What do all of these things have in common?
First of all, they’re largely considered cultural norms in America.
For many, it can feel as though you’re not viewed as normal if you don’t participate in these activities or have these things as personal goals. Often, there are small social pressures applied to encourage you to do these things; and sometimes, in the case of things like weddings, the social pressure can be pretty large.
Of course, the other element these things have in common is that they’re all incredibly expensive. They’re either big expenses on their own, like the big wedding or the big house, or they’re little expenses that repeat so frequently that they add up, like going out to eat all the time. Because we all have a desire to fit in, people continuously find themselves spending tons of money to live up to these kinds of cultural norms.
But here’s a big secret: You really don’t have to.
Of course, for many, that’s easier said than done. Social pressure might not always be an obvious thing, but it’s there and it can really squeeze you.
If you want to improve your financial state, there’s almost nothing you can do that’s more important than this. You absolutely have to stop worrying about what other people think. Instead, re-center your life around what you think and what you value. Live your life and make your financial choices in accordance to what you care about, not what the people around you care about.
If you truly stop worrying what other people think, one of the biggest drives for keeping up with expensive cultural norms just goes away.
This whole process begins with figuring out what you actually want without the pressure of your culture and the people around you. If you truly throw off the weight of worrying about what other people think… what exactly are you left with? What is it that you want?
This is actually a difficult question to answer because it’s not something that comes easy to most of us. For me, the answer really came from asking one question as seriously as possible – What would my ideal typical day look like?
Turn that question over in your mind for a while. Come back to it over the course of several days. Then, start asking yourself what kinds of things would have to be in place to make that life exist, particularly in terms of things you can control. Would you have to have a firm financial foundation? Would you have to have low stress?
Those are the things you should be filling your time with and working on. Even if they don’t lead exactly to the picture you have in your head, it’s likely that they’ll lead to somewhere you want to be in life.
An important thing to remember is that not all cultural norms are expensive. Many of the common things people share aren’t expensive at all – many are completely free. Those are things that you shouldn’t drop and should actually try to emphasize a little, especially if you find personal value in them as well.
People often ascribe to things like the “American dream” of having a marriage and a house with a yard and two kids and a dog because it’s a set of big goals that’s presented everywhere and thus really easy to adopt. There’s a lot of cultural reinforcement of those goals and if you don’t already have your own plan, it’s usually easier to just lock onto those and follow the rails.
The thing is, for a lot of people, that “American dream” doesn’t bring a joyous and fulfilling life. Plus, it’s an expensive dream. To be able to afford that life today is beyond the means of most Americans, and even some of those who can grab it can only do so by leveraging a lot of debt.
A much better approach is to step back and define your own big life goals.
What does a really great life five or 10 years from now look like for you and what do you need to do to put yourself in position to have that life? Those are your long-term goals. Now, what can you do to achieve them? Put those long-term goals front and center.
The key thing here is to focus on what you want. Where do you want to be? Center on that and drive for that.
There are going to be lots of temptations along the way. There are going to be lots of nudges to move in a different direction, to adopt everyone else’s goals, to do what everyone else wants you to do. Don’t fall into that trap. Stick to your big goals and the life you want.
There’s often a big desire inside of us to subscribe to cultural norms and to please other people. The path you’re following, when it doesn’t follow the obvious path, isn’t always clear. The best counter you have is simplicity and clarity. You are doing X to achieve Y, and it’s very rare that Y is something objectionable. If the connection between X and Y is clear, that’s usually more than enough ammo to stick to your guns.
Sometimes, however, compromise is needed. The trick here is to find what’s in common between your plans and their vision – try looking at all of the stuff you have in common rather than dwelling on the things that are different.
You should make a conscious effort to fill your life with a variety of people who share at least some significant set of values with you. You don’t have to share all values with everyone in your life – that’s probably not a good thing, either – but being in constant conflict with the people in your life isn’t healthy and it isn’t conducive to you achieving the things you want for your own life.
Make a conscious effort to cultivate friendships and relationships oriented around being supportive of each other and positive about each other’s efforts and goals. If you have a friend or family member who is always rather negative about you and what you’re doing, consciously choose to minimize that relationship (not eliminate, just minimize). If you have other friends who always seem really supportive of your efforts, genuinely listen to you, and are often helpful, maximize those relationships by consciously spending more time with those people and actually listening to them and being supportive of them as well.
The key thing to always remember is that: you don’t have to be steered by what other people seem to expect from you or what you feel like society wants you to do. Even though those forces can be very powerful, they often can steer you down a lane that’s incredibly expensive and not in line with what you want out of life. Stay in that path for too long and you find yourself financially trapped in a life that you don’t want to live.
You are far better off avoiding expensive cultural norms that don’t match what you want out of life rather than following that path and finding yourself stuck in a moment that you can’t get out of. Not only that, by avoiding expensive cultural norms that you don’t value, you’re going to have a lot of resources left over for the kind of life that you do value. Let that vision of life be your guiding light.
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