What Does Keeping Up With The Joneses Mean?


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The true cost of keeping up with the Joneses can be measured in several ways.  These ways would include not only a financial cost, but also a personal cost as well that’s not often talked about.

It is the personal cost that is really the driver behind the derailing of family finances but also how we live our lives every day.

Keeping Up With The Joneses Meaning

That phrase “Keeping Up With The Joneses” has been around for over 100 years and stems from a cartoon strip.

How is the phenomenon of keeping up with the Joneses a distinctly American concept?

Capitalism is at the basis and foundation of the American concept.

The meaning of Keeping up with the Joneses is referring to a comparison of oneself to one’s neighbor as a measurement for social class and the accumulation of material goods and societal wealth. This was also the basis of the cartoon strip; making fun of the need to do things in order to impress other people.

Today, over 100 years later, the same very American phenomenon keeping up with the Joneses still exists in our society.

Keeping Up With The Joneses Psychology

There is a lot of psychology behind the Joneses ideology. The ideology itself is woven throughout our every day lives in society.

Who Are The Joneses?

Simply put, the Joneses are the people that are all around you and your daily life. They would include people like your coworkers, your neighbors, your best and closest friends.

If you have children, they are your children’s friends parents.  All the people in your social clubs that you may belong to.

The Joneses are all around us every single day.

Why Do We Want To Be Like The Joneses?

There are a lot of reasons why we feel like we want to be like the Joneses. 

However the the main psychological reason that we feel like we need to keep up with the Joneses is because of human nature. We want to be like everyone else we see in society and want to fit into society. Humans want to belong to society and be accepted.

We are our own worst enemy. Let me tell you a quick story about mini blinds.

Human nature…it is a complex and tricky beast to try and explain.  As humans though, we have this human curiosity about others.

bedroom mini blinds

How many of you have walked up to your family room window or window that faces down your neighborhood street and looked out of it?

I’m sure pretty much all of you have done that.  I do this regularly.

And you have probably opened your mini blinds just enough to take a quick peek down the street and see what is going on?  Right?

Mini blinds were created as a way for us humans to look out but not let people see inside. 

It’s a one-way view.

We peek out of our mini blinds to see what is going on across the street with our neighbors…the Joneses.

Curiosity fuels this as we want to know because we are curious beasts, us humans.

We want to look out into the world, yet we don’t want other people to look in through our mini blinds to see our imperfections in several areas of our lives.

Hence, the mini blind.

We walk up to the window and use our index finger to create an opening between two blind levers.

It’s just enough of a view for us to peer through the blinds to get a quick status check of the neighborhood and then BAM we are gone as discreetly as possible with nobody on the outside knowing.

Keeping up with the Joneses Examples

Below are some everyday situations and examples of Keeping up with the Joneses.

Buying a New Car

If your close friends end up purchasing a brand new car, you may be compelled to do so as well especially if your car is several years old. Buying a new car is the most common example of how you can keep up with the Joneses so you won’t be seen as an outcast with your friends.

Buying a New House

Moving into a new house is also considered another example of Keeping up with the Joneses. If you have friends in your neighborhood that end up moving into a more exclusive neighborhood, you might do the same. You’ll want to fit in socially with your friends and upgrade your lifestyle just like your friends have done.

Upgrading Cell Phones

Upgrading cell phones is another example of a Joneses lifestyle. If you are trying to keep up with the Joneses, you will want to upgrade your cell phones to the most up to date.

Upgrading Household Entertainment Systems

When your neighbors and fiends come over, you’ll want to impress them. Everybody does this. One of those ways to do that is by having a great entertainment system. Top of the line TV’s, seating, and audio will surely portray top of the line entertainment systems which are great for social settings with friends. These are great examples of a Joneses lifestyle.

How Has Keeping up with Joneses Psychology Grown?

Our human nature becomes exploited through other various means which are included below. These other various means add fuel to the Keeping Up With The Joneses mantra.

1.  Media Outlets

With the rise of American consumerism and the growth of social classes, so came mass media outlets.

These would be things such as:

  • radio
  • television
  • newspapers.

These media outlets ran advertisements on all of the brand new fancy products and new cars that your neighbors just purchased.

mass media

Even as far back as the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s, media outlets were delivering these messages telling people that their neighbors just purchased a brand new car.

Basically, the media was delivering messages to the consumer such as “don’t you think you should purchase a new car too?”

I mean after all, people had to fit into their social classes.  If your neighbors have these luxurious items then you must have them as well to fit in.

The time for saving money and budgeting tips was over.

2.  Social Media

Today, we see it more on social media.  If anything the keeping up with the Joneses mantra is worse than what it was in the early to mid 1900’s.

One reason has to do with social media.

keeping up with the joneses psychology

Social media is always on.   People are always on and engaged with social media sites.  Everybody is connected, instantly.

It’s like marketing and advertising is super-charged and super-sized.  

With a few clicks, you can see status updates from your friends or celebrities that you follow or famous personalities.

Where ever your human curiosity is taking you, social media can get you there with a few clicks of a button.

Social media has the power to create instantly this false sense of what reality is.  Or maybe we just buy into the message too much perhaps.  

We see the best of people with social media.

Our friends and BFF’s vacationing all the time, traveling, new cars and possessions purchased; these images swirling around out there in this cyber utopia universe.

It’s the Keeping Up With The Joneses mantra 2.0!  It’s just a super sized version more potent and powerful than ever.

All of a sudden, your life doesn’t seem so glamorous compared to others does it?

You don’t need mini blinds anymore to see what your neighbors across the street are doing.  Just log on to your social media accounts and you can see what everybody is doing instantly, nonstop. 

It’s a 24-7 smorgasbord of happiness, success stories, new home or car purchases, vacation travels galore.

3.  Social Conformity

When we see our sphere of influence (the people that we look up to and admire in our life) online we want to be like them.  As humans we want to be socially accepted and conform with society.

Nobody wants to be the outcast. Additionally, nobody wants to be the kid at the lunch table eating all by himself or herself.

Everyone wants to be socially accepted and loved. It is human nature.

We want to be like others (Joneses) and we want others to know that we are just like them.

Psychological Costs of Material Wealth

There are a lot of costs that come with trying to live a materialistic Joneses lifestyle. These costs are not all financial costs either.

Below are some of the psychological costs of material wealth.

Loss of Self Identity

One of the biggest personal costs that comes from trying to keep up with the Joneses would be the loss of self identity.

There is no question that many people spend hours upon hours on social media.  As a result they are heavily influenced by what they are seeing online every day.

  • The quest to keep up with the Joneses sort of becomes the new life mission of sorts for them.

They are less concerned with how they see themselves, rather they are more concerned with what others think about them.  It becomes important to display things such as success, status, and money in their life for external validation by others.

  • How others view them is much more important than how that person views themselves.

A result of that however, is giving up who that person was.  That person will start to lose interest in their previous hobbies and things in their life that used to make them happy.

Materialism Addiction Syndrome (MAS)

Living a Jones lifestyle is often thought that it will bring true happiness. 

To be content just like your neighbors is almost sort of like the new American dream.

Right?

However “materialism happiness” isn’t real.  It’s fake happiness.

A great way to describe materialism happiness is like the phrase “money buys happiness.”  As most of you know, that really doesn’t exist.

  • We think that we can buy materials and possessions such as houses and cars to make us happy but it doesn’t work that way.  Maybe if I just bought this one thing this week that my life would be so content.

Then next week comes and we say the same thing about something else.

It’s almost like it’s a materialism addiction syndrome.

  • We get caught up in this trap where we think by having the latest and greatest iPhones etc. we will be happy and that it will bring us happiness.  All it is doing however is just feeding us a material addiction where if we don’t buy this item, we will not be able to experience happiness in our life.

Financial Cost

It is true that in order to keep up with the Joneses you are going to have to spend money.  Why?

Because the Joneses have everything; unless you are banking on winning the lottery to pay for everything.

They have a brand new house, two brand new cars, and vacation several times a year.  Their life is picture perfect and it costs a lot of money.  They are also considering buying a vacation house as well.

There is no question that keeping up with the Joneses can definitely put a family on the path to financial ruins.

Take a look at this study from Experian and their 2018 4th quarter study on consumer debt.

Their 4th quarter totals from 2018 for ALL consumer debt totals $13 TRILLION!

 

As you can see from the chart, auto loan debt is not that far behind student loan debt. If you add credit card debt and auto loan debt, then you end up surpassing the student loan debt total. Both credit card and auto loan debt are clear signs of trying to live and keep up with the Joneses.

Unable to Achieve Financial Freedom

What tends to happen is that purchases and money will be spent in order to achieve that Joneses lifestyle. 

A family will end up sacrificing a lot of financial foundation essentials for their family.  Those include

  • skipping out on making financial goals for themselves or their family.
  • disregarding the need for creating a budget.
  • no interest in creating an emergency savings account.

That family will start to live for the now and not plan for the when.  

They will buy that new car now and not worry about when that emergency house repair has to be made.

Yes they would be more likely to go on vacation now instead of focusing on a household budget or building up their savings account for a planned surgery is needed down the road.

The Jones lifestyle is about living the dream now indulging in the present time, not planning for the future.

This cost can significantly impact not only decades of financial planning for a family, but it can also impact other generations as well of their family.

Children may not be able to go to college, or worse yet they may have to end up paying some of their parents debt.

Eventually, you might have to think about moving back in with parents to save money down the road.

Mental and Physical Health Issues

There is no question that keeping up with the Joneses could take a toll on one’s health.  If that particular family is living paycheck to paycheck, then they’re going to experience a lot of financial stress and anxiety.

health issues

They may have a high probability of getting into debt over their purchasing.

When those bills come due, so do feelings of anxiety and depression.

Keeping up with the Joneses is very expensive.  Remember it’s the “best of the best” and you have to keep maintaining that image that you are a Jones.

Loss of Appreciation

Another cost is that a person starts to lose appreciation for things in the world.  Living a Jones lifestyle often times involves having the latest and greatest.

As such, little regard is given to the older things or things that a person may already own.

A person will not be as grateful for things that they have anymore. 

For example if you are following the keeping up with the Joneses lifestyle, you may decide to move to a bigger house instead of appreciating your current house that you have.

Loss of Freedom

The biggest true cost I believe is the loss of freedom.  When you are keeping up with the Joneses, you are giving up freedom.

No matter how much money you make, you’re always going to stretch yourself more to try to always get a little bit ahead of the Joneses.

That comes at a cost.

The cost is the freedom in your life.

You now have a dedicated monthly spending that is needed to maintain your Jones lifestyle.

My Joneses Lifestyle 

Yes I lived a keeping up with the Joneses lifestyle for about 15 years.  I was a one income family and paycheck-to-paycheck for all of those 15 years.

I had a couple houses and  a couple cars.  Often times, I would go to my front living room window to see what my neighbors were up to and I tried to keep up with them.

My lifestyle was great (or so I thought at the time). 

The brick house I had was beautiful, complete with a third of an acre as my yard, and also a pond in my backyard. 

I  was socially accepted by all of my friends.

This lifestyle was expensive there was no question about that.  Since I was spending every penny I was making, I was unable to do any budgeting.  I was always looking for creative ways to make money.

All of the stress and anxiety I experienced daily took a significant toll on my health.

I got stuck living in this circular path almost like some sort of financial merry go round.  You could even call it “the merry go round of life” and I felt as if I was reliving the same day over and over.

There were daily financial struggles, stress, anxiety, and other hurdles with no end in sight.

I lost my self identity and after a while and I didn’t know who I was.

My main mission when I got up in the morning was to go to work and pay all of my bills with no end in sight.

I live this life for 15 years.

Lessons I Learned Keeping Up With The Joneses

During that time though, I couldn’t really see what was going on because I was so ingrained in the day to day ritual of keeping up with this expensive lifestyle and other issues I had going on.

It wasn’t until recently when I sold my house and downsized significantly, that I started to see all of the things I lost out on during those 15 years.

When I sold my house, I had significant financial savings.

Those savings totaled $25,000 – $30,000 initially during the first year. 

You can read in detail the steps I took to increase my retirement savings which ultimately, now total over $30,000 a year.

Aside from this financial savings, there were other life lessons I learned:  

  • I have the freedom of my life back.

Since I eliminated a lot of my Jones lifestyle bills, I now have freedom in my life to do what I want when I want.  I don’t have to worry about monthly bills that are coming due.

  • Reduced my time spent on social media.

This is allowed me to focus on finding new routines so I can start to identify with myself again.

Living these two life lessons has allowed me to view and experience things differently in the world.

I’m a much more positive person than what I was during those 15 years and I have also learned to appreciate what I have.

Don’t Keep Up With The Joneses if you want True Happiness

That’s right.

If you’re looking to have true happiness and freedom in your life, then you have to stop buying into the keeping up with the Joneses lifestyle message.

The message is that simple.  You have the power to change your money life if you choose.

If you want to win at life, and truly experience a whole and fulfilling life, just walk away.

Leave your keeping up with the Joneses lifestyle behind.  Moving into a housing cooperative is one of the best ways to divorce your keeping up with the Joneses lifestyle.

As stated above, there is a lot of cultural exploitation that occurs which tries to manipulate us into thinking that we HAVE to have a Jones lifestyle.

But that is simply not the case.

In all actuality, your life is more deep and fulfilling, financially and personally, when you decide to break up with the Joneses.

I personally know this to be true.

Reducing expenses, creating budgeting methods, living within your means, and living stingy are all great first steps to undertake.

Nancy Reagan said it best “just say no” when it came to discouraging children from engaging in illegal recreational drug use in the 1990’s.

Those three words also apply when referring to the Keeping Up With The Joneses mantra.

BG Vance

For over 20 years, BG Vance has been a leader in public and personal financial management. He's developed and managed public budgets in excess of hundreds of millions of dollars. He is passionate about the FIRE movement and was featured in the Detroit News in 2001 about saving for retirement. Through the years, he's assisted families and individuals with getting their finances on track. He holds an MPA, is a licensed Realtor, and is currently working on a book about personal finance.

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