Why Facebook could ruin your retirement

(USA TODAY) -- If it hasn’t happened yet, it likely will at some point in your online life.

Fellow retirees and pre-retirees will post pictures of their travels and adventures to exotic places — the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in Iceland, Nature’s Valley in South Africa, Machu Picchu and the Galápagos Islands, and you — not wanting to miss out on all the fun — might want to do the very same and then some.

What do experts say about keeping up the with Joneses?

•You're not immune. One in four adults with social media accounts find themselves envious after seeing other people's vacation photos and pictures of expensive purchases posted online, according to a survey conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of the AICPA.

Also, consider that everyone's at risk of falling victim to such stories. “Underneath every financial decision, there is a story we are telling ourselves,” says Sarah Newcomb author of Loaded: Money, Psychology, and How to Get Ahead without Leaving Your Values Behind.

“Each of us has come to believe certain stories based on our upbringing and our experiences with money; stories about who we are and who we are not, stories about what we can and cannot do in the world,” she wrote in Loaded.

• Your wealth could be in danger.

Others agree. “We're highly sensitive to relative comparisons, and how that's pretty much doomed to make us unhappy unless we focus our attention elsewhere,” says Stephen Wendel, head of behavioral science at Morningstar.

So what can you do to protect yourself from social comparisons that might cause you to ruin your best-laid retirement plan?

• Remember, nothing is as it seems. What you see on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Twitter and the like may be a façade. “Keeping up the Joneses, especially for retirees, has long been a part of the competitive drive fueling financial decision making,” says Sean Stein Smith, a member of the AICPA’s National CPA Financial Literacy Commission. “With the advent and proliferation of social media, it is easier than ever before to convey an image that might be not accurate. Just because it is on social media does not mean it's 100 percent true.”

Newcomb agrees. “When we see a social media thread or post, we are seeing a ‘story’ that someone else is telling about their lives,” she says. “That story is the heavily edited highlight reel of their lives, and it doesn’t tell the whole tale: We do not see their debt or savings, or the sleepless nights. We don’t see the pit in their stomach when they open their credit card bill, but we see the smiling faces when they treat their kids to a beach vacation. We see a photo and tell ourselves the story of their amazing lives, and then we compare it to our own personal story, and we decide that we fall short.”

And what you don’t know is the real story. They may have saved up for years to buy that boat, or they may have maxed out their credit cards to take the family on that trip. “We see ‘priceless memories’ and suddenly we are willing to throw away our own security in an attempt to get the emotional bliss we think our friends have achieved,” says Newcomb.

• Focus on your own finances. Enjoy the photos of family and friends on social media, but don’t let jealousy and envy get the better of you. Instead, focus on your finances and what you can do or not do with your money. “Social media is sizzle,” says Smith. “It fades quickly. Focus on the components that really matter to your finances.”

• Reframe the issue. Instead of looking at how peers and others spend money, look at how they save money. “Change your reference points to friends who are responsible savers and modest spenders,” says Jodi DiCenzo, a partner at Behavioral Research Consulting. “The effects might serve you well.”

• Use social comparisons to enjoy life as well. Richard Salmen, CEO of Northern Financial Advisors, says it’s possible to avoid financial missteps due to social media comparisons. But you’ll need a retirement spending plan to do so. Determine how much money you’ll need for travel and how much you might need for late-in-life health care costs.

Once you’ve mapped out a spending plan, you can give yourself permission to travel within your budget. Salem also suggests using other people’s posts for inspiration, as a way to rule in or out places you’d like to visit, or things you might want to buy or not. In reality, Salem says far too many retirees delay spending money on trips only to regret their decisions later in life when they are no longer physically able to travel.

Do's and don’ts to live by

Do

  • Be happy that your friends are living well.
  • Remember that every photo is cropped, and often there are many outtakes before the best ones are chosen.
  • Remember that their story is different from yours. They have faced different obstacles, and you only see less than half of the picture.

Don’t

  • Compare your "blooper reel" with their "highlights."
  • Minimize your own strengths, loves or adventures.
  • Forget that the brag books of social media are often ways to compensate for feelings of emptiness and isolation. Social media activity is linked to depression and the like.

Robert Powell is editor of Retirement Weekly, contributes regularly to USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal and MarketWatch. Got questions about money? Email Bob at rpowell@allthingsretirement.com.

Copyright 2016 USA TODAY


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