Keeping Up With the Joneses – All About Appearances

Lynnae at has been reviewing the book, (Not) Keeping Up with Our Parents. Her posts have caused some reflection on the early years of my own marriage when my wife and I struggled to keep up with others, to our financial detriment. We had some church friends that were in much better positions than we were, financially, and we wanted to match their lifestyles. The couples were a few years older than us, had been married longer than us, and in all but one instance had no kids. This allowed them some serious wealth-building time with two incomes without the costs associated with raising children.

the biltmore
photo by Jas & Suz

Apples and Oranges

Our situation, however, was much different. Our first child was born nearly two years into our marriage. That first year and a half our incomes were extremely low. I had just started working for a bank in a customer service call center, and my wife had trouble finding work after relocating to marry me. I think our first year of marriage we earned about $20,000 combined. The second year wasn’t much better as my wife’s pregnancy made it difficult for her to maintain employment and she came home about six months into her pregnancy. This loss in income affected us more than we realized at the time, and we failed to properly adjust to living on one income.

Who are You Trying to Impress?

Our friends had nice homes, drove nice cars and often bought the latest toys and gadgets you would expect the average DINKs (Double Income No Kids) to own. We were admittedly jealous of their situation and tried to keep up by leasing a new SUV, buying new clothes and falling for many of the same technology gadgets. I was still trying to impress my wife, and her family, and trying to prove I was a worthy provider. In fact, I was doing a pretty lousy job. I should have been spending more time living frugally, saving money and investing some of my income in retirement accounts to build for our future, and the future or our newborn daughter.

Treading Water

After we finally came to the realization that something had to change, the damage was done. I had accumulated some student loan debt in my first two years away at school, and even more school debt after returning to college in the evenings and online to continue my education. Looking back, I should have saved and paid cash for school rather than financing the majority of tuition and books on a Visa card, but at the time I was anxious to get finished and move up in my career and move on with my life. The college expenses, and the decision for my wife to remain a stay home mom, meant we would tread water, financially, for the majority of our twenties. The good news was we didn’t add much new debt, and as we both approached thirty we began to realize the lessons learned from living on one income had made us more frugal, more financially savvy, than we would have been otherwise. Who knows – without this wakeup call we may still be trying to keep up with those same friends.

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  1. We gave up on trying to keep up. I am not sure the Jones’ even like us so I kept asking myself why I would want to continue trying to impress people that didn’t even love us. Forget it!!

  2. It’s a freeing feeling when you realize you don’t have to keep up with the Joneses, isn’t it? Makes me wonder why it took us so long to figure it out.

    Thanks for the mention!

  3. When talking with people, note how often the conversation steers towards recent purchases (ie we’re just got a new car, we’re getting furniture, etc.) We’ve found certain couples focus their lives on shopping for the next gadget. Boring!

  4. People who only impressed by what you have probably aren’t really worth impressing.

  5. Nice post.

    Keeping up with the Joneses is a stupid battle. Luxury cars, expensive clothes, blackberries…Blah. Give me my Trek, cutoff shorts, and leave my cell phone at home with the battery dead. I’m much happier.

    FD, thanks for helping me remind myself of that.

  6. > We had some church friends that were in much better positions than we were, financially, and we wanted to match their lifestyles.

    What happened when you decided not to match their lifestyle anymore? Did you keep your friends or did you drift apart (maybe also due to your kid and new friends with children)? If they are friends from church, I would expect them not to tease or belittle you for your lack of money and expect you not to envy them for what they had.

    • @Peter: We remained friends, but eventually drifted apart after we relocated to another city. And I didn’t intend for it to sound as if they rubbed our noses in their success. Quite the opposite. It was more about our own insecurities as it was anything they said or did. Thanks for your comments!

  7. Yea this is a tough lesson for many people to learn. There is just so much pressure to have material possessions. It is no wonder that the national savings rate was negative recently and now is somewhere around 0%(meaning people aren’t saving a penny). If people read articles like this enough, hopefully they will eventually get the idea that saving is important.

  8. It’s definitely hard having good friends who are a few years older. It feels like I should be where they are, even though they’ve got seven to ten years on me. My husband and I try to use these friends as inspiration: “If we work hard like they do, look at all the good things that can happen to us in a few years.” Of course, it helps that we don’t have a lot of crazy spending friends; it’s more about career advancement than gadgets.

  9. Reminds me of the old saying: Spending money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like.

    Love the house BTW. My wife and I spent 4 days there back in 2006. It was awesome. George Vanderbilt was extremely well read, very advanced for his time, and shared many things with his “staff” that other people of his financial stature did not. He bought all his maids new furniture and allowed them to have their own rooms and days off. THAT was unheard of in those days. His wife would share hand-me-downs of their daughters clothing to the estate’s farmers and would sit on their own front porches, drinking lemonade and shootin’ the breeze with them. As a matter of fact, the estate has some 3rd and 4th generation workers who wouldn’t dream of working anywhere else.

    If anyone EVER has the opportunity, a visit to the Biltmore House should definitely be on the schedule. I cannot wait to go back.

  10. Nice post. I often feel like we are in competition with my family. My sister and her husband bring in 2.5 times that salary that we do and are also buying very expensive toys and going on vacation. They often wonder why we don’t want to go with them and give us a very hard time.

    btw – love the picture.

  11. @Andy: No, “DINK” or DINKY (Double Income No Kids, Yet) was a term coined in the 1980’s to refer to the subset of the yuppie culture that chose to remain childless in pursuit of their yuppie lifestyle.

  12. I don’t even know who the Jonses are or if they’re happy…but I do know that I sometimes wish we had a little house or that I had a sewing room. Still, I didn’t get a lot of what I wanted (the extraneous stuff) growing up, so I’m not going to start getting into debt over it now. I’ll just work on earning more and see what happens. 🙂

  13. 5 years ago we built a huge house. The people in our neighborhood thought we were rich and I felt the pressure, not to match that, but to make everyone realize we were not. In fact, we could bearly afford the house and it eventually went into foreclosure. Now we live in a modest, small house, enough for our needs and nothing is new . I feel a huge load off my back, not only the huge house but also the “appearances”issue. WE did drift apart from the Joneses and we feel so liberated!!