The Status Game

2 min read

A professional football player doesn’t care how well he can hit a tennis ball. Nor does a professional tennis player care that he can’t catch a football.

A computer scientist doesn’t care that his drawing skills are limited to stick figures. Nor does a professional artist care that he can’t write a simple line of code. 

Each of these people chooses an arena to play in. They choose a game to play.

They only care about how they stack up against the competition within their own game.

There’s one game that we all have a tendency to play, though. The status game.

The size of your house. The model of your car. What neighborhood you live in. Your job title. That type of stuff. 

We’re all born with a natural urge to compete in this arena.

We compete in a subtle way, though. We show the world our status not through words, but through ownership – the quantity and the quality of stuff we own. It signals to our peers how well we’re doing. 

This is why, despite a massive increase in global wealth over the past century, most of us still have to work 40 – 50 hours each week, often at jobs we don’t care about. We need a consistent income stream to consistently buy more stuff. 

Without it, we can’t compete.

Social media has made the status game more prevalent than ever. We no longer have to wait until we see people in person to see what type of house they own, car they drive, or clothing they wear.

No, the status game has become available right at our fingertips, twenty-four hours a day. Through the screens of our smartphones.

Facebook innocently asks “What’s on your mind?”

Twitter inquires “What’s happening?”

It makes us think we can raise our status through our updates.

Tell the world what you’re doing, show everyone that you’re thriving. 

Similarly, advertisers tell us we can raise our status through buying their products. 

The car that will make you more attractive. The watch that will make your coworkers envious. The new shoes that will draw attention. The house that will stir up jealousy.

So, we empty our wallets in hopes that these things really will propel us higher up the status ladder. 

Wait ’till Facebook sees this.

There’s only one problem. You can’t win the status game. That thing you just bought is only cool until someone you know buys something better. Or until a new model comes out. 

Then you need to go earn more money to buy a new thing. It’s a vicious cycle.

This is where early retirees are so different from the rest of the population.

I’m talking about those people you read about who retire by age 33.

Sure, these people probably know more about investing than you. They might read personal finance books for fun. They probably feel an adrenaline rush after updating their spreadsheets. They might be weird like that.

But at the core, early retirees do something vastly different than most people: they save a huge chunk of their income.

They do this through choosing not to compete in the status game. It’s how someone who earns $92,000 a year can be perfectly content with only spending $35,000. 

These people only buy stuff that adds value to their life. They’re smart consumers. 

And when people read articles about them, most make the mistake of thinking that these people are voluntarily depriving themselves just to save more money. 

That’s where they’re wrong.

People who live frugal lives aren’t subtracting stuff from their life just to save money. Instead, they’re starting from nothing and only adding stuff that they need. Things that brings them value or happiness. 

It just so happens that most of those things are free.

So, while most of the world is competing in the status game, the people who are on the road to kicking ass financially are competing in an entirely different game – the happiness game.

They’re shooting for maximum happiness, not highest status.

That’s the secret driver behind frugal-living. When you aim to maximize happiness, you find that you need to spend far less than you think. 

This means you can save more of your income and accumulate savings at breakneck speed.

This is the secret of early retirees.

Competing in the status game feels good in the short-term, but competing in the happiness game brings more meaning and joy in the long-term.

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8 Replies to “The Status Game”

  1. Interesting article, and I think your perspective about the status game and early retirees is right on.

    I have always tried to live below my means and save money, and for the most part didn’t play the status game nearly as aggressively as many Americans. Although I am too old to be one of the 33 year old retirees you mentioned, the lifestyle I have lived has me positioned to reach financial independence within the next few years, before I turn 50, even though I really didn’t know what FIRE was until about a year ago.

  2. Spot on! An interesting thing to note, when you share with the regular folks about early retirement and achieve info financial freedom, they do not think that it is possible and that you might need to lead a ‘miserable’ lifestyle if that’s the case, which is in fact not!

    1. Exactly. It’s easy to look at someone who lives on less than you and assume they must be miserable or unhappy, but that’s usually a wrong assumption. Spending doesn’t correlate with happiness as much as people think.

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