3 Ways to Avoid the Lifestyle Comparison Trap

UPDATED: September 27, 2017
PUBLISHED: September 27, 2017

My dream home looks like the end of a Fixer Upper episode set on the property of a Real Housewives of New York City Hamptons home: sprawling beachfront complete with a gourmet kitchen, walk-in closets and an outdoor living space.

As a personal-finance author, I know better than to keep up with the Joneses. That is, I know not to use the lifestyles of others as a reference point for my own. At least in theory.

Related: How Living With Less Can Give You More

But in practice, I resent not having the stainless-steel appliances prominently showcased at the end of every home-makeover show. And I dislike having to wash my dishes by hand and go to the self-service laundry each week. I’ve even considered paying an extra 30 percent in rent just to live in an apartment with these amenities.

Unlike my parents’ generation, who grew up with their next-door neighbors serving as the primary point of comparison for what they wanted, I came of age in the boom years of HGTV, reality TV and social media—a time when lifestyle reference points were no longer limited to the folks living next door, but expanded to include the millions of people on social media.

As our perceptions of living standards increasingly become shaped by reality shows and Facebook feeds, the Joneses are no longer the family across the street with the white-picket fence in suburbia. And our lifestyle wants increasingly become perceived as lifestyle needs, inflating our standard of living at a rate we can’t always afford to keep up with. The result? Often futile and even debt-inducing attempts to attain a lifestyle that is out of reach.

Related: 5 Ways to Avoid Social Media Envy

But the goalposts of our lives needn’t be defined by the Joneses, whether they’re our neighbors, social media stars or reality TV celebrities. Instead of getting caught up in the pursuit of more and more to support an inflated standard of living, and losing touch with our priorities along the way, let’s realign our resources with the things we care about most and build our perceptions of success around those values.

1. Start by identifying your priorities.

Rather than constantly upscaling in an effort to keep up, prioritize your time, money and energy around the things you really value. The momentum of the minimalist and tiny home movements is a prime example of this kind of downshift and the rejection of traditional lifestyle comparisons.

2. Choose your peer group carefully.

Spend time around people who won’t judge you if you say, “I can’t afford that right now.” This will help you stay focused on your true goals.

3. Practice gratitude.

Rather than maintaining some arbitrary, hyper-consumer status quo and seeing everything that falls short of the reality-show ideal as a sacrifice, shift your perspective to recognize all that you already enjoy.

When you cut back from excess, everything feels like a sacrifice. But when you build up from zero, everything is a bonus. Shifting your perspective to the latter might prove to be the most valuable tool in promoting both your fiscal security and your happiness.

Related: 9 Things More Important Than Money


This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

Stefanie O’Connell is a financial expert, Gen Y advocate, speaker and author of the book, The Broke and Beautiful Life.