Money and The “Big Hat, No Cattle” People

We’ve all heard of the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses”.  If you have a personal finance blog, or regularly read such blogs, you might have read advice about how it’s not necessary to make spending decisions based on impressing other people.  I’m with that school of thought, which probably won’t surprise you.

Based on this way of thinking, I tend to get amused with the people who fall into the “big hat, no cattle” category when it comes to money. These are people, as the saying implies, that talk a big game, but have nothing to show for it.  I truly don’t get this way of doing things.

Don’t get me wrong – I do get some of the underlying drivers. They want to feel like they belong, or they want to prove that they’re successful, they want to show that you’re no better than them. And so on. I get the thinking. I just don’t think the way those folks do.

I knew a guy who, back in his early 20’s, bought a brand new SUV. He in no way could have afforded it, as he and I were both modestly paid employees just starting out. But he felt like the “needed” to feel like he had “made it”. Huh? If you’re in your early 20’s, just having graduated college, you haven’t made it yet. Unless you’ve survived some harrowing health scare, or something extraordinary – or are a pop star or athlete – you’re in the category of “just starting out”.  But this guy wanted to feel like he was established, to the point of spending tons of money on something he didn’t need. Good guy, and he seems to be responsible now, thankfully.

Fast forward a number of years, and I’ve seen this with a couple who bought a brand new McMansion in a great new development. They didn’t seem to have jobs that could substantiate that purchase, so I assumed that they must have sizable savings. Actually, I didn’t really care, it just struck me as unusual. Well, a few years later, they put the home on the market and had financial concerns from what I was told. Didn’t seem like they needed the massive new, impeccably furnished house. They just wanted it, and beamed with pride over living that existence. They’re nice people, so I do feel kind of bad for them.

Anyway, these are examples of people who fall for big hat, no cattle syndrome when it comes to money and material things. They take pride in wanting everyone to know what they’ve accomplished, to the point of making harmful financial decision.

Does this make sense to you?

Personally, I like the “small hat, big cattle” approach. Sounds funny, but I think you get the idea.  Live your life modestly, based on what’s visible to the others. If you have money, keep it for security and other needs – and of course to enjoy – but no need to show off. What’s the point?

Of course, I’m not at the “big cattle” stage yet, so I’m living modestly and being quite accurate in how I present myself :) However, in the future, as things continue to evolve (positive thinking here), I would rather live the same way and not let lifestyle escalate in order to show off to others.

This brings me to my questions:

  • Would it bother you if people assumed that you had less money and were less accomplished than you really are?
  • Or, would you take pride in living under the radar so to speak?
  • Or, do you just not care one way or another how you’re perceived by others?

Keep in mind, I’m not talking about workplace situations, where people are undervaluing you. I’m talking about friends or acquaintances, and how they perceive your financial situation.

What do you think?


  1. says

    I’ve been budgeting and have been so focused on “being different” (financially) for so long that I really don’t care how I’m perceived by people any longer. When I first started there were definitely the days that I was concerned about what others thought about me, but I began to realize that it just doesn’t matter.

    People can think all they want of me as long as I know what I’m doing and where I’m going.

    My only concern about perception is with my job: I work with high net work people in the financial industry. This predicament has actually made me lean toward getting a “luxury” (very used of course) car to help with their perception of me. I can’t have wealthy clients invest money with me if they think I’m poor. :)

    • Squirrelers says

      WorkSaveLive – that’s a good point about how sometimes it does matter, when it comes to credibility for your line of work. Of course, it just might be that your wealthy clients might be even more impressed to see you be frugal :)

  2. says

    Would it bother you if people assumed that you had less money than you have? NOPE. I think this happens already (especially when I pull up to a really nice restaurant in my old Honda. That’s Honda’s the reason WHY I can eat at your $40/plate place! hmph), and I don’t really care. I’d rather have people think that than the other way around.

    • Squirrelers says

      Well Heeled – your example speaks to tradeoffs. Spend less in where area you don’t care much about, and you can splurge in other areas.

  3. Mark says

    To answer your questions:
    •Would it bother you if people assumed that you had less money and were less accomplished than you really are?
    •Or, would you take pride in living under the radar so to speak?

    I prefer it that way in personal situations (friends, etc.) because then I know that they like me for who I am. But I have found that in some business situations, it is better to use wealth and financial success (real or invented) to “intimidate” in negotiation. In other cases, they see your wealth as a reason to rip you off, so it goes both ways.

    Also sometimes people totally misinterpret things. I wear an expensive watch and I drive a car that would cost around $75000 new. Many people assume I am wealthy and spend lavishly. However, I received the watch from my employer for years of service, and I bought the car used for around $25000.

    • Squirrelers says

      Mark – it can go both ways, I see your point in that regard. Good way to put it about being under the radar, so friends like you for who you are.

    • Squirrelers says

      Marie – that makes sense, when you think about it. I assume that people might have become millionaires by, in some part, not making dumb moves based on showing off.

    • Squirrelers says

      Jeff – that’s a good point, if they think you have a lot, you might not. It can be expensive to show off, it would seem!

  4. says

    I have people both underestimating and overestimating. One friend thinks I’m “Mr. Rich” because I took the leap of faith; if only he knew! Haha… I don’t know… I think I actually prefer to be underestimated though. I’d prefer to be secretly rich rather than so-so and flaunt what I have, and then be under pressure to keep it up and keep my face.

    • Squirrelers says

      Invest it Wisely – you make a great point, and I think the same way about people facing pressure to save face. As I get older, I think less and less about what others think, and more about what makes me happy. Now, if I said that I never worry about what others think that simply would be disingenuous. I think we all care to some degree about the opinions of others in some cases. The thing is, some people really care too much, and that’s where bad moves can be made.

  5. says

    I would love to act like I don’t care about what people think (not about our financial status, per se), but I am disciplining my mind to get over it! I am a work in progress, but after seeing in my own life things similar to the examples you’ve given, I know it makes more sense to live humbly and be seen that way. I also don’t want people coveting things I own anyway – people do crazy things to satisfy the instant gratification twitch that America suffers from.

    • Squirrelers says

      Sherrian – great way to put it, people really do crazy things to satisfy feelings of instant gratification

  6. says

    Take it from someone who thought people cared. They don’t. Strangers may compare you to themselves for a brief moment in time, for some purpose of self gratification. We shouldn’t feel the need to project ourselves to be someone we’re not to true friends and family.

    Underestimated is the way to go.

    • Squirrelers says

      JP – I agree, well said that we shouldn’t feel a need to try to act like someone we aren’t, to real friends and to family. Best to be authentic, and have people like you for who you are – not who you act like.

  7. says

    Some of my best friends think I’m poorer than they are, but I know considering how much the bounce check that I have a much higher net worth than they do.

    I don’t mind so much as long as I’m able to do the things I want to do, or more importantly, my kids get to do the things they want to do…

    I do like an occasional nice vacation though once a year too…

    • Squirrelers says

      Don – I know what you mean about giving kids the opportunity to do things they want to do. That’s a motivator for sure.

    • Squirrelers says

      Donna – true, that could be one advantage I suppose! People don’t badger others who appear to have little.

  8. says

    A lot of people I know with Big Hats have lost their shirts.

    I know so many people who have either lost or walked away from their homes in the past couple of years. It’s sad for me to see people lose everything and have to start all over again. I can’t imagine losing my house because I over-extended.

    Keeping the expenses low (small hat) and some money put away (the cattle) helps people avoid these kinds of financial problems.

    • Squirrelers says

      Bret – that’s too bad that some of those people paid such a big price for overextending. Hopefully they can learn from that going forward, despite the immense difficulty of starting over. For the rest of us, we can learn vicariously.

  9. says

    I must say… I’m of the same thought process. AKA “Stealth Wealth”… I don’t want people knowing how much money I have. Especially now-a-days with this whole 1%-ers vs. 99%-ers concept. Most also don’t realize how difficult it really is. Outside of lottery winners (which often times end up in the same or worse situations than they were in before they won), it’s usually a lot of sacrifice or delayed gratification. I give plenty of credit to “squirrelers”! Keep it up!


    P.S. If you haven’t already, check out some books by Thomas J. Stanley (as someone mentioned “Millionaire Next Door”, “Stop Acting Rich: …And Start Living Like A Real Millionaire”, etc.)

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