The single most powerful book on personal finance I’ve ever read is Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. I read it at my lowest point financially and it altered my perspective on personal finance more than any other book. I’ve written a great deal about this book’s impact on my life and the lessons it has taught me.
One of the major themes of the book is that it’s imperative that people sit down and figure out the small handful of values and things that are truly central to your life. Once you’ve figured out the handful of things that really matter to you, then cut back hard on everything else.
The book goes into detail on how to do this, offering a bunch of strategies on how to cut back your spending. What’s the book’s number one strategy?
Stop trying to impress other people.
For many of us, an astonishing amount of time and money and energy is spent living up to a notion that we must impress other people, that what they think of us is incredibly important.
The truth is that people draw their opinions of us from things that we don’t really control. Often, that element upon which their opinion is based is heavily dependent on that person’s mood at the time or their pre-existing ideas or prejudices, over which you have almost no control.
Furthermore, most people don’t notice us nearly as much as we think they do. Most people on the street don’t consciously notice us at all and those that do are only barely aware of us or will forget about us entirely as soon as the interaction is done. We drastically overinflate how much other people think about us. This is called the “spotlight effect,” something I’ve discussed many times before on The Simple Dollar.
Even in those interactions where the other person is actually paying attention to us (and not just glossing over us or applying their own prejudices), they’re likely to draw conclusions about us based on aspects of us that are far away from the things we throw money at. Virtually no one decides whether they like a person based on the car they drive or the gadget in their pocket or the clothes they’re wearing (though, admittedly, details like that can help in specific settings – they’re just very rare settings for most people).
Furthermore, in the vast majority of human interactions that we have, impressing the other person is going to have literally zero impact on your life, one way or another. Yes, there are always a few exceptions, such as when you’re dating someone or if you’re in sales, but almost all of the time, there’s nothing whatsoever to be gained in impressing other people.
Yet, in the end, we still worry endlessly about what other people think, and it’s reflected in the clothes we buy or the car we drive or the house we live in or many other things, and that becomes a giant vacuum of time and money and energy that we simply don’t need to spend.
Let’s dig into the implications of that.
The Golden Rule
“Doesn’t ‘stop trying to impress other people’ just mean it’s okay to be rude?” No, it doesn’t mean you should try to make others think negatively of you. It just means you shouldn’t invest extra effort or energy or money into making others think positively of you. What they actually think of you is irrelevant.
Instead, your guideline for how to act around others should be centered more around what you’d like to see in others. It means you should simply treat others the way you’d like to be treated and not worry about impressing them. That’s it.
Do you care at all how a random person on the street is dressed? Do you care at all what they do in their spare time? No. You probably care that they’re clean and practice basic hygiene and aren’t rude or cruel to you. That’s probably the extent to which you care about 99% of the people you are around each day. So, do the same. Wear clean clothes. Don’t smell. Practice basic hygiene. Don’t be rude or cruel. There, you’ve covered everything you need to cover for 99% of the interactions you’ll have with other people.
The golden rule should be the fundamental underlying principle of how you behave. How do you want others to behave toward you as you move through everyday life? For most people, the things above cover it in full – be clean, be nice. Do those things yourself.
Two Kinds of People
If you’re beginning to rethink how much emphasis you put on what other people think, consider that there are really two kinds of people in your life. There are people whose opinions you do care about, and people whose opinions you don’t care about.
When you start looking at people in that type of strict divide and really ask yourself whether or not you care about specific people’s opinions of you, you’ll realize that you just don’t care about the opinions of a lot of people that you might have otherwise been subtly considering with your choices.
In all honesty, I care about the opinions of my wife, my children, my parents, and a very small handful of close friends. Everyone else? It really doesn’t matter to me too much. I follow the golden rule in interacting with them and, if one of them happens to click, maybe I attempt to cultivate a deep friendship.
The thing is, though, I want those people to value me for who I am, not for some image I create. That way, I don’t have to invest money or time or energy into keeping up that image. My close friends value me for who I am; people who don’t do not wind up being my friend.
It is worth noting again that I don’t wish people who don’t necessarily value me for who I am become my enemy, either. This is where the “golden rule” comes in – treat others as you would like to be treated. How would I like people I don’t know well to treat me? That’s how I act towards others. It’s a very simple guideline that works well, one that also doesn’t require an outlay of money or energy.
This leads to another principle…
Be the Person You Want More of in the World
So, who do I want to be around the people whose opinions matter to me? Honestly, I try to be the person I want more of in the world.
If the world was an ideal place for me to live, what kind of person would populate it? I would want kind and empathetic people who are perfectly happy with people different than themselves, concerned about resources they share with other people, and highly passionate about the things they care most about. I would want people who were virtuous, who weren’t cruel behind the backs of others, who were honest in their dealings with others, and who were helpful to others. I would want people with a good sense of humor who weren’t afraid to try new things.
That’s exactly how I try to behave around people whose opinions I care about. I don’t worry about impressing them with my clothes or my gadgets or my house or my car or my appearance. Instead, I try to impress them just by the nature of who I am and my character.
In the end, it’s the relationships forged by the person you are that are the ones that last. No one forges a lifelong friendship because of their clothes or because of their car. Rather, what impresses other people is who you are and how you treat others. Those are the things that are the basis of truly lasting friendships and relationships.
I try to be the person that I would ideally want in my inner circle. That may not be who everyone wants in their life, and that’s okay, but when I find people who match up well, we tend to click, and I don’t alienate others (much, I suppose, which leads right to another interesting point…).
You Can’t Decide If People Like You or Not
You cannot make people like you. You can make almost anyone dislike you, but you can’t make anyone like you. People make that decision within their own minds, and that decision has more to do with them than with you.
Why? People have different values. People hear different things. People see you at moments that you don’t always expect. People have different understandings of words. People have different backgrounds and personal histories.
Those all add up to conclusions about you that you don’t always expect or like.
Clothing and gadgets and a nice car and a nice house and name brand stuff on your shelves isn’t going to help with those conclusions, either. You might be able to nudge it a little bit one way or another for a little while, but it doesn’t take long for their view of you to be much more centered around who you are meshed with their own values.
You can’t control that meshing aside from the character you present to the world. You can nudge it a little in the short term (something we’ll get back to in a bit), but you can’t make people think of you the way you want them to think of you. All you can do is offer up good character (the “golden rule” and being the person you want more of in the world) and know that that’s good enough for most people.
One Relationship That Matters Is Better Than 100 That Don’t
When you intentionally shave off the distinct interesting things about you in order to try to “win friends and influence people,” what you’re actually doing is cutting off potentially deep and meaningful relationships. You’re not going to gain a bunch of friendships by being milquetoast.
You’re much better off about being open about your interests and what you’re thinking about and what you actually care about. Why? Those things will connect you deeply to people with whom you can build meaningful relationships that actually matter in your life.
Being as “normal” as possible in who you are will probably mean people won’t dislike you, but it also means that it will be very hard to form deep and meaningful relationships with people at the same time, because you’re not offering up anything distinct for people to connect to.
You’re far better off building one deep, solid relationship based on mutual interests than having 100 people merely think you’re pleasant. Don’t even worry about those 100 other people aside from practicing the golden rule and being the person you want more of in the world.
It’s Completely Okay If Someone Mildly Dislikes You
“But what if they don’t like me?” It is completely fine for some people to mildly dislike you as long as you’re not mistreating them. The kind of mild dislike that comes in the form of “that person is alright but we don’t have much in common” is utterly innocuous. No one takes action on those kinds of feelings.
People take action on feelings of intense “dislike” or moderate to intense levels of “like.” As I mentioned earlier, you really can’t do too much about whether people like you or not, but you’re much more likely to find a deep connection with someone that you have a lot in common with if you’re open about who you are. This might cause a bit of that kind of very mild dislike in some people, but that kind of mild dislike is basically meaningless. It’s the kind of dislike they might form if they don’t like the kind of coffee in your kitchen or something else that’s essentially random and out of your control.
Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry at all about potential mild dislike. Instead, be that person that you’d love to form a close friendship with. That’s the surest way to make sure that you attract people that you’d want to be around and those are the people you’ll find it easy to build deep relationships with.
The Self Confidence Angle
“But what if I lack self confidence?” Many people spend money to cover up a lack of self confidence. A car or expensive makeup or nice clothes or a nice house, they feel, will make up for that lack of self confidence and make people talk to them.
Trust me when I say this: it doesn’t really work. I used to buy nice clothes and nice gadgets and drove a nice vehicle under the belief that I would feel much more confident with those things, but when I got into social situations, I was still just me. None of that stuff made any difference.
At best, they served as conversation starters a few times, but quite honestly, anything could serve as a conversation starter. There are lots of ways to start a conversation.
The best thing I ever did for creating the appearance of self confidence was reading How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz, and applying the principles I learned from those books. Doing that went much, much farther toward helping me navigate social situations with confidence than any boost I’ve ever received from something I bought in order to feel more confident.
I’ve found that using lots of little things in social situations, like more active listening and asking questions and only speaking when it’s meaningful or humorous, have gone a very long way toward making me feel more confident in social situations. At first, I followed these steps quite mechanically, but as I witnessed the tips working, I found myself doing them more and more until they became more or less natural. I now seem far more social than I really am (according to my wife).
Those simple techniques have a ton of impact for very little cost. On the other hand, buying a house or expensive clothes or a new gadget to impress people has a ton of cost for very little impact. One of those two options makes financial sense.
The Short-Term Connection?
“But how do I get my foot in the door?” For many people, that first impression is vital and they want to nail it with every bit of positive feeling they can muster in the other person.
This is fine for a person working in sales, particularly those on commission, where their livelihood is centered around making a positive short term impression and using that as influence to convince people to buy. So, in a professional setting oriented toward sales, I don’t begrudge people buying nice clothes and a sleek smartphone, and if the customer sees it, a nice car. They’re trying to cultivate every drop of short-term positivity that they can to close the sale, and often it just takes a little bit to tip the scale enough to get that sale.
The problem is that such things fade out pretty quickly over the course of a relationship. The clothes or the car or the gadget might wow someone initially, but their take on you will fairly rapidly end up dependent on who you are rather than your car or your clothes or your gadgets or anything else.
If the short term is all that matters – such as wanting to net a sale or wanting a one-night hookup at a club or something – then those are reasonable choices. If you want anything long term, like a lasting friendship or a lasting professional relationship or a lasting romantic relationship, then it’s other things that matter much more, such as living by the golden rule and being the person you want more of in the world and being more open with the core of who you are and cultivating yourself as a better person.
In short, The Beatles had it right all along. You can’t buy love. You can’t buy your way into friendships or professional relationships or love. Those things are cultivated by who you are, not by what you wear or where you live or the things you have on your shelf.
The best thing you can do improve how others respond to you is to improve who you are and stop worrying about what others think of you. Not only will that save you a ton of money, it’ll end up with better long term results.
This shift won’t happen overnight, but if you start practicing the suggestions in this article, you’ll find yourself slowly worrying less about what others think of you and spending less money as a result of that change.