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The Danger of Keeping Up With The Joneses

Who Are “The Joneses” of Today’s Lifestyle Inflation?

The danger of lifestyle inflation as a result of “keeping up with the Joneses” is a warning echoed throughout the personal finance literature with a menacing quality that rivals childhood tales of the Boogeyman. But unlike the fantastical nature of made up folklore, the veneration of the Joneses poses a very real threat, comparable to the more pressing warnings of genuinely concerned parents, like your teeth falling out if you don’t brush them.

Despite these warnings, however, children remain less than vigilant about their dental hygiene, and adults who should know better, continue futile attempts to keep up with the Joneses, living far beyond their means, resulting in record numbers of consumer debt.

Even I, in my infinite condemning of overspending and hyper consumerism, fall prey to the dangers of lifestyle inflation. In a self-reflective moment earlier this summer, I admitted my own dream of the sprawling beachside property complete with gourmet kitchen, walk in closets, jet skis, and the like.  With reality shows like Million Dollar Listing and a Facebook newsfeed full of status updates and photos of friends in exotic, international locales, it’s no wonder. The Joneses are no longer the family next door in suburban USA with the white picket fence; they’re the ones with fabulous penthouse apartments on television and the acquaintances taking trips around the world.

 

 

Redefining the Joneses.

This shift of who the Joneses are and the subsequent upscaling of the American Dream, is something Juliet Schor explores quite masterfully in her book, The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need.  (You can read the first chapter here, I highly recommend it).

Schor starts by introducing us to a concept of the Joneses from the 1950s, when it was the neighbors who set spending cues and motivated lifestyle inflation, setting the standard for what you had to have, like vacuum cleaners and automatic washer/dryers. Those Joneses weren’t nearly as dangerous, however, because their financial means were similar to our own, their incomes, the value of their homes, etc.

In today’s age, however, the neighbors are no longer the point of comparison. In fact, today’s Joneses are often people with incomes three, four, or more times are own- resulting in feudal, debt inducing attempts to attain a lifestyle that is quite simply, out of reach; at least as long as that kind of massive income disparity remains.

Inflated Lifestyle Reference Points.

Schor also notes that rather than looking to our neighbors for spending cues as we used to, we now turn to our colleagues in professional and larger community contexts. The problem with these broader reference groups is that they are less likely to be comprised of people who all earn approximately the same amount of money.  If I’m comparing myself as an actress making 40k to my colleague who makes 60k, it pushes me to strive for more, but when I start making lifestyle comparisons to friends pulling in six figure incomes I run into trouble.

While our incomes maybe vastly different, our social sphere is the same, creating peer pressure to spend on similar things like shared nights out, comparable apartments, etc.  As Schor explains, “those at the lower economic end of the reference group find themselves in an untenable situation.”

 

 

Advertising and media only exacerbate the problem. Whether we consciously or recognize it or not, they play a huge part in defining our version of the Joneses. For example, Sex and the City and Friends were two major influences that shaped my assumption of the New York standard of living.  (You mean I can’t afford a huge apartment in the West Village as a waitress or one column writer?)

Non-fictional media figures are also influential players. What I wouldn’t give to have the style and wardrobe of Michelle Obama or Kate Middleton. But by using millionaires or unrealistic fictional lifestyles as my reference point for the things I want and need, I set myself up for lifestyle inflation that far exceeds my limited means

 

A New Normal.

These Joneses with means so far beyond our own have become the social norm, redefining and ratcheting up the “minimum” standard of living.  The list of wants transforming into needs expands at an unprecedented rate, one we simply can’t afford to keep up with.  The white picket fence is no longer enough when the McMansion is the new normal.

In 1986 the Roper polling organization asked Americans how much income they would need to fulfill all their dreams. The answer was $50,000. By 1994 the “dreams-fulfilling” level of income had doubled, from $50,000 to $102,000.  Lifestyle inflation is quite literal.  Just imagine what that number is now, 20 years later!

 

 

Today’s Joneses.

One of the most mind-blowing facts of Schor’s book is that it was published in 1997. Reading the first chapter yesterday, it felt as relevant as ever.  I started to wonder what else would be included in the redefinition of the Joneses if The Overspent American was written today.  Certainly the influence of reality show excess like my Super Sweet Sixteen and Platinum Weddings.  Come on, you didn’t really think the average cost of wedding climbed to 30k on its own did you?

And what about the explosion of the internet and social media sharing? Suddenly my point of comparison is in the hundreds if not thousands of people, most of whom make a lot more money than I do.

How to Stop Lifestyle Inflation.

Rather than constantly upscaling in an effort to “keep up”, Schor recommends downshifting to bring your lifestyle into alignment with your values.

 

 

Many Americans get so caught up in the pursuit of more income to support their inflated standard of living, that they lose touch with their priorities- they have no time for the things they care about most, they don’t believe in the work they’re doing, etc. This realization becomes the catalyst for the downshift.  Even today, we can see the rejection of lifestyle inflation in the increased momentum of the minimalist and “tiny” movements, the rising popularity of DIY, etc.

So the question becomes, who are you going to make YOUR Joneses?  Will you live a life of constant dissatisfaction, feeling like you never have enough because you can’t possibly spend on par with millionaire reality stars?  Or will you model your lifestyle on those prioritizing their time and experiences over possessions and things?  Or maybe you fall somewhere in the middle?

Upon further reflection, I admit that I still want the beachfront experience, but maybe I can give up the fantasy of a palatial estate that would mire me in debt, and instead get my fulfillment from the friends and family who would share the scenery and ocean breeze with me.

 

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56 responses to “Who Are “The Joneses” of Today’s Lifestyle Inflation?

  1. The Joneses seem to date back since the beginning of time. Originally they were the monarchy or upper class/caste community and they have not gone away. I fell prey to these Joneses because I worked alongside them in the investment bank. I realized two years ago, though, that the Joneses really don’t have a great life and it’s not one that I care to emulate. They have financial messes and problems of a size and dimension that I never want to contemplate. Like anything with money, it’s all a mind game and as long as you remind your mind that the grass isn’t greener, the Joneses lose their luster.

  2. The Jonese don’t have any control over my spending habits. I’d love to have an honest conversation with any Jones family and see how truly happy or balanced their budget really is. My guess is that things look great on the outside, but on the inside it’s a big mess.

  3. Keeping up with the Joneses or anyone who I saw with a lifestyle that I wanted played a role in my consumer debt. Now that I am debt free and financially solvent, I’m at a point where the Joneses can keep whatever they have as I’m doing pretty good with whatever I have in my life. Yes of course I still have some wants, but it has nothing to do with anyone else at this point.

  4. I think I generally feel pretty impervious to “The Joneses syndrome,” and I think part of it is just viewing bills, especially repeating monthly ones that come with cool cars and big houses and giant credit card bills, as chains that trap you. Which totally freaks me out more than any of that stuff would bring me pleasure.

    Nonetheless, I am totally susceptible to travel envy – which can definitely suck up a lot of your money. When pictures pop up of friends in cool places (which is freaking constantly since half my feed is filled with friends from all over the world), I immediately want to start Googling airfares, checking out Groupon travel deals, etc. Ugh.

  5. “Even I, in my infinite condemning of overspending and hyper consumerism, fall prey to the dangers of lifestyle inflation” —I am the same way! I think I’ve done a pretty good job with ignoring and avoiding comparing myself with others and trying to inflate my lifestyle to their level. I do get a little jealous when I see my friends with nice cars, house, etc…but then I try to be grateful for all the great things in my life and realize that those material things don’t always bring happiness.

  6. In this respect I think my husband and I have been lucky so far. Our peers are fellow grad students who all earn almost exactly what we do and have very similar lifestyles. Our pay is so much lower than anyone we know with a real job that we know it’s not worth comparing. (And we don’t watch reality TV.) I think keeping our eyes on our own paper will be much harder when we have real jobs and our colleagues have more stratified pay.

  7. Fascinating book – I’m going to have to carve out some time to read it. I always think we do pretty good about not keeping up with the Joneses, but when the topic comes up, I realize that we have some problems. No, I don’t want a big, fancy mansion, but we might have bought “more” house than we really needed. We do really great about driving our cars until they won’t run anymore, but when it comes time for a new one, we get something slightly nicer or newer than we really need. We’ve matured financially over the course of the last sux months, so only time will tell if we are still chasing after those Joneses.

  8. Ah, those Joneses. Such crazy, crazy people. 🙂 I don’t typically find myself feeling as though I need to keep up with others (and this in part comes from helping so many people who are in deep financial trouble because they tried) but where I have to watch myself is with my spending on the girls. And not because they are even begging me to buy things, but it’s the playground Mom talk, which can get competitive fast. And sometimes I find myself getting sucked in too, wondering if I should be buying Lauren and Taylor this or that too. Thankfully good sense keeps me from heading to store but it is something I have to be mindful about. And I get travel envy too!

  9. Sounds like an insightful book! Just the other day, my boyfriend learned a college friend moved near us. Upon going on Facebook (of course), we saw they had a gorgeous apartment with a city view. We live outside the city, so we’re probably paying at least $700 less than they are in rent. That’s what I try to focus on =). My boyfriend was noticeably down after that, though, thinking he hasn’t made it as far after college. I told him we’re happy right now and that’s what matters. It’s such a tough balance.

  10. As much as I’m grateful for everything I’ have some of my good friends live in the areas I couldn’t afford. We could move there, however that means sacrificing my investments. I often have to remind myself of how good are finances are and not to mess it up by following others

  11. At this point I am trying to cut back and do with less. The other side of the coin is I actually want less stuff in my life as well. This is such a important discussion though…money can’t buy you happiness! Pinning – glad I saw your post on the SITS Sharefest…it was a great read!

  12. As I clean my dated home, I long for the granite kitchen countertops my sisters both have, but putting more debt on top of debt is just plain dumb, so I snap out of it. In reality, I will never see granite countertops in my current too large home for long. For after we can afford to do this, we will sell and downsize, taking our equity and putting it into rental property (likely) or adding to our investment portfolio for retirement. I have to think that the financial freedom will be worth the wait and then maybe I will get granite or corian in my new smaller abode. Patience, grasshopper. At the end of the day, it’s only material things and they are not as important as the family relationships we should be nurturing. I need to remind myself of this more often.

  13. It’s SO true. Especially with social media, it’s so hard to see all these people with SO much beautiful stuff! And not wanting to have that is SO hard. But I just keep telling myself it’s worth it! Thanks for a great post!

  14. This is so interesting, that today’s “Jones’s” are much more unrealistic than those of past generations because we find ourselves comparing our own lives to those in totally different economic circles than us. You said that Shor said to “bring your lifestyle into correspondence with your values”–now that’s good advice. I’m glad that I’ve given my own priorities and goals for my life some thought before jumping in to what “everyone else” does–more people should!

  15. I don’t really have a “Jones’s”. To have that kind of a life style means giving up the things that I truly wanted out of life. It meant more time spent at work and away from kids, a more demanding schedule, etc. What I value is family time, being home with my 2 little boys, a husband who is home every night to kiss the kids good night and cuddle during story time. To live a slow, quiet, simple life.

  16. You make a great point about social media comparisons–it’s so easy to look on there and feel immediately that your life is lacking in some area. But, people only post what they want you to see! I have to remind myself of that every time I log into Facebook (which is less and less frequently). I certainly don’t post photos of me cleaning the bathroom or brushing Frugal Hound’s teeth. It probably looks like all I do is hike, go to yoga, and drink wine with friends. Hah! Thanks for this post–always good to keep it all in perspective.

  17. Oh the joneses. I remember the first time I heard the term from the postal delivery guy who came to my parents house during a remodel who said, “you’re keeping up with the joneses.” No clue who they were in the neighborhood back then. I realized he meant the fact that everyone during the mid 2000s were remodeling their homes. You are right that the people we compare ourselves to are those who don’t even live in our own neighborhoods or same income levels.

  18. It’s funny how I never cared to keep up with those Joneses until this past year. All of a sudden, I just wanted everything, all at once, NOW. Then I realized I’d been watching House Hunters on a regular basis. Suddenly I couldn’t go in my bathroom or kitchen without noticing just how ‘outdated’ they were. I really had to snap out of it and realize it was all just a media mind trick. As long as there are people who I love and who love me, a roof over my head, food on the table, clothes on my back, and heat in my house, I am truly blessed indeed. Thanks for a great read. 🙂

  19. I am sure we all have Jonses’, but I would say that I don’t even know mine in person. If anything I get inspired to make more and spend less by things I read on the internet. My husband and I both try our best to spend true to our values but it can be difficult when there is so much to spend money on out there, haha.

  20. My Joneses are autonomy, freedom, health and happiness. If I have these “things” then I don’t care if I have a mansion or yacht. Very expensive lifestyles cost a lot to maintain. I was watching several documentaries about mansions and estates on Netflix like: Secrets of Chatsworth and Secrets of Highclere Castle, and their descendants open up these estates for tourism and hospitality in order to maintain them, and each new generation is responsible for keeping up these estates and making repairs, etc.

    IMO one can be very comfortable if they don’t have debt and have a cache of savings in the bank. I also think rich is relative. …My family and I lived in Russia, then we moved to Costa Rica, and then we moved to the U.S. When we moved to the U.S. our quality of life significantly increased and we lived a normal, typical, middle-class lifestyle…but to us being middle-class in America felt rich. We assimilated pretty easily and became U.S. citizens.

  21. Shows on TV like “House Hunters,” “Yard Crashers,” and “Decked Out” don’t help either. You see people buying houses and making renovations that most people could never ever afford. Seeing it day after day makes you think it’s the “norm” and makes you think not only that you can have it, but that you should have it.

  22. What helps me most with not trying to keep up, is focusing more on my relationships and experiences. It’s widely accepted that people actually are more gratified by experiencing things than they are from things they buy. So, I try to do fun activities with the people I love instead of buying the newest trend, and it actually works for me!

  23. I can say that I’m a frugal type and I’m not entertaining Joneses in my life. But sometimes, when I saw in the social media sites that my friends have a new branded clothes, bags and a very shiny new car, I feel that I want those things also, but I just shook my head and forget about it.

  24. I also sometimes feel like I have to keep with the Joneses and desire things beyond my means. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish what we want and what we need, so I think it’s important to think over (and over again) before making huge purchases to avoid falling as a victim of consumerism. Great post!

  25. Most of the “Joneses” I know are broke. Living paycheck to paycheck. Barely making there $1000 car payments. I look to people who are successful in the way I have to be successful. Debt free, wealthy, but not extravagant lifestyles. Great post! I enjoyed it.

  26. Great article Stefanie!!
    I had a girlfriend whose last name was Jones and she was the only “Jones'” I had to keep up with 🙂
    I long ago decided to just go through life my own way and whatever anyone else did, that was cool, but it had no influence on me what-so-ever!
    Mind you, it did take me a while to come to that arrangement! It helped though that I don’t like the beach, so no worries about me Jones-ing for a beach-front property 🙂
    Take care and all the best.
    Lyle

  27. I have TV Joneses, as you said, few shows are realistic. How can Zooey Deschanel on New Girl afford designer dresses and boots on a primary school teacher’s salary? But other than this few real life people have the time and freedom I enjoy, and that is worth a lot more to me than stuff.

  28. I agree that social media, especially Facebook, has made lifestyle inflation even more desirable. It’s so easy to click through your feed and see childhood friends chillin in the caribbean and showing off their new cars. No one puts sad events of their life on facebook do they? The solution? Use Facebook only as necessary. It’s utility is pretty limited.

    1. I’ve definitely seen a few depressing facebook statuses, but yeah, it’s mostly amazing trips. I have to admit, I still love facebook. I love looking through photos and statuses, and I’ve found at least three or four jobs from facebook, not to mention subletted my apartment several times over and found free places to stay while traveling. I’ve probably saved and made thousands 🙂

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