Keeping up appearances

Keeping up appearances

Spring has sprung here in Portland, and that means yard work. I'll spend most of March completing my project for Audible and The Great Courses — which means things around here may be slow for a few weeks — but when I'm done hacking in the word mines each day, there's plenty of mowing and pruning and digging and weeding and planting to do at home.

“I'll be glad when everything looks pretty back here,” Kim said last Saturday. We were lounging at the bottom of the yard, soaking up sun and sipping beer. We'd spent the afternoon trimming blackberry vines and moving yard debris. Now, our three cats and one dog were with us, enjoying Family Time.

“Me too,” I said. “This back yard is a jungle. It was a mess when we moved in, and it's only gotten worse in the past three years. My goal for 2020 is to clean it up completely, to create a space where it's fun to hang out with our friends.”

One small corner of our yard

Kim nodded. “I've been almost embarrassed to have people over because the yard is such a mess,” she said. “I was proud to have people over to the condo. It was beautiful. It was a place where I wanted to host parties. Here? I don't know. I love this house, and you know it, but I'm not proud of it. In fact, sometimes I'm ashamed of it with all of the mice and bugs and weeds.”

It's true. Our neighborhood is infested with rodents. It's not just our house; it's every house on the ridge. (It's more obvious at our house because our cats frequently bring us presents.) And we do have large populations of mosquitoes and box-elder bugs. Our home is tidy but it's surrounded by chaos.

Plus, the condo had 1547 square feet of space, about half of which was devoted to entertainment areas. It was a fourth-floor corner suite with beautiful views of the Willamette River and downtown Portland. The place was luxurious. It was light and airy. We felt rich living there.

Our country cottage has 1235 square feet of space, none of which is laid out efficiently. The house isn't designed for entertaining. It's designed for living. The place is dark and cramped, almost like a hobbit hole. Nothing about it feel luxurious — but it feels like home.

“Do you want to move?” I asked.

“No,” Kim said. “Not at all. I just wish we had a home I was proud to show to people.”

Keeping Up Appearances

I've been thinking about this conversation for a week now.

A key part of the FI/RE movement — the financial independence and early retirement movement — is carefully considering societal values, then (possibly) choosing to do things differently if that will lead to better results. (By “better results”, I mean an increased saving rate or quicker retirement date.)

FI folks think outside the box. They make choices that go against the mainstream. We're more concerned with results than with appearances.

  • We drive older vehicles for a longer period of time, for instance. Or we commute by bike or public transportation. We don't view cars as status symbols.
  • We choose cheaper places to live. We recognize that housing is the single largest expense for most families, so we choose less-expensive houses and we prefer smaller homes.
  • We save 30% or 50% or 70% of our incomes instead of the standard 8%. We sacrifice present comfort for future security.
  • We spend to support our personal goals. We don't spend to keep up with the Joneses. We're not interested in what other people buy and do.

And yet…

We are human beings. We're social animals. We live in a society. Conformity is hard-wired into our brains. It's biological. We want to fit in with our neighbors, so it can be deeply uncomfortable when it's clear that we don't fit in. We want to appear “normal” so that others will accept us.

This need to “keep up appearances” can be almost pathological in some people. I have friends (and I'm sure you do too) for whom appearance is much more important than reality. They have a driving need for others to view them and their families as happy and successful. Things may be chaotic behind the scenes, but they project an aura of orderliness. How things seem is more important than how things are for these folks.

So, at one extreme you have the Hyacinth Buckets of the world.

But is it possible to swing too far in the other direction? Is it possible to not care enough about appearances? Is there a certain minimum level of polish that one ought to maintain as part of society?

What Do You Care What Other People Think?

Fifteen months ago, I paid $1900 to purchase a 1993 Toyota pickup. I love the truck — and it runs great! — but I'll admit that it looks like a piece of junk. The paint is peeling. There's moss growing out of the grilles. The upholstery is stained and worn. The seatbelts are frayed. The dashboard is gouged. (It's even been patched with duct tape in one spot!)

My 1993 Toyota Pickup

I'm not embarrassed by this truck, but others are embarrassed for me.

Kim doesn't like having it in the driveway. My cousin Duane thinks I'm crazy for not cleaning up the moss and washing the truck. My brother thinks I need to remove the canopy. (“That's an old-man canopy,” he told me.) As I drive around town, I'm acutely aware that my pickup looks out of place next to the Tesla Model 3s and Porsche Cayennes so popular in our neighborhood. (I would not be surprised to discover that our town was the Porsche Cayenne capital of the world!)

Mostly, I don't care what other people think. My lifestyle works for me. My choices are aligned with my values, and they've helped me (and continue to help me) achieve financial independence. If I were to buy a $69,000 SUV instead of a $1900 pickup, I might look wealthier from the outside, but I wouldn't be wealthier. I'd be poorer.

So, mostly I don't care what other people think. But a part of me does. I can't help it. Like I say, this stuff is burned onto our brains. We want to fit in.

And, like Kim, I haven't felt comfortable having people over for the past three years. I'm not proud of our home right now. It's not a place I want to show off. Instead of inviting friends over to sit in the hot tub, Kim and I always suggest we meet elsewhere. As much as I want to believe appearances don't matter to me, they do. Yes, how things are matters more, but apparently how things seem is still something I consider.

Final Thoughts

Build Your Own MiniAfter years of talking about it, Kim finally bought a new car last month. Her 1997 Honda Accord is gone, replaced by a 2016 Toyota RAV4. The Honda, like my truck, looked like a piece of junk. The paint was peeling and things were falling apart inside the cabin. Kim's RAV4, on the other hand, is an options-laden thing of beauty.

“Driving the RAV4 makes me feel special,” Kim told me on Monday night. “It's so fancy. It's so far ahead of my Honda, it's ridiculous. It's like the future. It makes me feel rich!” As you can imagine, this only made me more eager to buy a new car of my own! I I want to feel special. I want to feel rich.

It doesn't help that the car-buying issue of Consumer Reports came on Tuesday. I've spent far too much time in the past week building my own car on various manufacturer websites. Wouldn't I feel better driving a new car with new features? (Answer: Probably not, but a piece of me believes so.)

Fortunately, it's not often that I get wrapped up in appearances. When I find myself worried what other people think, I:

  • Remind myself of my personal mission statement. Is a new car aligned with my values? Is a fancy house? Is a successful image? Are there other things that are more important?
  • Connect with like-minded folks. When I don't spend enough time with my FIRE friends, I begin to feel pressure to conform to societal norms. But when I'm able to attend events like the Financial Freedom Summit or the chautauqua in Ecuador, I realize that I may be a weirdo, but I'm not the only weirdo.
  • Give myself permission to buy what I want. If my spending choices are deliberate, fine. It's not wrong to buy a new car — and I suspect I'll do so soon. That might be five weeks from now, or it might be five years. When I do make the purchase, I won't feel guilty. I can afford it. But I don't want to succumb to the new-car itch simply for the sake of appearances.

Some people appear rich but have nothing. Some people are rich but appear to have nothing. Most people fall somewhere in the middle. Do appearances matter? I don't know. My inclination is to say, “No, not at all.” But I feel like the real answer is, “Yes, appearances matter — but just a little.”

What do you think? How important are appearances? How do you balance the way things are and the way things appear? Do you care at all how other people perceive you and your family? Would you drive a 27-year-old pickup? Would give up a fancy condo for a country cottage? As you pursue your financial goals, where do you find the courage to be different?

More about...Spending Wisely, Psychology

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Eileen
Eileen
4 months ago

Very interesting post! We drive old cars too (an 05 Volvo and an 08 Mazda3) and they have not reached a stage that we care to (or need to) replace. When it comes time to replace one it will certainly be with a car that’s less than $15k, but since we’re not the least bit “car people”, I couldn’t even tell you what it might be, we just don’t care. As far as the yard — I think you should move forward with that project sooner rather than later. Our yard was pretty beaten down over the years (kids, dogs,… Read more »

Pantherle
Pantherle
4 months ago
Reply to  Eileen

I personally think your garden is a beauty. We would love to sit here and enjoy the green, the trees and nature around us. Living in a flat in a (very beautiful) old city in Germany is nice, but we would love your garden.

Sequentialkady
Sequentialkady
4 months ago

I’m about to put another round of weeding into my back yard again, not because I’m concerned about what ____ blank might think, but because not getting to them means they’ll harm the plants I do want to have.

Plus, I can make mulch with them

Jason B
Jason B
4 months ago

I suppose that appearances shouldn’t matter, but it would be silly to pretend that they don’t. We live in a society, and like it or not, we all are judged, and judge others, based on their appearance. I think that ignoring those societal pressures to conform and keep up appearances can help your finances, but only to a point. Wandering around in dirty clothes, unshowered, and with uncut hair and a long unshaven face might be the most frugal way to live, but it will certainly have negative effects on any of your interactions with members of polite society. This… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
4 months ago
Reply to  Jason B

Yes. This is not just vanity. Our life, particularly our economic life, is highly dependent on our social networks.

Ron Cameron
Ron Cameron
4 months ago
Reply to  Jason B

You can’t control what others think, though you can influence them. I think the question of “Why” usually comes into play here. If you’re dirty from working, I want to give you a high five. If you’re dirty because you’re lazy and smell horrible, that’s physically repulsive and a bit different. I shave once a week, and have for years. And if I’m filthy from working on my house and have to run to the store, as long as I’m not literally spreading filth I’m going as is. A dirty truck with moss growing on it? If that really bothers… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
4 months ago

Don’t buy a new car until you figure if you *really* want to stay in the burbs.

I mean really-really, not “yeah but…”

kingking
kingking
4 months ago

For me, it mostly comes down to a respect for my things, regardless of what I spent for them. I feel better about my life in general if I have a tidy home and yard, and a clean car (even if it’s old). My mother was widowed when I was not quite 5 years old, so I know what it means to be without, but I was taught that you always hold your head high – for you, not for others. All the while living within your means. It’s meant a lifetime of shopping estate and yard sales, driving used… Read more »

Jim
Jim
4 months ago

I’ve got a 16 year old pick up truck that’s in desperate need of a paint job. But it makes me smile when I drive it, it reminds me why I do what I do. I live a little different so I can have more freedom. Seems I’m not the only one. 🙂

Dave @ Accidental FIRE
Dave @ Accidental FIRE
4 months ago

Dude that truck is awesome! And I said the same thing in a recent post of mine, I mostly don’t care what other people think, but part of me does. As you said, it’s just part of being human.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
4 months ago

I like it too, but if he doesn’t maintain it rats are going to move in soon. Moss growing on it? I know it’s Portland but c’mon… poor little truck.

MP
MP
4 months ago

Am I the only one looking at this photo who does see a nice yard? Just typical Oregon greenery and cute little shed. I am from Oregon, and I feel like it has become way more high cost and high image oriented. I moved and now live in a town where I rarely see Tesla’s and Porches. My 1999 Honda blends in with the other Honda’s in my neighborhood.

Keeping up with the Portland Joneses isn’t worth it to me.

Jan
Jan
4 months ago

Plant lemon grass as a hedge against the fence. Lavender and citronella in pots close to the house will help. Burn citronella candles nightly. Those will, significantly, cut down on bugs (and are pretty). The junk is a breeding ground for all of your worries. These are not “pretty” issues, they are issues for your health. Keep in mind that mouse poop and mosquito bites all spread diseases you do NOT want in your life. Your truck? That is up to you. The wash is more about depression then it is about money…isn’t it? I’d keep the hood. It rains… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
4 months ago
Reply to  Jan

This. The wash and moss is more about depression than money, right? There’s a point at which we’re talking about basic maintenance and not keeping up appearances.

Unless, I guess, by washing your truck and ridding it of moss you are really keeping up the appearance that you aren’t really depressed

JR
JR
4 months ago

Options for truck: 1) Find a sweet jump 2) sell to me 3) accentuate the pinstripping. When we do trade in our old civic, I’d love to find a tacoma. I hear they’re so light though, you gotta put kitter litter or such in the back to weigh ’em down in the snow.

BJ
BJ
4 months ago

JD, wouldn’t it have been better to stay in the condo? Less work, less stress, a place you loved to entertain? It seems like all the work of a condo is not worth the cost. I know because I have a condo with a view and I took care of my mother’s house. The house took up most of my free time. Now, that she’s gone and the house is sold I have unlimited free time. What is the cost of your time with a house compared to your previous condo?

steveark
steveark
4 months ago

It isn’t necessarily a choice between a poster child POS vehicle like your truck and a nearly new RAV4. I’m driving a 2008 Infiniti EX35 ‘SUV”. Or rather Infiniti classifies it as a small SUV but its really a sports car, 0 to 60 in under 6 seconds and a high G skid pad rating. It has no dents, no rust, shiny paint and at least one person asked me if it was a 2019 model. It’s got leather heated seats, individual temperature control, automatic lights and a Bose sound system. In other words, nobody that sees me in it… Read more »

Anne
Anne
4 months ago

Yeah, we all have to find our “sweet spot”, don’t we. And honestly, ours can change from day to day. We are very comfortably retired after a lifetime of frugality and a piece of luck in retirement. Yet, I still swing back and forth between picking up pennies off the ground and indulging a couple of my vices. But I would encourage you to both hire out the backyard work, although it didn’t look that bad to me, and spend some money on landscaping. If you folks are embarrassed by your house, it’s probably the landscaping. I really think you’d… Read more »

Sara
Sara
4 months ago
Reply to  Anne

I think the “sweet spot” is a great way to put this. Last year we opted to not plant annuals in our containers on the deck b/c we were out of town at the prime planting time and we felt we wouldn’t miss them. In previous years, we had spent $150-$200 to make them look nice (we have a large deck and large containers), so we thought it could be nice to save that cash. Turns out, we missed them and found we didn’t use our outdoor space as much last summer and definitely didn’t entertain like prior years b/c… Read more »

JoDi
JoDi
4 months ago

Figuring out where to start landscaping can feel overwhelming. Many garden centers offer landscape plans for less than $100. It’s a great way to have someone with knowledge of native plants and landscape design get ideas down on paper for you so you have somewhere to start. I met with someone to talk about ideas we had for our front yard, and he drew everything out to scale with suggested plant varieties labeled in each area. I opted to implement the plan myself, buying the plants and planting everything, but we also could have had the garden center do everything… Read more »

Bob
Bob
4 months ago

Seems like you are spending more time, energy and money dealing with a house rather than a condo you can enjoy, entertain and have a fabulous views. What are you cost comparisons now that you have been in the house a while?

Ron Cameron
Ron Cameron
4 months ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

That is a badass truck that I would gladly drive. But fix the fraying seat belts!

Amy
Amy
4 months ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

I drive a ’93 Ford F-150 and love that truck so hard! It’s funny because I make 6 figures, but people assume we’re poor because of my vehicle choice. I love the simplicity of the truck, it runs great, and it’s cute. It doesn’t bother me what people think, and I have no desire to drive anything newer. My youngest daughter loves it too, but my teenagers on the other hand…

PawPrint
PawPrint
4 months ago

People who live in Dunthorpe drive some pretty ratty looking cars from what I remember. Old money can get away with it? When I lived in Lake Oswego, at a stoplight my old Datsun was usually surrounded by Mercedes, Porsches, or other expensive cars. Made me chuckle.

Want Not
Want Not
4 months ago

Feel your pain. Social shame. We bought a fixer-upper 16 years ago. And it was a long time before we felt like the place was presentable (even though we entertained from the beginning, what the hey!) But……now it’s great. Not only did we (slowly) completely re-do the house, but we both love, but love, working in the yard. Yours looks like Versailles compared to how ours looked when we moved in!–we had every weed in the dictionary! But now, ours is Edenic with a fountain and sitting areas and a “farm” with a lot of raised beds. We love it,… Read more »

Jennifer
Jennifer
4 months ago

I don’t think having home that you are comfortable having people over to is “keeping up appearances”. You don’t have to be proud of your home, but you should get it to a point of being comfortable with people coming over and not ashamed. If you feel this way (and it seems you do, since you avoid having people there) then it is time to do something about it. it doesn’t have to be fancy to be good enough. Also, from that picture it looks pretty good! You don’t need a major overhaul, but some small fix-ups to get it… Read more »

RH
RH
4 months ago

It is okay to sell the house if you want. If you don’t like the house layout, it’s dark and cramped, doing yardwork, being far from social activities and friends, etc.. you can sell and move. You also had a writing studio built that has been replaced by your new office space you rented. You installed a hot tub that become your drinking sanctuary. You are missing something and you need to really think if selling the house would make you both happier and how it would change your day to day life.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
4 months ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

Turn the writing studio into a party room then. Pool table. Dartboard. Wet bar. Keg refrigerator. Movie screen. You get the idea…

ps- yesterday I had a hard time posting comments here. a little grey dot that bounces side to side like a cylon eye and then… nothing!

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
4 months ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

Sure thing—thanks!

You could use this year round with a wood or pellet stove though. But yeah insulation would help… is it prohibitive?

Christin
Christin
4 months ago

While I agree with most of this article, I think it comes down to psychology. If a financial choice is making me frustrated and uncomfortable, then I need to re-evaluate whether or not I can afford to give myself something better. Of course, there should be discernment between fleeting comfort and long-term comfort, between whether I really need certain things to be happy, and what is the nature of happiness (these are deeper questions than I care to address). However, my long-term comforts are a house that makes me smile every time I walk through the door, taking my kid… Read more »

Douglas Tsoi
Douglas Tsoi
4 months ago

I miss that truck, JD. Don’t be taking the moss off of it!

And remember, there’s a difference between stimulus and interpretation. An old truck might be shameful if you’re trying to impress the indolent rich. But an old truck is a status marker to the FIRE community, as partially evidenced by you having multiple posts about it 🙂

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
4 months ago
Reply to  Douglas Tsoi

Doesn’t the moss corrode the paint though? And invite rust? Which ends up in disintegration? That’s my real objection.

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