How to Avoid Money Envy

You can ignore the Joneses, an author says. They're probably deep in debt.

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In Green With Envy: A Whole New Way to Look at Financial (Un)Happiness, Shira Boss asks people—including her seemingly well-to-do neighbors—how they can afford nice furniture, jaunts to Paris, and a lush lifestyle. It turns out that most of the people she interviews are as cash strapped as she is and charge many of their purchases to their credit cards. By peeking into people's bank accounts, Boss aims to deflate money envy.

You say that a lot of us are trying to keep up with the Joneses, even though they don't really exist, meaning our neighbors are not really as wealthy and untroubled financially as we think they are. Why do we so relentlessly compare ourselves with others?

Unfortunately, envy and comparison are built into the American dream. What's encouraging is the belief that we can have what anyone else does, that we can work our way up. What's discouraging is that this system is based on noticing what other people have and striving to get further ourselves, so a sense of discontentment is built in. That keeps us motivated and is one of the reasons Americans value hard work and are so productive. But it can also put us on a treadmill of dissatisfaction and wondering why we're not doing as well as some others.

Do people tend to overestimate how much money other people make?

What we don't realize is the amount of debt that is supporting other people's lifestyles. We naturally assume that other people can afford what they have and do, when in fact a majority of Americans report living paycheck to paycheck. Twenty years ago, we saved $11 out of every $100 we brought home. Now we don't save anything. Because most people don't talk openly about money issues, especially money stress, we're fooled into thinking it must just be we who are struggling, when in fact it's most people. And once you get beyond the poverty level, income is almost irrelevant: The more you make, the more you can borrow, and people certainly do.

People still don't talk about money issues—you call it one of the last taboos. Are you suggesting that people should talk about money more?

Yes! The taboo against discussing money is outdated and harmful. When we don't know how others are affording their lifestyles, we can fall into a trap either of wondering why we can't keep up ("Where did I go wrong?") or of overspending to match what others are doing ("But everyone has such a big, flat TV!").

I like to use questions, like when my neighbor says she's going to Paris for the weekend, I could have said, "Wow, I'd love to go to Paris, but I can't afford it. How long did it take you to save up for that?" Even when the people you ask are not open, you can feel better that you are being honest. You can also often get as much information from someone's uncomfortable looks and avoiding the topic as you can from an honest answer.

It seems as if you were able to let go of a lot of your money envy. How did you do it?

Reality checks! I went behind the scenes and found out that things are not how they look. That's such a relief and makes it a lot easier to ignore what others have and do.

First, I went literally next door and asked my neighbors, whose life looked so cushy, what was really going on with their money. Somehow I never thought those Marc Jacobs clothes and trip to Paris were charged to a credit card, even though I knew the statistics about credit card debt. It shouldn't be any of our business, but finding out that on her side of the wall, my neighbor was going online constantly checking her credit card balance and stressing out over how to pay for those clothes helped me get over that she dresses more stylishly than I do.

Appearances are very deceiving. We don't see what's going on behind closed doors, but what I've learned, and surveys show, is that there's very widespread anxiety and stress over our personal finances, pretty much regardless of how much money we're making. When we find out we're in the same boat, we can start to calm down, be more rational about our money choices, and conquer our tendency to envy.

You talk about controlling reactions to situations that could provoke envy. For example, telling yourself that it doesn't matter if your neighbors are going on a fancy vacation that you can't afford. Does that really work?

It works! I learned this trick from a marathon training program designed by a psychologist: Whenever you feel discomfort, remind yourself, "But it doesn't matter." Sometimes simple things seem too simple to work, but I encourage you to give it a try. I've heard from readers who have been amazed that this makes a difference in their level of comfort. Another technique is to note that we usually compare ourselves with those who are above us, but not below. While you strive to get to the next level, also frequently stop and realize how far you've come and how good you have it, and be thankful.

Obviously, a lot of us are tempted to buy more than we can afford. Do you have any advice for controlling those temptations and sticking with a budget?

There's nothing wrong with indulging ourselves, even materialistically. What's important is that we go back to an old-fashioned technique that works wonders: Save money first, then spend. We've gotten used to getting what we want now, without being able to afford it. Then we end up paying a lot extra in interest, plus anxiety about our debts. Squirrel a little cash aside from every paycheck to buy the things you want. Then realize how much more fun it is to buy something when you can truly afford it.