As a personal finance enthusiast I read a lot about the so-called neighbors of the Joneses. Do you know these folks? This imaginary family that supposedly wants to purchase expensive cars, ginormous houses and extravagant vacations just to keep up with their neighbors. We are told their overwhelming envy and desire for social status forces them into a world full of worthless stuff and overwhelming debt.
Bloggers and newspaper journalists love to squeeze that old idiom into any article that involves consumption and overspending. The Joneses are our modern way of explaining the desire to live beyond our means.
But I’m not sure the expression “Keeping up with the Joneses” gets to the root of a spender’s motivations. Is this make-believe family really trying to keep up with their neighbors or is there more to this fictitious story? Why do these people spend so much money? Does their desire to spend really stem from a place of competition, social status and envy?
I have a theory. I think a lot of us, (myself included at times), live on autopilot. Many of us are tired of the monotony of the life we live. We spend so much energy on the day-to-day motions, (filling our cars with gas, driving to work, paying bills and taking care of our kids), that we simply don’t have the mental energy to focus our attention on how and why we spend.
After a long day in the office, many individuals with unfulfilling jobs or unhappy relationships find themselves in a mental stupor. In this state of mental drain it is easy to see why someone would choose to eat in a restaurant or order from the drive-thru rather than go home and prepare a satisfying meal.
Given this frame of mind it’s not hard to imagine why someone would buy a pricey car that provides comforts during a grueling commute or why a husband would buy a large house with plenty of rooms to separate himself from a distant spouse he no longer loves.
These days the act of buying stuff is effortless. You don’t even need money in order to go to the register and purchase a cart full of things! Think about it. You just need a credit card and the agreement that one day you will pay for the items you purchased. If our credit limit is high enough we can ignore our feelings and continue spending in a mindless daze.
I don’t personally think this fictitious family is spending money just to keep up with their neighbors. I think they spend money for many reasons, one of which is to ignore the pain, disappointment and unhappiness in their lives.
Those words sound awfully dreadful, but I do believe they are true for many. Those of us in the personal finance community know that happiness does not come from spending money, but for some the momentary satisfaction of a new and shiny object is incentive enough to continue in their otherwise miserable lives.
I don’t really believe that those imaginary Joneses look out the window and worry that their house is smaller than their neighbors. If anything they mistakenly wish for the happiness a bigger home will buy.
As I look around in my fourth decade on this earth I see a lot of unhappy people in the world. I suppose there are also a lot of happy people walking around on this planet, but maybe the happier ones just aren’t as vocal about their joyfulness as the unhappy ones are about their disdain.
How many times have you heard someone say “I just want to veg out after work” or “I just want to watch TV and forget about the day I had” or “I just spent three hours thumbing through Facebook.” How often do we distract ourselves from the real world we live in?
Is life dragging us down and making us too tired to focus on the things that really matter? Is a solemn and unfulfilling existence making is easier to pull out our wallets to numb the pain?
We can all make blanket statements about those who spend their money frivolously. We may condemn their choices and raise ourselves high up on a pedestal to exclaim “there is a better way” and “we can all do it better.” And we, in the collective, may not be wrong.
But to help someone change their spending habits you have to understand why he or she is buying stuff in the first place. And the why may be different for each of us.
Does your cousin feel the need to impress others? Does your best friend fear that without the right makeup and clothes she’ll never get married? Has your mom become a shopaholic because she grew up dirt poor?
I bet if you polled a room full of people with the questions, “What was the last thing you bought and why did you buy it?,” most people wouldn’t be able to answer.
Are your friends keeping up with the Joneses because they are envious of their supposed success? Do they want the immediate pleasure and satisfaction of a new purchase? Are they simply miserable and looking for any mental escape from their boring lives? Perhaps it is one of these things. Maybe it’s all of the above.
I, of all people, do not believe in mindlessly accepting excuses, but I do see that there is a deep and complex psychology in the way that people use money.
Many of us lived in magical childhoods. Not all of us, but many, lived a joyful life free of responsibilities. Many of us went to college where we lived with others who came from similar beginnings. We hung out, partied, met new friends and were constantly entertained.
Then one day we graduate, find a job and begin working. And suddenly that memory-rich time becomes one blinding year after year of the same. I’ve seen this for myself in the past and many friends and family members along the way.
I’m sure you had many dreams as a child, but I’m certain you never pictured the tedious repetition that has become your life as an adult.
I think the FIRE movement stems from the desire to feel carefree again. Who wants to spend every day going through unsatisfying motions if they don’t have to?
If you have a strong understanding of personal finance and the ins and outs of wisely earning, saving and investing then you know that a better life exists for you out there. This version of a better life doesn’t involve buying fancy things. In fact, to live your best life you barely need to buy anything at all.
But if you don’t know about the quest for financial independence then you will most likely waste your hard earned dollars. After all, we are confined by our own knowledge and we all have different reasons for blowing the cash we earn.
We spend so much time trading our life energy for money and yet we spend so little time thinking about how we spend the money we worked so hard to earn.
While some people may be spending money to maintain social status I would argue that the majority of people out there have very different reasons for spending. Our relationship with money is complex.
Rather than standing on a FI or FIRE pedestal take a moment to realize two things. First, not everyone is educated about personal finance. Second, while you may have a solid understanding and relationship with money you cannot assume that everyone else does.
Again this is not an excuse for overspending. I would argue that much of the world needs a financial awakening, but to do so we must be kind and respectful of those who don’t yet know about a better path.
We must help each other understand why we spend our hard earned money so frivolously. Once you can answer why you can begin to focus on mending your relationship with money.
While you are searching for your answer remember the quest for happiness resides beyond your possessions. I would argue there is no time like the present to reflect on the good aspects of your life. We may have to go through the motions of adulthood but we don’t have to be miserable as we do so. Money is useful for many things, but there are better ways to feel fulfilled then mindlessly reaching for your wallet.