Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Who cares about the Joneses?

Coming up, I always heard that saying "He's keeping up with the Joneses..." I think most of us learn that early on here in America. The Jones family is the mythic family next door that you simply must compete with, otherwise they might have more than you.

Oh no! How could we possibly let someone "get ahead" of us? If Bob has a new car, I must rush out and buy one bigger and better! If Bonnie buys a pocketbook for $100 I must buy one for $200, because she CAN'T be better than me! If Tammy gets a promotion I must too, otherwise I'm a failure...

Where did we get these notions? Why do we care? When did this change from being a negative statement into a quest? Yes, it was originally negative! My grandmother felt bad for people who always strove to buy bigger and better. She thought it was a waste of time and money. Why buy more when you have enough?

Gran was a product of the Depression era. She saved bread bags, twist ties, jelly jars, and numerous other items that would quickly find the trash can these days. Gran grew her own small garden, even though she lived in an apartment. She religiously canned homemade soup, beets, sweet pickles, tomatoes, corn and green beans every year, without fail. AND, she made the best, super thin, Moravian Molasses cookies in the world! (This link has a recipe very similar to hers. Yes, this recipe involves a true commitment in strength and resources, but the results are amazing!)

I never remember Gran coveting anything that anyone else had. She was always content with what she had and happy to help others with her meager possessions. If she saw someone living beyond their means she would shake her head and make a "Ummmph" noise. Most good southerners would explain this as a "Bless your heart" moment.

Make no mistake. I grew up in a nice, middle-income family. We lived beyond our means. My dad bought a new or new-to-him vehicle every two years because the guy at the corner store had one, too. My mother went charge card happy when I was a tween and remained so until about 4 years ago. My sister and I both picked up this bad habit - CHARGE IT!

I normally received everything I wanted within a reasonable time of asking for it. I was spoiled rotten with material things. It never occurred to me that this was a problem until I started living on my own. Mom had a great paying job and I tried to keep up with her while making slightly better than minimum wage..bad idea!

I ended up well over $30,000 in debt and had no idea where most of that money went. I had next to nothing to show for it and struggled to pay back this astronomical amount by working 2 and 3 jobs. Mind you, I had 2 children at home that needed my love and attention and they paid terribly for this massive error. My life became a horrible repetition of work, work, work, say "Hi." to the kids, sleep, repeat.

Reality set in with a vengeance. Lesson learned the hard way. I vowed never to do this again. A few years later I was back in debt to the tune of about $20,000. How did this happen? How could I allow this to happen?

The truth is that I never learned how to live within my means. I wrongly assumed that I should be able to eat out all of the time, shop at the mall, vacation as I had as a child, drive a new car, etc... I felt that I was entitled to this because it appeared that everyone else was. Accepting the fact that I couldn't keep up with everyone else was tough. I had to continuously tell myself that these other people didn't live as I presumed. Most of the time I felt as if this was a joke.

One day I finally got up the nerve to talk to a friend about finances - a huge no, no in my family. She was very upfront about the fact that most months she borrowed money from her parents to get by. That never stopped her from buying a new cell phone every 6 months, accepting expensive internet, cable and phone plans, adding other people to her service and eating out almost every day. I couldn't believe it!

After this discussion I started asking more people about their finances and found that most lived in a similar way. I knew I had to make some serious changes ASAP. I did. I wish I could say that today I'm debt free. I'm not. I do heavily limit my spending, not as much as I should or could, but no where near my early adult life. I still have moments where I feel compelled to purchase something because it looks nice, but more often than not I leave without it. Heck, sometimes I even carry it around the store with me only to go back at the last moment to put it back on the shelf.

This wasn't easy to learn. I had to re-teach myself. I had to allow myself permission to say "No!" I had to learn to shop at thrift stores, by generic, and only make purchases when things are on sale. After a few years I could even admit that I shopped this way. (This embarrassed my boss to no end. She would turn beet red and say "Don't tell everyone that!" After a few years, she came around and started thrift shopping, too. Yay! I helped facilitate a convert!)

So, here it is. Give yourself permission to not keep up with the Joneses. It won't be easy. There will be times when you feel a pull to regress, but you can do it! Your wallet, bank account, family, and future will thank you...

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