Keeping Up With the Joneses is Easy Because Being Different is Hard

June 15, 2015

Many of us – maybe most of us – spend a lot of money trying to match the lifestyles and spending patterns of the community around us. We even have a name for it – keeping up with the Joneses. Why do we feel compelled to do that? I suspect that in most instances, it isn’t a conscious decision. We do it mostly because keeping up with the Joneses is easy, because being different is hard.

Here’s what I mean:

Feeling “Normal”

In reality, “normal” is a subjective concept. No one is truly normal if normal means being exactly and precisely like everyone else in society. But there is a range as to what’s considered to be normal, and it’s mostly defined by society. For this reason, we’ll pattern our behavior off that of the majority. We’ll also adopt their preferences and spending patterns.

That last item is a big one as it relates to personal finance. If we adjust our spending patterns to match those around us, we can easily get caught up in a game of trying to match our neighbors – the theoretical Joneses – purchase for purchase.

Resisting that trend is difficult at best.

Being different – even “good” different – is hard. If your social circle is comprised largely of free spenders, you may find yourself on the outside looking in – socially speaking. Should you decide that you want to be conservative with your money, avoid debt, and invest for the future, you might become socially isolated.

Blending with the crowd is easy. Allowing others to define “normal”, then following their lead, can allow us to fit in neatly. Even if that normal doesn’t fit with your own definition deep on the inside, you may get a large measure of emotional satisfaction – and validation – by being a certified member of the group.

Your Source of Goals and Motivation

If most of your family and friends live in McMansions, you may decide that owing one yourself is an important goal. Life can be easier if your goals and motivations match those of the group around you.

Setting unique goals is hard. If you decide that owning a McMansion isn’t something you aspire to, that you’d rather live in a cracker box in a working class neighborhood and stay out of debt, you may lose your friends soon enough. After all, since your goals aren’t aligned with theirs, there’s a real possibility of geographic isolation, as well as economic and social.

Letting the crowd define your goals is easy. Once you’re in a certain social circle, one of the best ways to stay there is by having compatible goals and motivations. Even if you can’t really afford to keep up with everyone, you may drain yourself financially in order to retain your membership in the group for as long as you can.

Defining Success

If you don’t have a concrete idea as to what success is, it’s very easy to let it be defined for you by your social circle. This is more common than we think. Since most people have only a vague idea of what success is, they kind of tool along, moving forward, hoping to bump into it one day. Along the way they may adopt the attitudes of the group as a way to give the journey some meaning.

But it still won’t be your true version of success, but one you borrowed from others. In short, you’ll willingly allow others to define success for you.

Why would anyone do that?

Creating your own definition of success is hard. This means creating a definition of success that may be at odds with the group. If you define success as being out of debt, having a comfortable savings account, a promising investment portfolio and a very real prospect of early retirement, but most in your social circle define it as always having a late model car, taking expensive vacations, and always having the latest gizmo, you may not fit in.

Accepting cultural notions of success is easy. This gets back to not having your own concept of success, or perhaps lacking the confidence that you can ever achieve it. As such, you may default to the conventional norms of your social orbit, and spend your life pursuing a success defined by others. One of the benefits of doing this is greater acceptance by the group. They’ll even be there to reinforce your journey – after all, they‘re on the same journey you‘re on.

Living Life Your Way

This gets down to how you live your life every day. If you’re trying to keep up with the Joneses, how you live your life will even be defined by the group. This can affect what you do with your time, the type of work you do, the people you keep company with, and even your hobbies and forms of entertainment.

That’s a whole lot of your life being effectively controlled by others. How could anyone let that happen?

Living a life that’s unique is hard. If in the pursuit of financial independence you live a pretty basic life – a modest home, an older car, shopping in thrift stores, etc. – you may find yourself having little common ground with your more opulent neighbors. It will be hard to resist the free spending lifestyles they lead, at least until your bank account is large enough that you don’t care.

Living a life that looks like everyone else’s is easy. Keeping up with the Joneses is first and foremost the pursuit of conformity. It’s often easier to go along with the crowd than it is to chart your own course. It might be that most people are conformists and prefer to be with other conformists. What ever the reason, it’s much easier to go along with the crowd, than it is to be different.

How Keeping Up With the Joneses Affects Your Money

Keeping up with the Joneses might be amusing were it not for the fact that it involves a very real financial cost. After all, people who spend a lot and have a lot are perceived to be winners, and we all want to be winners. So we follow their lead, and hope that it all works out in the end.

But what if those leaders who “have it all” also have empty bank accounts? They could lead us right off the financial cliff with them.

Why don’t we try harder to resist?

Not spending money like everyone else does is hard. Even if people are heading for a financial disaster, their lives can look compelling before they get there. Blocking that out and pursuing your own financial goals is hard while it’s happening. You can’t help but get the feeling that you’re doing something wrong – at least until you reach early retirement, or one of the social leaders ends up in bankruptcy court.

Following social spending patterns is easy. In the modern world, so much of how we’re perceived is measured in money. Even if you don’t have much money, you still want to be perceived as having it by the people you’re trying to impress. Playing the game can be fun while it lasts.

As the saying goes, “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.” That’s what happens when you take the “easy” route and try keeping up with the Joneses.

Try the harder route of ignoring the Joneses – and you’ll like yourself and your life much better one day.


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Kevin Mercadante is professional personal finance blogger, and the owner of his own personal finance blog, He has backgrounds in both accounting and the mortgage industry. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and two teenage kids and can be followed on Twitter at @OutOfYourRut.

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2 Responses to Keeping Up With the Joneses is Easy Because Being Different is Hard

  • Kim

    What a wonderful article! I thought I knew what “keeping up with the Joneses” meant, but after reading your article, I realize that we do it without even realizing it! I want to read it to my husband, so we can be more aware of our own goals, instead of just borrowing the goals of others! Thank you!

    • Kevin Mercadante

      Hi Kim – I think most of us understand what it means superficially, which is why it can be so easy to ignore. But when you drill down on it, you find that there’s a lot of emotional, psychological and social drivers behind it. That’s what has to be mastered, and when you do it can be liberating. You may find yourself wondering why you ever thought you needed so much stuff.