How a Fear of Missing Out Nearly Ruined My Finances

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fomoFive years ago, I was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, when I realized I was out of sunscreen.

My beach cohorts—three other women—were SPF-averse and determined to return home with golden suntans, and so I excused myself and made way to the closest drugstore.

I threw a bottle of Coppertone into my cart, along with a bottle of Evian and a few fashion magazines. The total came to just under $20. I swiped my debit card. “Can you swipe that again?” asked the cashier. After the second swipe, she asked if I had another card to use.

“Why?” I asked. “Is something wrong?”

“It says your card was declined,” she said. “But maybe there’s just something wrong with the card itself?”

“Oh, probably,” I replied, as I hurriedly pulled out my platinum American Express card to cover the damages. The charge was approved, and instead of returning to the beach, I went to the nearest ATM, where I learned that the available balance in my checking account was two cents, and my current balance, including the overdraft fee and dinner out the night before, was negative $40.

RELATED: Budgeting: How to Escape a Downward Spiral

I’d been on the island for three days. I still had four to go. And I had absolutely no cash available until my next direct deposit, scheduled for the end of the following week.

I plastered a smile on my face as I made my way back to the clan, determined to make the rest of my vacation as enjoyable as possible while my dirty secret burned from deep inside. And I had only myself to blame. When I’d received the invitation to join in on the house in January, I’d jumped at the chance, ignoring the fact that I lived paycheck-to-paycheck and could barely pay my rent on time, never mind afford another place to stay.

But, I felt like I “deserved” a vacation: The thought of hanging back in the city, alone, while my friends frolicked on the beach had triggered my FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out, thus overpowering the logic that I should simply have said, “No, thanks.”

How the Fear of Missing Out Can Hurt You

According to Martha Beck, life coach, author, sociologist and columnist at O, the Oprah Magazine, FOMO is a 21st-century phenomenon triggered (and coined) by social media enthusiasts that keeps its victims gripped in a constant state of fear that not only is the grass greener on the other side of that status feed, but that a big ol’ party awaits us there, and if we’re not on its VIP list—well, who are we?

Some say FOMO is at near-epidemic proportions: In a survey, Mashable found that up to 56% of social media users suffer from the syndrome, spurred by constant check-ins, likes, tweets and other visions clogging our personal feeds.

FOMO can also exact an emotional toll, triggering anxiety, depression and acute comparisonitis. That last factor can wreak havoc on our finances when we attempt to keep up with a million imaginary lifestyles while ignoring our own real bottom line.

RELATED: How to Cure Your Money Comparisonitis

  • GPJ22

    This is a great article. I have definitely struggled with this in my 20′s. I always felt the need to go to the party even when I didn’t have the money to do so and I should have politely declined. Now my 20′s are almost over, and I’m starting to sometimes say no to things I am invited to, for monetary reasons as well as my health (some days I rather just exercise than have cocktails). I’ve just come to accept that I make less money than other people I know.

    • observer99

      Even if you make less money, the important thing is are you doing what you want to do, not being driven by what others want to do, or want you to do. Its one thing to get into debt doing something you want to do, its another thing entirely getting into debt doing something that some-one else wants you to do.

  • mom

    Sadly, I still struggle with this in my mid-40′s, but now it’s because I don’t want my children to miss out on all of the things their friends have and are doing. I guess I don’t want them to be disappointed that I can’t provide all of the things that their friends’ parents provide. I’m trying to share with them our budget and I tell them, “We have this much money for entertainment for the month, you can decide how you want to spend your portion.” Should they want to do more, they have to use their own earnings.
    In the long run, I hope this will help them become financially independent, but often when we are around other families that are indulging their children, I just feel bummed that I can’t do the same.

    • Camika Lopez

      Mom hang in there! It’s great you go over the budget with them. Right now it’s hard but years from now they’ll understand and this early life lesson may help make them responsible young adults. I know my parents’ honest did with me and my brother. Take Care :)

    • michwake

      Guess what I learned from my son and his friends. We have all had to cut back. I thought my son would be sad about not getting the new xbox. Turns out he could care less. He doesn’t care about the most expensive and the latest and greatest. He knows we have x amount of money and I let him choose where he most likes to spend his portion of it. His friend’s parents are way in over the head and went to Rent a Center for Christmas to get the kids ipads. Well they couldn’t pay the bill and had to give them back. The kids didn’t even care and hardly used them. They all seem to have one big focus and don’t need everything (one is a gamer, one a BMXer and the other is still little). My son was so spoiled and so many things sat their unused. Now it is all about his BMX (he is 14) and his money all goes into that. If he gets gift cards he gets new xbox games or he earns money doing yard work for a neighbor ($75/month).
      Your kids don’t need everything. If they are old enough to understand let them learn from your mistakes. Sit them down and explain we have x coming in but y (which is greater) going out and need to scale back. My son knows some other kids have more than he does but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t act envious. He does tell me what he really wants and that is what I focus on.
      He really wants to take a trip. Well, with planning and budgeting I’m sure we can save and take a trip somewhere this summer. It doesn’t have to be super expensive. I spent a week and a half in Cali in 2009. Our airfare was $500 total (used Kayak to search), we stayed with friends and bought groceries to cook at her place and we did as much free sight seeing as we could. Not everything required thousands in tickets. We avoided Disney…again he couldn’t care less. We hiked, hit the beach, went horseback riding, went to see Are you Smarter than a Fifth Grader all of which didn’t cost that much. Part of it is he knows the situation and money is tight.
      Kids would rather have less “stuff” and less stress on their family then more stuff and family fights. Don’t be bummed. Really, they don’t need all of that stuff. If anything you are doing them a disservice from trying to keep up with the Jones’. This is the time to teach them about budgets and making things work. Tell them you could get a second job for more money but it is less time with them and you would rather be with them then buy more stuff that no one needs. If they really want something new make them sell their old stuff and try to find ways to earn money. They can help. It isn’t all on you.

  • PalB

    Ever heard of zero $ days? That has been my mantra for two years and counting… Never fails.
    As for the social media, I would only add that it’s a necessary evil. It’s up to us to keep checking our fb notifications every second and make our lives miserable or contribute to insightful discussions on the LinkedIn and so on instead…
    Discipline now that is the biggest challenge!

  • michwake

    Absolutely! Thank you for sharing your experience. I was always wanting to be included or would feel bad for my friends and since I had access to money I was always buying dinners, etc. to help my friends down on their luck. Well guess what? I ended up taking a big pay cut and having life “happen” to me also and now all those good times are racked up on my credit cards. Now, I’m digging my way out of debt. I know a lot of people in the same boat though. While they may or may not share their story with the world I don’t care about telling my friends my issues and how I got there and how I’m getting out. We don’t buy gifts for each other anymore, unless maybe if it is a major birthday. We do pay for the experience perhaps and eat out for those special occasions. I’ve accepted some great hand me downs from people too and have my closets well stocked. We alternative dinners at home with friends. We also try to group birthdays and occasions together with everyone so we can go out one time and not 5 times within two weeks. It all helps. I still get the social life on a better budget. I don’t go to the movies nearly as often as I used to and I don’t care. I also try to volunteer my time, especially since I can’t give as much money. It is fun and rewarding. I drag my friends along too. There are a lot of things you can do without breaking the bank. My son loves to make fun of me because I only take him to Logan’s now with a buy one get one free coupon. He says I need to coupon or discount to do anything. I will too. I won’t go somewhere if I can’t bring the price down to my budget. :-) I want the most bang for my little buck.