You hear the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” often in personal finance writing to denote the trend of spending money to impress the neighbors. But once the competition with the Joneses stops another one seems to always crop up to take its place.
I would argue the world is larger than our neighborhoods now, it’s not just about the family across the street and mental ‘my SUV is bigger than your SUV’ – truly the world has become our bragging place. Now we can brag on twitter, post pictures on flickr, write a note on facebook, and show up to lunch to show off in person.
And for that reason you’ll never win. It’s feasible to get the newest car in the neighborhood, even the best television in your family. But when you set yourself up to compete with everyone on the internet you will always lose. Sometimes you’ll lose by default, “you got the new iPhone 64? Oh, that’s cool I guess. My cousin got the early release iPhone 65…” It’s not enough to be the first one to have the elusive it item, you need to be the first one they’ve heard of who has it too.
Personally, I don’t think it’s all that impressive to buy crap. Even nice crap. One of my favorite quotes comes from Justin who has the great Twitter feed @shitmydad says:
“Son, no one gives a shit about all the things your cell phone does. You didn’t invent it, you just bought it. Anybody can do that.”
Once you break away from that constant one upsmanship you’d think the competition would go away. And that’s now always the case.
The odd thing is that I’ve observed this behavior – sometimes more freqently – when people move in the opposite direction and reduce their spending. This borders on the misery competition scale* but I hate a race to the bottom in any form.
True, it’s encouraging to hear how someone is saving money but it’s discouraging when that becomes insulting. “You spent $1.28 on spahetti sauce? Well if you learned to stack coupons and shopped where I shopped and once dated the store manager like I did you could have 2 jars of sauce for only 87 cents!”
Similarly, there’s a competition to become the cheapest of them all. If you mention forgoing meat three nights a week someone else will tell you they’re a vegetarian and never “waste money” on meat. You find some great curtains on sale that will make your living room nicer and lower your electric bill and someone else admonishes that they sew their own from scraps and never use the air conditioning anyways.
Again, unless you move to a cave in the wilderness and sew clothing out of leaves you’re never going to win.
The solution is simple in theory, difficult in application. Set your own rules, your own expectations. Know where your balance lies and when someone begins to tell you how they spent more and got something sooner or went without and got that cheaper than you, nod politely and say “that’s nice.”
Of course you could just refrain from ever talking about yourself, your purchases and your spending but that’s a little much.
*the misery competition is prevalent among teenagers and unfortunately some people never outgrow it. The competition only produces losers and sounds like this:
Loser #1 – I have two tests on Friday! I’m soooo miserable, I can’t study, I have soccer practice! Waaaaaaaah!
Loser #2 – Oh yeah? Well I have 3 tests, a quiz, research paper due, soccer AND tennis practice, a tournament AND my Grandma is dying!
Loser #3 – Oh yeah? Well….