"Death and life have their determined appointments; riches and honors depend upon heaven." - Confucius

When You Have to Keep Up With the Joneses

By , November 5th, 2010 | 8 Comments »

We often talk about keeping up with the Joneses. When we accuse someone of keeping up with the Joneses, we usually mean that they are buying cars, clothes, or other tangible items because their friends and neighbors have those items. They want to fit in with their peer group, so they try to mimic their lifestyle. Generally, this is not a good thing. Not only is it expensive, it kills your individuality and creativity. I’ve always told people to stop keeping up with their friends and just have and do whatever they can afford and that they enjoy. Why be a slave to the desires of other people?

Recently, however, a friend came to me with a twist on the keeping up with the Joneses problem. He just got a new job and at a company where most of the employees are very well off. They don’t just look well off, they are well off. Old money, it’s called. My friend knew going into the job that there would be an image to be matched and he was okay with that. He was prepared to deal with the clothing, cell phone (gotta have the latest), and car (gotta drive a nice one to chauffeur clients) aspects of the job. He wasn’t too worried about fitting in appearance-wise. He’s not wealthy, but he is comfortable and he knows the secrets of bargain hunting for clothes so he can at least match their apparel choices without damage to his budget. He already drives a nice car and has a new cell phone. What he wasn’t prepared for was the fact that his frugality would be stymied in other ways.

My friend, although comfortable, is frugal with his money. He bargain hunts, buys used cars, and doesn’t spend frivolously. It’s why he is financially comfortable. As part of this frugality, he always brought his lunch to his old job and saved a bundle. At his new job, his coworkers eat out. Every day. At expensive places. Very expensive places. My friend can afford to keep up, but it will mean three things:

1) Less money for savings,

2) Less daily spending money and,

3) Weight gain from all the rich food.

To keep up with the old money lunch crowd will mean that he has to readjust his budget and spend less in other areas that are important to him like his hobbies. Over time, he’ll also have to decrease his savings. He won’t go broke, but it will mean pushing back his timelines for some of his goals.

My friend tried keeping the eating out to a minimum for the first few weeks of the job. He only went with the crowd two days a week and brought his lunch the rest of the time. The problem is, when he doesn’t go out, he feels left out. He’s missing out on the chance to bond with his new coworkers. Also, they talk about work a lot while at lunch so they come back having made decisions without him. He’s out of the loop and has to catch up. His eating in brands him as strange and not a team player. He feels like he has no choice but to go out and keep up, even though he doesn’t want to. This job is a great career move for him and he doesn’t want to quit or get fired before he gets where he needs to go.

He asked me what he should do. In his case, much as it pained me, I told him that I didn’t see much choice but to keep up with the Joneses. If he eats in, he’ll miss out on important “shop talk” and decisions. Not being seen as a team player can be disastrous to a career, particularly in this economy. He can’t afford to hang out in the break room while his coworkers and bosses are making important decisions and plans at lunch. He really has no choice but to eat out and hope that his team playing leads to a salary increase soon so he can get his budget back where it used to be.

His is an extreme situation. While he might have foreseen that this old money crowd might eat out more often than his old coworkers, he couldn’t have known that every lunch would be a working lunch before he took the job. Had he known, he might have kept his old job or looked for a different job. Most people don’t feel this level of pressure, but many people do find themselves in situations where their coworkers eat out often and being left behind because you’re frugal can be isolating. You can try to limit your eating out to a one or two days per week, or you can try to interest your coworkers in pot lucks or some other in-office entertainment to make them want to stay in more often. Unfortunately, though, if eating out with your coworkers means fitting in and being seen as a team player, you and your budget may just have to keep up with the Joneses so you can keep your income.

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  • Joan.of.the.Arch says:

    I think this person needs to calculate the percentage of pay that is being wasted away just to have the job.

  • Kacy says:

    I am often in a similar situation at work. Maybe he could take a snack with him to work and have a small, inexpensive item at lunch. If he descretely eats a peanut butter sandwich, then he can be satisfied with a salad or soup at lunch and no one will know. Also if he can tactfully suggest that lunches would be more enjoyable if they did not have to discuss work outside of the office he might create a habit. Then on the days he chooses not to join, he might not miss as much.

  • Anita says:

    Break the mold buddy and be you!

  • Bben says:

    Publicly announce you are on a diet and are trying to lose weight. Possibly you could say it’s doctors orders – and what doctor isn’t going to tell you to lose a little weight. Then when you go out with the crowd, order something inexpensive, such as a small side salad, and only drink water – the drinks in a restaurant can be expensive. Not only will it not cost as much as a full meal, but you will actually avoid the inevitable weight gain of eating a full meal at lunch every day. And might actually lose some weight.

  • Scott says:

    I would second what Bben says as that was my first thought. After a bit he might find that one or two days a week the discussions are less work related, and if so he should pick those days to work out at lunch time instead (Gym, running, whatever) to back up the “need to lose weight” message. Perhaps there are some things that can be high culture but low cost that he could convince some co-workers to go to once in a while (try monthly to start) instead of the epensive lunch (museums?). Try to “brand” himself as high cultured but thinking outside the box.

  • baselle says:

    Good strategies up above. I’d continue – time to watch and learn your first few months. Note the lunches that are productive in this way, and the ones that are not. For example, which lunches does your boss/peers attend, which ones not? (If your boss works half-Fridays, likely that the Friday lunches can be safely avoided.) Are some/all/any lunches expensed? Once upon a time, if you talked shop it was considered a “business lunch” – this is especially the case in outside sales and there is an outside client involved. Ask quietly whether one is expected to save receipts.

    This is not an uncommon problem. 20 years ago I worked in a sales office where a fair amount of business was done after hours at various “adult” venues, and I had to save the receipts for them to be expensed. It was quite discriminatory if you were a woman, or just wasn’t interested in spending for that sort of thing. 🙂

  • Gail says:

    He is lucky he even has the option of eating in. My brother had a job once where the guys weren’t allowed to bring their lunch as their eating out was helping to uphold the companies image. don’t know if the company paid for their lunches but I thought it odd. I’m enough of a don’t keep up with the Joneses that a job like that wouldn’t even interest me.

  • CindyM says:

    He probably won’t be able to fool these coworkers with the “I’m on a diet” excuse for long, and if he’s truly of a frugal bent, putting money aside so he can use it for expensive lunches will continually drive him nuts. Hope he works slowly but surely on finding another position that’s not so stifling to his personality.


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