Most people’s every thought during their teenage years is centered around how to become cool, stay cool, or befriend someone cool. I was no different. When I was in 8th grade I asked my dad to buy me a pair of Reebok Pump basketball shoes. This was an unusual request. We had always gone to Kmart every August to buy the essentials, but $120 shoes had never once appeared on the shopping list. But, I HAD to have them. Do you realize what those shoes would do to my “street cred”?!
My dad’s response was, “Get a job.” So, I did. I volunteered to get a job as an 8th grader! That’s how badly I wanted to be popular. I worked my paper route for a couple of hours each day after school and even woke up early on Saturdays to make the rounds. Who was that kid walking in the rain with the 30 pound bag on one shoulder? That was me…in my $120 Reebok Pumps.
Here’s my point. We ALL want to be cool, but sometimes chasing popularity backfires. Turns out those expensive shoes didn’t make me any more popular, nor did they last any longer than my usual Kmart variety either. I wasted about $90 and spent countless hours delivering papers when I could have been perfecting my Mario Bros. skills on the Nintendo.
But, here’s the kicker. Our craving to be cool rarely dies when we blow out 18 candles. Or 30 candles. Or 50. The debate is still raging as to whether 100 year olds’ still desire to be cool…but I’m guessing they do.
I could tell you very similar stories about my mid 20’s and $65 ties that looked an awful lot like the $20 ties I buy now. As adults we no longer worry about being “cool”. Now we simply want to be “accepted,” “admired,” or “make a good impression.” But, deep down they’re the same thing. Just different lingo.
Keeping up with the Joneses
(or is it the Kardashians?)
In our rush to be accepted by our peers, most people sacrifice wisdom for an image. Houses, clothes, and cars are perfect examples of this reality.
Consider the average home. The majority of the world admires the guy who owns a 4,000 square foot home more than the dude with the 1,500 square foot home. A 60” TV is considered superior to a 30” TV. If you want respect from your peers, simply display a $10,000 painting or a $7,000 vase.
How about clothing? Does anyone else find it peculiar that we’re expected to adapt to new trends each and every year? Why are we so afraid to wear clothing that was popular 5 years ago? The entire fashion industry is based on making you cool. Wear the right stuff and you fit in, wear the wrong stuff and you’re out of touch.
Is there a bigger status symbol than our car? Judgments are instantly made based on the vehicle we arrive in. There are multiple reasons why people choose to pay $20,000 more for a Lexus sedan over a Toyota Camry, but one of the most important is image. A Lexus signals success. People are willing to pay to be noticed and respected.
I’m not cool. So, here’s what I decided: I’m OK with that.
A few years ago, I gave up trying to keep up with everyone else’s image of what I should be. And you know what happened? My wife and I have increased our net worth over $60,000 in the last two years on a below average income. A good portion of that success can be contributed to lifestyle decisions that aren’t always popular.
The Benefits of Being Uncool
1. We have a home well below our means
A couple years ago, we chose a fairly modest 1300 square foot house about 4 blocks from my employer so that I can walk to work. It’s not shabby or run down – there’s no need for that – but it’s not going to be in Architectural Digest any time soon either.
How much money should you spend on your mortgage/rent? The standard rule of thumb varies from 28% to 35% depending on who you ask. So, what do most people do? They spend every cent of that. However, the best way to get ahead financially is to live below your means. We may need to sacrifice granite counter tops or an extra 1,000 square feet for a few years, but it’ll be worth it. Our mortgage, taxes, and insurance equal about 14% of our gross income and it has helped us breathe a sigh of relief. I’ll take peace over granite counter tops every time.
2. We have a TV that’s the shape of a box
I’m fully aware that a flat screen TV is a one-time expense and it certainly won’t prove to be the difference between rich and broke. I’m simply using the TV as a symbol for a more frugal lifestyle in general. The real issue is that we’ve learned to be content with what we have. Desiring little is the key to a frugal lifestyle.
Again, that was not always me. I piled up over $10,000 of credit card debt in my 20’s on all sorts of trinkets and gadgets. It’s easy to do. It’s not like I was making big, flashy purchases either. I nickel and dimed myself into debt.
It took getting married to change my financial priorities. All of a sudden I realized that I NEEDED to change because I was now responsible for someone else. Sometimes it takes losing a job or something worse like a medical emergency to make people realize the benefits of the simple life.
3. We have a car that’s older than Justin Bieber
Justin Bieber was born March 1, 1994 (I had to look that up – I promise I didn’t know it by heart). My car was born in a Mercury plant sometime the year before. We own a 1994 Mercury Grand Marquis named Stella. She’s a beauty. Well, maybe not, but we’ve grown quite fond of her. Why? Because she’s held up well over 175,000 miles, doesn’t cost much to insure, and doesn’t come with car payments. No one’s going to mistake us for a celebrity or millionaire, but that’s ok. We don’t belong to either of those groups anyway. Our car’s job is to get us from point A to point B, and she does that well.
The Bottom Line
There’s a lot of pressure that comes with keeping up with an affluent image. I see this all the time at the small-town bank that I work for. I’ve seen example after example of families who got used to the good life and the image that comes with it, only to burn through their cash too quickly, and not know how to back out gracefully. Their image is set and it’s far too embarrassing to let people know the truth. So, what do they do? They try to keep up the best way they know how. They ride the line between acting wealthy and being bankrupt. Keeping up with the Joneses is hard.
So, that’s why I stopped. There’s something very liberating about being uncool. It’s like a colossal sigh of relief. Take a deep breath in and then let it all go. That’s what it feels like.
Come to think of it…maybe it’s cool to be uncool after all.