Today many more widows are inheriting capital outright because of favorable taxation, and because of their husbands’ confidence in them as a result of their advanced education. Of course, the days of the lone operator la Hetty Green are over. Nowadays rich widows (and divorcées and old maids) are surrounded with bankers, lawyers, and brokers who see to their affairs. If they are under fifty, they are likely to enjoy themselves more than their married sisters. Financial independence and lack of family responsibility lead to a gay life. Some go on safaris in Africa, others to Saint-Moritz in the right season. Nearly all of them, when they stay in their home cities, lead much the same kind of life as do their friends who are career girls.

The older newly widowed ones follow a staider pattern. After a couple of months of wearing black, they are likely to visit their skin doctor and consult him about plastic surgery. This type of surgery will cost them between $500 and $5000, perhaps as much as $20,000. If her face is lifted (there is a certain risk it will not be), the widow buys herself new clothes and furs and goes on a world cruise. Half the passenger reservations on long cruises are made by single women. The widow’s objective may or may not be remarriage. What she usually wants to do is to escape the gloom at home and to make new friends, at the same time viewing the Taj Mahal or the Angkor Wat. She also certainly hopes for passing adventures not quite as exciting as those administered by Nicholas Monsarrat’s “nylon pirates.”

On return home the widow begins a new life, surrounded by sycophants of varying charms. If she is intelligent, she will take up art collecting on a big scale. Owning a $100,000 Braque or Renoir, or several of them, will put her in the top echelons of so-called society; it will also introduce her to the art world of other countries. These women buy jewelry for investment as well as pleasure. Comparatively few with this kind of money remarry. Why should they relinquish their newly acquired widow’s control or their alimony and full lives by taking on elderly failures as husbands?


Young Europeans admire the ways of the suburban wife, her sports clothes, and her recreations. One of the newest and biggest of these is bowling. The season begins about two weeks after the children go back to school. Bowling alleys used to be rather saloonlike, but since World War II they have mushroomed from four-lane to forty-lane affairs all over Europe and in the United States. They serve as a country club where you can have lunch or dinner as well as play. Many women belong to clubs. They have their own balls, which cost about $25, and shoes with special soles, and they take playing very seriously, with the season ending in tournament play. It costs about $2.00 a session. There are nearly two million women bowlers.

Another recreation is dog school. Pedigreeddog sales have skyrocketed. Some $26 million was spent on dogs last year, and the major portion was spent by women. This is a sport which can be enjoyed with the family. It costs about $25 for a seven-lesson course in training your dog, about $40 for the dog to take the course by himself. Living in suburbia is dangerous for dogs. A well-trained dog stays in his pen on the lawn until he is taken for a walk on a leash.

If she lives near the ocean, the wife may own an outboard-motor boat. Inventions such as electric starters and perfected motors and fiber glass hulls have taken the grease and grind out of operating them. An average 1961 model costs about $2500. Many women use them to get out to lunch.

Another sport which has grown since the end of World War II is skiing. There are about 3,500,000 skiers in this country. Since skiing has become a family sport, a great many Mrs. Gotrockses do it whether they like it or not. And even if they do not like it, they usually buy the necessary equipment because of the safety angles. The New York City Mrs. Gotrocks will go to Sig Buchmayr on East 53rd Street, where she will spend about $650 for the minimum amount of equipment needed for a typical ski resort. She will get Head skis for $98.50; Munich Bogner stretch pants, which come in every color and pattern, for about $52.50; a matching stretch parka for about $40; Rogg boots for $70; release bindings for $25; Head poles for the same amount; gloves with Curon linings, which cost around $10; and many other necessary accessories, such as long underwear, sweaters, rag socks costing $1.75. For her after-ski life, there are stretch slacks, fifty-dollar sweaters, leather knickers which cost about $45, to be worn with loud ten-dollar socks, and all types of embroidered parkas and boots. If she is a true glamour puss, she will wear her Kaplan lynx coat in the evening. While on the slopes she will pay $5.50 a day on the ski tow, $10 an hour for private lessons. If she has children, she will pay the same for each one of them. Of course, all this equipment can be bought for less money, but Mrs. Gotrocks would regret being thrifty, because she would be tagged as a beginner lay the ski snobs she meets on the slopes. One ski enthusiast remarked, “It costs about as much to break one’s leg as it does to buy the equipment.”

There arc many other ways for women to spend money on amusing themselves, both athletically and nonathletically. Those that ride to hounds pay $3000 or more for a horse and about $1500 to $2000 a year to keep him up. The antiquing enthusiasts can spend any amount. One group of women took such a liking to antique Meissen porcelain birds a few years ago that competitive bidding for them unwittingly forced the price up to $7000 for a first-class bird. There is one dining room in New York which has twenty of them perched on specially built stands attached to the wall.

Many women garden, with rosebushes costing $3.50 each. Others are amateur photographers, using equipment more suitable for a Life photographer than for them, valued at about $1000. Many take lessons in cooking and languages. Others buy season tickets to concerts and the opera. Not many of them buy classical recordings, however, nor do they often buy yachts or automobiles. These fields seem to belong to men. Of course, there are exceptions; women are capable of buying almost anything which tempts them. One woman well known for her taste in the arts has just bought a temple d‘amour in Europe which she plans to put up on her country-place lawn. “All my friends are buying air raid shelters, but I am buying a temple,” she said.