My First Big Paycheck: Why I Spent It On Fancy Perfume

How a scent became a signifier for much more

Our first paychecks are often the most memorable. In this GOOD Money series, people share the details of their first career splurge—the first time they made real money and how they spent it.

In high school, all the wealthy girls had one thing in common: They smelled good. The distinctive notes of Clinique—citrusy, beachy—and Burberry Brit—upscale and crisp like a pear—followed them through the halls and lingered after they had left classrooms.

I would shake with envy whenever I caught a whiff of that wealth. Fragrances, to me, were the ultimate symbol of taste, refinement, and disposable income; they were also the polar opposite of me and my kin. My family drove used cars, worked blue-collar jobs, and regularly returned bottles and cans for change. We could barely afford trips to Value Village for secondhand jeans, let alone $80 on less than an ounce of pastel liquid. What my mom could afford was a pack of cigarettes. Though she attempted to mask her habit with incense, I often found that my hair and clothes carried the stale scent of secondhand smoke—a bouquet I came to associate with low incomes and lousy luck.

When I first expressed an interest in scents, my mother told me perfume was another attempt by society to control the body. After a brief fling with Opium, Yves Saint Laurent’s spicy, stir-causing fragrance of the 70s, she’d switched to earthy essential oils, determining designer fragrances, generally, were a racket—maybe because we couldn’t have purchased them anyway. It’s easy to reject things that are beyond your reach.

But like any teenager, I wanted what I couldn’t have. Desperately. Flipping through Seventeen and Cosmopolitan, the secret ingredients for a life of fun and glamour seemed to be two things: money and taste. This was never about boys (they were easy and didn’t seem to care what I smelled like), it was about me and my perceptions of wealth. I was, to my mind, from the proverbial other side of the tracks, and I wanted my Pretty in Pink ending.

This manifested in an obsession with smelling good (by which I mean smelling perfumed). If nothing else, I decided, I could at least smell as if I had rich, classy parents. And so, the hunt began for my signature scent.

I’d test out the Impressions line ($5 knockoffs of popular scents) at Rite Aid, but even I could tell that they were cheap imitations. I bought some horrific $1 peach-scented body mist from the Cash King that smelled more like a wine cooler than a perfume. I shoplifted a Bottled Emotion from Claire’s. On the weekends, I’d hang around our local mall’s perfume counter, trying to scam additional samples from the sales ladies, at one time liberal with the small vials, but who quickly became wise to my game.

It was there that I discovered the first love of my life, a newer fragrance, announced with a massive in-store display behind the counter: Chanel Chance.

With its gold-trimmed box and three-figure price tag, Chance (French for “luck”) represented everything I wanted to be. Designed to be a youthful alternative to the classic—if a bit stuffy—No. 5, Chance was cosmopolitan. It reminded me of New York, where I’d never been. It was elegant, lightly peppery, and floral, without being saccharine or sickly. Most of all it was expensive, which, like any poor kid, I immediately associated with. I made a promise to myself: When I became an adult, I’d get out of my small town, move to a real city, and get a job that paid me enough to buy Chanel Chance and wear it every single day.

That’s how I’d know that I made it.

At 24—after nearly a decade of working nonstop and grinding out a career—I got the chance, quite literally. With my first real paycheck (at the time, $40,000 per year seemed massive) directly deposited into my account, I strode into the Sephora in downtown Seattle and proudly plopped down my debit card (and banked my Beauty Insider points like a good little saver). Back home, I cradled the slender pink box in my hands before carefully removing the cellophane. I set the bottle on my countertop—round and slim, like a lucky coin—and stared at it.

It wasn’t the first designer good I’d purchased (I had a Kate Spade bag from an outlet mall), but it was my first big purchase for the sole purpose of feeling pretty—and, let’s be honest, for feeling wealthy and successful. The next morning, I applied it to my wrists and neck and left the house with more confidence than I’d felt in years. Now I had the life I always wanted. Now everything I’d achieved came into focus.

I’m a far cry from being as wealthy as I thought I’d be—but since that first bottle of Chance finally ran dry after about a year, I’ve always been able to replace it religiously. All told, it’s a pretty low-cost investment—less than $10 per month—for something that still makes me feel so good. And it really, really still does.

I’ve flirted with other fragrances, but none have stuck. Chance still smells like me—where I came from, how I’ve worked for it, and where I’m going.

Screenshot via (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

Greta Thunberg has been dubbed the "Joan of Arc of climate change" for good reason. The 16-year-old activist embodies the courage and conviction of the unlikely underdog heroine, as well as the seemingly innate ability to lead a movement.

Thunberg has dedicated her young life to waking up the world to the climate crisis we face and cutting the crap that gets in the way of fixing it. Her speeches are a unique blend of calm rationality and no-holds-barred bluntness. She speaks truth to power, dispassionately and unflinchingly, and it is glorious.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
Ottawa Humane Society / Flickr

The Trump Administration won't be remembered for being kind to animals.

In 2018, it launched a new effort to reinstate cruel hunting practices in Alaska that had been outlawed under Obama. Hunters will be able to shoot hibernating bear cubs, murder wolf and coyote cubs while in their dens, and use dogs to hunt black bears.

Efforts to end animal cruelty by the USDA have been curtailed as well. In 2016, under the Obama Administration, the USDA issued 4,944 animal welfare citations, in two years the numbers dropped to just 1,716.

Keep Reading Show less

The disappearance of 40-year-old mortgage broker William Earl Moldt remained a mystery for 22 years because the technology used to find him hadn't been developed yet.

Moldt was reported missing on November 8, 1997. He had left a nightclub around 11 p.m. where he had been drinking. He wasn't known as a heavy drinker and witnesses at the bar said he didn't seem intoxicated when he left.

Keep Reading Show less
via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less
via Gage Skidmore

The common stereotypes about liberals and conservatives are that liberals are bleeding hearts and conservatives are cold-hearted.

It makes sense, conservatives want limited government and to cut social programs that help the more vulnerable members of society. Whereas liberals don't mind paying a few more dollars in taxes to help the unfortunate.

A recent study out of Belgium scientifically supports the notion that people who scored lower on emotional ability tests tend to have right-wing and racist views.

Keep Reading Show less