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Comparisons With Others Can Obscure Our Own Goals

On and off over the years, I have used a training app called Strava. It allows you to keep track of your performance on different biking, running and skiing trails. You can even break down overall times into sections or compare your performance over the entire trail.

Last year, in an attempt to get back into shape for mountain biking, I started using Strava again. At first, I just tracked my training volume. How many miles did I ride? How long was I on my bike? Then I started competing against myself. How fast could I do a couple of my favorite trails?

Strava also has a feature that lets you compare your training results to times posted by other people. It didn’t take long for my competitive side to kick in. On days where I had already decided on an easy ride, I found myself racing through sections of trail to see if I could beat other people on Strava.

Now, competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can help us improve. But my urge to compete was over the top. My training obsession began to remind me of a story that a friend had shared with me about her family’s W-2 derby. It’s exactly what it sounds like. My friend and her brother compared W-2s each year. Whoever had the highest income won, and it was a big deal.

Subconsciously, a lot of us have similar W-2 derbies with our neighbors. Of course, we don’t actually have the W-2s to compare. Instead, we look around and wonder if we’re making more or less. At times, it may come from competitiveness, but other times it can come from frustration. I have found myself saying, for example, “How can they possibly afford that? I’m sure I make more than they do.”

It’s hard not to compare ourselves to others based on visible spending or consumption because it is often the only yardstick available. Psychologists refer to this as social comparison theory. When an objective measurement isn’t an option, we compare ourselves to what we see around us. We rely on these visual shortcuts — cars, houses, vacations — to figure out where we fit. Have we done better or worse?

But our desire for validation comes with some serious blind spots. Income is relative to so many other factors that both the number of dollars earned and how they appear to be spent make for a worthless comparison. Your neighbor may drive an older car so he can retire early. Your cousin may earn $100,000 a year compared to your $50,000, but it comes with a two-hour commute and weekend commitments. We simply don’t know.

Of course, we could make the comparison less personal. Someone could create a Strava-like app that lets us track our financial data, pick a few variables and compare our status to other users’. You could then discover that you make more than, say, 80 percent of the people matching your profile.

But here’s the kicker. It doesn’t matter.

There is only one comparison that does matter. Do you have enough for you? Not enough for someone else, the people on an imaginary app or even your neighbor, but for you. If the answer is yes, then it’s time to put away the yardstick and get on with life.

This commentary originally appeared February 9 on NYTimes.com

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© 2014, The BAM ALLIANCE

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Carl Richards is the creator of the weekly Sketch Guy column in The New York Times and is a columnist for Morningstar Advisor. Carl has also been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Financial Planning, Marketplace Money, The Leonard Lopate Show, Oprah.com and Forbes.com. His simple but meaningful sketches served as the foundation for his first book, “The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money.”

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