Ten Big Mistakes #5: Worrying About What Others Think

Along my financial journey in life, I made a great number of mistakes. In this ten part series which runs from July 19 to July 30, I’m going to focus on ten of my worst mistakes and the difficulties and successes I’ve had in overcoming those mistakes.

I focused entirely too much on what other people thought of me.

Throughout my teen years and adult life, I bought many, many things with an eye almost exclusively on what others thought of me. My clothes. My education and career choices. My gadgets. My housing. My automobile. My golf clubs. My meals.

I believed that somehow I could create a more positive image of me through others by buying things or doing things that they approved of. If I lived in the right home, I thought others might think of me as successful or as a family-oriented person. If I owned the right gadgets, people might see me as tech savvy and affluent. If I spend money in front of people from my home town, they might see me as some sort of great success.

All of it was a gigantic waste of money.

The only people that put any stock in such frivolous things are the people that know you only in the most tenuous of fashions because that’s all they know about you. If you’re going to build any sort of relationship with someone, it’s going to be based on who you are, not what kind of stuff you own. If there are people out there who genuinely believe things like, “I won’t be friends with someone who doesn’t have a $3,000 golf club or a $750,000 home,” then their values are so warped and misplaced that you will never be able to please them. Don’t bother.

That’s not to say it isn’t worthwhile to think about others, but most people make up their mind about you based on other things. Are you kind to others? Do you engage them politely? Do you listen to what they say? Are you clean and not offensive to others? If you want to build a strong social network, those are the things to focus on, and those things don’t require an outlay of money.

This isn’t a call to ultra-frugality, either. Spend money on what you value, not what other people value. I buy automobiles based on reliability and gas mileage and safety, not how they look in our driveway or whether the neighbor will be impressed. If I want to build an actual relationship with my neighbor, I’ll go over there and say hello, not buy a car to impress. If I don’t want to build a relationship with my neighbor, why would I possibly care at all what he or she thinks of my car? Now, if I really got a lot of very personal value out of a luxury car purchase, I might choose to purchase one, but that’s not where my values lie. Neither side of that decision has anything to do with my neighbor.

“But what about your reputation?” Most of the things that can be said about you that can really hurt you or build a positive reputation about you are based on the actions you take, not on the stuff you own. You can own all of the nice cars and homes and boats you want, but if you hit your spouse, people won’t like you. You can live in a shack, but if you spend countless hours building a great community softball league (and keep yourself clean and somewhat presentable), people will love you. You can own a BMW and wear a $3,000 suit, but if you’re rude to your neighbors, they’ll help you build a bad reputation. You can drive a used Toyota and wear $2 Goodwill pants, but if you’re willing to lend a hand to help your neighbor re-shingle their roof, they’ll speak positively about you in the community.

What can you do to avoid this trap?

To put it simply, don’t waste a single, solitary dime on a purchase meant to impress others. Such purchases don’t pay off because they don’t improve who you are. Focus instead on building you into a great, friendly, happy person – and most of the methods of doing that don’t cost a dime.

Instead, spend your energies actually building real relationships with people. Instead of spending two hours picking the “perfect” handbag to drive the other women crazy with envy or spending three hours at the golf store trying to pick out the driver that will let you dominate the boys, spend that time helping out a neighbor, connecting deeply with someone important to you, or working on some project that will make your life less stressful or improve your life quality (which will make further interactions much easier and much more positive).

Stuff doesn’t make a person.

If you enjoyed reading this, sign up for free updates!

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. Trent,
    I wholly agree with this article.
    But, I think we also must say the same for buying experiences as well as stuff.
    While I value life experiences m uch more than physical possessions, throwing a lavish dinner party or going an expensive vacation can be used to “impress” just as much as physical goods.
    - Tyler

  2. marta says:

    Did you buy your current house to impress other people? I thought it was because it was in the country, affordable (you have bragged before about how cheap it was compared to similar houses in other states) and big enough to raise the “n” kids you want to have.

    What gives?

  3. Michelle says:

    I agree, with one caveat. You should keep yourself and your belongings/home clean, neat, and presentable. I don’t care how nice you are to your neighbors, if you don’t mow your lawn, they’re going to think of you as “the guy who’s bringing the neighborhood property values down”, and they won’t want to have a relationship with you. Same goes if you go to work everyday smelly and gross, or even disheveled, it’s going to be very difficult to move up. True or not, people will think, “if he can’t take time to iron his shirt, how is he going to take time for our clients?”.

    In other words, you do need to care what other people think, just not so much that it drives you into unnecessary debt.

  4. Julie says:

    @Michelle I agree that it’s important to show self-respect in your person, and that does include how you take care of yourself and belongings. But showing respect for yourself doesn’t have to cost lots of money. It’s less purchasing a $300 skirt and more taking the time to do laundry. I think your comment is an important reminder to show respect for yourself and those around you. :-D

  5. Kathryn says:

    Trent, i agree with all that you say here. But i do think that folks have to kind of work thru that themselves.

    Like yourself, i had a childhood that wasn’t easy & i didn’t learn how to handle money. I felt inferior to all the kids at school & very poorly dressed. I think i could have navigated that much more successfully if i’d had any support from home, if i’d believed my parents loved me. When i had some money for a while in my 20s, i bought expensive clothes & a nice car (i got it for me, but it did help my self-esteem to feel that it was worth looking at & i enjoyed driving it; it also was a modest purchase, really).

    I got over that. It helped me for a while but what was better for me was to grow up & accept who i was & not to value my appearance over deeper things. It took time. Now shopping at thrift stores is no problem for me, but i had to work thru that.

    I think the best way to help kids not have to go thru this is exactly what you are doing: Raising kids so that they know that you love & care about them & spending time with them like you do helps them to know that. Helping kids to grow up & know their own value so that they don’t need to look to others as their mirror of who they are.

  6. Albie D says:

    This is a great series of posts. This one in particular really resonates with me. I’m 27, and I remember in high school being so concerned with having the popular brands of clothes, or a certain kind of hat, or cool sneakers. It’s funny how much priorities change with age. Now, I’m more embarassed if I DO wear certain brands. Now, I prefer NOT to have the popular/trendy things. Now, it feels dumb to spend money on unnecessary items and smarter to find the less expensive (but equal) option. I don’t feel the need to have “ABERCROMBIE” screaming from my tshirt for $40. I’d rather have a plain one for $10. I believe that people are much happier when they don’t try to impress anyone.

  7. I agree that buying Stuff to impress other people is stupid. You should buy Stuff that brings you happiness and fulfillment in your life (a lot can be said about why this too is a bad idea). For example, I recently got into rock climbing, “got into it” meaning I am brand new to the sport. I went with a friend who is also brand new because we wanted to try it out and we both loved it! Its pretty much all we want to do right now, so I spent a couple hundred dollars to purchase a harness, shoes and some basic equipment. To me, it was worth every penny and I look forward to each and every time we will get together to climb. I am excited to make plans to go climbing with my friends and this will also open a door to meeting a lot of new people with the same interests as me.

    Had I spent a bunch of money to impress my friend but didn’t really love the sport, well, that would have just been stupid since the gear would end up on eBay in a few months after our interest wanes and we forget about it. If you’re going to spend money, do so with purpose and buy things that bring value, not to impress others. If you are just trying to show off or keep up, nothing you buy will fulfill the void and constant feeling of need to compete. When you spend with purpose, you’ll know it because you will be full of good feelings about the items you own, and not full of regret for spending money unwisely.

  8. Sandy L says:

    #3 You are so right.

    I once took a training class about branding and the example they used was “When you get on a plane and your tray table is dirty, does that mean
    your aircraft engine is not being serviced?”

    Even though logic would say that people prioritize the most critical items first, you can’t help get the impression that if you can’t even do a good job keeping your aircraft clean (the simplest of tasks), then how can you be effective with the difficult tasks.

    People should have a personal brand. Unfortunately, your external appearance is part of that. Your clothes, your weight, you grooming.
    I think there is a minimum standard that is expected of the working class. You don’t have to buy designer clothes or a fancy car, but if you drive up in a rust bucket that’s spewing black gook or leaking oil onto the street, it doesn’t give a good impression.

  9. Adam P says:

    “To put it simply, don’t waste a single, solitary dime on a purchase meant to impress others.”

    What if you derive happiness from impressing others? If this is a source of happiness for you, is it not a good way to spend money then?

  10. Kat says:

    Adam, the problem with deriving happiness from impressing others is that it will never work by purchasing stuff. The first time you show someone a new thing, they will OOOO and AHHHH over it, so you have about a minute of happiness. Is that worth the money? Probably not, but most people just remember the ooo-ing and don’t realize that their friends formed opinions based on who you are, not what you own, and they really aren’t impressed with you, they are impressed with the THING.

    What are you emotionally lacking that impressing others brings you more happiness than anything else? As another poster mentioned, buying things to impress people usually covers up a deeper issue – feelings of unworthiness or issues from an unloved childhood.

  11. Nicole says:

    Buying things to impress people is silly.

    But caring about what the people you care about think about you can make you a better person.

    The people who really matter shouldn’t be impressed with mere purchases.

  12. AnnJo says:

    In certain professions and businesses, fostering an image of “success” does make an appreciable difference in narketng yourself to customers/clients. Ignore their foolishness at your own risk.

  13. Tally.H says:

    I like this article. But I feel that “some” impression management is not a bad idea as well.

    People are constantly making judgments about you based on not only your actions but also items associated with you. And I feel that impressions that your items create do matter to some extent because they affect their perceptions of you as well.

    So as long as you are not “obsessed” with how others think of you, spending a few dollars to look nice(whatever that means) to others is OK. what do you think?

  14. Systemizer says:

    ” Instead of spending two hours picking the ‘perfect’ handbag to drive the other women crazy with envy … ”

    At my office I often hear women complimenting each other on their clothes, shoes, hairstyles, handbags, nails, etc. It never occurred to me their pleasantries covered up such evil agendas.

  15. Systemizer says:

    @Nicole

    “Buying things to impress people is silly.”

    That may be true, but if Andy Warhol thought that way he would never have worn those amazing wigs.

    Personally, I don’t feel for bad spending a little extra for a touch of whimsy. In fact, I kinda feel bad for people who don’t.

  16. michael bash says:

    I’m 65 and retired from school administration. Trent is about the age of my eldest son and basically writes to his peers. Other than advice on cars 2 years ago, most of what he writes is stuff my generation learned from parents and schools. I’m saddened he feels the need to restate it but glad he does because it’s clear from his correspondence that what I was learning is neither being passed on or learned Yet the other day he mentioned Walt Whitman, a poet most of his generation has never heard of. I commend him for that and for learning to cook, a life’s work. I just hope he doesn’t try to write a cookbook when he’s yet to read Elizabeth David
    and Julia. Think on it.

  17. Gretchen says:

    You can drive a BMW AND help shingle a roof.

    Just like in the other post, It’s not either/or.

  18. azure says:

    To some extent this is true, but not completely. If you don’t have money, you can’t do all of what other people do–and that, in & of itself, will make other people uncomfortable and that means they won’t like you.
    Examples: inability to wear the same clothes for, say, bicycling, skiing, even just going out to dinner. Oh, you can’t afford that new loud pipe Harley, just a second hand Honda motorcycle? Oh well.

    In my experience, many people do judge and do not feel comfortable w/people who cannot do what they do without thinking–go out to lunch at a nice restaurant whenever they have time–fly somewhere for vacation, etc. They don’t want to feel bad that you can’t go too and they also usually don’t want to not go & do what they want (eat at that more expensive restaurant) because of you.

    They don’t get why you can’t afford an Iphone or droid phone (but but everyone has one)–when they do, they might not want to be around you–after all, your lack of success might be contagious.

    Do I think people generally like those who listen well & are pleasant? Yes. But I think they also want to be around people whose income level, clothes, etc., at least seem to “fit” with theirs.

  19. Nick says:

    Hi Trent,

    I just wanted to tell you that you are doing a great job with the “mistakes I’ve made” posts. Your’s is the only blog I read with any kind of regularity and it is because of your ability to relate to readers. These posts help me to feel like I’m not the only one who has made some expensive mistakes.

    Thanks again and keep up the good work,

    Nick

  20. littlepitcher says:

    Good for you, Trent. I wasted 50 years on the pursuit of acceptance, and can never get it back.
    Some of us can’t be mainstreamed. We can’t get away from the lowest oh-so-common denominator’s nastiness. If you ever rear a child in that category, let them know that limits exist, and then channel their energies and intellects entirely outside those limits, into a field where scarcity will effectively derail the corporate-culture hiring demonics.

  21. Daniel says:

    Trent-
    I agree with everything you said in this article. I, at a much younger and less self-confidence filled age, engaged in behaviors you describe here.
    Near the end of this period I started to notice that the friends I was making didn’t seem to value the same things I value. The lifestyle I was being urged to follow by these friends became increasingly distastful to me. I had a ‘come back to center’ moment and I found that the friends I have from High School, even after 20+ years, still accept me as I am.
    The dynamics of my friends’ relationship with me has changed; but, change is good as long as it is natural and isn’t done to make a person appear to be what they are not.
    I still think that the self-confidence angle is one that could warrent a little more study.
    I enjoy reading your articles. Keep it up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>