Crap, We are the Joneses

October 11, 2018

On the drive down to the beach for Columbus Day weekend, my wife and I were chatting about the beach house and how great this first year has been (October 6th was one year!). We’ve been really delighted with how much our family and friends have enjoyed coming here as well, and we talked about that too. Along with that, it’s been interesting sometimes to notice other people’s reactions when we mention the beach house, especially beyond our close friends and family. Here’s how that often goes:

A person: “So what are your plans this weekend?”
One of us: “Well, we’re headed to the beach this weekend.”
A person: “Oh, where do you stay down there?”
One of us: “Well.. we’ve got a house at the beach, so we stay there.”
A person: Eyes Widen
A person: Eyes Narrow
A person: Smile
A person: “Wow, that’s awesome!”

Yes it is awesome, but it can also be awkward. We obviously don’t want to lie about what we’re doing when asked, but it’s hard to describe without sounding.. well, pretentious. Maureen and I were talking about this and how to approach it well when we realized something. Most people worry about trying to keep up with the Joneses, and that cliche is a cautionary tale on the dangers of comparing yourself to others.

But we are the Joneses. This sounds pretty crappy, so let me explain.

What You Don’t See

First, there’s no question about it: we are fortunate to have enough money to have two houses. That’s a big deal and different, even if more people could do it than they think.

But it’s always really important to remember that there’s a lot you don’t see. This is just as true for a beach house as it is for the guy driving a flashy new car. You don’t know if that person paid in cash or if he’s in debt up to his eyeballs across a 100% car loan and 3 maxed out credit cards.

Let’s assume for now that we’re not talking about either extreme. None of us have infinite money and we’re also smart enough not to do really dumb things like buy a brand new car when we have 3 maxed credit cards. That still leaves a very large gradient from lower income strata all the way up to some very well off people that still have to manage their money and think about their lifestyle.

Ok. Purchases and lifestyle are all about choices. I’m going to peel back the curtain on some of our choices to show the kinds of tradeoffs we make. Here’s some things maybe you don’t see when we simply say “oh we have a beach house”:

  • We don’t do much as far as vacations go, except Delaware. A lot of people travel somewhere fun once or twice a year, and that usually adds up to several thousand dollars. We just go to the beach. For the most part, that suits us.
  • We’ve got a pretty nice minivan, but it was bought used with a bit of wear and tear as the family workhorse.
  • We’ve also got a much nicer Audi, also bought used with a big discount.
  • Our bedroom furniture is hand-me-downs that we sanded and repainted ourselves. This is actually a recurring theme for a lot of our furniture.
  • We reupholstered all our old sunroom furniture rather than buy new stuff.
  • My wife has several pairs of classic red-soled Louboutin shoes. Very glamorous and wonderful for date nights, but they were all bought used and very discounted.
  • We own and occasionally enjoy some very expensive bottles of wine, but our daily go-to has traditionally been a Sicilian red I can get for $4/bottle by the case.
  • When it came time to finally update our original 1960 kitchen, we did most of it ourselves, including repainting and keeping the original wood 1960 cabinets. Don’t worry, it’s beautiful.
  • We manage the lawn and landscaping all ourselves.
  • All of our beach house kitchen goods (utensils, cookware, plates, etc) were purchased at St. Ann’s bazaar for less than $20.
  • Almost all of the furniture in the beach house was free, bought used, or from Ikea.

The point here is that a lot of people don’t see how selective we are with where we spend our money. One of the dangers of trying to keep up with the Joneses is seeing only one measurement - like something really nice that someone owns - and assuming that everything a person has is in the same spectra and that their life and financial well-being is perfect.

The key here is to think for yourself and be independent with what you care about. Don’t get a nice car because it looks good to other people, get a nice car because you appreciate it. And if you don’t appreciate it, then search for a bargain and save your money. Maureen and I definitely spend some money - my Audi was used and cheaper than a new one, but still quite a bit more than a Civic - we just do it in the places that matter to us.

Interestingly, our experience has been that it’s easier to think independently when you’re wealthy. Upper middle class people tend to care much more about appearances, whereas the wealthy people we know don’t care much what other people think; they buy for themselves. As a consequence, upper middle class people seem often to buy things at list price. Wealthy people often buy heavily discounted because they can afford to wait and don’t particularly care about appearances. Lastly, the upper middle class tends to think the same way about every purchasing choice they make because they have enough money to cover everything. Whereas the wealthier tend to segregate purchases based on much value it brings them. A random table for the bedroom? Who cares, buy it super cheap. But inspiring and personal art that relates to your own tastes to hang on the walls that you walk by every day? Put down some coin.

Getting Excluded

Another thing we’ve noticed is that we sometimes get excluded from conversations that relate in any way to money or purchasing. The unspoken assumption that gets made is that since we’re not in an identical financial strata, the perspective is different and we can’t contribute.

Of course this is incredibly frustrating. It’s not like we don’t have goals and struggles too, and it’s very nice to talk about them. But the reaction is also somewhat natural. We can all be somewhat dismissive of someone else’s problems. Unfortunately, the only thing this means for us is that we’re silent in conversations like this. Even if we have a lot to say, we don’t say anything unless asked. It’s better to err on the side of humility.

The result of this, for us, has been that the set of people we can honestly talk about this sort of stuff with is quite a bit smaller. We’re fortunate to have a couple of very honest, genuine and close friends that helps a lot.

We’re All Joneses To Someone

Finally, we also came up with something else after we realized we were the Joneses.

Everyone is the Joneses to someone else.

It doesn’t really matter where you are on the gradient of financial success, happiness, or any other measure. Someone aspires to be where you are. Someone looks up to the situation you are in and hopes to get there someday.

And realizing this is how we break the Joneses mentality. Keeping up with them is all about relative wealth and jealousy. Someone possesses what I want. It’s a greedy and wasteful outlook.

On the other hand, I can aspire to learn from the exact same people! Instead of trying to beat them, I can emulate them. And instead of trying to stay ahead of anyone else, I can humbly pass on whatever might help someone else.

This is the key to the whole situation. Approach your own situation with humility. Learn from and appreciate what life choices you and others make, and try to recognize the tradeoffs that exist with these choices.

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