Selfies, Budgets & the Reality Distortion Field

Johnny and Joanna

The selfie. It’s as ingrained in our culture as cheeseburgers, football, and Kardashians. It represents a raw, candid view of reality, right at that moment in time. Or at least it’s supposed to look like reality. Take the above photo, for instance. What do you see? Johnny and me, dressed to the nines and happy after a day of wedding festivities. A perfect, romantic night. What don’t you see? Me, with a migraine, and Johnny in a rented suit that doubled as a sweat towel. Less than an hour later, I’d be throwing up on the side of the road thanks to said headache. And then a little after that, throwing up in a McDonald’s cup in the car. How very romantic indeed. Apologies.

There’s always more to the selfie than meets the eye. The problem is that the person taking the selfie is the only one who knows what that “more” is. And he/she can include as little or as much as he/she pleases. For the most part, the measurements of our lives — our happiness, relationships, style, excitement, and financial success — are all presented in a very controlled manner.

This can be a problem. Don’t get me wrong, most of us don’t jump on Instagram expecting or hoping to be inundated with the harsh realities of our friends’ lives. We want to see the ideal and glamorous and picturesque because, oftentimes, we want to escape our own reality. I prefer to document and remember the happy, exciting moments of our lives, and I enjoy seeing others’ beautiful moments. But it becomes a problem when we start seeing others’ pictures as a reality we should measure ourselves against.

It’s really hard to not feel cheated about sticking to a strict budget after a scroll through our social feeds. Perfectly colored hair and manicured hands and painted lips and adorable outfits — it leaves us wanting it all. Not to mention the impromptu trips to Europe or the tickets to a sold-out show or an evening at an exclusive restaurant — all with your friends’ carefree, happy faces plastered with their very best selfie smiles.

These documentations aren’t the problem. Everyone has a right to post their happy life moments. The problem occurs when we think of their pictures as a full documentation of their lives. And we try to measure our success against their presented success, and we end up feeling like we fall very, very short.

And when you’re on a budget, you may feel especially far behind everyone else’s perfectly-everything lives. But few of us know what’s going on in the undocumented parts of people’s lives. And we don’t need to know. But it’s not always (or hardly ever, really) quite as peachy as it seems. Some of the people who are living a top-shelf selfie-life actually have bottom-shelf finances. And some people who are smiling their best selfie smiles actually have a raging migraine. Well, at least one person.

The key is to not compare. There’s no point in keeping up with the Joneses if you’re not keeping track of what the Joneses have (or don’t have). Don’t measure your success, financial or otherwise, on these unrealities. Measure them on goals that you’ve set for yourself. Measure them on where you were a year ago versus where you are now. Measure them on your balanced budget at the end of each month. And then keep on double tapping those selfie pics and telling all your friends how beautiful they are and were in that nano-second that was their reality.

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  • Reply Ellen May 13, 2015 at 8:51 am

    Thank you for this post! That was one of my two resolutions I made for the New Year – Budget better and stop comparing my situation to others. I feel like they go hand in hand and you guys nailed this thought. It’s really hard in the days of social media where you want to document your life and feel as if you’re not “living” as well as others. We just have to keep in mind that our lives aren’t others lives and that’s a good thing. 🙂

    • Reply Johnny May 24, 2015 at 10:56 pm

      Quite the prescient resolutions. Here’s to us piggybacking, joining you mid-year, and rocking those resolutions.

  • Reply David May 13, 2015 at 9:21 am

    Well said Joanna. It is always worth reminder ourselves (and each other) about what reality actually is. I really like your last paragraph on what to actually measure our financial success on.

    I think another aspect of the ‘distortion field’ is that we don’t just follow a couple people on on our chosen social media outlet but many. The result is that each friend putting up one occaisional selfie of what could be their only night out that month or their only holiday that year combines with everyone else’s to give the impression that everyone (apart from ourselves) is out having a blast all the time.

    • Reply Johnny May 24, 2015 at 11:00 pm

      Such a good point. That perfectly explains why it feels like everyone I know is always on vacation — because odds are, at least one of my Instagram friends is… which means one person out of hundreds is actually on vacation. 🙂

  • Reply ileana May 13, 2015 at 9:23 am

    Wow! What an insightful post. This is great. I completely agree with what you say here.

  • Reply Amanda S @ Passionately Simple Life May 13, 2015 at 9:29 am

    Great post! There are times where I’m on Facebook on a Friday night and see all my friends posting pictures of them enjoying their night and I’m either working or at home reading a book. It might seem like fun at the time but I’m trying to save money for some other adventures I want to embark on.

  • Reply Brian May 13, 2015 at 11:15 am

    This post reminds me of why I am not on social media at all. Am I missing out? Maybe, but I’ll never know it nor will I care.

    Great post!

    • Reply Johnny May 24, 2015 at 11:06 pm

      Can I join your anti-social network? Or will that make it a social-anti-social network? Regardless, no, you’re not missing out.

  • Reply Chadnudj May 13, 2015 at 11:25 am

    Great post. Not sure if this sad story may have inspired the post, but your post seems to echo the “remember, the selfies don’t tell the whole story or the problems a person may be facing” theme of this tragic story:

    And for those out there feeling hopeless, there are always people who want to help. Reach out, and don’t lose hope….

    • Reply Melanie May 15, 2015 at 9:32 am

      Wow, Chadnudj, just read that article from ESPN and forwarded it to some people. Thanks for sharing–how shocking and meaningful.

    • Reply Johnny May 24, 2015 at 11:15 pm

      Hadn’t read that before, Chadnudj. Powerful, emotional read. A lot to contemplate and think about in there. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Reply Lizzy May 13, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    Wonderful reminder for all of us living in this social era. It can be hard to not compare, but we’re each on our own beautiful, messy, up-and-down path. Thanks for sharing a sneak behind the lens into yours.

  • Reply Amanda May 13, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    I like this! I agree that there’s always more than meets the eye. Especially when it comes to the apparent amount of wealth one possesses. Comparison is almost impossible to avoid, though. I think having some real measurable goals that aren’t affected by others is really important like you say, but many say don’t compare and leave it at that. Comparison is natural and inevitable, and saying just stop falls short. I like to think that sharing and documenting the not so nice realities is one way to help others and yourself be more honest about expectations, but I also understand the desire to promote the positive. I struggle with this dichotomy. I don’t want to be a downer but I want people to know I am having a hard time sometimes, and I hope to support others in their own hard times.

    • Reply Johnny May 24, 2015 at 11:21 pm

      Some of my favorite posts on the social media are the not-so-perfect things. It’s so refreshing to be ripped back to reality after staring at 10 pictures of the toes in the sand.

  • Reply Jaclyn May 13, 2015 at 3:57 pm

    Thank you for this post!

  • Reply Sarah May 13, 2015 at 7:56 pm

    Wonderful post 🙂 My husband and I got rid of Facebook for the month of January and never ended up adding it back. Not only was it a huge time-waster for us, but it also just didn’t add anything to our lives. Do I really need to see what my friends from HS are up to even though I haven’t spoken to them in 15 years?! Probably not!

    • Reply Johnny May 24, 2015 at 11:22 pm

      But what if they get a puppy? Or if they go to a beach? What then?!?!


  • Reply Courtney May 13, 2015 at 11:54 pm

    This is a fantastic post! So so true! I have to remind myself ALL THE TIME to not compare my life to the pictures I see of my friend’s lives on social media. Comparison is the thief of joy and one snapshot rarely gives you a full picture of how life is really going. And another thing I’ve learned- we all have ups and downs, so maybe they are in an up right now and you are in a down, but everyone does have hard times. And ultimately, to keep our finances in check I have to focus really hard on being happy with what we have, because the list of wants could go on forever and ever. Thanks for this awesome reminder!

    • Reply Johnny May 24, 2015 at 11:24 pm

      Great points. Really enjoyed the ups and downs reminder. There’s a reason people aren’t posting every hour of every day on Instagram, and I think it has something to do with this.

  • Reply Kendal May 14, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    This post is incredible, Joanna, and needs to go viral immediately. You eloquently summed up the problem with selfies and social media without bashing the mediums themselves, all the while keeping it relevant to personal finance. This piece is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. Well done!

  • Reply Teri May 21, 2015 at 9:30 pm

    Thank you for this post! I think I needed to be reminded of this exact thing.

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