Monday, March 13, 2006

Keeping Up with the Joneses...the Flip Side of the Coin

We hear a lot about people spending way more than they earn in a proverbial race to keep up with the Joneses. But within my circle of frugal friends, I see the opposite effect. People generally look down on conspicuous consumption. And woe unto you if you decide to do anything that's considered lavish.

A few weeks ago, a friend posed an interesting question. She and her husband recently purchased a beautiful, spacious townhome in the city. In the weeks and months before the closing, they talked a lot about not wanting to be 'house poor', so I'm assuming that whatever they spent on the house was well within their financial means. Anyway, being the gracious and hospitable people they are, they wanted to throw a big open house/housewarming party for their extensive network of friends. Most of these friends are people that they haven't seen in quite some time. And they wanted to be able to talk to their friends without having to run back and forth to the kitchen. You know how it is when you're hosting a party. So, rather than serve cold finger food for 6 hours, they were thinking of hiring a caterer to not only prepare the food but to serve it as well. But would that send the wrong message to some of their friends, many of whom live on more modest incomes?

Personally, I don't really see a problem with hiring caterers. Several of my co-workers have done the same thing. But given some of the attitudes of our friends, I could understand her concern. Having said that, I pointed out that the house alone says something about where they're at financially in life. Would caterers necessarily add to or detract from that impression?

Anyway, that got me to thinking about stuff that people feel conflicted, or even embarrassed about owning. For me, that would be my car....a 7 year old, european luxury sedan that I purchased used at CarMax over 3 years ago. The car is in great condition, and people often mistake it for being newer than it is. Chalk it up to having a car enthusiast for an older brother, but I always wanted a German-engineered vehicle. I naively thought that people would look beyond the car and not make any broad generalizations or false assumptions about my general character. So, it came as a surprise to me when some of my acquaintances made some cutting remarks to me about the car. Sometimes I feel guilty for owning/driving it, even though I spent less on the car than many of my friends did on their late model Japanese sedans. And often times I've thought about trading it in for a more modest looking car. But when I mentioned it to my mechanic and my financial planner, they both advised me not to do it because I would lose a lot of money on the transaction (I've taken really good care of my car). But I do feel the pressure to conform to my friends' expectations. So, isn't that the same thing as trying to keep up with the Joneses, but the flip side of the coin?


Tiredbuthappy said...

This is a thought-provoking post.

Hmm. What do I feel ashamed of owning or spending money on? I can't think of any one thing, but I do generally feel self-conscious about the amount of wealth I have relative to my neighbors. We live in a lower-middle class neighborhood. Most of the families have been there FOREVER and there are lots of out-of-work adult children (especially men) living with their parents on our street.

We did a lot of renovations when we first bought our house nearly 2 years ago, and I did feel self conscious about the piles of junk left out on the curb because I knew that everybody knew we had the money to put in a new kitchen, new windows, etc, while they were all living with 50-year-old decor.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes "keeping up with the Joneses" can be beneficial. We have a circle of friends that focuses on building net worth. Our income is in the middle of the range for this group. There's a business owner at the high end and some professionals with professions that aren't very highly paid at the other end.

Nobody works too hard to try to live up to the spending habits of anyone else in the group because our incomes are widely varied. We have common interests and we enjoy each other's company. Our expectation is that no one will go into debt trying to impress anyone else.

Qbrain said...

That sounds like harsh expected treatment for the house party hosts and harsh treatment for you about the car.

Is it possible that you are dealing with resentment? It is possible that you are just dealing with humans. If your car was a new KIA, you would get ribbed for that. If you drive a 80s 911 Porsche, then you are on the other end of the spectrum.

Maybe you need a "People Suck" t-shirt.

I must say that selling your affordable used car that you enjoy and purchasing a more modest car seems a bit silly to me. Peer pressure never ends.

Anonymous said...

I cost myself a great deal of $$$ some years ago when I bought a 2-year-old demonstrator instead of a new car in an attempt to avoid the inevitable flak. A severe knee injury had made driving with a clutch impossible and forced me to find an automatic. To make matters worse, the temporary cardboard license tag might as well have shouted "new car!" I put off going to the grocery store until the cupboard was bare because I didn't want to run into anyone from the church I'd attended, but as luck would have it, when I came out, laden with groceries, who was parked next to me but a church busybody. She immediately began to squeal about my new car. My protest that it was NOT new, but a demonstrator, fell on deaf ears. I even parked it across the railroad tracks from the church and walked to a memorial service in the hope that no one would see it. This car turned out to be a lemon and a costly one at that. I would spent less money in the long run on a new car. I took just as much crap for that piece of junk as I would have taken for a decent vehicle. Big financial blunder. Too bad people don't mind their own business.