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Why I’m trying to stop making comparisons

Posted by on Thursday 11 November 2010 in anti-consumerism, frugal, meta | 12 comments

Last week, I wrote about how I cut our gas bill in half with just one phone call. Immediately after my phone call, I told a friend about the experience and he expressed surprise about how little gas we use – compared to him (he keeps records like I do) and compared to the national average, a figure he knew off the top of his head. Intrigued, I started looking up more and more information about average consumption figures – the boards at MoneySavingExpert are full of people talking about how much they pay, for what size of a house, and I also found a website which lets you compare your consumption with others locally and nationally, IN GRAPH FORM. (I like graphs.)

But then I stopped. I realised what I was doing. If I’d been doing it a year earlier when we first moved into our new house, I could have pretended I was looking up the info to get an idea how much I’d be paying over the year. But I knew exactly how much I should be paying. I was just doing it to gloat. To feel good about how frugal we are, how green we are, compared to the rest of Mr & Ms UK resident.

I’m terrible at making comparisons to make myself feel better about things. I think it’s partly (mostly?) to do with being insecure and generally having low-self esteem, but another part of it is wanting to proof my deliberately lifestyle decisions are making a difference.

I want to know that someone else spends three, four, five times as much as me on their weekly shop because I grow my own and spend time cooking from scratch to justify my time and energy. I want to hear the person who bought the 42″ plasma tv or the new BMW complain about not having any money at the end of the month, because it justifies my sensible attitude in not buying those things. I want to hear that the person who lives in t-shirt and shorts in the middle of winter is paying multiple-multiple times the amount for heating than woolly-clad me, because it means I can look down on them, on their wastefulness and how they’re SINGLE-HANDEDLY DESTROYING THE PLANET.

I’m not that bad really. But it’s there and it’s destructive.

For me, making “the rest of the world is stupid and here’s why” comparisons is bad on a number of levels. All it takes is for me to hear the opposite of what I want to hear to put me in a funk – why should I make the effort when it achieves so little?

And it’s easy for me to draw unfavourable (to me) conclusions because it’s all too easy to get bad information – I know a lot about me, what I’m doing, how I’m performing, but only what the other people want to say about themselves. They might be faux-complaining about the cost of their new clothes as a way of boasting without really boasting. Or they might know something about their financial situation that I don’t – I worry that a person is spending all their money on gadgets and toys instead building up a small rainy-day savings umbrella, but they might know that they don’t need it, that they’re due an inheritance or something in the near future, so while I see them spending a large proportion of their money on the latest iThing, to them, that’s a tiny drop in the future ocean. Or perhaps not the tshirt and shorts guy but perhaps someone else has to have their heating up really hot in the winter because they feel cold more acutely than I do. We have no way of measuring that so shouldn’t really compare.

The comparisons also invariably provoke negative judgements (“I’m better than X because of Y”/”X is better than me on Y but I’m better at Z and that’s more important”) and that’s a really bad way to view humanity. Rather than viewing other people with compassion and support, it becomes a competition – and it’s all to easy to let that attitude show when in conversation, which is annoying or demoralising for the other person.

Finally, by making comparisons against spendthrifts, I can feel better about my own want!want! spending. I have a lot of friends (mostly IT geeks) and friends of friends who are very very well paid, and think nothing of buying all the latest gadgets or spending £150 on a one-time-wear dress. Compared to them, I don’t feel so bad about buying a new £20 sink from eBay or dropping £25 on new yarn when my stash is already full to bursting. Compared to their spending, that’s nothing – “it utterly transformed the kitchen!”, “it’ll get used eventually!” – but it’s not necessary. Comparing myself to the wonderfully thrifty simple/DIY living people I know in person and online, I’d feel wasteful and silly so I selectively compare myself to the extravagant spenders to justify my own waste. That’s naughty and self-deluding.

As I said half way through, these are exaggerated examples – I’m not really that bad – but it’s there, I can see it’s there within me and I want it to stop. It shouldn’t matter what everyone else is or isn’t doing. I should only matter what I’m doing. In the future, I’m going to only try to make comparisons about my past self to measure my progress.

Have you got any tips or advice on how I can stop this bad behaviour?


Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. Cecille

    Wow Louisa, that is quite a statement! I must say, you should be proud of yourself for recognizing that in yourself and trying to be better. bravo to you, that is quite bold and brave of you to admit. I tip my hat to you because I am guilty of that myself but I don’t think I would have thought to say, oh shame on me. I usually just try to focus on my blessings and keep trying to remind myself that God gives me everything I need and I should look at the positives in my life and not the negatives but to go where you have just gone, that is great! cheers to you! keep up the great work! Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. louisa

    Thanks for the comment. When I recognise these destructive feelings, I like to blog about them because it helps me get my thoughts in order and it also helps me feel accountable – I’ve admitted these things publicly, I *have* to change!

  3. Jan

    Great blog, really enjoyed reading loads of your posts, and this one was spot on, but hey don’t condemn your self to a life of misery, in order to some how carry more than your allocated share of an already probably lower carbon footprint.

    While you probably don’t need them, I think these sites can be great to help calibrate just how way off the mark we can be.

    Otherwise people can’t really tell what is worth doing and what is a waste of their time. For example some (not all) phone chargers really don’t waste energy when they are not charging but still plugged in, my laptop power lead is 5x worse than all my phone chargers together. And as another example “Mrs” insisted on unplugging the toaster which used absolutely zero energy when it was not toasting. We need to remember what is practical, what is “greenwash” and what is “firebrand-recycling”.

    On a similar theme of self reflection I have a theory that we can’t really know properly what is good or bad as there is no accurate accounting method (it is impossible!). For example is a locally sourced smoked ham and cheese sandwich on home made granary, better than a McD Burger? If McD can make millions of burgers for millions of people, cooking on mass and keep transport costs per burger very low and use quality British meat with very high hygiene standards and very low packaging costs, which is really worse? is it the one we would like to hate? Lately I think we hate all big organisations, as it is easier, they have no face and it is easy to get agreement from our friends and public, but we base our feelings on simple fashionable arguments rather than fact.

    (BTW I like to sit by the wood burner with my t-shirt on in near sauna like temperatures, but justify it as I dragged all these large bits of fallen trees back back on foot and chop and saw it all up myself. To be 100% honest, I like chopping wood and enjoy the work, and would do it even if it were not carbon neutral, in fact I would have a wood burner even if it turned out that my pollution was bad for the environment, because I like to see the fire and feel the warmth.)

  4. louisa

    I agree it’s important to separate fact from fiction – it’s just hard to do because there is so many mixed messages/so much greenwashing out there.

    Regarding the local sandwich versus the McD’s burger, we in the green movement do often forget about the economies of scale (lots of people baking their own bread is another example) but I think everything has advantages and disadvantages (for example, a local sourced sandwich might have a higher emissions footprint and will be considerably more expensive but it is likely to have a higher nutritional value and keep more money in the local economy). We have to decide what’s most important to us as individuals (which might change over time, even from day to day) and not just bow to the fashionable arguments of the moment.

  5. Linda

    To add on to that I think it’s important that we have the skills locally to raise animals and vegetables for food, to bake, to make our own food. McD’s may have lower footprint per burger but if you can’t feed yourself then you can’t survive in emergencies, oil crisis, severe economic crisis, etc.

  6. Jan

    sure and I should point out that I don’t have any hard figures on the McD theory it is all based on theoretical argument.

    I also agree with the localised economy and self sustainability argument, and that is part of the problem. With so many goals it is possible to greenwash a product into sounding great.

    An example recently was the nutella ad. they said it contains x? real hazelnuts for a great taste and wrapped it up as if this might be one of your 5 a day or something. When in fact it is probably more accurate to call it high fat, mass manufactured chocolate & milk whey industrial byproduct. (and I love nutella don’t get me wrong.)

    I guess my general aims are in no specific order:
    Environmental diversity
    Moral fairness

    With this I would say this roughly covers off what I aim.
    Carbon footprint would be covered in both Sustainability, and Environmental diversity. Fair trade would be also sustainability and moral fairness.

    The conflicts are all over the place, even on just one goal.
    BTW i noticed there are at least two Jans commenting on this site.

    • louisa

      Hi Jan,

      (Yes, I’d noticed about the two Jan things!)

      Mmm, mass manufactured chocolate and milk whey industrial byproduct… I haven’t seen the ad you’re talking about but from their packaging, I can imagine it. Ugh.

      My aims are similar to yours but their order fluctuates depending on the product – eg I put organic over local with some things, other things vice versa – and when you throw frugality into the mix too, the decisions get even more difficult. It’s always a balancing act – and I guess one that could easily be swayed by advertisers’ hints and suggestions. Another reason to avoid as much advertising as possible!

  7. Jan

    The Nutella advert, is worse than I thought.

    Each 15 gram portion of this sugary & fatty chocolate spread contains 2 whole hazelnuts, although presumably they are no longer whole given that they need to be mechanically ground up to make it possible to spread. I also learned it contains milk and cocoa.

    I for one was quite surprised to learn that a milk chocolate and hazelnut spread would contain those healthy ingredients like milk, chocolate and hazelnut….??… hey wait a minute…
    They failed to mention that the milk was largely whey powder and that they also used soy lecithin emulsifier, and depending which country you live in, modified palm oil (not UK), and vanillin, which if you are not paying attention is phenolic aldehyde, made from lignin which is a paper industry byproduct and not the flower vanilla.


    (maybe easier to google it.)
    there maybe some adverts either side of the … er Advert? irony?

    For the record I love eating this stuff, although I also love it’s generic supermarket “own brand” copies, as I can’t tell the difference, but I am disappointed to see them miss-sell this as some sort of health product.

    Its much like that other advert that bothers me. Perle du Lait – Sour Yoghurt, and claims that she used to eat those sour yoghurts but now she eats perle du lait and it makes you beautiful and it comes in lemon surely that must be a bit sour too? (Googleable too but check out the British one)

  8. Jan

    Argghh x 3 sorry …

  9. Jan

    Terribly sorry I feel like some sort of Spam merchant.

    (A SPAM sketch from Monty Python, which inspired the creator of the popular web programming language called “Python”, which used Spam in their examples of list management, and hence lists of emails, and hence dodgy Nigerian financial offers and apparently also small blue pills.)

  10. louisa

    Hehe, you naughty spammer you ;) (When there is more than one link in a comment, it gets put in the “spam moderation” queue and I get an email about it to authorise it/cast it forever into the pits of spam-hell. I’ve deleted the duplicates now)

    Thanks for sending the link to the advert – ugh. I think I’d have far higher blood pressure if I watched more adverts than I do! (Also, as a complete aside, we have the same duvet cover as the guy in the top right square at the start.)

    There was a “homemade nutella” recipe on Simple Green Frugal the other week – I’d like to give that a go — no paper-industry by products in that!

  11. Margaret

    I suppose if we have to compare ourselves we need to do it with the poorest people in the world. My fair share should be mneasured against everyone and not just people in the UK.

    I have an acquaintance with more money than sense and on every environmental point come out better than her. I have other friends who really walk the talk. I suppose I am somewhere in the middle and I hope I am somewhere in the middle. But if I only compare myself with the former I am a) *better* but b) a *bit of a prig* and not very nice to know.

    But really my comparitor (have I just made that word up?) should be the family of the child I sponsor in Sri Lanka, or the family of my colleague from Zimbabwe. Then I know I am very fortunate and very profligate.

    By the way, I hope you got a cheque back from your gas company as well!


  1. Cheap treats | The Really Good Life - [...] of hazelnuts (not pictured), discounted from £2 to 50p – not many but hopefully enough to make a small…

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