I recently visited New York’s Oscar Blandi Salon for a trim and was told I’d have to wait for a chair — they were all taken. Then, as I loitered at the receptionist’s desk, I noticed her phone ringing off the hook. Huh, I thought, aren’t we in the middle of a Wall Street washout? "We haven’t seen any slowdown," says Kyle White, a top colorist at the salon.
Same goes for the Park Avenue office of Amy Wechsler, MD, a few blocks away. A dermatologist and psychiatrist, Wechsler tells me she’s injecting as much Botox as she did a year ago. "My colleagues say they’re swamped too."
So, what gives? With 401(k)s tanking, what’s the source of all this disposable income?
"I don’t think women are taking second jobs — they’re just reprioritizing," Wechsler says. "I had a patient tell me she chose Botox over a new handbag."
Intriguing. So I asked around.
"I’m packing lunches, skipping Starbucks, and trying to take public transportation rather than driving — all of which help me keep up with haircuts and color," says Kay Leung-Helberg, 41, who works for a pharmaceutical company in New York.
Kristen Nelson Thibeault, 42, vice president of operations at TotalBeauty.com in Santa Monica, California, took some of her most expensive clothing to the tailor and had it repurposed rather than buying a new wardrobe for winter. "I used the money I saved to pay for Botox and a trainer," she explains.
And Caryn Mefford, 40, a stay-at-home mom in Edwardsville, Illinois, bought a basket for her bike and is pedaling around town to do errands. "With the cash I’m saving on gas, I’m able to splurge on pedicures," she says.
So women are doing the what-matters-most math, but what makes them rank beauty products and services over, say, a new winter coat?
"Beauty is armor, something we put on to joust with the outside world. Some women would no more leave the house without mascara than they would go out naked. To many of us, hair color or makeup is a necessity," says Judith Sills, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia.
And for over-40 women, looking good when jobs are tight may actually be a business decision: As pressure increases, so does the need to seem totally on your game.
Mary Beth Kramer, 47, who owns a public relations firm in Yardley, Pennsylvania, feels that way. She gave up fancy dinners out in favor of roasting turkeys at home. "Now I can afford to get my nails and hair done every three weeks. In my view, looking polished helps to make my business thrive."
"Beauty is one of a woman’s tangible assets. And although we may resist, even loathe, this fact, it’s still a fact," Sills says. "When times are tough, women should prioritize appearance. It makes them feel more confident — which they project."
Apparently many women already realize this. For example, lipstick sales have historically gone up when the economy has gone down. "In bad times, retail suffers," says Carrie Mellage, a consumer spending analyst for Kline & Company. "But beauty tends to suffer the least."
Makeup and hair care may also simply be good salves. As makeup artist Laura Mercier, 49, says, "Beauty products are like dark chocolate. We crave them most when we need a lift."
Great Deals for $20 or Less
These four budget-friendly finds will make you look like a million bucks.
John Frieda Frizz-Ease Overnight Repair Formula Like night cream for your hair, it hydrates dry strands and strengthens weak spots. ($10; at drugstores)
RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night CreamHelps minimize fine lines and brighten dull skin, thanks to skin-sloughing retinol. ($20; at drugstores)
L’Oreal Paris Voluminous Volume Building MascaraFattens eye fringe better than anything else we’ve tried. It’s not new, but it’s still the best. ($8; at drugstores)
Neutrogena Age Shield Face Sunblock SPF 70 Blocks both UVB and UVA rays. You will not find a harder-working sunscreen at any price. ($10; at drugstores)
Save Big, Look Beautiful
We shell out our biggest bucks at the salon and doctor’s office. So we got cash-saving tips from colorist Rita Hazan and dermatologist Francesca Fusco, MD.
Grow Out Your Hair
Short styles aren’t low maintenance; most need to be trimmed once a month. But letting your hair grow a little longer (as in a bob rather than a pixie) lets you schedule appointments every eight to 10 weeks rather than every four.
Skip the Streaks
Highlights are labor intensive and pricey; a single, allover color takes 20 minutes and costs $75 to $100 (versus several hundred dollars for highlights). If you’re just covering gray or enhancing your natural hue, single process is the way to go.
Stretch Color with Gloss
"The top color complaint isn’t re-growth; it’s fading," Hazan says. A tinted gloss costs around $50 and boosts your hue instantly — allowing you to put off allover color or highlights for two to three more weeks.
A number of anti-aging and anti-acne prescription products are now available sans brand name at considerable savings (a generic form of Renova made by Spear Pharmaceuticals hit the market this year). Check with your doctor.
Do Your Own Peel
Extend the benefits of in-office peels or microdermabrasion by using an over-the-counter exfoliating product like Juice Beauty Green Apple Peel ($45; sephora.com) weekly. "Rather than coming in four times a year, you may be able to get away with just twice," Fusco says.
Buy in Bulk or Prepay
Ask your doctor if she’ll discount her fee if you pay for a series of peels or a year’s worth of Botox up front. You’ll get some savings, and the doctor will get guaranteed business. It’s win-win.
— Nikki Ostasiewski
Originally published in MORE magazine, December 2008/January 2009.