You may be careful with your cash, but don't assume...

You may be careful with your cash, but don't assume others are. Credit: Getty Images / Michael DeLeon

Your neighbor pulls up in a sweet new ride. Your co-worker announces she’s taking yet another trip abroad. Your best friend upgrades to a bigger house in a better area of town.

You’re pretty sure these people don’t make a lot more than you do.

So how are they able to spend that kind of money?

Maybe they’re up to their ears in debt or they’re trust fund babies or they’ll never be able to retire.

Or maybe they’ve figured out the secret to money, which is: You can have anything you want. You just can’t have everything.

The new car, that house and that exotic trip are the shiny end results of a series of decisions hidden below the surface. What we don’t see, typically, are the trade-offs — or their consequences.

  • You see what others want you to see. That’s important to remember when we’re stewing about someone else’s spending. Economists and psychologists say we care about our status, especially relative to our peers, and what we consume can be a way of keeping track.

That dynamic helps lead to the phenomenon of “conspicuous consumption,” first identified by economist Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book “The Theory of the Leisure Class.”

Conspicuous consumption, peer pressure about spending and concerns about “keeping up with the Joneses” aren’t limited to the wealthy — take a quick glance at your Facebook feed.

Measuring ourselves against others can spur some people to economic success.

It also can lead people to waste money on things that aren’t really important and miss out on the things that are.

  • You can’t see what others give up. Financial adviser Lisa Kirchenbauer of Arlington, Virginia, says some new clients have a nagging anxiety that they’re squandering their money on the wrong things.

“Sometimes we will have clients ask us, ‘Is this what everybody else is spending on housing?’ ” Kirchenbauer says. “We’re trying to help them make intentional choices about what’s important to them, versus their neighbor or their family members.”

Kirchenbauer first asks her clients to track their spending using budgeting tools such as Mint, Quicken or YNAB.

Then she asks about their values and helps them set goals based on those values.

Defining financial goals can help you change your behavior. If you want early retirement, for example, you may discover that high spending and low savings make that impossible. You may be more willing to cut spending on stuff you care less about.

People need to decide for themselves what’s essential and what’s not, says Marguerita Cheng, a financial adviser in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Hiring a house cleaner could be a discretionary expense for some. For a working mother with three kids, a housekeeper “could be essential for her sanity,” Cheng says.