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Keeping up with the Joneses can help your financial life — if you do it right

Here's how to compare the right away.
by Jean Chatzky /
Image: Neighbors
Most of us assume a level of equality with our peers, so when we see them with more stuff — new cars, new countertops, new whatever — the natural instinct is to worry.Mark Airs / Getty Images
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Did you catch the story about the Instagram influencer who ran up $10,000 in credit card debt in an effort to curate the picture-perfect life? What about Stacy London’s raw and humbling account of how a bad year tipped off a downward spiral of overspending as she attempted to keep up appearances? They’re not the only ones according to a recent Morningstar study by senior behavioral scientist Sarah Newcomb.

In the study, Measuring Up: Social Comparisons and Financial Wellbeing, Newcomb writes that where a person believes they stand relative to others has a much larger impact on happiness than their actual income. And the more often you compare, the worse the likely impact on your financial wellbeing.

What’s really going on?

“We make comparisons as a natural way of assessing where we are and how we’re doing in life and society,” Newcomb explains. “It’s not going to go away — you might as well ask that we stop being human.”

Most of us assume a level of equality with our peers, so when we see them with more stuff — new cars, new countertops, new whatever — the natural instinct is to worry: “Oh no, am I falling behind?” But we don’t know for sure that they’re better off, we just know that they appear to be.

Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent measuring stick that can tell us how we compare when it comes to our underlying financial lives. “We don't see [the savings in] people’s bank accounts and debt, we only see their stuff,” says Newcomb. That leads to the temptation to overspend — sometimes until it hurts.

Steer clear of the lottery winners next door

Included in the research was a 2016 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia that showed that when one person won the lottery, their neighbors had a higher chance of filing for bankruptcy in subsequent years. (Yes, you read that right. The lottery winners didn’t go belly up. The neighbors did.)

The problem is that these days those defacto lottery winners are riding around in your back pocket every day, and they’re in bed with you every night — via social media. “We’re not just comparing ourselves to neighbors and colleagues anymore. We’re comparing ourselves to everyone in the world because it’s all right there in front of us,” explains Rachel Cruze, author of "Love Your Life Not Theirs: 7 Money Habits for Living the Life You Want." Even if we understand logically that social media likely represents the best part of everyone's lives, it’s hard to keep that knowledge front and center when confronted by perfect vacation pics. “You’re not seeing the credit card bills and the second mortgage, so you’re literally comparing yourself to a false-reality, make-believe world,” Cruze says.

The problem is that these days those defacto lottery winners are riding around in your back pocket every day, and they’re in bed with you every night — via social media.

The problem is that these days those defacto lottery winners are riding around in your back pocket every day, and they’re in bed with you every night — via social media.

Compare yourself with someone you admire and respect

There was one ray of hope in Newcomb’s study: When people compared themselves to a mentor or role model, they felt great about their financial wellbeing, even if their role model made more money than they did. Why? There’s something inherently different about the comparisons you make with someone you respect.

Related

When we compare ourselves to neighbors and friends, we immediately ask: “Do I measure up right now?” But with role models and mentors, we’re more likely to make an aspirational comparison, asking: “What can I do differently to ensure that I reach this level one day?” Newcomb says. “With a mentor, you know you’re not in their shoes yet, but you want to be. Your need to compare is channeled into a plan for how to reach your goals rather than a judgment about whether or not you’ve crossed the finish line yet,” she says.

When temptation to compare strikes, flip the lens

There’s an easy way out of this: just flip the lens through which we see the comparison. The solution is not to drive yourself into debt to keep up with the Joneses. It's okay to love the Joneses, says executive and personal coach, Keren Eldad. “Think about what you like about the Joneses, and let it inspire you to figure out how to raise your game in your financial life. Think of the changes you can make, the action you can take, the books you can read and the guidance you can seek to get there,” Eldad says.

Related

If all else fails, it’s okay to take a break from social media for a while, or go on an Instagram “diet” where you check in less frequently, Cruze says. You can also find something else meaningful to do on your phone besides scrolling through other people’s photos. A gratitude list — a simple list of the things in your life that you’re thankful for — can easily be kept in the “notes” section of your phone, and added to any time you need a reminder that what you have in life is enough. “The next time you see that friend of yours who’s going on vacation again, take a deep breath, look at your list and refocus your perspective,” she says.

With Kathryn Tuggle

NEXT: Most of us live paycheck-to-paycheck: This is what it does to your brain

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