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You Fancy, Huh? One in Four Americans Envious on Social Media

In these waning days of summer, my Instagram feed looks like a Lonely Planet top 10 list. I don’t know how, but it seems like the 300+ people I’m following have all conspired to be someplace awesome, while I’m toiling away in the office. It can feel frustrating when it seems like everyone (except for you) is having the time of their lives – and bragging about it online.

A new survey, conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of the AICPA, found that when it comes to feeling envious on social media, I’m far from alone. In fact, many Americans are caught in a cycle of feeling jealous of friends who post about their lavish vacations and extravagant purchases, while admitting that they also post things solely because they are fancy or expensive.

Almost half of all Americans (47 percent) with social media accounts have posted photos of their vacation in the past year – which is a lot of shots of “hot dog legs” on tropical beaches for people to take in while they’re going about their daily life. And so, it’s no wonder that almost four in 10 U.S. adults with a social media account (39 percent) say that seeing other people’s purchases and vacations online makes them look into a similar purchase or vacation. And more than one in 10 of these U.S. adults (11 percent) are acting upon their interest and have taken a vacation or made a purchase in the last year after seeing someone’s post.

FINAL SOCIAL MEDIA

However, there is a fine line between interest and envy, and social media tends to make people feel the latter. One in four U.S. adults with a social media account (25 percent) were left feeling jealous after seeing someone’s post about a purchase or vacation online in the past year. Those feelings of envy may be causing people to make financial mistakes in an effort to keep up with the Joneses.

“Feeling envious on social media can certainly put pressure on individuals to try and live beyond their means, either from pictures of celebrities posting about their lifestyle, or even from peers posting about their most recent purchase, vacation or day trip,” said Dr. Sean Stein Smith, CPA, a member of AICPA’s National Financial Literacy Commission. “After all, everyone wants to have the good things in life, and the onslaught of social media posts has the potential to make this desire to spend money exponentially more powerful.” 

In fact, more than one in five U.S. adults with social media accounts (21 percent) admit they are likely to choose an activity or make a purchase based on how their friends and family will view it when they share it on these social media platforms. And when people are making these financial decisions to help craft an image online, there’s a good chance it’s an upscale one. The survey found that 14 percent of Americans with social media accounts say they’ve posted about something specifically because it seemed fancy or expensive.

However, if you happen to find yourself caught up in a group of friends who have a bigger budget than you, there are ways you can work to keep the friendship alive without living beyond your means or making them feel like you don’t ever want to hang out.

“You can educate your friends as to your opinions on savings vs. spending and give them a reasonable picture of your finances,” says Michael Eisenberg, CPA/PFS, and a member of the AICPA National Financial Literacy Commission. “You may not have been able to take a group vacation this summer, but make sure your friends are aware that you want to know about the next trip, so you have time to save in advance and not go into debt paying for it.”

Eisenberg also recommends that people can get peer approval online by posting about reaching financial milestones, and maybe encourage greater financial literacy in their friends at the same time.

“While I would caution against sharing too much about your finances in a public setting, if you’ve reached a milestone like paying off your student loans, you can definitely post on your social media account about it,” said Eisenberg. “It’s positive reinforcement for your friends and followers. It lets them know that paying down debt is possible, if you prioritize. And people who care about you will genuinely be proud. Paying off your loans demonstrates financial sacrifice in a way that posting pictures of yourself in Hawaii doesn’t really convey.”

That said, as long as you’re keeping your eyes on the financial prize there isn’t anything inherently wrong with showing your friends you’re having a good time on social media. In fact, it may even help keep you in the habit of saving.

“Splurging every once in a while on a vacation or new purchase is healthy and an excellent way to reward your long term discipline,” said Dr. Smith.

Although social media could cause you to spend more than may be wise, there are new apps that can use the power of peer pressure to your advantage. In addition, the AICPA has a number of social media accounts that can help you make better financial decisions. To learn more, see the social media page for AICPA’s financial literacy initiatives.

James Schiavone, Senior Manager - Public Relations, American Institute of CPAs

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