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I feel like I’ve fallen behind the rest of my peers financially. I’m in my 30s and I spent a lot of my 20s working in jobs that I really enjoyed but were lower paying. Now, in my 30s, my friends have high-paying jobs, many have property, and can afford things I can’t. I am happy about their success, but now feel this urgency to make up for lost time. At the same time, I feel this hopelessness, like I’m never going to be able to catch up. I know it’s not a competition, but inevitably I compare myself and feel embarrassed that I’m not further ahead. How can I get over this anxiety of feeling left behind?
My friend, you are not alone. Studies have shown that how satisfied we feel with our financial lives isn’t just about how much money we have, it’s more to do with how we compare to others.
How satisfied we feel with our financial lives isn’t just about how much money we have, it’s more to do with how we compare to others.Credit: Simon Letch
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology posed that “relative income – whether a person has more or less income than others – may be at least as important as, if not more important than, absolute income when predicting life satisfaction”.
An earlier survey experiment found more than half of the participants would rather earn $50,000 while their peers earn $25,000, than $100,000 where their peers earn $200,000.
Whether we like to admit it or not, our desire to be financially successful doesn’t stop at having money, it often extends to wanting more money than those around us.
So, to some extent, this feeling is normal. But normal doesn’t mean healthy, or desirable.
However you look at it, there’s something yucky about this phenomenon. No one wants to feel insecure around people who have more. Equally, while it can give you an ego boost, there’s something uncomfortable about feeling good just because you’re doing better than others.
So, how do we deal with this?
1. Develop awareness of your “comparison conditioning”.
While some would say we are hardwired to compare ourselves to others, there is definitely an element of this that is learnt behaviour. We are taught to compare ourselves at a young age.
It’s everywhere. In school, your performance is directly or indirectly compared to your peers. Workplaces compare employees to incentivise performance, parents compare to encourage obedience.
When you start to notice just how much you may have inadvertently learnt to compare yourself, you can start to create distance with that thought pattern, so it has less power over you.
You can start choosing a different mindset, but the starting point is becoming aware of how much you do it, where it comes from, and whether that thought pattern is serving you.
2. Get clear on your goals.
Think about the word “behind”. It implies there is some specific point that you should be at by now, which you’re not. It implies that you should be further ahead than you currently are and makes it sound like a race.
This is because we often think of financial success linearly. It starts with nothing and ends with, well, it never ends because there’s no end to the amount of money one can have.
If we measure financial success purely by quantity, no matter where you are on that continuum, someone will always have more than you, and therefore you will always be behind someone.
But what if we measured financial success differently? What if it wasn’t about some endless acquisition of more but rather about attaining your personal definition of financial success?
When you get clear on your goals, your priorities, and your values, it starts to matter less what other people have. What becomes more important is what you want.
In fact, through this process, you might realise you don’t even want what other people have. Not everyone wants the maintenance involved with a big home or the hassle of a property portfolio.
You get to customise your definition of financial success. Once you do, the only thing that matters is your progress towards your personal financial goals.
3. Embrace the non-financial value of your life choices.
When we feel disappointed by our current financial situation, sometimes it’s because we are only looking at a single dimension of our lives, without a broader context.
You made choices that gave you things other than money. Pursuing lower-paid jobs that were more fulfilling gave you life and career satisfaction, enjoyment, and purpose.
It doesn’t sound like you regret that. So, how can you regret the financial impact of them?
We all make choices throughout life that serve us in different ways.
It’s unfair to ourselves to then turn around and evaluate those choices purely from a financial standpoint when money wasn’t the driving consideration to begin with.
Paridhi Jain is the founder of SkilledSmart, which helps adults learn to manage, save and invest their money through financial education courses and classes.
- Advice given in this article is general in nature and is not intended to influence readers’ decisions about investing or financial products. They should always seek their own professional advice that takes into account their own personal circumstances before making any financial decisions.
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