In 1913 Arthur Momand created a comic strip that depicted a social climbing family who struggled to “keep up” with their neighbours who seemingly always had more. More respect, more social standing, better clothes, bigger house, etc. It was called Keeping Up With The Joneses.

Sociologists and economists even have a term for what the comic encapsulated – “conspicuous consumption”. It’s the act of spending money and acquiring things, not because we actually want or need them, but because they’re a public display of economic and social power.

We must be better or more important people if we’ve got nicer cars, bigger houses, TVs with higher resolutions or even if we talk about how much we donate to charity, right?!?

Marketers and corporations have used this desire to drive demand for status goods (things that are more desirable simply because they cost more). Consumer spending is touted as “good for the economy”, but it’s also not always so good for personal savings.

Maybe conspicuous consumption all started because there was a decrease in social status simply by being from a certain family (how royalty works). Maybe there’s something innate in us that makes us want to rank higher than our peers.

A few generations ago, this was certainly how a lot of people viewed social power and standing: we saw our neighbours and what they had, because they lived right beside us. And, we could only attempt to keep up with the Joneses we could see.

Today though, the Joneses are an omnipresent force that show themselves every time we pick up our tiny pocket computers. We carry the Joneses around and notice them (and what they have) every time we browse the web and every time we refresh social media. We see their new cars, granite countertops, fancy vacations, perfect lives, etc, even if they live in a different city or even country. Conspicuous consumption sure does make for a great Instagram story.

The act of trying to keep up is an inaccurate comparison though and debt doesn’t photograph well.

We’re comparing the things others want us to see, with our own reality. Because flaws and overdue credit card bills, problems and the sometimes-mundane of day-to-day existence doesn’t photograph that well. We get to choose what we share (and what we don’t), and in this never-ending game of one-ups-person-ship, we act as if we’ve got things together at all times, for the sake of our own social status. Picturesque vacations (we can’t afford), private jets (rented on the runway), and on-trend clothes (we can’t wear twice on camera).

This comparison trap with the Insta-Joneses isn’t just a thief of joy. It’s a thief of our pay cheques as well. The lie this “keeping up” tells us is that everyone else is living well except for us. Everyone else has the nice things they deserve except for us. Everyone else is more interesting, more picturesque, more socially accepted than us. And we end up feeling bad because shouldn’t we have nice things too? Don’t we deserve to be happy enough to conspicuously consume as well?

When we compare ourselves to others who seem like they’re living better lives, it’s not a math issue or a finance issue. It’s a heart issue. We think new material things or experiences that we can show off to others will make us happier and give us higher social standing, but they’re bandaids. Sometimes it’s easier to cover a cut and hope it heals than have the foresight and planning (and awareness!) to not get cut in the first place.

This Dispatch is definitely not meant to shame anyone with debt either. Debt is stressful and horrible, and really, due to the way the world currently works, sometimes hard to avoid. The price of everything, from cars to healthcare, has risen far faster than our average salaries. That’s not the point here. The point is to raise awareness about envy. Envy works because it invades our subconscious and convinces us to do things that aren’t in our best interests sometimes. We just need to be a little more conscious of how we spend and why. And what it is about what someone else has, who lives beside us or on the other side of the world, that drives us to want similar or better. We need to stop comparing our insides to other people’s selective outsides, as it’s completely inaccurate and unhelpful.

This also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever have nice things or amazing experiences. We just need to carefully consider them first. Why do we want them? What’s the core reason for the desire? How will having them affect our overall happiness?

Trying to keep up with the Joneses is giving us anxiety and debt, and now that millions of Insta-Joneses live in our pockets, ready to be envied at the press of a button we need to work at curbing this desire to keep up. It’s a social arms race, much like a military one, where no one actually wins.

Hi, I'm Paul Jarvis. I write a weekly newsletter called the Sunday Dispatches where I share articles about working and living online with 35k subscribers: