How Does Culture Impact My Finances?



I first started thinking about if and how my “culture” impacts my finances when I listened to this episode of the Enjoying Life on a Budget podcast, about six months ago. At the most basic level, the question Lauren and Mark ask their listeners is if keeping up with the Joneses is keeping them down. I gave it some thought, but ultimately dismissed the notion that my spending, or my overall financial picture, is the result of my culture. But if you read this recent post of mine, you’d know that the truth is more complicated than that. Here’s the specific excerpt I’m referring to:

I had an emotional low a few weeks ago, after my husband and I went out to dinner with a couple we know. While the specifics of their employment are pretty different, the two husbands have the same professional title. I work very part-time, and the other wife is home full-time with three children. Like us, this couple lived in NYC and moved to upstate NY soon after they married, to settle down. While I don’t know any of the numbers, this couple’s financial picture is undoubtedly much better than ours. They own the house they live in; a small, two-family rental house; and a small, lakefront cabin where they spend a lot of their time in the summer. Oh, and they’re in the process of purchasing and moving to a larger house (asking price: $829,000). Despite being the same age and our many similarities, I feel very far behind this couple. I (internally) sulked about it for a good few days after that dinner. I’m not proud of that, but I’m just keeping in real…

Clearly, I’m emotionally impacted by my culture, and if I’m glaringly honest with myself, my spending has been impacted by it, as well. Yes, I’ve been guilty of spending to fit in with, or to live up to, my culture. There, I said it. Ugh.

What Is My Culture?

If I’m going to keep pointing a finger at my culture, I should at least define it. While I prefer to keep specific, identifying details private, here’s an outline of what I have always considered to be my culture:

  • Educated. My husband and I both have graduate degrees – and the loan balances to prove it!
  • Professional. We both have decidedly white-collar jobs, which require graduate school degrees. (See above.)
  • Upper-middle class. It doesn’t feel that way when I make all of our payments every month, and worry about juggling debt repayment, retirement planning, and saving for college for our daughter, but our household income does put us in this category. (This makes me feel even more embarrassed about having so much debt.)
  • Successful. Personally, yes. Professionally, yes. Financially, yes – and no.
  • Urban. We no longer live in an urban area, but my husband and I spent our 20s and 30s living and working in cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. I don’t miss big-city living at all, but it’s still a part of who I am, and to a certain extent, what I identify with.

How Has This Culture Impacted Me?

In some ways, I’m quite good at bucking what I perceive to be the expectations for my culture. I proudly drive a 2007 Camry with just over 170,000 miles on it, and I plan to drive it until it no longer makes sense to continue putting money into it. I shop grocery sales and coupon, and I patronize the non-fancy grocery store in our area. I avoid branded clothing and accessories like the plague, and rock my three-year-old Old Navy jeans with pride. (Heck, I consider it a win that I still fit into three-year-old pants!)

What do these things have in common? They have nothing to do with my daughter. This is where I struggle more with conforming to my culture’s image. I’m much more likely to buy clothing, backpacks, and other items for my daughter that fit with my perceived cultural image. I don’t mean to imply that she walks around in Ralph Lauren clothing, with a Louis Vuitton backpack over her shoulder – she doesn’t. But while I’ll troll the clearance racks for my own clothing and pass up items I don’t deem a good enough deal, I’m much more liberal with my spending on items for her.

Additionally, if I’m included in a social gathering – typically a “moms’ night out” with friends –  I do not insist we go out just for coffee or a drink. Nor do I suggest we keep costs in mind when choosing the destination.

And I don’t discuss finances in anything but the most broad and upbeat terms with my friends, colleagues, and neighbors. I don’t lie about our financial picture, but I do keep it to myself. I’m pretty sure that my silence reinforces my perceived fit with cultural norms.

How Have I Learned to Resist?

Be it overspending on dinner out or clothing for my daughter, this behavior have proven detrimental to our finances. I know that I have spent money to look and feel like I belong. I know this is a problem. And I have taken steps to resist falling into this trap again in the future:

  1. I’ve broadened my social circle. While I haven’t actually ended any friendships as Hayley from Disease Called Debt suggests might be necessary for some people here, I have broadened my circle of friends. My friends are now more diverse in their backgrounds, experiences, and financial situations, and this has been a big help. I can be more authenticate with them, which is rewarding in many ways.
  2. I remember that I’m teaching by example. My daughter is six, and she’s watching and listening to me. If I set the example of buying more expensive things for her, this will eventually become her expectation. If I don’t demonstrate responsible money habits, she could adopt my habits as her own some day. While her behavior is not ultimately in my control, I want to model good decision-making for her.
  3. I’ve become more introspective. Since I’ve become aware of the role my cultural identity has played in my spending, I’ve looked for ways to curb it. I approach purchases more consciously, and actively ask myself why I’m buying something. I ask myself if I’m being influenced by a desire to fit with my cultural expectations. And I remind myself of the bigger financial picture, and all that we still have to accomplish.

I have by no means conquered this tendency, but I’m aware of it and I’m working on it.

What is your culture? Are you defined (financially) by it? Has this ever led you to make poor decisions?

Disease Called Debt


24 thoughts on “How Does Culture Impact My Finances?

  1. I just came across this post and want to say that I feel that I have something in common with you (besides the theme of our blogs 🙂 ) – we’re not exactly upper middle class, but my culture has been one of education (at whatever cost). My dad is a college professor, and I grew up with this sense that education was key to a happy, successful life. And it may be, but boy, education comes with a cost. Marrying someone who has an education comes with a cost, too – literally. I’m proud of our education, but I’ll be especially proud when we get “cost” paid off!

    Friends of mine who are in similar situations (educated with student loan debt) all seem to fall into the camp I did a while ago – “Everyone has student loan debt… you just pay your minimum payment and keep on keeping on” – while eating out, spending way more on groceries than they probably need to, and not tracking spending. That’s the culture I am a part of – “everyone’s got loans, so what?” When I tell people that we send $2,000 a month to loans, I’m sure they think we make a lot of money, but that’s almost half of our take-home pay a month, so we don’t have cable, we don’t have a gym membership, and we don’t eat out much. That doesn’t mean I don’t want those things, though… It can be challenging! Thanks for the great post.

  2. I love this post. Like you, I thought that I had no issues with trying to keep up with the Joneses – but like you, I realized that I did. This awareness is humbling, but you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge, so it’s a fist step. Thanks for your honesty, Amy.

  3. Thanks for sharing your struggles with culture and spending. I was able to live overseas for five years in a very poor part of the world (Uzbekistan) and it really changed my expectations of what I need to be happy, but I found it much harder when I returned to the U.S. and saw everyone else living much more expensive lives.

    I have struggled too with the feeling of being behind, and it’s only amplified by the fact that my husband and I got married later and then had 4 kids and at the same time thought it would be a good idea to go to law school, so yeah, we know what it feels like to be behind a lot of other people our age ;).

  4. Great article, Amy! Culture inevitably influences our approach to anything, and certainly money. It’s so helpful, yet difficult, to think through that influence and try to decide what I agree with and what I don’t. That’s one thing I’ve found so helpful about the blogging community–lots of articulate thinkers trying to deconstruct this stuff together.

  5. I actually think I’m from nearly the same culture as you sans the white collar job – so on the plus side, the vast majority of people I know working in the arts are not making bank – but my preoccupation with frugality and investing and making good money decisions is out of the norm for that lifestyle, hanging out my best friends (all college educated – at least, most have graduate degrees – middle class folks) and my family.

    • says:

      Diversifying beyond my own cultural background has been great for me. It’s not something I actively tried to do, but it happened naturally when I got to know some of the other parents of kids in my daughter’s public school class.

  6. I think many of us like to believe we are immune to the pressures of our culture, but it is really difficult to leave behind the messages that have been ingrained into our subconscious for years. Comparison to friends and family, while not helpful, are just natural human reactions. I have friends and family who are enjoying far more financial success (thanks to their own hard work and diligence) and far less financial success and sometimes I envy them both. I’d like to have some of the opportunities the more successful ones have created, and I’d like to have some of the perks the less successful ones have purchased without being able to afford. But after I get over the initial burst of envy, I realize that I’m where I want to be…grateful for what I have, living a balanced life, and striving toward the goals that are important to me.

    • says:

      That’s wonderful, Gary! When I set aside the unhelpful comparisons, I’m incredibly grateful for all that I have.

  7. My family culture was that of near poverty and agrarian roots, immigration and starting from scratch and I’ve always been proud of what we could do against some pretty stiff odds. Thankfully I also had developed friendships with people who had money, either having been born into stable/wealthy families or who had grown up with nothing and made something of themselves, so I didn’t fall into the pit of self sabotage that often happens when you come from nothing and start making some money.

    This whole question about creating the culture our family lives has been on my mind ever since our first was born last year. I don’t want hir to grow up with the expectation that everyone has it easy, and you just have to put your hand out to get what you want. (*cough* which is what ze currently does. Hah.) I want hir to learn that we have to work smart and work hard, and that it’s much easier to lose wealth and privilege than it is to earn it. And for that, no matter how much wealth we do amass, I want hir to grow up more like I did being aware of the value of a penny, than like any other kid in the Bay Area where the culture is very influenced by wealth.

  8. This is truly important to think about. I know that my first culture – Appalachian – really did a number on my finances for a lot of years…mostly psychological, though. I’ve always had a hard time with the way I perceive class, and that’s a huge part of personal (and societal) culture. I may move to a different neighborhood soon, and I’m already anticipating cultural changes – within a five mile drive from where I currently live! This post breaks down the pieces of our personal culture that we need to examine. Thank you.

    • says:

      I think it’s always with us. What we can control – sometimes more successfully than others – is our response to it.

  9. I feel like this a lot.
    The hubby and I definitely have some of the same identifications (educated, professional, upper middle class) though more suburban. At this point, successful has been more of a problem, and our cultural affiliations are more due to background than current circumstance. Adjusting has been difficult, and we keep a lot quiet too.
    Like you, I want to make exceptions for my daughter and give her nicer things so that she fits in with her peers at school. I worry about the habits I’m passing along. I get jealous of friends’ vacations and (to a lesser degree) houses. I am nostalgic for the days we struggled less.
    But I am working through it nonetheless. Success may come again with hard work. Debt is still getting paid down, and thanks to adopting a more modest lifestyle we may be in a better place in the future. I have to remind myself that things are okay and they could be a heck of a lot worse, even if I’m a bit stressed at the moment.

  10. I’ve found that it’s difficult to avoid making these kinds of comparisons, but you have to keep trying because otherwise they can drive you crazy. Everybody has different circumstances and even if things look exactly the same, they never will be. The best approach is just to focus on your life and what is part of it. Often easier said than done, I suppose 🙂

  11. This is an interesting perspective. I think culturally I have been influenced by an expectation to have a ‘good’ job and to get on the property ladder.
    I have a 6 year old daughter too and have to be conscious of what I say and try to be a good role model. I wonder how much I’m unintentionally influencing her? Food for thought, thanks for sharing.

  12. Thanks for sharing Amy. Often once you are aware of a cause of a trigger or problem its much easier to deal with. We were impacted more by our learning from childhood get a job, get married, but a house etc. It was like we were following someone else plan and never really thinking for ourselves. I knew I always want to be married and have a family but the financial piece thinking everyone has a credit card, so should we.

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