How to Avoid the Temptation to Keep Up With the Neighbors (And Social Media Influences)

The number of influences we have in our lives is astounding. Our behavior is constantly being nudged by the people around us, by television, and by social media, among other things. Intentional or otherwise, these things influence us in what we choose to do, the items we choose to buy and the ideas we hold in our heads.

Sometimes those influences are positive ones. Our friends may give us great advice or act as a good role model for health. A person whose website we read could share some really useful suggestions for a problem we have.

At other times, those influences are negative ones. A social media “influencer” may tell us about a product we’ve never heard of and don’t need, but convinces us that it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. A neighbor has the latest and greatest thing and seems to be very happy because of it, even though it’s something we’ve never really thought about having before. Someone may imply that something we’re currently doing isn’t good enough, and some other, more expensive way of doing things is the better way to go.

Trust me, I know how this feels. I am good friends with a childless couple and they travel a lot. They’re always going to interesting places all over the world, and part of me wants to go as well. They often nudge me into thinking about trips I wouldn’t otherwise even consider. Thankfully, I’ve had the sense to talk myself out of it and have learned that choosing experiences just to impress them or “keep up” with them is a waste, because our friendship is built on other things.

The best strategy here is to find an effective way to filter out the positive influences and ignore the negative ones, but that’s easier said than done. With things like social media influence and the influence of one’s neighbors, the good often just comes mixed in with the bad.

Here are six effective strategies for avoiding the temptation to keep up with the neighbors and social media influencers.

Stop worrying about what other people think of you.

Our temptations and the things that nudge our behavior often revolve around being concerned with what other people think of us. Almost everyone wants to present a positive image of themselves to the world, and it’s easy to feel like we’re not presenting the best image and that a slightly better one is just a slight change or a purchase away.

Here’s the harsh reality: people don’t think about you nearly as much as you think they do, and those thoughts are usually pretty general in nature. Most of the time, people are thinking about themselves — replaying recent events in their lives, thinking about the things they need to get done, thinking about a relationship or some form of entertainment they enjoy and so on. We drastically overestimate how much other people think about us. I’ve written about this very thing before — it’s called the spotlight effect.

In fact, most of the time, people only think about you when you contribute something positive to their life or something clearly negative to their life. Even people who do things like insult your style of clothing aren’t really thinking about you — rather, they’re wanting to reinforce their own view of themselves as “better.”

The solution here is simple: stop worrying about what other people think, particularly those with whom you don’t have a close relationship. Don’t put effort into impressing them, because that impression you give them will be fleeting.

Rather, put that energy into your own goals in life. Unless your goal in life is to fleetingly impress random people on the street or acquaintances you barely know, putting much energy or money into impressing others is not going to give you much value at all. Instead, put that energy into achieving the things you want to achieve in life.

If you want to present a better “you,” focus on the attributes people really care about.

Some people translate “not worrying about what other people think” into “being an awful, slovenly person in public.” That’s not the goal. You still want people to have a positive impression of and accept yourself, but you can achieve that without spending a lot of money on your appearance, possessions or experiences.

What most of us actually want out of being in public, aside from the tasks we need to complete, is some good relationships and social acceptance — and money can’t buy those things.

What does?

The basics are obvious. Practice good hygiene. Dress in clean clothes — they don’t have to be fancy, just clean most of the time, unless there’s some kind of dress code. Be polite to people. Don’t be rude to people. That stuff is easy.

If you want to build good relationships with people, you’re not going to do it through the things you buy. Rather, be the kind of person you’d want to have in your life. Imagine an interesting acquaintance in your life and imagine how you’d like them to start building a deeper relationship with you. What would they do?

For me, it would involve good conversations. It would involve a willingness to help with something I’m doing. It would involve having good character so I’m not worried about being betrayed or stabbed in the back. It would involve a shared interest or two, so we have things to do together. For me, it would involve inviting me to do stuff with them so I don’t feel as awkward about initiating until we become more familiar.

Those are the things you should be leaning in on, not the $200 haircut or finding the “perfect” outfit or the gadget that will impress someone.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting those things, of course, but you should want them for you — not for anyone else. For example, if you want to dress nicely because it makes you feel more confident (this isn’t how I’m wired, but I know other people are), spend time shopping around for clothes that really click with you and hunt for them at great prices, like at secondhand stores or outlet stores or online clothing marketplaces like Poshmark.

Back in my younger days, when I was really obsessed with trying to impress others because I believed it would build a great social network and reputation for me (hint: it didn’t), I spent four figures on a really beautiful watch. A few people oohed and ahhed over it. None of those people became close friends of mine. After a while, I began to realize that the watch did almost nothing for my self-confidence — it was a really wasteful purchase. I still only have a connection with a few people from that era in my life, and those connections are for other things — good conversations, shared interests, helping each other and so on.

On the other hand, there is a simple thing I do that does lift my self-confidence. I feel much more confident after a careful, long shower where I really scrub myself. I then brush my teeth for a long time and put on plenty of deodorant with a subtle aroma before dressing in clean clothes that aren’t worn out. That simple routine fills me with a ton of self confidence that lasts for hours — far more than slipping an expensive watch on my wrist or dressing in expensive clothes (which actually makes me feel awkward) could ever achieve.

Lean in on those things that make a real difference in the lives of others, and spend less time on the things that don’t.

Focus more on a small number of meaningful relationships than a large number of acquaintances.

For those unfamiliar, Dunbar’s number is the idea that there are only so many meaningful relationships we can have in our lives at any given time. That number is around 150. Relationships beyond that aren’t very meaningful at all; it might be someone you have a conversation with once a year and that’s it.

My belief is that, in one’s personal life, you should be focused on just those 150 relationships, and maybe a few more on the edge. Putting significant effort into relationships beyond that, beyond basic social politeness, isn’t worth the effort. (Note that there are advantages to “networking” in a professional setting, but those are just situations for gaining some level of mutual professional advantage, not necessarily a close friendship.)

That’s important because when you start trying to chase lots of relationships at once, it becomes more tempting to try to take “shortcuts,” as noted above. Those shortcuts are usually expensive. I tried to take a “shortcut” by buying that $1,000 watch with hope that it would impress and thus build a relationship with more people. It didn’t work out.

Furthermore, when you keep that number low and concentrate on those 150 people, you’re more focused on things like helping each other and reciprocating meaningful social behavior. You’re not going to impress people you have a strong relationship with by buying something flashy. Rather, you’re going to impress them with character and friendship.

Spend less time on social media, and unfollow people that make you feel bad about yourself.

I have made a concerted effort over the last few years to spend less time on social media than I used to. This isn’t out of a desire to “avoid” people, but rather because the vast majority of the content I see on there isn’t stuff that lifts up my life in any way. I will sometimes use it to directly communicate with people I know, but I find that if I go through periods where I spend more time on there I end up feeling worse about myself. (Even more than that, I sometimes feel like products will help with this, mostly because ads are so ingrained in the experience, both directly and through promotion by people on social media.)

Donna Freedman wrote an article I really liked on social media influence a while ago and I strongly agree with the advice she shared there.

In a nutshell, her advice centered around simply taking a break from social media for a while and, during that break, spend some time really assessing your life goals and what you want out of life and then figuring out how to make those real. Then, when your social media “break” is over, assess how and whether social media fits into a life that’s building toward those things.

That’s brilliant advice, and I’ve been trying my best to follow it as of late. I do have some professional and community commitments to a few things on social media, but for personal use, I’m aiming to use it as little as possible.

If you do get a lot of value out of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, at least consider pruning your list of friends and the people you follow. Cut out people who you only follow because of a distant social connection or people you follow because you’re interested in them or the topic. Trim out those who nudge you to buy things or to feel bad about yourself in any way. If you’re following someone who’s regularly pushing a product for you to buy, it’s time to unfollow.

There’s a flip side to that, too.

Focus on influences in your life that encourage you to live modestly.

Another way to look at your social network and your social media is choosing to lean in on people who influence you to live modestly rather than leaning away from people who influence you to buy and influence you to want things.

In an earlier article, I referred to this strategy as “keeping down with the Joneses.” You simply focus on friendships with people who live modestly and have frugal lives, and connect more with people online who live that way, too.

Who in your circle of friends and acquaintances lives a thoughtful, low cost life? That’s a friend to spend more time with. Who do you follow on social media that does the same? That’s someone to leave on your feeds — and perhaps you should find more like them.

A big part of this is the old truism that you are the average of your five closest friends, an idea attributed to Jim Rohn. I find this to be largely true — I’m a lot like my closest friends, with some secondary influence from more distant friends and people I pay attention to. If those people tend to share an idea or interest, it tends to have a strong influence on me.

Thus, if I fill my sphere of influence with people who nudge me to live modestly and thoughtfully then I am inherently more likely to live modestly and thoughtfully.

Aside from the aforementioned couple who travels frequently, almost all of my close friends and many of my good friends — those whose company I really enjoy but aren’t in my close inner circle — live very frugal lives. We do things together like hiking, gardening, biking and playing board games. We all dress nicely but not elaborately, and we live in reasonable homes. Most of us — I can’t quite speak for all here, but for a lot — are debt free or are free of all debt but our mortgage, and yet we still don’t spend exorbitantly. We all drive late model used cars.

Yet, when emergency strikes, we can all handle it. Most of us are going to retire very comfortably, and some of us will retire early. Most of us are in low stress life situations.

Those are the influences in my daily life. Online, it’s similar. I mostly just follow those close friends and people who are involved in areas of personal interest, like fermented food-making, hiking and tabletop gaming — arguably the only “expensive” hobby I have, even though it really doesn’t have to be at all — and a few of my favorite authors.

The influences in my life are all ones of financial stability, and that nudges me constantly to be financially stable myself.

Remember that you only see glimpses of people’s lives, not the full picture.

This is true of your neighbors and most definitely true of people on social media and in other forms of media.

You might see a shiny car in a neighbor’s driveway, but do you know what their bank account looks like or the personal and professional stress they’re under to afford that car? You see the car, but do you see the stress?

You might see a picture of someone on social media on an expensive trip, but what did that trip cost them? How often are they arguing with loved ones about money, or having sleepless nights because of financial worries? You see the trip, but do you see the pain?

It is really tempting to just see that initial thing — that car, trip, gadget or house — and see only the upside of it. You see that nice thing in your life and wish you could have it.

However, that thing comes with costs, and you’re often not seeing those costs. You’re seeing the positive side and not the negative side.

Imagine having that car — and then imagine adding a $500 car payment to your life. That adds stress. That removes other opportunities. It likely adds up to a negative, and definitely adds up to a much smaller positive at most.

Imagine going on that trip, then imagine coming home to $10,000 on your credit card statements. That adds stress. That means a lot of debt repayment, and you need to do it quickly or else that interest starts building up. The trip might have been worth it … but as it fades, is it really worthwhile?

Or, maybe in both cases they could easily afford that item, but in doing so, they’re on a career path that’s full of lots of responsibility and professional stress, with evenings away from their family and no time for the things they used to love and leisure time that no longer exists. They have to pack all of the fun of their year into a six day trip or in the pleasure of driving a nice car to work.

When you’re tempted to keep up with the neighbors or a media influencer, remember that you’re only seeing a part of the picture. You’re seeing that sweet upside without the downside to balance it out. You can still be happy for them, of course, while recognizing that you’re also happy with a much different life balance.

It comes down to being smart about your influences.

Different pieces of advice work well in different situations.

Stop worrying about what other people think, especially when you’re considering what people you don’t know well might think about you. Present a better “you” through your actions and filter it down to things that build your self confidence. Focus on a small number of meaningful relationships and the actions that build them. Trim your influences so that you have less time and mind space devoted to things that tempt you and more time and mind space devoted to things that help you build the life you want. Above all, remember that when you’re tempted by the neighbors or by media influencers, you’re only seeing a small slice of the picture, the slice that’s positive, when the rest of the picture has a lot of drawbacks in there.

With that tool kit in place, you’ll quickly notice a decline in the influence of your neighbors and your acquaintances and influencers in your life, and you’ll also notice an uptick in meaningful relationships and meaningful use of your time and money.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.