suits and ties
We’re all told that appearances shouldn’t matter — we shouldn’t judge other people by their appearances or make a priority of keeping up with the Joneses. But you’d think that we wouldn’t have to keep reinforcing these beliefs on appearance if they are such universal truths. We’d have no problem avoiding spending money on things that really just amount to keeping up our appearances.

The Value of Appearances

A lot of personal finance gurus draw a hard line against spending money on appearances. I can think of a few who only buy clothes from second-hand stores, drive cars that are more than ten years old and go to great lengths not to spend money on making them look good.

I can’t help but think that such an approach is, in its own way, an effort to present a very specific appearance. After all, how far would someone talking about thriftiness get with an appearance that obviously cost a lot to maintain?

As a society, we value appearances, no matter how often we hear “don’t judge a book by its cover”. Simply cutting our budgets for clothing and other expenses related to the image we project can have far reaching impacts simply beyond saving us money. The right appearance, after all, can make a difference in whether or not you land a job, the price you can negotiate for a car, even affect where you live.

Investing in Appearances

I’m not one of those people who typically spend a lot of time thinking about appearances. I have about four pairs of shoes and can generally be expected to show up in a t-shirt just about anywhere. But recently, I let my very fashion-conscious sister pick out my outfits for meetings with clients. There was a huge difference in how those clients reacted to me in the more formal (and fashionable) outfits she picked out than the jeans and t-shirt I would normally show up in. Just that little change made a world of difference in how easy I could land clients and the prices I could charge.

When your ability to land a raise or a client is at stake, it’s worth thinking about the image you present as an investment. Sure, the car you drive to meet with clients isn’t going to appreciate in value, but if it helps you land bigger accounts, it may just be worth the cost of entry. When thinking about your appearance, you need to take your goals and your current situation into account. There is truth to the idea that people prefer to buy from or work with individuals that are successful, and your appearance is the main way they can tell just how successful you may be. That doesn’t mean you need to rush out and buy a brand new car — there are many ways of signaling your own successes — but you do need to think about appearances.

You have to take your personal situation into account, along with what impact your appearance actually has in your life. In a sense, you have to prioritize the image you want to present. For most people, keeping up appearances certainly shouldn’t be a high priority — but it should be something you consider when you’re making the budget and planning your finances.

Keeping Up Appearances

There is an undeniable danger that goes along with constantly trying to keep up with the Joneses, no matter the actual value of keeping up appearances. It’s important to understand the differences between making sure that your appearance can help you move towards your goals and just wanting to project an image for image’s sake. It’s that second one that can become incredibly expensive.

It’s also worth reminding yourself that image is not the same as reality. If you want your appearance to include expensive clothes or cars, you don’t necessarily have to spend too much on them. Careful shopping (including a trip by the second-hand store) can create a wardrobe that costs less than it appears to. It takes some planning — more than you would need to just go to the nearest store.

If appearances need to be a priority for you, that shouldn’t be a problem — but you may need to spend some time on that priority, especially if your budget doesn’t necessarily leave room for the image you need to project. Handled correctly, there’s no reason you can’t turn your appearance into an asset.

But What If You Care About Appearance to a Point that You Find Frugality Embarrassing?

Here’s a story you might be able to relate to:
I bought a pair of pants. The purchase wasn’t planned for, and the decision was a result of a bit of embarrassment, anger, sadness, and envy combined.

My journey to the checkout counter all started a few days ago when we walked by a CPA’s office while I curiously strolled through the business park that was recently established in my neighborhood. It so happened that I was looking for a new accountant to talk about my new business structure, so I decided to walk in.

After some mingling with the receptionist and introducing ourselves to the accountant, he spent the next 15 minutes trying to convince us that our business probably isn’t at the point of needing his service. We walked out confused since we didn’t even talk much about specifics, but my wife quickly made an astute observation.

That’s when it dawned on me – I was wearing jeans, a plain colored t-shirt I bought ten years ago, an old pair of running shoes and badly needing a haircut. To my defense, we were just taking a break from our daily schedule and I never intended to talk about business, but I forgot – perception matters.

shopping mall
Over the weekend, we were out taking a walk at the local mall. We loved the atmosphere. There were tons of people, everyone was happy and surprisingly, many people were lining up to pay.

As we continued to walk, we noticed that everyone seemed to dress nicer than we did. I felt a little embarrassed at first, but could it be that bad? We started paying more attention, and the reality is actually WORSE. We found one person who dressed worse than we did. One single soul. It was so bad it actually became funny. We laughed, and realized we never bought clothing for ourselves since our honeymoon, a fabulous vacation two years ago. I ended up buying a pair of pants, and my wife bought a shirt.

For the frugal types amongst us, this story must sound familiar. Many of us choose to be frugal, so it doesn’t really bother us.

But, do you find being frugal embarrassing at times?

For my wife and I, the answer is a YES. We do find ourselves embarrassed at times because of the way we spend money. We find comfort when we calm down later and think about our lifestyle though. We love finding the great deal, and we love being debt free. One of these days, we might start spending more as our incomes and financial future seem more secure. But as of right now, our frugal choices are allowing us to look forward to a prosperous future. We don’t want to keep up with the Joneses, because we aren’t the Jonses.

How about you? Do you like your own name, or do you want to be the Jones as well?