There’s a dirty little secret deeply embedded into the fabric of middle class American society. And the secret is veiled with an intricate combination of smoke, mirrors, misdirection, and grandstanding. Most of us actually participate in the grand scheme and everyone is in on the coverup. And it’s getting worse all the time.
There was a British sitcom in the 90’s called Keeping Up Appearances. The show highlighted the painstaking efforts made to preserve the positive perception from others and poked fun at the absurdity of it all. It didn’t matter what was really going on. It only mattered what others thought was going on.
Social media burns this into our daily life hotter than a wood fired pizza oven. We see highlight reels. We see the best of everyone’s life. The hyperbole is so exaggerated that the actual photos we are seeing aren’t even real. It’s manufactured. It’s smoke. It’s mirrors. It’s misdirection. This facade then permeates our own lives to the point of inevitable comparison which forces our hand to do better, be better, look better.
The dirty little secret referred to lies in the gap between reality and the manufactured facade. That secret? Struggle.
So before the cars, houses, boats, shoes, clothes, and vacations that we use to measure our make-believe status, we have to pay (at an alarming rate) for all of the “things.” I’m talking about mortgages, rent, car payments, credit card bills, utilities, cell phones, internet, car insurance, health insurance, household goods, taxes, TV subscriptions, and more. Oh, and here’s the big one - food! Don’t even get me started on groceries and restaurants and how they magically merge to form one big possessed money sucking vacuum with no off switch. Add in any kids activities, hobbies, clothes, Christmas, gym memberships, and anything else and we find ourselves with more month than money. But this embarrassment must not be revealed, so we recruit ourselves into the big charade, thus perpetuating the dirty little secret. Our neighbors, friends, and families must not know. It’s all one big secret struggle.
Time for an intervention. THE APPROVAL OF OTHERS DOES NOT PAY YOUR BILLS!
Just a couple years ago, Heidi and I were sitting in our house watching Tiny House Nation, a show depicting the trend of simplifying and embracing a more minimal lifestyle which included drastically downsizing one’s home. We had already, five years earlier, adopted the Marie Kondo (The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up) way of living. We bless and release a lot of stuff regularly and try to keep minimal and organized. Plus, we are total ninjas at folding our clothes (read the book). So there we were, in our 4 bedroom, 4 bathroom, 3 car garage house with a gorgeous kitchen in the nice neighborhood, with the nice picket fence and deck watching Tiny House Nation. And it struck us. What were we doing? What had we fallen into? What were we trying to prove? I know now that I was living out the American dream of upward social mobility, whether it made sense or not. But I can tell you, it didn’t feel very good. The struggle didn’t really feel like a dream to me.
Heidi got on Zillow and started looking for small houses. Yep, we all know what that means. This would not be innocent window shopping. Not much later we were walking through a house a quarter the size of our house. Our girls were first graders. We were not on the cusp of being empty nesters. This was all so crazy. A couple houses later we were making an offer.
This is when the gut check really set in for me. I felt a feeling of failure come over me. It was like an admission of defeat. I was telling the world (not really) that I couldn’t keep up with the Jones’s, that instead of continuing my upward mobility of bigger, nicer, pricier, I was stepping backwards with my tail between my legs.
It didn’t take long before I realized, with Heidi’s nudging, we pulled off our greatest life hack. Live well below your means. Have more money than month, month after month. Purge, release, subtract. Have zero credit card balances. Lift the burden from your conscience of wondering how you are going to make it all work. And here’s the real kicker, free up the freedom of choice in your life. Don’t feel trapped in the job you think you need because you can’t pay the bills without it. Free up money to give yourself the possibility of experiences and travel with your family. I’ve found happiness follows freedom of choice. Feeling trapped in the burden of your expenses leads to anxiety and stress and tension for everyone.
Our small house is easily the best home we’ve ever had. Our family is closer as a result. We have less clutter and “stuff.” We have less stress and burden. We live with abundance rather than scarcity. We got out of the “keeping up the with Jones’s” lane by simply making the choice to take the next exit. The new road is less traveled, more spacious, and has great views. The most significant upgrade to our lives came from downsizing.
Downsize to Upgrade!