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Keeping Up

Rob Carrigg, Jr.

I’VE WORKED AS a financial advisor for 25 years and yet I’m still struck by how many people fall for one of the oldest cons in the book: keeping up with the Joneses.

Being ostentatious is no longer seen as déclassé, at least in America. Instead, it’s a requirement for reality TV, the currency of Instagram Influencers and a proxy for achievement on Facebook. Why be rich when we can appear rich?

We’re hardwired to act this way. A 2013 study titled Keeping Up With the Joneses found that humans are greatly influenced by group behavior, often assigning value to others and what they own, even when no other information was available. Similarly, a 2015 study by German neuroscientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity in participants as they outdid and were outdone by others. When they saw themselves as performing better, they experienced a boost in the same area of the brain that’s triggered by a gambler’s high. What happened when they couldn’t keep up with the Joneses? They showed activity in an area of the brain associated with feeling pain.

“Pop” Momand is often credited with popularizing the phrase, “Keeping up with the Joneses.” His syndicated daily cartoon ran from 1913 to 1938. It focused on the hapless McGinis family and their misadventures, as they tried and failed to keep up with their never-to-be-seen neighbors, the Joneses. The Joneses canoed, so the McGinises tried it, only to end up in the water. Mr. Jones wears pink socks, so Mrs. McGinis dresses her husband in pink socks and a ridiculous fuzzy hat, all in an ill-fated attempt to show up their neighbor.

We all try to keep up with the Joneses. The thinking is simple: If the neighbors can afford it, why can’t we? This type of decision-making stems from a cognitive bias that psychologists call the anchoring effect. We take a sliver of information, such as the neighbors remodeling their kitchen, and decide it’s time we did the same.

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Unfortunately, we can justify almost any behavior if we look around—because it’s highly likely someone else is already doing it. This is our herd mentality, an instinct that helped our nomadic ancestors to survive. But today, it can lead to a series of bad financial decisions. You sat in first class the last time you flew, so there’s no going back to coach. Your kids made friends at that private school, so you can’t pull them out now. The perceived social contract of your chosen lifestyle makes your decisions for you.

You may be able to pay that tuition, make those car payments and continue to vacation in Instagram-worthy locales, but that doesn’t necessarily mean this spending is sensible. Managing money is about putting yourself in a position where someday you’ll be financially independent. If you’re well on your way and you’re saving enough, great, you might even be the Joneses. But if you’re trying to keep up, then it’s a slippery slope that can often lead to overspending and under-saving.

Another reason to avoid such competitive consumption: You have no idea what’s really going on over at the Joneses. Yes, you might appear to be in a similar financial position because your houses are alike, you work in related fields or you share similar backgrounds. But as I’ve learned in my years as a financial advisor, it’s tough to get an accurate picture of a family’s finances unless they let you look under the hood.

There may be circumstances you have no idea about. Maybe the Joneses have trust funds that pay them income every month. Maybe those trust funds pay their kids’ tuitions all the way through college. Or perhaps the Joneses just earn way more money than you think. Professions such as doctors and lawyers have vast income ranges. It’s possible that you think your neighbors are making $200,000 when they’re really making $800,000.

An additional reason to avoid mimicking the Joneses: What if they’re in way over their heads? Perhaps they’re suffering from what humorist Robert Quillen described in 1928 as, “Americanism: Using money you haven’t earned to buy things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like.” Maybe they’re living off their credit cards, that summer house they refer to as theirs is owned by grandma, and their last Google search was “how to file for bankruptcy.”

From what I’ve seen, keeping up with the Joneses is an epidemic in America. It’s a significant contributor to under-saving, excessive debt and the looming retirement crisis. But it isn’t too late to break the cycle. The next time you justify a major expenditure based mostly on seeing what your friends or neighbors are doing, stop and ask yourself: Is this something you truly want—or are you just trying to keep up with the Joneses?

Rob Carrigg, Jr., is a Certified Financial Planner in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He is a problem solver who works to simplify people’s financial lives. Rob’s current passions are jam bands, pickleball and coaching his eight-year-old’s lacrosse team.

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Olin
Olin
3 months ago

Interesting – half the comments are about tattoos that had nothing to do with the article.

Roboticus Aquarius
Roboticus Aquarius
3 months ago

I sense a whole lot of people trying to not keep up, but stay grounded with the thrifty version of the Joneses here; which makes sense given the target audience. However, there is more to this topic than patting ourselves on the back (though this can be fine, it’s good to reward ourselves for doing the right thing) or moralizing about the choices of our neighbors and acquaintances (I hope I avoid this more often than not, but it can be tough to resist).

To some extent most of us have to keep up with the Joneses in one form or another. Certain types of clothes and jewelry are expected in certain types of jobs. Anything that is customer facing can require anything from clothes and fine accompaniments to a nice car (or, at least, one which appears well-maintained.) Even where one lives, or what school our kids attend, can play a role in this dynamic.

I think it’s rather simple to cross over that line from customer-pleasing to self-aggrandizing, and it’s not always clear which of those you may be engaged in. Throw in the more universal fact that we all have genuine needs that can sometimes be addressed by spending a little more money, and the line can get really confusing real fast.

The goal is financial independence. Getting there is simple but far from easy, and it usually takes decades of perseverance. Articles like this are valuable for helping us discern when we may be falling prey to this sort of thinking, but it shouldn’t be taken as an either-or proposition, nor as a reason to judge anyone else’s behaviors. It should be one more helpful reminder that keeps us on target. Thank you, Mr Carrigg, for helping us stay on target.

booch221
booch221
3 months ago

We all try to keep up with the Joneses.

Not everyone. Not me.

SanLouisKid
SanLouisKid
3 months ago

My wife and I recently purchased a newer car to replace our old one. It’s the same color, make and style. No one realized we had upgraded. Family and friends completely missed it. We didn’t impress anyone we just have a newer, safer vehicle to drive. That’s what we were after.

Charlie Warner Jr
Charlie Warner Jr
3 months ago

Great article thanks for sharing. I have captured your quote….humorist Robert Quillen described in 1928 as, “Americanism: Using money you haven’t earned to buy things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like.”
Doesn’t sound like much has changed in 90+ years…..

Thomas Taylor
Thomas Taylor
3 months ago

Yes, I think the bigger/better/more mentality has taken over and I’m not sure it’s a good thing. Take a little, leave a little seems to have been long forgotten. As to some of the other comments, my dad joined the Navy in 1942 and apparently the first time you cross the equator, you got a tattoo (required, encouraged??). It was the only one he ever got and I’m sure he didn’t want that one in the first place. Both my kids have several tattoos and they each have a special meaning to them. I never got the bug but to each his own.

MarkP
MarkP
3 months ago

I’ve found that living in a area with a good range of economic diversity is very helpful with the Joneses problem. It helps with attitude too…Is that mobile home a ding on the neighborhood or affordable housing?

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
3 months ago

Great article.

Mik Cajon
Mik Cajon
3 months ago

Excellent article !

Guest
Guest
3 months ago

I sleep very peacefully knowing I can buy any of the “stuff” the Joneses have and choosing not to buy it.

R Quinn
R Quinn
3 months ago

Great piece. It should be on the front page of every paper. Sadly, we will march on accumulating our stuff while claiming we can’t afford to save. Gotta go, I have an appointment for my next $800 tattoo.

IAD
IAD
3 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

I hate to say this, but you are dating yourself here. You shown your hand that you don’t like tattoos and guessing you consider all a waste of money? I don’t know too many folks over 70 getting them, so comments like that are usually a dig at younger generations.

In the spirit of the OP, keeping up with the Joneses are usually material things that are easily identified such as a house, car, furnishings, etc. Even non-material things such as vacations, once shared, can be a measuring stick.

Do better…

R Quinn
R Quinn
3 months ago
Reply to  IAD

I’ll date myself for you. I’m 78. Tattoos are a symbol to me. I like to talk to people about what they spend on them. When I hear the typical answer and then look at their total (at least visible) display, I am tempted to then ask. How much do you have saved for the future or are you one of those folks living paycheck to paycheck? A fear of being punched in the mouth has deterred me from actually asking. I silently wonder if they have thought about how some of those tattoos will look when they are 78 and the tattoo under their eye is on their chin.

kristinehayes2014
kristinehayes2014
3 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

Would you deny someone spending money on something they enjoy or cherish? Do you not spend money on items other people might consider superfluous? You say you like to talk to people about what they spend on their tattoos. If you were to ever ask me, I’d tell you to mind your own business. A more meaningful question might be, “What do your tattoos represent to you?” Tattoos often hold very special meanings and document specific memories for the person who has them.

Yes, I’m 54 and have multiple tattoos. Three of them are of my beloved dogs that have since passed on. And yes, I’m aware many people probably consider dogs (or pets in general) to be another ‘waste’ of money. I most certainly do not. My dogs have brought me much joy and happiness and cost far less than children do.

As for saving for the future AND having tattoos? Amazingly enough, I’ve actually been able to do both! I’m on track to retire early, I own two homes and have a net worth well above the average for people in my age bracket.

And to address your final concern, I did strategically place my tattoos on areas unlikely to fall victim to gravity. I suspect they will look much the same when I’m 80 as they do now. Even if they don’t, I imagine I won’t care because what they look like is far less important to me than what they represent.

SanLouisKid
SanLouisKid
3 months ago

Tattoos are very useful for identifying bodies. People who get them are just being considerate of others who don’t have other ways of figuring out who they are…

R Quinn
R Quinn
3 months ago

Me thinks thou protest too much. The point was not tattoos as such but merely an illustration of spending money one may not be able to actually afford. Your situation is not one that is typical in terms of finances. Obviously you can afford what gives enjoyment and more power to you. I would not attempt to deny anyone anything, but the point of view that rationalizes spending money on something they enjoy or cherish, but cannot afford is what can get people in financial trouble.

parkslope
parkslope
3 months ago

Well said! Tattoos have clearly become well accepted in mainstream America by Gen Xers and all subsequent generations. When my son’s father-in-law died suddenly 5 years ago, his widow and three daughters got matching tattoos to honor him. While that isn’t the norm for us older folks I think it is a poignant way of remembering a loved one.

Life is too short to begrudge choices made by others that we wouldn’t make for ourselves (as long as they are harmless). I find it sad that some folks are obsessed with the need to criticize others whose preferences differ from their own. To me, this is a dark side of our need to make social comparisons.

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