Keeping Up With The Joneses: The Bad Habit That Costs You Money

Have you ever heard the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses” before? And no, not the 2016 comedy movie following Zach Galifanakis and Isla Fischer, a suburban couple who suspect their new neighbors are secret agents. This article goes beyond other comedy films like The Joneses, There’s Something About Mary and the Avengers. Keeping up with the Joneses is an essential reference for your material possessions and personal finances. For example, you may make decent money but still seem never to be and invest.

Additionally, you may find yourself drowning in consumerism, spending too much money, and constantly upgrading your stuff to the latest and greatest. Many times this is a symptom of keeping up with the Joneses.

Below, you’ll learn more about this idiom, why it affects your finances, and how to stop worrying about the Joneses.

What Does Keeping Up With The Joneses Mean?

Keeping up with the Joneses is an idiom that originated in a comic strip in the early 1900s and represents comparing your peers or neighbors as a benchmark for what ou goods and lifestyle upgrades you should have. If you aren’t keeping up, then you are being left behind.

The phrase was made famous by the 2009 comedy-drama film written and directed by Derrick Borte. The movie portrayal of keeping up with the joneses follows Demi Moore, David Duchovny, and their children, who move to an upscale suburban neighborhood. Under the pretense of being an average family, the team works as stealth marketers who slowly shift from using products to recommending them to the neighbors. Soon everyone is buying products based on the Joneses’ trend-setting style. Unfortunately, it leads to debt, broken families, and more. While funny movies can be laugh-out-loud entertaining, they’re not made for the real world.

Surprisingly, many of us may be trying to keep up with the Joneses, too, and we don’t even realize it. Unfortunately, this idea can quickly snowball out of control, which tends to start with lifestyle creep.

Yet, even as your income grows, you still find yourself living paycheck to paycheck or racking up more debt. Millionaires making millions can end up broke too. What gives?

Well, you may be busy trying to keep up with others around you, whether it’s because you do not want to miss out on the latest and greatest or even just to impress others.

This is where “Keeping Up with The Joneses” begins.

But let me get fancy for a minute here and put a simple definition behind it. Ready?

Why Do People Try To Keep Up With the Joneses?

It’s human nature for us to want to be liked by others. We want to be happier and socially accepted. So it’s normal to think the grass is greener with more stuff.

We like knowing we can keep up with peers and feel like we succeed in life. And we want our peers, whether family, friends, colleagues, or neighbors, to respect us.

Unfortunately, ego, peer pressure, fear of missing out, wanting to have the best, or a combo of those emotions drive our natural desire to “spend to impress.”

And the pressures are even higher with social media platforms making it easy for others to show off.

While I work in the social media industry and see plenty of good, I also see these platforms’ downsides to our society.

Although I won’t get too philosophical and deep in the woods here, social media has made it easy for people to brag — both intentionally and unintentionally.

You start noticing people in your network going on the latest expensive vacation, buying a fancy new car, splurging on newborn clothes at baby showers, upgrading to a big house, or buying some other latest material item.

It can mess with your mind a bit because you start to wonder if you are falling behind or doing something wrong in life that you are not on that level.

Plus, you get bombarded with advertising every day, and shopping online is just a simple click away. The perfect storm for financial disaster!

And there is nothing wrong with spending money on you from time to time. However, if you prioritize your finances correctly, feel free to spend on things you enjoy because life is short.

The problem becomes when you start to jeopardize your financial well-being to follow what everyone else is doing, or “keeping up with the Joneses.”

You start to live beyond your means and cannot save money, invest for your future, or keep you keep adding more debt.

Before you know it, your finances are completely out of control, and for what?

So, too quickly recap here’s what can drive us to consume more than we can afford:

  • Want to show off the success
  • Needing to have what others buy
  • Advertising and easy online shopping
  • Social media of others showing off
  • Strong sense of instant gratification

But, Are the Joneses Broke?

I fell into the trap of wanting to keep up with the Joneses, and I think many people do or have at some point in their lives.

When I started working on my finances in 2014, I couldn’t help but notice many of my peers in my age group were doing extraordinary things. Buying new and large houses, traveling all the time, and seemingly living the good life.

But, over time, I started to learn that much of it was a facade, and a majority were struggling financially.

You don’t see in these pictures the amount of consumer debt that is ballooning. Or the lack of savings that a high-income won’t protect them when they are spending more than they are bringing in.

Then, panic ensues if a sudden emergency comes up or an unfortunate job loss hits! But, that’s also what you don’t see as no one wants to share the bad or mistakes with the world.

And keeping up with the Joneses is not going very well. The people you are trying to keep up with are most likely struggling or considered “broke.”

In this CNBC article, three statistics jumped out to me:

  • 54% say they are “financially coping,” or struggling with some aspects of their financial lives
  • 17% consider themselves “financially vulnerable,” or struggling with all, or nearly all, parts of their financial lives
  • Almost 20% of people earning between $30,000 and $100,000 per year reported spending more than they earned (I think overall in America, that percentage is probably quite a bit higher).

Now don’t get me wrong, keeping up with the Joneses might only be part of the financial problem.

There are many factors in building financial health, some that are in our control and others that might be more environmental factors.

But I think it’s worth remembering that if you are spending to keep up with others, you’re also potentially going broke with them too.

How to Stop Keeping up With the Joneses

Maybe keeping up with the Joneses doesn’t relate to you currently. If you practice good frugal living, saving, and investing and aren’t bothered by what others have — well done!

It took me a good year of my finances to get this concept. However, I think The Millionaire Next Door (great read) is what started to open my eyes a bit more.

But if you feel you might be struggling with overspending or comparing yourself to others, then the below steps might help you break the bad financial cycle.

1. Analyze why you are trying to keep up with the Joneses

It may be more of a subconscious spending issue for many of us that we generally are not realizing. Or you might recognize it but try to ignore the problem out of existence.

But if you want to make changes, really think about why you feel the need to keep up with others.

It could be a combination of low self-esteem, frustration with your current life direction, wanting to fit in better, etc.

2. Figure out your financial values

What are your values and beliefs meaningful to you in your life? What are things that you genuinely value spending money on? Are what others you see spending money on something you value?

Start asking more questions like that and clarify what is important to you. This makes it easier to make better financial decisions because you spend on your values, not what others value.

3. Take a deeper look into the Joneses

No, I don’t mean spy on them or hire some private investigator. Don’t be a stalker! While I’m kidding about this, it is an excellent exercise to break down the appearances of the Joneses.

Remember, what you see or how they interact is probably not the entire truth. Unfortunately, many leave out truthful pieces, or you are only getting the sketch not the final painting.

Everything from money, career, and relationships can appear one way but a complete disaster behind the scenes.

You won’t always know all the truths, but if you remind yourself that others like to put on the best show, it can lift any pressure on yourself to be perfect and focus less on appearances.

4. Stop following what others are doing so much

As I mentioned earlier, social media can play mind games with you as you see others constantly bragging to their followers. You know, showcasing that fancy vacation or new car. Whatever it may be.

But if you find yourself constantly scrolling and following what others are buying or looking to up the ante, you need to find a way to dial it back.

This can mean steering conversations differently, removing social media from your phone, or taking a break for a while from it all to keep your mind clear.

5. Look at your current financial situation

I always think a good wake-up call is to look at your finances currently and run some numbers. For the longest time, I thought I knew my spending and income just off the top of my head.

But when I started to learn and figure things out, I quickly realized how far off I was. So I recommend using some personal finance tools to help you stay organized.

And when it comes to keeping up with the Joneses, start putting all those numbers together. Look at the damage you might be causing already or what it can do if it keeps going this way.

Plus, you can look at current areas like if you have any money saved, if you are investing, what your debt looks like and how overspending is impacting those areas.

6. “Stuff” is generally temporary happiness

I like to have nice things from time to time, but it will ultimately not bring me long-term happiness. On the other hand, money can certainly set you up for a better and more comfortable life, no doubt about it.

The misconception is that having more of it and more material things will always create happiness.

But I think of it as a temporary patch that only works for so long. Trying to keep up with others is exhausting and will not make you happy.

The sooner you realize this, the less value you’ll place on what others have. Instead, you’ll begin to search and practice the things that create happiness for you.

After all, we have one life to live,, and all that “stuff” is not coming with you.

Final Thoughts

The phrase “keeping up with the joneses” extends far beyond films like The Joneses and Keeping Up With the Jones. Despite being two of the best comedy movies you’ve seen in a while, you’re sure to learn a lesson or two about neighbors and money. Perception isn’t necessarily reality. And life looks quite different from movies on the big screen.

If you have made it this far, then you’re probably starting not to like the influence the Joneses have on you. 

And that’s okay. Be your own critic. Life is more than materialism and a comedy-action film. You ultimately control how things impact your mind and finances by finding your values and realizing what appears to be perfect probably is not.

The Joneses might be friendly people or someone close in your life, but you can be social without envy and mimicking their financial choices. No matter how much you have, it will never be enough. It sounds absurd but it’s true. I’m sure you know a millionaire or two who lost everything (Mike Tyson, MC Hammer, and so many more).

Conspicuous consumption, to keep up with the Joneses is a quick way to live beyond your means, struggle financially, and potentially lead to some financial ruin if the path is not corrected.

Remember, spending on yourself is okay in moderation, but you need to find what you value most and not appreciate what others have. If you’re buying it to flaunt it, you probably don’t need it. Avoid money problems with a budget, pay off debt, and invest regularly. 2022 is right around the corner. Be different. Be you, which is the true story of your life.

Have you been a financial victim by keeping up with the Joneses? How did you learn to break the lousy ifey habit? Or are you still struggling with it today? What has been the challenge to break the process? Let me know in the comments below!

Have you been a financial victim by keeping up with the Joneses? How did you learn to break the bad money habit? Or are you still struggling with it today? What has been the challenge to break the process? Let me know in the comments below!