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.