When Social Media Leaves You Constantly Wondering “How Did They Afford That?”

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When I was a kid daydreaming about which Power Ranger’s Zord best suited my personality, I used to think that if I could choose one superpower, it would be something titillating or exciting, like having the ability to read minds, become invisible, or take flight. Having since grown up in the practice of sharing the glossiest glimpses of my life through the keyhole of social media, the superpower I’d choose today is a bit different. As an adult trying to establish a career and build my financial security — the most intimidating markers of accomplishment at this age — the one power I routinely wish I had lately is the ability to see a full accounting of someone else’s finances. It’s invasive, far beyond the jurisdiction my business, and masochistically self-sabotaging, but I don’t think I’m the only curious one.

In your 20s, questions about your peers’ finances takes the place of what was once teenage curiosity about who’s dating who, and it’s every bit as trite and consuming. At a time in our lives when so many of our friends are achieving financial milestones in their own time, how you feel about your net worth can have a profound impact on your self-worth. In the effort to feel like we’re making strides in this imaginary arms race to financial security and success, social media is very much the lens we use to examine our progress, but we seem to forget that it’s rose-tinted — or more accurately — Valencia-filtered.

We’re all very much the curators of our own ~best life~ on social media, offering up only the aspects of our existence that have the least wrinkles and rough edges. It’s not a bad thing, but it does create a separate reality we can choose to inhabit on the days when owning a home feels impossible, earning a decent salary far out of reach, and living a comfortable life only seems permanently filed in the “Maybe Someday” category of the future.

That’s when social media is always the most dangerous, isn’t it? On the days when we’re not feeling so good about ourselves? Insecurity and social media naturally collide over the matter of body image, but feeling insecure about money and/or job prospects can be every bit as overwhelming when we start playing the comparison game.

We scroll past a post from some mutual friends who just announced they closed on a lovely single-family home that has more square feet than we have dollars in our current checking account balance. A college roommate shares an update about a sudden promotion at work. A friend shares a photo of her lunch salad that includes almonds, signifying it cost roughly as much as one month’s Netflix subscription dues. A colleague purchases a new car, and we can’t help but feel worried the heaviest way, like our conscience got caught in the rain wearing jeans. It’s a reaction more potent than jealousy and even more destructive.

We’re feeling the burden of money we aren’t earning and equity we aren’t accumulating. It’s a special kind of faux failure unique to this complicated time in our lives when money translates to freedom and self-sufficiency, not just the means to raid the clearance section at Forever 21.

Even when someone posts a tacky picture of ten hundred dollar bills fanned out on their Instagram (#benjaminfranklinblessed) there is no method that accurately quantifies someone’s assets, career stability, or financial wellness through the content they post on social media. If you take all the selfies with good natural light taken in someone’s apartment and combine them with all pictures of their chic interior design and include all the snaps of expensive-looking hummus, there is no algorithm that could mathematically convert that content into a forecast for how well someone is doing financially or professionally. On some level we all know that, yet sooner or later we’ll all be guilty of assuming that everyone else in the world besides us has their finances all figured out, and we should be giving ourselves more credit.

It’s tempting to measure our successes and failures to friends, family, and people we follow, if only because we have so many avenues to do so, but it isn’t healthy, and it won’t make us feel any better about our situation. We shouldn’t trick ourselves into believing that estimating someone’s salary or assets using social media is any more legitimate than lusting over an Instagram page dedicated to squat challenges. Like any other kind of social media idolatry, we’re comparing someone’s trophy closet to our work in progress, and it’s reckless.

The next time you start feeling those familiar pangs of guilt, envy, and despair about someone else’s perceived financial wizardry, remember that none of us are in the habit of sharing the coupons that funded the #foodporn meal. We don’t share the minor detail that our parents had to cosign on a mortgage because our credit history wasn’t stable enough. We’re not privy to each other’s debts, be they student loans or maxed-out credit cards. We don’t mention our recent trip to paradise was family vacation, with Uncle Phil and Grandma Blanche in attendance.

In the sociology of social media, we all look like we’re independently wealthy living off an infinity pool that funds an entire feed of expensive coffee, manicures, excursions, nights out, and big ticket items. It seems obvious to say so, but I think we could all use the reminder that social media isn’t meant to be an accurate reflection of dollars and cents. There is always much more to the story than what gets shared, and we need to bury the assumption that everyone’s financial and professional life is as neat and tidy as the corner of their desk looks on Instagram.

So please, as if this is a real opportunity that could present itself, don’t waste your hypothetical superpower puzzling over someone else’s portfolio. The next time you’re wondering, “How can she afford that?” consider asking yourself the more important questions about your personal financial well-being. Are there changes you could make to get closer to your goals? Is counting everyone else’s money a way to distract you from the denial that’s clouding your own progress? I don’t think we want to live in a world where Facebook publishes our bank account overdraft notices right to our news feed (sad that this sounds like it could become a thing), so let’s all try to take a breath now and then and remember that we all look more-or-less financially secure on social media, even when we may be far from feeling that way in real life.

Katie Hoffman is a writer living in the Chicagoland area. She writes the blog Sass & Balderdash and is on Instagram and Twitter.

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