January 23, 2017

When it comes to personal finance, it feels like everything is about the numbers. And us personal finance bloggers are obsessed with them. Looking at the dirty details of someone’s budget or net worth is like personal finance porn — we get hot for it. It’s sexy to see how much someone saved, or get a peek at their budget. We congratulate people on paying off debt.

While I love consuming the numbers as much as the next person, I’ve come to realize that all the numbers are a lie.

The numbers are simply one-dimensional representations of what someone has done. These numbers work hard at making us feel either incredibly good about our situation or incredibly bad.

Usually, it’s the latter. Maybe you thought you killed it this month, but then someone made twice as much as you. You thought you put a lot toward debt, then realize someone put your entire salary to debt. In these moments, it’s easy to get sucked into feeling like you’re not good enough.

But here’s the thing: the numbers don’t tell a whole story. There is absolutely no context to compare ourselves to others. After all, personal finance is not apples to apples. Yet we get sucked into these numbers thinking that if they can do it, so should we.

I implore you — look at the bigger picture. There are so many things that affect what you can ultimately do with your money. Things like:

I remember when I was paying off debt, I used to get jealous of what others were putting toward their debt. I’ve had people say the same thing about me. But our situations, inevitably, are always wildly different. I cannot compare myself to someone who is married and lives in a low-cost of living area, as that is not my reality. Someone struggling to find work and take care of a baby should under no circumstances compare themselves to me and what I’ve done.

You see, in personal finance context is everything. The numbers mean absolutely nothing without any context. We all have our privileges and setbacks that are uniquely ours. They can either help or hurt us on our financial journeys. Some we can change, others we cannot.

But it’s important to acknowledge they are there. It’s important to look at the big picture and avoid comparing your financial situation to others at all costs. Doing so will be the fastest route to misery and if I can make a guess, could sabotage your own financial well-being.

In your own quest toward financial freedom, it’s important to find inspiration from others who have gone before you and have done what you want to do. But don’t get paralyzed by empty comparisons — focus on what you can do with your own particular situation.


Melanie is a freelance writer currently living in Portland, Oregon. She is passionate about education, financial literacy, and empowering people to take control of their finances. She writes about breaking up with debt, freelancing, and side hustle adventures at DearDebt.com.

Currently she puts more than 50% of her income towards debt, while living a frugal, fun life. In addition to her love of personal finance, art and music, she is also a karaoke master. Follow the adventure @DearDebtBlog.

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19 responses to “The Numbers Are All A Lie”

  1. Yeah so much word Melanie! I’ve really tried to become better at just keeping my side of the street clean!
    Tonya@Budget and the Beach recently posted…But What If…?My Profile

  2. LaMesha says:

    I’m glad you said this. I needed the reminder. I’m working so hard at paying off my debt and totally get jealous and frustrated at what other people are doing but then I realize I had a baby last year, which brings my total to 3, my husband is in the military and we live overseas, which actually doesn’t pay much at all and there are limited employment opportunities for me here. I can only work on the base and there are few jobs and lots of competition. I’m doing the best I can do. We all are. I gotta stop comparing myself to people with different circumstances than me.

  3. LOVE this. I used to get caught up in this too. It’s hard not to. But now we focus on the fact that we’re MOVING FORWARD. Doesn’t matter how much or how little as long as we’re being honest about our spending choices. Forward progress is still progress, and that’s a good thing!

  4. NZ Muse says:

    Yes, yes, YES! I live in a low wage high COL area (but it’s my home town and home country and I love it). I have a job I love and a low earning partner and pets and a (big) mortgage. I have never made six figures and I would like to have kids in the next few years. Money is SO important to me but it is clearly not the ONLY thing.
    NZ Muse recently posted…Get your money mojo back with these 8 quick financial winsMy Profile

  5. Even percentages lie– when you’re high income you can spend the same amount as someone with lower income but save a much larger percent.
    Nicoleandmaggie recently posted…Books for #2’s DC1My Profile

  6. Lisa says:

    YES! This honestly also reminded me of weight loss – the numbers on the scale are all a lie. Instead of looking at the numbers alone, it’s important to remember and celebrate “non-scale” milestones. Context is key.
    Lisa recently posted…Our 2017 financial goalsMy Profile

  7. Thanks for the reminder! It’s called personal finance for a reason. Everyone’s situation is different. The basic principles are they same but when applied to your situation they will have varying results. Keep that in mind.
    Brian @ Debt Discipline recently posted…1.4 Million Reasons to Help SomeoneMy Profile

  8. Pamela says:

    What I gather from this article is that you cannot compare yourself to others on your path to financial freedom. I agree. I dont agree that simply your gender or race determine your financial status. I am a hispanic woman and because I worked hard in my career, I advanced quickly and got promoted. At the end of the day, its how hard you are willing to work. Focus on your plans and stop wasting your time comparing yourself to others.

    • Melanie says:

      Yes, that is what I’m saying! I think you can be successful and get ahead, despite your race or gender, but I do believe there is still a wage gap. There is still institutional racism and sexism. I think hard work can help you succeed but it’s not a magic bullet, either. What I’m saying is there are a LOT of factors to consider — some which may affect you, some which may not, but it’s important to look at the big picture.

  9. Keeping the personal in personal finance.

    No matter what your situation, there’s always someone doing “better’ and someone doing “worse”. What matters most is that you have a plan, and you’re moving in the direction you want to go.
    Jack @ Enwealthen recently posted…Lending Club P2P Portfolio Update: Q4 2016My Profile

  10. Centsai says:

    This was such a great article Melanie! It is important not to compare your financial well being to others!If you do then you will just always be unhappy. You make a great point on how context is everything!
    Centsai recently posted…How to Make Sure Your New Home is a Good InvestmentMy Profile

  11. Thank you so much for this! Depending on my mood at the moment I find other peoples debt journeys either inspire me or make me feel like we are not making at much progress as we should be. I need to stop comparing and focus on our plan.
    Jennifer Connolly recently posted…Planning aheadMy Profile

  12. Chris says:

    Context is king. The comparison game is a race lost before the gun is fired.

    Needed to read this. Thank you, Melanie.
    Chris recently posted…Why We Chose Not to MoveMy Profile

  13. This post makes so much sense. My husband just started his own venture (finally) which means any earnings are put back into the business.
    The loans that were taken on the basis of 2 salaries are now on one salary and it is difficult at times. But I believe even with the loans we are attempting to build a better future and posts like this help keep it in perspective.
    Aparna @ Elementum Money recently posted…Top 5 Spend Tracker AppsMy Profile

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