The Imitation Game

“You are the average of your five closest friends.” – Jim Rohn

I often use that quote on this site because it really hits home with a lot of truth. Look at the five people who you value the most in this world and most want to spend time with. Take an average of the various metrics of their life: the things they value, how they spend their time, their interests, their financial state, their level of physical fitness. That average is probably pretty close to a description of yourself.

Why? People naturally enjoy spending time with people who have similar interests and similar values to ourselves, and it’s those similar interests and similar values that form the basis of many of our conversations. It’s very easy to find ways to hang out and spend meaningful time with someone who shares a lot of interests with you; it’s much harder to do so if you don’t have any common interests. Life is all about the path of least resistance, and there’s simply less resistance to hang out with a person you share a hobby with and with whom you share some similar life perspectives.

Obviously, along with that comes some learning about how each other lives their lives and, in some obvious and subtle ways, we borrow and adopt things from the lives of each other in order to improve our own lives. If we see something that’s working well for a friend, it’s likely to increase our own interest and we have increased odds of trying that hobby or borrowing that routine and incorporating it into our own lives.

This brings us to one of our close friends, perhaps the one among our friends who is the biggest free spender. She likes to subscribe to those monthly subscription boxes, where a company bundles and sends you things in the mail centered along a certain theme. Depending on the box, the stuff inside can be absolute junk or it can be quality stuff (though you didn’t have a direct hand in selecting it).

This friend, who I’ll call Jennifer, naturally likes to talk about the highlights out of the subscription boxes that she receives. We don’t usually hear about the subscription boxes themselves – and we’re already too careful with our money to dive into those – but we do usually hear about the best product or two from each one and how she’s using it and which ones she’s going to continue to use in the future.

I don’t mind this conversation per se, but what I have noticed is that it has caused our friend to introduce us to a bunch of quality niche products that we would have never heard of or considered. Cleaning supplies, soaps, art supplies, and various other things have come onto our radar because of our friend and those kits.

Because of that, now I’ll find myself at the store looking through the cleaning supplies and I’ll notice a particular brand I would have never given a second thought to before. It’s something that Jennifer mentioned and thus, because of her mention and enthusiasm, that item merits a deeper look. The only catch? It costs a lot more than the usual store brand that I would buy.

Usually, I have enough financial backbone to skip it and still buy the store brand, but I’ll be the first to admit that because of Jennifer’s enthusiasm, we’ve wound up trying out some different cleaning supplies and soaps and other little things in the past few months.

That’s the “imitation game” at work.

The “imitation game” is my term for the subtle tendency for friends to somewhat adapt and change their lives to match what they see in their closest friendships. This is different than a “jealousy” or “keeping up with the Joneses” thing. This is a person’s tendency to follow the advice and positive life patterns of someone they value and trust, almost without thinking about it.

I’ll give you a clear example. One of my closest friends also works from home. He and I have shared a lot of tips for what has made working at home successful for each of us, and we’ve adopted quite a few of each other’s tips. When we first became good friends several years ago, our daily patterns were very different. Now, they’re actually pretty similar because we’ve effectively started imitating each other.

You swap recipes with friends and you find that your diets become more similar. You tell friends about different products you’ve used successfully and they start using some of them. You tell your friends about your favorite restaurant and they want to try it, too.

You imitate each other, not out of a desire of mimicry or keeping up with the Joneses, but out of respect for the opinions of your friends and the fact that if something works well for someone who is similar to you in a lot of ways, it’s likely to work for you.

Social marketing is the best marketing, they say.

So, how do you “win” at the imitation game? Knowing that this phenomenon exists, how do you use it to your advantage in terms of personal finance? Here are some strategies I’ve figured out over the years.

Build up friendships with frugal people. Make a conscious effort to invest some time and energy into building friendships with people who choose to live below their means and save money for the future. Look for people who don’t dress expensively and aren’t parading a constant array of new possessions. Look for people who pass the time and entertain themselves in low-cost ways. Look for people who are talking about things that frugal people do, like eating at home and going on low-cost vacations and engaging in low-cost hobbies.

How do you find these people? Get involved in your local community and intentionally choose activities that don’t require shelling out money. Avoid the country club and instead look at civic organizations. Avoid nightclubs and instead participate in volunteer organizations. Check out the free offerings from the parks and recreation department that are social. Look around your workplace; a great place to start is in the break room where people eat their lunches, because frugal people will often bring foods from home to eat.

What you’re doing with those two strategies is that you’re setting up the imitation game to be predisposed toward frugal behavior. You’re finding people with frugal attributes who are going to be partners in the game and elevating them in your life. Because of that, the ideas you bounce around and share with your innermost circle are gradually going to have more of a frugal bent.

Remember that quote at the top of this article, the one that says that you’re the average of your five closest friends? If you build friendships with frugal people and then reassess your five closest friendships in a year or two, it’s likely that the average of them will be more frugal. You’ll play the imitation game with those friends and gradually become more frugal yourself.

Now, feed the imitation game. Share financially wise things that you do with your friends. What are the best things you do in your life that save money, in terms of really getting maximum financial benefit for your efforts? What are the best “bang for your buck” products that you use to fulfill a genuine need in your life? Share those strategies. When a friend comes asking for a recommendation, suggest an item that’s truly “buy it for life” or, for a consumable item, suggest a reliable store brand. Thus, via the imitation game, you nudge your friends in a financially wise direction as well.

This creates something of a circular effect, of course. If you nudge your friends in a frugal direction, it’s likely they will nudge you back. They’ll offer good “bang for the buck” recommendations when you ask. They’ll be more likely to plan lower-cost social events with you, such as potluck dinner parties, because they know you won’t somehow turn up your nose at the concept. They’ll be likely to share their best frugal tips with you. Such initiatives feed off of each other in a very positive way.

You can feed the imitation game with your less financially-minded friends, too – you just need to approach it a little differently. Don’t get obsessed with finding the least expensive option for everything; instead, look for inexpensive routes to achieve what it is that you want to do. If someone asks for a suggestion, point toward good “bang for the buck” solutions – not the cheapest solution, but the one that will provide a ton of value for the expense. A good approach there is to sell the quality of the item up front and then finish with an “it’s only $20!” type of finisher.

What ends up happening is that your most frugal friends tend to share and imitate your strongest frugality strategies, while your less financially focused friends tend to share lots of good “bang for the buck” and “buy it for life” items – things that are couched in more values than just spending the minimum amount right now.

With a circle of friends like that, you’ll find yourself gradually balancing out to a more frugal you, one that mixes and matches smart money moves in a way that really works for your goals while still having a strong social circle where you’re not the “cheapskate.” In my eyes, that’s the big goal of trying to be a social person and a frugal person at the same time.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm
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.

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