16 Expensive ’90s Fads That Didn't Stand the Test of Time

These must-haves in the 1990s turned out to be money down the drain in the long run.
Last updated Aug. 12, 2022 | By Elizabeth Rollins | Edited By Ellen Cannon
 man in a retro jacket and a girl in red and with a vintage cassette player

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Every decade has trends that blow up and then die away, but only some of those trends are a clear waste of money. The 1990s were a relatively minimalist decade, but some of the biggest trends of the era were also colossal wastes.

Check out our list of the most wasteful trends and see if you lost money on any of these.

CDs

grahammoore999/Adobe Blond teenage girl in black tattoo choker

Cassette tapes had replaced vinyl with the mistaken idea that sound quality was better. When compact discs came into existence and had radically better sound quality than cassette tapes. Of course, they took over.

We invested $12 to $15 in every album by every artist we loved, convinced that CDs would be the mode of music delivery forever. But as soon as it became obvious that you could rip an MP3 file to a computer, the CD was essentially dead. 

And we were all left with asymmetrical metal towers full of worthless discs. Meanwhile, people are still collecting vinyl records.

Beanie Babies

smakhalov/Adobe Cuddly soft toys of husky dogs from the kids shop for sale in a gift shop

No list of wasted money would be complete without Beanie Babies, the small animal-shaped Stuffies with bean-bag filling. The trend started calmly enough but soon escalated into fights to purchase specific models, speculation, and arbitrage. It got so crazy that people were paying thousands of dollars for one stuffed animal.

Speculators looking to find ways to make extra money thought Beanie Babies were a great business until they stopped being manufactured in 1999. They’re worth almost nothing now.

Chokers

evannovostro/Adobe Blond teenage girl in black tattoo choker

We wore choker necklaces with babydoll dresses and thought we looked sophisticated and a little goth, but we really looked like creepy Victorian dolls. And enhancing that one thin strip of the neck wasn’t particularly flattering for anyone. The fad made no sense, nor did all the money we spent on strips of velvet ribbon with snaps on the back.

Midriff tops

Wayhome Studio/Adobe confused beautiful woman with dark skin

Yes, they’re back, and they’re just as silly this time as they were when we were wearing baggy jeans low on our hips and midriff tops to show off our navels.

It’s not the worst fashion, but when the cornerstone of your wardrobe is something that has to be covered up so you can stay warm, it verges on comical.

Wall-to-wall carpet

Luisa Leal/Adobe Carpet

The ’90s were the decade in which homeowners covered hardwood floors with beige or white wall-to-wall carpet because they thought vacuuming carpet was easier than maintaining wooden floors. Home decorators wanted light, clean-looking floors to put their light, clean-looking furniture in. 

Carpet is easier to rip up than other floor treatments are to undo, so this isn’t the most wasteful fad.

Enormous cell phones

thawornnurak/Adobe old mobile phone isolated on white

First-generation cell phones were expensive, huge, and unwieldy. And since only a few people had cell phones, no one really knew what to do with them. People would turn them off until they needed to make a call, turn them on to make the call, and then turn them off again, defeating the entire point of having a phone with you at all times.

Beepers served the same function of being able to send short messages, at a fraction of the price.

Floral wallpaper

vipman4/Adobe hang wallpaper

Homeowners renovated their houses into “country” showplaces, and part of that was putting floral wallpaper everywhere. It’s hard to believe now, after two decades of minimalism and functionality, but frilly florals and pattern layering were very popular in the 1990s. 

The excess signaled wealth, and the florals looked old-fashioned and people thought they were traditional.

Dial-up internet

hfng/Adobe internet url address

It could be argued that the cost of dial-up internet access wasn’t a waste of money because it was the only way for home users to access the World Wide Web. Websites we could access wasted money and time because it took a while to connect and wait for pages to load.

Basic service cost $10 for a few hours per month of access, and we were billed by the hour after that base cost. We could have gone to the library or school and accessed LiveJournal and the TV fan pages we wanted to see in a tenth of the time and at no cost on the school’s institutional broadband.

Potpourri

mayura_ben/Adobe a potpourri sachet

Moms everywhere thought every room of the house needed to smell like dried rose petals and cinnamon sticks. They put decorative bowls of potpourri on coffee tables and counters and on the back of the toilet. 

While potpourri was torture for people with allergies, it was merely annoying and a waste of money for the rest of us, who didn’t need everything to be scented.

Expensive boots

Haley/Adobe woman's fuzzy boots

The hottest footwear, no matter what your style, was expensive boots. Whether you wore Uggs, Timberlands, or Doc Martens, your feet were hot and sweaty and your bank account was a lot lighter. Depending on the model and style, these boots cost between $100 and $200 a pair on our part-time job wages.

And while we could — and did — wear them with everything from jeans and flannel shirts to bike shorts to flowered dresses with tights, there were more reasonably priced footwear options that may have made us just as happy.

George Foreman grill

Brenda Blossom/Adobe  George Foreman Grill on wooden background

The George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine was basically the Instant Pot of the ’90s. Or the air fryer of the ’90s. Everyone had one, and everyone thought they were cooking food healthier and faster with the George Foreman grill — and the grill only cost 20 bucks.

But tabletop electric grills had been around forever, and other models had bigger surface areas and better grease-catching methods than the GeoFo.

Light oak cabinets

Kristina Blokhin/Adobe Retro vintage wooden brown kitchen

Natural wood was everywhere in the ’90s, and everyone renovated perfectly good minimalist cabinets from earlier eras and put in light oak finish cabinets.

They look incredibly dated now, and the trend for the last 20 years has been to paint them for a cleaner look. But in the 1990s they were thought to make kitchens look warm and inviting. And they went with the floral wallpaper that was on the walls.

Floral empire-waist dresses

deagreez/Adobe lady holding flowers

We all thought we looked like Natalie Merchant in these dresses, but really we looked like we were running all over in nightgowns we stole from our grandmothers.

The floral fad was one thing, and the droopy empire-waist dresses were another, but putting them together did nothing to flatter anyone. They were the extreme opposite of the sharp shoulder pads of the 1980s, and we’d have been better off with a classic, chic A-line dress.

Chunky highlights

hetmanstock2/Adobe woman in a hair salon

More stripes than highlights, these bleached-out sections of hair cost a lot of money, and required a lot of upkeep, in the 1990s.

And they made no sense, either. While regular highlights make you look like you’ve been out in the sun, these chunky streaks made you look like you got too close to a can of white paint. Definitely a waste of money, and your hairstylist’s time.

Thin eyebrows

fotosmile777/Adobe pretty girl

While these were free at the time for anyone with a steady hand with tweezers, they’re costing a lot of money now in 2022 to have filled in. Many of us tweezed or waxed our eyebrows into thin arches in the ’90s, and our eyebrows didn’t grow back after all that tweezing.

Now that the eyebrow style preference is to look more natural, we’re spending time penciling them in every morning, or giving up and paying $400 to $600 for microblading to fill them in permanently.

Troll dolls

Ju_see/Adobe troll toy with ruffled violet hair in mystery forest

Troll dolls were originally a fad in the 1960s, and then came back around again in the 1990s. They’re a good example of a fad that looked like a colossal waste of money for the original buyers but has turned out to have increased in value.

However, only the original troll dolls from the 1960s by original maker Dam are worth much money now, some as much as $700. The newer troll dolls from the 1990s are worth far less.

Bottom line

alphaspirit/Adobe man buried by a stack of cardboard boxes

It’s hard to be too mad about some of these wasteful trends that were actually fun. Yet things we took too seriously that turned out to be a waste of money can inspire a lot of regret. Hopefully, some of us have learned to stop throwing away money since those days.

Reflecting on the decisions we made to be on trend may give us a better sense of the trends we can follow now without big financial penalties. And perhaps there are fads today that we should sit out until fashions swing back around again. 

Looking at past trends can also help us find the best side hustle now to help us add to our retirement funds.

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Author Details

Elizabeth Rollins Elizabeth Rollins has degrees in literature and business, and she's combined these loves into a career in writing about personal finance. Her special areas of interest are debt, value, budgeting, education, and retirement.