If you’ve never browsed the posters at despair.com, you are missing out. The site’s tagline is “the cure for hope.” Though hope is something I generally try to instill rather than cure, I still laugh every time I think of my favorite demotivater phrase: “Defeat: For every winner, there are dozens of losers. Odds are you’re one of them.”
There is always someone out there who is better than us at something, and that will always be true. We often forget, though, that it goes both ways.
Amanda and I got married a semester before graduation, her with a graduate degree in music and me with an undergrad accounting degree. We headed to Phoenix and decided to save money by getting a cozy 600 square foot, one-bedroom apartment for $650 a month. We would have loved to have purchased a brand new home right out of college like some of our friends, but we just couldn’t afford to do so comfortably. Our little guy didn’t even have his own room after he was born.
About a year later, I got better paying job. We moved just down the street to a newer three-bedroom apartment on a golf course for $950 a month. Though it was a significant upgrade, we eventually started to feel very constrained by the fact that we lived on the 2nd floor and felt like we had to keep our 2 little ones from running around the house and waking up our nocturnal neighbors (who thought we should generally “walk around less” in our apartment during the day).
When I went back to school in the lovely midwest, we found a 2 story, 2-bedroom condo for $750 per month! It was amazing! We loved not sharing a floor/ceiling, but eventually the 2 bedrooms got kind of small once the third kid came.
After I graduated, we moved into a decent size rental home for $1,250 per month. The owner was great, and it had a fenced back yard for our toddlers! We soon realized, however, that we wanted something that didn’t feel as old (and covered with mold) and that we could call our own.
We finally bought our house in 2013. The house payment is about $1,250 per month (my bare budget reports say $950 because I pay the insurance & property taxes separately). We love it. We have made slow and steady progress in making it our own.
Some of my favorite finance articles I’ve read deal with the concept of enough. How do we know when we have enough? Despite the housing or salary upgrades we’ve made over the years, we still have no problem coming up with a huge list of things we’d still love to have (or do).
Sure, our neighbor’s lawns are immaculate, and we have friends whose homes are twice as big and 30 years newer than ours, but we are starting to feel settled with the idea that life is not a race and that joy is to be found in the journey.
I did a guest interview at Well Kept Wallet, where I mentioned how paying off the debt was sort of anticlimactic. It was during the process of paying off our debt when we received the bulk of the satisfaction. By the time we got to the finish line, we were ready for the next thing.
If we had everything we want (or think we want), we’d be depriving ourselves of the fulfillment that comes from working toward our goals.
The American dream
Several weeks ago, after the start of spring, Amanda and I were sitting on our driveway in our neighborhood watching our kids happily riding their bikes. I said to my wife “You know, this is the American Dream. Here we are in our beautiful quiet neighborhood in front of our house that we love watching our beautiful kids happily play with each other.” That led to us discussing why we still felt stress in our lives. Did that just mean that we needed more money or more stuff?
You are the Joneses…at least to someone
It’s true that for every winner there are dozens, if not millions, of losers. But the reverse is also true. For every “loser” there are millions of winners. In other words, there will always be people worse off than you. You will always be the Joneses to someone. If that’s the case, shouldn’t we be happier than we are?
I’ll be honest, I hate it when people say that to me. If I’m complaining about something and they say “Well at least you’re not [fill in the blank].” Yes, it could always be worse, but that never really makes me feel any better. Besides, won’t that type of thinking just make me feel complacent with my current situation and destroy any initiative to set and work toward goals?
I think the trick is to realize that being thankful does not preclude working toward our goals and dreams. We can appreciate what we have and what we’ve accomplished while simultaneously working to become better in all areas of our life.
I’m not going to say not to compare yourself to others. You have to compare. Some will say compare only with yourself, but I don’t believe this is sufficient. People often don’t know what they are capable of unless they see others in action.
This makes me think of Roger Bannister’s record-setting four-minute mile. Many had attempted, and failed, to run a mile in less than 4 minutes. It was thought to be impossible. After Bannister set his record in 1954 of running a mile in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds, it only took 46 days until someone else also broke the 4 minute barrier again. The record has since been broken by many professional middle distance runners.
Role models vs. Joneses
So whether you call it “comparing” or “allowing yourself to be inspired by” someone, doing so in the right spirit can be a positive catalyst for change in your life. We can be inspired by someone’s accomplishments and success, or we can be jealous.
Being inspired by someone makes them a role model to you, while being jealous of them makes them your Joneses. Only we can determine which of those things we see them as.
Unfortunately, you can’t always control how others see you. To some, you may be inspiring role models, but to others, you’ll always be the Joneses. Just shake it off.
Have you ever thought of yourselves as the Joneses? What are your thoughts on financial comparisons?