Hobbies: When collection becomes compulsion, think 'sell'

Old vintage mustard tins on display that the Mustard Museum.
Source: Zac Bissonnette
Old vintage mustard tins on display that the Mustard Museum.

Barry Levenson wandered into a grocery store at 2:30 a.m. on Oct. 28, 1986, despondent over the Boston Red Sox's Game 7 World Series loss to the New York Mets.

"I was so depressed. I couldn't sleep, and I went in and walked up and down the aisles," recalls Levenson, who was then the head of the criminal appeals division for the Wisconsin Justice Department. He wandered through the condiments section. Then he had some sort of vision.

"Start collecting mustard," it told him.

It began as a small hobby to distract from the sting of defeat—but it didn't stay that way. "It had a life of its own," he says. "And I think once I got going with it, I couldn't control it."

His collection eventually grew to include 5,500 mustards from all 50 states and more than 70 countries, along with endless quantities of mustard-related memorabilia, accumulated with an investment that ran well into the six-figures.

Five years after the Mets' dramatic come-from-behind win, the lawyer who'd argued before the U.S. Supreme Court—and had done graduate work in economics at the University of Wisconsin—left his legal career to devote his life to mustard. He was 43, and everyone he knew told him not to do it; his parents, risk-averse products of the Depression, still don't understand it.

Now 64, Levenson can sum up in one word the impact his foray into mustard collecting has had on his financial life.

"Devastating," he says.

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The National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wis., attracts 30,000 visitors per year, Levenson says, but with no admission fee, it's never developed into much of a business and he's moving it to a smaller location. He recently converted it into a nonprofit and now mired in debt, Levenson is struggling to keep his vision alive.

"My wife has kind of made me promise to cut back on the buying of stuff," he says. "There's so much we can't afford it. I've gotta be financially responsible, which I'm not real good at."

Hobbies in general and collecting in particular can consume their participants' lives. Usually it's a happy diversion that gives collectors a sense of purpose or enjoyment, and opportunities for social connection that some introverted collectors would otherwise miss. But even when intensely assembled collections don't lead to devastating financial consequences, they present unique challenges for financial planning.

Jeff Lebo, a landscape design and construction contractor, built a home in York Haven, Pa., to house his collection of 83,000 vintage beer cans, which were recently appraised at $1.5 million. That price is for the cans alone. He's currently operating the home as The Brewhouse Mountain Eco-Inn, and demand has been strong.

Lebo has paid up to $2,000 for one can and as much as $30,000 for a whole collection. Prices can go much higher, he said, citing a Gibbons Bock beer can from the Adolph Greinke collection that sold for $36,000 at auction in October.

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Lebo says his own can collection has outpaced the performance of the stock market but his asset allocation would leave most people shivering. He's 51 years old and more than half of his family's net worth is tied up in beer cans. That's an asset that produces little cash flow, requires significant storage costs, and suffers from a lack of liquidity. In the event that Lebo's collection outlives him, his heirs will require specialized knowledge to realize its full value. He's comfortable with that.

"I prefer to put more money in this hobby," says Lebo, who has invested about $500,000 in the collection. "I have the knowledge of it, I can control what I'm buying and I know it like the back of my hand. Honestly, I'd rather do that than put it in any kind of stock because I just don't have a lot of faith in that system." Stock market volatility has a lot of investors considering the allure of strange alternative asset classes, but few professionals are impressed with such extreme approaches.

"Crazy," Carl Richards, a certified financial planner and the author of "The Behavior Gap," says in response to my email about the beer can collector. "Sell them. As fast as you can without flooding the entire vintage beer can market!"

As unconventional as his portfolio is, Lebo's finances haven't suffered as a result of his collection; but the mustard collector's have. Is there hope for him?

Rick Kahler, a South Dakota financial adviser and the president-elect of the Financial Therapy Association, says self-destructive financial behavior is often rooted in issues that can only be resolved with both a psychotherapist and a financial adviser. For a hardcore mustard collector who freely admits that he hasn't been able to stop buying, Kahler says, Power point presentations about compound interest will have little impact. One client Kahler worked with was unable to save for retirement and was spending more each month than she took in. The culprit? She was donating $2,500 per month to animal shelters.

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"As we dug into the money history, what we found was that as a child, the only living things that she related to were her dog and her cat," says Kahler. "This was payback for that time, and she felt she had to save every dog and every cat." By confronting that issue, Kahler's client was able to moderate her philanthropy and get the rest of her financial life on track.

For compulsive shoppers and collectors whose acquisitions have gone too far, the culprit is often an inability to see purchases in the broader context of a financial life, says Smith College psychology professor Randy Frost, co-author of "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things."

"When [compulsive shoppers] are in a context where they acquire, what happens is their attention gets so narrowly focused that they don't think about all those things that would keep them from buying," he says. "If he sees a mustard specimen that he doesn't have, he gets tunnel vision." Only later does regret set in; to overcome that, Frost suggests writing down a list of all the reasons he needs to buy less stuff and making sure he has that list physically accessible when he's in places he might be tempted to buy mustard.

For now though, the man who once paid $10,000 for a collection of mustard pots continues to buy mustard memorabilia online weekly. When we spoke, he was excited to report that he had recently acquired, for $42.32, a vintage Teen Queen Pure Ground Mustard spice tin.

—By CNBC contributor Zac Bissonnette, who has a fairly obsessive but under-control Perry Como memorabilia collection.