Vanity number plates are now status symbols not to be sneered at | Torsten Bell

We humans care about social status. It shapes how we behave, what jobs we do and what we spend our money on. When we choose a car, it’s about the badge as much as where the wheels can get us.

But it’s hard to measure how much we value status, because it’s almost always mixed up with the value of actually using the thing – even a Ferrari can in theory get you from A to B. But a new study cunningly gets around this by examining the market for number plates in the US state of Delaware. There is no practical or aesthetic difference between plates, which are just numbers that have been increasing over time as they’re issued. They all look the same and allow a car to be legally driven.

But there are huge differences in value, with lower numbers worth more. Number 6 went for a bonkers $675,000 (£600,000) in 2008. But it’s not low numbers per se that we want – we’ll pay a fortune to be part of the club of plates with the fewest digits: a two-digit plate sells for more than $180,000, while a five-digit one is worth less than $1,000.

And don’t roll your eyes at the Yanks – we’re not immune. The DVLA has sold nearly 6m personalised number plates: 8% of us have one, with a total value of £2bn . It turns out we’ll pay through the nose for social status, whichever side of the pond we’re on.

• Torsten Bell is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation. Read more at


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