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Spending habits: influenced more by peers, or demographic?

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Tess Vigeland: We’re all familiar with the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses syndrome. Most of us are constantly comparing our lifestyles to those of our friends, neighbors and work colleagues. But how much do we really know about their income and spending habits?

Not much.

But thanks to the Internet, there’s a way to actually quantify the Joneses. Ashley Milne-Tyte reports.

Ashley Milne-Tyte: Jaidev Shergill used to work on Wall Street. A few years ago, he got a raise, but he barely noticed. By the end of each month, that money had vanished.

Jaidev Shergill: I was left with the same amount that I had the previous month, which was zero. I had basically just spent all the money and hadn’t really upgraded my style of living at all, I hadn’t really bought anything substantial.

He began to wonder about his friends — did they fritter away cash like he did? How much did they save? He prodded, but didn’t get far.

Shergill: It’s not a dinner subject. The conversations with friends around money are pretty much taboo.

All this got him thinking about a new business idea. He ended up creating The website uses spending data to let people compare their spending habits to other shoppers, people in the same town and the same age and income range.

Shergill: Let’s just click $50,000 to $75,000. And I’ve just typed in New York, NY. When I hit ‘update,’ it actually shows me the spending of other people like me with the same photos.

In March, New York and Shergill’s demographic spent more than $1,000 on shopping. That seems pretty high to Bronx resident, Sonia Pichardo.

Sonia Pichardo: Wow, the shopping is so big.

Pichardo is married with two little kids. She’s interested in Shergill’s vision for Bundle, that seeing how people like you spend money can help you curb your own expenses. When I first met her in the spring, she marveled that other Bronx families spent an avergae of $433 a month on groceries. She shops at Costco.

Pichardo: But you walk out, your shopping cart has $700 worth of food in it. And so, $433 a month? No way. No way.

But that lower number stuck in her mind. Several months later, she has cut back at the supermarket.

Pichardo: I now spend about $450. I really reduced what was organic. I have a lot of mother guilt, and so I had to really get over it.

She may be saving on food, but she and her husband still spend far more than peers on fixing up their home. Pichardo is showing me around with her four-year-old daughter Eden in hot pursuit.

Pichardo: So we’ve had a lot of work to do.

The Pichardos live in a tiny 100-year-old brick house with a lot of character. The old staircase needs fixing, the house has no insulation so the utility bills are high, and there’s a gaping hole in the living room ceiling caused by water damage.

Pichardo: About three months before this happened, we were warned that this would happen.

In addition to their ongoing home improvement project, Pichardo says there are regular temptations.

Pichardo: Electronics is my, I have a problem.

She tends to splurge on new gadgets: she recently got a flat-screen TV and a new mp3 player. Her friends buy this stuff, after all. And that’s the problem.

Tom Meyvis teaches marketing and consumer behavior at NYU’s Stern School of Business. He says you can look at a website like Bundle and come away with good intentions to cut back, but our brains are wired to connect with people we actually know.

Tom Meyvis: I look at my neighbor, and my neighbor just purchased a brand new car, and he’s walking around with this Burberry coat, and he bought all these luxury items. That’s going to be much more vivid.

Even if you know your neighbor earns way more than you do, you’ll still be tempted. Then there’s the flip side of all this comparison: if you find you spend less than average, you might feel entitled to go on a shopping spree.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace Money.

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