Keeping Up with the Jones

Ryan Heshmati

September 15, 2023

The Joneses, a 2009 comedy-drama, centers around a group of four individuals who pose as the Jones family, hired to sell their neighbors in a picturesque suburban community an expensive lifestyle. Essentially, their role boils down to getting their neighbors to buy more and more products to keep up with, well, the Joneses. In the film, the neighbors bite and upgrade everything from clothes and TVs to cars. The end, however, highlights the dangers of a constant need to spend to keep up in a rat race of consumer products, with one neighbor, Larry, killing himself after he spends himself into financial ruin and is on the brink of losing his home. The film comments on a particularly American phenomenon: the need to feel successful by comparing oneself to peers.

A LendingTree survey confirms this trend, finding that, specifically for the purpose of impressing others, around forty percent of Americans overspend. That is incredibly concerning. Americans are racking up debt (with the average credit card borrower debt in the thousands) to make purchases that only push their peers to rack up additional debt to keep up.

Forbes’ Amy Morin argues the competition fueling overspending has worsened with the advent of social media, contending, “...thanks to social media, “the Joneses” (that family across the street who can afford a Ford Model T) have been replaced with celebrities who own mansions and private jets. In addition, we are now even bombarded with our own friends’ glamorous pictures of luxuries and vacation times.” Unsurprisingly, as the reference group grows, so does the desire for more stuff. It is one thing to see a neighbor’s late model Lexus in the driveway; it is another level to constantly watch the lives of the uber-rich on Instagram.

Ultimately, there is no simple solution to the urge to keep up in consumption, and this problem extends beyond social media, even if its use exacerbates it. The Joneses came out at a fitting time, with excessive housing purchases from individuals who could not afford the loans they took out fueling the deterioration of the real estate market in 2009. Today, in 2023, the dangers of overspending are more real than ever. With interest rates at recent highs in an attempt to curb inflation, borrowing to live above one’s means is increasingly expensive. Of course, it is impossible to just stop caring about how one’s own success and material goods fit in compared to those of others, but it is nonetheless important to understand that overspending to compensate for that frustration actually sets oneself further back. As the author of The Psychology of Money, Morgan Housel, says, wealth is not a designer label or fancy car in the driveway, “Wealth is what you don’t see.”