It’s traditionally called keeping up with the Joneses, but really, it’s keeping up with EVERYONE. As a young adult, you might find yourself spending money to rent a nicer apartment than you need, because you want to prove to your family and friends that you’re an adult – you’ve made it.
You might spend more than you can afford on a night out, because you don’t want anyone to know that you can’t afford to shout rounds. You might agree to take someone on a date to an event that you can’t pay for – unless you crack open your change jar and drain your bank account.
Maybe you buy the best clothes (this actually has merit – as long as you are sensible about it), or you might buy your family and friends presents that you can’t afford.
As someone with a family, maybe you buy your baby the super-mega-wonder-pram because you hear someone else say that they wouldn’t even consider anything else. Maybe your toddler is in designer clothes so that you can fit in with the pre-school parents.
Maybe as an adult you’ve gotten into collecting something that you don’t actually take genuine pleasure in. Perhaps it keeps you in with a certain crowd. Maybe you genuinely love your hobby, but have a compulsion to buy the latest or best accessories to keep up with your group.
Maybe you have just worked your ass off and you want to show off your success. Maybe you are just trying to project the best image possible in the hopes of landing love, a promotion or generally just finding happiness. That’s a lot of maybes, and maybe… just may-be one of them may apply to you. Surely there’s nothing wrong with that?
There really isn’t. But if you don’t take care of the future then you’ll find yourself in the position where you can’t keep up anymore. You have to sell your collectables, live frugally off the pension (if it still exists) and basically downgrade in a massive way. If you think your super will dig you out of that hole, guess again. You probably don’t have enough in super to maintain a spendthrift’s lifestyle.
How do you stop comparing yourself to others? Unfortunately I believe that you simply have to get to a stage where you’re happy with yourself and confident in your decisions. Someone who is confident doesn’t care if they get ribbed about their older model car. They don’t feel obliged to blow a bunch of money on impressing a gold-digging cretin. They certainly don’t spend money they don’t have in order to impress strangers. If your social group wont include you because you dial down your spending, then you probably need better friends. You can be liked, wanted and loved for more than your accessories and clothes.
Keeping up will probably not make you happy. You’ll buy the same phone as your friend, and for a moment you might feel better, but that will pass. You’ll pay for a holiday you can brag about, but in four weeks you’ll be home again, paying off your debt.
You don’t need to go full Kmart (as my beloved partner has done), but you do need to assess your life, and work out the areas where you feel pressure to spend and compete. Some are valid (career based mainly), but others are likely to be completely within your control.
If we look at work and careers, it gets a bit murky. Promotions don’t usually come if you look shabby. If you look groomed and glossy, and can hold a halfway decent conversation, you’ve ticked half the boxes already. But why do you want a promotion? More money? A better role? There’s an allure about moving up the corporate ladder that isn’t often examined. You will probably receive more money, but you’re putting yourself into a position where you will feel implicit pressure to keep up with those around you.
If you apply for a role with more responsibilities (or get offered one), stop and think it through. If it offers more money, does that money disappear once you upgrade your wardrobe? Are you expected to go out for lunches and coffee? Can you handle the strain of the new job? People usually don’t get paid more unless they take on more work/responsibility. How have you handled pressure in the past? Did you end up buying a case of wine per week? Did you snap at your loved ones? Did you end up paying thousands to medicate yourself? Were you able to manage without reducing your quality of life? Did you do a shitty job or did you handle things well?
Keeping up with others doesn’t just ruin you financially. Part of the difficulty is in understanding where your sweet spot is between income, career satisfaction and overall happiness. If you compare yourself and your place in life to others, and pour everything you have into something in order to keep up (work, love, social events or even a hobby), you will burn out.
More people need to assess their lives and their levels of happiness frankly, and without comparing themselves to others. Because in the end, you wont remember Stephen’s car being better than yours. Or Jessica’s expensive trips. You wont remember that Sarah’s house was bigger than yours. You might see these things, and feel distressed by them, but what you’re really seeing is the best face that other people can put forward. You’re seeing their highlight reel.
You don’t see that Stephen doesn’t own anything outright, or that Jessica works 90 hours a week and only enjoys four weeks out of every year. You don’t see that Sarah is under extreme mortgage stress. Or perhaps Stephen is twenty years older than you, and drove beaters until his 40s. Or Jessica can afford her trips by having a side business, while Sarah is actually living with her parents.
What does enough look like to you? I have various stages of ‘enough’. My first target is to get to our Lean Fire amount, or the amount of income we need to be producing passively in order to quit our jobs and live extremely frugally. This is the zone where if both of us suddenly lost our jobs, we could tighten our belts and survive without panic. My target isn’t about buying bigger and better or keeping up with my peers; it’s about security. My second target is to get to a point where my partner can retire early. He works harder than anyone I’ve ever known, in a public service role that is emotionally and physically draining. I want him to have the option to stop when he chooses, not when the pension age says it’s ok. My third zone is my own retirement. I want to be able to choose to leave work when I am ready, and I absolutely don’t want to have to stay until my preservation or pension age. Currently, my preservation age is 60, and my pension age is 67. By the time I actually get to 60, I expect preservation age to be 65, and pension age to be 70. I’d take an early retirement over showing off for others any day.