Keeping up with the Joneses would only be interesting if they were named Indiana and Leslie. If there’s one sure path to unhappiness, a broad and well-paved path, it’s the path of social comparison. There will always be someone who is richer, sexier, or more famous. What’s the point of comparing ourselves to them? The underrated, more interesting alternative version of social comparison is to Compare Down the Stair. Find someone whose life is harder or less glamorous, and feel grateful not to be in that situation.
My husband and I save 35% of our income and live comfortably in a tiny apartment. One of the reasons for this is that almost everyone we know has a lower household income than we do. This is partly because we deliberately cultivate friendships with young people. We like the laughter and energy of high school and college-aged kids. We also have a lot of older relatives and friends who have been on fixed incomes for a long time. It’s really important to have friends from a broad range of ages. We trade our young friends their hipness quotient, new slang, and music discovery services for our mentoring and recommendation letters. We trade our older friends their experience and glimpses into Future Us for our agility and ability to move heavy objects. We look out for each other.
Down the street from us, less than a mile, is a row of beachfront houses. They’re the closest private homes; everything on either side of us is part of one apartment complex or another. These houses range from $1.8 million to $8 million. They’re not even big! These are very ordinary structures that would undoubtedly sell for under $200,000 in the neighborhood where I grew up. They’d go for much less in other parts of the country. It’s the view, I guess, or the prestige of the zip code? We have the same view and the same access to the same shops and restaurants that they have. We just have it for a small fraction of the cost. We only spend a quarter of our income on rent, by design. A lot of people are willing to push it toward forty percent, and that just seems stressful and foolish. People our age don’t like living in dorm-size apartments. Even our friends in their twenties have bigger apartments than ours. We’d rather have the savings and the financial security than a bigger living room or an extra bedroom.
Who are we trying to impress? Only ourselves. Only Future Us.
There are some things that make it easy. One is that we took a sudden, irresistible job opportunity in a different city. We don’t have the constant social pressure that many people do, no barrage of invitations to bars, clubs, shows, or brunches. The willingness to pick up and move for a better job has two effects: more money and fewer reasons to spend it. When we pass through town and see old friends, they’re more likely to show up, knowing it will probably be a year or more before we can hang out in person again. You can hang out with us basically for the price of a basket of french fries.
Another thing is that neither of us drinks alcohol. That’s just how we are. It tends to mean that we say our goodbyes at the end of the evening when the bottles come out. When we add up how much some of our acquaintances spend on liquor, even at home, we just shake our heads. This is why we get to jet off on cool vacations and they don’t. A hundred dollars a month for one year is enough to pay for a round-trip airplane ticket to almost anywhere in the entire world. That’s twenty-five dollars a week. How many bottles of wine is that? Depends on the price point, doesn’t it?
There’s another area where my husband and I match, and I get credit for it and he doesn’t. That’s in the category of beauty treatments. I don’t color my hair and I’ve never had a professional manicure or pedicure. I’ve never worn false eyelashes, had a facial, or been to a dermatologist. I have three handbags and two pairs of dress heels. I wear makeup on special occasions, and it all fits in one little cosmetic bag. I have one bottle of nail polish. Go ahead and laugh - when I asked my husband why he married me, he surprised me by saying, “Your frugality.” If I’d been more lavish in my pursuit of girly beautification, I wouldn’t have landed this man, this man who doesn’t like makeup or heels on women. This man who did my taxes while I went to Cancun with my brothers, this man who trims my parrot’s nails and makes me green juice after my workouts. We could probably do more to stage perfect selfies, but our relationship isn’t really about public display. He wouldn’t mind but I find it too stressful to try to make non-awkward facial expressions on command.
Social media has so much to do with this sense that Everyone is Having Fun Except Me. If you have even a hundred friends on social media, and one percent of them are having a great time on any given day, then you can find yourself staring at a seemingly endless stream of blissfully stylish and perfect life. Someone went to a birthday party! Someone had a cute nap with a cat! Someone went white-water rafting! All of these experiences are evenly distributed amongst people who may never have met, but it tends to look like one giant revel where everyone got an invitation except for us. There are three things that help with this. One is to remember that people only post the memorable stuff. Nobody wants to see a picture of me taking out the trash or sorting socks. Two, it helps to put the images in context. Almost all of these posts and pictures include things that we can do, that we actually do, like going to a barbecue or a family get-together. They just happen less often for each individual than they do for the Collective Ongoing Party. Three, the root emotions of these posts are joy, affection, and gratitude, and we have to cultivate these feelings for ourselves. They’re much nicer replacements for FoMO, envy, and the bad kind of social comparison.
Domestic contentment and friendship come from within. We can’t really feel what we perceive as popularity; we can only feel the warmth of affection, regard, and companionship on our own end. Friends are for appreciating and admiring. We should be expending our love and attention on people who make us laugh, whose conversation and company lights us up. Any kind of social motivation that leaves us feeling jealous, dissatisfied, or left out is a motivation that can be replaced. Any contest should be over a dance battle, perhaps, or who is the best hugger or the best listener.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.