I Spent $11,537 Becoming a Blonde

Photo: Holger Scheibe/Corbis

When I realized my hair was turning orange under the white dye goo, I finally hit send on the text I was hoping to avoid: “EMERGENCY. I’m getting something really stupid done to my hair.”

My friend Nicole left work and rushed to join me. But first, I had to send her the address of the cheap chain salon, embarrassing enough all on its own. Nicole has lustrous hair and healthy self-respect. I saw her eyes bug as she clocked my goopy head, the indifferent stylist already wandering away to shampoo another customer.

“This morning, I ran the numbers,” I told her, my cheeks hot. “Since 2010 alone, I’ve spent something like $11,285 on highlights. Including $2,546 this last year.”

“Right. But didn’t you text me that you weren’t going to do this anymore?”

“And then I looked at my roots and I panicked,” I whispered. “I need a hair breathalyzer. Like the courts put in the cars of people who get DUIs. Something to keep me from making decisions when I’m suffering from a hair-induced freak-out.”

Confessing all this to Nicole, who knows and loves me, was one thing. Confessing it to the world, now, is another. Can I say in my defense that spending $11,285 on foil highlights conflicts with the way I usually live my life? That I think you can be a serious person and spend loads on your hair?

Over the same five-year period, I doubled my income, built up my 401(k), and opened a regular brokerage account to buy individual stocks. Plus, my husband and I paid off all our debt — $27,000 in student loans — and saved up a 40 percent down payment for our place.

I write about personal finance sometimes, and occasionally receive admiring emails from strangers praising me for my good financial decisions. But I expect that to stop right about … now.

Maybe that $11,285 figure still seems egregious. I’ll admit it struck me the same way; that’s why I resolved to quit that fateful morning. However I looked at it, $11,285 was still more than I’d donated to charity, or spent on gifts for my family. No longer, I swore. Let the roots come in as they may. I’ll do a half-assed ombré for as long as it takes.

My resolve lasted exactly four hours. And then I went and got a $62 all-over dye job that turned my hair — light-brown roots, remaining blonde highlights and all — the streaky orange of a tropical sunset.

The worst thing? That one terrible dye job could pretty much stand in for my whole blonde experience. Because, while I was spending this egregious amount of money, I was also trying — on and off — to save money. So, most of the time, my hair didn’t even look that great. It really looked nice only after my very first session at a high-end salon (which involved many elaborate processes and cost $400). After that, it was downhill, owing to the law that says that if you keep highlighting your hair, and you’re not nearly selective enough about where you get it done, your whole head becomes a highlight. You just keep getting blonder and blonder until you look like Courtney Love circa 1997.

What’s more, all this has the effect of breaking your hair, because that bleach is strong and your stylist really needs to take this call from her boyfriend who’s been texting with that bitch from Philly again. You could say I spent $11,285 to make my hair a color I didn’t much like, and to poison it.

Still, I did like it! I do like it. There are benefits. Going blonde is an old trick, but it’s a good trick. According to my own calculations, it can add as much as a half-point to our scores — which, especially for those of us not born in the upper-upper registers of the 10-point attractiveness scale, is statistically significant.

Going from a 6 to a 6.5, for example, represents an 8.3 percent increase in attractiveness, while going from a 6.5 to a 7 makes for a still-desirable 7.7 percent leap. Even if one had to spend a corresponding percentage of one’s disposable income, it might make sense. (Of course, results may vary; my own advance up the scale has been less dramatic. The last time I got catcalled, the guy yelled, “Girl, you look just like a second-grade teacher!” Disconcerting largely because it’s true.)

I have noticed how my fellow chemical blondes nod at me in recognition. I nod right back. Being a natural blonde merely means being born with yellow hair — but us, we have worked to earn our way into this club. There’s intention behind our hair color. If your taste defines you, as our consumerist society tends to believe, then isn’t choosing to be blonde actually the more authentic experience?

Anyway, why judge? I mean, maybe we’ve all done this because we want to meet some patriarchal standard we had no part in setting. But look at it another way: Maybe we’ve done it because we want to get laid better and more enthusiastically — $11,285 for better sex, without exploiting anyone other than a few hair follicles? That’s a worthy enough goal that you could stop the inquiry right there.

Besides, to assign it a reason is to miss the point. Blonde hair has reached its cultural escape velocity. Like Coca-Cola or denim, it’s no longer a setpiece but a permanent feature. You might as well ask why the sky is blue. I think I would have to have had a good reason not to go blonde. And not just once — more like all 59 times I’ve made the choice.

I didn’t squander that $11,285. In accounting terms, it’s what’s called capital expenditure and maintenance — not a one-time transaction, but a periodic expense from which I realize a return on my investment. So rather than feel guilty and swear off expensive highlights (or worse, feel guilty and not swear off expensive highlights), I will behave like a person who knows something about money and calmly assess whether I come out ahead.

Let’s consider potential returns:

One: Career advancement. Nope. I don’t have a pretty-person job. I work from home, in sweatpants. Returns: $0.

Two: The establishment of an epic correspondence with Nicole that involves sending each other Instagram photos of nicely done blonde highlights. Returns: Endless entertainment, plus a packed desktop folder labeled “HAIR.” Definitely worth it.

Three: Sprinting home yesterday from my $190 balayage color correction with the same subtle blonde highlights that I had five years ago, which knocked the grand total up to $11,537 but made me feel so relieved that I pushed my husband out the door and told him to take a walk around the block so I could Flashdance in our kitchen. Returns: At least $11,537 worth of good vibes.

In other words, money well spent. Some people will spend $11,537 on personal trainers, or gourmet meals, or a used Toyota Corolla. I spent it on my hair. And I regret nothing.

I Spent $11,537 Becoming a Blonde