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How Insights from Thorstein Veblen and Gypsy Traditions Can Help in the Design for Financial Security

December 8, 2017

A marginalized ethnic group’s tradition of blatantly displaying wealth gives some valuable insights on financial behavior in the XXIst century world. Moreover, “Conspicuous saving” offers valuable insights for the design of consumer financial products aimed at increasing financial security. (7 min read + an invitation).

 

A Marginalized Ethnic Group's Tradition on Saving: Minuscule Anthropological Insight 

 

Eastern and Southern Europe host the bulk of the Romani people, an ethnic group known to English speakers as Gypsies. According to Wikipedia, the Romani people are a traditionally itinerant ethnic group, living mostly in Europe, originating from the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent.

 

In my country of birth – Romania, the Romanian majority has a bad image of the Romani people (I am aware that there can be a phonetic confusion, but let’s say that the Romanians and the Romani are two different ethnic groups).

 

In general, Romanians look down at the Romani (Gypsy) people and Romanian culture and language are full of contempt towards the Gypsies. Romanians scorn one particular custom (tradition) of the Romani people, namely the acquisition and, not seldom, conspicuous display of gold. For several years, Romanian TV stations paraded outrageous cases of wealthy Romani people who had gold shoes, gold crowns, gold purses etc. When I say gold, I mean solid 14 or 24 karat gold.

 

These extreme cases have their origin in the Romani tradition of storing their wealth in gold, most often, gold coins. The gold coins were worn by women in their hair or in the form of necklaces. The Romani people needed portable-wealth for two main reasons. First, their itinerant (nomad) old-way of life and second, after being freed from slavery (in Romania) they were not allowed to own land.

 

 

Until recently, I viewed this ongoing tradition of storing one’s wealth in gold (gold coins) as the remains of an ancient way of life and simply a lack of civilization. However, I came to realize that there is a very valuable insight of financial behavior in the Romani way of storing wealth.

 

Conspicuous Saving

 

What the Romani (Gipsy) people do is Conspicuous Saving. They literally showcase their wealth publicly and gain social status and social validation, within their community, by how much wealth one accumulated.

 

In the huge majority of the developed and developing societies, people showcase their value and gain social status and validation through conspicuous consumption. The term Conspicuous consumption was coined by Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class and it refers to consumers who buy expensive items to display economic power rather than to cover their real needs.