Confession: I'm A Grown Man Who Has Spent Over $45,000 On Legos

Confession: I'm A Grown Man Who Has Spent Over $45,000 On Legos
Daryl Austin in front of Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Last year, I was a contestant on ABC’s “Match Game.” I knew millions of people would be watching me, and I chose that moment to confess to the world that I love to collect Lego sets. The audience sniggered, and the six celebrity panelists exchanged quizzical looks. Host Alec Baldwin quipped, “Daryl, friend to friend, it may be time to Le-go of your childhood.”

I get it. It’s a response I’ve grown accustomed to. A grown man that collects a child’s toy is weird to some and just plain creepy to others. I’ve been so embarrassed by this hobby that one time I even lied to a Lego store employee and told him that I was looking for their newest Marvel set “because my son can’t get enough of Iron Man.” Except I have no son. I’m a father of three daughters ― and I’m pretty sure they have no idea who Iron Man is. 

But that lie was before my game show appearance. Now, I own this part of who I am and I take comfort in knowing that I’m not alone in finding joy in such an unusual hobby. In 2014, USA Today reported on the impact adult Lego fans have had on the plastic brick company. We’re known in the Lego community as Adult Fans of Lego, or AFOLs for short. There are so many of us that even celebrity AFOLs have publicly confessed their love of the toy.

The author's middle daughter, 4 at the time the photo was taken, playing with a new Disneyland Lego castle in a custom Disneyland scene.

David Beckham, for example, shared a photo of himself on Instagram last year where he was surrounded by a massive Disneyland Lego set with the caption, “Page 1 of the Disney castle. 4000 pieces. 490 pages of instructions. I look confused but I’m so excited.”

Grammy winner Ed Sheeran revealed in the documentary “A Lego Brickumentary” that as soon as he came into money, he wasn’t interested in buying a new house or a car. He just wanted to buy Lego sets. Sheeran even confessed on “The Graham Norton Show” that he once brought a “Pirates of the Caribbean” Lego set on a date and ended up neglecting the woman he was with to attend to his blocks. 

Charlotte Hornets Center Dwight Howard loves Lego so much that when he made an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in 2012she brought out a life-size bust of Howard made out of the bricks.

But I didn’t know about any of these guys when I first opened this door back to my childhood. It all started about seven years ago, when my wife and I were walking past the toy aisle of our local Target store.

A “Harry Potter” Lego set caught her eye. We both stopped to look at it, and I marveled how different it was from the Lego sets of my youth, which were pretty much just police cars, fire stations and pirate ships. The “Harry Potter” set was on clearance and, seeing how I was responding to it, my wife encouraged me to buy it. We had only been married for a year and we were still on a tight budget, so I hesitated.

We didn’t have any children yet but we were expecting our first. I fantasized that someday I’d want to build the set with my daughter when we read the “Harry Potter” books together for the first time. So I purchased the set. “Someday” came a lot sooner than my wife’s due date. Within hours of getting home from the store, the box was opened, transparent baggies full of plastic bricks were scattered all over the counter, and I was busy building a miniature version of Diagon Alley.

What started as nostalgic wonder grew into a very expensive and time-consuming hobby for me. Soon after we got married, my wife and I started a freelance marketing and design company. At first it started slow, but every time we saw an unexpected increase in sales, I rewarded myself with a new Lego set or two. Soon, we owned all of the licensed sets that Lego had to offer and I started to branch off into some of the lesser-known collectable sets and all of the Lego Minifigure Series.

At first I tried to kid myself about the amount I was spending, but one day I started adding up all of our Lego receipts and my mouth just dropped. I’d spent over $45,000 on Lego bricks! As crazy as it sounds, I had justified a lot of it along the way because I knew how collectable Lego sets are and saw them as part of our investment portfolio (more on that in a minute). But coming to grips with that number is part of what helped me start thinking about the many reasons why I love the wonderful world of Lego so much. Now, I’m finally at the point where I no longer feel any shame about this – and I’ve permanently come out of the toy closet, so to speak.

I love the father-daughter bonding time each set offers me and my children. I may not have built Diagon Alley with my oldest, who’s 7, but we’ve built scores of other sets together, including all of the Lego sets from “The Little Mermaid,” every Angry Birds set, and her favorite, Sleeping Beauty’s castle. And my other two daughters, ages 5 and 3, share the same interest — albeit in Lego Duplo form for my youngest. I love watching all three of them turn away from the TV or their video game systems to create and enter whole worlds made out of plastic bricks.

As “South Park” co-creator Trey Parker says in “A Lego Brickumentary,” the act of building something with the toy can offer an “insanely therapeutic” benefit to users. Lego toys allow me to turn off the noise and distractions in my head. When I’m building a scene made out of Lego bricks, my mind calms down from the stress of running my own business and all of the responsibilities resting on my shoulders.

In his memoir Eleven Rings, legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson describes a process that I think I experience every time I build a Lego set. He writes, “Focusing on something other than the business at hand can be the most effective way to solve complex problems. When the mind is allowed to relax, inspiration often follows.”

Concentrating on something as simple and mundane as putting plastic bricks together relaxes my brain unlike anything else. As a result, I’ve gotten some of my best ideas, come up with some of my best words for writing projects and done some of my best soul-searching while my mind is preoccupied and focused elsewhere. 

Daryl Austin and family on July 4, 2017.

I’m a collector of many things, but nothing is more fun to collect than Lego sets. There are sets from dozens of nostalgic movies ranging from “Indiana Jones” to “Back to the Future” available. You can even find Lego versions of shows and cultural experiences as specific as “The Big Bang Theory” and The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.” To add to the collectability, the Lego company produces each set for only a limited time, and they never reproduce the same set number twice. As a result, they’re highly valuable to collectors both monetarily and also in terms of the thrill we get in trying to hunt down the rarest limited edition sets.

Remember that Diagon Alley set I purchased? It originally cost me $98, and today it’s selling on eBay for more than $300. And that’s nothing compared to some other sets. In 2000, a Statue of Liberty Lego set went for $199. Sixteen years later, its value had skyrocketed to $1,998.87. In 2007, you could have purchased the Lego first collector’s edition of the “Star Wars” Millennium Falcon for $499.99. That may seem like a steep price for a toy until learning that, as of 2016, it was worth a whopping $3,987.40.

The list goes on and on. In fact, in 2015, Time Magazine reported that in the past 15 years, the average value of Lego sets have appreciated by 12 percent annually. They also noted that, by comparison, the S&P 500 has returned about 4.2 percent annually, while gold has returned 9.6 percent annually. Based on this, Lego sets have been a better investment than gold since the turn of the century!

Even in used condition, complete Lego sets appreciate handsomely. My family has put together many of the sets we’ve purchased, but not all. Many remain unopened and secure in a storage unit, with each set appreciating more and more every day.

But, in the end, the monetary benefits mean less to me than the appreciation this hobby has given me for the kind of marriage I’m in. Of all the many hobbies and collections that I pursue, this is the only one that makes others raise an eyebrow ― but not my wife. She loves that this is a hobby I can do from home. She loves that it helps me connect with our kids. She loves that it provides a kind of therapy for my overactive mind. And she loves that it satisfies my obsession with collecting in a way that can actually be profitable, instead of just being costly. More than anything, she loves that I love it. Which makes me love her even more for supporting me.

My wife is a knockout, a super cool, 10 out of 10 former cheerleader who married a guy far beneath her social station in life. If ever there was a woman that earned the right to ask her husband to rein in his inner dork, it’s her. Instead, she does the opposite and encourages me to fly my freak flag proudly. Something rare and beautiful happens when you realize you are married to someone that accepts you exactly as you are. As ridiculous as it may sound, if it weren’t for Lego, I may never have discovered just how deep her acceptance and understanding of me — of all of me — truly goes. It’s enough to make me tell Alec Baldwin that I’m not ready to Le-go of anything.

Daryl Austin's oldest child, age 7, playing with her Disney Princess and Lego Batman Movie sets. 

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