When Experiences Become About ‘Keeping Up with the Joneses’

There was a time earlier in my life where I was very concerned with “keeping up with the Joneses.” I ran with a crowd that was incredibly focused on buying new things, showing them off to friends and family and acquaintances and neighbors and reveling in their jealousy, and then also being jealous of the things that friends and family and acquaintances and neighbors had.

I remember, at the time, getting a brand new BlackBerry the day it was released. This was during the era where the BlackBerry was the be-all-end-all mobile device, as it was a pretty effective tool for answering email and sending texts on the fly in the pre-iPhone and pre-Android era. I remember showing it to people and seeing their jealously and loving it, then I remember being jealous not too much later when a better model came out and someone else had it.

I was jealous of the cars and clothes and houses that people had, and I felt a ton of pride in what I had and had a desire to show it off. This was normal within my social circle – if I were active on Facebook during that time in my life, I’m sure my feed would have been full of pictures of my latest possessions and likes and comments on the pictures of possessions of my friends and family and acquaintances.

Since then, my own life – and a lot of my own social circle – has undergone a lot of changes. We’ve really drifted away from that kind of materialism. There’s almost no discussion about the things that people have in my social group. It’s just not a part of the conversation.

The same is true for my own personal social media. When I look at what the people in my group post about, it almost never has anything to do with the things they possess.

However, I have noticed a different flavor of oneupmanship in the last few years – the “experience” oneupmanship.

Chasing Experiences, Not Things

There are quite a few people I know who are largely silent on social media unless they’re traveling or going to an interesting place or having an interesting experience.

They’ll post pictures from their cruise ship or from the resort or from the nation halfway around the world that they’re visiting.

They’ll post a bunch of pictures and commentary of their dinner at a restaurant that charges $200 for a plate.

Here’s the thing: I don’t blame them for posting such things, not in the least. Those are great experiences to be having.

Instead, it’s the comments that trouble me a little – and, even more than that, my own reaction.

I’ll read the comments and notice that the post has a whole bunch of reactions, including a ton of likes and loves.

I’ll see that people have written that they’re “soooo jealous” of their vacation. I’ll hear about how that $100 dish looks “amazing.” And I’ll see people saying that they “MUST DO THIS” thing that costs hundreds or thousands of dollars.

The thing is, I sometimes feel that exact same way.

I’ll read or hear about someone’s fantastic vacation or amazing restaurant meal or their cruise and I’ll feel jealous.

I want that experience, too.

I want to “keep up with the Joneses,” not in terms of stuff, but in terms of experiences. I want to see the world. I want to taste the foods. I want to attend the shows.

The thing is, it would be very easy, as a fairly financially responsible person, to fall into that trap. It’s a tricky trap to fall into, too, because you’re not even accumulating any stuff to point out to yourself all of the money you’re spending.

So, how do I solve this?

One strategy, of course, is to just further trim my social circle down to people who just don’t take on expensive experiences – or at least don’t share them. That’s a non-starter. There are people that I deeply value in my life who have the financial means to travel to Paris or Tokyo every year, and they do so. It’s on me to deal with it, not on them. I would do the same thing as them if I were in their financial state.

Here are the five real strategies I use to handle that situation.

One, I think about experiences outside of the glare of social media and social relationships. I don’t consider what we’ll do for our family vacation next year while staring at gorgeous pictures of Tuscany that a friend posted to Facebook. Instead, I think about it after a day or two spent with my family and with time to think about what we really enjoy and what we can sensibly afford.

This often points me toward trips like our family vacation this past summer, where we camped at Yellowstone using a free national parks pass. That trip absolutely nailed the things that my family loves, and it happened on a shoestring budget.

When I think about delicious meals, I don’t stare at pictures of amazing restaurants that friends are talking about. Instead, I look around my own kitchen and wonder what I can create myself for my family.

My decisions about the experiences I enjoy are ones that I make far away from sources that might tempt me and might drive up my “jealousy” factor.

Two, I think about why I’m jealous. The easy answer might be that I wish I could go to Paris on a long weekend, but the real answer is that I wish I could afford a trip to Paris without any long term financial ramifications.

Thinking in that fashion, and realizing that it has less to do with the trip itself and more to do with recognizing that I’m not yet where I want to be financially, pushes me to do better. It pushes me to spend less on unimportant things so that I can have the important things.

It pushes me to not sweat about that trip to Paris right now, but to make smart financial moves so that when we do eventually take a trip like that, the real financial impact is minimal. I don’t yet deserve that experience because I haven’t yet achieved the financial change necessary to make such an experience happen without financial stress. Until then, it’s on me.

Three, I reflect on the financial state of those enjoying the experience. Some of them are at retirement age and are enjoying the fruits of thirty five years of financial planning and hard choices. Others are spending themselves into a deep hole of debt that’s going to add a lot of stress to their life. Still others can outright afford those experiences, but they’re lassoed to a high-stress career to be able to afford it, which takes away from the joys of daily life.

On the whole, I’m pretty happy foregoing most of those “great experiences” in order to be able to enjoy lower stress and contentment in other areas of my life. I don’t have any debt whatsoever. I’m building toward a state of financial independence where I won’t have to work at all, and if I push a little bit past that, I’ll be able to afford such things without any long term financial risk – but I’m not there yet. I have a pretty low stress life, all told, without incredible career pressure. I wouldn’t trade those things away for an annual trip to Jakarta.

Four, I consider what kinds of splurges are also meaningful to my family. If I were to make a list of ten things I would love to do if I were single and didn’t have to worry about anyone else, it would be a much different list than the ten things I’d most love to do with my family. Most of the things I’d love to do with my family are actually lower cost ones, because they involve travel that’s manageable with three children and they involve seeing things in North America that are inherently less expensive to visit.

My solo list involves things like visiting Jakarta. My family list involves camping at Acadia National Park. One of those is pretty expensive. The other one isn’t. Not only that, on the whole, the Acadia trip would be far more meaningful to my family right now, as it would involve lower stress on the parents while also including new experiences and sights for the children that sync up well with what they enjoy.

Finally, if I’m still struggling with experience temptation, I talk to my wife. Like most married couples, Sarah and I have a bunch of mutual friends, some individual friends, and somewhat different social experiences as a result. Often, she’s not exposed to the same “experience temptations” that I am, and vice versa.

So, whenever one of us is feeling jealous and wants to “keep up with the Joneses” with regards to some experience, we just talk to each other. Almost always, the other person will pop a hole in that bubble pretty directly by pointing out how the idea is pretty unnecessary, how it doesn’t really mesh up with our shared goals, and how it’s probably just driven by an empty “keeping up” mindset.

I can’t name how many times Sarah has effectively pushed a pin right into the balloon of a desired experience. I come in wanting to do something or go somewhere and she’ll point out how it is completely out of left field and doesn’t match up with anything. She won’t shout “no,” but will encourage me to sit on the idea and ask myself if it really makes sense in the larger picture of my life. The truth is, when I actually listen to her reasoning and think about it, I realize the desire is pretty silly. And I do the same thing for her.

Relying on a partner with whom you have great communication is an incredibly useful tool for keeping your worst impulses in check.

In the end, experiences can become all about “keeping up with the Joneses” as material items are, especially in the age of social media. The best tool that you have in your repertoire is to step back, breathe, and reflect on why you feel that way, especially if you have a partner to talk it through with.

Good luck!

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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.