Keeping Down with the Joneses

Sarah and I live in an area where most of the homes near ours are similar to our own and most of the families near us have a similar level of income and external signs of spending.

This isn’t a particularly bad thing, but it’s not a particularly good thing, either.

On the one hand, if there’s no one nearby that’s clearly much more affluent than us, there’s not much of a desire to “keep up with the Joneses.” Aside from people doing regular things like vehicle upgrades (most people here tend to buy modest late model used cars and drive them until they’re getting pretty old) and modest yard landscaping, there’s not a lot to “keep up with.”

At the same time, however, there’s no one nearby that’s clearly less affluent than us, so there’s no motivation to “keep down with the Joneses.” As I said, we live in an area where everyone seems to have very similar external levels of spending, so you don’t see people living in really small homes (ours is of moderate size) or driving older cars.

This concept of “keeping down with the Joneses” is an interesting one, so let’s dig into it a little bit.

As is widely known, we tend to try to match our lifestyles to the people we associate with the most, and the area in which we live – particularly the area within a block or two of us – provides a constant example along those lines. People tend to live a lifestyle roughly equal to the lifestyle lived by others that live near them, in other words. You don’t typically see a ramshackle house next to a really nice house. You don’t typically see an old rusty car parked regularly next to a house with brand new cars. While there might occasionally be an outlier here, it’s not an extreme outlier.

The idea of “keeping up with the Joneses” comes from someone who perceives that their level of affluence is lower than those that live around them. They see the neighbor having a nicer home and driving a nicer car and having nicer clothes and going on amazing trips and so on and they want that lifestyle. Often, they feel as though they should have that lifestyle because they live close to the proverbial Joneses, so they spend beyond their means to try to keep up.

On the other hand, the idea of “keeping down with the Joneses” comes from someone who perceives that their level of affluence is higher than those that live around them. In this case, the person is nudged by the people around them to lower their level of affluence. There’s less social pressure to buy a new car or to have perfect yard landscaping or to dress everyone in really nice clothes and so on.

In other words, if you live in an area where you’re on the low end of affluence, there’s a subtle pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” which can encourage more spending on unnecessary things, whereas if you live in an area where you’re on the high end of affluence, there’s no pressure to keep up and, if anything, there’s a nudge to “keep down with the Joneses” and keep your spending on unnecessary things in check.

Here’s the cold, hard truth: I’d far rather be in a situation where I was nudged to “keep down with the Joneses” than “keep up with the Joneses.” I’d rather live near people who were at or, even better, just a bit below my own level of affluence so that the subtle hints I get from my environment about spending nudged me to spend less, not more.

In other words, if I were buying a home, I’d rather have one of the nicer homes in a less expensive neighborhood (that still met my criteria) than a low end home in an expensive neighborhood. I’d say that I live currently in an average home in my area, so I’m not really nudged either way. If I lived in an area where I was on the low end of the relative level of spending, I’d probably want to move to a new area so that I wasn’t constantly nudged to spend more and more and more.

How can you apply this idea of “keeping down with the Joneses” without moving to a new home, though?

The easiest thing you can do is cultivate and strengthen friendships with people who don’t spend extravagantly. Ideally, you’ll want to have friendships with people whose spending and possessions don’t make you feel as though you’re not spending enough. If they make you feel anything at all, they should make you feel as though you’re spending too much on possessions and experiences.

It’s simple: Surround yourself with people who really enjoy and appreciate free and low cost experiences and don’t have a drive to accumulate expensive possessions. Look in your social circle for those people and accentuate those relationships. Seek out new connections with people who feel similarly.

A good place to start is in your own neighborhood. Walk around and look at the homes of people who aren’t trying to one-up each other with expensive purchases. Look for the more modest homes where people appear to be doing interesting things and get to know those people. I’ve made several friendships within a few blocks of my home by doing that very thing – if I see someone doing something interesting at their house, I’ll stop by and say hello and get to know that person. I’ve actually knocked on people’s doors before because I saw an interesting project in progress in their driveway, just to ask about it, and each time it’s been the beginning of a friendship (or at least a healthy acquaintanceship).

Another thing to do is spend your social time and your free time in situations that aren’t centered around spending and don’t require an expensive purchase. Go to a friend’s house, or invite a friend over. Don’t engage in “retail therapy.” Find free things to do when you’re out and about. Don’t go to expensive events with any regularity. Don’t join an expensive club with a high membership fee (unless there’s a professional reason to do so).

Along those lines, avoid media that’s crowded with advertisements or lauds affluent lifestyles. Both of these things essentially create a virtual sense of “keeping up with the Joneses” that you don’t need in your life.

Instead, read meaningful books and, when checking out media sources, choose those that don’t prop up an affluent lifestyle and instead laud a frugal one. Again, you want your focus to be filled with subtle cues encouraging a practice of “keeping down with the Joneses,” not up with them. Choose media that focuses on the meaningful lives of people who practice frugality rather than consumption. Find media that matches what you value and make that your center (though it’s always good to explore other perspectives sometimes).

Finally – and this is fairly obvious – don’t overlook the value of moving. I know, I know, I said things that didn’t involve moving, but if you’re in a situation where you’re really stretching your financial picture just to keep up with the people in your neighborhood and to keep up an expensive property, it might be worth your while to simply move to a less affluent neighborhood or to an apartment. There are definitely cost of living reasons to do so – it’s far less expensive to cover the mortgage, utilities, and taxes on a more modest property in a more modest area with a lower cost of living – but in a more modest area, there’s far less compulsion to “keep up with the Joneses.” Rather, if you’re in one of the nicer houses in the neighborhood, there’s even a slight compulsion to “keep down with the Joneses,” which is a far healthier state for your pocketbook.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.