Social Capital: How investing in our network of friends can help us to reach our goals
Gaining social capital

What can we learn about the nature of success from Friends? And by friends, I’m referring to Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross, the characters in the TV series Friends. The sitcom, about a group of 20- and 30-somethings in Manhattan, remains a hit more than a quarter of a century later as it is one of the most popular shows on Netflix. The actors themselves have made out like bandits – the ensemble cast took the “friends” concept to heart, socializing together and even negotiating their contacts and salaries as a team. In the span of 10 seasons, their salaries rose from $20,00 per episode to $1 million in addition to profit sharing. Well done, friends.

So, can choosing the right friends do the same for you? In a word: yes.

Numerous studies show that friends influence us in many areas of life, including mental, emotional and physical health, career, and financial decision-making. For example, a study at Harvard University predicted that a person’s odds of becoming obese more than double if a close friend is also obese.

One 30-year study at Harvard University concluded that up to 95 per cent of our future success or failure is determine by the people we consider our reference group—the people with whom we most identify. Not surprisingly, high achievers identified with other highly successful people. The two modes of influence are social learning (we copy what others do), and social utility (we feel good when we conform to group norms).

But the influence of friends works in both directions. For example, did you know that having a neighbour who has won the lottery is bad for your financial health? A 2018 study conducted by the University of Alberta and Georgetown University in the U.S. looked at Canadian lottery winners and found a positive relationship between one neighbour winning the lottery and the probability that a close neighbour would file for bankruptcy. The larger the lottery win, especially in a small neighbourhood, the more bankruptcies in that area.

This is the classic case of “keeping up with the Joneses.” The soon-to-be bankrupt neighbours were more likely to purchase things that showed off their wealth, such as a new car, as opposed to less visible goods, such as new furniture. They were also more likely to take on financial risk and borrow in order to finance their purchases.

Other studies have confirmed that the financial choices of our colleagues influence our own decisions. In a U.S. study, an employee’s decision on whether to enroll in the company’s stock purchase plan, and their stock trading patterns, were directly influenced by their social networks. The effect was strongest among men, groups of similarly ranked employees, and younger workers.

In another experiment on investor “herding behaviour” (“jumping on the bandwagon” that amplifies booms and busts), researchers found that employees at a financial brokerage were more likely to buy an asset if another colleague had done so.

Of course, social media enlarges our reference group to the point where our social circle can include any or all celebrities. And, while watching reality TV is a guilty pleasure, trying to copy a celebrity’s lifestyle in real life can lead to financial ruin.

In a U.K.-based survey of young adults, almost half admitted that they felt forced to spend beyond their means due to peer pressure. They reported that they were more willing to go into debt and be part of the “in. crowd” rather than save money. In another study of 1,000 American Facebook users, those who had very strong digital social connections were more likely to also have lower credit scores and more credit card debt.

Much like we use financial capital to invest in our well-being, wisely investing in our social capital—our network of friends—can help us to reach our goals. Here’s how you can do it:

  • Identify what your goals are. If you want to become an entrepreneur, seek out people who are doing what you want to do. Their attitudes and behaviours will begin to rub off on you.
  • Instead of trying to change your friends, begin to create new habits yourself.
  • Your reference group can include anyone, including historical figures, whom you admire and wish to emulate in some way.
  • Find mentors. Most people will be flattered to be asked their advice. You, too, can be a mentor to someone to pay it forward.
  • Choose your romantic partners carefully. A University of Arizona study found that among young adults, the financial behaviours of their romantic partners had a strong impact on their well-being.
  • Compare your financial behaviour to your actual peer group. A new website called Status Money matches people to an appropriate peer group based on factors such as age, income and geography. This allows you to benchmark your financial habits to your actual peer group which has been shown to reduce spending substantially.

Rita Silvan, CIM™, is personal finance and investment writer and editor. She is the former editor-in-chief of ELLE Canada magazine and is an award-winning journalist and tv media personality. Rita is the editor-in-chief of Golden Girl Finance, an online magazine focusing on women’s financial success. When not writing about all things financial, Rita explores Toronto’s parks with her standard poodle.

Rita Silvan is a paid Sonnet spokesperson.
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