Tips for how to stay true to yourself when the pressure to spend arises, from Alvin Hall, financial motivator and author of You and Your Money
Sometimes it takes real courage to break away from the prison of other people’s expectations and simply be yourself. The pressures your friends, family, and peers may exert on you can be very overt or quite subtle. Here are some suggestions about how to keep your pursuit of the Joneses from turning into a costly nightmare.
Set your own financial limits. When people move into a certain neighborhood or subdivision, they often begin to feel obligated to behave like their neighbors, which includes buying the same cars, clothes, vacations, second homes, lifestyle accessories, and so on. This habit is often harmless, but it’s dangerous when it lures you into spending money you don’t have — for example, if you feel obliged to keep spending after losing a job or suffering some other kind of setback. Make a conscious effort to break away from the pack. Develop a spending plan that makes sense for you, your income, and your life aspirations, and stick to it.
Decide what’s truly important to you, and focus your spending that way. For example, it so happens that I’m not interested in cars. And my lifestyle doesn’t require that I own one. Dividing my time between New York City and London, I can generally get around by subway, bus, or taxi, and parking a car in these cities is an expensive hassle. So most of my life I haven’t owned a car — and when I did, it was an inexpensive, reliable used car (an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, which I bought mainly as an homage to my favorite female singing group). I do run into the occasional raised eyebrow when I confess that I don’t own a car or really want to own a car, and I could give in to peer pressure and spend a lot of money on a Lexus, Mini, or Prius. I’m sure that, on the rare occasions I drove the thing, people would be impressed. But why bother? By doing without a car I save a lot of money that I can invest or spend on the things I do care about, like the photographic art I enjoy hanging in my home. Look at your own life. Do you feel compelled to spend money on things you don’t really care about, simply because of social expectations? Eliminate them, and use the money for purposes more suitable to your life and the way you can afford to live comfortably.
Create a budget that ensures you’ll always be able to afford the essentials, as well as a few things you really treasure. I’ve learned how to keep my monthly expenses at a level that, if I were to suffer a serious setback — for example, if I were laid up and unable to work for six to eight months — I’d be able to afford to keep my apartment in New York. I’d surely have to cut back on many luxuries, from dining out to purchasing art, but the thing that matters to me, my comfortable home, would not be endangered. I try to manage my money in a way that reflects my priorities and not those of any peer group.
Be prepared to live with the disapproval of your peers. I’ve been called “cheap” because I wouldn’t join a friend at an ultra-expensive restaurant for dinner. (It was no special occasion or celebration, just an ordinary meal. Why squander big bucks on an evening like that when a dinner costing one-third as much would be just as enjoyable — and much more so, when I factor in the anxiety I’d feel thinking about the waste?) On the other hand, I’ve been called “extravagant” by my friend Howard, who refuses to pay for dinner at even the cheapest of restaurants. (When I want to spend time with Howard, we take in a movie and share a big tub of popcorn — that’s as lavish as Howard gets.) If I were highly sensitive, my friends’ criticisms might hurt me. Instead, I’ve learned to develop a thick skin, which makes it much easier for me to be myself and feel comfortable doing so. Remember, you’ll never please everyone, no matter what choices you make, and the only person you really need to satisfy is yourself. In the end, most people you care about will respect you more for having the courage to be yourself.
Don’t get sucked into social competition. For many years I was part of a circle of friends who enjoyed giving dinners for one another. We took turns hosting these parties, which were informal and fun — at first. It all took a sour turn when one of the group became an avid cook and began to use the dinners as an opportunity to show off the fancy and expensive dishes she’d learned. One by one, the group’s members were drawn into competing to make lavish and extravagant dishes — things like a veal osso bucco that took eight hours to prepare, accompanied by a $90 bottle of French wine. The fun drained out, replaced by a mild sense of dread and dismay. Eventually, the group broke up. If I ever join a similar group, I’ll suggest some simple ground rules: no dinners that cost more than $10 or $20 per person, for example. Chances are good that everyone will end up having a better time this way.
Use your imagination in place of money. My friend Adrienne is quite wealthy (she and her husband own a very successful business together). I couldn’t possibly keep up with her when it comes to spending, so I don’t try. When it’s my turn to host a dinner, I pick an adventurous, off-the-beaten-track place, like a soul food restaurant in Harlem or a Jamaican place in Brooklyn. When I travel, I buy Adrienne a souvenir that is small, personal, and thoughtful, like a box of the candied ginger I know she loves. The time and attention I devote to these choices expresses my fondness for Adrienne far better than if I simply bought an expensive gift at an upscale store.
Relish the pleasures of simplicity. It can be downright fun to live a relatively simple life: having a few nice clothes rather than a closet full of flashy, soon-outdated stuff; spending a few days relaxing at the beach rather than taking a suite at a five-star hotel; inviting friends over for a plate of fresh pasta, salad, and some crusty Italian bread rather than spending a night throwing dollars away at a private club or hot dance bar.
You might fear that opting out of the spending race will cost you the respect of your peers. Just the opposite is likely to be the case. You may be surprised to find that you end up the envy of your friends, who are secretly frustrated by the burden their costly lifestyles impose on them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alvin Hall, author of You and Your Money: It’s More Than Just the Numbers (Copyright © 2008 by Alvin Hall), has been training and counseling a wide range of financial service companies and institutions in the United States and around the world for the last twenty years. He lives in New York City.
MORE ARTICLES BY THE AUTHOR
- In a Rut at Work? Look at Why You Took the Job
- What is Your Relationship to Cash? 3 Money Scenarios That Are Crucial to Getting Your Financial House in Order
- Read Chapter 1 of You and Your Money: It’s More Than Just the Numbers
- See the book’s Table of Contents
- Watch the video: Alvin Hall talks about art, walking in New York, and more