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The Huge Expense of Cultural Norms
Having a big wedding. Going out to the club with friends routinely. Exchanging gifts at Christmas with extended family. Going out for dinner routinely. Driving a shiny new car. Living in a bigger house than necessary (or even homeownership in general). Going out for drinks routinely. Wearing makeup and/or jewelry. Watching television.
Chances are that you subscribe to at least some of these cultural norms in America, and there’s a good chance you can name a lot of people in your life that subscribe to virtually all of these practices.
What do all of these things have in common?
First of all, they’re largely considered cultural norms in America. At the very least, you’re considered normal if you partake in them – no one is going to think your behavior is strange or unusual in the least if you do these things.
For many, it can feel as though you’re not viewed as normal if you don’t participate in these activities or have these things as personal goals. Often, there are small social pressures applied to encourage you to do these things; sometimes, in the case of things like weddings, the social pressure can be pretty large.
Of course, the other element these things have in common is that they’re all incredibly expensive. They’re either big expenses on their own, like the big wedding or the big house, or they’re little expenses that repeat so frequently that they add up, like going out to eat all the time.
Over and over again, people find themselves spending tons of money to live up to those kinds of cultural norms. We all have a desire to fit in and one of the ways we can easily do that is by subscribing to many of the things that other people around us seem to be doing so that we naturally have things in common with them. The problem is that many of those things that we see and adopt are really expensive things.
Almost every cultural norm that I listed at the start of this article – the big wedding, going out to clubs, going out to eat, going out for drinks, having a big house, having a nice car, exchanging gifts, and so on – is expensive. You might find one or two of them to be personally enjoyable, but it’s likely that you see a lot of them as either a tolerable convenience or an obligation that you feel like you have to live up to.
Here’s a big secret: You really don’t have to live up to expensive cultural norms. If you don’t want a big wedding, don’t have one. If you don’t want to go into deep debt for a car, don’t. If you don’t want to take on the pressures and costs of homeownership, don’t. You do not have to do these things.
Of course, for many, that’s easier said than done. Social pressure might not always be an obvious thing, but it’s there and it can really squeeze you. Sometimes it’s tight and it can push you into a quick, rash decision, like when your friends are nagging you to go out for an expensive dinner that you can’t really afford. Sometimes it’s less tight but constant, like the sense that everyone you know is buying a home of their own while you have the same old apartment.
Here are seven strategies for overcoming those kinds of pressures to adopt expensive cultural norms.
Strategy #1: Stop Worrying About What Other People Think
If you want to improve your financial state, there’s almost nothing you can do that’s more important than this. You absolutely have to stop worrying about what other people think. Instead, re-center your life around what you think and what you value, not what the people around you think or value. Live your life and make your financial choices in accordance to what you care about, not what the people around you care about.
People often interpret this idea in strange ways. For example, this doesn’t mean you should become an antisocial jerk. Instead, in terms of interacting with other people, you should strive to be the person you would want to interact with. Be the person on the street that you wish was the person on the street. Be the friend you wish was your friend. Be the coworker you wish was your coworker. If you stick to that (and have any interest in having positive relationships with family, friends, community, and coworkers), you really don’t have to worry about what others think of you.
If you truly stop worrying what other people think, one of the biggest drives for keeping up with expensive cultural norms just goes away. For example, if you think that giving expensive gifts to extended family members is a stressful misuse of money but you still love all of those people, talk to them and find different ways to express that love. Have a giant potluck dinner that’s low-key and less stressful instead of a big holiday gift exchange, for example. Choose a place to live according to what you need, not according to what you think Aunt Thelma might think about it. Does Aunt Thelma have to live there? Is Aunt Thelma going to actually think about your residence for more than five seconds of her life? No and no. Don’t waste your time and energy and money worrying about it one bit.
Strategy #2: Figure Out What You Want, Not What Your Family/Friends/Culture Wants
This whole process begins with figuring out what you actually want without the pressure of your culture and the people around you. If you truly throw off the weight of worrying about what other people think… what exactly are you left with? What is it that you want?
For example, once I really stopped worrying too much about impressing other people, I realized that the thing I wanted most in life was a low-stress day-to-day life with time available to engage in my hobbies and passions, and really strong relationships with my family members and core friends with a positive role in the community. That meant stepping back a little from devoting all of my energy to building my businesses. That meant spending less money on shorter term desires. It also meant spending almost no money on impressing other people, since they had very little to do with achieving what I wanted.
What is it that you want?
This is actually a pretty difficult question to answer. Many books have been written on addressing this very question because it’s not something that comes easy to most of us.
For me, the answer really came from asking one question as seriously as possible. Let’s assume that your life goes pretty well (but not unrealistically well) for the next few years, and let’s also assume that you’re surrounded with people who are supportive of whatever you might do. If those two things were true, what would your ideal typical days look like? What would a good work day look like? What would a good “off day” look like?
Turn that question over in your mind for a while. Come back to it over the course of several days. Then, start asking yourself what kinds of things would have to be in place to make that life exist, particularly in terms of things you can control (or mostly control). Would you have to have a firm financial foundation? Would you have to have low stress?
Those are the things you should be filling your time with and working on. Even if they don’t lead exactly to the picture you have in your head, it’s likely that they’ll lead to somewhere you want to be in life.
The surprising thing I’ve found is that for myself and most of the people I know, actually making progress on those things is usually very inexpensive (or even directly financially beneficial) and deeply satisfying.
Strategy #3: Stick with Low-Cost and Comfortable Cultural Norms
An important thing to remember is that not all cultural norms are expensive. Many of the common things people share aren’t expensive at all – many are completely free. Those are things that you shouldn’t drop and should actually try to emphasize a little, especially if you find personal value in them as well.
For example, one of my favorite ways to connect with friends is to simply sit down and have a nice dinner with them, full of conversation and laughter and decent food and maybe some wine and lots and lots and lots of lingering at the table and a slow progression through the meal. This used to be fulfilled by the expensive ritual of going to restaurants, but we realized that we could capture the same exact thing at a tiny fraction of the price with regular potluck dinner parties. The host plans a simple meal that doesn’t require them to live in the kitchen and requests a simple side or beverage or something from everyone who shows up. This allows everyone to laugh and linger for as long as they want without any pressure at all from the restaurant or waitstaff. It’s actually a better experience, all told.
When my wife and I got married, one of the few things we did was choose to have a smaller and simpler wedding. We actively sought friends and family to help make it something special, requesting help as our wedding gift rather than an item. In the end, that’s what made our wedding special – it intimately involved a lot of our separate families coming together. That didn’t cost much, but it definitely hit a cultural value.
If you’re struggling with this, always ask yourself, “Why are people doing this?” There’s usually a reason behind almost everything that people do, and if you dig into that reason, you’ll find that you can often have the core element behind it without spending money. Why are we having a big wedding? It’s to celebrate a big occasion with friends and family. Why? It’s the people. So make it about the people, not about the accoutrements. Focus on the real value behind what you’re doing and you can usually get right at that core value without spending much money and while retaining an awful lot of that cultural norm.
Strategy #4: Set Meaningful Long-Term Goals and Make Achieving Them a Priority
People often ascribe to things like the “American dream” of having a marriage and a house with a yard and two kids and a dog because it’s a set of big goals that’s presented everywhere and thus really easy to adopt. There’s a lot of cultural reinforcement of those goals and if you don’t already have your own plan, it’s usually easier to just lock onto those and follow the rails.
The thing is, for a lot of people, that “American dream” doesn’t bring a joyous and fulfilling life. It does for many, but not nearly for everyone. Plus, it’s an expensive dream. To be able to afford that life today is beyond the means of a lot of Americans, and even some of those who can grab it can only do so by leveraging a lot of debt and squeaking by.
A much better approach is to step back and define your own big life goals. What is it that you want out of life?
Again, the practice of stepping back and asking yourself what your life would look like if you had supportive people and relatively good outcomes is a good practice. What does a really great life five or 10 years from now look like for you if you assume that the people in your life are supportive of the things you want to do and you have reasonably (but not exceptionally) good outcomes for things outside of your control? Now, what do you need to do in the next five or 10 years to put yourself in position to have that life? Those are your long-term goals.
Now, what can you do to achieve them? Put those long-term goals front and center. Many people will have goals that involve building strong life relationships. Many people will also have goals that involve building a firm financial foundation. Aside from that… it could be anything.
The thing to remember is that when you work on and achieve those goals, they’re usually going to be helpful no matter what you end up wanting in a few years. Sure, your desired destination might change, but most worthwhile goals you set while working on reaching that destination will be helpful no matter what you do. A good financial foundation will almost always help. Strong relationships will almost always help. Things like impressing random people on the street? Not so helpful.
The key thing here is to focus on what you want. Where do you want to be? Center on that and drive for that.
Strategy #5: Stick To Your Guns…
There are going to be lots of temptations along the way. There are going to be lots of nudges to move in a different direction, to adopt everyone else’s goals, to do what everyone else wants you to do.
Don’t fall into that trap. Stick to your big goals and the life you want.
The most successful practices I’ve found for helping with this is to really understand what I want and be able to explain that in simplest terms to the people in my life who are trying to nudge me a different way. I try to explain what I want out of life and how what I’m doing is taking me there in the simplest way possible.
For example, you might say that I’m driving this old vehicle because, frankly, it still runs well and gets me to where I want to go, and I want to instead use that money to get my house paid off early. If you say that when someone is nudging you about replacing your car, that’s a reasonable answer. Just nodding your head and saying nothing won’t make the nudging go away, nor will a combative response, nor will criticism of their goals. Just state what it is that you want and how you’re achieving it.
Don’t let other people persuade you away from the big things that you want. There’s often a big desire inside of us to subscribe to cultural norms and to please other people. The path you’re following, when it doesn’t follow the obvious path, isn’t always clear. The best counter you have is simplicity and clarity. You are doing X to achieve Y, and it’s very rare that Y is something objectionable. If the connection between X and Y is clear, that’s usually more than enough ammo to stick to your guns.
Strategy #6: …But Find Ways to Compromise
Sometimes, however, compromise is needed. The trick here is to find what’s in common between your plans and their vision.
This happened a lot during our wedding planning. The various interested parties had all kinds of recommendations for what our wedding would look like, mostly in line with their vision that they had in their head.
Sarah and I stuck to our plan, but rather than having conflicts about it, we sat down and actually talked to everyone about what they pictured our wedding would look like, and then we pointed out how many things our visions had in common. Most of the people present were the same. The locations were mostly the same. The general structure of the ceremony was the same. The people involved were largely the same. The only pieces that were different were things like decorations in the reception hall, and in the big scheme, those were really small things. Our approach was to say, “That’s a great idea!” a lot to the things that they were saying that fit well, so that on the specific handful of elements where we disagreed, there was still a strong sense of compromise and working together.
You’ll find by taking this approach of looking at all of the elements in common and putting emphasis on them, and then perhaps compromising on low-cost elements, you can end a lot of conflicts that people might have. Look at all of the stuff you have in common rather than dwelling on the things that are different. Trust me – spending most of your time brainstorming on how to make the things you agree on as awesome as possible will make the things you don’t disagree on seem minor in comparison, especially when you compromise a little on the lower cost things.
Strategy #7: Define Your Own Culture
Remember earlier when I talked about setting long-term goals with the assumption that you’re surrounded by supportive people who either share what you’re aiming for or at least are supportive and understanding of it? That’s what I mean by defining your own culture.
You should make a conscious effort to fill your life with a variety of people who share at least some significant set of values with you. You don’t have to share all values with everyone in your life – that’s probably not a good thing, either – but being in constant conflict with the people in your life isn’t healthy and it isn’t conducive to you achieving the things you want for your own life.
Make a conscious effort to cultivate friendships and relationships oriented around being supportive of each other and positive about each other’s efforts and goals and steps. If you have a friend or family member who is always rather negative about you and what you’re doing, consciously choose to minimize that relationship (not eliminate, just minimize). If you have other friends who always seem really supportive of your efforts, genuinely listen to you, and are often helpful, maximize those relationships by consciously spending more time with those people and actually listening to them and being supportive of them as well.
It is good to sometimes have gentle disagreements with people, because disagreements usually lead to better ideas. The difference between a disagreement between supportive people and disagreements between negative people is that supportive disagreements are couched in the idea that you’re truly trying to find the best possible outcome, whereas negative disagreements are centered around changing the other person’s mind and actions by any means necessary. Gentle, constructive disagreements with supportive people are fantastic – I have them regularly with my friends. Destructive disagreements are best avoided and I try to minimize relationships where they occur.
The key thing to always remember is that you don’t have to be steered by what other people seem to expect from you or what you feel like society wants you to do. Even though those forces can be very powerful, they often can steer you down a lane that’s incredibly expensive and not really in line with what you want out of life. Stay in that path for too long and you find yourself financially trapped in a life that you don’t really want to live.
You are far better off avoiding expensive cultural norms that don’t match what you want out of life all the way along than following that path and finding yourself stuck in a moment that you can’t get out of.
Not only that, by avoiding expensive cultural norms that you don’t value, you’re going to have a lot of resources left over for the kind of life that you do value. Let that vision of life be your guiding light.