Keeping Up With Normal

I’m baaacck!  Our little off-grid Christmas vacation is over, and we’re now safely back home.

It was great to take a break from the modern world for awhile, but it’s also really nice to be home.  A week in rural America without internet access, can get a little dull for an internet addict like myself.

Thankfully I had the latest James S.A. Corey novel to read.  (If you enjoy Science Fiction, I can highly recommend the Expanse Series.)

We visited the grandparents for the holidays and had a typical American Christmas holiday — large family dinners, a Christmas tree, gift giving, and delicious homemade cookies!

I probably gained 5 pounds from all the eating!  I think I need to start fasting again in the New Year.


The Rural Life

Grandma and Grandpa Tako live in a very rural part of Washington State, not far from Mount St. Helens.  There’s not a lot out there.  Some neighbors grow Christmas trees, others are dairy farmers (which provides a wonderful aroma), and a few are retired.  

This part of Washington is beautiful, but a very rural place to live.
This part of Washington is beautiful, but a very rural place to live.  We didn’t even have cell phone service.

It’s a very quiet rural life.  Decent cell-phone service and internet access is uncommon.  Restaurants are non-existent, and the nearest grocery store is a 45 minute drive away.

When you live out in the country like that, you don’t just jump in the car when you run out of milk or breakfast cereal.  You plan meals and keep a BIG grocery list.  

Maybe you head to town once every couple weeks to buy groceries and see the sights.

Logging and farming are the major sources of employment in the area, which doesn’t usually lead to big incomes, but people seem to make due.

After years of driving around this rural part of Washington, I’ve noticed something interesting — Despite much lower incomes, poorly maintained homes, and an excess of junk cars in the yard, people still “keep up appearances”.


Keeping Up Appearances

We’ve probably all heard the phrase “Keeping Up With The Joneses” before, and the vast majority of us firmly believe we “don’t keep up with the neighbors”.  But I wonder how truthful that really is…

As I drove around rural Washington during my Christmas holiday this year, I couldn’t help think about the lives of rural Americas from a finance perspective.  I pondered if they were somehow immune from this “Keeping up with the Joneses” behavior — At first glance, if you compare the state of their homes and yards to those of us who live in the city, you might imagine that rural America has this problem completely solved.  

They clearly don’t care about having trash in the yard, or a home in a terrible state of disrepair.

After further observation, I noticed nearly every home had a relatively new truck parked in front, many of which were lifted or modified with large wheels.  There were numerous expensive toys parked in the yards too — RV’s, boats, motorcycles, ATV’s, and other “entertainment machinery”.

Toy carrier
Despite lower incomes in rural America, expensive toy carriers like this one are fairly common.

It becomes clear that the things I value as part of my expensive city life (like a clean neighborhood and a well-maintained home) are entirely different from what’s valued in this part of rural America.  Why?  I think mainly it’s because of “peer groups”.


Peer Groups Set “Norms”

When I think about my friends (or former co-workers), very few of them own RV’s, boats, or ATV’s.  Even truck ownership is quite rare amongst my peers.  Why?  Mainly because people living in the city have very little space for such large toys.  They spend their time and money on pursuits that fit into the space allowed.

If you asked my peers if they own the latest smartphone model or how old their car is, you’d quickly begin to see those spending differences stand out.  The vast majority of my peers own nice homes in nice neighborhoods, and I’ve never seen a junk car parked in the yard.

That kind of life feels normal to me, but it’s entirely subjective.

People who live out in the country may feel it’s perfectly normal to live in a mobile home, yet own a boat and a $75,000 truck.  City people might feel perfectly normal living in stick-built homes, driving a shiny new SUV, and eating at restaurants on a regular basis.  Why? Because that’s what everyone else in their peer group is doing.

In both cases, I would hazard a guess that each group sees their life as “completely normal” despite the huge differences that divide these two pieces of America.

The vast majority of us model our lives off of peer groups without even realizing it.  We create our own set of “normal” standards based on those around us.  Rarely is it a single individual who sets the standard.  In most cases, there is no “Mr. Jones” to keep up with.  Instead, I submit that we’re really trying to do is “Keep up with Normal”.

A normal that we create.


The Nail That Sticks Out

From an early age humans are taught to conform.  Differences are rarely valued by society, and can often lead to abusive behavior.  Children who stand-out are frequently criticized and bullied.  

In fact, among some Asian cultures there’s a common expression to explain this very behavior — “The nail that sticks out, gets hammered down”.

This behavior continues well into adulthood and being “normal” can even be the deciding factor for getting a date on Saturday night.

The nail that sticks out
Being different can sometimes mean being the brunt of abuse. Are you strong enough to withstand it?

Social conformity isn’t all bad of course.  As cultures like Japan show us when everybody earns roughly the same, looks roughly the same, and spends roughly the same, it can lead to a very harmonious society.  In fact, some economists even believe lower income inequality leads to greater happiness.

But this site isn’t about trying to be the same as everybody else.  This website IS about standing-out economically, and how to get there.  

One thing seems clear, if you want to achieve financial independence you’ll have to leave the concept of “normal” behind … regardless of where you live in the world or the level of economic equality.

Anyone who builds significant wealth is going to either be earning significantly more than their peers OR spending significantly less.  I don’t care if you live in the city and earn a large income, or live in the country and earn a smaller income.  The math is the same….regardless of whether you buy a ATV or the latest smartphone for your entertainment.

Wealth does not discriminate.



If you’d like my advice, forget the word normal.  “Normal” is a creation of our own minds by comparing and contrasting the lives of others around us.  Stop trying to be normal.  

Stick out like a sore thumb…on purpose!  Wear that funny hat, and love it!

As a person who has “stuck out” my entire life, I firmly believe that being an oddball is a good thing.

Crazy Hats
One of the things I love about Mrs. Tako is that she makes these crazy hats. These two were Christmas gifts for the kids this year.

Standing-out isn’t easy, I get that.  Dealing with social ostracisation and the judgment of others can be pretty uncomfortable.  Not everyone is up for it.  Standing-out isn’t for the weak, it’s for the powerful.  

On the path to financial independence your beliefs will be called into question by others.  You could lose friends because of the economic choices you make.  Coworkers might think you’re strange for packing a lunch every day.  Neighbors might give you odd looks for ripping up your lawn and growing vegetables instead.

Get over it.  Toughen up.  Make the hard choices that improve your life economically, but don’t necessarily make you look “normal” amongst your peers.

Nobody said the road to financial independence was an easy one.


[Image Credit: Flickr1, Flickr2, Flickr3, Flickr4]

24 thoughts on “Keeping Up With Normal

  • December 28, 2016 at 4:18 AM

    That’s really interesting. It does seem like we all naturally conform to whatever group we happen to be a part of. I think that is also part of why having a FIRE community online can be so powerful. We can look around us in the real world and feel the pressure to conform to that standard and then come online and reaffirm that there are others like us and we are not alone.

    • December 28, 2016 at 11:47 AM

      Indeed, creating our own community is a great way to avoid that real world pressure to conform! I’ve already noticed the FIRE community setting “standards” for how things are supposed to be done however. I already see members of the FIRE community being ridiculed and badgered for doing things differently. It worries me.

    • January 2, 2017 at 3:14 PM

      I so agree with you and Mr. Tako. Mr. Tako for pointing out that we can easily conform to spending habits around us and you for reminding me the big reason I keep coming back to Mr. Tako Escapes, Frugelwoods and Mr. MoneyMustache is to keep me conforming to were I want to go…. financial independence.

    • January 3, 2017 at 2:52 PM

      Matt, awesome point. Hadn’t it been for the FI community, I would have believed reaching financial independence was impossible, based on the feedback from my naysayer friends and family

  • December 28, 2016 at 5:15 AM

    I love those crazy hats! It’s funny that you mention them because I have a lovely corgi beanie that my sister crocheted for me. When I wear it I do get funny looks, but I don’t care because the hat is freakin’ precious.

    I think this is an excellent point. Keeping up appearances is much more nuanced than most of us want to believe–it’s not an obvious, “Oooh you have that so now I’m going to have that too!” It’s about wanting to fit in and not be the weird one to avoid ridicule.

    But you know what?

    I’ve always been the weird one and been bullied and whatnot. I have no idea how to be normal and I think normal is for suckas. Any time I feel the consumerist pull on my credit card I simply slap myself in the face and move on.

    Our money is more powerful when it’s not spent on gadgets. 🙂

  • December 28, 2016 at 6:02 AM

    It definitely pays to not keep up with the Joneses, and to follow your own path. I find it odd that people are willing to work jobs they hate for stuff that doesn’t make them happier. I might be crazy, but I sure as hell love doing what I want everday, even if it’s abnormal. Being normal is boring anyway 😉

    • December 28, 2016 at 11:49 AM

      As a certified weirdo myself, I completely agree Mr. CK!

  • December 28, 2016 at 6:55 AM

    My wife and I were once walking on the Oregon Coast Trail, it threads through a lot of private rural land along the ocean. We heard some noise, close, in the thick brush, and from the sounds it was likely a bear. We waited with anticipation. A muddy rancher in overalls finally appeared instead of a bear. We were so disappointed.

    It was just a dirty old hick farmer with cow crap on his overalls.

    Then he spoke to us, and not with our rural Oregon accent, but an articulate Scottish brogue. He’d been down in the brush helping one of his cows, that is, one among his heard of Scottish Highland cattle. He went on to off offhandedly explain that he had been a geneticist at the biotechnology company PPL Therapeutics, near Edinborough, and had worked on the cloning program (remember Dolly the Sheep?) Here he was, deep in rural Oregon mud, to restore the earliest genetic stock of Highland Cattle as a pet project. It quickly became apparent he owned everything in sight including acres of prime ocean frontage. He probably could have bought and sold me a number of times over.

    So I learned to never judge rural people from their outward appearance. Different than urban people? Evidently.

  • December 28, 2016 at 7:50 AM

    Welcome back. I love the Expanse series too. The show is really good too if you haven’t had a chance to check it out. The visual is awesome and they stayed true to the story.
    Pretty interesting about rural WA. I don’t understand having a run down home/yard, but nice big trucks and a bunch of entertainment toys. I’d prioritize fixing up the house, but that’s just me.
    Good observation about the social norm. I wanted to fit in when I was young (like everyone.) It took me a long time to figure out that it’s okay to stick out. At least, we could do it here in the US. In some other countries, you’ll be stigmatize or worse if you don’t conform.
    Happy New Year!

  • December 28, 2016 at 10:15 AM

    I love this quote by Ellen Goodman: “Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for – in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.”

    I know a lot of people who could easily ‘retire’ early or quit their jobs to pursue their passions, or just work part time, but it seems ‘shunned’ upon in our society. Many people wouldn’t know how to identify themselves to society without a fancy title, or the type of car they drive.

    I personally find all that exhausting, and in conflict with our true non-material needs as ‘primal’ beings, which is nature, movement, community, creativity, love, sleep, etc… all at no monetary cost.

    Like on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, many people get stuck in the ‘belonging’ and ‘esteem’ categories and never make it to ‘self-actualization’, which is our only true authentic state where we can satisfy our inner ‘musts’, and not pursue societal ‘shoulds’.

    • December 28, 2016 at 11:51 AM

      Great comment Primal Prosperity! Love that quote!

  • December 28, 2016 at 11:14 AM

    You are quite right Mr. Tako, fitting in is a very powerful motivator and it takes a lot of strength to do things differently. And this is true for everything in life, not just personal finance. I found this to be especially true when Toddler BITA was a baby. Everything that I did differently (slept with her in our bed, breastfed her for a little over 18 months, used cloth diapers) was difficult. I’d often find myself steering conversations away from these areas because while I was determined to do things the way I wanted to, I certainly did not look forward to conversations explaining why I was ‘being weird’. I think this has been the theme of my life – I do things differently, but I try to do those different things as sneakily as I possibly can. Sigh. Not much courage to see here I suppose. Move right along folks.

    • December 28, 2016 at 11:59 AM

      I was always a stubborn nail. Criticism from others never felt good, but I’m stronger in my own convictions than I cared for the opinion of others.

      Your way might keep more friends than mine (I’ll grant you that), but I wonder if it’s really worth all the trouble.

  • December 28, 2016 at 4:01 PM

    Interesting, the whole point of my post on Monday was that differentiating and standing out is the key to getting ahead in a side hustle, business, or career. Now admittedly that’s different the keeping up with the jones. But maybe it is not entirely. Studies have shown one of the leading causes of suicide is financial stress caused by keeping up with the jones.

  • December 28, 2016 at 4:47 PM

    My extended family mostly live in a similarly rural (though not quite that rural) area. There’s no cell phone coverage at one grandparent’s house unless you have verizon (I don’t) and they actually live “in town” in the rural area. Appalachia. +1 on the big trucks and entertainment toys. I grew up watching my cousins get a series of 4 wheel off-road vehicles and 2 wheel dirt bikes and wondered why I didn’t have those growing up in the city. Of course my parents wasted money on things like a good house in a good neighborhood and college savings instead of those fun toys!

    And normal is most definitely relative to your circumstances. Once you realize there’s a hundred different normals across the socioeconomic strata in the US alone, you get a lot more comfortable being different wherever you are.

    Welcome back to “civilization”! And happy new year!

  • December 30, 2016 at 11:23 PM

    How do you deal without friends? Or do you have friends? Don’t you feel alone?

    Me and my wife are on the path to financial independence. I had the greatest luck to find a person (my wife) who is on board with me. However, my friends are not. At some point we tried to talk about this with them (preaching phase) and realized that there is no point in that (acceptance phase). Now it came to the situation that we rarely see each other anymore. Now we have nothing to talk about.

    What I found, walking down FIRE Avenue, is that people on that path think differently than others. We can talk with “normal” people, however, we rarely connect with them on deeper levels. At some point during the conversation, if I want to maintain my integrity, I have to express my opinions on some topics. This is usually the point where I see that the connection is lost. Have you also noticed that?

    We are family of four (us + two young kids). We love spending time with each other. However, sometimes we miss “grown ups” talks.

    Do you also have such problems? How do you (individually or all together?) deal with that?

    P.S.: We love your blog. It has helped us during many difficult times. You are a true inspiration!

  • December 31, 2016 at 7:44 AM

    Normal is boring!

    I absolutely love the hats. Mrs Tako is very talented 🙂

    I wish you a happy, healthy and wealthy 2017, where you stick out like a sore thumb 🙂

  • January 1, 2017 at 5:16 PM

    This post hits home. I grew up in a rural area and still live near there. I watched my friends get various toys I didn’t have and wondered why we couldn’t get them. The answer was we lived in a stick built home instead of a trailer and tried to stay out of debt. A trailer is a depreciating asset unlike a stick built house that hopefully at least holds its valye. My dad bought a new car in 1976 and drove it for 8 years selling it with 175k miles on it. For you newbies, that was unheard of in that era. It’s only recently that cars would last over 5 years or 100,000 miles. We didn’t have cable or a/c and spent a lot of time fixing things ourselves. We also rarely ate out. Luckily we now live in a working class neighborhood now where there is little pressure to fit in. The homes are generally well kept but hardly anyone drives a new car or worries overly about the yard. Most homes have a truck in the driveway as we do but they’re generally not new or top end. Our truck is 15 years old. My wife and I were both raised not to spend so we are usually on the same page. 3 years ago we moved to another home in our neighborhood for a better floor plan. We opted not to increase our home size and kept our old paid off home as a rental. As far as friends, we know lots of people who share our interests or are amazed at what we’ve achieved. A lot of our friends are from church, work or service organizations and are used to socializing at home or low cost events. You may find that gathering at each others homes is welcome by everyone tired of going out. All i’m saying is normal is in your perspective. You just have to find the place where you fit in, go for it, and don’t look back. BTW – we’re on track to retire in 5 years at age 55.

  • January 2, 2017 at 9:47 AM

    I grew up in rural Washington, near Mount St. Helens, so I can relate. 😉 It’s always fun to visit. My family experience was pretty different (my parents were both teachers) & lived a relatively frugal & well planned life. They did stick out a bit, and I often think about how people afforded toys & expensive vehicles. Both were a priority for many.

  • January 9, 2017 at 8:49 PM

    One thing I love about being a lesbian is that it is easy to let all assumptions of what is normal fall off my back. Women do what? No thanks, I spend my money and time as I please. You can definitely be attacked for it, and I have, but lordy I don’t want most other versions of normal available to me.


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