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Keeping up with the Joneses’…kids (Part 1: the mentality)

First. Why the Joneses? Why not a last name that doesn’t end in an S? Is this the man’s way of trying to teach us complicated and unsettling English morphology rules? Keeping up with the Jones? Keeping up with the Jones’s? Keeping up with the Joneses’? (I hope we all know that an apostrophe has no business in this saying. But maybe we only know that because of this saying. Thanks, man).

Anyway. You know what it is. The pressure to spend money so that other people will think you are fancy. In the FI community, it’s one of the 7 deadly sins (the other 6: having debt, paying taxes, eating at restaurants, buying a car new, using credit cards that don’t have travel bonuses on them, investing in something other than an index fund).

The scales in the Joneses situation are such: what is more important to you, your own financial priorities or the opinions of others? Does your internal strength and self-assurance outweigh the need for imagined approval from imaginary other people?

In my case, that’s a yes. I don’t care about brand names, unless I think those brand names are associated with higher quality (example: I would spend more for a Honda than a Kia, but I wouldn’t spend more for a Louis Vitton handbag than a…I don’t even know what kind of hand bag I have, but that kind). This just isn’t the kind of pressure that gets to me.

Or…it wasn’t.

Once I had kids, everything changed (especially my ability to not crap my pants on the regular, but that’s another story for another time). As they get older, these pressures that I never used to feel are suddenly imminent, and pressing. Emma has these toys, Olive only wears this type of clothes. Did you know that Natalia’s family is going to Aruba?

The instinct in the FI community is to say “this is Keeping up with the Joneses and we aren’t having it!” And there’s a point to that. But I think it’s a little misguided.

When we, as ourselves, decide not to keep up with the Joneses, we are saying “my internal strength and self-assurance outweighs the need for imagined approval from imaginary other people.” When we push our kids not to keep up with the Joneses’ kids, we are saying “your internal strength and your self-assurance outweighs the need for real, actual pressure and approval from real, actual people.”

First, you can’t force somebody else to have internal strength and self-assurance. You have to build that up over time, and model specific behaviors, and be the best parent ever for like three decades before it will become clear if that actually worked. Forcing it, in my opinion, only makes the situation worse.

I care more about my financial priorities than some stupid LOL Surprise Doll. My kids care more about the doll. If I make them act in ways that are in line with my values, it only serves to get them to care even more about those stupid, useless, expensive pieces of plastic. Instead of getting the doll, playing with it for literally 6 minutes and then dropping the tiny pieces into every nook and cranny in the house, never to need another LOL Surprise Doll again (until the next series comes out, at least) they salivate over them, dream about them. Fixate.

Second, while most fully-formed adults don’t actually care (as far as I can tell) if I have a specific brand of shoes, many kids do. It’s part of the culture. It’s a stupid part of the culture, but it’s a part of the culture nonetheless.

When we tell kids that they should just pretend these pressures don’t exist, we are basically invalidating their real, lived experiences.

Do I think that we should buy the kids every crappy plastic toy they see? Spend billions of dollars on new clothing? Go to Disney World 8 times a year? Of course not.

But I do think we teach them more about financial responsibility by letting them navigate this stuff on their own, rather than pushing our own priorities on to them. Sometimes that means buying LOL Surprise Dolls and stepping on the pieces barefoot at 4 a.m. when you are rushing a newly potty trained 3-year-old to the bathroom. Sometimes it means going to the most expensive (err, magical) place on earth once every few years. Sometimes it means buying a specific brand of clothing or shoes.

Maybe you (and by “you” I mean “your kids”) have to know what it’s like to keep up with the Joneses before you can decide it’s not worth it.

6 thoughts on “Keeping up with the Joneses’…kids (Part 1: the mentality)”

  1. What an excellent, entertaining post from beginning to end. You had me at “unsettling English morphology rules,” and by the time I got to the seven deadly sins I was actually laughing audibly (not fake LOL chuckles, but real happy laughs). And then to follow up the entertainment with a thoughtful philosophical point about the extent to which it’s okay (or not) for us to force our financial ideologies onto our kids just really made my day. Superb thought piece. And I agree. My dark secret is taking my son to Laker games once a year with really good seats (they are insanely expensive, but it’s SUCH great bonding for us, and he loves it SO much). However, I have been thinking about travel-hacking the experience. What if we went to games in OTHER cities, flew in on credit card miles, used hotel points to stay, and then saved hundreds on tickets because everything’s cheaper outside of LA and San Francisco? Would the travel-hacking and geographic arbitrage virtues expiate the Joneses sin? Hmmm, I might have to do a piece on this…anyway, this was all great food for thought. Thanks for a truly excellent and inspiring post.

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    1. Ha! My brother knew a guy once who flew to Hong Kong, then got on a direct flight back, for the travel miles. I suspect it’s possible (probable?) to take it too far.

      And thanks for the comment! It made me smile.

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  2. Enjoyed reading this post! I find myself going in circles with this same spending issue with my two kids. I’m trying to spare them my mistakes but I have to remember they need experiences to draw on for some of these money lessons to stick. Fitting in is so important. We jump from one “must have” to the next. And the toys keep getting more expensive! 🙄 Thanks for sharing.

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    1. It’s so easy to forget HOW important fitting in is for them. Objectively, who cares if they don’t have the right shoes or whatever – but for them, in that moment, it feels like the world depends on it. It’s hard to walk the line!

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