Does The Size Of Your Image Equal The Size Of Your Debt?

31 03 2008

Our society has a perception complex. We are raised to judge and compare ourselves against others and our perceptions of other people become our own reality. We are trained from an early age in this regard. In school it didn’t matter if I got a “C” on a project as long as it was in line with the other students in class. Even on a set scale where everyone knows that an “A” is the best, we judge ourselves against our peers, not the scale. It only mattered that I was considered as smart or smarter than the other kids in the class.

By no means do I consider myself to be smart, but the fact that I am a clean cut, in shape, nerdy looking guy, who can carry a conversation on just about any topic, has really helped me out in life. My image allows other people to come up with their own realities of who I am, and I have found that for the most part, people consider me to be a mature young guy with a good head on his shoulders, though if you read young and frugal you already knew that (I kid). And for the most part I work at my image because I want people to walk away feeling that way about me.

Whether we like it or not, image is important in our society, and our society sees the things we appear to possess as extensions of who we are. Our friend who drives the BMW must be rich, and the guy down the street who drives a ’95 Civic with 225k miles on it must be poor (eww!).

Notice how I used the phrase “appear to possess,” I say this because if I’m leasing or I have financed a 3 series is it really mine? If it’s paid off like the ’95 Civic then of course it is, otherwise…? I don’t know, can you claim half a BMW?

All of this perception is human nature. As kids, we know that rich people drive nice cars, live in nice houses, and watch huge HDTV’s. As we grow up, and learn about money and responsibility we learn that just because we appear to possess these items doesn’t mean we are rich.

Mary and I listened to NPR on the way home from work today and we heard an interview with Moby. Moby grew up very poor, and he and his mother were on welfare and food stamps until he was 18. He knows and understands the merits of frugality, and that perception isn’t everything. He said on the radio today that earning a great deal of money hasn’t changed him and that he still shops at the same grocery store and does his laundry at the same laundromat. He says he still even has a little 13 inch TV.

When talking about his spending habits and his TV, Moby said “will watching Family Guy on a 42 or 50 inch TV make it funnier?” This practically stopped me dead in my tracks. For months I’ve been salivating over flat panel TV’s that I can’t really rationalize purchasing, but I always end up salivating and coming back around to wanting one. Mary and I even went shopping with her mother for one yesterday. I have had my dream home theater in my head for months (with a mac mini at the helm), and this one prompt by Moby made me question my motivations. Yes, Family Guy is hilarious, but A TV won’t make it funnier because it’s bigger, nor would Davidson have beaten Kansas had I watched in HD.

Why do I feel compelled to make such a big purchase? I could definitely put $1500 to better use somewhere else like an IRA/401(k) or paying down our car loan even faster.

I really can’t come up with a good reason as to why I want a new TV. We have two 20″ TV’s and they both work perfectly. Plus, I don’t really watch TV anymore! Yet, for some reason I want one that is newer/better.

Maybe I feel that our new and incredibly nice house is an extension of us and the TV is an an extension of the house that makes it that much nicer. Maybe I want people to perceive that we have made it, when we drive in our nice and practical new car to our nice new house and watch Nightly Business Report our big new LCD. But at the end of the day image is only as deep as the debt you (can) get yourself into.

Here is the anomaly on all of this, I don’t want my friends looking at our house and our car and being jealous. Sure it makes everyone feel good when other people are jealous of them, but Mary and I are in a unique situation where we are starting out in our lives and careers together. We are a dual income family with no kids (ok we practically treat our dogs like kids…but I digress). It is easier for us to afford this lifestyle. I don’t want any of my friends jumping into our lifestyle too quickly and getting in over their heads, I want them to understand that yes, we have nice things, nicer than we deserve, but we also have car payments, mortgage payments, insurance payments, property tax payments, Homeowners Association Dues, and various other things factored in.

Hey, at least we have no credit card debt! 

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4 responses

1 04 2008
Philip

I am in the same boat, I just got a house recently and any time I am at a store I start looking at the flat screen TV’s, but I really have NO need for one. I have a 36″ sony CRT that works great, and is plenty big enough.

I know it is irrational to want it, and don’t need it but it is one big item that is tempting me.

Now if I could just pull the cable and only use it to watch my Netflix shows I would get sooooo much more done in a day. I am trying to ween myself from television at the same time to try to buy one.

Thanks for your post, it is really helping me to stave off the desire for the big new fancy TV.

1 04 2008
danielb

Philip,

I don’t think it’s irrational to want a flat panel TV. Everything around us tells us to want it, what is irrational is the concept that we “need” a big fancy TV, that it is a status symbol, and that by us having it it will somehow change what we are watching.

Thanks for the comment!

-Daniel

P.S. It’s not that hard to cancel Cable. Just don’t think about it. I’ll be cancelling our sattelite in about 2 weeks so we will have a clean break and won’t have to deal with it when we move. J.D. over at Get Rich Slowly did a financial breakdown of he and his wife’s TV viewing habits, they decided that only having NetFlix made the most sense for them…

3 04 2008
torbjornrive

You make some good points here, especially with the flashy cars; most people don’t buy cars anymore, it’s pretty much all lease. Although you’d think that their income would still be higher if they are paying the monthly cost of the new Audi comfortably rather than the Kia. Some people would sacrifice a lot for that image so I think we’d all be surprised…

As for the tv thing. Yea, TV is a joke. Since we download our fave shows, and stream hockey games off the net, we haven’t plugged in our 19″ 50lb Panasonic in years. I went big on the 22″ widescreen for the computer which makes a great tv. AND that’s included in our internet/phone bill rather than paying for 100 channels of shit.

Keep it cool.

P.s. Yep, I moved my blog over from blogspot to wordpress recently.

6 05 2008
ontsaver

Great post. I always felt kind of left out in high school when my friends had brand new cars they were either leasing (or their parents were) and I had to walk to school. In fact, I didn’t get my first car (from the repo shop and cheap no less!) until I was 19, just so I could drive to school. Those friends are now still driving the same “new” cars but they work all the time just to make the payments and still don’t have a penny to their name – but I guess for some people it’s all about how they are perceived and how it makes them feel.

Another friend of mine was considering purchasing a brand new car (cash) last summer and was also thinking about purchasing a new house or condo at some point in the near future. I commend her on saving that much money for the car, but at the same time when I showed her the extra interest she’d be paying over a 20 year mortgage vs. putting that money into a car she kind of stopped dead in her tracks and realized the fancy car could wait. I was actually totally surprised and expected her to just brush it off and say, “I’ll worry about the mortgage later” – but I think she made a smart decision.

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