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Comparison is Human Nature, To Resist or Give in?

Comparing ourselves to others is almost a national past time. People spend hours in this country scouring Facebook and comparing their own lives to the fictional lives of others. We publish the wealthiest people as if it is some sort of competition to see whom can be the richest. We as a collective society drive more expensive cars in some self imagined “Keeping up with the Jones” personal crusade. And yet what is the impact of this comparison? Have you ever considered the costs of comparing yourself financially to others?

High School Reunions, the Ultimate locale for Comparing Yourself Financially to Others

A little over 7 years ago I attended my ten year high school reunion. A high school reunion seems to be the ultimate location for comparing one self to others. I couldn’t help but notice that Mr. Popular was barely making due and the guy whose rich parents bought him everything now worked for mom and pop. I was guilty of comparing myself to those people in that group as I’m human. And yet the most poignant memory of that night was not my perception of myself compared to my high school peers. The memory that stands out was a friend from high school commenting on my personal Facebook page, that based on what she saw there it would seem I was Bill Gates.

Now I have done well, there is no denying. However, to look at my personal Facebook page around that time one would think I was a high roller. I had pictures of my then new Corvette. Pictures of a friend of a friend’s multimillion dollar garage. Pictures of me traveling all over the world for work with the resulting weekend vacation spots. Of course no one reading my Facebook page and not having seen me for the last decade would know all but the Corvette were not my cars. The trips meanwhile were 90% work travel. Other then the Corvette I was just as frugal then as I am now.   Those who knew me more recently actually tended to use the term tight fisted to describe me, except when it comes to my friends. The Facebook page though had given a false image of my personal status to my peers.  They had already begun comparing themselves financially to me.

Perception is Not Necessarily Reality

The problem here is quite obvious. Their perception of me wasn’t reality. The same is usually true for that person driving the real life fancy car. The guy at work with the new BMW 7 series is just as likely knee deep in debt as well to do. And yet our societal natural position is to look at it and think that guy has it made. Worse if we give into our base instincts we end up wanting to do as he has. Buy our own BMW 7 series because if he can have one so should I. This of course spirals into lifestyle inflation, debt, and ultimately having to work until you’re 90.

Unhappiness and Financial Comparisons to Others

But I digress, the overspending is only a symptom. What’s really happening is we are allowing ourselves to be unhappy by sake of comparison. In 2012 the Federal Reserve released a paper showing that those who live in wealthier neighborhoods are more likely to commit suicide. That seems odd on the surface until you dig further into the data. Apparently it was the lower income folks in the higher income areas. The authors linked this to unhappiness brought on by making “unfavorable interpersonal income comparisons”. The unhappiness manifests itself in trying to “keep up with the jones” in most people, though obviously the study shows in extreme cases it leads to suicide. Neither is a desirable outcome. As such we must resist the urge to compare ourselves financially to others.

Comparison is Human Nature, To Resist or Give in?

We’re all human, and temptations surround us every day to make these comparisons. To be honest I don’t believe it is possible for me to just stop making the comparisons. Even when I read magazines like Forbes, I find a bit of me wondering why I’m not selling my Unicorn’s IPO for over 1 Billion. Never happen, which means I need to temper these feeling to both keep happiness and financial progress. The way I do so is to wherever possible redirect my financial comparisons from a specific person towards the average person. I also redirect myself from a useless comparison like how many things I have and towards something that positively impacts my life. For example where is my net worth compared to the average person of my age? According to the 2011 Census the Median net worth of someone my age (35-44), that is if 11 people walked by me the person in the exact middles net worth, would be 35K.

Even more shocking, I would be in front of 75 out of 100 people if I had $128K to my name before I turned 45. These numbers are scary low, but the impact on society of such numbers is a post for another day. The point here is if you have your financial house in order even slightly, you’re setting the world on fire compared to at least 50 of 100 people you’d cross paths in this country. Chances are good you’re probably ahead of at least 75. If we include all the humans on earth, including those in developing countries, you’re easily in front of 99. This is not to belittle others or the concerns there of, but it is to remind you of how good you have it. In my case it also reminds me that what you see is not necessarily reality. If 75 out of 100 people have less than 128K in my age group, there is no way the 1000 or so 3 series BMWs in my area are all driven by Dupont heirs. It brings me back to earth and stops me from comparing myself financially to others.

Compare Yourself

Give it a try, the above link has a view of the 2011 Census data. Where do you sit on the scale? I’d be willing to bet if you’re near the upper age of the range or you’ve been working on financials for a while, you’re blowing these numbers out of the water. If not I suspect in a matter of a few years you will be. Hopefully like me, this advice helps you to get over the concept of comparing yourself to others. If you have any other techniques to avoid comparing yourself financially to others please feel free to share them below.

22 Comments

  1. Leo T. Ly @ isaved5k.com
    Leo T. Ly @ isaved5k.com April 10, 2017

    I do compare myself to others, but not in terms of lifestyle or net worth, but in terms of continuous improvements. I am not jealous or envy of others if they are doing better than me. Instead, I would ask what had made them successful? Are there anything that I can do to improve myself? Am I willing to do the same thing as those successful people in order to improve myself?

    I believe that those questions put me in a much better footing than to compare against people’s material possessions.

  2. Wow, that’s interesting data and really scary how low the median net worth is! I agree that to compare is human, and it can be useful so long as we don’t take our identity from it too much, or get jealous. From reading FIRE blogs I get the impression we’re rather behind for our age, but this census data just corrected that notion.

    • fulltimefinance@fulltimefinance.com
      [email protected] April 10, 2017

      I can definitely see that. There are a lot of truly successful people writing FIRE blogs. There is much to learn there if, as you elegantly put it, we “don’t take our identity from it too much, or get jealous”.

  3. The Magic Bean Counter
    The Magic Bean Counter April 10, 2017

    Very interesting post. I completely agree that it is in our human nature to compare ourselves to others. I think there is a way to do so constructively. If we compare ourselves to others in hopes of learning something or bettering ourselves than I think it can have a very positive impact on ones life.

    • fulltimefinance@fulltimefinance.com
      [email protected] April 10, 2017

      We definitely can each learn from others successes and failures. Comparing can have value when done constructively or as motivation.

  4. SMM
    SMM April 10, 2017

    Wow! These net worth numbers are surprising compared to the amount people will actually need in retirement; thanks for sharing though.

    I really don’t compare myself to others. I know people that do comparisons and those types of people are always comparing and never satisfied and don’t appear to be happy. Instead, I try to emulate habits or acquire inspiration from successful business people. One quick example is Mark Zuckerberg or the late Steve Jobs who always wore the same thing or at least most of the time when I see their pictures. So I’m trying to not focus on clothes as much and plan to donate more of the clothes I have this year!

    • fulltimefinance@fulltimefinance.com
      [email protected] April 10, 2017

      As Leo pointed out, you can also constructively compare to help improve your own approach. I.E. learning from others is another, probably more healthy, form of comparison. Still the numbers are scary low..

  5. Mustard Seed Money
    Mustard Seed Money April 10, 2017

    I have to admit there are some people that I have had to stop following their timelines because the image that they are portraying is not real. My wife has a friend that is miserable but you’d never know it with all the happy pictures and expensive things that she shows off. Definitely makes you wonder who she’s trying to impress.

    • fulltimefinance@fulltimefinance.com
      [email protected] April 11, 2017

      You know, it’s interesting. What I didn’t mention in the post was shortly after the reunion comment I stopped updating Facebook. At the time it hadn’t even occurred to me that it would impact someone else, I just wanted a way to share some pictures with some friends. After realizing the impact I became more private as I didn’t like the thought that it might influence someone else to overstep their bounds.

  6. Go Finance Yourself!
    Go Finance Yourself! April 11, 2017

    I think you’re spot on in that we’d all be a lot happier if we stopped comparing ourselves to others. The never ending sources of media today make that near impossible for many people. People who watch endless hours of TV are bombarded by advertisements that convince them their lives are incomplete without that product. Television shows make it seem like living in a nice house and driving a nice car are what should be important.

    I could stand not comparing myself to others. In some ways I think it can be helpful, as long as it’s not from a jealousy frame of mind. I’m very competitive by nature so I’m always comparing myself to others. This drives me to be better. It also helps knowing the true measure of wealth is behind the scenes, and not represented by material possessions. Many of us could lease a BMW or buy a really expensive house, but instead we choose a stealth wealth approach.

    • fulltimefinance@fulltimefinance.com
      [email protected] April 11, 2017

      Competition can definitely be a positive influence when not taken to extremes. Marketing though does seem to take advantage of our competitive and comparing spirits to drive purchases. The more you recognize it, hopefully, the less susceptible you are.

  7. Wall Street Physician
    Wall Street Physician April 11, 2017

    I agree that comparing yourselves to other can be destructive. There will always be someone who is richer or doing better than you.

    One way to channel this into a positive is to compare yourself to the whole U.S. population or the whole world. America is the richest nation in the world, and sometimes comparing ourselves to other countries will help us appreciate the things we do have.

    • fulltimefinance@fulltimefinance.com
      [email protected] April 11, 2017

      Exactly. While I started out with comparison, really where you end up is being grateful for what you have.

  8. Max Your Freedom
    Max Your Freedom April 11, 2017

    Comparing yourself to others is indeed human nature, and especially difficult to avoid for analytical minds. The key as you pointed out is not to internalize the knowledge, and to keep things relative.

    One trick I’ve used in the past when I’ve felt the green monster rear its ugly head is to remind myself that I’m avoiding those purchases by choice. The fact I have the choice/ability to act on my desires is good enough in most cases.

    • fulltimefinance@fulltimefinance.com
      [email protected] April 11, 2017

      Self awareness is a great way to combat the comparison desire. Thanks for the great add.

  9. Mrs. Need2save
    Mrs. Need2save April 11, 2017

    I think Mr N2$ and I are similar in that we prefer to look for opportunities to learn from smart people rather than compare and feel lesser in any way. This stems from a strong belief that one’s choices are the biggest contributor to one’s personal success. Hey if they can do it, we could too. But do we want to? Maybe our goals and desires are quite different. We joke about a guy we once knew that called his house “the monument to my career”. He was kind of a jerk so we dont want to be like him.

    • fulltimefinance@fulltimefinance.com
      [email protected] April 11, 2017

      It’s funny you should say that. As someone whose always driven by the next big challenge and metric, it’s hard for me to fathom not be driven by that. But not everyone is. Even within the context of me I’m not necessarily as driven as someone who works 90 hrs a week (I do know such people). It’s all about personal choices and values. Much of your success is a product of what you put in and where you want to go.

  10. I think it is part of human nature to compare and get jealous, as a survival method. See something that someone has that’s better? You then want that, to want to survive.

    So I think deep down we can’t ever get rid of comparison syndrome, but we can however reassure ourselves that other people may not be how they actually seem on social media. Or even if they are, that does not mean that they are happy.

    • fulltimefinance@fulltimefinance.com
      [email protected] April 12, 2017

      That’s a very good point. Even the wealthiest person in the world may not be happy. You can only tell a person’s true feelings by looking into their head. So comparing in what truly matters is next to impossible.

  11. Lars-Christian
    Lars-Christian April 12, 2017

    I compare myself to people all the time, far too often. But, I try to be deliberate and discard the negative comparisons, those made against a Facebook status update or a celebratory tweet. The meaningful comparisons I try to learn from. If someone is achieving or doing something I think is appealing or attractive, I try to contemplate if that or similar is something I should try to achieve in one way or another.

    If it weren’t for comparison, and being inspired by the work others are putting in, I’m pretty sure I’d be a complete deadbeat. Well, maybe not, but I’ve definitely progressed on account of comparison and inspiration. It’s just important to filter out the meaningless, and that which makes you feel down about what you are doing. A tough task, no doubt about it, but one it is necessary to be eternally vigilant about in these times.

    • fulltimefinance@fulltimefinance.com
      [email protected] April 12, 2017

      Very true, it’s all about trying to redirect comparisons to be a force for improvement in your life rather then a cause for jealousy.

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