How To Get Past The “Keeping Up With The Joneses” Mentality

This weekend, we’re staying at an exquisite estate owned by relatives of my wife. It’s a gorgeous house, gorgeous land, and well-kept, too. In other words, it’s enough to bring out those little bits of jealousy within me – it would be truly amazing to live here.

Not too long ago, I would have consoled myself by buying something fabulously expensive and showing it off to others, like a neat gadget or something, and it was that mentality that helped lead me down a path of financial collapse. Now I realize that having such things isn’t something that should drive me crazy with jealously and cause me to spend foolishly, but I can use it as motivation for the right kind of financial planning.

Here are some ways to get past the desire to keep up with the Joneses, or at the very least cause it to fuel sound financial planning.

Be honest about the socioeconomic differences between yourself and the person you’re looking at. In many cases, they’ve simply made much more money in their lives than you have, and thus you have some work to put in before you can get those trappings that you desire. Is it reasonable to think that you should have the same home as Bill Gates? No, it’s not. How about Warren Buffett? Keep following that same thought line and soon it will become clear why some people can afford nicer homes and items than others. Instead of wanting what they have now, look at the aspects of your own life that you can improve: education, personal development, and so on.

Don’t compare yourself with people much older than you. I have a great aunt that lives in a fabulous house that’s gorgeously decorated, but she’s twice as old as I am and has been in the work force for much longer. I’m currently doing as well as she is right now and thus over my life I should be able to catch up and surpass her. Instead of wanting what someone else has now, set a goal to have what that person has at that stage in your life.

Know what’s really important to you and don’t worry about the rest. The central focus of my life is my family, so I’m willing to forego some of the trappings that I could afford right now in order to give them a nice life. Instead of filling yourself with desire for the things someone else has, ask yourself what is really central to your own life and follow that instead.

Estimate how much debt the Joneses have. This is perhaps the most powerful exercise for me. Whenever I see someone with elegant trappings, I ask myself how much debt they likely have, and when I start running some numbers, I usually get very squeamish. Living this life, I realize, would leave me without much freedom at all: I would just keep walking forward, day after day, like a soldier going to war. My life right now affords me some freedom; if I decided I wanted to change careers, I could, or if something happened, everything would not fall apart. Instead of lusting after all the material goods, do a thumbnail sketch of their debt and imagine your life with that sort of debt load.

Good luck with not keeping up with the Joneses.

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  1. Paul D says:

    Along the lines of figuring out what you REALLY want and pursuing that — you also need to remind yourself 15 years from now that, say, the reason you don’t have a palatial estate is that you and your wife made a conscious decision to have her stay home with the kids because you didn’t want your kids raised by strangers. It’s really easy down the road to have an unrealistic “how come we don’t have what they have” attitude when you forget the benefits you accrued in lieu of amassing a greater estate. A tradeoff is just that: you don’t get both!

  2. Josh says:

    Thanks for the post. I went through a similar thing this weekend and got a little sour because of it. This post makes me feel better. :-)

  3. Oleg says:

    “Know what’s really important to you and don’t worry about the rest.”

    I think this one’s especially noteworthy. Whenever pangs of jealousy and desire arise, it’s usually enough to go back to the basics to get back into the right frame of mind. Yet another reason it’s so crucial to have a strong grasp of goals and priorities.

    Thanks for the good post Trent.

  4. Jim Lippard says:

    Actually, Warren Buffett is an interesting comparison to make because, although he’s one of the richest men in the world, he lives in a relatively modest house (worth about $500,000) in Omaha, Nebraska.

  5. James says:

    My Joneses aren’t usually people who are decades older than me or clearly several rungs above me on the socioeconomic ladder. They are my peers of similar occupation, similar age, similar income, and similar interests. While I manage to stay disciplined most of the time, it’s frustrating to watch my friends spend so extravagantly. Furthermore, it’s not as though they are floating themselves on credit; they simply save very little.
    Truthfully, they are probably saving just enough. By the time we are all DINKs and beyond, our financial security will be practically sealed (for the very long term, anyway). Given that, I find myself wondering why I wouldn’t live a little larger. Why not keep up with Joneses once in a while? Darn those Joneses!

  6. Johan Idstam says:

    Another thing to think about is that we usually want a little of a lot of people. We want the Jonses car, Smiths house and Johnsons cool multimedia center. If we find out our own goals and try to fulfill them life gets a little easier than if we try to fulfill the goals of everyone around us.

    /johan/

  7. Cindy says:

    I think the best way not to worry about the Jones is to get over your desire for “stuff”. Be happy with what you have!

  8. Tim says:

    the important thing is knowing what makes you happy, fulfilled, and what you want in your life. keeping up with the joneses just means you want to live someone else’s life, not your own.

  9. j= says:

    > “Is it reasonable to think that you should have the same home as Bill Gates? No, it’s not. How about Warren Buffett”

    Warren Buffet’s primary residence is house purchased under $31K. He has other property but, the point is he could afford much better but, it doesn’t bother him to do with less.

    Kinda the whole point of what you’re trying to get across.

  10. Lisa says:

    I think kids help teach us that there are things so valuable that money can’t buy them. In addition to the obvious hugs and cuddles, there is the look of delight they get from simple discoveries.

    Before that, my motivation to get out of debt was a spreadsheet I kept that showed me how much I was paying in interest each month. I would look at the value and tell myself I could have had a plane ticket to London, a new stereo, or a nice leather jacket each month, etc.

  11. Debbie says:

    I find that being an ignorant geek helps quite a bit–then I don’t even notice.

    Also I happen to know that virtually all my friends have twice the income I have; most have at least three times my income. So of course they look richer!

    If anything, I tend to err in the other direction. I have to get advice from those who are less ignorant on what is appropriate to wear to work if I want to look semi-professional. I tend not to notice which things are clearly straight out of the 1980s, for example.

  12. Eric says:

    If “the Jonses” are anything like the couple in the easy credit story, I don’t want to be anywhere near that.

    For me it was never “keeping up with the jonses” but my own spend-happy habits that kept me from saving. Bookstores, coffee houses, malls, or anyplace we could spend money was where we hung out. Comfort spending was a big problem for me; I needed to find new ways to pass the time that did not include spending money.

    I since met a very lovely and fugal woman who became my wife and has guided me into a very comfortable single income lifestyle where we have more than we could ever need.

    As she is going back to work soon, we are making a wish list of long overdue items around the house that we will pick up as our cash reserves pick up. We will not drastically change our behavior and plan on banking more that 50% of her take home pay.

    I call this our “single income” discipline. It’s also great because on top of everything we could ever need it provides us with unprecedented flexibility in jobs and a notable lack of stress about bill paying.

  13. akl168 says:

    “Instead of wanting what someone else has now, set a goal to have what that person has at that stage in your life.”

    Isn’t this still keeping up with the Joneses?

    Ideally, we’d be targeting non materialistic stuff like health, wisdom, serenity, a loving family, etc.

  14. Andamom says:

    It is quite frustrating at times for us…We are considerably younger than my daughter’s friends parents — and despite the fact that we are professionals with great jobs, we live in NYC with a cost of living that is significantly higher than most places nationwide.

    FWIW, I do believe in constant improvement of self — and work towards that end on a regular basis. Yet, we still find ourselves constantly striving for more on a steep incline. — And our teenage daughter makes it known that there are differences between our standard of living and that of her friends.

    For example, many of her friends parents own brownstones (check out http://www.corcoran.com for an idea of cost) — and we are still not able to buy into the market…

    So — just to stay in this area we do need to compete or at least strive to be the best we can possibly be — or we will never be able to achieve our goals let alone be as financially stable as some of the Joneses.

    (*Note: I really cannot go into the personal details here of our situation — but I did want to respond.)

  15. !wanda says:

    > Ideally, we’d be targeting non materialistic stuff
    > like health, wisdom, serenity, a loving family,
    > etc.

    There’s no point in denigrating people who want to “keep up with the Joneses.” But we’re all human here, and if the Joneses like it, there’s a good chance you might too.

    As for your list, health costs money, in many cases. It is much easier to be wise, serene, and loving when one has a sense of financial security (which, OK, is different from having money!). Money isn’t the only thing in life, but having enough of it certainly helps.

  16. pf101 says:

    Great article. The past point was very important and I see it a lot in my work. I once worked on a financial plan with a client who was 25 years old. He wanted me to help him figure out his budget because he felt like he never had any money to spend while his friends were out every night partying and he lived in a crappy basement room of a group house while his friends had beautiful one-bedrooms of their own.

    When we sat down to go over his numbers I immediately saw his “problem”. At age 25 and making around $50k/year he had $10k in a cash emergency fund, was fully maxing out his 401k and Roth and was saving for a house. THAT is why he couldn’t go party like his friends and lived in a cheap place. His only extravagance was a new car which he had at 0% interest and had put 50% down on. He had 0 debt.

    We talked a lot about spending and debt in that session and I showed him exactly why his friends could afford to live like that and did some financial projections on just how much debt they probably had to afford that lifestyle on the same income. I then projected how much he would probably have at retirement due to his good saving habits. After that he didn’t mind so much about not partying every night – and he sent some of his friends to me for help.

    It’s hard to to feel a little jealous when you see people who have something you want. That’s just human. But having the sense to look at it realistically often shows that while you may want that house, you may not want that financial lifestyle.

    Thanks again for a great post!
    pf101

  17. Sarah says:

    “And our teenage daughter makes it known that there are differences between our standard of living and that of her friends.”

    Andamom, you will be doing your daughter *no* favors if you don’t (a) teach her that complaining about what you provide for her (assuming, of course, that you are providing her the necessities of life) is something you will not listen to and (b) make it clear to her what values you have that are more important to you than the constant spending that NYC promotes. Acting like you have something to be ashamed of or excuse when you make wise financial decisions for your family will only cater to some of the worst aspects of adolescence and encourage your daughter to grow up into another empty-headed materialist.

    I live in a very high-cost-of-living area, too. I don’t think “improving yourself” and “making more money” are necessarily the same thing at all. While in some areas I have little choice but to “keep up” (i.e., rent) and there are some floors on certain categories of spending imposed by my line of work (I have to maintain a wardrobe of suits), I do not have to go on more expensive vacations, eat in (relatively) more expensive restaurants, or otherwise mimic my peers’ less-desirable spending habits in categories that don’t support my goals. It’s hard sometimes; I live in a paradise of consumerism. But I always try to keep my eye on what *I* really want, rather than waste my energy in envy or cravings cultivated by the media.

  18. abby says:

    I worked for 11 years and am now a stay at home mom because I got pregnant and decided to stay at home with my baby. I miss the money but watching my child grow up is just priceless. We now live on one income and we are doing just fine. We just had to learn how to budget and for some reason it seems like ever since I started staying home we are able to save more. Yes, I see people buying new stuff all the time but when I look into my son’s eyes I know I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I am truly enjoying the big things in life.

  19. chris says:

    pf101,

    The guy you described sounds like he was meeting with you for more of an ego stroke than anything.

    I guess I’m different than most in that I’ve never had a problem distinguishing assets from liabilities and equating the two. The Joneses may consider their big screen plasma to be an asset, while I just look at that and shrug knowing that my asset is my roth contribution and the cumulative future benefits that will result.

    Whether it’s materialism and living in the ‘now’ by taking frequent vacations or those who instead ‘spend’ money on long term investment vehicles, everybody blows their dough on something. The sad ones are those who never realize the true cost they pay.

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