You can benefit from the finer things in life without going broke. Here are five smart ways to tap the power of carefully chosen luxuries

For most of his life, Jaco Visser, now in medical sales, didn’t see the point of spending lots of time and money on his appearance. Then his wife bought him a R5 000 bespoke suit. It changed his life.

“I was hooked,” Visser says. “I felt more confident and closed more deals.”

Extravagant purchases like tailored suits and pricey watches may not seem sensible in our current economy, but research suggests that certain luxuries may contribute to career advancement, creativity, perceptions of attractiveness and even problem-solving skills.

According to a 2011 study in Evolution and Human Behaviour, displays of luxury brands can net you preferential treatment in everything from job interviews to charity fundraising. Scientists attribute this to the “costly signaling theory,” which posits that outward displays can reliably convey desirable inner qualities. So we asked our experts to find the five upgrades you’re most likely to benefit from – and show you how to snag them without going broke.

Premium wristwatch: the secret handshake

Just because your iPhone tells the time doesn’t mean you should go about empty-wristed. The right timepiece, glimpsed at the right time, can telegraph important signals about you, studies show. Certain luxury watches – particularly those from premium but less widely known brands – remain discreet but powerful status signifiers to those in the know, according to a study in the Journal of Marketing. Keep in mind that watches only appreciate in sentimental value. “Watches are not an investment,” says Johannesburg-based watch dealer Peter Machlup, “If a man says, “Buy this for 10 because tomorrow it’s going to be worth 11, run a mile. It’s a mechanical thing. It’s going to devalue but if you buy it correctly, the downside is very small.” See it like buying a car, says Machlup, where sometimes buying pre-owned is a better option. “Your best buy on a Mercedes is not your brand-new one but one that some schmuck drove out of the showroom two weeks ago and got beaten to 38%,” he says.

Upgrade tactic

Choose a reputable watch dealer. They sell new, second-hand and vintage watches, and often they’ll buy them back from you if you get bored with them. “If I’m prepared to sell it, I’m prepared to buy it,” says Machlup, who says the prices of impressionable watches begin at around R18 000 to R20 000 for brands like Rolex, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Breitling and IWC. So how do you pick a watch? Read watch blogs and magazines and browse. Watch-critic Ariel Adams suggests finding one you love and then looking at others for a few weeks. “Just before you’re ready to buy, come back to the first watch,” he says. “If you still feel the same way about it, it’s a keeper.”

Luxury car: your ticket to ride

Are you sitting in a luxury car? Congratulations, you’ve officially become handsome, according to science. When women in a British study were shown a photo of a man in a luxury car and then another shot of the same guy in an econobox, they thought he looked better in the luxury car. The real benefit, however, may lie in your own perceptions once you climb behind the wheel. Makers of premium cars fold in design and technology features – sound dampening, smooth acceleration – that conspire to influence how you see yourself, says Dr Sven Beiker, executive director of the center for automotive research at Stanford University. “It makes you want to fulfill the image,” he says. “You may actually feel pressure to live up to the status of your car.”

Upgrade tactic

Get out there and gawp at your dream car at the showroom. “When you’re on the net and you search for a Ferrari, that’s all you’re going to find,” says Mike Bruce, dealer principal of Investment Cars Bryanston. Do your background research, he advises – he recommends using AutoTrader and – but make an effort to peruse showrooms in person. If you want an investment car, go for older classics where there’s a limited production, says Bruce. “In top-end motoring, the first ownership depreciation is phenomenal.” Avoid new offerings from Ferrari, Lamborghini and Aston Martin. Bruce says cars that will net you style points begin at around R250 000 – for which you can get yourself a late-Nineties model Porsche.

Epic vacation: a refresher course

Think those fantasy getaways should stay in your dreams? We say pack your bags – a trip abroad can be one of the most effective ways to broaden your perspectives, American scientists say. Exploring an unfamiliar culture – and no, we don’t mean the nightlife in Bangkok – improves your professional creativity and “self-clarity,” says study co-author Dr Adam Galinsky, “The key is understanding and adapting to a local culture,” he notes. “That process leads to increased creativity.” Furthermore, bumping up your services and accommodations to a more luxurious level creates an experience that allows you to move completely outside your normal life. “You achieve a psychological distance that lets you see your life in a new light,” Galinsky says.

Upgrade tactic

Travel in the off-season – and without the kids. You’ll be able to upgrade (first-class seats, swankier digs, cooler activities), Galinsky says, and leave behind the routine stresses and activities that seem to follow your children wherever they go. And by going in the off-season, you’ll fully experience the local community. People are more eager to engage when the tourist hordes are gone, leading to deeper cross-cultural interactions.

Custom suit: a maker of men

Jaco Visser isn’t the only man who thinks his wardrobe enhancement enhanced his bottom line. A study in Human Resource Development Quarterly found that workers who were dressed to kill felt more authoritative and more competent than those in less formidable attire. With custom tailoring, you not only end up with a suit that fits perfectly, but you can specify details and stylistic elements, like a cellphone pocket or a unique collar design. Surprisingly, bespoke clothing isn’t all that much more expensive than off-the-rack designer duds: entry-level custom shirts by Frank Bespoke start around R800 and suits at R4 000.

Upgrade tactic

Do some homework. It’s unlikely that off-the-rack suits will fit you perfectly. Grant van den Berg of Frank Bespoke says that purchasing a bespoke suit lets you choose the exact cloth you want, as well as tweaking the finer details like buttons, lapels, pockets and waistbands. If you’re a standard size, you could get away with a tailored off-the-rack suit, but if your tailor needs to shorten your suit by more than 10cm it’s not worth the effort, says Van den Burg. “You’ll never get the desired fit unless you take the garment apart, re-cut it and sew it back together – you might as well go bespoke from the start.” Once you go bespoke, there’s no turning back, he adds.

Season tickets: best seats in the house

If your confidence on the job is slipping, perhaps you should finally unleash the superfan lurking in your subconscious. Sports enthusiasts who own season tickets or who are otherwise “highly identified local fans” feel greater self-esteem and wellbeing than less committed fans, says Dr Daniel Wann, a psychologist at Murray State University who studies fan behaviour. He notes that season ticket holders bounce back from defeat faster than fair-weather fans. That’s because the more intense their fandom is, says Wann, the more likely they are to have developed heightened coping skills for dealing with defeat. “A fan like this blames referees, remembers a past that’s more glorious than it was and overlooks bad performances,” Wann says. “These techniques, perhaps surprisingly, have positive applications far beyond the playing field and may account for some of the success sports enthusiasts have in their careers.”

Upgrade tactic

Season tickets can be hard to come by. But add your name to the waiting list anyway: most teams grant people on the list special access to purchase face-value tickets and offer other perks, such as access to practices. They may also sell special multigame packages. Failing all that, start watching the games in sports bars or clubs where you can gab with equally rabid aficionados, Wann says – or hey, host parties yourself and share the joy!