7 Splurges People Are Still Buying

Little Indulgences That Defy the Recession and Boost Spirits

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 08, 2009
7 min read

No doubt about it -- times are tight. But despite -- or maybe because of -- economic stress, people aren't totally zeroing out creature comforts.

It's not about lavish luxuries -- decadence went down the drain along with the stock market months ago -- but about simpler, less costly treats. If frugal is the new fabulous, here are seven little indulgences that people are still making room for in this recession.

Your piggy bank may be empty, but chances are your candy jar isn't.

Candy sales were up about 2% in 2008, which is in line with average annual growth. Gourmet and dark chocolate sales have been very strong, up about 25% in the past two years, and sugar-free gum is also snapping up double-digit growth, according to the National Confectioners Association.

"People are looking for comfort ... a quick fix," says Tino Martinez, a manager-owner at Houston candy store Candylicious and its sister store, the Chocolate Bar.

Retro candies -- such as lemon drops, NicoNips, and LifeSavers in their original five flavors -- are popular. "You go back to your basics, your childhood memory things," Martinez says.

Cupcakes, which have been trendy for the last few years, are holding up better than most people's 401(k)s.

At the Atlanta Cupcake Factory, corporate orders are down, but cupcake sales are growing every week, and you'd better get there early. "Most days, we are selling out anywhere from one to three hours early," owner Jamie Fahey tells WebMD via email.

Fahey admits to worrying that sales would "tank," but says that hasn't happened.

"We have built our reputation as an affordable yet very decadent treat that comes with a good dose of comfort," Fahey writes. "We hope that our customers leave our bakery feeling like they've just gotten a big hug from their granny and that their money has been well spent."

See you later, swanky restaurant. Hey, does anyone know how to switch on this stove?

Dining out is down, and home cooking is up during this recession. But people haven't completely ditched restaurants in favor of their own kitchens.

The National Restaurant Association sees "some pull-back as some people have cut back on dining out," association spokeswoman Annika Stensson tells WebMD by email.

Stensson says other diners are eating out as often -- but they're looking for good deals and they may be skipping wine or dessert, and ordering the meatloaf instead of the filet mignon.

Cookware sales were up 3% in 2008 and bakeware sales rose by 4% last year, and there was "strong growth" in sales of Dutch ovens suited to making inexpensive comfort foods like soups and stews.

Sur La Table, which has 74 kitchenware stores across the country, is seeing a rise in new customers signing up for basic cooking classes. The most popular classes teach knife skills and how to sautee, roast, braise, and make stocks for soup or other dishes.

Most people may not be eating out as often as they used to, but they're still socializing -- at home.

"People are having potluck parties, they're having people to their home as opposed to six or eight people going out to dinner," says Jacob Maurer, vice president of merchandising at Sur La Table.

Not only are potlucks a great place to use your newly honed cooking skills, entertaining at home also takes some of the sting off the cost of alcohol.

Alcohol sales are down -- especially at restaurants and for pricey beverages. But "people still want to get together, they still want to entertain themselves, have drinks with friends and family," says David Ogzo, chief economist at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

And at your place, the tab doesn't pack as much of a punch.

"At home, you're not spending $14 on a martini or $6 on a glass of beer, so it's considerably less expensive," Ogzo says.

People aren't getting cosmetic "work" done like they used to, but the economy may actually be prodding some people to consider minor cosmetic procedures.

Cost is an obvious reason why people are delaying major cosmetic surgery. They may also be reluctant to take a lot of time off work for a long recovery, says Alan Gold, MD, president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS).

Nonsurgical cosmetic procedures -- such as Botox injections, laser hair removal, and injectable wrinkle fillers -- were also down in 2008, according to the ASAPS.

But some people are still springing for certain procedures because of the recession, because they're staying in the job market longer, thanks to evaporating retirement savings.

Older workers "want to avoid the ageism you sometimes see in the business world, and look as young and vibrant as they feel," Gold tells WebMD.

Heard the saying that lipstick is recession proof? It turns out that cosmetics really do have some staying power during tough economic times.

Consumer research firm Mintel predicts a 10% rise in U.S. cosmetic sales from 2008 to 2013, up from Mintel's previous prediction of 7% growth from 2007 to 2012.

The reason? Makeup makes for a feel-good purchase that doesn't break the bank. And women would rather cut back on a lot of other things before they mess with their mascara.

"Consumers will continue to shift household spending and eliminate luxuries such as gym memberships, vacations, and curtail apparel spending, but color cosmetics remain an affordable luxury," Mintel's report says.

"Because women have an emotional tie to their makeup (and appearance), cosmetic purchases easily fall into the 'non-negotiable' category."

But that doesn't mean they're willing to pay a pretty penny for makeup. Mintel predicts that people who usually buy expensive cosmetics at department stores will "increasingly trade down to drug store selections."

Beauty schools are more crowded than usual with people seeking hair, skin, nail, and body treatments at a lower cost than what they would pay at a pricey salon.

The lower cost comes with a lengthier appointment. It takes time for students -- who are supervised -- to cut, color, primp, and pamper customers. The extra time is needed because it's a learning environment, notes Jim Cox, executive director of the American Association of Cosmetology Schools.

Some customers pick and choose their beauty school treatments, notes Jim Cox, executive director of the American Association of Cosmetology Schools.

For instance, Cox says a woman might "have her nails done at the school but she'll continue to have her same hair stylist ... or maybe she'll have the cut done at the school but have her color done at the salon."

Call ahead for an appointment, and if you're nervous about your first visit, ask for a senior student, suggests Lynelle Lynch, who owns the Bellus Academy and two other beauty schools in San Diego, where services include women's haircuts for $12.50 and pedicures ranging from $10 to $15.

Sooner or later, people need to unwind, even if the recession wolf is still at the door. And some people are doing that at yoga class and even at high-end spas.

Danielle Tergis, director of marketing and communications at the Yoga Alliance (a nonprofit group that registers yoga teachers and yoga teacher training programs), tells WebMD she heard anecdotal reports of a "dip" in yoga class attendance when the recession began, "but since then they've come back up to the levels where they were before" as people seek stress relief.

Kripalu, a yoga center in Stockbridge, Mass., is seeing some visitors sign up for training programs in yoga or ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine) to supplement their current income or as a new career after being downsized, says Cathy Shamir, Kripalu spokeswoman.

In Tucson, Ariz., people are still coming to the Canyon Ranch for spa vacations, but they're coming for shorter times and are booking at the last minute.

"Canyon Ranch is a 'vacation of need.' Guests who are booking last-minute are doing so because they feel a need to get away from daily stress, and to regain balance, energy, and focus in their lives," Lynne Brown, Canyon Ranch's sales communications manager, tells WebMD via email.

It's not that they're waiting for last-minute specials, Brown says. "Any specials we have are an added bonus, but we find they are not booking late because of them."

They're also increasingly turning to Canyon Ranch's spiritual services (such as "soul coaching"), life management (classes in behavioral health), metaphysical services (such as tarot card reading and astrology), and alternative energy therapies, such as acupuncture, Brown says.

Lake Austin Spa Resort in Austin, Texas is also seeing more last-minute bookings, and also reservations made by people living in the area who want to stay at the spa instead of flying somewhere else on vacation.

"We are seeing that a lot of our guests want to take home some stress management skills and all of our yoga, meditation, and mind/body classes and talks have had strong attendance in the past few months," spokeswoman Darlene Fiske tells WebMD.