Think of any given Instagram page and you’ll likely imagine some perfectly curated spread of photos that make the life of the person running it look unobtainable in some way. It might be a barrage of travel photos, make up, outfits, restaurant meals, whatever it is you’re into and using to cram up your feed. Recently, between binge-watching the YouTube channel “The Financial Diet” and speed-reading pretty much the entire finance and business section of Dymocks, I’ve been looking at my own Instagram feed with a critical eye. Blogging makes acquiring these kinds of lifestyles look easy and obtainable, but the simple truth is that they aren’t for most people. If you’re what I would call a “business blogger”, that is to say a savvy individual whose blog is run as a business who is consequently receiving either PR or sponsorships regularly, then living this way probably isn’t driving you into financial ruin because you’ve been clever and monetised appropriately. If, however, you’re more of a “hobbyist”, your situation might look very different. With that in mind, I wanted to share some lessons I’ve learned about the financial truth of “keeping up with the Joneses” on Instagram over the past few years.
The Cost of Beauty
When I first accepted that my finances were in total disarray, I sat down with a friend of mine who happens to be a financial planner and worked out a budget. As part of this, he loaded up my bank statements, imported them into Excel, and made me categorise every transaction I had made over the previous month. After turning an excellent shade of puce at the concept, I mumbled my agreement and begrudgingly went through and labelled every transaction. He then morphed the data into a table so I could clearly see a breakdown of how much money I’d spent in each category over the month. When I saw the “Beauty” section, I sighed in relief. By sheer coincidence, I’d been conservative that month. In the back of my head, however, I was trying desperately to suppress the realist voice yelling “that was a lucky shot! You’re actually way worse than that!”
That was several years ago now. Since then, I got progressively better with money, bought a house and then proceeded to immediately get much worse with money. The constraints put on my finances by having the huge cost of a mortgage and maintenance on a home, plus the fact that my health declined and I became unable to work full time, meant that I was trying to maintain my high level of spending on things I enjoyed when it simply wasn’t sustainable any more. Because of this, I spent the beginning of 2019 realising I had to make significant changes. As I began researching and learning more about finances, I also went back to basics and started tracking my spending again. I didn’t consciously try to adjust my spending, just kept track of it, throughout the month of January.
The results were pretty cringe-worthy.
Throughout the month of January, on beauty alone, I spent $1,229.36.
Let that sink in for a minute. Read that a couple more times. 1,229.36.
Take a second to think about all the things you could buy for that sum of money. If you feel a bit sick thinking about it, you’ll have a pretty accurate representation of how I felt when I looked at that number.
In the spirit of complete honesty, it’s worth noting that that’s an exceptional number even for me. $600 of that was from treatments that I get done once a year plus I went a bit “birthday treat mad”, which would suggest I would be closer to $500 in a “normal” month. But here’s the thing, even IF I give myself all those concessions, I’d still be spending approximately $6,000 a year on beauty. I suspect that estimate is conservative, and even conservatively it’s completely obscene. I am a person who literally runs out of money to buy toilet paper three days before my next payday, that’s how tightly I live from pay check to pay check. I am NOT someone who has $6,000 free in their budget to be spending on a hobby.
There have been so many times where I have justified my purchases because I think they’ll make for good blog posts, reviews or Instagram photos. I like keeping my account fresh and showing new things, and I want to grow my following. Suffice to say, however, as someone who does not receive much PR (though I’m very grateful for the things I do receive), this is not sustainable. More importantly, it gives off the impression that I can afford a lifestyle I can’t, and I’m not convinced that’s a message I want to keep sending.
I have a real crisis of conscience when it comes to sharing outfits, fashion and accessories. For one, my self-confidence isn’t that high anyway, but for another I feel a bit like an imposter. I love luxury fashion and luxury items. I have no issue scrolling through the “new arrivals” screen of Net-A-Porter and sharing picks and wish list items on my Insta story, but that’s all they are: wish list items. I don’t intend to buy them any time soon because my budget is not that flexible. Despite that, I do share the luxury items I do own, and I feel a bit of a twinge of guilt every time I do. My luxury spending habits are not particularly excessive. I have two small accessories that I bought at full price last year. Otherwise, I have one handbag that I got at an insane discount on a heavily reduced sale, and one that was a gift for my birthday this year. But, by sharing these things on my feed, am I feeding into the attitude that owning these kinds of things is normal?
When I was in Chadstone shopping centre around the time of my birthday, I tried on a Prada bag. I absolutely loved it and spent far more time than was reasonable contemplating buying it. To do so I would have had to empty my savings completely and still would have come up short. My mother, who was shopping with me, offered to loan me the money if I were really determined to have it. I didn’t even have to think about it – I said no.
Not only did I say no because going into more debt was simply not an option, even if it was interest-free, I actually felt… fake. I do not yet live a life where spending close to $3,000 on a bag is a viable reality. As I said to my mother at the time, “I just don’t feel like I’m at a point in my life where I can act like owning a Prada bag is normal to me”.
I love following Instagram and YouTube accounts devoted to luxury fashion, and it was interesting to me to find that when I had the option to be like those people, I just felt like a poser. It would be different if I could have comfortably afforded those items myself, but that wasn’t the case. And yet for a moment while trying on all those fancy things and browsing the various luxury stores, I realised that I had normalised the idea of owning luxury items in my head because I was used to seeing them on other people all the time. I’m relieved I didn’t let that push me into the path of more debt to be a part of it, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been sorely tempted.
Side hustles are golden
While I’m focusing on some of the negatives that have come out of my obsession with Instagram, there are definite benefits too. Instagram taught me the value of a side hustle. I always wanted to monetise my blog and make my hobby profitable, but that never happened. What it did do, however, was put me in the path of some really great people and opportunities. I got to make new friends and hang with people I would otherwise have never met, who all share my interests and many of my values. It also meant that I started writing for others, and whilst this is unpaid work, the opportunities it has granted me have felt like their own form of pay. Don’t get me wrong, the end-goal will always be to get paid for my writing and my time, but I do enjoy getting to try out a new restaurant or see a show for the sake of a blog write-up. Side hustling also taught me that my time needs to have value. I got better at prioritising and saying no to some things and better at saying yes to others. I also started to put myself out there more, resulting in me making the step towards other side hustles, such as tutoring, which will more directly pay dividends.
So what’s the bottom line?
It’s important not to judge the Instagram-curated lifestyle we see and normalise it as if it is something that is achievable or even desirable for us. Everyone has their own financial reality and financial goals and you can’t measure your own against the yardstick Instagram gives. Maybe that person you see throwing around all the latest makeup releases is like me and is digging themselves steadily into debt with those choices. Is that somewhere you want to follow? Or maybe they’re savvy business people who have side hustled exceptionally well to be able to afford, or even receive for free or be paid to advertise, those desirable things. Or maybe they work a day job that pays more than yours, or don’t pay rent, or don’t have savings, or have hideous debt, or don’t travel, or whatever other trade-offs people make in their day to day lives. We all have different priorities and realities and that is okay. Just remember it might not always be as glamorous as it seems (just ask my credit card statement).
What about you? Have you ever normalised things you’ve seen online only to realise they’re not so normal for YOU after all?