How 'comparison' is making you poor financially and emotionally
So I wanted to get real with you for a moment. I’ve recently been struggling with comparison. Comparing my life, my body, my blog, my success, the amount I have saved, my retirement plan, my career, and my accomplishments. You name it – I’ve compared it. And, for some reason, I’ve convinced myself that everyone has done it better than me. While it hasn’t been intentional or even rational at times, it has been soul-destroying. The old saying is poignantly true: comparison is the thief of all joy.
Take a moment and consider how we live our lives in a constant state of comparison. We compare our bodies to Instagram models, our finances to Warren Buffet, our house to the Joneses next door, our careers to our former classmates, and our popularity to friends who get the most Facebook likes.
But, I keep asking myself – what is the point? Who are we trying to impress? By comparing ourselves to others, are we spurring ourselves to actually change our situation? Or are we digging ourselves into a deeper hole of self-pity and unrealistic expectations?
Comparison is the thief of all… money?
Comparison is the thief of all joy.
Theodore Roosevelt was the one to make this saying a household quote that is now used, ad nauseam, in self-help advice columns and blog posts. So, of course, I had to follow suit.
I’ve always wondered what made Teddy say this infamous statement. Some suggest it’s because Roosevelt had paralytic poliomyelitis. And, as one of the most influential men at the time, it could have affected how others might have viewed him and his ability to run the nation. Others suggest that, as president, it was easy for him to compare his decisions to previous presidents, effectively hindering his ability to lead effectively.
Whatever spurred Teddy to say those words, it’s not hard to agree that comparison really is a Debbie Downer. By constantly focusing on what we don’t have or what we’re not able to do or achieve, we rob ourselves of realizing our true capabilities and potential. By putting others’ lives in a positive light, we (subconsciously) shove ours into the dark shadows. And nothing is able to grow there.
How comparison robs you of money
But – to keep things relevant – I also want to highlight how comparison can rob us not only of our joy but also of our money.
Have you ever rolled your eyes while reading those stories about a couple that earns a combined income of over R2 million per year, they live in a mansion on the cliffs of Camp’s Bay and – the real shocker – they’ve just entered their 30s?
My initial reaction is a mixture of jealousy, shame, guilt and sadness. How is anyone supposed to live up to that? Should I consider myself a complete failure for not meeting the same standards at age 31? How high do we set the bar?
Well, you see, there’s the problem. The fact that we believe that the bar should be there in the first place. Don’t get me wrong – there are certain times when comparison can encourage you to be a better version of yourself. But, all too often, we let negative emotions creep in – spurring us on to give up, throw in the towel and make poor (and emotionally-driven) financial decisions.
A perfect example is the need to keep up with the Joneses. You notice that your neighbor buys the latest sports car or big-screen TV. In a fit of jealous rage (or… ahem… insecurity), you follow suit and spend your years’ savings to outmatch them. One decision robs you of financial security, in the hopes of establishing a sense of social security.
So, how do we stop ourselves in our tracks before those negative emotions lead us down an awry financial path? Consider these two things:
First, people are skilled at showing the very best version of themselves and, second, you often only see the tip of the iceberg underlying a person’s success. What do I mean by these?
Well, plain and simple, humans have learned the art of lying and living behind a facade of superficial success. In a world filled with catfish and fake profiles, it’s easy to hide behind the physical “stuff” in order to satisfy a psychological sense of self-accomplishment or security. But none of that means it’s real. Your neighbor could be in hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt or have zero retirement savings to their name. But all you see is the fancy sports car or big-screen TV. This is what I mean by: people are skilled at showing the very best version of themselves.
But, for those who truly have been successful, sometimes we aren’t privy to the sacrifices that they’ve had to make in order to reach their financial success. Maybe it meant they worked three jobs after college for a period of 10 years. Or maybe they’ve decided to forgo having children in order to reach financial independence sooner. Maybe they’ve had to sacrifice friendships that weren’t encouraging of their frugal lifestyle.
We only see the surface. So, in the end, comparison is futile and pointless. Because we don’t know what lies beneath.
Critique, don’t criticize
I want to end off by giving you one piece of advice: critique yourself, don’t criticize yourself.
I know that it may seem like there’s not much difference between the two words, but the difference is actually huge. To critique is to give yourself positive, informed and constructive financial feedback. To criticize is to give yourself negative, ignorant and destructive financial feedback.
I love this table that gives a direct comparison of the two forms of feedback:
The next time you’re tempted to compare your financial situation to others around you, ask yourself whether you’re critiquing your situation or criticizing it. And to delve a little deeper into why you’re stuck comparing yourself to others, ask yourself these 3 questions:
1 | Are you using a realistic financial target when making a comparison?
If you’re 31 years old (like me), you’d never compare your retirement savings to someone who is 64 years old and on the brink of handing in their notice, would you? You want to ensure that the benchmark that you’re using to compare your financial situation is comparing apples with apples – not apples with oranges.
2 | Are your financial comparisons focusing too much on the negative?
Stop and ask yourself what the dominant emotion is that you feel when you’re making a financial comparison. Is it jealousy? Maybe it’s a sense of guilt or unworthiness? If the emotions are dominantly negative, you’re criticizing yourself and you deserve to shift your focus elsewhere.
However, if you find that a comparison encourages you to make positive financial changes, you’re doing it for the right reasons.
3 | What are you trying to achieve financially by making a comparison?
Are you trying to determine whether you measure up to your friends, your family, or work colleagues? Or are you trying to ascertain whether you’re actually on track? Those two questions have a lot of overlap, but they are worlds apart in their reasoning.
The first situation is solely focusing on what you don’t have. The second situation is focusing on what you need to change in order to get what you don’t have. Notice the difference?
Focus on Your Own Finances (FOYOF)
I recently read this great motto on a blog post aimed at avid hikers. It said: hike your own hike (or HYOK).
Well, I was inspired by this and wanted to create a similar motto for people struggling with financial comparison. It states: focus on your own finances (FOYOF). Don’t worry about your rich sibling who seems to have more money than they know what to do with. Forget about comparing your retirement savings to someone who is younger than you, but has managed to save twice as much. Don’t let your neighbors’ possessions deceive you into thinking that they’re financially secure, while you struggle from paycheck to paycheck.
Focus on your own finances. Only worry about the financial path you’re walking. Because it’s the only path you have total control over. Everything else is noise and distraction.
Have you ever found yourself completely demotivated from comparing your finances to someone seemingly more successful than you? You’re not alone, my friend! We all do it – more often that I think we’d like to admit. But it’s all about reframing our finances.
How do you deal with financial comparison? What have been some successful strategies that you’ve used? Feel free to comment below and let me know!
Dr. Kyle O'Hagan is a UCT scientist and an avid personal finance blogger. With over 20 years worth of experience in the SA schooling system, he has come to appreciate the value of a proper education and feels that personal finance is an area that is often neglected, particularly at a young age.
O'Hagan is one of Personal Finance's New Voices and his finance blog is called the Saving Scientist.