1st Step to Freedom: Throw Out Convention

We live outside city limits in a small canyon on a couple of acres. We, like most of our neighbors, were drawn to this area because of the wide open space and privacy. After four years of being woken up at 5 AM by the adjoined neighbor warming up his diesel truck for an hour, an annoyance astronomically more irritating due to how unnecessary it was, we were happy to get some distance.

Our canyon covers thousands of acres and the smallest lot allowed is 2 acres. Yet, in several areas folks have planted their homes along a common edge created by the road. You pay a lot extra to build a home out away from everyone else and have the pleasure of pumping a septic tank, yet many of their homes sit less than 30 feet from their neighbor’s.

It seems we are a inevitably social species with a built-in fixation on social status.

Why do we buy impractical “new” cars on credit? In many cases, this one is so critical to our sense of self and so normalized among our peers that we will prioritize spending $452 a month for 64 months to do it (US average as of 2012).

Why do we purchase gargantuan camping trailers that are parked in the small space between our house and our neighbor’s for 11 months out of the year? This of course leads to justifying the new, all-options, lifted truck that serves as our commuter car to work 99% of the time and gets an average of 14.5 miles to the gallon (2013 US trucks).

Why do we brag about coming back from maternity leave within a month (or less) when we are guaranteed 12 weeks of leave? In fact, 29% of us women who had a baby while working reported taking no leave (2006-2008).

Why do we idolize the C-suite and big titles, hoping to one day spend 50+ hours a week working? Even without the title and the paycheck, because of our much-needed smartphones we already work an average of 72 hours a week.

Why do we refinance our homes over and over to get more cash? Why are we willing to pay an average of 13% interest on 3-4 credit cards while neglecting our 401(k)? Why do us women put on outrageously uncomfortable underwear and shoes right after spending 30 minutes painting on our face?

We all engage in at least a few completely illogical and counterproductive social conventions. It’s expected. Sometimes it’s easier to go along with what’s expected than to carve your own path, especially if your income is beholden to social judgment.

In my old job, I drove (and still do drive) a 2002 Ford Escape with a cracked bumper and a dented front door panel from prior accidents (where we happily used the insurance money to pay off debt instead of fixing the car). When I needed new shocks, I borrowed my mother-in-law’s BMW. I had two different people tell me it was about time I started driving a “decent” car.

While the mechanisms that lead us to judge others by such backward standards will remain a mystery, there is no reason we should continue to behave based on social convention if it isn’t helping us reach our goals.

Step 1: Clearly define your long-term vision and your goals for the coming year. 

Step 2: Always ask: Will this help me reach my stated goals or will it undermine or distract from my efforts? 

Social convention is the equivalent of chasing our tails. The vast majority of people are in debt, have non-existent savings, live paycheck-to-paycheck, and are burning away their best years at the office while racing toward a miserable retirement on Medicare. This is true even and especially among the “successful”, which of course is defined by the length of their title, size of their house, and top speed of their foreign car.

Our personal path started to divert from the pack when we began listening to Dave Ramsey on the radio on Friday nights. Unconventional spending led to atypical cars then to an unusual log cabin and finally to unorthodox income sources.

Liberation often comes with a unique sense of pride and increased quality of life, if only because we no longer need to justify a behavior that saps our resources. This happy sense of control over our own decisions has a similar snowball effect to Dave’s debt payoff plan. A little dose leads to the next and before long we are fully in charge of our own destiny again.

And yet, it’s a daily battle (at least for me) to strike a balance between highly accessible, short-term fixes and long-term benefits.

How do you personally stick to your guns when you want to act just a little bit like the Jones’s?

Was there a distinct moment when you realized you didn’t want to follow the pack and started behaving differently? What triggered it?

4 Comments
  1. Thanks so much for this post, Emily. I am feeling defensive today about our unconventional living situation (which now involves two renters in our home), a post on which is getting some less-than-encouraging comments. In general I think I can let my freak flag fly when it comes to the way we live, but there are a few areas in which I guess I would like to ‘seem normal’ even if we’re doing something unconventional.

    Like you, our path to financial peace (& freedom) started with Dave Ramsey. God bless that guy. We don’t follow everything he teaches to a “T”, but he was the one that jolted us out of our old ways. His phrase about living like no one else always sticks with me.

    Anyway, thanks again for this post — it’s a good one.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. I love that you let your true freaky colors shine as beacons for the rest of us – yes, being perceived as normal is necessary sometimes, but the odd and wonderful give us permission to be uniquely weird in our own sweet ways.

  2. Love this posting Emily. Personally I had a realization of not wanting to keep up with the Jones’ very early in life. I remember having a pair of shorts (friends will remember these as the “infamous Tommy shorts”) I wore for, maybe 5 years that my friends started to make fun of me about due to the duration of their wear:) This was around age 15/16 when I started working; I thought to myself…why would I want to clock 4-8 more hours in a job I don’t love for new shorts I don’t need. In small ways from then on, I always challenge my purchasing decisions, do I really need this or could I meet the need in any other way that costs less, resulting in the most valuable asset….freedom to choose how I use my time and energy in life. For me this has always been part of the fabric of my life, however it does have it’s challenges at times…i.e. my wedding dress purchase;)

    1. Thank you, Nicki! I love that you expressed your confident frugality early in life, it took me so much longer (and many thousands of dollars) to open my eyes. I have a few pairs of infamous clothing items that are also probably frowned on. Keep it up!

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