Why You Should Never Try to Keep Up With the Joneses

07/22/2017 08:27 am ET

Among younger Americans, there’s this increasing sense that living up to someone else’s standards isn’t going to cut it. Maybe it’s the result of living through rough financial times during the recession. Maybe it’s from watching their parents struggle to buy the next big thing. 

Whatever it is, they’re pretty burnt out on the whole idea of keeping up with the Joneses – and that’s a good thing.

What is keeping up with the Joneses?

“Keeping up with the Joneses” as an American expression actually began in 1913 with a comic strip by Arthur R. “Pop” Momand. The Joneses never actually appeared in the comic, but they exerted their influence in all the storylines.

Now, we use this phrase to refer primarily to people who focus on appearances – especially when it comes to appearing well-off. 

Maybe it’s the family down the road who pays for high-class lawn care service so they have the greenest, plushest lawn in the subdivision. Or maybe it’s the mom in PTA who pays $200 a month for professional highlights and who-knows-how-much for frequent mani-pedis. Or maybe it’s the guy at work who drives a flashy car you could never afford, even though he’s not that far above your pay grade.

It’s hard to escape the influence of those around us who live seemingly wealthy, free-and-easy lifestyles. And it’s really, really hard to escape the noise of all the advertisers who desperately want us to keep up with those people who are forking over money for more stuff. Yet whoever we say is trying to “keep up with the Joneses,” we never turn the phrase to ourselves.

The Truth About Keeping Up With the Joneses

When we try to keep up with the Joneses, we’re not usually trying to match our lifestyles to the 1 percent of Americans who can afford private jets and lavish diamonds. We’re just comparing ourselves to our nearest neighbors – probably the ones who look just a little bit wealthier than we do.

However, if you could peer inside the Joneses’ home and bank accounts, you might not get such an enviable picture.

Here’s the bottom line: Many Americans live beyond their means. A Bankrate survey found that about one-third of people ages 30 to 49 had more credit card debt than savings. Even though the financial security index has steadily risen over the past few months, Americans are still in a lot of debt. And we can guess that at least part of that debt comes from living beyond our means.

Chances are, those neighbors you’re struggling to keep up with are living beyond their means, too.

Letting Go of the Pressure

If your real goal is happiness, keeping up with the Joneses is not the way to get there. 

Happiness research is hip right now, but there are several conflicting studies out there, as outlined in this Time article. The takeaway from most of the relevant research on money and happiness is that day-to-day contentment is impacted by financial security. But it’s not affected by how much stuff you have.

In fact, the best ways to spend money to get happier are to splurge on experiences like vacations or dining out, or to buy things for other people. 

So what does this mean for the drive to keep up with the Joneses? It means that having a nicer car, a bigger McMansion, a greener lawn, or even the latest iPhone probably won’t make you happier. At least, not in the long term.

Plus, overspending on material items can (and eventually will) drag down your financial stability, which will only make you more stressed out and unhappy in the long run.

Next time you’re about to make a big purchase – especially one that will put you further into debt – take some time to examine your motives. Are you purchasing this item or service because you really need it? Because it will make your life inherently better? Or because you’re worried about what the neighbors (or your kids or in-laws or best friends or whoever) think of you? 

If the answer is that you just want to look more successful, walk away. Spend some time with the people you love best for a happiness recharge, and brush those Joneses right out of your mind.

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