The spirit of envy can destroy; it can never build. – Margaret Thatcher
I believe the lack of contentment is one of the prime factors that prevents people from ever building long-term wealth. The need to “keep up with the Joneses” is a sure way to mediocrity because there is never an end. The finish line is always moving. You will always be able to find someone who has something newer, nicer, fancier than you have.
All of us are tempted from time to time to wish we had something our friends or neighbors have. The question we need to ask though when we start to feel those feelings of envy is why? What is the deeper need or emotion that is driving our desires?
Do I have a legitimate need?
In some cases we have a legitimate need. My neighbor comes home with a new car and I wish I had a new car too. If I can see the road passing by through my rusted out floor board and the only time I can get up to the speed limit is if I am going down a really steep hill, then it just might be that I really need a new car too. I’m exaggerating, but once in a while we are envious of our neighbor because we have a real need. If so and I have the ability to upgrade without adding a bunch of debt or doing damage to my savings, then I should feel free to go ahead and do so.
Just be really, really careful with this one. One thing that we are very good at is justifying what we want. Is it really a need?
If it is not really a need then why do I want this item so much?
Am I looking to improve my self-esteem through stuff?
This is a tough one. Sometimes we achieve our sense of self-worth through stuff. I think often this can be a real trap for guys. Sometimes guys view money as a scorecard. One-upping my neighbor means I’m “winning” the money game.
Perhaps you grew up in a home where money was always scarce. As a result accumulating possessions in some fashion has become a very real symbol of your success.
Looking for self-worth through your possessions is a very dangerous game. Possessions come and go. A fire, a hurricane, a tornado and all that you have worked to build can vanish in a heart beat. Even if it doesn’t disappear, you will never find satisfaction through things, because there will always be something better on the horizon.
He who loves money shall never have enough. The foolishness of thinking that wealth brings happiness! The more you have, the more you spend, right up to the limits of your income. Ecclesiastes 5:10-11
A better source for our self-worth comes from the relationships we build, the lives we change, and the people we love. The ultimate source of our self-worth is knowing that we were valuable enough for Christ to go to the cross for us. No possession can ever compare.
Is it a matter of pride?
Closely related to self-worth can be pride. If I have the biggest house, fanciest car, nicest clothes then it makes me feel like I am just a little better than my neighbor.
Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. Philippians 2:3
There is a difference in working hard and having a sense of accomplishment and pride in what we have accomplished versus a pride that says we are better than another. When we suffer from pride, the real root issue is a failure to understand that all we have, all of our abilities, and all of our possessions really belong to God. None of our accomplishments would have been possible without him.
Am I seeking happiness through stuff?
Sometimes we try to medicate our unhappiness by buying more stuff. I suspect most of us have fallen into this trap from time to time. I know I have been guilty of this. I have the Best Buy receipts to prove it!
Unfortunately stuff never satisfies. Sure we get a brief rush walking out of the store with our new purchase. We may even enjoy a few days of happiness. But it never lasts. Soon there will be another item we want.
The real issue is we are treating the symptoms and not the cause. What is the real reason behind your unhappiness? It probably not a lack of stuff. Until you address the cause of your unhappiness, medicating it with buying things will be a wasted effort.
Do I lack patience?
I have heard it said that many people spend the first couple years of their marriage building the same standard of living as their parents, except it took your parents 35 years to achieve it.
Our society is very much a microwave society. The easy credit provided with credit cards has made it possible for us to have pretty much anything we want at any time we want. There’s no need to save. 90 days same as cash. Take it home now. Worry about paying for it later. This is a recipe for financial disaster.
Am I doing harm to myself (financially) by trying to one-up my neighbor?
It makes little sense to fall deeply in debt trying to keep up an appearance of false wealth. Yet, this is what we often do when we play the game of keeping up with the Joneses.
Here’s a good rule of thumb. If you can’t pay cash for it. You can’t afford it.
These are hard questions. Be honest with yourself. Really consider your motivations.
The next time you are tempted because your neighbor or co-worker just showed up with the latest and greatest, I challenge you to consider these 5 questions before going out to make that purchase. There is nothing wrong with buying things. I don’t believe we are called to live as paupers and it is ok to enjoy some of the fruits of our labors. Just honestly consider these 5 questions to help make sure your possessions are a blessing and not a curse.