Meet 'Money dysmorphia': Gen Z gets its very own version of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’

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The comparison game is especially difficult to avoid playing these days. We’ve never had more insights into what other people are doing—and more important, buying. Anyone with an iPhone can track movements on Find My Friends, get vacation envy on Instagram, feel FOMO on Snap, and have career envy via LinkedIn. 

The combined forces of all that social media are taking their toll, even for successful, established adults: Per a recent Intuit Credit Karma survey, nearly half (45%) of Gen Zers and millennials are obsessed with the idea of being rich. Worse yet, that idea feels perennially out of reach. Forty-eight percent of Gen Zers told Intuit Credit Karma they feel behind financially; 59% of millennials said the same.  

This obsession—and resultant feeling of underperformance—has led people to lose sight of the actual state of their finances, culminating in what Intuit Credit Karma dubs “money dysmorphia.” This condition, of having “a distorted view of one’s finances that could lead them to make poor decisions,” occurs among people of all levels of financial stability, the survey finds, despite how well off they may actually be. Nearly 40% of the survey respondents who admitted to struggling with money dysmorphia said they had at least $10,000 in savings; 23% of the group had over $30,000—significantly above the median savings account balance, which, as Credit Karma pointed out, is just over $5,000 in the U.S.

In psychology, “dysmorphia” is most often used to refer to patients who feel irrationally critical about their bodies. Financial dysmorphia isn’t strictly a clinical term—it’s more like “cognitive dissonance,” feeling a gap between where you are and where you should be, financial therapist Lindsay Bryan-Podvin told Lifehacker recently.

But regardless, this feeling of needing to keeping up with the richies is having a detrimental effect on mental health, Credit Karma’s survey shows. Sixty-nine percent of money-dysmorphic respondents said they don’t think they’ll ever be rich, and 95% say their obsession negatively impacts their finances. The preoccupation has held them back from accruing savings, buying a home or investing, and instead has led them to overspend and even take on additional debt.

It’s no wonder money dysmorphia is so prominent: Financial stability has never felt further out of reach for many millennials and Gen Zers in particular. Building up any amount of wealth has been fraught for under-40 workers who have had to shoulder the burden of historic housing unaffordability, a financial crisis or two, crushing student debt, and a stagnated minimum wage against record-high inflation and ballooning childcare costs. 

But despite these very real uphill battles, workers’ sense of necessity and values are consistently skewed. According to a 2023 Bankrate survey, the average American feels they need to make $233,000 a year to feel comfortable—310% more than the $75,203 the average full-time worker earned in 2021, per the Census Bureau. For respondents to feel wealthy—more than simply comfortable—they need to earn twice that: $483,000. 

Comfort is largely defined by the ability to shell out for occasional luxuries while also keeping up with monthly expenses, Bankrate senior economic analyst Mark Hamrick wrote in the report. “Typically, people fantasize about the notion of getting ‘rich,’ but most aspire to get by or a bit better than that.”

Keep your eyes on your own paper

“Money dysmorphia is kind of like today’s version of keeping up with the Joneses,” Courtney Alev, a consumer financial advocate at Credit Karma, wrote in the report. “A lot of people are examining their finances and comparing themselves to their peers, people on social media, and even celebrities, which is bringing up feelings of inadequacy.” 

The only way out of money dysmorphia, Alev went on, is relying on the hard data: Keeping a close eye on your own finances, assessing your goals, and making a realistic plan to work toward them. Also useful would be minimizing your time comparing your situation to that of others—who are often in mountains of hidden debt themselves.

“Social media and celebrity culture can exacerbate money dysmorphia, because we’re seeing images of people living glamorous lives spending money,” Scott Lieberman, founder of Touchdown Money, told GoBankingRates. “But then again, we don’t know the truth as to how they got that money and how much debt they’ve accumulated.” 

Luckily, respondents aren’t too precious about cutting friends off in order to prioritize their own finances. A Credit Karma survey from last summer found that a third of people said they’ve ended friendships with people whose financial decisions don’t align with theirs.

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