Something has been rolling around in my head for a while, and it’s about our house, our lifestyle and our appearance among peers.
Our home is unimpressive. I love it, don’t get me wrong. We are very, very comfortable. It is way more than enough space for our family of 4. Right now we’re even doing a full remodel of the basement. But I know that compared to many of my peers, our house isn’t the massive, brick laden, towering McMansion that says “we’ve arrived.” We bought our home days before I quit my last job and launched this firm. We paid $265,000 and financed almost all of it as I was hoarding cash for us to live on since we had zero income.
I’ve had one client visit our home after our youngest daughter was born and I remember distinctly a feeling of anxiety that our modest home wouldn’t measure up to expectations. What I felt bordered on shame. Would people think I was “successful” if they saw our home? Does it present a picture of someone who is responsible, intelligent and capable? Does it represent someone who should be entrusted with managing client assets that now exceed $150M?
I’ve come to terms with it, but these ideas still creep into my head. I like that we live well within our means. It brings me immeasurable happiness, quite frankly. But there is a lingering social pressure. A fear of a stigma that occasionally whispers from some deep recess in my mind. In general I’m not a person who is given to care much what other people think about me. (Seriously, ask my wife about this one). But even with that as a core position, I feel some unspoken social pressure to consider a “nicer” house. A newer house. A bigger house. Vaulted ceilings, big bathrooms, big closets, all of the accouterments that prove that I’ve made it.
If I can feel these pressures, I imagine they could be stronger for many others. A house is a man’s castle, after all. A giant, expensive, cumbersome representation of your value to society. What would you think if your successful doctor or lawyer or local business owner lived in an average middle class house? Is s/he in financial trouble? Recently bankrupted? Paying off bad debts? How many Americans would think “Wow, good for them. They have figured out what makes them happy and are spending/saving money in that way.” Can’t say I think it would be many.
There’s more to this story, like my super-reliable-but-recently-hail-damaged 14 year old Subaru that you can have from my cold, dead hands. And the bike on top of it that’s probably worth more than the car. We love our home, and our lifestyle. We do things, and spend money on things, that make us happy. I try hard to be intentional about that, and we’re doing okay there. Maybe, just maybe, the bigger-shinier-stainlessier (that’s right) pursuit of the American Dream isn’t the key to happiness for everyone. At least, not for us.