Over a century ago, “Keeping Up With the Joneses” was created to make us laugh. A daily comic strip that ran from 1913 to 1938, it chronicled the bumbling quest of the McGinis family to match the lifestyle of the always unseen Jones family next door. At some point, we started to take the idea seriously. Putting two cars in every garage and a chicken in every pot became a national obsession, and if the neighbors added aluminum siding, we’d find a way not only to match them but to surpass them. That, in large part, became the American dream of our parents’ generation.
Yet does it hold true today? Do most Americans still see more money and more stuff as the path to a good life? To answer that question, we turned to the very real people the catchphrase evokes. For over a year we talked with Joneses from across America—some rich, some poor, many in between — and asked them what they thought about money. The answers were decidedly mixed. Some still view money as the bridge to a better life, believing more is generally better than less. Others see it simply as a necessity of basic existence; family, friends, the heart and experiences, they say, are the true sources of joy. Who would you rather keep up with? We present: the United States of Jones.
Ben Jones, 55
Annual income: $80,000 and growing
Retirement strategy: “My business is my retirement. I’ll grow the wealth, and that wealth will be my future.”
The upkeep: Jones’ debt includes $200,000 on a home he built himself that’s now worth $360,000, and about $10,000 in credit card debt he plans to pay off in the next two years. He has set aside about $50,000 in liquid cash. His wife, Monica, earns $26,000 at a school-district job; this covers household expenses. All other income goes into the bike business.
How he earned it: “I used to run corporate cafeterias in the Kansas City area. A few years ago I noticed there were no bike shops in our small town and decided, at age 49, to take $95,000 from savings and open a cycling store. I don’t wear spandex or enjoy snobby bike talk. But I found a niche selling recumbent three-wheeled trikes. People started driving from 200 miles away to buy them. Pretty soon I was named dealer of the year.” Up until 2018, Jones’ business had gone up 50 percent in sales each year; this year the income is keeping pace with what he made last year, and he opened a second shop last month. “Monica and I are homebodies,” he says, “so we’re not spending on entertainment. We sometimes clip coupons, and we buy generic brands. I don’t consider myself a millionaire, but I will be one by age 60.”
The meaning of money: “I’m not extremely motivated by big wealth, though I’m learning to appreciate it. Having money gives you the comfort of knowing the bills will be paid and your needs will be met. You won’t end up in the poorhouse. My dad was a wealthy man, a doctor. He could buy a Mercedes-Benz and pay cash, but he drove a Honda Civic. He taught me to value the peace of satisfaction rather than chasing after some dream.”
Guy Winfred Jones, 62
Retired pest-control worker
Annual income: Around $12,600 in Social Security disability benefits for work-related illness, plus about $1,200 in royalties from a book he cowrote on early-childhood education
Retirement strategy: “I wish I could say I have a plan, but I really don’t. Social Security is my lifeline.”
The upkeep: It’s tight. The $1,051 Jones gets monthly from the government covers his $600 rent and his medical copays not covered by insurance. He has eight kids and 16 grandkids, and the family helps out with utilities and groceries.
How he earned it: “As a little one, I was very poor but didn’t know it. We didn’t have food sometimes, so my brothers and I would run down to the creek and go fishing. It was fun, and we were contributing. I’m a full-blood Lakota, and the name ‘Jones’ has deep implications. It was an attempt to ‘civilize’ us, to take away our Indian-ness. I left the reservation in 1974 and eventually got a job spraying houses for bugs. Everybody assumed I was an environmentalist because of that Indian from TV with the tear rolling down his face. People felt safe with me, and I made good commissions. I was earning $275 a week. Come to find out all those sprays were nerve poisons. I wore a respirator, but the poison still absorbed through the skin. I got tumors, needed surgeries and had to quit working.”
The meaning of money: “Trouble is, once you get money, you spend money, and you always end up wanting more. I tell my kids all the time: Be wise with your money. Save it. Invest. Build up equity. Prove your worth. Me, I’ve had my ups and downs — married and divorced three times. I’ve had my car repossessed. I’ve had my home foreclosed on. It’s not been easy, but life goes on. I probably feel the poorest when my kids ask me for things and I’m not able to help.”
Russell Jones, 70
Owner, fire-alarm and home-security business
Annual income: $350,000
Retirement strategy: Jones has savings, a 401(k) and rental-property income. “I withheld getting my Social Security until I was 70 because the government paid me an extra 8 percent for each of the years I waited, and I waited four years. Where else can I put my money and make 32 percent?”
The upkeep: After 44 years of marriage, everything he and his wife, Pamela, have is paid for, including a house in the Florida Keys and another in North Carolina. Their 401(k) remains untouched, and they have more than $1 million in the bank. “My biggest expense is probably my electric bill.”
How he earned it: “My dad worked in a bedspring factory his whole life, and that motivated me. He never had a spare dime. So I always had a job. I was cutting grass at age 13. Bagging groceries at 14. I made $1 million in 1981, running an export company with my partner. I took over an alarm company, even though I didn’t know anything about electronics. I educated myself and hired people way smarter than I am. We now have 72 employees and bring in $3 million a year. The first home my dad owned, I bought for him.”
The meaning of money: “I’ve had a lot of friends with money who weren’t happy. I had one friend with $7 million in the bank who committed suicide. That made a big impact. Money goes only so far. To me what money buys is freedom and time. When my sons were growing up, I would take off most summers so I could be with them. I was an Eagle Scout, and I really wanted the boys to get into scouting. My business suffered a bit, but my partner had to put up with it. Now both my boys are Eagle Scouts. You can’t put a price on that.”
Elaine Jones-Scott, 64
Addiction counselor in training (She received her bachelor’s degree in counseling and psychology at age 62 and is now studying for a master’s in mental health counseling.)
Annual income: Around $14,400 to $18,000 from Social Security disability benefits because of Crohn’s disease
Retirement strategy: “I plan to start working and to help people in need.”
The upkeep: Tuition is roughly $25,000 a year, which Jones pays for with scholarships, federal assistance and some savings drawn from her retirement accounts. Three surgeries for Crohn’s disease forced her to dip into her 401(k).
How she earned it: “I went back to school because I had already, as a divorced single mom, raised my family, including a granddaughter who just turned 22. I worked in corporate America for 15 years but always wanted to have my degree, specifically to counsel people about addiction. Drugs and alcohol sidetracked me early on, and I saw family members fight that battle. But I’ve been free from addiction for 20 years. Now I’m helping young people — ages 14, 15 — make better choices.”
The meaning of money: “My attitude about money is that it facilitates what you need to have done. It doesn’t bring you prestige. It doesn’t bring you fame. Money is the means to everything you may need to accomplish, be it education, family, even taking care of God’s kingdom. Truthfully, I haven’t worried very much about money because it was instilled in me that if you work hard, the money will come. Sometimes I wish I had more. I would love to be able to leave my children an inheritance, so they could start out without the world being so difficult for them.”
Scott A. Jones, 58
Inventor and serial entrepreneur
Assets: High. He’s earned “north of $200 million” from sales of various companies and has “substantial income from additional investments.”
Retirement strategy: “After retiring at 30 and getting bored and depressed, I vowed never to retire again, and I mean it.”
The upkeep: Maintaining big houses costs hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Cooling bills at Jones’ Hawaiian manse run around $10,000 a month. He’s married to Vee and has two ex-wives and six children.
How he earned it: “I always dreamed big. I didn’t get to the NBA, but I got pretty much everything else. I’ve sold three companies, each for hundreds of millions of dollars. I’ve had the jets and helicopters and Ferraris and the top home theater in the world. Kim Kardashian even presented me with an MTV Cribs award.”
The meaning of money: “I created all this wealth when I was young and thought money was all I needed. I was wrong. It can mess with your reality. My 3-year-old thought all daddies went to work in a helicopter because one landed on our lawn every day. I’m in a mode now, in my 50s, where I’m unloading stuff, just getting rid of it, and spending time on relationships and making an impact on the world. That feels right. What I’ll say about wealth is, it just means money doesn’t get in the way. You’re never in a pinch; you’re free to travel and have whatever you need. That said, a lot of people tell me I’m no different from when I didn’t have money, and I’m very proud of that.”
Bishop Fred A. Jones Sr., 69
Founder of the Mt. Zion Pentecostal Cathedral and the Jones Family Singers
Annual income: Around $20,000
Retirement strategy: “Retirement? What is that? Who gets to do that? Until I’m laid with my hands across the chest, I’ll do what I do.”
The upkeep: With grownup children, Jones and his wife, Sarah, no longer need to feed their eight kids. His biggest expense is airline tickets. “We had a tour bus, but it conked out. I burned the clutch traveling from Ohio to Houston.” His debt is around $15,000, for a car loan.
How he earned it: “I’ve got six girls and two boys, ranging from age 28 to 52, and I trained them all to sing. A few of my 19 grandkids, too. So we’ve been blessed to get to travel to over 500 cities in the U.S. and nine countries. We’ve performed for 50,000 people at a festival in Germany; we’ve played with Earth, Wind & Fire, Mavis Staples, and Coldplay. The money’s up and down. We might get $4,500 for 90 minutes of gospel — sometimes more, sometimes less. The true reward is to bring peace to people’s hearts.”
The meaning of money: “At this point, I’m happy I’m not starving or living outside. The best investment I ever made was in my children. Teaching them to play, to sing, to utilize their God-given talents to the fullest. I don’t have enough money, yet I don’t worry about it. I say to myself, You work hard and use money wisely and show decent common sense, you’ll get by. More money doesn’t equal happiness. We weren’t rich growing up, though we ate regularly, slept on clean sheets and had the basic necessities. Being greedy for more than that usually leads to trouble and sin.”
Ted Jones, 86 and Edie Jones, 80
Retired summer-camp owners
Annual income: $66,000 from combined pensions and Social Security
Retirement strategy: “Now’s the time to spend some of the money we worked so hard to earn,” Edie says. “We’ve been careful enough for long enough. We know we won’t outlive our savings.”
The upkeep: After a recent refinance, the Joneses pay $1,086 a month on a $200,000 mortgage on a vacation property, plus another monthly home equity loan payment of $660. It’s their only debt. They occasionally dip into an investment account worth around $87,000 to make the payments. Friends who stay at the vacation house are asked to make a donation of $150 a night. The Joneses’ 2004 Prius has more than 200,000 miles on it; most of the time they drive their 2014 Subaru Forester.
How they earned it: “We’ve been married for 56 years,” Edie notes. “In our prime earning decades, Ted was the branch manager for Johnson’s Temperature Control in Kentucky. I worked for the Girl Scouts. We moved to Oregon to buy a children’s summer camp and managed that together for 11 years before we sold it; at the same time, I was the executive director of a nonprofit parent-children program. Now we live off our pensions and Social Security, which barely covers our expenses.”
The meaning of money: “In a way, money has become inconsequential,” she says. “As long as you have just enough to feel comfortable, you don’t have to worry,” she says. “We have four children who went to good schools. That was where most of our money went, but it was money well spent. One has a Ph.D.; another has a master’s. They all do well. We live on six acres out in the country. The people on the east side put up a beautiful log fence that borders our driveway. The people west of us built an equally attractive log fence. We thought that a log fence would be nice on our property, too. Writing the check, we laughed and said, ‘Wait a minute. It’s the neighbors who are supposed to be keeping up with the Joneses, not the other way around!’”