In Tamil, a south Indian language, there is a saying which roughly translates into English as:

Lavish outside home, starving inside of it.

Background :

This proverb has a mocking tone and indicates people who project themselves to be very rich and appear to spend lavishly on property and things, making their neighbors and the community around them envious of their stature. But in reality, whatever they are spending (or appear to spend) is because they have borrowed huge sums of money from other people and financial institutions. So much in fact that they are unable to feed their own family, probably skip a meal every day but when they step outside their home they try to appear posh and well-to-do.

Some close friends and relatives who know what's really going on with these people use this form of expression.

Generally, I tend to find equivalent English proverbs that have the same tonality and convey the meaning as is but this particular one has been eluding me for long. Any suggestions, even if they don't convey the entire meaning?

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    Keep up appearances - to hide your personal or financial problems from other people by continuing to live and behave in the same way that you did in the past Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 14:11
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    @FumbleFingers - Could you post this as an answer please? It certainly comes very close!
    – BiscuitBoy
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 14:13
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    "Rather steak in a chalet than gristle in a castle"
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 16:29
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    Perhaps localized to the US west, but the expression "Big hat, no cattle" seems to fit. Though it's rather broader, applying to anyone who makes pretensions but has nothing to back them up.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 18:40
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    Similar idea, "The suburb was first called Bread and Lard Island around 100 years ago, as it was seen as an elegant place and when people managed to buy a house there, they couldn't afford to eat – and so survived on the basics." Read more: nottinghampost.com/Bread-Lard-Island-boomed-care/…
    – innisfree
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 22:36

25 Answers 25


Not an exact match but you might consider keeping up appearances.

From dictionary.cambridge.org

to ​pretend to be ​happier, less ​poor, etc. than you really are, because you do not ​want ​people to ​know how ​bad ​your ​situation is:

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    I think this phrase usually has better regard for the person than the OP would want with the original phrase. You can keep up appearances to avoid people to feel bad for you, or you could keep up appearances in a turbulent plane flight to prevent others from getting scared, for example. Still the closest match anyway.
    – Tyress
    Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 7:17
  • @Tyress I was thinking primarily of the British sitcom.
    – Pharap
    Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 8:10
  • A similar phrase would be "keeping up with the Joneses". From the top of the Google search: "Keeping up with the Joneses" is an idiom in many parts of the English-speaking world referring to the comparison to one's neighbor as a benchmark for social class or the accumulation of material goods. To fail to "keep up with the Joneses" is perceived as demonstrating socio-economic or cultural inferiority. Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 17:13
  • @DarrenBartrup-Cook That's already been suggested in another answer.
    – Pharap
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 20:32

The previous answers are reasonable, but rather polite. British English has a rude, but also rather funny, expression which has much the same meaning: "all fur coat and no knickers".

The outside view (fur coat) is fine and expensive, but the wearer of the fur coat can't afford any underwear.

The expression isn't very common and perhaps slightly old fashioned but I would guess most Brits would know it.

ETA: To be fair, as pointed out below, the implication here isn't strictly financial it's more that a posh appearance hides a crude reality.

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    LOL...This British sense of humor is something else! :D
    – BiscuitBoy
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 16:59
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    Upvoted because it's so funny... never heard that before (U.S. here). Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 17:37
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    Had I never heard this phrase before I would assume that 'no knickers' implied something other than not being able to afford any.
    – Pharap
    Commented Jan 31, 2016 at 22:53
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    Speaking as a Yorkshire person myself, I think you have got the meaning entirely wrong. The reason the lady in question has a fur coat is that she is - ahem - free with her affections. So to speak.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 9:59
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    Yup, another Brit here, and I agree that the lack of underwear in this phrase has nothing to do with wealth...
    – Alnitak
    Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 17:28

Another British expression would be "Kippers and curtains" which corresponds almost directly with the Tamil phrase. The original phrase was probably "kippers and lace curtains" dating from a time when kippers (smoked herrings) were a very cheap foodstuff and lace curtains would have been a rather expensive adornment.

It has fallen out of use a little in recent years but would still be understood by many in Britain, particularly those in England.

There is a piece here that explains the phrase quite nicely.

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    I'd like to admit to being an Englishman who has never heard that phrase used.
    – Pharap
    Commented Jan 30, 2016 at 1:32
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    That is a great link, @BrummiePete! It also suggests other synonymous expressions such as "empty bellies and brass doorknobs and plus-fours and no breakfast"!
    – BiscuitBoy
    Commented Jan 30, 2016 at 4:24

To live in genteel poverty.

There are some examples under the entry for genteel in Oxford, The Free dictionary, Meriam Webster.

He lived in genteel poverty (= trying to keep the style of a high social class, but with little money). (Oxford Dictionary)

An elderly woman living in genteel poverty. (Merriam Webster)

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    I can (just barely) parse this, but I've never heard it before (U.S. here), and it certainly wouldn't be a recognized idiom anywhere I've been. Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 17:39
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    As an American, I certainly wouldn't understand this. I think I'd interpret it as the opposite - a person who maintains their dignity and proper behavior despite being poor, without a sense of pretension.
    – recognizer
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 22:44
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    Another American here, but I do recognize the idiom, and would interpret it as the Oxford Dictionary definition describes.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 23:27

all flash no cash

Urban dictionary definition:

People who spend money they do not have.


"Hood rich" is really close to what you're looking for, but it typically describes someone who lives in the ghetto.

It's likely to be understood only in the US or in US-influenced culture.

From http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Hood+Rich (cleaned up):

Someone who buys expensive clothes, cars, and eats out at expensive restaurants, but returns home to a shack in the hood. They usually are in debt up to their ears, and they keep trying to live the affluent lifestyle until the repo man comes and tows their car.

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    What would be an accepted reference work or literary source for AAVE?
    – Myron
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 16:17
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    Hi, Myron, you could use a reference (that best matches your idea) you could find on the internet such as this one, hood rich.
    – user140086
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 16:22
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    Honestly, this one has racial overtones you might want to avoid, although it does mean just what the OP asked.
    – Casey
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 19:42
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    And not understood even in much of the US.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 22:09
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    @jamesqf Potentially true. Here in Michigan, most people would understand this primarily due to the existence of the city of Detroit (not so much nowadays) and the culture therein. However, I'm not sure that southerners would understand the expression. Commented Jan 31, 2016 at 21:11

The U.S. cowboy equivalent might be "The bigger the hat, the smaller the property—or its short-form sibling "all hat, no cattle." The [Yale] Dictionary of Modern Proverbs (2012) has this entry for the longer phrase:

The bigger the hat (The wider the brim), the smaller the property (holding, ranch, herd). [First cited occurrence:] 1922 William MacLeod Raine, The Fighting Edge (New York: Grosset and Dunlap,) 135 (chapter title): "The Bigger the Hat, the Smaller the Herd," Later in the chapter: "...[H]e knew instinctively that real riders would resent any attempt on his part to swagger as they did. A remark dropped by Blister came to mind. 'The b-bigger the hat the smaller the herd, son. Do all yore bragging with yore actions.'"

The point is that the trappings of authenticity, skill, or expertise [or in the case of the Tamil proverb, wealth] are not the same as the thing itself.

  • I've only encountered the "all hat, no cattle" expression in contexts where it means that someone is trying to substitute money for ability/talent/practice. They're too lazy to actually do the hard work required, but they have lots of cash, so they buy all the clothes and accessories so they can pretend. Thus, in a sense this is the opposite meaning to what the OP wanted.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 23:44

Possibly "living beyond your means", which is often used in contexts where people have become accustomed to a certain standard of living, who then lose the means to sustain that standard (e.g. losing a job, getting a divorce, moving out of your parents house).

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    This doesn't necessarily carry the implication of 'putting on a show'. Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 17:17
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    @DJClayworth: exactly. It's usually used in cases where the person spending money they can't afford is doing it for their own enjoyment, not with the primary goal of making themselves look good. Although given how judgy people can be, I'm sure some people live beyond their means so they don't feel out of place / left out when hanging around with their better-off friends. (e.g. continuing to go to expensive restaurants because that's where their friends go, when they can't afford it anymore.) So there's a bit of crossover, but the primary motivation is different. Commented Jan 31, 2016 at 15:10

The person who spends everything on their home and has little left for the rest of life might be called house poor:

A situation that describes a person who spends a large proportion of his or her total income on home ownership, including mortgage payments, property taxes, maintenance and utilities. House poor individuals are short of cash for discretionary items and tend to have trouble meeting other financial obligations like vehicle payments.


From a census report on home ownership:

Since housing costs are higher in the West and Northeast, a larger percentage of owners in these two regions than in the South and Midwest were house-poor.

(Home Ownership Report, U.S. Department of Commerce, Economic and Statistics Administration, Bureau of the Census, 1991 )

  • This seems to be the reverse of what the question is asking. Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 17:18
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    @DJClayworth How is it reversed? Lavish outside corresponds with high expenditures on home ownership and maintenance. Starving inside corresponds with low expenditures on discretionary items. Those who are house poor live like the poor because they spent all their money on their house.
    – jejorda2
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 18:15
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    @jejorda2: Not so, at least according to my understanding of the original. People who are "house poor" are choosing to spend a large part of their income on something that is a) useful, and b) an appreciating asset. That also begs the question of why a financially prudent person should even HAVE vehicle payments. Indeed, I think that's a good example of the sort of person covered by the proverb: one who borrows money to buy a fancy new car, instead of paying cash for a cheap used one.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 18:37
  • I took the OP to mean that the house was lavish outside, but the person was starving inside. This has been true of house poor people I have known who have no table to eat at or chair to sit in because they bought too fancy a home.
    – jejorda2
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 18:43
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    @jamesqf I agree with jejorda2. From the outside, the people look rich. Inside -- very little furniture, no art, scrimp on food ("cornflake eaters" was a term used in my area decades ago). As for "something useful that is an appreciating asset": (a) a house is useful; 8,000 sq ft of house is not; (b) house as appreciating asset maybe, maybe not.
    – ab2
    Commented Jan 31, 2016 at 1:19

I think there is a cultural nuance in your proverb that may be difficult to convey perfectly, but keeping up with the Joneses may suggest the idea of being keen on appearing more (especially richer) than you actually are or may afford to:

  • to have all the same things as other people to avoid looking poor or old-fashioned:

    Her only concern in life was keeping up with the Joneses.

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    I'd say keeping up with the Joneses is more about conspicuous affluence in terms of always buying the latest new thing, with no particular implication that you might not be able to afford it. Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 14:21
  • Great! Thanks. I think "Jonses" here is abstract. Would you replace it with the name of the actual persons you are trying to emulate?
    – BiscuitBoy
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 14:21
  • Yes, it is a fixed expression, changing the name to refer to people you know and you would like to be as they are would be understood within your circle, or community.
    – user66974
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 14:29
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    @BiscuitBoy in contrast with Josh61, I would say this is more likely to be understood if you say "keeping up with the Joneses" rather than replacing Joneses with some other family name. Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 19:38

This reminds me of Proverbs 12:9:

Better to be a nobody and yet have a servant than pretend to be somebody and have no food.


  • I'm having a hard time applying this answer to the question. If I try to apply it to the question, what I get out of it is: Better to be a nobody and yet have a servant (and I assume also having food), than pretend to be somebody (who also likely has a servant) and have no food. Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 18:05

It's not in widespread use, but in Yorkshire there's a phrase "Ten-bob millionaire" to describe exactly such people: who put on a show of living like millionaires (very rich) in public, but in truth only own/earn a small amount of money. "Ten bob" is an old term for half a pound sterling.


There's the phrases 'the cobbler's children are the worst shod' and 'the shoemaker's children go barefoot' which have the same sense of good things outside the home, bad things inside, and it's your fault.

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    I don't think those have at all the same meaning. It's not that the shoemaker is trying to put on a show of prosperity, but that he's so busy making shoes to sell that he has no time to make them for his own family.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 30, 2016 at 4:47
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    @jamesqf: There's also the issue that if you do something all day at work, you don't really want to come home and do the same thing. I've known a number of mechanics who drive junk piles because they're too lazy to fix their own car, despite doing great work on nice cars all the time.
    – MichaelS
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 10:50

you can't judge a book by its cover

You can't tell what something/someone is really like just by looking at it. It might be different from what it looks.

If someone says, "You can't judge a book by its cover," he/she advises you not to judge someone or something only by its appearance.

People also say, "You can't tell a book by its cover." elc.byu.edu

all that glitters is not gold

(saying) said about something that ​seems to be good on the ​surface, but might not be when you ​look at it more ​closely CDO

appearances can be deceiving

Prov. Things can look different from the way they really are. McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

Things aren't always what they seem

Just because something seems a certain way doesn’t mean it really is. Babylon English

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    +1 for the basic concept ... but this can also be the reverse ... eg. a millionaire who's shabbily dressed.
    – Joe
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 19:18

It is not an exact match, but you could consider using the idiom house of cards which means:

A flimsy structure, arrangement, or situation that is in danger of collapsing or failing: 'The collapse of the rupiah ... has brought down a house of cards in overleveraged conglomerates'.

[American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition]

Example usage:

They are living in a house of cards, which will surely collapse once they can't pay off the debt they borrowed to maintain their luxurious lifestyle.

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    It works, but it's worth noting that a house of cards is any precarious situation at all.
    – Casey
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 19:45
  • @Casey Yes. Context should be added.
    – user140086
    Commented Jan 30, 2016 at 2:08

While the phrase has a specific religious connotation (of evil within and virtue without, where the Tamil one might have the exterior virtue of beneficence and the interior vice of waste, but maybe it's not that specific?), the structure of the concept is similar to a whited sepulchre:

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.

Matthew 23:27


Not quite an exact match, but there's the concept of "fake it 'til you make it", which is about cultivating the appearance of what you want to be, even if you have nothing (skills/experience) to back it up. The idea being that people will give you a chance if they think you're qualified.

This isn't necessarily about wealth, and it's possible that the person isn't in financial hardship.

Also related would be "putting on airs" (being pretentious, but again, could be about just acting superior, not necessarily wealthy, nor that the person is in "dire straits" financially)


Ballin' on a budget.

As coined by the hip-hop group "Nappy Roots" on their 2002 studio album Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz.


A phrase "asset rich, cash poor" seems similar in it's origin. It was used for declining middle class families who owned large houses but were near bankrupt. However now that would probably be taken to mean they have low liquidity in their savings.

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    no connection whatsoever.
    – Fattie
    Commented Jan 31, 2016 at 2:03

Nigger Rich. Not a proverb but has a mocking, mean spirited tone.


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    Sometimes I wonder if people just make stuff up so they can put it on urbandictionary. Like a contest in out-doing each other in being the most crude and offensive. Commented Jan 31, 2016 at 15:29
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    This is the form that I have heard before. I suspect the the upvoted "hood rich" is a cleaned up version of this phrase.
    – Mike
    Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 4:35
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    I can't imagine an appropriate context for using this phrase (at least not one where I would willingly be present), given the emotionally fraught nature of the first word in it; but in an unsuitable context, it may very well put the speaker in jeopardy of a physical confrontation.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 23:06

I personally use "cash poor" because I may have enough of a balance on a store's credit card that I can buy something expensive (like a computer), but I may not have the cash to buy groceries. I'm also fond of "in debt up to my eyeballs" as is depicted in this commercial:



"Putting up a false front" could be used in this case. It's not as specific, but does have the same "keeping up appearances" meaning.

This article goes into some explanation of the meaning of the phrase, mostly focusing on personal appearance. (e.g. Wearing fancy suits to make people think of you differently from how you see yourself.)

The origin is from buildings: a small / simple building with a multi-storey front wall that makes it look like a big building, but only from the front.

"Putting up a false front" (or putting on) can be something a family does to appear well-off when they're actually not.


A similar phrase might be "Fur coat and no knickers"?

  • This answer has already been suggested by alphabetter. Please don't post repeat answers.
    – AndyT
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 11:16

A McMansion might fit the bill. Generally refers to a house that looks luxurious from the outside but may in reality be poorly constructed. Also usually implies that it is somewhat out of place in its neighborhood.

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    Out of place in the neighborhood? We used to use them specifically to describe the neighborhoods of cookie-cutter massive houses that would pop up almost one on top of each other (eg, a 5k sq.ft house ... on 1/4 of an acre). Often in a faux-gated community. (there'd be a fence around it, and maybe something that looked like a guardhouse, but no actual guards). When I was in Kentucky, they referred to them as a 'doctor's ghetto'.
    – Joe
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 19:17
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    My understanding of "McMansion" (from having a bunch of them a few blocks away) is that it is one of dozens of identical "cookie cutter" monstrosities in a wannabe neighborhood. Slightly less ostentatious is the "garage-mahal", a gigantic garage taking up most of the front yard and concealing most of the house behind it.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 19:29
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    @Joe: Re "...on 1/4 of an acre", do your local developers really put their McMansions on lots THAT big?
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 22:16
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    "McMansion" has nothing to do with the build quality or owners within the residence, it simply refers to the fact that there are many homes which look remarkably similar, stacked next to each other in a neighborhood. It also indicates that the homes are built quickly, as if by a "fast food" company.
    – Josh M.
    Commented Jan 30, 2016 at 20:30
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    the OP wants "lavish outside but starving inside". a McMansion IS EXPENSIVE, it very much means "rich but no taste". it simply does not mean "lavish outside but starving inside". it more means "very fat and very rich with no taste"
    – Fattie
    Commented Jan 31, 2016 at 16:08

There is a similar expression that I have heard Irish people use. If someone is described as a "street angel" that means that they are very well behaved in public but maybe less so at home.

  • Welcome to EL&U. that is nice your answer, but could you please expand your question a little more, and if it is possible for you, add a link to support your answer. Thank
    – haha
    Commented Jan 31, 2016 at 1:27

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