Why You Need to Steer Clear of the HGTV Trap and How to Avoid Its Siren Call

I think of myself as pretty modest in my wants. A pricy car, a fancy wardrobe or a boat bigger than a Sunfish? Never wanted any of those things.  I don’t watch the Kardashians, or the Housewives, or any of those unreality shows.

If you twisted my arm, I would admit that a beachfront cottage would be nice…except for the property taxes…and the insurance…and the chance the next passing hurricane would wipe it all away.

So why did I spend a voyeuristic Sunday afternoon lusting after million dollar mansions?

The Houses We Don’t Have

Every October marks the local Parade of Homes, and every October my in-laws ask us to go with them to go through some of Raleigh’s most expensive model homes.  We go look at marbled kitchens, gorgeously tiled bathrooms, and walk-in closets bigger than my bedroom.  While I don’t actually want a house 4 times the size of our current home, I still walked away dissatisfied with what I have. What’s wrong with me?

I admit some of the excess I saw Sunday amused me. Why would anyone think they needed marbled tile in their laundry room? And I found smooth-floored his-and-hers garages  a bit over the top.  I’ve never actually had a home with a garage, but aren’t oil stains on the floor standard? When I walked into a shower with a cobblestone floor, all I could think was “This looks cool, but who would want to stand barefoot on that first thing in the morning?”

That’s not the way I felt about the kitchens, though. Or the closets, the huge master bedrooms with stunning views, or the impressive back porches with outdoor fireplaces or sparkling pools. Oh, none of the houses had the custom library of my dreams. I could still live in one of those mansions, if they just didn’t cost so much.

The HGTV Trap

Pop culture bombard with images of nice things all of the time. Even TV commercials regularly show picture-perfect houses that most of us can’t afford. We go through the check-out line in the grocery store and see images from Better Homes and Gardens, or see images on Facebook of celebrities. It’s hard not to compare all of the images you see to what you have and think that your life is somehow less because it doesn’t match what you see on tv.

Here’s the secret: Your life is not less unless you decide it is.

Most people don’t live in million-dollar houses. Most people don’t have living rooms that HGTV or in Southern Living choose to profile. If you aren’t living the lives you see on TV, you aren’t less.

I call this the “HGTV trap:” Feeling like your life is less because it doesn’t match the images that you are bombarded with.

The media shows us beautiful things, no question. I enjoy looking at beautiful houses as much as anyone. The secret is that most of us have beautiful things in their life, if they just look hard enough for them. You may have a beautiful family or beautiful friendships. You may have a cozy and comfortable home, a good job, or a functioning car. You may just have a beautiful day, or even just one moment of peace. Seek and Find the beauty in your life.

If you don’t find that beauty with what you have, you are way more likely to seek it through buying more things. If you can find it, it’s easier to buy less, spend less, and save more.


Why You Need to Steer Clear of the HGTV Trap and How to Avoid Its Siren Call

The House We Have

We have a house built in the early 60s, and we’re doing some remodeling that makes life in it more complicated right now. A lot of the fixtures are original to the house, and it’s definitely missing some modern conveniences. For instance, a dishwasher never graced our galley kitchen until 5 years after we moved in. Our closets are tiny. So is the bathroom off of the master bedroom.

Our home is a relic of its era. When I haven’t been out looking at million dollar houses, I’m grateful for that fact.

I don’t think we would have gotten this house if it hadn’t been a relic of the 60s.

We live in a great part of town, with some of Raleigh’s best schools. We have over an acre of land, backed by woods and with two storage buildings. Our house languished on the market for months before we found it. It was perfect for us: one floor and lots of land. A lot of people must have passed on it because of its dated kitchen and dark wood paneling, but it was everything we needed at the time.

Frankly, it’s still everything we need. Even though we crammed in a bunch of books, toys and furniture, we have more than enough square footage for three people. It’s certainly as much house as we can maintain. I can’t imagine what it would be like trying to keep one of those 7000 square foot monstrosities cleaned.

Lust or Gratitude?

For all that I am grateful for the house we have, Sunday was all about wanting the things I didn’t.  It wasn’t like I was inspired to go out and earn several million dollars so I could afford one of those houses. For the most part, I understood that by Monday morning, the lust for a wine cellar and a giant bathroom would be gone, if not forgotten. Unless this year is drastically different, I’ll be happy enough to drink coffee in my tiny kitchen and watch the herd of deer that usually shows up in the backyard. I will be mostly content with my life.

Taking a peek at the houses of the 1% is fun, but only if you can keep it in perspective. It must be really hard if you can’t. What if you get so wrapped up in the nice things other people have that you can never be happy with the good things in your own life?

You can be happy with what you have, live within your means, and be financially secure. Or you can pursue what you see other people have even when it’s beyond your means, put your future at risk by running up debt to get it, and subject yourself to unbelievable stress.

Even if you never spend an extra dime, you can still lust after what others have, and never be satisfied with your own life.

It’s a choice, Lust or Gratitude.  Pursue what you don’t have, even when the pursuit drives you to unhappiness. Live with what you do have, and find happiness in it.

You can strive for a better life, but don’t forget to be grateful for what you have. I believe there are good things in everyone’s life. If you don’t practice looking for things that make you feel grateful, no million dollar mansion will ever make you happy.

*Part of Financially Savvy Saturdays on brokeGIRLrich, A Disease Called Debt and From Aldi to Harrods*

Updated 10/19/15 and 10/7/16

38 thoughts on “Why You Need to Steer Clear of the HGTV Trap and How to Avoid Its Siren Call

  1. I love everything about this post. I was under the weather for part of the weekend, so I misused my time by watching 823447 episodes of Flip or Flop on HGTV. As I was watching, I started making a mental list of all the projects we still haven’t finished since we moved in two years ago. But once I crawled out of bed, I started noticing some of the awesome stuff we’ve already done and my mood shifted so much! It is all about perspective and reframing. We have so much…even when we think we don’t! Thanks for this post!
    Penny @ She Picks Up Pennies recently posted…That One Time I Ruined DinnerMy Profile

    • I think there’s a definite “HGTV trap” you can fall into and think everyone has a nicer place than you do. But most people don’t have what they see on TV, whether it’s a Dream Home or a Best Thing I Ever Ate. Even the “Generic Middle Class Family Homes” on commercials are WAY nicer than most people can afford.

      Keep on plugging on the projects. We’ve been in our house over 5 years, and we still have a ton in progress.

    • Thanks Stephanie. All your sermons must be working! I admit I don’t always have my spiritual life front and center when I’m writing, but it’s nice when it shines through anyway.

  2. It’s far too easy to fall into the lust trap. I’ve even noticed it when doing our latest home project, that upgrading one thing leads to lust for upgrading everything and that’s simply not in the budget. Gratitude is the wise choice, but I think you need to cultivate it. If you don’t make a point of counting your blessings, it’s easy to forget that you have them. Thanks for the reminder, Emily.
    Gary @ Super Saving Tips recently posted…How to React When Your Adult Child Asks for HelpMy Profile

    • You’re welcome, Gary. I know the personal finance community as a whole is helping me be a lot more grateful for the things I have.

  3. Gratitude is so much better for your mental health! But that fact can be so easy to predict. I’m watching the housing market as we’re hoping to buy one in the near future. Most of the time I don’t make it past that first page, but every once in a while my curiosity gets the best of me. It’s not a good thing. Suddenly those houses on the first page seem inadequate when two minutes ago they were everything I could have wanted… A yard, enough bedrooms, and a good school district. You’re right… A day or two puts it back into perspective. I’m glad that works for me, because we could really mess up our financial life if it didn’t.
    FF @ Femme Frugality recently posted…The Frugality Challenge: Gamification of Your FinancesMy Profile

    • Giving yourself time helps so often. I guess that’s why so many in the PF community recommend waiting on purchases to see whether it’s something you really need or just an impulse.
      Good luck with the housing search!

  4. Being a British blogger, you’re probably wondering how on earth I can say that I needed this post?!?! We love travelling to Orlando and one of my favourite things to do once we get into our hotel or villa is to find HGTV and play it in the background all the time whilst we are in the room/villa. I love it so much but it makes me come away feeling sad that I don’t have those things. However, it has encouraged me to push harder to earn more so that I CAN have those nice houses.

    • Hi Emma! I know wanting nice stuff inspires a lot of people to earn more or to be more successful. I do think that you have to be careful so that the nice stuff isn’t the only reason for seeking success.
      Here’s my thoughts: Go get your dream home, I’ll be sure to cheer you on. Make sure you are enjoying the journey too. If you practice gratitude along the way, you’re more likely to find satisfaction when you do reach your goal.

  5. Love this, Emily! As a die-hard HGTV fan, I can relate. Thankfully, I typically hone in on the DIY side of the equation as far as home improvement goes. And, though DIY definitely saves money over hiring out the work, even DIY comes at a cost (usually more than planned too).

    I couldn’t agree more with the positive value of developing an attitude of gratefulness. There is nothing better to bring us joy and squelch those desires for keeping up with the Joneses.
    Amanda @ centsiblyrich recently posted…Do you know what you need to accomplish your dreams? Start with whyMy Profile

    • It’s funny, I love the parade of homes, but really don’t watch too much HGTV. (None, now that we’ve dropped cable.) I think I realized after my first “Love it or List it” how very dangerous it would be, because if we could just completely remodel our kitchen and master bath and knock the wall down between our living room and family room and maybe extend the master bedroom a bit and add some closet space…. we’d have a perfect house.

      Yeah, no.

  6. Bravo! I only catch an HGTV type of show very occasionally. Pinterest is my downfall when it comes to lusting after a home I don’t have. But I certainly do love our “little” house. Ours is a 1950s era, and I love the history of our home. I do wish we had 2 bathrooms for our family of 7, but it’ll come eventually. 😉
    Jamie @ Medium Sized Family recently posted…2 Week Meal Plan for Early OctoberMy Profile

    • I guess Pinterest is all about the types of pins you use. Because I pin mostly money and food related stuff, I don’t see a lot of the very pretty things that I know are on there very often. Although, sometimes I get jealous of awesome-looking food, too.(And bravo for working 7 people with 1 bathroom. I don’t think we could do that…at least not as long as Jon’s average morning ablutions take an hour.)

  7. This is great! My wife and I will watch HGTV and then start to feel like maybe we need to upgrade our furniture or redecorate the living room. It’s tough to see the “perfect” version of things and then look around at your own life and not compare the two. We definitely need to make a more concerted effort to practice gratitude for the things we have.
    Matt @ Optimize Your Life recently posted…Spending for Maximum HappinessMy Profile

    • The perfect staged version of your house is rarely the one you live with. And it’s hard not to want that when you see it. (And personally, I’ve gotten to the point where even commercials make me wish for nicer houses…most of them seem to be shot in half million dollar or more homes, even for things like Hamburger Helper.)

  8. You have an amazing perspective. Too often we get caught up in the moment and look at what we have with a critical eye instead of enjoying what we have. I have definitely had moments when I check out Redfin looking at the amazing houses that I can’t afford. However I quickly snap out of it and go on a walk to appreciate all the things that we do have.
    Mustard Seed Money recently posted…The Dream: House with a PoolMy Profile

    • It’s easy to get wrapped up in the fantasy of those houses. I guess it’s a bit like playing the lottery…an exercise in fantasy. Most of us can be happy right where we are, if we have the right attitude.

  9. I love your honesty here. Many would just stop at, “Why would I want a cobblestone floor in my shower?” and not move on to the things that actually do tug at their heart strings – and for most of us, something does. I haven’t looked at a model home in years, and I think I’ll make a point of staying away from them after reading this : ) Do you think that maybe next year you should say “No thanks” to your in-laws? Maybe suggest a day volunteering at a local homeless shelter instead?
    Fruclassity (Ruth) recently posted…Make Your Own Financial Wake-Up Call MomentMy Profile

    • I’m not sure what I’ll do the next time my in-laws want to look. I’ll probably go…they are in their late 70s/early 80s and my MIL sometimes needs some help on the stairs, etc on the tour. And they enjoy it a lot. So while I’d be just as happy to do something else, it makes more sense to go with the rest of the family and make sure they get to do something they enjoy with a little strategic help.

  10. I love this… and the “trap,” I feel doesn’t end with HGTV!!! I love Pinterest but lately I feel like looking there has made everyone lust after so many things. Weddings, Birthdays and Showers have gotten so extreme also…
    Jlll recently posted…beautiful punta san carlos.My Profile

    • Facebook too. A friend just went to the Caribbean for her friend’s 50th. Mine is coming up in a little over a yearand I’m like “I want to ride horses on the beach for my 50th!” Yeah, right. If I hadn’t seen those pics on her FB feed, I would not be thinking that at all.

  11. Thanks for the post, Emily. I agree that the homes and updates we see on “reality” TV shows don’t reflect reality because they make luxury seem normal. I appreciate your honesty about your own response–it’s easy to feel ungrateful and even greedy when we compare what we have to these glamorized snapshots of the wealthy (or deeply in debt).

    • “Make luxury seem normal.” Kalie, you’ve nailed it…that’s exactly the problem. It makes it seem like if you don’t have one of those houses, you aren’t normal. But, not true. And, most of the time, that’s way more than most of us need or would feel comfy in anyway.

  12. I think the last time I watched HGTV I was in a waiting room. 🙂 The episode that was on showed a single mom of one dropping a big pile of cash on renovations. I had no idea of her financial situation, bit it still made me angry, I just try to avoid these type of show now. I certainly want and enjoy nice/new things but am not willing to give u all my money for them. 🙂 I wouldn’t mind a beach bungalow too. Location, location, location.
    Brian @ Debt Discipline recently posted…Calling Shenanigans on Cord CuttersMy Profile

    • I generally avoid the shows, too. That said, I’ve caught enough to get both the danger and the allure. It’s hard not to think…”If we just did this, this and this, our house would be perfect,” without realizing that I’m talking about spending about as much as we paid for our house.
      Beach bungalows are awesome. I enjoy renting one for a week or so. Owning one is probably less fun (because we’d probably just have to rent it out to afford it anyway.)

  13. “Seek and find the beauty in your life” is great advice. It’s too easy to take what we have for granted in the pursuit of “more.” Because as you imply, the quest to get more can be a never-ending journey. And I totally agree, cleaning one of those McMansions on a regular basis would be more headache than the property is worth!
    Jay recently posted…Stock Trading Picks for October 2016 (Part 2)My Profile

    • Jay, I think you’re right…once you fall into dissatisfaction, it’s hard to ever find satisfaction again, no matter what you do. That’s the real danger, both to your soul and your net worth.

      Gosh, how many hours a week do you think it would take to keep one of those clean? I’m sure it’s a full day’s work…for someone, if not the owner.

  14. I love houses, looking at houses, dreaming about houses. When we had cable, HGTV was a HUGE trap for me. Even now with Netflix I’ve started avoiding the fixer upper shows b/c they just leave me wanting more, more, more. But it sure can be fun to dream. 🙂

    • As long as you keep your perspective, I think it’s fine, Laurie. I know I love watching food TV, even when I know I’ll never cook/eat some of that stuff. And I still spend a buck on the lottery every now and then. Sometimes dreams are worth a dollar. We just can’t ignore the good, or stop working for the better.

      “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
      Albus Dumbledore

    • Erin, I think that’s a great international experience, and probably far more useful for balance than a trip to Europe (which is what I did. It was great, but not as enlightening.)

      I was talking to someone who just got back from touring Vietnam and Cambodia. Her reaction was “Compared to us, these people have nothing. But they are happy. And then we get back and all of a sudden we’re thinking about the stuff we don’t have again.”

  15. This is so true in so many ways. Media manages not only the stereotype of physical beauty, but now the stereotype of how our houses should look like. It is a vicious cycle that needs to end. I do watch HGTV remodel shows, just to get general decoration ideas, but I do not let the shows get me out touch with reality.

    I too REFUSE to follow any ‘reality’ show that only portraits fake people, and how they live, in a ‘fake perfect world’. I do not give money the importance many people give, as I know it is not in money of material things that we do find happiness! Great article!

    Joyful Savings recently posted: Simple Ways To Ease Your Work In The Kitchen

    • I tend to think the commercials are more insidious than things like “Real Housewives.” I mean, I know the “Real Housewives” aren’t real. But a 7 figure house set for a grocery store commercial? Or cleaning products? That’s what gets me in the gut. Another good reason to ditch cable for Netflix and Amazon.

    • Thanks for coming by, Heather!
      Comparing can cause a lot of problems, and because of social media there seem to be a lot more people to compare ourselves to. It can cause a lot of problems.

  16. I got married last year at 50. I didn’t want to stay at a hotel on our wedding night. My hubby’s great boss gave us the use of their house overnight. It’s a dream house with fantastic views of the city and lake, wine cellar, hot tub, home theater room, you name it. Now, we didn’t get to the house till late as we were having so much fun with family & friends, though we did enjoy the hot tub. But you know what? I didn’t feel comfortable there. It’s not me. I’m used to a humble, cozy home. The next morning, instead of lusting for a fantasy house like this, I couldn’t wait to get home! Just my 2 cents. And don’t forget most of those home owners have to pay for people to clean them, they’re so large.

    • Interesting, Holly. I haven’t actually stayed in one of those houses, but I can certainly see that I probably wouldn’t be very comfortable in all of that space…might be a bit like being in a hotel lobby. And it would be a bear to keep clean and warm/cool. With the high ceilings, you might need a special service just to change the light bulbs.

      Thanks, I now feel 100% happy that I don’t live in one!

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