Keeping up with the Joneses

“Oh look at that honey, the Joneses just got a new Mercedes Benz!”   “Did you hear that the Smiths booked a 14-day private charter cruise in the Mediterranean with 3-of their friends?”  “Have you seen the size of the rock on Michelle’s finger?”  At one time or another, we’ve all played victim to the emotional desire of yearning for something of our neighbor’s.  But at what price?  Do you have the omniscience to know what the proverbial ‘Joneses’ financial statement looks like?


Although I’m a financial planner who gets to see the inner workings of how, what, and why people manage their debts, savings, and income, let’s take a step back to see if this particular observation resonates with you too.  It’s something that goes back to my childhood years (the 1970s and early 80s), and I also wrote a piece on it back in college.  That article was based upon a fundamental question: “Can advertising and marketing cause neurosis in consumers?”


I believe that for some people, the answer is ‘yes.’  I also believe that trying to keep up with the neighbors in their worldly possessions and experiences causes a bit of neurosis in otherwise normal people.  There is probably some scientific study on survival instincts (Darwin) that suggest being part of a group increases the odds of survival.  And although some people purchase a BMW because it may be a safer car to crash in or handles better at high speeds, most people are probably missing the point.


When I first experienced camping (in the 1970s), my family had a tear-drop trailer that we pulled with a Plymouth Fury sedan.  The trailer was all of 14-feet.  The car would overheat on the way to the campground, we were lucky if we had hot water in the trailer, and the toilet was restricted to use for ‘number 1’ only.   We had fun, got dirty, ate well, played till we passed out, and then repeated it all the next day.


The same went for my early boating experience.  In the 1970s, the average family boat on the lake was 17-feet.  It was typically powered by a 4 or 6 cylinder motor cranking out all of 90 horsepower.  If you had a V-8 and could top 45 MPH in your boat, you were one of the fastest ‘family’ boats on the lake!  Skiing, tubing, and exploring were conducted the same way then as now.  However, skis were cheap pieces of molded plywood, tubes (that you pull behind the boat) were yanked directly off of a John Deer tractor tire, and cruising at 25 MPH was all the boat could do.  It was typical to bring a tow rope and jumper cables on these expeditions…as they were needed frequently.


Now days, travel trailers of 30 to 40-feet with triple axles flood campgrounds.  They need 50-amps of power to drive their multiple air conditioners, a diesel truck just short of a semi to pull them, and are outfitted with more amenities than most homes have.  And when the garage door of these ‘toy haulers’ comes down, out comes a fleet of ‘other’ powered vehicles, cycles…even powered Razor Scooters.


And the same now happens at the lake!  At Lake Havasu, “average” now means a 28-foot deck boat powered by at least 500 horsepower …because someone always has a bigger and faster boat…many that cost north of a half million dollars.  It’s no longer a question of ‘how many skiers can it pull up,’ but ‘can it pull London Bridge off of its footings.’  The float toys to accompany these ‘one-family’ armadas can be enough to make some third-world navies envious!


To keep up with the Joneses takes a lot of money…especially if you don’t know the full story or background on them.  What ‘is’ the purpose of keeping up with them in first place?  What if you learned that some of those people with the biggest, best, or nicest (fill in the blank) also carried the largest amount of debt to do so?  What if you also found that some of these same people also had the smallest savings and retirement accounts?  And what would you say to those who satisfied all of their worldly pleasures, but ignored the responsibilities of planning for the times that might not be so good?


While I personally attempt to find that balance in life (I too like vacations and power toys), I encourage my clients and friends to ‘find that balance’ in life…somewhere between spending like a drunken sailor, and living as a stingy miser.  It is “OK” to take time off from work, rent a cabin in Big Bear, or buy that used boat—as long as you’re going to use it.  It is also “OK” to go out and spend a load of money on a gourmet dinner—as long as you and your guest(s) are going to enjoy it and your time together.  But what if you can’t afford the nice things you feel you deserve?


Toasting with a glass of Chardonnay at a sunset on our California coast could costs as much as a bottle of wine—say $15.  Or you could do so at Geoffrey’s restaurant in Malibu at a cost of $200 once you add in some hors d’oeuvres.  And if “the Joneses” happened to be those people who frequent Geoffrey’s in Malibu, are they really getting more out of life than the people toasting to the same sunset 500-feet down the beach with the same wine?


My point is that whether it is a boat, diamond, green grass, house, or car, there is always going to be a nicer, bigger, better (again, fill in the blank) than you have.  A small aluminum boat with 5 horsepower is the biggest boat on the sea until you pull into the harbor.  Flying coach is adequate until you walk past first-class and see the excessive space each ‘elite’ passenger has.  And if you’re doing everything right—financially speaking—you’ll be having fun while living within your means and have found a balance that’s just right for you…not the Joneses!