Amanda wrote in with a great question for the reader mailbag via my Facebook page and, as is sometimes the case, my answer grew to such a great length that I decided it deserved a post on its own. Here's her question:
I work at a place with a lot of affluent families. We are lower middle class and try to be generally frugal and save for retirement and whatnot. I also know that we are way better off than many people in the world. I still however struggle with jealousy of the others I see with way more. It's not the "stuff" I want. I just want to be able to afford things for my kids like excellent schooling, college, lessons and travels. I see people going on all these nice trips to see the world and we just can't do that. I worry so much about what their future will be like. I bet this sounds crazy, but I want to know your advice for dealing with these thoughts.
This is a struggle that many people deal with every day.
Most of us, myself included, regularly see and interact with people who are able to spend far more than we are. They have nicer clothes, nicer cars, nicer houses. They are able to travel extensively and afford private schooling for their children. They hire private instructors for their children (and sometimes even for themselves) for various skills.
Sometimes, those expenses cross over into areas that are personally appealing to us. I know I'm sometimes jealous of families that go on international trips each year. I would love to see the world with my children and show them that the world is far more diverse than what they might see in their own community and daily lives. That desire sometimes translates into worry about their future.
I'm also sometimes jealous of families that have larger houses. I'd love to have a room in our house with space for a large gaming table and shelves for all of my games so I could easily invite eight or ten people over for games without skipping a beat. A friend of mine has one of these, and it's really amazing.
I sometimes have fleeting jealousies, too. One old friend of mine owns a Tesla S-Series and posts pictures of it regularly on social media. I'd love to have that kind of car to drive around every once in a while. Another old friend of mine has a den in his home that's decorated with beautiful vintage baseball memorabilia. Yet another friend lives close enough to Wrigley Field that he buys a season ticket to Cubs games and attends a lot of them.
Overcoming that sense of jealousy and desire can be really tough at times. I use a number of strategies to ensure that the temptation doesn't result in financial mistakes. I've grouped these strategies into two sets - one group addresses the temptation directly, and the other group identifies other life changes you can make to minimize your jealousy.
Let's dig in.
Addressing the Temptation and Jealousy Directly
When you see someone doing something amazing that's just outside of your current financial state, it can become very tempting. It will burrow into your mind, resting there and building up a desire to spend money that you just can't afford. You feel jealous. You want what they have. Your rational mind knows it's silly, but that doesn't help.
What can you do? Here are four ways I tackle that very problem.
Ask Yourself Why You Want What They Have
The whole issue of jealousy comes down to desire. For some reason, whether you consciously recognize it or not, you desire something that the other person has. You want it in your life.
The question is, why do you want it in your life?
I like to use the "five whys" when handling a question like this. Whenever I'm trying to answer a "why" question, I repeat it five times, asking it of the answer I come up with for each question. So, as an example, I'm going to work through that very exercise here.
I wish that I could take my children on an international trip each year.
I would like them to be able to see the world and observe that people live diverse lives much different than their own - and also very similar to their own.
I want them to understand in a deep way that the world is made up of people that really aren't much different than they are.
Others might have different customs or beliefs, but they're still people who love their family, feel hunger and thirst in their bellies, and have big dreams, and I want my children to see that clearly.
I want them to be well-rounded adults when they grow older so that they are better citizens of the country and world that they are about to inherit.
That's my job as a parent.
After taking those questions into consideration, I realize that my desire to travel internationally with my family really boils down to my desire to be a great parent to my children. I want them to be well-rounded people who understand the world is filled with people that aren't really very different than them.
Once I realized that, I began to see that there were other ways to achieve that same thing, and it made the desire for international travel - and the requisite expenses - much smaller.
Break It Into Pieces
When you identify a particular strong desire that you have, step back for a moment and break it down into small pieces. Then, see if there isn't a way for you to address those smaller pieces in your own life.
Again, let's take that international trip. What elements am I desiring when it comes to that trip?
I want to expose my children to different cultures (and myself as well). I want the experience of travel, where we quickly go from location to location to arrive at some destination. I want the joy of spending time together. I want to try new things - new foods, new beverages, and so on.
The thing is, when I start breaking that trip down into small pieces, I start seeing pieces that I can easily incorporate into my own life.
For example, we might choose to spend a vacation next summer with a few days spent at a Mennonite farm, learning how they live and do things. There are a few such farms around that will allow non-Mennonites to come and spend a few days provided that they follow certain rules of behavior.
That trip would fulfill virtually everything I was talking about above. It provides exposure to a different culture. It would provide the experience of travel as we went there and as we came home. It would give us a lot of time together. It would give us the chance to explore new foods and new beverages along with many other new things.
It has almost every element that I am personally looking for in international travel in a much less expensive package.
When I start thinking about options in this way, I feel a lot less "deprived." I see that I can have virtually everything I want from the very expensive option at a much lower price, once I open my eyes to the elements I actually want from international travel.
Recognize That Their Affluence Has a Real Cost That You Might Not See
From the outside, we only see the positive side of affluence. We see the amazing house. We see the shiny car. We see the nice clothes. We see the amazing travel.
When we compare those elements on their own to the elements in our own life, we feel a tinge of jealousy. Those elements are better than the elements in our own life in some respects.
The problem is that we're only seeing the positive side of these elements. These are just little pieces of a larger life.
A person who has accumulated wealth might be spending every dime they have or in debt up to their ears. They might have a job that is incredibly stressful. They might be suffering through relationship difficulties and are using expensive things as a panacea. They might be spending very little time or attention on their children and are using an international trip to jam a year of parental bonding into a week. That person might be driven by their work to an unhealthy level, leaving their life really unbalanced.
The reality is that expensive things have a cost. To have expensive things, you have to earn more. You usually have to devote lots of time and energy to those earnings and those work tasks might fall outside of what you would consider ethical.
You can't have those shiny outward signs of affluence without paying for it somehow - in time, in energy, in relationships, in an unbalanced lifestyle. Those are real, painful costs that you don't want in your life.
Ask What You Have That They Do Not
Often, your own life has a lot of treasures that you're not thinking about in your moment of jealousy over what others have. There are things that you have that they likely do not.
Perhaps you have a low stress job and little genuine stress in your life. Meanwhile, there's always a large amount of stress in earning a high income - that just comes with the territory.
Perhaps you have a large and strong knit family that you can always rely on, while others have to add even more to their schedule or rely on employees to take care of things (without that deep familial bond).
Maybe you have a strong social network. Maybe you're deeply involved in and respected in a community organization. Maybe you have a job that you truly love that brings you deep joy beyond your income.
Maybe it's just something as simple as a quiet spot of solitude out in the woods that's yours and yours alone.
Your life has unique treasures that their life does not have. Never, ever forget those treasures. Whenever you feel jealous of what others have, remember the many things that you have that they do not.
Building Your Natural Resistance
At the same time, you can take a lot of steps to build your natural resistance to those signs of affluence so that you're never jealous of them in the first place. This involves altering your value structure slowly over time so that those signs of affluence gradually become less and less important to you.
There are a number of great ways to achieve this phenomenon. Here are four that have been really useful in my life.
Have a Strong Social Network of Your Peers
First of all, when I refer to "peers" here, I refer to people of approximately the same socioeconomic level with at least some similar values, particularly when it comes to financial responsibility.
As usual, I'll use myself for example. Sarah and I collectively earn a slightly above average income for our community, as do most of our friends. We also are committed to a life of financial stability, as are most of our friends. As a result of those things together, most of our friends aren't out there buying shiny cars or going on lots of international trips all the time. It's just not what my friends do. Instead, we all invest our money carefully and enjoy low-cost things, but we do it together.
Not too long ago, I was sitting around my kitchen table with several friends who are close to my age. All of us are in our thirties. All of us are homeowners who have our homes completely paid off. All of us are debt free.
Those characteristics make us peers of each other. It also ensures that we collectively choose activities that are in line with our financial beliefs. We have a lot of potluck dinners and game nights. Our actual nights out on the town are rare and usually involve a very inexpensive dinner and an inexpensive activity.
The network I have with these people is strong. We see each other at least once a week and usually more often than that, which is pretty good considering we don't live in the same town (or even in adjacent towns). We communicate all the time, too.
They influence how I think, and I influence them, too. Their influence on me makes me worry a lot less about having stuff or going on expensive trips. Exposure to that stuff thus becomes a pretty small part of my life, so I don't think about it nearly as much as I might with different friends.
Cut Down Your Media Exposure
Television and magazines and, more and more, the internet tends to have a fixation on affluence. There are always programs and advertisements and articles telling me about the latest and greatest thing I need to have to become a more complete person.
The thing is, when I'm not aware of those things as presented by the media, I don't actually desire them and I don't miss them in my life.
I don't feel the need for a shiny new car, yet when I see how cars are portrayed in films and on television, I can fully understand why a person might want one and with enough exposure I might want one, too. That same phenomenon is true for all kinds of things.
Instead, I try to spend my free time on things that don't revolve around media exposure. I enjoy making meals, being involved in community activities, playing board games, geocaching, and many other things along those lines.
Sure, I might not be "aware" of the latest and greatest material things or "hot" destinations, but I don't feel like I'm losing anything whatsoever in life by missing out on that kind of thing.
Take Pride In Your Personal Financial Progress
I take a lot of pride in the financial success Sarah and I have found in life. I am proud to be debt free. I am proud to have a healthy amount of money in the bank. I am proud that my net worth has gone up at the end of each and every year since 2005. I am proud to know that my future is at least somewhat secure (though not as secure as I'd like).
I also know that if I started spending a lot more money, I would lose that sense of pride. Our family's financial fortunes would start to slow down, and perhaps even stop and reverse course. That would be a real blow to me, as it would mean that many of the things I want for the future were disappearing because of my spending decisions.
I am proud of where we are at financially and what we have achieved. It's going to take something incredible for me to want to upset that ship.
Focus on Abundance, Not Scarcity
One of the problems with looking at what others have and becoming jealous of that is that it creates a sense of scarcity. There's a sense underlying that feeling that there's just not enough affluence to go around and that those people have more good things than I do.
That's just not true.
I don't travel overseas, but I do go on trips with my family. I also have three children who are building strong work ethics and good character and a strong intellect.
I don't have a Ferrari, but I have a car that works quite well. I also have an incredible, intelligent, lovely wife who brings me joy every single day.
I don't live in a mansion, but I have a nice house. I also have a job that doesn't bring me too much stress, one that I usually enjoy deeply.
I have so much in my life already that I don't need those other things to feel complete. In fact, having them would alter the good balance I already have and likely detract from other things.
Instead, I'm glad that those people have the nice things that they have. They've found their own balance in life that works for them. We can all have a good balance in our lives, a balance of many good things and some great things. It's all about what we individually choose.
There is more than enough of the good things in life to go around.
Overcoming jealousy of what others have and a desire to "keep up with the Joneses" is a tall order for most of us. We simply don't have everything we would like to have in life.
However, when we dig into the truth of the matter, we do have a lot in our lives already. Our lives are incredibly full of opportunities, relationships, and many other things. Not only that, when we spend the time to tease them apart, the things that we're jealous of actually are pretty minor in the big scheme of things. We often have other routes to achieve virtually the same thing in our own life if we choose to do so.
Jealousy is a natural human response, but it doesn't have to control what we choose to do with our money, our time, and our life. We have the power to make better decisions for ourselves and, even more, overcome that jealousy.
Few things will put us on a stronger financial path than overcoming our own jealousies.