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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?