Today we have the pleasure of a guest post by Laurie at The Frugal Farmer. Similar to our recent personal story on How To Live The Good Life (Without Going Broke), she tells her family’s story of re-ordering priorities to achieve what is most important to them.

Financial Fitness - Not keeping up with the Joneses

Growing up in a poor inner city neighborhood, I always wondered what it was like to own a house in the fancy suburban neighborhoods that surrounded our large urban area. As luck would have it, the man I would eventually marry happened to grow up in one of those fancy suburbs.

When his family moved into that suburb it was a simple country town, but as the years went on it grew to become one of the most popular suburbs in our state. After Rick and I got married, we looked at some houses in nicer areas of the urban city where I’d grown up, but because Rick was on the local fire department in his suburb and it offered a great pension, we decided to buy in the ‘burbs.

Enter the Joneses

Our first home was a nice three-level townhome with two bedrooms. After our first baby came along, we decided we wanted to move to a single family home. Spending just $11k less than what the mortgage company approved us for, (Weren’t we responsible? We actually spent less than we could have!) we moved into a gorgeous four level, 3600 square foot home. This home was bigger and better than either Rick or I ever dreamed we’d own. The main level had 14 foot ceilings. The top level had three big bedrooms with a big master bedroom that had a large, full master bath with a Jacuzzi tub. The third level boasted a 600 square foot family room and the bottom level had a similar sized playroom for the kids.

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We were doing okay payment wise with the house (even though we were spending all that we had each month) until I got laid off from my job 9 months after the birth of our second child. I had worked in the mortgage industry as a sales assistant for one of the top mortgage reps in the area, but the market was beginning to slow. I’m certain the top dogs in the mortgage area saw the housing crash coming long before the rest of us did, and all mortgage reps were “strongly encouraged” to lay off their assistants.

At the time, I was thrilled to be laid off. It gave us the push we needed to start living on one income so I could stay home with the kids. Within the next 2.5 years we had two more kids.

Money was super tight, but we just dealt with it. We’d never had money in savings so we just got used to living paycheck to paycheck. Eventually, we began to accumulate debt.

The debt was the result of the “needs” we were encountering in our new suburban life. “Needs” such as dance lessons for the girls, upgrades in clothing and furniture, and the regular, “necessary” costs of keeping up with the Joneses.

As Brad spoke about in this post, there was an unspoken competition to have it all and do it all. Sure, we could afford to go out to eat whenever we wanted. Sure, we could afford those cute outfits on sale at the dance center. Sure, we could afford to spend oodles of money on landscaping each year.

The only problem was that we couldn’t afford it. We were going deeper and deeper into debt.

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The Beginning of Change

As time wore on, we dreamed of having a vacation home in the country we could get away to on the weekends. The funny thing about this dream was that we were living super tight financially. But in today’s society where you just buy on credit, our goal was to get to a place where we could afford the payments on a vacation home.

We were tired and felt we needed a break from life, but we didn’t really understand why. We looked good. Had nice stuff. According to the Joneses we were living a successful life. But we weren’t entirely happy and didn’t understand why.

Eventually we had the opportunity to buy our older daughter a horse. Madelyn had wanted a horse for as long as I could remember. We bought the horse and boarded it at a stable not far from our suburban home, with her and I working at the stable to offset boarding costs. More commitments, more stress.

So we decided to consider moving permanently to the country so that we could have the horse right in our back yard. The more we looked at homes and thought about country life, the more the allure of peace and quiet drew us in.

After looking for about a year and a half we found an old Victorian home that had been gutted and updated. It sat on just under 8 acres and there was a small, private lake in the back. We moved in October 1, 2012.

Life in the country was absolutely amazing. Every time we drove up the long driveway to our home, we felt like we were going on vacation. Sitting outside on our front porch, we heard only the sound of leaves blowing in the wind and birds singing.

The people we met out here were different. They didn’t care about what we drove, what we wore or what we owned. That surprised us, and being alone with our thoughts caused us to take a deep look inside ourselves. It was then that we realized we’d been living our life for other people. We’d been working to keep up with the Joneses.

Because the Joneses’ lifestyle is so normal in suburbia, it honestly never occurred to us that there was anything wrong with that. Until we sat alone with our oodles of consumer debt (in the tens of thousands of dollars by the time we moved) and our thoughts.

Suddenly, we could see the rat race for what it was. The pointlessness of living life to please others became crystal clear. For the first time in our lives (we were in our early forties) we started to wonder what it was that we wanted out of life; what was important to us.

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As we pondered these questions we realized that one thing we didn’t want was debt. Like our new neighbors, we began to not care what anyone else owned or what they thought of what we owned – or didn’t own.

For the first time in our lives we began tracking our expenses and living off of a budget. As a part of this process we went back and tracked our 2012 expenses using our credit card and bank statements. We wanted to see how we had gotten into so much debt.

It turned out that we were wasting a whole lot of money each month on stupid stuff like dining out and miscellaneous pointless purchases “just for fun”. No wonder we were deep in debt!

Alone with our thoughts and our debt, we knew we needed to do something different so we began the process of paying the debt off. It was a slow process that involved a lot of emotional work on our part. We began to realize that there were emotional reasons behind why we spent so many years living our life to please the Joneses.

As we worked through those emotional reasons, our debt actually went up – a LOT. We spent money for professional care to work through old childhood wounds that were hidden deep inside, and we spent money on activities we felt were necessary in order to promote healing of our minds and bodies after living with years and years of hidden, unrealized stresses that were caused by childhood experiences and living to impress others. Some people question why we continued to spend beyond our means at that time, and our answer is always this: we were doing it intentionally, and doing it as a means to an end. We were spending to get well, giving though to every purchase we made and analyzing it, with the end goal of being emotionally healthy.

How to Clarify Your Life Priorities

Now the healing is done and we are well on our way to being consumer debt free.

Life in the Country

It’s funny; we never thought that our moving from the suburbs to a hobby farm would have such a profound impact on our lives, but once you start living alone with your thoughts, the quiet of the country allows you to see life for what it is.

Life on a hobby farm does entail a lot of hard work. We have a large yard to care for. Animals to care for. Storms out here are tough, because there are no buildings to keep the wind from wreaking havoc on things. We grow and preserve much of our own food – also a lot of work – but it’s our work.

No longer do we make decisions or buy things based on what other people think. Instead, we spend time regularly defining our own goals as individuals, as a couple and as a family. Then we work on a plan for achieving those goals.

Our kids, now 17, 14, 12 and 11, are thriving in the country. They too have lost all care as to what others think and are free to form their own opinions about life. They have learned the value in a hard day’s work and in helping others, something that is a regular occurrence out here in the country. Because we’re not so focused on keeping up, we have more time to make a difference in our community and help others.

We are regularly complimented on the kids’ maturity, their behavior, their ability to communicate and their willingness to spend time helping those who need help.

A funny story: a couple of years ago my mom came up and took us out to eat at a restaurant down in the cities. As we sat there and ate, mom saw a friend dining nearby and went over to talk with her. As mom shared the names and ages of the kids, the woman asked “Is something wrong with the children? Do they have medical issues?”

Mom, bewildered, asked what would make her think that. “Well,” the woman said, “they’re all sitting there so quietly.”

We laugh about that to this day. We laugh because if the woman saw my kids at home she’d see that they are laughing, running, playing kids just like most other kids. And we wonder, what have we become as a society that it is abnormal to sit quietly and be respectful at the dinner table?

The longer we live in the country, defining our own dreams and goals and making decisions based on what’s best for us instead of what other people think, the more grateful I am that we no longer take part in the rat race that is keeping up with the Joneses.

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I watch others who are still struggling with the major league expenses that come with living for the Joneses; the new car payments, the top-of-the-line clothes and electronic gadgets. I watch not to judge, but to help keep myself and my family in check, remembering what is important in life, ever grateful that we left the pressures that can come with living in suburbia behind.

Laurie is a wife, mother to 4, and homesteader who blogs about personal finance, self-sufficiency and life in general over at The Frugal Farmer. Part witty, part introspective and part silly, her goal in blogging is to help others find their way to financial freedom, and to a simpler, more peaceful life.