You know who they are.
They have a Porsche 718 Boxster and a brand-new Audi A5 Cabriolet in the driveway of their four-bedroom house filled with high-end appliances.
They get their groceries from Whole Foods, shop at Saks Fifth Avenue, own a lakefront cottage, and use “winter” as a verb.
They are the Joneses.
By all appearances, they live an enviable life. That’s why (almost) everyone else aspires to keep up with them. Yet, one quick look at their recent credit card statements would reveal that they’ve been financing their upper-middle-class lifestyle mainly on debt.
“Keeping up with the Joneses” used to convey the drive towards upward social mobility. Now it is synonymous with ultra-materialism and financial irresponsibility.
Nevertheless, as easy as it is to cast the Joneses in the roles of personal finance villains, they aren’t created in a societal vacuum. As with all infamous villains, they too have a compelling backstory that shines a spotlight on a broader issue.
Allow me, a curious bystander, to pull back the curtain and unveil the mystery surrounding the Joneses.
Success = Wealth = “Having Nice Stuff”?
To truly get to know the Joneses, we first must understand the motivation behind their over-consumption.
Let’s imagine two random people — Romulus and Remus.
Romulus drives a Lexus, wears a finely-tailored ETRO suit with his expensive haircut, and humblebrags about his fanciful excursions in Greece within 15 minutes of meeting someone new.
On the other hand, Remus is your typical Toyota-driving, hoodie-wearing, vinyl collecting guy whose iPhone is older than most people’s refrigerators.
“Keeping up with the Joneses” used to convey the drive towards upward social mobility, now it is synonymous with ultra-materialism and financial irresponsibility.
If Romulus and Remus take part in a dating reality show, Romulus would have a higher chance of getting the final rose, because he’s regarded as more attractive.
If they interview for the same job, Romulus would probably get a call from the HR rep the next day with a verbal offer, because he’s viewed as more competent.
If they attend a networking event, Romulus would be approached by more people and taken more seriously when he speaks, because he’s viewed as more professionally accomplished and better connected.
Even at backyard BBQ parties, people would laugh at Romulus’ jokes more, and pay more attention to what he has to say, because he’s viewed as more interesting.
Unbeknownst to you, Romulus has maxed out 3 credit cards to bankroll the initiation fee of a local golf club, is behind on his property taxes, and still owes $22,000 to the contractor who remodeled his kitchen six months ago.
Meanwhile, Remus is secretly a millionaire who saves half of every paycheck and chooses to live modestly. But none of that matters for the first (and second and third) impression, when what people think you have counts far more than what you actually have.
So Romulus wins the social hierarchy game at the outset.
Romulus is not necessarily more attractive, competent, professionally accomplished, or interesting than Remus. His outward appearance and display of wealth make people automatically attribute those positive qualities to him.
People tend to assume that the wealthy are more successful, intelligent, or hard-working, but that assumption is flawed.
If someone is wealthy, surely they are more intelligent and have superior work ethics, so they deserve all their wealth? (the answer is No)
It’s not that people look up to wealth per se. We all want to be associated with and get to know successful, intelligent, hard-working, and capable people. Wealth just happens to be a highly common indicator of success, so we take the mental shortcut of equating wealth with intellectual superiority.
Basically, people assume that: success = wealth = “nice stuff and nice vacations.”
Thus those who don’t shy away from showing off their financial status (like the Joneses) tend to be held in higher regard (or at least they think they are).
The Making of the Joneses
In our current culture that endorses conspicuous consumption and worships Instagram-worthy standard of living, people are defined not by who they are, at least not at first, but by what they own.
You see, the Joneses, like you and I, want to be admired and respected. They just care a great deal more about what others think of them than the average person, and projecting an image of success by appearing wealthy is the only way they know how to be socially recognized.
Projecting an image of success by appearing wealthy is the only way the Joneses know how to be socially recognized.
Sadly, on their quest for higher status, the Joneses are so busy putting on the facade that they’ve “made it” they lost their true identities and a real shot at actually making it.
This type of wealth signaling and self-aggrandizement is nothing but a learned response to society’s unconscious but inherent bias towards the poor.
If someone is poor, surely they must be lazy and unintelligent? (the answer is No)
Knowing that they’re perceived this way, the working poor have a bigger incentive to hide the actual state of their finances and act socio-economically superior, even though living an unsustainable lifestyle actually prevents them from accumulating wealth.
And that is why you shouldn’t emulate or vilify the Joneses, but understand them.
They’ve fallen victim to the lure of “the good life,” riding high on others’ envy and praises. That is partially their fault, but our materialistic culture is also to blame.
As long as our society continues to sing the praises of diamond-encrusted watches, designer handbags, and houses with more bathrooms than people living inside, the Joneses will continue to coexist with the rest of us.
So, What’s Next?
First of all, rest assured that Success ≠ Wealth ≠ “Having Nice Stuff”!
Success ≠ Wealth: Many forms of success have nothing to do with money — academic achievements, spiritual enlightenment, solid familial ties, rewarding friendships, a clean bill of health, political activism, just to name a few.
Wealth ≠ “Having Nice Stuff”: Not all wealthy people flaunt their riches. Quite the opposite, in fact. “Nice cars” and “vacations” are not markers of wealth. They’re merely expenses and depreciating assets.
Although dismantling the consumerist part of our culture is too insurmountable a task for any one of us to accomplish, here’s what we can do:
1. Redefine what you find valuable in a person. Rather than (perceived) wealth, it should be their kindness, integrity, patience, empathy, generosity, artistic talent, honesty, authenticity… you get the idea.
2. Make a sincere effort to be more aware of our hidden biases against people who look poor, look different, and come from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Basically, treat everyone equally, regardless of the car they drive or the clothes on their back.
Last but not least, I’ll leave you with this quote by Gamaliel Bailey that neatly echoes the spirit of this article:
Never respect men merely for their riches, but rather for their philanthropy; we do not value the sun for its height, but for its use.
Chance has put me in social circles with very rich people. Most of my friends are millionaires, multimillionaires or 100 million plus, and even some billionaires. But I also worked with some broke, negative net worth people as well. If I had to trust my life to someone, it would definitely be the rich crowd. They are more focused, more principled and more solid than the broke people. They didn’t get rich by accident, they got rich by bringing value to the market place. They got rich by being trustworthy and likeable. They got rich by being ridiculously generous. It wasn’t some cosmic roll of the dice, they just did life better than most. Of course treat all the same. Of course there are awesome poor people. Of course there are a few bad richie folks. But most rich people have some characteristics worth emulating.
Totally agree with the point here… There are many people that have become wealthy and great positive role models simply by being patient, hard work and living with their means. Of course there will be Instagram posers at either end of the spectrum, that seek outside validation. People can chose to live the life they want to live, however it is up to you the extend that it affects you…
Thank you, Neil, for sharing your perspective. I agree that, while there are exceptions, the average middle-class person has a better chance of becoming wealthy if they don’t try to keep up with the Joneses.
This is such an excellent read. It’s a shame that we are so superficial that we judge people by appearances. I have learned in life that “stuff” doesn’t make you happy. Sadly, many people don’t learn this until they’ve accumulated huge debt.
Thank you, Michelle. You’re right on the money (pun intended). The more money you have, the less you care about impressing others with your “stuff”.
Nice opinion piece. If you want to network a meet people who are capable and motivated then I think accepting the reality that how you present yourself is going to effect the outcome of interactions throughout your life. Buying a nice suit like mr jones might even be thought of as a speculative investment… roi is not known, but it could pay off. Also, people have a lot more money than we think, they are not all in debt and personally I think the majority can actually afford that lifestyle.. it’s not really a big deal. It may be difficult to accept but you are worth more if you are wealthy.
“It may be difficult to accept but you are worth more if you are wealthy.” I strongly disagree but thanks for the compliment.