Are you comparing yourselves to others?

How often do compare yourself to others? Maybe it’s something small, like the fact that the neighbor had his or her front porch painted and now yours looks shabby in comparison.

How often do compare yourself to others? Maybe it’s something small, like the fact that the neighbor had his or her front porch painted and now yours looks shabby in comparison.

Be honest: How often do compare yourself to others? Maybe it’s something small, like the fact that the neighbor had his or her front porch painted and now yours looks shabby in comparison. Or a co-worker got a few new suits that have you itching to go shopping.

Many of us make these kinds of comparisons on an almost daily basis, though often it’s done subconsciously. It’s natural, though it can lead us into muddy waters if the pangs of jealously actually cause us to take steps to compete. You might end up spending money on a paint job when a good pressure wash would do the trick. I’ll admit that I’ve purchased items of clothing after seeing others wear something similar, only to have them collect dust in the back of my closet as I slowly realize they’re not my style.

But new research published in the Journal on Consumer Culture found a connection between living in an affluent area and this kind of comparison — and the end result of the comparison, materialism. It makes sense, of course: If your neighbors are constantly putting a new car in the garage, or leaving the blinds open so you can see their latest renovation, you’re more likely to want the same. And the whole scenario is more likely to happen in areas of higher socioeconomic status.

“Knowing that you might have an implicit ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ feeling when you move to a wealthy neighborhood might be enough to remind yourself that you don’t want the BMW,” says Ryan Howell, one of the authors of the study and an assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University.

And if it isn’t? These tips — which are applicable no matter where you live — will help:

Consider your motivation. It’s a good step to take before you buy anything: Think about why you’re making the purchase. Do you need a new car? And if so, do you need that particular kind of new car, or can you get by with something less flashy that may better fit within your budget? If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll be able to quickly pinpoint when comparison is driving you to swipe your credit card.

Track your spending. You know I’m a big fan of this exercise, so when Howell mentioned it I was all ears. “When people literally track their spending, the tracking part makes consumption very rational. You may not have a good reason for purchasing something, but when you track, you move from an emotional decision-making process to a cognitive one,” he explains. That causes you to realize that you want a new couch not because you need one, but because when people come over, they’ll think you’re doing better financially.

If you must compare, compare down as well as up. You were so busy looking at your neighbor’s shiny new porch that you didn’t notice the flaking paint on the house to your left, or that the home across the street could use a new roof. Of course, it’s better to not compare yourself and your possessions with others at all. But that would be denying our natural instincts, so at least make sure you’re taking in both sides of the equation. It can help put things into perspective.

Don’t move — or slash affluent areas off your list of potential new locations. But you do, as Howell noted, need to be aware of how certain locations might impact your spending habits. “We didn’t write the paper to make it sound like you should move to a poor area and be king of the hill. What we’re trying to say is that there are certain things that act on us that we’re not aware of, and when you’re made aware of these things, you’ll be able to understand yourself and cope better.”

Jean Chatzky

About Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky, the financial editor for NBC’s TODAY show, is an award-winning personal finance journalist, AARP’s personal finance ambassador, and a contributing editor for Fortune magazine. Jean is a best-selling author; her eighth and most recent book is Money Rules: The Simple Path to Lifelong Security. She believes knowing how to manage our money is one of the most important life skills for people at every age and has made it her mission to help simplify money matters, increasing financial literacy both now and for the future. In April 2013 Jean launched Jean Chatzky's Money School , a series of college-style, interactive online personal finance courses that give men and women across the country the opportunity to learn from and interact directly with her. Jean lives with her family in Westchester County, New York.
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