Comparison is a Costly Habit

Imagine, if you will, a quiet restaurant on a Friday evening. At a table next to the window sit two couples out for a planned dinner date. Bill and Sarah met Aiden and Hanna two years ago at a band competition their kids were competing in together and became fast friends. Tonight, they’re all out for dinner to celebrate Aiden’s recent promotion at work. Let’s listen in:

Bill: Congratulations on the promotion, Aiden! It looks like all of your work on the big project really paid off.

Aiden: Thanks, Bill. We’re pretty excited about it! In fact, dinner is on me tonight.

Sarah: I’ll drink to that!

Hanna: He said dinner, Sarah. Just dinner.

Sarah: Oh… Anyway, what will you be doing in your new position?

Aiden: Well, mostly the same stuff I was doing before, but I’ll have more people reporting to me. The good news is that I’ll actually get paid more for the additional responsibilities.

Sarah: I’ll drink to…

Hanna: Just dinner, Sarah.

Bill: More pay is always good! What’s the first thing you’re going to do with that extra cash?

Aiden: Actually, I think we’re going to put some money towards our mortgage each month and take care of that last bit we owe the hospital from my kidney stones.

Bill: Those sound like great ideas.

Aiden: And then we’ll take the rest of the money and go on a 20-year anniversary trip.

Bill, Sarah, and Hanna all look surprised

Aiden: That’s right, honey. I didn’t tell you, but they gave me a bonus on top of the promotion and raise. I know you’ve always wanted to go to Bora Bora, so we’re going for 2 weeks for our anniversary. And, I got us first-class plane tickets!

Hanna: I can’t believe this!

Sarah: I’ll drink to…

Bill, Aiden, and Hanna: Sarah!

Fast forward to the car ride home with Bill and Sarah

Sarah: I’m so excited for Aiden and Hanna! I can’t even imagine spending two weeks in Bora Bora! That place is beautiful. I just saw a feature about a new resort there. They’ve got those little huts built over the water that you stay in. It looks so relaxing.

Bill: Yeah. Great time.

Sarah: Is something wrong?

Bill: It’s just that I work hard, too. Probably even harder than Aiden. I’ve never gotten a promotion with a big raise and a bonus. In fact, they shouldn’t even be allowed to call what I got last year a raise! We’re barely keeping our heads above water, and here’s Aiden bragging about all of this money he’s got and the trips he’s gonna take. I bet he even enjoyed paying for our dinner.  Well… whatever.

Aaaaaand, scene!

Theodore Roosevelt said that “comparison is the thief of joy.” To that I reply, it depends. It certainly was in Bill’s case, though. Instead of enjoying a dinner and celebrating his friend’s success, Bill compared the achievement and accolades Aiden received to his own. Bill isn’t the only one that is susceptible to making damaging comparisons, either. In fact, millions of people do just that every day. How? Comparison is just one of the reasons why social media can be depressing. Instagram is filled with pictures of beautiful locations and happy people seemingly without a care in the world. Kids are polite, cheerful, good students, and always go to bed on time. And your neighbors? Yep, their vacation was better than yours and here are the carefully selected photos to prove it. It’s all right there for you to stare at and absorb, slowly eating away at whatever contentment you’ve managed to hang on to. When we hang out too long on the ‘Gram (or FaceBook, or Twitter…), we’re bound to start comparing and envying, and most of us won’t be better off for it.

Unfortunately, we often put ourselves through the same mental wringer when we compare ourselves to others financially. We overhear a conversation about the brilliant investment move someone pulled off and how it made them a bunch of cash. Your brother calls to tell you about the sweet new car he just bought. Or, your sister tells you about the sale of a lifetime and she got 5 new pairs of shoes. Or, a classmate mentions that they’ll graduate with no student loans. Or, your friend invites you out to dinner to celebrate their promotion. Instead of looking outward, we focus our attention inward and compare how our financial lives don’t appear to match up to someone else’s. We start clicking through our own little financial Instagram, and it’s depressing.

I met with a person (we’ll call him Ed) a couple of years ago who was knee deep in comparing his life to the group he and his family ran around with. Ed is a successful business professional and earns well into the six-figures each year with an additional annual six-figure bonus more common than not. Most people I know would be thrilled with the opportunities that Ed has available to him. Ed’s problem was that he was comparing his financial life to his friends’ lives. The even bigger problem is that all of his friends make seven-figures. He and his wife couldn’t keep up with the spending, the vacations, the cars, the lake homes, and on and on. Ed had become so dissatisfied with his income and perceived inferiority that the stress he was dealing with began to manifest in his relationships with his wife and kids, too. Ed’s comparison was beginning to destroy his family.

To reel this in a bit, you don’t have to make six-figures to fall victim to the destructive effects of inappropriate comparison. No, comparison is just as likely to cause problems for the family that makes the national average income (or less) as it is high-income earners. The middle-class struggle with their own issues, too. Bigger houses, family vacations, making sure kids are on half a dozen travel teams plus learning Mandarin on the weekends, plus the general desire for more/better “stuff”. When you’re trying to keep up with the neighbors, you’re often losing sight of what you should really be focusing on, your own reality.

I know I can’t tell you not to compare your finances to someone else any more than I can tell you to not think about a cow with tiger stripes. It’s going to happen. However, the next time you catch yourself sliding down the hill of comparing yourself (finances or otherwise), try these suggestions out.

    • Unplug From Social Media – It can be done. I’ve spent way more time on social media than I care to admit in the past, but since I’ve drastically limited my exposure to those outlets, I’ve noticed (and so has my wife) a marked difference in my general mood.
    • Practice Gratitude – It’s really tough to be upset and depressed while you’re actively being grateful. You don’t even have to identify big or significant things. If you want to take it one step further, tell someone else you’re grateful for them and how they’ve impacted your life. You’ll have made a difference in your attitude and their day.
    • Make a Plan – Things don’t usually change the way you want them to unless you make a focused effort to change them in that way. What is bothering you? What can you do to affect change to improve your situation? If you can’t think of anything you can do or need more help…
    • Talk to Someone – Tell someone how you feel. Ask for help turning things around. Maybe the person you seek out has struggled with a similar issue in the past. Tell them what you’re struggling with and then listen to their reply. Don’t immediately get negative and think, “that could never work for me”. Listen. Think. Then, talk some more. And then…
    • Be Your Own Ally – Stop unfairly comparing your life and situation to someone else’s. Instead, be inspired by their success, or what you at least perceive as their success. What did they do to get there? What can you learn from them to improve your circumstances? Start taking steps to improve your situation, your perspective, and your attitude.

The story you write with your life will be like no one else’s. It can’t be. And, if you’re reading this, it’s very likely that you’ve still got plenty of pages to go. So, what does your next chapter hold?

Damian is the lead Financial Concierge on Your Money Line, the financial help line serving all Pete the Planner® Financial Wellness clients. Damian is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional and loves answering your money questions. Despite sharing a last name and sense of humor, Damian and Pete are not related.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *