When Shira Boss first wrote her book, Green With Envy: A Whole New Way to Look at Financial (Un)Happiness, in 2006, she says there was a lot of fakery going on. People bought houses and funded lifestyles that they simply couldn't afford, but it was relatively easy to continue the charade with the help of credit cards and other forms of debt. Now, she says, post-recession, it's gotten easier for people to admit their financial limits, partly because so many of us have been forced to do so. Still, her lessons about avoiding financial envy hold just as true today. U.S. News spoke with Boss about her book. Excerpts:
[In Pictures: Celebrities with the Biggest Money Problems.]
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 The taboo against discussing money is outdated and harmful.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-screen 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.
[In Pictures: 10 Things You Should Always Buy in Bulk.]