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Lifestyle Projection & the Appearance of Wealth

How much stock do you put in the appearance of wealth?

I came upon a blogger, Morrison at All Doors Considered, who said that she cultivates “an aura of wealth” so successfully that all her friends think she makes $200K when she has never made more than $50K in her life.

For years, I have always projected an image of wealth and success. But the bottom line is correct. My husband and I never really earned more than $50K per year. Ever. Yet, we have always given the false projection that we earn more by living a $100K lifestyle. I thought it was due to my unique marketing talents and savvy buying capabilities that helped fuel our lifestyle projection (emphasis mine). And it is. Apparently I was doing a fantastic job creating our image.

Hat tip to Grace at GRACEful Retirement for linking to her post.

This brings me to an interesting question:

Do you look more well-off or less well-off than you actually are? What is your “lifestyle projection” as Morrison calls it?

One of the great things about America, I think, is that the way you look might be very different from your actual economic status. Which is to say that it’s hard to make snap judgments about people, even if you see the clothes they wear, the house they live in, or the cars they drive. So why try so hard to convince people of a certain “image” when that image is not very reliable to begin with? I know people who have cashed out their companies for a million and they look like regular Joe Schmoe walking down the street.

As far as my lifestyle projection goes, my goal at work is to look smart and put-together, and I’d like my home to be stylish and comfortable. While both of those “images” are easier to construct with money (if all else fails, you can hire professional stylists and decorators if you have the financial resources), I think they can be achieved on smaller budgets as well.

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy having nice things. Of course I do. I have my favorite brands and indulgences (ahem, spa treatments), but I’d like to think that those things are for myself, and not really for any image of wealth that I need to project to the outside world. In fact, wouldn’t it be depressing to make people think you are richer than you actually are? That’s one reason why I never carry knock-off items – there is nothing satisfying, to me, in making people believe I have a Louis Vuitton bag when I am not carrying an LV.

My parents, on the other hand, are probably the quintessential “millionaires next door.” They look much less well-off then you’d expect them to be. If you saw where they live, or the cars they drive (my mother’s car is even older than mine), or the way they dressed, you would never expect that their income bumps along the $200,000 mark, or that they have several rental properties, or that they accumulated their net worth after starting their careers in their late 30s. They spend on what they need and what they value (good education, medical care, etc.), not to impress anyone else. And that’s pretty fantastic to me.

Photo by Mike_Fleming via Flickr

  • Aleksie - I think it's important to look and behave dignified. There are some situations where I'll dress up (interviews, fancy dinners), but I like look nice and playing the rules. I don't like the idea of projecting an image based on wealth. Wealth means you just have a lot of money. It doesn't mean you're intelligent, kind, etc. ReplyCancel

    • WellHeeled - I agree that there are definitely occasions for dressing up. But I think you can never tell how affluent someone is by the way they dress – your guess can be *wildly* off the mark. I can be fabulously wealthy and be carrying an Hermes bag, or it can be a bag that I've saved and scrimped for 5 years to get. OR, it can be a knock-off, or purchased with debt. There's nothing wrong with wanting to look good, but I don't know how closely correlated looking stylish is with being wealthy. ReplyCancel

      • Aleksie - While I don't believe that it's true at all, I think people still equate appearance/clothes to wealth. Like how a business suit signifies wealth, even if you have no idea who that person is. I've seen numerous comments that are like "How can she dress like that when she has all that money?" regarding celebrities. ReplyCancel

  • krantcents - I used to think that status symbols were important, but not impress others. It was a reward for me for achieving success. It ultimately does give an appearance of showing off though. I have since changed my ways and recognize what is really important in life and it is not things. Aside fro that, I appear richer because of no debt (except a mortgage). It provides a lot of freedom. ReplyCancel

  • Evan - Interesting…I have no idea what I give off to people. I think I often try to prove myself which probably gives either a boastful impression or someone thinks I am comfortable….

    Moving away from self realization for a second, people judge…they just do. It all depends if you care about their judgment. If it is a client you'll care – if it is the neighbor you hate then you most likely won't care. ReplyCancel

  • Weekly Reading: Personal Finance Links - […] Healed Blog asks whether you project that you make less money or more money than you actually do in What’s Your Lifestyle Projection. I think I’m about on point with my lifestyle – maybe a little higher than I would […]ReplyCancel

  • c_vandoorn - My parents have always taught me to present myself well in public. That doesn't mean wearing the latest designer duds, but it does mean no wrinkly clothes, clothes that fit, brushed hair, etc. I know people that can make Forever 21 clothes look like a million bucks.

    As for my own image and how people perceive me…I don't really care what they think! As long i'm friendly and don't act snooty and arrogant, I honestly couldn't care less if they judge me or not. ReplyCancel

  • Jamie - I think it depends what industry you’re in. Here in NYC, appearances matter far more than I would like them to, and spending some coin on a decent pair of heels or a bag or a haircut can make a big difference. In fact, I wish someone had told me that when I first started working in media. I’d love to know what the secrets to looking well-off are, as I would definitely use the tips! ReplyCancel

  • earlyretirementextreme - Check out the book "Bobos in Paradise" for a very interesting take on this.

    Sun Tzu said something to the effect of appearing strong when weak and weak when strong. I think I subconsciously try to follow this. It's honestly not something I've thought a lot about but I think my commuter bike illustrates my priorities: It looks like crap, the saddle is ripped, the paint is chipping off, I've wrapped some of the frame with duct tape just to make it look bad so it won't be stolen. However, on the inside, the all the bearings are greased, the brakes are aligned, the chain is oiled, it runs great. So I think I like to give the appearance of weakness while really being strong. ReplyCancel

    • WellHeeled - I have heard of Bobos in Paradise and it has been on my to read list for a few years now! Thanks for the reminder. I love your example – and what a great way to prevent the bike from being stolen. ReplyCancel

    • StackingCash - When I was a kid I had an embarrassing Huffy bike. My two friends just got brand new Mongoose bikes. One day we rode our bikes to the desert, parked them, climbed up and over a big hill, came back over and down to where we parked our bikes, my bike was the only one there. Made me laugh, but I did feel sorry for my two friends, their parents were extremely upset about it. The only time I felt that looking poor was to my advantage.

  • Savvy Young Money - For me it's not about whether people perceives me as wealthy or not. Rather, there's something very satisfying about knowing you can do something just as well with a smaller amount of money/effort. With that said though, there's no point in excessively projecting an image of wealth. Living frugally doesn't mean sacrificing your image, but utilize what you have wisely. ReplyCancel

  • J.S. - This is an interesting idea to think about, I have always tried to be "effortless chic," like seriously effortless. But this wasn't about an "image" but about "lifestyle." It just so happens that people tend to associate my "image" with a different lifestyle than it actually takes to have this image. For example, I only own good (i.e. well-fitting, pretty, comfortable) clothes and people assume that I am always so put-together but actually, I don't even own any "bad" clothing (like ratty sweat pants) so I can never wear it.

    As for finances, I have a friend who once told me that he always thought my parents made at least $150k (this was a few years ago, in college) and when I told him my dad makes just over $80k and my mom doesn't work, his eyes bulged out. He said that I always carried myself with dignity and he attached that to a wealth level.

    So yeah, just like someone already said, carrying yourself with dignity and presenting yourself "well" in public can lead to people making assumptions. Sometimes I don't put on makeup and wear my "worse" clothes when I am in certain company just to fit in better. ReplyCancel

    • WellHeeled - Please help me figure out how to be effortlessly chic. That is something I'd like to work on… While you're at it, I'd also like to be effortlessly thin, effortlessly successful, and effortlessly happy. ūüėČ ReplyCancel

  • Tea - I read the blog about lifestyle projection and I don't see anything wrong with it. The author seems to like nice things, but can't afford them right away. So she and her husband save, get things at a discount and do DIY to afford what the rich could pay for outright.

    Her projection is more perception and perception is reality. I don't think it matters how others see you, but more or less how you see youself. I think it's less about "appearing rich" and more about not appearing poor. Because anyone can tell you that actually being poor (and being teased about it or wanting for something) really sucks.

    So if you make a decision that you're not going to look like you want for anything, I don't think there's anything wrong with that, so long as you aren't financing it.

    Interesting topic. Thanks for posting. ReplyCancel

    • WellHeeled - I agree there's nothing wrong with wanting nice things or getting nice things for cheaper than other people, but I guess I just don't get the connection between dressing nicely or having certain things as a mark of wealth. If you are truly old-money rich, there will be things that set you apart, and if you are Bill-Gates rich, you can have 10 mansions and that's that. But in between the correlation between what you have and what you wear and your net worth is very low. ReplyCancel

  • First Gen American - When I'm not at work I dress ultra casual. There is no way people can tell how much I make from the way I look. Interesting though, at work, I almost always wear suits because I'm in sales. Anyway, I was driving through my hometown and stopped in one of my favorite bakeries. I was in work clothes and the owner actually went out of her way to ask me who I was and if I had been in her bakery before. She actually made my wedding cake but didn't remember me from my bummy days. Dressing up does get attention, but usually I don't care to have it. ReplyCancel

  • Jeff@Sustainlifeblog - I'm not sure why anyone would feel the need to project an image like that. I try not to do it, and am not sure why anyone would with anything else, but I can understand it with money. There's a stigma attached to making less than a certain amount – just like their is to making more than a certain amount. ReplyCancel

  • Kathryn - hi there! I'm new here. Have you read The Psychology of Persuasion? I've always grappled with this topic of how we try to convince people of a certain "image" until I read that book. The book talks about how the way someone dressed functions as a weapon of influence, meaning, people respond to people differently when they are dressed a certain way. Obviously, not a novel concept. But the studies in the book are really interesting and made me view my "image" differently in that people often respond better to you or take you more seriously when you're dressed a certain way and have a nice outfit on (think pretty woman shopping experience of Julia Roberts on Rodeo Drive!)

    Some people think it's superficial to focus on your image, but studies show (in the book) that you have a lot more influence when your'e dressed a certain way, and it doesn't mean you have to carry a $1,000 purse, it's your whole "look" that matters. When I look at it that way…..who wouldn't want to dress in a way to have influence when it comes to their career and life, don't we all want to have some sort of influence? Just a thought…..love your blog!
    Kathryn ReplyCancel

    • WellHeeled - Hi Kathryn, thanks for the tip. I will definitely check out that book. I don't think it's superficial to focus on your image – I know that I will feel more confident when I am more dressed up at work. I just checked out your blog too – it's so interesting and thought-provoking! I am starting from the first entry. :) ReplyCancel

  • StackingCash - Unfortunately, I am affected by this quite a bit. Living in Las Vegas, it's all about flashing the bling. It is difficult to ignore and makes me quite envious. I really do wish I lived somewhere else that considered flashing wealth rude. The trophy wives here are ridiculous here also.

  • FabulouslyBroke.com - I don't put a lot of stock into appearance, but I am starting to notice certain markers.

    For instance, a girl covered head to toe in logos to me has no true wealth or money. She's just showing off, and it's probably all fake.

    A girl who is dressed simply, but nicely, and is carrying a no-name leather bag that looks well-made with soft buttery leather makes me feel as though she has some money and knows how to spend it on quality.

    I can almost spot what is good quality or not, regardless of the name or brand on it. Even if it's a designer item, but it's made out of canvas selling for $1000, I think "that's just cheap". But a bag that sells for $100 and is made out of amazing leather and is stitched well, is expensive to me.

    Cost has nothing to do with it.

    People think I'm a student, an intern, half-hobo :) I don't dress up in heels everyday (it's too cold, icy and there's too much snow), and when the weather warms up I like to pull out my 1 pair of awesome flat knee-high boots and dress up a bit, but I'm not flashing logos all over the place.

    I drive a super old car, I don't wear makeup if I don't feel like it, and we live pretty simple lives, so no one would imagine or know how much I make. ReplyCancel

  • Sunday Snippets: Blooms And Gratitude | Minting Nickels - […] Lifestyle Projection and the Appearance of Wealth, by Well Heeled Blog […]ReplyCancel

  • Tim - I must look a whole lot worse off than I really am. Whenever a group of us go out to lunch at work someone is always offering to pay for mine and when I insist on getting the check they all seem worried and mention that they can get it and I dont have to. It's annoying, I'm not destitute! ūüėČ

    All my coworkers have nice homes a few more than one and all drive Acuras or late model German autos whereas I use a 35 year old BMW motorcycle that cost less than 2 weeks pay for my main transportation, at least its German or they might really feel pity for me, and I have lived in the same travel trailer RV for the last 11 years.

    Real estate here is expensive, I've been trying to save a sizable down payment for years. It would probably go faster if I wasn't also almost fully funding my 401k and IRA at the same time. ReplyCancel

  • Jaime - I don't get those people that post their net worth on their blogs. I know that some of these people have struggled with debt so when I see them saving month from month I'm happy for them. It takes a lot of work at a job and through self-discipline to save money and get out of debt. In fact when they hit the 50k+ mark I think hey that's inspiring.

    But with other bloggers I don't get why they post their net worth, budgets, etc. Some bloggers do it just to brag. It seems that's the new version of telling people you're well off. I think if someone is well off they would have satisfaction whenever they login to online banking and see the stats on their bank accounts.

    I also think its dangerous to post your stats on a blog, lots of websites have been hacked into, anonymous bloggers have been outed, I don't think its safe to do that. ReplyCancel

  • jesinalbuquerque - Dressing like a million bucks creates expectations — donations, picking up the checks, expensive memerships and others. I'd rather have people know I'm poor than think I'm cheap and heartless. ReplyCancel

  • How much stock do you put into appearance? - […] A great post by Well-Heeled (one of my favourite blogs) about what your lifestyle projection is. […]ReplyCancel

  • Weekly Blog Round Up - […] How Much Stock Do You Put in the Appearance of Wealth? @ Well Heeled […]ReplyCancel

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