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The War On Debt: How NOT to keep up with the Joneses

The war on debt: how not to keep up with the Joneses

Chances are, the Joneses are in debt, too.

They may be depending on a higher income to pay it all back, but it doesn't matter, because we’ll never know.

People don’t talk about what they make or what they owe.

But we do care about appearances—at least I do.

In self-employment, I want to give the appearance of busyness to engender confidence in potential clients and reap actual business. Success begets success.

The same thing applies to my personal life. I want to look successful in the eyes of my peers.

“By this time, and this age, this is where I should be, this is what I should have, and this is what I should be able to do.”

Unfortunately, life has not turned out as I expected. Not at all.

Do you need a paradigm shift?

If you truly don’t care what other people think of you on any level (I don’t believe you, but I won’t argue) then this blog post isn’t for you.

But let’s not underestimate the long-term stress of being unable to have or do what other people have or do—and the stress of needing to hide why.

I was always ashamed of what I perceived as a lack of success on my part, and I took pains to hide my situation. I mean, who wants to reveal that they’re neck-deep in debt? It’s a sign of weakness.

“I could do that, and I could fix this, and I could go there, if I didn’t have this damn debt.”

This was the verbal whip I beat myself with daily.

To lessen the stress, I had to develop a different way of thinking and being through my many years of indentured servitude.

Related: 7 Steps To Get Ahead With Your First Paycheque

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A few principles

Practice creativity, not consumerism.

Fancy furniture stores sell items that are often designed to have the appearance of age—which we buy at a premium price.

Here’s your opportunity to flex your creative muscles—or strongarm a creative friend to help you design a home you love, on a shoestring budget.

The social media site Pinterest is the perfect place to find ideas you can riff on. So is the basement. For example:

  • When we bought our second home 13 years ago, I found a couple of old wooden storm windows downstairs, which I painted and used as decorations on a large, empty wall I needed to fill. Now they are affixed above my writing desk and I use them as a place to pin inspirational quotes.
  • I found large wooden boxes from the 1950s down there, too, with “Crown, Cork and Seal Company” emblazoned on the sides. They are beaten up, having been used as tool storage by the workbench. We cleaned them up, fitted them with wheels, and my father made hinged wooden tops for them. Voilà—instant coffee tables. For free! (Now that my Dad is sick, they have sentimental value for me, too.)
  • When my parents home was sold two years ago, I dug up two antique, solid brass lamps in their basement. With new wiring and shades, they were gorgeous once they were shined up, at a fraction of what they would cost new.

People will notice and appreciate your unique sense of style. This goes for clothes and all kinds of consumables. Which leads me to the next point:

Prioritize and plan for the most necessary expenditures.

The two-income childless couple down the street drives a new SUV and just renovated their home, while you drive a ten-year-old minivan and hope that your leaky bathtub doesn’t come crashing into the kitchen below until you save enough money to fix it.

Save and budget for the big, important things, and don’t be a slave to perfection.

Related: 6 Alternatives to Owning a Car

Do some work with those less fortunate.

Volunteer at a homeless shelter, or get involved with a regional, national or international charity.

You’ll soon see that if you have potable running water, heat, electricity, three meals a day and live inside four decent walls, you are already richer than 80% of the world’s population—most folk sleep on a dirt floor under a tin roof.

You have all these things because you have the good fortune to live in one of the most prosperous countries in the world.

This is not about guilt, it’s about the knowledge that privilege is a relative concept.

My husband and I have been sponsoring children with Compassion International since the 1990s and we have put four children (from the age of five) through the program. I visited Ecuador on a volunteer trip in 2004, and it was a life-changing experience to visit that beautiful—but poverty-stricken—country.

When I came home, I realized how much food we throw out, how much overall waste we generate, and how much comfort we take for granted.

When you do something for others, it takes your focus off your own problems.

Extras and perks are a grateful privilege, not a right.

While your friends are taking their kids to Disney, you’re going camping in the rain at the nearest national park, and simple entertainments like eating out are considered absolute luxuries. You will not get up at three am to stand in line for the newest game console, cell phone, or other electronics—you will wait to buy things second hand, long after the buzz has passed.

My children attended the “rich” high school in our city—the school attended by wealthier children, as compared to the other inner-city schools. It’s a safer, better-equipped school, but my kids’ classmates were regularly going on two trips a year—Florida in the winter and maybe New York or Europe over March Break. This bothered my kids a lot, because the most exotic trip they could report on was driving to Montreal or Toronto to visit relatives.

This is called “a teachable moment.”

Is life about getting exactly what you want all the time?

At least that’s one message my kids never received. My oldest daughter bought her first cell phone when she had a job to pay for it, and she bought her first car that way, too.

Related: Budget Travel Tips For Tourist Attractions

And speaking of comparisons…

Facebook beware.

Same problem, but for grownups. The monologue in my head goes this way:

“Oh geez! They’re in London/Italy/China/the Bahamas now? I’ve always wanted to go there. Wow, gorgeous pictures. And look how skinny she is in her bikini.”

“Oh, I see So-and-So’s business is taking off. Does he have all the contracts in the city. Must be nice.”

“Look at that. Her kids are so smart, they’ve been 100% subsidized with university scholarships. But my kid had to borrow $50,000! Guess I should have taken more pre-natal vitamins and listened to Mozart.”

Two studies in 2015 by the University of Houston found that Facebook usage can be linked to depressive symptoms in some people, because the highlights of our friends’ lives seem so much better than our own.

This form of “social comparison” can lead to a distorted view of other people’s lives—and our own.

I can attest that this has been my experience. Comparison is death. You are running your own race, not anyone else’s.

Keep your eyes focused on what’s ahead, not on the people running beside you.

And finally…

Related: Addictive Consumerism

Remember that your value isn’t found in extrinsic things.

We look to talent, youth, beauty, money, success, achievement, and power to make us feel equal to or better than other people.

But these things are transitory. Circumstances are not permanent, nor are they guaranteed.

Life can change in an instant, and therefore, control is an illusion.

Your value is nested in your intrinsic worth as a human being, not your possessions or your accomplishments.

Change your paradigm, and the Joneses will wonder what you have that they don’t.

Follow the Debt Dispatcher’s Story

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The War On Debt: On The Hunt For A Job
The War On Debt: Progress Takes Time
The War On Debt: Save, Pay Down Debt, Or Both?
The War on Debt: Spending Blindly With Plastic
The War On Debt: Reining In The Food Budget
The War On Debt: Here, Have A Debt Sandwich
The War On Debt: Notes from The Front Line

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Helene's picture

You have the right attitude. There is a lot of wisdom here. Thanks for sharing something so meaningful.

November 09, 2017 @ 12:04 pm
DebtDispatcher's picture

I'm glad it resonated with you. Thanks for posting.

November 09, 2017 @ 9:10 pm
Anne Johnston
Anne Johnston's picture

There's a book available in French called "En as-tu vraiment besoin", which means, "Do you really need it?". I don't know if it'\s available in English, but it's a mind-expander. It's not just about cutting down on acquiring things. It's also about asking yourself if you really need the big wedding, the expensive trip, the bigger house, and on and on. I recommend it.

November 09, 2017 @ 12:16 pm
DebtDispatcher's picture

Sounds like a great book. I'll look for it.

November 09, 2017 @ 9:05 pm
Lawrence Olszewski
Lawrence Olszewski's picture

Dear Stephen; I read your blog and I was never one to fall into the keeping up with the Jone's delusion but merely just trying to survive. 12 years ago I was seriously injured at work and due to previous injuries I had sustained at work I was deemed by my Doctors unfit to work as i have several physical limitations along with having to take morphine every 4-6 hours accompanied by 13 different Cortisone injections each 3 months I must live on a disability pension a small check from WCB and a another check from Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped which all in total amounts to $1600 a month. I moved recently and it cost me $4000.00 as I had to pay $500 in utilities, $250 to my service provider, $1059.00 for house and vehicle insurance plus come up with another $1650.00 for rent and damage deposit, I hadn't had to pay a damage deposit on my previous residence as the house and property was trashed by the former tenant's but the landlord started screwing me around so I moved out ( spent 4 years fixing up the place ) I had to sell my dining suite, my washer and dryer and my compressor just to cover the costs along with my $1500 overdraft which is sitting at a -$1405 I cant even think about competing with the Jone's but merely trying to stay alive. I finally found 1 lawyer after being screwed over by a couple that is actually trying to do something as he knows that I was screwed over by the WCB which cut me off for 1 1/2 years causing me to lose everything I owned along with $45,000 in RRSP'S which was a locked in pension fund I was only able to access under a hardship clause so I'm in dyer states now and |I still need to have a knee replacement surgery, A surgery to kill the pain receptor nerves in my lower back, and they have found a lump in my thyroid gland which I still don't know if it is cancerous or not. I have no family to speak of and only have one or two people in my life that I can honestly say or call a friend. All of my relatives live in Europe and are just distant relatives with no association, I do not have any aunts, uncles or cousins in north america. My parents are both deceased and when my mother passed away she thought she had left me a 1/2 million dollars in life insurance but the day after she passed I contacted the insurance company only to find she had faithfully paid all these years for a policy that was only god if she had died in an accident. God bless her heart it was in the right place but she would never discuss her life insurance policy or let anyone see it as she thought this to be her very private matter, Being very old and from Germany just after the war ended had taught herself the English language and could read and write in both but she never read the fine print and we all know what insurance sales people are like, They'll sell you anything they can especially if you don't really understand what they are saying but insuring you that your covered non the less. Stephen I cant even get a credit card! WCB screwed my credit when they cut me off and it's just been a life of hell since. You see why I joined your mailing list, Every penny counts. My wrists and hands are one of my injured parts and they are becoming quite sore from typing out this email so I must say good bye for now.

November 09, 2017 @ 1:00 pm
DebtDispatcher's picture

Wow, you've been through so much, Lawrence. Thanks for posting and I hope things improve for you.

November 09, 2017 @ 9:06 pm
A concern fellow
A concern fellow's picture

Hi Lawrence,
About the insurance policy that your mom left you, you should really find some help to see life insurance experts to see why you are not eligible for payout. Life insurance will pay out unless the person commits suicide. With Manulife, even when the insured person commits suicide after 3 years, the beneficiary will still receive payout. Something did not sound right here.

December 22, 2017 @ 11:48 pm
Marpy's picture

You can actually have way more than the Jones and pay way less by NOT keeping up with the Jone's. The trick is to take your time, think about what you want, what it will cost you and if it's really worth it. And most importantly, live within your means. What you will find is that while the Jone's are struggling under a mountan of debit and giving a good chunk of their pay check in interest to the bank every month, you will have enough money to do what you want when you want and will not be struggling to get to the next pay check.The earlier you start with this philosophy in life, the better. It worked for me, I have no debit, retired early and more than enough money coming in to pay the bills and do what I want as well.
Consumerism tends to be a trap people get caught in and all it amounts to is a debit producing and continual make work project as all that expensive stuff needs looking after and the bank wants to get paid every week. And the funny thing is, I have more of that stuff than most of the Jone's do - difference is mine was bought for cash or charged and paid of in full when due so that I could get the rewards and all trhat interest that ussually gets paid out stayed in my pocket.


November 09, 2017 @ 2:54 pm
DebtDispatcher's picture

Hi, Marpy: These are truths not automatically evident to everyone.I think some people are natural savers and planners--they are all about industry and conscientiousness, and other people (like me) are a bit more spontaneous, bent on creativity and experiences, and tend to think less about the future. Some things we learn the hard way! Thanks for your thoughts.

November 09, 2017 @ 9:09 pm's picture

Great article. It is all about priorities in my mind. What is important for me isn't necessarily important for you, or someone else. Figuring out what are the important things for you and those close to you, how much they cost, and more importantly how much you are willing to SPEND on those things is the crook of the matter. Awareness is key.

For me, I see cars as merely a means of transport from point A to point B. We live in frigid Winnipeg, so I wouldn't consider biking as a year-round thing, so we have a rusty old Ford Focus from 2003 that just keep chugging right along. Other people strongly disagree.

But I will admit it, I have a bit of a love for technology that I can not kick. It is just something that I love especially hifi headphones and the gadgets that go with it, gaming, etc. Learning to reign myself in and keep to a budget with these things has been a key to our financial success, as well as giving each of us some "play" money that is ours to do with as we please. The rest is automated savings and keeping our expenses under constant scrutiny which eventually creates a "frugal mindset', where you just can't spend money on stupid stuff (for us) because it doesn't make sense for US.

Ultimately, for me I would rather have a million dollars in investments (eventually) than spending all of our money on our house (which is easy enough in most Canadian cities). But that is just where out priorities happen to be. Others are different I am sure.

November 13, 2017 @ 1:41 pm
DebtDispatcher's picture

Hi, James. I think so, too. Keeping your focus on what's right--and possible--for you and your family is the key. The hard part for me was letting go of any other social expectations. Of course, the old adage is, "you wouldn't worry about what others thought about you if you knew how little they did."

We don't care about cars as a status symbol, either. House renos and vacations were (are) my issue.

November 13, 2017 @ 7:25 pm

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