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The bumpy road to financial independence. . . .

 

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Frugal envy. . . .

A friend of mine always wears the most current, trendy fashions. My coworker has her hair professionally cut, colored and styled, every six weeks. My neighbors across the street just brought home a shiny new car. My brother and his wife are taking off for an Italian vacation this summer. All of this results in at least a little twinge of envy: I want some new clothes; I want a new car; I want a European vacation. Unfortunately, the only way I can achieve any of these things at this moment is to use my credit cards, which I’ve vowed not to do.

In deciding to take charge of my finances and live a more frugal lifestyle six months ago, my first challenge was in getting a handle on my spending. Sure, I cut my grocery bill, canceled cable, and switched to a cheaper wireless plan---all in the name of increasing savings and decreasing debt. But the truly difficult step was taking a look at my ‘vices’ (clothes and shoes, and to a lesser degree, furniture) and figuring out how to stop craving them so desperately. Invariably, I would binge-shop, using my credit card to purchase things that I thought would make me happy, only to find later that the satisfaction was fleeting.

In decreasing this unwanted behavior, I needed first to understand it. And as I thought about WHY I needed closets full of clothes and a home that was ‘just so’, I discovered that I tended to compare myself and my things to others---and if my things didn’t quite measure up (as they never will, 100% of the time), I felt compelled to go out and find something that rivaled the ‘thing’ that was making me so envious.

Envy. This was (and still is, sometimes), the root of my spending problems. I’ve had a devil of a time with it, and although I can’t say that I’ve conquered it, my attitude about stuff (mine and other people’s) has begun to shift.

You can’t always believe what you see. In other words, my friend with all of the expensive new clothes may be doing just fine financially. However, I happen to know that her husband’s income decreased substantially a few years ago, and she is now the primary breadwinner. She’s still contributing to her retirement account and saving for her kids’ college educations, but they also have a hefty home equity loan and needed an extension to pay their taxes this year. Although she still looks like someone who is earning $250,000 a year, in reality, she and her husband probably make closer to $100,000---still wonderful---but perhaps not so great that she can continue buying $150 sandals and $195 sweaters forever.

You don’t always want what someone else has. In the case of my brother and his wife, they’re both doctors and can afford a week in Italy. But my brother goes to work at 6:30 a.m. and gets home around the same time each evening---every day, including some weekends. Do I want that? No, not really. Not even for a week in Italy. My brother and sister-in-law work hard for their large salaries, but they don’t get much vacation time. I make peanuts and get over a month of paid vacation—more than that with paid holidays included. Maybe I’m not going to Italy anytime soon, but I have the freedom to take a random day off to sit in the sun on my back deck, and that can be just as good (okay, maybe not JUST as good, but that’s what I’m telling myself).

The Joneses aren’t really paying that much attention to you. Instead, they’re looking toward the Smiths, and their new Cadillac Escalade. That means that my old, 1995 sedan with the scratches and the funny noise isn’t really as humiliating as it seems to be when I’m passing my neighbors with the shiny new car. They’re not even considering me as part of the ‘competition’, and that’s a good thing---it gives me instant freedom to drive whatever I want, no matter how old and unattractive.

Be honest. Letting people know that your goals have changed may help avoid some of the “look at my expensive new . . . . “ conversations that seem to happen far too often. Perhaps it will even inspire change and frugality in your family and friends, and you can come together for common experiences, rather than a show-and-tell session in which the goal is to one up each other. Personally, I’m still working on this one—my family’s reaction to my goal of financial independence was one of ridicule and disbelief. They may someday shift into hesitant curiosity, but they’re not there yet, so I’ll need to be patient.

Be grateful for what you have, or, compare yourself to those who have (or seem to have) less. I used to work with a man who had an accident when he was in his early 20’s, leaving him in a wheelchair for life. He was (and still is!) a lovely, intelligent, humorous man, who definitely struggled with his physical challenges, but who also lived life to its fullest. When feeling sorry for myself, I would think of him and the challenges life has thrown to him, and gain a little perspective. The same goes for my possessions. Maybe I don’t drive the shiniest, prettiest car in town. But I have a car. And it’s paid for. Maybe I don’t shop at Nordstrom or Saks. But I can choose from probably 25 different outfits each morning, and that’s about 24 more than most people in the world. I don’t make a lot of money, but I have a secure job with health benefits. For these things, I am grateful.

I can’t say that I’ll ever beat envy, or that it’s even possible. I think it’s a normal human reaction, in fact. However, understanding what triggers my own feelings of envy has helped me to control the urge to pull out the credit card every time I pass Banana Republic (or Macy’s, or Ann Taylor, or . . . you get the point). My wardrobe may be a little less varied, but my bank account and sense of self are growing exponentially as a result, and that’s worth more than the momentary satisfaction of having the ‘best, newest, shiniest’ anything.

12 comments:

maryw said...

I happened upon your blog and I think it may be a kind of divine intervention-your post really hit home today,just when i needed it most.I have been trying to get our finances under control this year and it is actually going really well but I have serious car and cell phone envy right now! I drive a 2003 Dodge neon-its a piece of crap but it runs and it gets decent gas mileage-we live in NW PA where winters get pretty treacherous and i would LOVE a small all wheel drive vehicle but I need to be grateful that i even own a car and that i didn't fall victim to the whole gas guzzling SUV craze the past few years!
And oh how I'd love a cell phone with unlimited texting,photo and internet capabilities and one that was super cute of course...I need to be grateful that I even have the phone and am not tied to a landline!
So thank you thank you for the reminder today to count my blessings-I have put you on my favorites list so i can check back often.
Good luck on your adventure to financial freedom!
mary

Patty said...

I just found your blog this morning. Thank you for a thoughtful post about the "bad old days" of consumerism. I'm going to go read your archives now. Keep up the good work.

Finally Frugal said...

I'm so glad this post resonated with you! I've been trying to really understand my own weaknesses lately, and I think envy played a large role in my descent into credit card (and other) debt.

It's a struggle, but I'm trying to be grateful for what I already have. This may sound crazy, but I get a kick out of digging into my closet for something 'old', and having someone comment on it and ask if it's new! Very satisfying to be using the 'things' that I purchased (and rarely wore) so many years ago. . . .

Rachel @ Master Your Card said...

Fantastic article and you are so right. I was very jealous when I looked around by brother in-laws house. he has had new carpets, completely redecorated, new kitchen, new bathroom and loft conversion. It looks fantastic. They are on good salaries but their mortgage is more than twice mine....I am trying to pay mine off and am very pleased to be living in a house that needs new carpets, decoration, a new bathroom and new furniture as I know that my mortgage will be paid off within the next five years, then the children will be older and I make all the changes I want to the house and they might actually last. Did I mention, they are just starting a family.......

Myself said...

At times like this, I think of a saying from Pythagoras: "Rest satisfied with doing well, and leave others to talk of you as they please."
One could substitute "envy" for "others" above.

Finally Frugal said...

Rachel, having your mortgage paid off in five years is an amazing feat! And yes, think of the freedom you'll have when that's been accomplished, while your brother-in-law and his growing family are wondering why they needed those new carpets (that are suddenly old and stained with grape juice)!

Here's another quote that I keep above my desk, that is somewhat relevant:

"Chase after money and security,
And your heart will never unclench.
Care about people's approval,
and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, and then step back.
The only path to serenity".
Lao Tzu

Move To Portugal said...

Great post! I know what you mean about family and friends, most of ours think we've lost our marbles.
I really don't miss 'keeping up with the Jones'its made life much simpler.
Thanks for visiting my blog :)

Anonymous said...

I think you are very brave to admit your weaknesses and struggles with envy, feelings of self doubt and financial woes. These are difficult issues to confront. I have found myself with the same feelings as well over the past year, having left an unhappy marraige and having to really re-consider my spending and feelings of self worth. I frequently find myself, as you do, comparing myself to others (not only financially, but also in terms of others' marraiges or personal relationships) and what I have come to realize (also with the help of a good therapist!) is this; YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT GOES ON BEHIND CLOSED DOORS. Although someone's life (relationship, car, house, clothes, children, etc.) may look picture perfect, we are not privy to all the pain and difficulties that others may be experiencing. Things are not always as they appear (for example, who knows what really goes on in the life of your sylish co-worker who always looks like a million bucks?) Thanks for your honesty and sharing and here's to frugality!!!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for such an honest post - I think there's a lot of people that have the same feelings. We just refinanced our mortgage and paid off all the credit cards. Now I'm ready to work hard to make sure we don't get in that same situation again.

Your quote from Lao Tzu prompted me to get out my Dr. Dyer "Change Your Thoughts" book.

Thanks again for your posts - they're great motivation to start the day with!

Anonymous said...

I found your blog through a carnival, and was shocked by your honesty... it made me realize you are right! It is really important to evaulate your self and realize that you shouldnt be trying to keep up with the jones but instead be saving money and paying down debt.

Keep it up!

Courtney said...

One thing I like to do to "re-direct" my envy is read some frugal blogs and work up some frugal-living envy! I've noticed that after spending so much time on these blogs I don't really care as much when my coworkers talk about their new Wii/flat screen/Iphone, instead I wish I could grocery shop like the Money Saving Mom and get rid of my debt fast like J.D. at Get Rich Slowly! It still gets frustrating to know that I'm feeling the envy, but it provides motivation to do better! I'm looking forward to reading more of your blog, thank you!

jskell911 said...

What a great post. Although I am quite frugal, I too struggle with envy of the material items. Then, I take a step back and see all I do have, both material and not. It makes it all worth it!

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