A television store in suburban Boston knows a clever sales ploy when it sees one. In an advertising flier mailed to area homes last week, it teases, "Instead of keeping up with the Joneses, be the Joneses! Be the first on your block to have HDTV."
Ah, the Joneses, those mythical, influential friends and neighbors who have perfected the art of conspicuous consumption. Their rampant consumerism, provoking both awe and envy, supposedly sets the standard by which the rest of us measure our own status and success. From big houses and luxury cars to this year's status toy - high-definition TV - the Joneses specialize in keeping the rest of us off balance and in debt, huffing and puffing on economic and emotional treadmills as we try to catch up to them. Only the objects of their affection - and ours - change from year to year.
A friend who has lived in the same suburban house for 35 years remembers when keeping up with the Joneses, 1960s-style, was relatively simple. Plymouths, Fords, and Chevys dotted the neighborhood - typically one car per driveway, since most mothers stayed home. Even with just one income, many families on the street raised three or four children.
Today, "keeping up" at the same address can be far more expensive. The street now boasts an impressive number of Volvos, plus a scattering of Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs. Builders are doing brisk business as two-income couples add rooms, renovate kitchens, and remodel from basement to attic. Yet while their houses expand, their families shrink to one or two children - fledgling consumers who learn early the importance of keeping up with the junior Joneses.
These 1990s-style Joneses define status not only by possessions but by costly intangibles. Private schools for children, exotic vacations - perhaps something in the rapidly growing "adventure travel" market - and cosmetic surgery all rank among the new measures of success. Looking prosperous, it seems, requires looking and acting young.
But as any maxed-to-the-credit-card-limit Jones family knows, looking well-heeled sometimes bears no relation to actually being so. According to Thomas Stanley and William Danko, authors of "The Millionaire Next Door," the rich are different: They spend less money. Millionaires, the authors find, share a key characteristic. They typically live below their means. They are, in fact, almost seven times more likely to carry a Sears credit card than an American Express platinum card. Expensive cars? Palatial homes? Designer clothes? Don't count on it. Their battle cry is "frugal, frugal, frugal."
How positively un-American of them, when the rest of us are exhorted to spend, spend, spend, as though it is our patriotic duty to keep America green.
This is the season - post-Halloween, pre-Christmas - when economists hold fingers to the wind to test consumer confidence for the holiday shopping season. It's the time of year when we're all urged to "Be the Joneses!" Already some forecasters are worriedly predicting a slowdown in consumer spending. Last month, consumer confidence fell to its lowest level in nearly two years. Although two retail associations see signs of a good season, with sales gains of 4 to 6 percent over last year, other merchants project very conservative sales. Bullish or bearish? Who can say?
Either way, considering the near abandon with which the Joneses and their followers have spent money in recent years, it might be none too soon to consider changing role models - to be the first on the block to practice economic restraint by living a little more frugally. Just like a real millionaire.