When I wrote last week’s post, I admit to feeling a bit pleased with myself when someone made a comment about wanting their furniture to all match (and thus free pile-ism was hard for them) now that they were fully adult. “Who cares!” I thought to myself. “That’s just the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses stuff the rest of you are talking about!”

And then Monday afternoon one of my husband’s friends came over with his wife. The house was an absolute disaster, as I’d been doing magazine business from morning ’til night four days straight, while my kids and husband (home on leave from the Middle East and therefore given a free pass on cleaning) fended for themselves in the messiest of ways. I had dumped things everywhere, including the adorable re-painted free-pile bar stool I was using as a drying rack for my wet raincoat. I saw the front porch and living room through their eyes — their tidy-condo-in-the-West-Hills-with-coordinated-Pottery-Barn-furniture eyes — and was crushed.

After they left, I reminded myself that I don’t particularly want or need to live up to their standards. I reminded myself that, in fact, there are a lot of reasons we don’t hang out that have nothing to do with my mismatched furniture and more to do with our mismatched interests and passions. But I felt a lot more empathy for that commenter.

And it occurred to me that we all have our Joneses.

I suppose that I am not, even post-husband’s-friend-detox, immune to the feeling that I must, through my spending, keep up with my friends. My Joneses do not care if I populate my dining room with all-different free-pile chairs; they do not look askance at me for my wardrobe, a mix of late 1990s investment banker fashion, thrift stores, free piles, and clothing swaps with a few hand-knits thrown in. If I do not have money to go to fancy restaurants when I am invited, I don’t mind saying so. They never ask me out for salon dates.

But I feel that, in order to hang with the people I love, I need to buy books.

I wring my hands and grind my teeth if I am sitting in the audience of a friend’s book reading without a brand-new copy of their book to get signed afterward. I can think of a number of times I have spent money that, really, I could not even afford not one bit, to buy a book so I could feel it between my hands and sit in my bed late at night reading it without finger-swiping or other electronic go-betweens.

For me, the Joneses are the Strayeds or the Almonds; people who are forever reading and talking about books and literary magazines and book signings and literary smack-downs. If you were being charitable, you could think of it as an investment in a rich literary life and the price of admittance to the supportive culture of art and words in which I long to spend my time. If you were not being so charitable, you could think of it the way I think of Pottery Barn furniture: as lovely, fashionable overspending.

Who are your Joneses?

Surely we all have our Joneses.

  • A few good friends are knitting designers, and their Joneses are the Tinas and the Kays. They spend their money on sock clubs and limited-lot hand-dyed yarn and fiber festivals and patterns. They get back in lovely hand-knits, and the good company of creative men and women, and even make some money selling patterns or writing about knitting or dying yarn.
  • Other good friends are into cyclo-cross. Their Joneses ride handmade bicycles and wear elegant mud boots. Each weekend in season is spent entering races and driving their bicycles to energizing, mud-splattered events. They get back health, camaraderie and the exhilaration of riding fast in the wild.
  • Many of my friends are runners. Their Joneses spend hundreds on race entry fees, new shoes every three-to-six months, the very best in supportive undergarments, a variety of weird goos and bars. And for it, they get rocking bodies, runner’s highs and the knowledge that a marathon time is inviolate.
  • I’m not a golfer, but I used to work with them, and this relaxed sport is one of the most stereotypical keeping-up-appearances activities. In certain circles, where you play, how often you play and who you play with are markers of your career success and your wealth.

When I think of my friends, I can see that so many of them are keeping up in more than one circle, even if on many levels they are not materialistic or consumer-driven. And yet three or four of my closest friends have paid a fifth friend a few thousand dollars for one of her handmade bicycles, not just because she is a friend everyone wants to support, but also (at least a little bit) because riding one of her bikes is a mark of being very serious about cycling, and being in a group that can afford her bicycles.

Other friends mark their group by their investment in arts or community-focused non-profits. There is a kind of nail-biting that I do when I look down the list of supporters for an organization I wish I could make the room in my budget to support, and I see many of my friends. I want to be on that list too!

In fact, charities can be some of the most flagrant groups of Joneses out there.

I’m currently putting in heavy hours of volunteer work for two separate non-profit organizations, so I feel a little guilty saying this. But charities are some of the most conspicuous consumption there is. If it’s not the list of donors (and their funding levels — you’re basically saying exactly how much you spent!) in the back of the program or on the website, it’s the swag. Here in Portland, you can’t see an Oregon Public Broadcasting coffee mug without knowing how much that person must have donated to support public radio. And the boards and executives running the charities know that a big part of giving is letting everyone else know that you gave. Just like your neighbors, and your fellow college alumni, etc.

There isn’t automatically something wrong with consuming in the same manner as your peer group.

When you find yourself faced with the realization — like me — that a whole category in your spending budget is about participating in some sort of group, think for a minute about how much this is really worth to you. Go through a check list and make sure you’re getting enough of a benefit to justify the expense.

  • Does the activity improve your health, well-being or cultural literacy?
  • Are the things you are buying really worth the money? Could you re-sell them (like golf clubs or bicycles)? If you intend to keep them always, do you have room for them?
  • Are you sacrificing financial security to be a part of a group? Are you using credit or ignoring savings to make these purchases?
  • Do you like the group and truly care about what its members think of you?
  • Will these purchases really get you what you want (approval, membership, friends), or will there never be enough?

As long as you’re entering into the bargain with eyes open and credit card buttoned up, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with keeping up with some sorts of Joneses. We all want to belong. Be honest with yourself, though, and don’t worry about belonging to groups whose members you can do without. Like my husband’s friends, their minds were probably made up long ago, and a Pottery Barn couch, or a $1,000 donation to the opera foundation, is not going to change them.

And if it did, would you really want to be around them, anyway?

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