Money and Social Acceptance

Just the other day, I came across this great section on pages 45 and 46 of the current paperback version of Your Money or Your Life:

Some of us operate from the myth that money is social acceptance. The urge to be part of a group is a deep one. To be excluded is experienced, on an unconscious level, as a threat to survival. The desire to keep up with the Joneses may not be grounded solely in ostentation and competition, but also in a profound desire for acceptance by others. Our advertising industry capitalizes on our epidemic low self-esteem by promoting products to make us more tolerable to our fellow humans: we can smell better from head (shampoo) to toe (foot powder), have slimmer bodies and the right car, and learn how to dance – for money. Even friendship seems to cost money. Do you need to spend money to enjoy the company of your group of friends?

Let’s look at another form of social acceptance: dating and mating. Historically and cross-culturally, we know that money (or cows or goats or plots of land) almost always figured in the marriage contract. But what about our liberated society? Does money play a part in romance? Do we, on some level, still hold some belief that money represents success with the opposite sex?

As with the other misconceptions about money, operating from the myth that money equals acceptance seems to have some merit. After all, enjoying the company of other people while dining, seeing a movie, or running on a beach is a pleasure you wouldn’t want to eliminate simply because it costs money. It becomes dangerous only when we lose sight of the fact that companionship, friendship, and intimacy are all available free of charge to people who sincerely extend their love to others. It’s when we equate money with social acceptance that the distortions begin. It’s like going to a fine restaurant that serves many delicious entrees and eating the menu rather than the meal. There’s no joy in that, just as there’s no joy in spending money to gain acceptance but never experiencing true intimacy.

Boy, there’s a lot in those three paragraphs to unwrap. The thoughts that the authors – Joe Dominguez, Vicki Robin, and Monique Tilford – combined into that handful of sentences are well worth digging into.

So let’s do it.

“The desire to keep up with the Joneses may not be grounded solely in ostentation and competition, but also in a profound desire for acceptance by others.”

When I read that sentence, I immediately think of the social groups I’m involved in.

I participate in a couple of board gaming groups in my area. They meet on various nights and on various schedules, but they all revolve around people bringing a few games with them for people to play.

When people bring new games, those games often get a lot of attention. People are interested in playing them and it can give a quick boost to one’s self-esteem by bringing those new games. You have this sense of feeling more accepted and liked when you do so.

But that sense of acceptance, that sense of being liked, is very fleeting. Someone else may show up even that very evening with a new game and they suddenly have that fleeting attention, and that will definitely happen before the next meeting or two.

It doesn’t last because, frankly, it’s meaningless. It’s fully about the item, not about you.

Yet we fall for that feeling all the time because, deep down, we want to feel accepted. We want to feel like part of the group. We want to, at least on occasion, feel the respect and care of others.

Yet the kind of attention that we buy, the kind of attention that we feel like we get when we try to keep up with the Joneses, it doesn’t last. It’s about as fleeting as it can possibly be.

I like to think of it as throwing newspaper into an already-roaring campfire. It will burn brightly for a few seconds, but before long it’s gone and you’re left with the same old campfire and no more newspaper.

“Our advertising industry capitalizes on our epidemic low self-esteem by promoting products to make us more tolerable to our fellow humans”

So, why exactly do we need that fleeting sense of acceptance so much? I think the above quote is really onto something – it’s low self-esteem.

Many of us feel as though our own merits are not enough to make us be accepted by others most of the time. Perhaps we’re ashamed of our appearance or of our lack of knowledge or culture. Maybe we feel as if we don’t know anyone and don’t have any healthy pre-established relationships with anyone. There are a lot of reasons that feed into this.

Quite often, the self-confidence we see in others is practiced by them or simply an aspect of their personality, but not necessarily indicative of a high self-esteem, either.

It’s my belief that a lot of modern culture feeds into this. Advertising definitely feeds into this – it either uses unrealistically positive images of people to sell their product (people we are supposed to feel as though we pale in comparison to) or else show people with obvious failings turning themselves around due to that product (people we are supposed to think of as like ourselves). Beauty magazines and websites definitely feed into this, as do most celebrity magazines and websites. Many television programs and even some movies do this as well, showing “glamorous” lives that aren’t actually reality at all but serve the purpose of making us think that our day-to-day lives aren’t very good – and, lo and behold, there’s an ad or a product placement pitching us with the very thing we need to fix it.

It is no wonder that many of us have a low self-esteem, and it’s also no wonder that we make a mental connection that particular products will solve some of the “problems” we think of when we think of ourselves.

It’s really troubling, to say the least.

One of the biggest reasons that I encourage people to reduce media consumption – especially television – is to reduce that negative mental connection. If your choice is between watching a television show or going on a walk in the woods, there’s almost no doubt that the walk in the woods will have drastically more positive impact on your self-worth while also reducing the influence of product placement and advertisements in your life.

The end result is that you’ll be less compelled to spend money, for several reasons, of which I’ll name three. One, you simply won’t be aware of as many products as you otherwise would be. Two, it won’t be reinforced in your mind that you need particular products to live the image of a great life. Three, simply being outdoors and getting some exercise will naturally lift your self-esteem and your long-term health, too.

Spend less time viewing media that encourages you to feel bad about yourself and encourages you to buy products, whether directly or indirectly. Spend more time doing mentally and physically active things, preferably with other people and preferably outside, at least some of the time.

“Even friendship seems to cost money. Do you need to spend money to enjoy the company of your group of friends?”

This is an interesting point, one that matches up wonderfully with my own experience.

During the latter part of my college years and the first few years of my professional life, I could count the people I was close to in my life on my fingers and toes. They really fell into two groups – the people that were in my peer group of “young professionals” who worked for the same group of employers in the same town, and everyone else in my life.

The “young professionals” group was essentially an expensive group to hang out with. Everyone always had the latest gadgets. People were constantly going out for drinks and often for dinner. There were many rounds of golf played. Many people drove rather nice cars. The conversation often steered toward these things as well. People would give some fleeting respect to whoever had the shiny new thing, but that attention moved on pretty quickly.

The other people in my life largely didn’t care what I owned. They’d spend time with me no matter what, whether it was a meal we made at one of our homes and a lazy evening playing cards or a night out on the town. For them, the stuff and the actual activity didn’t matter nearly as much as the people and the shared experience of whatever it was that we happened to be doing.

Today, I essentially have no connections whatsoever to that “young professionals” group. I’m still “Facebook friends” with a few of them; I have no contact at all with most of the rest of them. We simply didn’t have anything “real” in common other than talking shop or talking about the stuff we each had.

On the other hand, I’m still close with every single other person I was close to ten years ago that’s still living. My closest friends are still my closest friends.

To them, it didn’t matter what car I drove or what gadgets I had or anything else. What mattered is that I was a good, helpful person who was there for them in moments of trial (and vice versa). What mattered is that we helped each other when it was needed and provided friendship and companionship when that was needed, too.

I find that it does cost money to maintain a group of acquaintances, because those acquaintances often want to do things like constantly go out or compare the possessions that everyone has. On the other hand, it often costs very little or nothing to spend time with genuine friends and loved ones.

I’d far rather spend the time and effort to cultivate a true friendship than throw money at fleeting “friends.”

friends in a coffeeshop
Genuine friendships are available free of charge. Photo: Bernard Oh

“Do we, on some level, still hold some belief that money represents success with the opposite sex?”

I think this is absolutely true, for many reasons.

Look at the traditions of courtship that still persist. The idea of an expensive dinner and expensive dates. The idea of the ludicrously expensive engagement ring. The idea of the ludicrously expensive wedding.

Having money underlies all of that stuff. Many dates are expensive. An engagement ring is expensive. A wedding is often really expensive. A honeymoon can be really expensive. That adds up to a small mountain of cash for the process of two people coming together in marriage.

Even if you’re never going to get married, you still have the cycle of the expense of dates, and even if you go on cheap dates, most people still buy things like perfume or cologne or makeup as tools.

All of this relies on having expendable income. That’s not to say people with little money can’t date, but that frequently the cost of dating tends to expand to fill one’s disposable income.

Why do we do that? To impress those we’re romantically interested in, of course. We try to bring as many signs of success to the table as possible because we’ve seen it work as an attractor, and this isn’t just something that can be laid at the feet of the media, either. As you can read in the long quote at the start, it’s a cultural tradition: “Historically and cross-culturally, we know that money (or cows or goats or plots of land) almost always figured in the marriage contract.”

Here’s the thing, though: Most of the money spent in modern situations to improve attractiveness to the opposite sex is spent on fleeting things. Makeup and rings and weddings and so on are things that are fleeting or extraneous.

I think a much better route to show your value to a potential partner is to do financially responsible things. Buy a late model used car and keep it in good shape – while it might not be the glossy thing of the month, it can still look really good for a long time if you take care of it. Be careful with your money and buy a house, which is a sure sign of financial responsibility.

In other words, you can’t always completely avoid the need to show financial success during the dating rituals, but you can choose smarter ways to do it by choosing signs of financial success that aren’t actually financially disastrous.

“It becomes dangerous only when we lose sight of the fact that companionship, friendship, and intimacy are all available free of charge to people who sincerely extend their love to others.”

In the end, this is the real key to everything. Companionship, friendship, and intimacy are available free of charge to those who sincerely extend their love to others.

When I think about my board game group and the people who bring in a new game and receive that fleeting attention, I quickly see that the real lasting friendship and connections actually go to the people who sit down and teach the games, the people who are friendly to everyone who shows up, and the people who are willing and happy to play almost anything anyone else wants to play.

The people who act in a kind way toward others, in other words, are the ones who end up building strong connections and relationships with everyone.

The same is true in virtually every social group I’ve ever been a part of. The people that have great relationships with everyone are usually not the people who are buying a lot of stuff. It’s the people who take the time to interact with each other in a caring manner.

It’s the mentors. It’s the teachers. It’s the people willing to do the dirty jobs sometimes. It’s the people who are kind. It’s the people who aren’t negative. It’s the people who go out of their way to make others feel welcome.

It’s not the people who treat everything as a quid pro quo. It’s not the people who get angry when you’re not perfectly convenient for them.

It’s the people who give their love freely to others without expecting anything in return who become accepted by the group and build lots of relationships.

The thing is, you don’t have to be perfect to find that acceptance. You just have to open up and give of yourself. Be a part of the conversation. Don’t be negative. Find ways to be kind. Greet people – especially those who seem to be a bit on the outside. Be willing to teach when there’s something to teach.

Sure, there are positive things you can always do, like being clean and wearing clean clothing, but those are normal behaviors in society and violating those kinds of simple norms can ensure that you won’t find social connections.

“[T]here’s no joy in spending money to gain acceptance but never experiencing true intimacy.”

I think it’s that intimacy of a good friendship or other relationship that we’re seeking when we spend money for acceptance. We hope that by spending that money and buying that thing and having that thing that, somehow, it will make the rest of it easier.

Here’s the truth, though: Buying stuff might be a shortcut toward initial acceptance, but it’s not a shortcut to the type of richer relationships that people truly crave.

The only way to build those relationships is to love others, to treat others well, and to give it time. Great friendships and relationships are built out of lots of positive interactions, not a few flashy purchases.

If you’re hoping that going to your game night with the hot new game will buy you that kind of friendship, you’re going to be disappointed. It’ll buy you acceptance, but not anything lasting or meaningful.

The same thing is true in virtually every aspect of adult life, from buying someone’s lunch to having an amazing new gadget in your pocket, from buying drinks to wearing an expensive cologne. They build a fleeting level of acceptance, but no real closeness.

You have to build that closeness yourself, and it takes real time and real effort. Money isn’t a substitute for that and never will be.

Final Thoughts

The simple truth is that money will never buy you lasting social acceptance. It can buy you fleeting social acceptance, but that acceptance fades away quickly. What’s left when that acceptance fades? You.

It’s up to the person underneath to build lasting social acceptance and friendships and relationships. No amount of money will change that.

If you want to become someone who is more socially accepted and better able to build friendships and relationships, close your wallet and work on yourself.

For starters, work on caring for others as much as you wish they would care for you. Accept that, yes, sometimes it’s going to backfire and you’re going to be hurt, but that the upside is worth it. Force yourself to break out of your shell and talk to people – I find it easiest to start with people who already are kind of on the outside at the moment. Give what you know freely. Help others when they need it. When you’re feeling down in the dumps, don’t respond to others with negativity.

If you feel bad about attributes of yourself, work on those attributes. Get more exercise. Get more sleep. Eat a better diet. Work on your hygiene routines. Read more about the topics you feel you should know more about. Be positive about the good things you have to offer – and believe me, you do have good things to offer.

If you do those things, you go from a person who has to buy fleeting social acceptance to a person who has to spend nothing at all to have genuine acceptance, friendship, and relationships. That’s a huge life upgrade.

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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.