Why spend less than you earn?
There are the obvious reasons. Spending more than you earn isn't sustainable, of course. You can't build your net worth unless you spend less than you earn. And spending less than you earn decreases your stress level.
But is there another reason to spend less than you earn … something that doesn't benefit you at all?
Keeping up with the Joneses is a concept frequently mentioned on personal finance blogs. In fact, not keeping up with them is often heralded as one of the first steps toward turning your financial life around. And keeping your life headed in the right direction.
I had never thought about that concept in the opposite way — decreasing my own expenditures so that someone else didn't feel pressure to keep up with me –– until I was hanging out in my aunt's cozy, '80s-era kitchen a couple of years ago. In her mid-50s, she and my uncle seem to be financially comfortable. I assume the mortgage is paid off on their nice house, and they take a lot of frugal vacations. To be honest, she forgot more about frugality than I'll ever know.
“We could afford to take more vacations, or stay in hotels instead of tent-camping. I could even remodel this kitchen,” my aunt said.
“Well,” I asked, thinking a fresh coat of paint would be an improvement, “why don't you?”
“Because, I don't want my family members who are just starting out to feel pressure to overspend.”
What does your kitchen have to do with other people? I wondered.
“If we remodel this kitchen — ” (and the cabinets and wallpaper are in fine shape, by the way) ” — maybe I would cause my son and daughter-in-law to be unhappy with their kitchen. And they aren't in a position to spend money on a kitchen.
“It's all about how you start,” she continued. “If you start out with nothing, you can end with something that is still living within your means. But if you overextend yourself financially at the beginning, it makes your whole life more difficult.”
As I finish up writing this article, my family and I are visiting my sister on the west coast. She and her husband rent a small apartment in a large house (three-hole golf course in the back yard!) with beautiful gardens. And we're staying in the guest house above the four-car garage. It's an awesome place.
But it's also large and ostentatious. When you have such a great place, where do you go from there?
And then there is my community. I live in a rural area with small towns scattered along the state highways. Along Main Street in any of these small towns, you'll usually find a coffee shop with some farmers and retired people catching up on the local gossip.
When you build a house or get a new vehicle or buy some land, people notice. I don't know if other communities are like this, but in mine, flaunting wealth isn't done by most people. I mean, there are luxury cars, but for every BMW, there are ten older sedans or beat-up trucks. Maybe people don't flaunt their wealth because they don't want to become the topic at tomorrow's meeting in the coffee shop. Maybe it's because the community wants to promote simple living. Maybe it's to prevent others from spending more than they have.
One of my relatives was car-shopping years ago. The car salesman said, “You know, you can afford a Cadillac. Nice cars, those Cadillacs.”
My relative ended up buying a Buick, because he didn't want to “show off” with a Cadillac. That is admirable, but I was left scratching my head. The price of the two cars? Almost identical.
Part of me thinks this is all kind of ridiculous: If I am living within my means, why should I adapt my spending to prevent someone else from having the urge to overspend? After all, I don't look at other people and think that I need their car, house, or boat. And should I really care what other people think of the stuff I choose to spend money on?
But all these stories illustrate — at least to me — that we don't spend our money in a vacuum. To varying degrees, our spending choices affect others. And no other relationship is more important for this lesson than how our spending may affect our children.
Since we've had children, we've thought about which financial lessons we want to teach them. As we gain more experience with parenting and really consider how what we teach our children now affects their futures, we've come up with two concepts that we want them to learn.
Being content with what you have. And just because you have the money for something doesn't mean you should buy it.
For example, our car is reliable and has been paid off for 4.5 years. It's not worth much to anyone except us, but now that we have a third child on the way, our friends have been not-so-subtly suggesting that it's time for a larger vehicle. Even though I am sure a larger vehicle would be more convenient, our car seats five. It will work.
And we could technically afford a larger vehicle. Once we paid off our car, we kept saving $300 a month for several years until we had enough for a replacement vehicle. So, when our kids (and friends) asked when we were going to buy a new vehicle, we didn't say we couldn't afford one. Instead, we said we didn't want to spend our money in that way at this time.
When we decided to discard our previous kitchen remodel ideas and just freshen up what we had for much less cash, I hope that our kids not only realize they don't have to have amazing houses, but that spending less gives them — and their neighbors? — more options.
So what do you think? Is this idea that we should spend less so that others don't feel pressured to spend more a little … crazy? Maybe something restricted to my country-bumpkin lifestyle?
Lisa Aberle is a college professor by day and a freelance writer by night. Always an aspiring writer with an interest in money, she once ironically misspelled “mortgage” during a spelling bee. Most of her current adventures take place on the four-acre mini-farm she shares with her husband in the rural Midwest (where she writes with gel pens whenever possible).