What would You do to maintain a Status Symbol and “keep up appearances”?

If you drive through my town, you might start to notice something peculiar. And while I think of it as out of place, you might think it’s normal and just like everywhere else. And perhaps it is, but even the quaint hamlet in which I live is not immune to the siren call of a status symbol small or great. Let me tell you about my observations, and you can decide if you agree.

Beside the obvious lack of organizational skills where outdoor equipment and junk is involved, there are some serious priority issues. It’s not that I’m against old cars in the yard, or kids toys scattered around intermingled with fifty year old rusty farm equipment. It’s just that there are other obvious discrepancies.

Discrepancies like, a broken down shack of a house with a newish sports car in the driveway. Or a not-quite-level double wide with a sagging roof that also happens to have a pair of jet-skis on a trailer and new full size pickup to tow them to the lake.

In my mind, something seems odd with these situations. I mean why can these people afford a new car but not a new roof? Or why can they afford to take weekend trips to the lake to play with their water toys, but they refuse to clean up their yard and fix the sagging foundation? Are their priorities just out of whack? Or am I missing something?

You might come to the conclusion from these seeming paradoxical situations that folks around these parts love their motorized possessions (cars, trucks, boats, and motorcycles) more than their houses.

I, on the other hand, have a different theory.

Maintaining a Status Symbol to the Detriment of Your Well-being.

As I was pondering the conflicting evidence that is all around me, it suddenly hit me. No one necessarily knows what these people’s houses / properties look like. Well, it’s not that no one ever sees these properties (I saw them). It’s just that the people who live there know that their friends and acquaintances won’t ever visit their house. And that’s really all that matters.

Because if their friends knew they were living in squalor, they would most certainly fix up their shacks to be more respectable. It’s not that they don’t have the money for home repairs or cleanup. It’s just that no one they know will see it. And they only care to impress people they know. They are unwittingly or not involved in a status symbol competition, which is more commonly known as “keeping up with the Joneses”.

The people they work with only ever see the car they drive. Their friends only ever meet them at the lake or perhaps at the restaurant. They won’t see their ramshackle house or their unkept yard or even their neighborhood. And so to keep up appearances, they only have to maintain the car or boat. And they only spend money on the other items necessary to uphold their reputation of a wealthy middle class denizen (I finally got to use that word in a sentence!!). Sometimes even to the detriment of their safety and well being.

Their roof is likely leaking, and their foundation is damaged. These are serious problems that if left alone will result in thousands upon thousands of damage or worse. Based on the fact that there are kids’ toys in the yard, there are likely kids living in these disgraceful conditions.

They have taken the definition of a status symbol to a whole new level. These people have forsaken their safety and well being in favor of a well maintained status symbol. The windows on their house are broken and won’t close, but the car doesn’t have a scratch on it.

The Dangers of Status Symbol Competition

All a status symbol is, is something that elevates your status with your peers. Or you could look at it as something that announces your financial position to the world. Status is a funny thing. Instead of appreciating someone for who they are or what they can do, we sometimes think of people in terms of their possessions. And the more expensive their possessions, the higher their status is.

Their perceived status becomes linked to the items or things they buy. And because we think of others this way, we assume that others must think of us in the very same manner – whether it’s true or not.

So to maintain our status, we must always have the latest tech or the newest model. Cars are a very visible of status symbols, though the latest smartphone is close behind.

Status symbols inspire envy not for the expensive item but for the lifestyle that can afford such a purchase. Don't get caught up in status symbol competition. Click To Tweet

But in reality, the supposed status that an expensive car or new smartphone affords us is simply an envy not for the item itself, but for the lifestyle that must come with such an extravagant purchase.

People want what they imagine your lifestyle to be instead of the actual object that you are showing off. If you don’t believe me, when your new car is admired and awed over, listen carefully to the questions that people ask you.

“How much did it cost?” Which really means, “Wow, you must have a great job to be able to afford that. I wonder what else they can afford that I can’t?”

And when they ask . . . “Did you sell your old car?” They are thinking, “It must be nice to be able to upgrade every two years. I need to step up my game.”

Don’t get me wrong, not everyone that admires your new car is envious of your purchase or lifestyle. But when a status symbol becomes a priority in your life or theirs the motivation changes. They ask questions to determine how their lifestyle stacks up to yours. Do they need to do more to keep up? And you tend to “show off” more than is necessary.

Instead of buying or upgrading a possession simply for the utilitarian value or because you wanted it, you start to think about the reaction of those who will see it. After a while, that becomes the driving force behind your money decisions.

It becomes a back and forth that not only plays havoc with your budget and theirs, but also accomplishes exactly nothing. You add stress upon stress. You have more bills, more debt, more things to maintain, and more items that didn’t really want in the first place. Doesn’t this sound like America today? We have more than ever, but still we need to more to keep up.

How to Break Out of the Status Symbol Cycle.

You first have to classify your possessions for what they are. Some things will undoubtedly be status symbols. For instance, you only bought that car to impress your co-workers. Or maybe you bought that watch because your boss likes nice watches, and you’re hoping he’ll notice yours.

In each of these cases, you didn’t really want or need the item. You bought it because of someone else’s reaction to your purchase. You care too much about what others think.

Evaluate your purchases in terms of what you need or want. If it’s a want, figure out why exactly you want it. Is it just to show off, or is it an actual pleasure? Don’t spend your money for the reactions of others.

When your life is governed by what those around you think about you, you’ll be miserable. Because you’ll never be able to live up to their ever changing expectations.

Stop living your life for them!! If you need a new car, buy one – with cash of course. If you want a new watch, and you can afford it, then buy it. I’m not saying you can’t have nice things. Just don’t maintain one financial lifestyle for others to see, and a different one where they can’t. Spend your money based on your decisions and priorities, not based on the whims of others.

Imagine living in one of those shacks that I mentioned earlier. What if someone you knew was passing out fliers or fundraising door to door? And what if they came to your door? Your carefully crafted image would come crashing down. Oh the horror . . . .

Don’t be a status symbol fake!!

Have you ever caught yourself buying something solely for the status it offers? Did you still buy it?

Tell me about it in the comments, and I do appreciate you sharing and reading this post.

Author

Chris is the original Cash Dad. He's a father of 3 and a mechanical engineer by trade.

10 Comments

  1. I was really disappointed you didn’t add a photo of one of those real life examples we pass every week. I had to laugh at your very vivid description of those dwellings. I could picture them perfectly in my mind. That red car is rather nice. One day, we can buy one of those to zoom around in.
    Love you,
    Kate

    • Chris Reply

      I didn’t want to blow anyone’s cover. And one day, maybe we’ll buy a nice red car because we want to of course. ?

  2. This website is pretty nice! How much did it cost? Haha just applying what I learned!

    Good article! I was actually just thinking about how much money it costs to raise kids. School, sports, vacations, clothes, food. I know the payoff is worth it, but sometimes I do wish I had the nice car to show off. Thanks for getting my head back in check with truth.

    • Chris Reply

      Thanks for the comment. I agree, kids can be expensive, especially the clothes and food. But in the end, stuff is just stuff. And kids are people and family. ?

  3. I think we all fight the marketing giants every day! Even those of us in the FI community are tempted by nice things that we don’t really need. One thing that has helped me avoid big purchases is writing a blog. It brings some accountability because if I make a big purchase I know I’m probably going to have to blog about it at some point!

    • Chris Reply

      Accountability is huge. If you think your will is strong enough to do it on your own . . .
      Thanks for the comment and the great point. ?

  4. Good post. People are trained well by marketers. The house is a dump, but the leased Audi makes everything alright. Poverty in America includes a 70” television. Breaking the cycle is not easy, but possible.

    • Chris Reply

      So true. And cable is the last thing to cut when money gets tight. Our priorities are all mixed up. Thanks for the comments.

  5. Mr. Financial Freedom Project Reply

    Great article, Chris! The discrepancy between the condition of some of these homes and the vehicles / snowmobiles / jet skis / campers parked in front of them never ceases to amaze me.

    I was taught growing up that the appearance of a home was a reflection of the values and character of those living in it. That lesson always stuck with me. When I was living on my own as a young bachelor, I rented an 800 sq. foot trailer in the country on 4 acres. I took great pride in keeping that trailer and those 4 acres in pristine condition as a matter of self-respect.

    I agree with your response to Dave’s comment – as a society, our priorities are indeed all mixed up.

    • Chris Reply

      Thanks for the comment. It sounds like your folks taught you well. I agree totally. ?

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