8 Reasons You're Constantly Comparing Yourself Financially to Others (And How to Stop)

By recognizing how media and marketing influence your FOMO, you can improve your finances.
Updated May 8, 2024
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They say money makes the world go round, yet it’s still a taboo topic for many to discuss. This secrecy leaves us with little information about how our finances actually measure up to our peers.

You may wonder, "Am I doing as well financially as the average American?".

Even if you know you shouldn’t compare yourself to others, here’s why it can be hard to stop.

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TV and movies

bernardbodo/Adobe african american couple watching tv together

Hollywood creates fantasy worlds that we can live in vicariously for an episode or couple of hours. In fictional worlds, money doesn’t matter. Characters don’t have to pay bills or balance their checkbook.

The TV show “Friends” is a perfect example of this. Two of the main characters share a spacious apartment in Greenwich Village, but both have low-paying jobs. In real life, that situation wouldn’t be financially possible, but seeing it on the big screen can twist your sense of reality regarding money.

How to stop:

Remind yourself about the real cost of living, despite what entertainment media portrays. Understand that what you see on TV or social media is often carefully curated and may not accurately reflect real life.

Social media

Aleksei/Adobe social media applications with notifications

Social media puts everything, even the insignificant, everyday parts of people’s lives, on display for the world to see. People post everything from their daily coffee orders to their shiny new cars. With social media, you are constantly exposed to the purchases and financial successes of not only the people you know in real life but millions of users around the world.

How to stop:

A 2023 study by Edelman Financial Engines found that the more time you spend scrolling, the worse you feel about your finances. But the good news is that you can easily unfollow or mute accounts that ignite negative feelings.  Try following folks who fall more in line with your own financial bracket to get a realistic grasp on lifestyles. This way you can be more proactive about aligning your own finances to the lifestyle you want in a realistic manner.

Financial literacy isn’t taught in school

Ян Заболотний/Adobe funky piggy bank wearing glasses

The majority of people get their financial education from their parents. If you grow up with parents who have bad financial habits or little to no financial literacy, it’s likely you will have a similar experience when it comes to money. If your peers had a better financial education, it’s easy to understand how you may find yourself comparing their achievements to your own.

How to stop:

You can take matters into your own hands and choose to educate yourself by using the free courses. For example, the Jump$tart.org offers free courses, especially during April, which is Financial Literacy Month.

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Influencer culture

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Influencers make money by showcasing products from manufacturers, encouraging their audiences to buy, buy, buy. Influencers often have entire closets or rooms dedicated to housing their collections, making an average person feel less than.

It’s possible that you forget this is their job. They receive products for free and aren’t spending their own money to amass a giant makeup or sneaker collection.

How to stop:

If you find yourself feeling inferior because your drawers and closets aren’t stuffed full, try making a list of things you do have and are grateful for.

Overestimate other people’s wealth

fizkes/Adobe african american couple reviewing bills together

Psychologists have found that when you examine your own financial well-being, you focus more on your debt. However, when you look at other people’s financial situations, you are more likely to view them as being wealthier than they probably are.

This belief can actually drive people to spend more on everyday items and put them in a worse financial situation than they should be. 

How to stop:

Spend your time working toward your own financial milestones. Understand that ignoring your debt will only make it worse and that the only way out is through. Rather than peeking over the fence to see what new car your neighbor bought, make a plan based on your current reality to achieve the goal of having a new car for yourself. 

Immediate-gratification society

Kawee/Adobe man using card for payment

We live in a same-day shipping, fast-food society. People aren’t used to denying themselves or waiting for anything anymore.

This can lead you to have unrealistic expectations about cost, achievement, and so on. You get a false sense of what it took to obtain the status or item you see others possessing.

How to stop:

Avoid making spontaneous decisions when it comes to any purchases. Spend at least a few days thinking about it. When you choose to delay spending, it can help contribute to your overall confidence and financial well-being.

Dopamine high

Drobot Dean/Adobe attractive woman screaming over orange background

You may get an instant rush of dopamine and endorphins whenever you make a purchase. This hormone is connected to your reward center, making you feel good whenever you shop.

Even if you’re not a compulsive shopper, the drive to experience this rush over and over again can rule out reason or financial considerations. Retailers and marketers know this, which is why you get excited when you see sale signs that say “50% off.”

How to stop:

If you’re trying to be more financially responsible, other activities like walking, meditating, or exercising can produce the same dopamine high as shopping and are much easier on your wallet.

Consumer culture

Drazen/Adobe woman with shoppers staring store windows

Since the 1920s, consumerism has been rising in the United States. Industrialization and urbanization have provided an opportunity to live beyond daily preservation. Consumer culture drives us to continually think about buying the next or new thing.

It comes in the form of trading in your old car for a new one, updating your wardrobe every season, or replacing your smartphone each time a new model comes out. Marketing tactics are designed to keep you thinking that you need the newest, most recent version of every item in order to be happy. 

How to stop:

Learning to fix and repair your own items can help you get the most life out of the stuff you buy, not to mention it can bring you a sense of capability that builds confidence in all areas of your life.

Bottom line

baranq/Adobe woman reviewing budget using laptop

The truth is, you don’t know the truth about other people’s financial situation. We often make up stories based on how other people present themselves, whether in person or on social media.

To stop comparing yourself to other people financially, you need to focus on your own financial goals and success. Take pride in being a savvy shopper who knows how to find a great deal.

Reward yourself with a favorite treat or activity every time you add another $1,000 to your retirement investments. In the long run, you’ll have created a life you can enjoy.

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Author Details

Holly Humbert Holly is a writer who recognizes that there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to personal finance. She is passionate about entrepreneurship, women in business, and financial literacy. With more than four years of experience, her work has been featured on MarketWatch and The Ways to Wealth.

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