I received a very heartfelt email from a reader that I’m going to reprint below (with some grammatical fixes). It was written to me in response to my earlier post concerning when frugality finally pays off.
I’ve been debt free for five years, I own my own home, and I have almost 200K in investments that I’ve built up myself, but I still feel really inadequate when I go to work. I see others buying expensive cars, dressing in very expensive clothes, using gadgets of all kinds, and talking about trips. They all own very expensive, gorgeous homes, while mine is small and not so nice.
I feel guilty every day at work, as though I am poor and they are rich. I know that some of them are in deep debt situations behind the scenes, but that’s not what people see, and they put forth an air of success, and I don’t feel like I appear successful at all.
This is a problem that I face in my life as well, and it’s a tricky one to overcome. For many of us, appearing successful is a part of our employment, at least if we want to be able to be promoted or to fit in with our working peers.
Over time, I’ve come up with a toolbox of techniques that I use to manage expectations at work with my own frugal values at home. Hopefully, some of these techniques will make your work and home life feel more in balance.
Buy nice clothes that mix and match well. Once you have a foundation of quality clothing that mixes together quite well (for me, ties, dress shirts, khakis, and a small selection of jackets), every addition you make to this wardrobe makes it feel as though your clothing options have multiplied. Thus, you actually don’t have to spend very much on clothes to look sharp – just occasionally add new individual items to the wardrobe and rotate out items that are starting to get old. The key is not to buy complete outfits that are incompatible with the majority of your other clothes. If you do this, you can appear as though you have an enormous wardrobe of nice clothes without having many at all.
Practice effective personal hygiene. Keep yourself as clean as possible. Wash your hands several times a day. Brush your teeth and use breath fresheners all the time. This may seem vain, but the real reason for it is so that you can put forth a positive impression of yourself on others.
Keep your car clean. Wash it regularly and keep it as shiny as you can. Try to minimize the junk inside (though with toddlers, this is sometimes difficult – my son likes to hide books in my truck and such). A clean car, even an older one, exhibits a lot more pride and value than a dirty one, and all it takes is a bit of water and soap.
Talk up your investments. When people are talking about their gadgets, compliment the gadgets. If they ask you what you’re up to, talk about your investments. They’re your “gadgets,” after all. This quickly cultivates an air of success around you in a different fashion – just be aware that some people will completely lie about their investments in the workplace.
Know that you’re doing the right thing. If you do these other things, you can feel as though your external appearances are up to the task. But what about internally? Work on drawing confidence from the fact that you’re doing the right thing by saving your money and investing it. When the others sit there and talk about throwing money away on vacations and an above-ground pool, know quietly that you will have these things eventually if you want them and that you won’t be sacrificing your future to have them.