A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

Back in the days before the Internet, it was rare to know what someone paid for a home, what their income was, what they paid in taxes, or how much they spent on their Christmas shopping. Finances were generally a private concern, discussed only amongst immediate family, if then. People who discussed money were considered uncouth or braggarts.

Now, thanks to search engines, public tax records, aggregation websites, and plain old over-sharing on message boards and Facebook, it’s possible to know how others are doing financially, or at least make an educated guess. You can find out what your neighbors’ home sold for, what they paid in property taxes last year, whether they have any liens on their property, and even get a good idea of what their job pays in your area. You can find out what it costs to send their kids to that pricey private school and figure out just how much that new car or boat cost. This may be good for entertainment purposes, but I’m not certain that it’s so great from a psychological point of view. Knowing so much about other peoples’s money can lead to feelings of resentment, jealousy, or secret (and shameful) glee at their failings.

The first problem of knowing everything about someone else’s finances is that it kindles the jealousy monster. When you know what someone who seems to be in a similar position to you makes and pays for things, it’s easy to feel envious that you aren’t even with them. Until your neighbor posted on Facebook, for example, that they are taking a two-week cruise to Europe, you may not have even given their finances a thought. But now, suddenly, you’re wondering how they managed that. How did they get so far ahead of you? Or are they really ahead? Maybe they just went into debt for it and maybe you should, too? Suddenly you’re jealous and it’s not a great feeling. You might start thinking about how you can do those things, too, when you know deep down that they are out of your reach,

The second problem is that it makes you think, “It’s not fair. Why are they doing so well and I’m not when we’re in similar circumstances?” Or you think, “Man, they must be in a mess. Wonder if I should bring over a casserole or something?” When you learn some juicy bit of information about someone else’s finances, you may get frustrated by their (seeming) success. You think you’re entitled to their good fortune, too. You can get mired in thinking that everyone else is better off than you and that you’re just a big screw up. Conversely, you might learn some shred of bad news and think that someone is in a bad situation. You might be tempted to generalize and assume that they are one step away from homelessness.

The thing is that you never know from a quick Tweet or a post on a message board what truth lies behind the numbers. Maybe they got a huge inheritance or some long-awaited settlement finally came through, Maybe the bad thing was the result of fraud, or one bad moment in their life that has since passed. You can’t know the truth of anyone else’s situation unless they tell you. Making assumptions and assigning labels does nothing for you but ramp up your blood pressure and make you feel awkward around these people.

Even if you’re not dealing with the information of your immediate friends or neighbors, postings on anonymous message boards can trigger these same feelings, particularly boards where you think you share common ground with other posters. Maybe you hang out on a board dedicated to your favorite vacation spot. Since almost all of the people posting there go to the destination, it’s easy to assume commonality. But everyone is different and they may vacation more lavishly or cheaply than you do. They may visit more or less often. Yet when someone posts about how they’re going to this place for the eight time this year, you start thinking, “What the heck? How can they do this and I can’t?” This is unhealthy because you know nothing else about these people. Maybe they got an inheritance. Maybe they live in an area where the 80K that they make allows for a lavish lifestyle. You just don’t know and basing your feelings on what you think you know is not good for you.

Knowing too much about other people’s money issues can turn you into a mess. You may start thinking you’re a failure when you’re really doing quite well. Or, you may get a smug feeling that you’re doing much better than the rest of the world, when really you need to get your own mess in order. It’s always dangerous to compare ourselves to others and to make assumptions based on limited information. Unless you really know these people intimately, you’re just guessing.

What’s to be done? Not much, really. Unless you’re willing to turn off Facebook and stop reading peoples’ posts about their finances, you’re going to run across this information whether you want it or not. You can curb your own digging, however. Refrain from checking tax records or looking at home sales prices on Zillow.com. Stop nosing into things that aren’t your business.

Whatever you do, don’t act on anything you learn online. Don’t congratulate someone on their success unless you know you’re supposed to know the information. It’s not cool to walk up to someone and say, “Hey, I see from the web that your new car cost $100,000. Awesome.” Unless it’s been in a news report, you don’t know that they paid that much, or that they want you know, so leave it alone. Conversely, don’t start sending over casseroles if you think someone is having hard times. Even if they are, unless they’ve shared it with you it’s not your business. For your own mental health, try to reduce what you know about other people’s money issues. Not only will your friends and neighbors thank you for staying out of their financial lives, you’ll feel better because you aren’t comparing yourself to them.

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2 Responses to A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

  1. Alexandria says:

    I think people *THINK* they know more in this information age, but generally they do not.

    For one, not all data online is accurate.

    Secondly, when it comes to cars, who knows how old they are, etc. My last vehicle was bought one-year-old at about 50% the cost of new. We always pay cash for our vehicles and I was open about it, but wasn’t prepared for the jaw drops when it came to this vehicle. Over time it became clear to me that everyone thought either the car was BRAND NEW or that we paid a hell of a lot more than we did. For us, that applies to just about everything because we get a lot of things used/deep discount or FREE is many instances. There is a lot of stuff we buy that we wouldn’t pay anywhere near full price for, in comparison (just wouldn’t have the means!)

    & like you said, WHO KNOWS if someone has an inheritance, etc. My salary is decent, but I have no benefits to speak of. So, you can’t even compare salaries apples to apples unless you are comparing benefits and everything. Just another example.

    So yeah, unfortunately I think people think they know more, but they mostly know squat.

  2. bobebob says:

    While I will cop to checking out what homes sold for in my neighborhood(mostly just to track the value of my home), I don’t have any particular interest in seeking out further financial information on my neighbors.
    I don’t get much into the social websites, I get a few updates on friends in Facebook. I can’t remember anyone giving away any fiscal secrets, but perhaps that’s because I wasn’t looking for them.
    If such information were to be revealed to me I would take it with a grain of salt since it may or may not be true. And it wouldn’t affect my personal spending habits.
    If seeing a portion of other peoples’ financial pictures causes you to re-evaluate and change your spending habits (IE. spend more to “keep up with the Jones'”), I would hazzard a guess that you have underlying psychological issues. I mean if you’re hunting down and going through all your neighbor’s online posts(the online version of going through their garbage) in an effort to pan for their financial information – get some help to address your insecurities.

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