When was the last time you judged your friends for their poor spending choices?
Yet each time we judge others’ spending, we’re less likely to actually look at our own spending and do something about it. And just as your friends probably overspend on “ridiculous” things, so do you.
Today, I’ll illustrate several examples of how hypocritical we are in judging others’ spending. So come along — but hold on, because we’re going to be looking in the mirror for much of the ride.
“I can’t believe she spent THAT MUCH on her wedding…”
Which is fine! Unlike other boring personal-finance pundits, who delusionally lecture you to have a small wedding (when you won’t), I’m a big fan of spending extravagantly on the things you love, if you cut costs mercilessly on the things you don’t. (Hint: If you’re 20 years old, you need to be saving $333/month for your wedding. 25 years old? $1,167/month.)
And yet, there are always people who will judge you for your spending choices.
Introducing the most annoying people on the planet
On the wedding post, there was a group of commenters that were some of the most annoying people I’ve ever heard from:
“$28,000 for a wedding is absurd. Most weddings end in divorce, why start your marriage financially cramped by a wedding? Yes, I realize you can plan to save that $28,000 in advance. However, wouldn’t it be more sensible to use that money for a down payment on a home (instant equity!). Or, to buy outright a late model used car? Just a few thoughts.”
“28k for a wedding is utterly ridiculous The key is to NOT invite everyone you know. I spent about $2500 TOTAL on my wedding 4 years ago. Yes, you read that right…What a complete waste of money to spend 28k on one day! What about saving that money for the rest of your life?”
“Wow, I don’t know where morons that spend $28K on weddings buy the stuff to do it, but I’ve got some left over paper plates I can sell you for $100 each.”
You can find these annoying people criticizing others’ spending on virtually every post on weddings.
Each of these people made it their mission to point out how “ridiculous” it is to spend $28,000, or $10,000, or even $2,000 for a wedding. ‘It’s outrageous! I did it for $100! Stop wasting your money,’ they angrily write.
But there’s just one thing…
They’re all hypocrites.
What would they say if I examined their spending? In fact, here’s a new rule:
Give me your budget and 10 minutes on the phone and I could identify 20% of your money being “wasted” on something useless and unnecessary.
Now, an exploration on how hypocritical we all are about money.
We’re hypocrites for judging our friends’ spending
When you judge others for their spending, you automatically assign YOUR values to them without even recognizing it. You think spending money on clothes, or first-class airfare, or expensive jewelry is wasteful? What about your own spending?
“That is just stupid. Unless the clothes are broken, there is no need to return it. If it is the wrong size, it can be exchanged for the right size.
PS: I hate the mentality of people buying clothes for “fashion” or whatever. You are buying $100 for something that costs $10 dollars to manufacture in China!
And about fashion trends – it is wasteful and stupid. If last season/year’s clothes are not broken, there is no need to buy new ones. Jeezz. As for “brand name” clothes – wake the fuck up.”
Yes, I’m sure your computers and new XBOX and 30″ LED TV are so important, too.
You think it’s ridiculous to buy $100 clothes? Let’s go beyond the knee-jerk reaction to understand what’s actually going on here.
- What if your friend who buys expensive clothes makes twice as much as you (say, $120,000)? Is it “wasteful and stupid” then?
- What if your friends don’t eat out as often as you, but they love buying a new shirt every month because it makes them feel good?
- What if you live in the midwest, but your friend lives in Manhattan? How does that change things?
- What if you’re 25 and your friend is 29? How does that change things?
Judging others’ spending is emotional, not rational
Think back to the last time you judged someone else for spending. Maybe you heard how much your friend pays for his apartment, or overheard your co-worker talking about yet another weekend vacation.
When we judge others’ spending, we do it emotionally, not rationally. Let’s say you hear that your friend is going on a trip to Vegas and staying in the Bellagio for $800/night. Do you consciously evaluate his income, age, spending patterns, priorities, and debt levels? Of course not. We simply say, “Wow, I couldn’t imagine spending $800/night on a hotel room. Therefore, his spending is RIDICULOUS!”
When it comes to judging spending, we consistently demonize others’ spending while rationalizing our own.
Ironically, if you went back in time and asked yourself of 5 years ago if he could imagine spending what you spend on food/clothes/travel today, the younger you would scoff and think your modern-day spending would be “ridiculous,” too. What do you think you’ll be doing 5 years from now?
But if someone dared point out your own spending on something — say, a new Macbook because your old one was “slow” — you’d have a multitude of reasons to justify it. “My old one was slow…and this one is important for my productivity…and I need it to run the new software I want, and….”
This pattern repeats itself in virtually every article on others spending money online:
In a terrific New York Times article on redecorating on a budget, a newlywed couple budgets $2,000 to renovate their apartment.
“$2000 is more than I’ve had to spend on decorating my entire house for the past four years. Decorating on a budget? How about $500 or less…”
“I made handsome, one-of-a-kind pillows, by taking embroidered dresses my brother purchased in the Middle East, that our mother never wore, and made covers for pillows I had tired of. (I didn’t even have to buy blank stuffers). ANY fabric store has even high-end design-house remnants that would be suitable and CHEAP.”
“How many newlyweds can afford to spend this kind of money on revamping their apartment?…I would rather put that money in a savings account for a house, or put it away for a nice vacation.”
Notice the presumptuous commenters condemning the couple for spending on their home decorations, and suggesting that their way — making pillows by hand or putting the money away for a vacation — is “better.”
Again, give me these comments’ budgets and 10 minutes on the phone, and I could identify hundreds of dollars per month that they’re “wasting” — according to my tastes. Yet few people — even those who lob financial judgments at others — would ever subject themselves to scrutiny of the same kind.
What is going on here? Are these people simply angry or jealous at hearing about other people spending on items they consider luxuries? Or is there something more going on?
In few other areas of our lives are we so adamant about us being “right” and others being “wrong,” particularly since most of us are terrible at managing our own money. When you dig deeper, you’ll discover the fascinating psychology of self-serving biases and other psychological mechanisms we use to judge others — but protect ourselves.
The psychology of judging others
The first phenomenon in judging others is called a “self-serving bias,” which we use to protect ourselves from judgment:
A self-serving bias occurs when people attribute their successes to internal or personal factors but attribute their failures to situational factors beyond their control…For example, a student who gets a good grade on an exam might say, “I got an A because I am intelligent and I studied hard!” whereas a student who does poorly on an exam might say, “The teacher gave me an F because he does not like me!”
If your friend buys a $500 coat, you might say, “That’s nuts…Jack is really bad at managing his money. He can’t even control his spending!” But when I asked you about the $500 coat in your jacket, you might say, “Oh, that’s because I had to go to a wedding last month.”
Second, we employ the Fundamental Attribution Error to judge others:
In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error…describes the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors.
In other words, “She bought those Jimmy Choos because she’s financially irresponsible” instead of “She bought those Jimmy Choos because she recently earned more money or negotiated her salary.” When judging others, we believe people make decisions because of WHO they are, rather than the SITUATION they’re in.
Third, we use the powerful strategy of downward social comparison:
Downward social comparison is a defensive tendency to evaluate oneself with a comparison group whose troubles are more serious than one’s own. This tends to occur when threatened people look to others who are less fortunate than themselves…For example, a breast cancer patient may have had a lumpectomy, but sees herself as better off than another patient who lost her breast
Wondering where you’ve seen this? Turn on any talk show or radio show. Try to monitor your emotions during the episode. You might notice your internal voice saying something like, “Oh yeah, I have $5,000 in credit card debt…but at least I don’t have $45,000 debt like that guy. This actually feels good — one of the chief reasons that talk shows and Money Diaries do so well. Yet the feeling of satisfaction is short-lived.
Fourth, we have the Shrug Effect:
We see a famous CEO and point how “he took 5 companies public and got a Harvard MBA.” We see a successful children’s book author and point out how she already knew 4 publishers, so her book got published immediately. We point to Donald Trump and talk about how he had billions, so of course he could buy half of Manhattan, and we note that we’re already older than Michael Dell was when he was running Dell out of his dorm room.
And then we shrug. “What can we do?” “She has a Harvard MBA.” “They made it big, but they’re different than me.”
You see someone spending a lot of money on something that you consider “crazy.” Instead of trying to figure it out, we often shrug and say, “Well, they have [SOME ADVANTAGE YOU DON’T HAVE] and that’s how they do it. There’s no way I could ever do that.” Since this is psychologically painful and difficult, we demonize their behavior. Easier than understanding it.
A prime example: Demonizing a CEO for her spending experiment
Let’s examine a recent example of this.
Alexa Von Tobel, the CEO of a personal-finance site called Learnvest, wrote an article called, “How I Went 24 Hours Without Spending Any Money…In New York City.”
Now, it may not have been the most tactful article, especially in this economic climate. In fact, the tone was somewhat condescending. But I intentionally chose this extreme example to make a point.
The problem is that Americans hate people who write about how they spend money on anything that’s not directly focused on the bare necessities of living.
The one wedding day of your life? You’re spending too much. Taking a luxurious vacation that you saved up for? You could feed 2,000 foreign children. Buying a couch for your living room? You should invest that in your Roth IRA.
How do you think people responded to Alexa’s article? Did they make thoughtful comments on the economy or different ways to earn money? Of course not. Commenters from around the web were absolutely livid.
“She spends more money in one day than I do most weeks. Why does she feel walking twenty minutes to work, cooking dinner, and packing a lunch are unsustainable? This broad obviously lives in a completely different class than I do.”
“The part that pissed me off was that she seems completely auaware that some people have no money to spend. I was hoping that she would decide to volunteer at a soup kitchen or donate her extra cash to a charity. In terms of her spending habits…retarded. It’s like she’s never heard of a budget, a kitchen, or a grocery store. What is not sustainable is spending $100 a day on nothing.”
“Who the hell spends $30 on pasta and a salad?”
“What the fuck?!? $80 in one day? That’s food for me, my wife, and my dogs for two weeks.”
Even on the normally reasoned discussion board, Metafilter, the top comment says this: “Please tell me this is joke. If it isn’t, I want to murder this writer in the face.”
(The Metafilter comment that made me laugh out loud: “This person would not have lasted long on the Oregon Trail.”)
What is going on here?
Instead of condemning her, the commenters should have asked another question
Condemning someone for their spending is easy. But it’s not productive.
We’ve already covered the protective mechanisms we use when judging others’ spending: “Their” spending is always out of line (“She can’t control her spending”), while our spending is always easily explainable (“Oh, that ring was for a special occasion…besides, I work hard, so I deserve to reward myself”).
But there’s more.
You may not like to hear this, but I’m going to say it any way. Instead of automatically condemning the author for her spending habits, the angry commenters above should have tried to figure out how she affords such a lofty lifestyle in the first place.
“But Ramit,” you might say, “she went to Harvard. She’s clearly a wasteful trust-fund baby who’s living off mommy and daddy’s money.” Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows? But if that’s your first thought, you’re guilty of the Shrug Effect.
A better way to approach the question would be to acknowledge that she probably has a few advantages you don’t, but focus on the things she DOES control — which you can learn from. For example, you could stipulate that yes, she likely has some advantages in life (maybe wealthy parents, some inheritance money, whatever)…but focus on the things you can control. She started her own company. She made friends with XYZ. She got internships at XYZ, which led her to XYZ2.
If you want to live her lifestyle, it pays to ask: How could she be earning SO MUCH that she could afford to take cabs every day? What is she doing that I don’t know about? Who can I talk to to learn more? How can I earn more money?
To many people, this is too much work. It’s easier to throw your hands up, accuse her of being a rich trust-fund kid, and then feel better about yourself since you don’t waste money on cabs every day. Witness virtually every comment accusing the writer of being wasteful and spending outlandish amounts of money on food and other supposedly wasteful items.
It’s much harder to actually consider the details of the situation. For example, one Reddit commenter notes that, “Often very highly paid workers have very little free time so it makes sense to spend some money to buy back some time, such as getting in a cab to get somewhere quicker.” Instead of criticizing her spending, wouldn’t it be more productive to ask, “Damn, this woman obviously makes a lot more money than I do. How did she do it and what can I apply to my situation?”
We’re more than happy to criticize others’ spending. Yet few people ever try to ask themselves what they can learn from someone whose spending outpaces their own — and even fewer open up their own finances to such scrutiny.
A huge caveat: Most people are terrible with their money
There is one upside to judging others’ spending: Since most people are absolutely terrible at managing their own money, when you judge them, you’re probably right.
An excerpt from my personal finance book:
Examples: Annoying critics
Since I’ve written hundred of articles about personal finance, I see a lot of kooky people criticizing others’ spending, including mine.
Yet it’s gone from being annoying to fascinating: You can get true insights into people’s belief systems about money by watching what they say.
- When I launched my Earn1k course to help people earn more money, I got many comments about how crazy others would be to spend money on my course — and how dare I charge for an online course.
- A while back, Henry Blodget wrote a a semi-satirical article on the Huffington Post called “Easiest Job on Planet: Bank CEO. And in a separate thread, internet commenters took the bait, writing that being a bank CEO is all about luck and secret connections. This is classic Shrug Effect from armchair businesspeople who have never run a company. Even more interestingly, the comments reveal several limiting beliefs about money, such as “money=evil” and “anyone who has money must have done something bad to get it.”
- Another personal finance blogger, FMF, wrote a guest post about making 6 figures in 7 years. The result? People hated him. Themes include jealousy, “not everyone can do it,” excuses like “I’m too old,” and “Yeah, but $100k means you hate your job.” Funny, few people say, “Wow, this guy did a lot of hard work to earn six figures and now he’s writing a free blog post to share how he did it. What can I take away from this to improve my life?” Easier to criticize others’ spending — or earning — rather than do something different in our own lives.
- Erica Douglass, who sold her company for over $1 million at age 26, writes about outsourcing part of her life. The commenters go nuts, accusing her of being irresponsible with her money, racist, and virtually every other financial criciticism you can imagine.
What can you learn from judging other people’s spending?
First, when you judge other people for poor spending, you’re probably right, since most people are horrible at managing your money. This judgment is profoundly rewarding — and also wasteful — since we employ psychological techniques to distort our judgments in favor of our own spending. Think back to the last time you gossiped about a friend’s new pair of shoes or iPhone: It felt good for a few minutes. But it didn’t produce any positive behavioral change for you to change your spending.
Second, it’s easy to judge others, but hard to honestly evaluate our own spending. When we judge others, we assign “dispositional” reasons like, “He is just really bad at managing his money.” But when it comes to ourselves, we use “situational” explanations like, “It’s my birthday…I deserve it!”
Third, you WILL go up the hedonic treadmill and increase your spending as you earn more money — it’s only natural. When we judge someone else, we rarely take their income, savings, and other largely invisible factors into account.
Fourth, in America, we have a special hatred of people who earn significant amounts of money — especially when they fall from grace. If someone earns $250,000/year and spends $10,000/year on clothes, is it really “ridiculous”? In the above examples, you saw numerous examples of people earning six figures, spending on things that were very much in their reach — but people criticize without context.
Fifth, judging others is toxic. It’s not enough for us to make money — as a University of Texas researcher writes Psychology Today, “What makes me happy is that I make more money than you. It isn’t enough just to make a lot of money, you need to make more than the people to whom you compare yourself.”
But judging others goes even deeper. Have you ever noticed that co-worker who always complains about his boss, job, salary, etc? Think back to the last time you sat next to him — did you start complaining, too? Soon afterward, you feel worse about yourself. This negative emotion is the same thing that happens when you listen to a radio host skilled at evoking your emotions. You get outraged, you get angry….and the short-term emotion retards long-term behavioral change — it literally robs you of energy.
Judging others’ spending is a natural phenomenon. It’s also destructive and wastes time focusing on others, when you could focus on yourself.
About to judge someone’s spending? First, use this 5-step process
Whenever you find yourself about to judge someone else’s spending, ask these simple 5 questions first.
- How much do they earn?
- How much do they save, on a percentage and absolute basis?
- What do they consciously spend on and what do they NOT care about spending on?
- How long will they be keeping this purchase? (For example, are they buying a car to keep it for 10+ years? Or are they buying shoes to keep for one season?)
- MOST IMPORTANT: Are my own finances automated and optimized? If not, automate your personal finances and implement the STFUDF Technique — against yourself.
Since few people will do this, my hope is that you’ll distract yourself enough to stop the insidious process of judging someone else before looking at yourself.
Personally, I’ve been trying to get better at this recently. To do so, I have to remind myself that personal finance is personal. You don’t know your friends’ financial situations — although they are likely not very good. But each time we judge someone else, we make it less likely of taking action on our own finances.
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