When it's time to whip our finances into shape, we often look to others to make sure we're on the right track. Comparing your situation to someone else's can give an idea of what yours should look like, sure. But as writer Carl Richards reminds us, this can backfire too.
Australian money photo by Shutterstock Richards uses an example of his workout routine. He works out in a group for the accountability, but he made the mistake of tailoring his exercise goals to the standards of others, rather than his own limitations. Your finances can work the same way. I spend too much money on restaurants, for example, and I'll often justify this by thinking, "it's fine, my friends go out way more than I do." But my friends have different goals and priorities. It doesn't make much sense to use their habits as my measuring stick.
So many money conversations circle around the often unspoken reality that we're locked in unhealthy competition with other people. We can't seem to help ourselves, even though our neighbour's business isn't our business. So we end up using a measuring stick we think matters but that actually has nothing to do with our goals.
I believe we should take full advantage of healthy accountability, but we need to learn to recognise when it crosses the line. For instance, tracking your monthly expenses is a great way to create accountability. But the goal is to focus on your own spending, not that your friend just bought a new car.
Another example of this concept in action: deciding how much to save for retirement. When I first started, I saved the bare minimum (my employer match, and not even all of it) and spent the rest of my money frivolously. Instead of realising that the sooner I started saving, the better, I thought, "no one else I know is saving for retirement, so I'm doing pretty good." But what does my situation have to do with theirs? It makes more sense to base my goals on my own income, age, and future retirement plans.
Sure, it can help to look to others for a ballpark idea of what we should be doing. Like financial rules of thumb, this can give you an idea of what your spending should look like. But the point is, personal finance advice is, well, personal. Comparing yourself to others (or even to a rule of thumb) is helpful, but budget according to your own priorities, numbers, and long-term goals.
Stay Focused on Your Own Spending, Not the Other Person's [The New York Times]