Monday, August 30, 2021

Stuck in the Middle with You

Stuck in the Middle with You
Bill Simmons once mentioned that people have a weird quirk when it comes to talking about weddings. No matter how many people you had at your wedding, if someone had twenty more people at their wedding, then they had a huge wedding. If someone had 20 fewer people, they had a small, intimate ceremony. Your wedding, though, was pretty normal: just enough loved ones to celebrate your beautiful day.

It's stuck with me, and now I notice this sort of relative comparison everywhere. People with homes larger than yours, or with things like workout rooms or finished basements that you don't have, are too big. Who could even use all that space? Can you imagine what it's like to clean that place?

People with homes slightly smaller than yours, or without the spare bedroom or office you have, are downright tiny. We could never live that way, and we marvel to ourselves at how they must step on each other all throughout the day.

Families with more children than we have are literal circuses with countless children tumbling out of tents. Families with fewer children than we have in the Done by Forty house are a bit sad, and lonely, their plaintive solitary cries echoing throughout the empty rooms. Don't they worry about their little one growing up without a sibling?

We do this with cars, tabs at restaurants, and seemingly all things related to money. Our salaries, the hours we work, our vacation and clothing budgets. We Goldilocks our comparisons.

There is a limited zone of what is reasonable and prudent, which just happens to straddle whatever we personally have chosen in our lives. Things that stray too far outside that zone are foolish and extreme. All these people around us, these well-meaning but mistake-prone people, are wasteful or miserly, unabashedly extravagant or pathetically frugal.

When will they learn?

As always, we are right in the middle.

Over time, we have found people in our lives who tastefully also land within this ideal zone of consumption. Friends who, like us, have two cars, but not outrageous ones. Yes, they bought a new home and it's very nice, but the neighborhood and schools pretty similar to ours. The people in our lives are doing well, sure. But so are we, right?

We sort ourselves, often with unintended effects.

Even within the tiny niche of the financial independence, retire early movement, this sort of comparison and sorting happens. Without formal definitions, Lean FIRE might be best understood as financial independence for people who spend at least $10,000 less than you each year, and thus would rather part with comfort and dignity than money. Fat FIRE is for people who spend more than you, and thus have more money than sense.

Sometimes I wonder if, despite pop culture's insistence that we be endlessly unique, deep down, we just want to be average. Looking at the weirdos at the extremes makes us feel normal. Accepted.

Maybe this is why everyone, even someone earning $400k, tries so hard to convince himself he's middle class. We have a drive to squeeze towards the middle of the herd and blend in. 

But saying you're middle class doesn't make it so. Feeling like your financial independence budget or your home purchase is pretty typical doesn't mean that it is. You need data for that.

The rub with finances is that they're taboo to talk about. We can see the cars people drive and the houses they pull up to, but we have no idea if they're bought with credit or owned outright. We might know where our peers and neighbors work, but it's not like people are out here sharing salaries. 

To the degree that we do share some of this intimate info, it's usually only the people we're close with: friends, family, coworkers, maybe the neighbors. The catch is that, thanks to socioeconomic factors and a desire to be around those with similar beliefs, we're sorting ourselves into more homogenous groups. The people we're connected end up being pretty similar to us, not only in beliefs, but in income and class. And that's not a recipe for understanding how typical or average any of our choices are.

Maybe this stuff doesn't matter too much. Who cares if wealthy people walk through life thinking they're middle class, or if an underpaid factory worker is convinced they make good wages for someone in their field? 

For one, the opaqueness about what constitutes middle class income or median wealth ends up hurting workers, who could use that information to negotiate higher wages. This misunderstanding also masks economic privilege: ideally, getting a better understanding of how wealthy or high earning someone is would change the perspectives of the well-off and they'd support charities, policies, and politicians that could better spread that wealth. 

If nearly everyone already thinks they're middle class, there's little motivation to make changes.

Still, maybe you shouldn't be listening to me. Who does this rich fuck think he is, anyway? Living like a pauper just so he can retire at forty, over here dispensing advice. Like he understands how normal people live.

Maybe if he lived more reasonably, learned to spend a bit of those riches and enjoy himself, he might have a leg to stand on.

*Photo is from Jamesy Peña at Flickr Creative Commons.

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  1. I've got a lot of catching up on your blog to do!

    Yes I've noticed this phenomenon before and try to catch myself when I do it, but it's hard to stop yourself!

    Even if you think how your own spending profile changes over the years, I think 10 years ago even though I hadn't discovered FIRE I would regard my current lifestyle, housing and general spending as pretty indulgent. And now I think how rubbish my life must have been back then (obviously it wasn't and just as enjoyable as it is now).

    I have a friend who lives in a house that is worth approximately 15 times the one I live in and he still likes to lecture people on their consumption habits (as well as numerous other things). I can't believe he doesn't know how ridiculously well off he is compared to the average person, there's got to be more to it than just knowledge of average wages/housing etc... Like you say people like to think of themselves as near the middle regardless of all evidence to the contrary!

    Cheers and hope you are well my friend.

    1. Hi there, FIREstarter! Good to see you again.

      As you said, we all do this and it's hard to stop yourself. And, like you, our lifestyle is pretty posh compared to what we were doing a decade ago. No more Navy showers or hang drying clothes just to save a few pennies.

      On the other hand, like your friend, there are surely some places where I think I'm average but have to realize that I'm not. Like, nothing is average about us financially anymore. We're outliers.

    2. I just thought of something else we do this with. Parenting style. Parents who are a little more strict than us we think are boring and stifling their kids etc, while ones a little less strict are irresponsible and lazy are bringing up savages :)
      Same thing with how much is spent on them, less means child is being deprived, more they are being spoiled!

    3. Hi there, FIREstarter. That's an excellent example and something we do all the time. Our parenting style is moderate & reasonable...but those other parents are downright extreme.

  2. I've noticed this as well. Every time someone tries to bemoan that making 300K makes them middle class. Hell, I used to think that I was still middle class at $150K household income until I looked it up. People really do desire to be average/normal. Being abnormal is strange and lonely, I guess.

    1. Hi FOGA! Thanks for stopping by, friend.

      Yes, the very high earners claiming they are middle class is something that I marvel at but your point is well taken. I suppose any of us can fall into that trap unless we find the right income data to set us straight.

      And yes! Being abnormal is offputting. I have to assume there's something in our biology that makes us want to fit in and be average. The tall nail gets hammered, and all that.

  3. Hah, it's true, I do feel that sometimes. A friend's house that's twice the size of our seems way too big because I don't want to clean twice as much but I do want a little bit more space. One bedroom or bathroom less, though? UGH that's barely livable (for us)! ;D

    I do keep that to myself though. And to my PF friends.

    I don't mind being abnormally short, though, that's always been a point of pride.

    1. I think shortness should be celebrated, friend!

      I also think we all kind of do this sort of comparison. It's mostly harmless and I think it gives us a good psychological benefit: it's good to feel good about our choices, I suppose. I should probably leave it well enough alone. :)

  4. Hern instinct is human nature. Nobody want to be different and stick out. It's a lot more comfortable to be normal/average.
    Fortunately, I stop comparing myself to other people a long time ago. I don't care at all what other people think. Maybe that comes from being an immigrant and outsider. I never really fit in anywhere. It's no big deal.

    1. I agree, Joe. I think human nature drives a lot of this sort of thinking: we're still operating with a OS from thousands of years ago.

      I love that you're able to stop comparing yourself to others & caring what they think. I've never managed that, though I suppose it's something I can work on!

      I'm a son of an immigrant and, for better or worse, I was raised to fit in. I try real hard at it.

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