The Passion Spend: What Do You Spend Your Money On?


Passion spending means spending only on things for which you have a strong feeling of love. Here’s how 2020 became, as SARAH MC DONNELL and SÍOMHA CONNOLLY discovered, the year of passion spending …

When coronavirus struck last March, Melanie Scott was on her way back to her home in London after almost five weeks travelling for work. Global travel was always part of her role but this had been a particularly punishing trip, and with a pernicious virus on the prowl, she was keen to get back to her flat, dump her laundry in the machine, throw open the windows and sit down at her piano.

Having played the piano as a child, she had recently taken it up again and was attending individual lessons, progressing well and planning to take her Grade Six exam. With a company-wide work-from-home directive, she was, for the first time in several years, officially grounded, confined to home, with her beloved instrument. Her lessons continued on Zoom and without other distractions, she practiced for an hour a day on the upright electric piano she had bought online a year earlier.

When her teacher suggested she might benefit from a better piano, she considered the practical implications – a larger piano in a one-bedroom flat, and the considerable cost of buying a good, albeit second- or third-hand Steinway.

It didn’t take her long to weigh up the pros and cons. “I thought, why not. If there’s one thing this pandemic has taught me, it’s that I want to spend any spare money I have on the things I really love, am really interested in. I know now what I’ll cut in other areas in order to be able to afford the things that give me joy. My new life post-coronavirus is very simple – I realised I had spent a lot on incidentals, and stuff I didn’t need or really want, as compensation for being busy and stressed. Taking a step back made me realise what really mattered to me.”

The Steinway is on its way.

Another friend, who has dabbled in watercolours for years while raising her family, bought an easel and set herself up in the (slightly modified) guest bedroom. Even with two grown-up children working from home, she was determined to create the space to paint. A monthly wine subscription prompted a couple to annexe the under-stairs cupboard as a baby cellar with temperature-controlled storage. These were not DIY projects. They were about a decision to spend time and money on the expression of a new interest, or the reignition of an old one, which they hadn’t had time for until 2020.

These are increasingly common tales. Lockdown was an opportunity for us to reassess how we liked to spend our time, and money, on pursuits, pleasures or passions. As our lives slowed down and gaps in the day or week or month usually filled with rushing about opened up, our passions found somewhere to lodge. It’s not just about the acquisition of things or the renovation of rooms, it’s also about interest and engagement, the research, the reading, experimentation and conversation an interest unlocks, whether that be music, gardening, art, wine, jewellery. With few things left to discuss in limited social situations, it’s good to have something interesting to bring to the dinner table for discussion. And all the better if you bring something literally, to the table. Lockdown made better cooks and bakers of many but some have taken it to another level, installing a new range, building a pizza oven by hand or mastering sourdough, loving the particularity, and cheffy singularity of the passion. A deep dive into a subject is more satisfying than tinkering around the edges (Baking banana bread does not qualify).

When garden designer Martin Brady was writing his weekly column for in March and April, he was fielding several calls a day from clients desperate to line him up to transform their terraces or re-wild their gardens. At first he assumed this was about clients having more time to assess their gardens, with the exceptional weather of early lockdown an added incentive.

“Until this year, clients have typically been absent when their gardens are looking their best or too busy to really notice,” he says. “Designers are out the door redesigning, adding on and improving; it’s a mini-boom for those in the garden design, garden centre and horticultural sector.” But it’s very different to the spend of the days of the Celtic Tiger, says Brady. “Clients are spending money on their gardens in a very personal and interested way, for themselves and their family. This is not about spending money to show off.”

Passion spending on your garden can run from very little to thousands of euro, from the creation of a wildlife-friendly wildflower meadow to constructing a natural swimming pool, (no chemicals and no heating, sustainability a priority) which will cost between €60,000 and €120,000, or a mini-forest, if you happen to have some acreage lying idle. For others, the slowed pace of 2020 provided the opportunity to cue a complete rethink. “Some clients, when they built or renovated their house, were content to allow the architect or designer do the garden without much involvement from themselves,” says Brady.

“Having now engaged with the garden, they realise that everyone has box hedges, hydrangea Annabelle and a couple of spiral yews, and they want more.” By more, Brady says, he means flowers. Cutting gardens and bold displays of colour were the grand gestures of 2020.

Locked-down hoteliers also had more time to prioritise gardens, grounds and ecology. William O’Callaghan of Cork’s Longueville House reseeded his wildflower meadow. “The meadow has changed the ecology of the grounds at Longueville. New birds are nesting; we recently had three different hearings of the woodpecker, very rare in Ireland.” O’Callaghan also planted 300 new variety apple trees for Longueville’s cider business: Bramleys, Discovery, Herefordshire Russet and Red Falstaff. At Marlfield House in Gorey, Laura Bowe planted oak trees and cherry blossoms to encourage wildlife. Blue Book CEO Michelle Maguire went crazy, planting hundreds of tulip bulbs, to the bewilderment of her husband.

Clare-Laurence Mestrellet, Associate Director at Adams

How to fund the passion spend? Budgeting is key, sitting down with your bank statements and actually working through the amounts your newly reduced lifestyle could contribute to your passion fund. How much, over the course of the last six months, and projecting forward into the next six, will be at your disposal to fund your passion?

For many, it’s less about a hobby or pursuit and more about an object, or collectible, a case of something to have and to hold, forsaking all others … The money they saved in 2020, has been funnelled into purchases they have been circling for years. With more time to research, stalk and spend, they chased down vintage fashion, antiques and jewellery. Clare-Laurence Mestrellet, Associate Director at Adams auction house on St Stephen’s Green, observed no let-up on spending. Singularly focused clients wanted pieces with provenance, quality and “a little bit of age.”

“In four and a half years at Adams,” she says, “my September 2020 sale was the highest-performing, with many lots going well over the high estimate, and to Irish clients.” She puts this down to two kinds of clients – one who sees the value in investing in good jewellery over putting their money on deposit, and the other, who is clear-headed about making a sound quality purchase which will hold, or appreciate in value, but who is also driven by aesthetics. Like all forms of passion spending, the more you read, research and inform yourself about jewellery, the more fascinating detail there is to learn. Mestrallet’s beautifully designed catalogues are packed with pieces she sources all over the world, and are a great source of information too.

“One client wanted an emerald cluster ring and a large diamond ring. She had done her research and she was happy to wait for the right thing. She found the emerald at our September auction but is still holding out for the right diamond.”

Passion spending should always give a long and pleasurable return on investment. While years separated the two events, Penny McCormick’s big-ticket Cartier watch purchases were the result of a long-held admiration for Jackie Kennedy’s watches, a combination of happy windfalls and savings (and several weeks loitering at jewellery shop windows.) “In terms of pleasure, and price per wear, they are one of the most parsimonious outlays I’ve ever made.”

Others stalk and spend on designer, good second-hand or vintage fashion, bags and shoes.

Jessica Garland-Blake, from Killiney, works in the luxury events industry in London and has a passion for high-end heels which she pursues with total dedication and careful budgeting. “I keep wishlists on Net-a-Porter and Matches Fashion: when sale time comes around I receive alerts, then decide which pieces I will invest in. I have notifications set up on Vestiaire Collective for certain brands – I just found a pair of pink velvet Prada heels for £50. If you look after shoes properly, re-soling and reheeling them when they need it, you will have them for years. I store them in their bags in the box, always with the plastic shoe frame.”

Aoife Ní Thuama, a graphic designer, saves up and spends on trainers. “I follow dedicated sneaker accounts on Instagram: @TheDropDate for release dates; the Nike app SNKRS, for limited edition Nike trainers via raffle entries. Depop and eBay are good resources for finding vintage or re-released trainers. You see trainers months ahead of their release, which allows you to mull over your purchase, and plan which pairs you really want to buy.”

In New York, Freya Drohan, from Malahide, is fashion editor at The Daily Front Row and a freelance writer for Cosmopolitan, ELLE and Drohan has a 150+ strong collection of vintage and vintage-inspired dresses.

“I stalk and spend on vintage frocks. My dresses are what everyone knows me for; I only own one pair of jeans, and people will jokingly do a double-take if they see me in them. I blame New York’s incredible second-hand retailers and frequent designer sample sales for my addiction. I arrived with just two suitcases, now, by my last count, I have over 150 dresses. As well as shopping in second-hand stores, I use The RealReal app as I imagine people who are into sports might build fantasy football teams – saving ruffled Johanna Ortiz numbers, tulle dresses by Giambattista Valli or Oscar de la Renta ballgowns. Even though I couldn’t afford these pieces, I still mentally file them away for future inspiration. I also already own my future wedding dress (I am single), a champagne silk maxi with a marigold water-colour floral print from Roberto Cavalli’s S/S 2008 collection. I also love discovering small brands on Instagram, like FillyBoo, AMUR and Queens of Archive. I plan a dress purchase for weeks before I pull the trigger. Because I have so many already it has to be really special to make the cut.”

If passion spending is defined as spending on things for which you feel love, this next example probably qualifies. A successful (single) Irish businesswoman with an expense account, a company car, meetings with colleagues over cocktails and frequent travel abroad (these days, though, it’s more Zoom, less hotel room) made up her mind on the eve of lockdown, to get pregnant. Six months and €30,000 worth of fertility treatment later, she awaits the result of her scan. All going well, she considers it money well spent.


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