Updated on 04.10.07

Overcoming The Social Obligation To Keep Up With The Joneses

Trent Hamm

I received a very heartfelt email from a reader that I’m going to reprint below (with some grammatical fixes). It was written to me in response to my earlier post concerning when frugality finally pays off.

I’ve been debt free for five years, I own my own home, and I have almost 200K in investments that I’ve built up myself, but I still feel really inadequate when I go to work. I see others buying expensive cars, dressing in very expensive clothes, using gadgets of all kinds, and talking about trips. They all own very expensive, gorgeous homes, while mine is small and not so nice.

I feel guilty every day at work, as though I am poor and they are rich. I know that some of them are in deep debt situations behind the scenes, but that’s not what people see, and they put forth an air of success, and I don’t feel like I appear successful at all.

This is a problem that I face in my life as well, and it’s a tricky one to overcome. For many of us, appearing successful is a part of our employment, at least if we want to be able to be promoted or to fit in with our working peers.

Over time, I’ve come up with a toolbox of techniques that I use to manage expectations at work with my own frugal values at home. Hopefully, some of these techniques will make your work and home life feel more in balance.

Buy nice clothes that mix and match well. Once you have a foundation of quality clothing that mixes together quite well (for me, ties, dress shirts, khakis, and a small selection of jackets), every addition you make to this wardrobe makes it feel as though your clothing options have multiplied. Thus, you actually don’t have to spend very much on clothes to look sharp – just occasionally add new individual items to the wardrobe and rotate out items that are starting to get old. The key is not to buy complete outfits that are incompatible with the majority of your other clothes. If you do this, you can appear as though you have an enormous wardrobe of nice clothes without having many at all.

Practice effective personal hygiene. Keep yourself as clean as possible. Wash your hands several times a day. Brush your teeth and use breath fresheners all the time. This may seem vain, but the real reason for it is so that you can put forth a positive impression of yourself on others.

Keep your car clean. Wash it regularly and keep it as shiny as you can. Try to minimize the junk inside (though with toddlers, this is sometimes difficult – my son likes to hide books in my truck and such). A clean car, even an older one, exhibits a lot more pride and value than a dirty one, and all it takes is a bit of water and soap.

Talk up your investments. When people are talking about their gadgets, compliment the gadgets. If they ask you what you’re up to, talk about your investments. They’re your “gadgets,” after all. This quickly cultivates an air of success around you in a different fashion – just be aware that some people will completely lie about their investments in the workplace.

Know that you’re doing the right thing. If you do these other things, you can feel as though your external appearances are up to the task. But what about internally? Work on drawing confidence from the fact that you’re doing the right thing by saving your money and investing it. When the others sit there and talk about throwing money away on vacations and an above-ground pool, know quietly that you will have these things eventually if you want them and that you won’t be sacrificing your future to have them.

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  1. Bill K. says:

    “Talk up your investments. When people are talking about their gadgets, compliment the gadgets. If they ask you what you’re up to, talk about your investments. They’re your “gadgets,” after all. This quickly cultivates an air of success around you in a different fashion – just be aware that some people will completely lie about their investments in the workplace.”

    What an interesting idea Trent. I feel much like this reader does, in the sense that I get a lot of people that look at me as “just a county worker” when in reality, yes I work for Govt IT, but I’m much more financially successful than most of them and their debt ridden behinds.

    I was always was taught not to talk about money, but when you frame it as one of my “gadgets” it makes me more comfortable talking about it. And I think that might help me with my image.

  2. Don R. says:

    Another simple thing to do: sell the car and buy a used luxury car. A used Jaguar or Mercedes or even BMW is about the same as a new Honda Accord. The only downside is fixing them costs a lot more. But if you have $200k in investments, you don’t have to worry about it!

  3. Canadian says:

    I think it’s even more effective to change your attitude rather than to try to make yourself appear different to others. Isn’t it even better not to care if anyone notices that you sometimes wear the same shirt twice in the same week? It’s not important.

    If someone compliments me on my shirt I will tell them the truth about it: I bought it at a thrift shop. Also I am not shy about telling people that I don’t have a car. Or that I don’t have cable. If I am more open about these choices, then maybe that will contribute to changing the general atmosphere at work, and it will make other people feel that these choices would be legitimate for them also. (And also allow other people to feel comfortable ” coming out of the closet” about their choices.)

  4. Luke says:

    Trent…I really like that idea about talking up investments…Spot on…

    When Suzy from accounting says, “I just spent $500 on these cool new speakers”, you can say, “I just spent $500 buying stock in that company” or something of similar wit.

    I think for someone doing as well as the reader you are quoting in your article, they MUST set aside some money for themselves for clothing and other items of importance. Like you said, mix and match items. Buy that nice QUALITY leather jacket for a little more than you might, but then add in some quality, affordable pieces into the fray.

    Penny wise, pound foolish can take shape in clothes and shoes as some folks would rather buy six-pairs of crappy shoes from a low-end store that wear out and rip, than buy one quality pair that outlasts all six. Also buying a couple quality accessories can really spruce up any outfit. Think about a quality watch, nice belt or something like that.

    Also, buying a pre-owned “luxury” Lexus from a few years back with say 60,000 miles is far better than renting/financing the same brand that is brand new.

  5. Kevin says:

    A different tack on the used luxury car: buy an INTERESTING non-luxury used car. I have a 1998 Sebring convertible (purchased used but under manufacturer warranty). It turns heads and is FUN. However, it didn’t cost me nearly what a new one would.

    Go even older and you can get cool cars for a song — and make them look stylish with a fresh paint job. An old VW or MG for example. Jeep Wranglers can likewise be interesting, fun and inexpensive.

    The nice thing is that it only costs a little more for a fun used car as it does for a used sedan.

  6. Luke says:

    And you dont have to “put forth an air of success” if you really like nice jackets or what have you…Some folks simply like to have nice things of better quality for themselves…I would suggest that the person having difficulty at work, figure out what makes her happy and then carefully go for it…

  7. When you find the need to compare investment assets to the physical assets of the Joneses, you are still perpetuating the “competition”. If you can break free from this mentality, and recognize your independence from the ultra-consumerist crowd, you’ll come to appreciate the fact that there’s a whole lot more to living below your means than just saving up lots of money, and the urge to justify a frugal way of life will fade away.

  8. You really don’t have to spend alot on clothes to look good. Today I loved my outfit that I wore, but each piece was bought on sale. I wore black courderoy capris ($10), a patterned shirt that I’ve had for a couple of years that hasn’t gone out of style ($10) and an elegant jacket piece ($12). The dress shoes I wore cost me about $10 as well.

    I can and have worn all pieces with many other pieces of clothing in my wardrobe. My cost-per-wear for each of them is well under $1 with the exception of the jacket which is relatively new.

    A good tip: When you shop, ask yourself if the thing you want to buy matches at least 2 items in your wardobe. For example, if you’re buying a shirt, does it match at least two pairs of pants or skirts?

  9. M says:

    I am generally very frugal, but when I do spend money, I spend my money on quality.

    It’s almost bad, because people think I spend a lot of money, but I don’t really, I just make sure that when I do spend my money, I spend it on something I really need and that will last for a long time, and I make sure I make the most of the money I’m spending.

    For example, I recently had to buy a lot of backpacking/camping equipment for a geology field camp this summer. Instead of going to Academy and spending $100 on crap that will need to be thrown away at the end of the summer, I went to REI and spent more (on clearance items) that will last for years and years and is very high quality as well.

    I don’t spend more than $200 on clothes a year. Of course I could spend much less than that, so I don’t know if that’s frugal compared to other men, but I try to buy high-quality clothes that look good and will last a long time.

    My mother and brothers (still minors living with her) spend all her money, but they spend it on a lot of crap they aren’t going to use for very long.

  10. Kay says:

    A small home can be far more charming than a large, glamorous one if neatly kept, decorated with personal style, and welcoming to friends. Classic clothing is an investment, whether you bought it at a thrift store or on sale (I highly recommend picking up books from the Chic Simple series — from a library or used book store, if you like — to learn how to judge garment quality, care for your clothing, and make rich-looking outfits).

    There’s nothing wrong with wanting to appear as successful as your superficial colleagues, but remember, their success is only skin deep. Your attitude of success can justifiably come from within — you’ve done some excellent work! — and your smile and the set of your shoulders can reflect the fact that you don’t have bill collectors hounding you, you’re not one paycheck away from disaster, and you’re living in a way that matches your values.

  11. Anne says:

    Canadian, I am with you on this one. I’m often telling people about a great deal I’ve found, a way I’ve discovered of making something at home, how I got this skirt you find cute for $4 at Ross, etc. I’m proud of the way I live and feel like rather than having someone impose their “things” on me, I can show off a different way to live.

  12. Mohammed says:

    Reading your posts from the UAE. Good stuff.

    Another point here is to remember that those people are talking about things owned by their bank/credit card company. Realise that they are STILL PAYING (with interest!) for the stuff they talk about as their own. So, they are not actually talking about their possessions, they are talking about their debts!

    When someone mentions their car (and you are comfortable with that person) ask them when they will clear the loan on it.

  13. Vincent says:

    You’ve had a vein of posts going about how to save money, and this particular post struck a chord with me, especially the car part.

    One thing definitely worth learning is car maintenance and repair. I can’t tell you the hundreds (probably thousands!) of dollars I’ve saved by learning to work on my own car. It helps that my father grew up doing things like that and could take apart a hot rod and rebuild it from the ground up, but almost every car available to the public has a manual based on an entire tear-down and rebuild known as the Haynes manual, available at almost any car part place (AutoZone, O’Reily, etc.). There are also many specialty books out there that are even better than Haynes, but Haynes is usually a great starting point.

    I say this because your reader isn’t alone in his car concerns (obviously, from the comments thusfar), and I can sympathize. However, my only car is a 1987 Volvo 760 Turbo. Yes, it’s from 1987, and yes, it’s a box, but despite its aged and boxy appearance, people still recognize it as an expensive car–especially once they sit in it. Shiny black and chrome exterior with heated, powered black leather seats and climate control inside.

    I’m not saying the old Volvo is for everybody–I love these cars, myself, quirks and all–but I’m saying that I paid $1500 for the car. And I’ve spent maybe $200 on parts in the last three or four years keeping it on the road, not including general maintenance like oil, brake pads, and tires. I’ve put lots and lots of miles on it, and she’s still going strong. Keep in mind that older cars (especially pre-1996 vehicles) tend to be simpler to repair with fewer electronic gadgets.

    What’s more, the old Volvos are somewhat chic now. Kind of out of nowhere they became “cool” to own. So people see my shiny black little turbocharged European machine and classify me as somebody with money, despite its age. I’ve had several people assume I could afford something and when I don’t give in, they say “Come on, you drive a Volvo!” like the year doesn’t matter.

    Sorry for the long comment, but I thought it worth mentioning. Buy an older car that’s “cool” and at the same time luxurious and learn to work on it. You can get a basic, cheap set of tools for not a lot of money (though you’ll want to replace/upgrade eventually, much like people do with cookware), you’ll learn much more about your vehicle and take pride in it (I consider my car my friend…a neglected friend at the moment, but a friend nonetheless), and you’ll save untold amounts of money by keeping it on the road yourself rather than paying a mechanic you can’t really trust to do work that you can’t be sure he’s done right. The work is honest and enjoyable and worth the time it takes to do.

  14. Dagny says:

    I work in a technical field where one’s workplace status is based on what one knows, not what one looks like. I believe this attitude can be realized in other kinds of work … people generally know how well, or not, their peers are performing at their jobs.
    Me: own home with no mortgage, ~ $350K investments, 10 year old car (bought for cash) in great shape, small wardrobe, not much jewlery, no big screen tv. But I do own 5 computers :-)

  15. laura k says:

    I’m also with Canadian about it being an attitude adjustment. If you are happy with the way you are, that will shine through in your personality and will automatically give off the “air of success” the reader is looking for.

    Of course that does not mean that the reader will necessarily _feel_ successful all the time. Although I don’t really like the phrase “fake it till you make it,” there is some truth in it. Acting successful will trick your brain into thinking you are, which ultimately will make you successful.

    Finally, success depends on how you measure it. It sounds like the reader is still struggling to redefine it for him/herself. Kudos to the reader for taking that step!


  16. Celli says:

    Wow, i just read “over social obligation to keep up with the Joneses” I can totally relate. My siblings are very critical of the choices I have made in my life. The often consider me the “poor” one of the family and it really upsets me and my husband. I will certainly put some of your advise to practice. I also hate how they verbalize it and it’s to the point where my son thinks we are poor! But really we’re almost debt free (working on one credit card) we have a healthy savings and both have a healthy size 401K, we’ll have our house paid in less than 10 years but still…. all my family feels sorry for us becaseu we dont’ drive a Mercedes Benz ( like many of my siblings and thier husbands and dont’ have the 2 story 3,000 square foot home.

    At work, what I also found makes people really look at you differnlty is perfume. I’m pretty frugal, but when it comes to perfume, I splurge and spend on a good bottle of perfume. I’ve had several people comment on how I smell, and when they ask I tell them and it raises eyebrows, especailly from those who know perfume prices!

  17. Kevin Spring says:

    I love driving around my 8 year old truck. Remember Sam Walton drove his beat up pickup all over the place and did not feel inferior about it. You are not what you drive or what you wear.

  18. Jack says:

    I think most people need to realize that if you don’t have all the resources in the world, there’s no way you can afford all or even many of the material items that convey status. However, if you have enough resources to pick and choose, this is the best way to go. For me I’ve had to overcome considerable credit card debt by reducing spending. I drove a base model Nissan pickup that I bought used for nine years before I bought another new car in 2006. This pickup allowed me to save money so I could eventually buy the car I wanted. The nine years was a long time where I just lost interest in having a newer vehicle because I could not afford it. Having said that I am a car guy who knows which vehicles are worthy in terms of reliability, performance, engineering and value. If you know what you’re buying and it works for you, don’t worry about what others are trying to do with their status vehicles. Much of the time, they cost more to maintain and are not as reliable. Basically people who can afford to buy a status vehicle will be happy because they feel they’re getting what they want, but you should be happy with what you have because it works for you and you have savings or investments that are working for you. Maybe people who have status vehicles have a comfortable amount of savings and investments as well. Basically everyon e needs to decide where their level of comfort is as far as spending, saving and investing.

  19. DivaJean says:

    On some level, you just have to get in the mindset that their issues are not yours. You do not have to “fit in” and be like them- just professional and work appropriate.

    In my workplace, I rub elbows with co workers who may only be working for the health insurance. Their spouses own their business (home repair, etc) while the wives are cubicle rangers like me. I on the other hand, am the sole wage earner while my life partner is home with our 4 kids. No one can understand how I “do it” but then lunchtime talk goes into all the recreational shopping, keeping up with the Joneses type stuff- I phase out. I can recall a recent discussion about a co worker seeking to get her aged mother out shopping for a dress to wear to a wedding. Everyone was aghast that the co workers mom didn’t want to- she would rather wear something she already had. The discussion around the table pretty much made it clear that nothing under $100 dress is acceptable. When I pointed out potentially talking the mom into going to reasonably priced stores as a compromise- everyone was equally aghast. Then I pointed out the fact that I had searched in all kinds of stores from the thrift shops on up to specialty stores for a decent dress to wear to a freind’s wedding this summer- and ended up finding what I wanted at a discount store for $12. This was pooh poohed as something not really feasible.

    You can try to explain, but they might not get it. Just stick to your own guns- don’t start falling for some of the ideas above that basically try to trick people into thinking you are playing the game (buying a different car, etc). Once you start down that path, its harder to stop.

  20. Andy says:

    When they talk about their gadget, talk about the ten percent you give to your favorite non-profits each year.

  21. viola says:

    This is a great post Trent! I’m in the same boat as you….the area I live in house value is min. 170k for a smaller house. Most people drive new cars, maybe not Lexus but nice cars. DH & I are in the 25% tax bracket.

    Guess what me & DH drive? He drives a 99 Honda Accord w/ a dent in the side (not bad though). I drive a 97 Saturn 138k miles w/ back small corner window broken out (although it is covered with clear contact paper which has worked like a charm). I just can’t bring myself to pay $300 for a stupid little window…when I know I could spend that on the mechanics of my car.

    I used to be stuck in the trap of needing to buy things to feel like I was good financially. Now I know that nothing makes you more financially free than money in the bank (or in assets).

  22. Agent M says:

    Ok, so when did driving your nice/reliable Ford, Dodge, or Chevy become unacceptable or not fancy?

    I love American Made Machines!

    Our American principles of being the best… are put at stake when we value/envy what other countries can make. Us as American can take that back, by growing a back bone and saying with PRIDE! I drive a 1994 Ford Ranger with 190,000 miles! =)

    The only one who can make you feel inadequate/poor is yourself!

  23. Docah says:

    I love reading these posts and the replies. It reminds me that what I’m doing is the right thing for me.

    My friends scoffed a bit at first, then they realized I’m living on half my income. Over time, I’ve become the go-to guy on money, and many other things. Not the guy with the latest and greatest, just the guy with the things that work together. The guy with the well maintained reliable American car. I don’t mind that one bit.

  24. daydreamr says:

    There is never going to be an end to the game. If you get a ‘better’ car someone else will out do you. They will get ‘nicer’ clothes, gadgets, etc. Attitude IS everything. If you feel inferior you will be. I wouldn’t talk about $ because it tends to turn people into hungry vultures. Just act like they don’t matter, and they don’t. You’ll do just fine.

  25. Carol Mickey says:

    I drove an old car, a 79 Caddy, and then an 84 for years and my husband and I were both frugal. We bought a smaller house to live in that what we could affort. We invested our money in IRA and stocks. We buy loss leaders at the supermarket and shop thrift stores when we can. My husband retired at 57 and we live a comfortable life. You have to decide what is important to you. If it is impressing other people so be it if that is what is important. Myself, I do not care what other people think. Read the Millionaire next door.


  26. Katherine says:

    I can’t believe the advice offered here! Brush your teeth and wash you car to address feelings of inadequacy that result from comparing yourself to others at work?! Are you kidding me? How about offering some – you are wonderful as you are affirmation? Be proud of yourself for getting out of debt! That is a GREAT accomplishment! Don’t waste time comparing yourself to others – someone will always have more, someone will always have less … and neither of those people change that you will have what you have. So enjoy it! You are doing a great job! CONGRATS on being debt free! Now just work on being proud of yourself!

  27. reulte says:

    A small story on the subject:
    My mom (as smart as they come, Depression-era Kentucky-backwoods-poor childhood, and currently working on her $2nd million thru investments and frugality) enjoys driving past the local Starbucks. One day a passenger asked her “Why? Did she enjoy the coffee/snacks that much?” My mom replied that she never went into the cafe-shop, but she just loved watching her investments.

    You might try something in the same nature. “You just bought a Harley Davidson motorcycle? Thanks, I have stock in that company!”

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