We all like to feel normal, and nothing helps you feel normal like having the same stuff as your neighbors. Having the same gadgets and cars lets you feel like you fit in with your neighbors, and there is also a status component—having what others have can trigger feelings of success. Unfortunately, all that stuff can also lead to loads of debt, and keep you from reaching your financial goals.
Keeping up with the proverbial Joneses can have negative financial consequences. It’s time to realize that the Joneses have probably maxed out their credit cards and are in debt up to their ears. Comparing what you have to what the neighbors have, and using that stuff as a yardstick to determine your level of success, can quickly lead to too much debt.
If you want to remain debt-free, keep your personal financial goals in mind. Remind yourself that you don’t want to go into debt just to try and impress the people around you. Remember: For most middle-class and upper-middle-class families, more stuff isn’t actually a sign of wealth. It’s an attempt to gain a little extra status by appearing rich.
According to the Federal Reserve, average household debt is on the rise as of the fourth quarter of 2012. More than likely, all the cool things you see at the Joneses’ home are financed. If you decide that you need all the same items in order to prove your level of success, the only thing you’re really doing is keeping up with the Joneses’ debt level rather than enjoying a degree of wealth.
Instead of spending all your cash on the next big thing, remind yourself that you want to truly build wealth. Having the same possessions as your neighbors won’t help you meet that objective.
Focus on your own priorities
The idea of “keeping up with the Joneses” becomes important only when you’re focusing on what others have and trying to keep score. Instead of looking at those around you and adopting their priorities, look at what’s truly important to you. It’s easier to resist the urge to be like your neighbors when you are focused on improving your own situation and using your financial resources in a way that brings you satisfaction.
One of the ways that my husband and I stay focused on our priorities is to live in a modest home in a modest neighborhood. With our income, some may say we should be in a bigger house in a more expensive neighborhood. However, living in such an environment would increase the temptation to conform to the expenditures that are often expected with a larger home.
Instead, our housing expenses amount to less than one-fifth of our monthly income, and we use the remaining money for the things that are most important to us.
Determine your priorities as a family
My son once asked why we have such a small television in comparison with the sets he sees in his friends’ homes. This question led to a conversation about how often we actually watch TV, and what we do instead. We also talked about the things we do with the money it would take to buy a new 50-inch TV. After talking about our family priorities and thinking about the things we can do since we aren’t spending money on a bigger TV, my son decided that a big TV wasn’t that important.
Let others spend money on what they want, and be happy with your own spending choices. Stop using stuff as your measure of success. Find other ways to measure your success in finances—and in life.
When you decide to focus on your quality of life and recognize what makes your life great, the impulse to compare yourself to the Joneses—and to try to keep up with them—lessens.
Miranda Marquit is a freelance writer and professional blogger specializing in personal finance, family finance and business topics. She writes for several online and offline publications. Miranda is the co-author of Community 101: How to Grow an Online Community, and the writer behind PlantingMoneySeeds.com.