Green with Envy
Green With Envy: Why Keeping up with the Joneses is Keeping Us in Debt
by Shira Boss
Continued from previous page
Except it didn't work out that way. He started job searching at what
turned out to be the very beginning of the recession. Rather suddenly,
everyone seemed to be cutting back rather than hiring. He looked for
work for a full year before starting something entrepreneurial.
This was far from a fun time in our life. The first and most obvious
challenge was that we hadn't planned on living on one income for very
long. Certainly not one journalist's income. Even a successful writer's
income is not designed to support two people in Manhattan. We considered
moving, but it seemed a drastic measure for what we thought was surely a
temporary problem. Instead we budgeted, itself a challenge when there is
not a regular paycheck to allocate. As I have often joked about being
freelance, living paycheck to paycheck is especially hard when you don't
know when, exactly, the next paycheck is coming. We stopped going out,
and since so few New Yorkers entertain at home, avoiding going out meant
we didn't see friends very often. We spent a lot of time sulking.
That led into the second problem: keeping up appearances. One does
not set out actually to lie about unemployment or financial stress, but
they're not polite or comfortable subjects. And since my husband had
started a company and was no longer actively job searching, people
probably assumed he was doing fine. For my part, I didn't want to
complain to friends about us not having enough money because they would
guess it was due to my husband--since I was still working as I had--and
that felt like an invasion of his privacy. It's not nice to complain,
even worse to blame. We are taught that financial problems are personal,
and they are especially personal when they involve a third party not
participating in the conversation.
So when people did ask how my husband's work was going, I found
myself replying Good! With my family we kept matters equally
oblique. They surely picked up hints that we weren't doing great (like
when we mentioned we might just skip going home for Thanksgiving), but
we didn't go out of our way to explain the situation and they didn't
ask. Even in the twenty-first century, it is expected that a man, if not
the sole support of his family, should contribute at least half of the
household income. Even though there are alternative arrangements that
are increasingly accepted, in general men who don't earn the socially
prescribed amount have an element of shame to contend with that women do
not experience. So I didn't feel entitled to disclose our details,
especially since he had relocated halfway around the world specifically
for our relationship. In the meantime, I endured some conversations like
this one with my older sister. On the telephone, I complained vaguely
about not being able to afford something, but she cut me off abruptly:
It must be nice to have two incomes, though!
I could have asked her what second income she was referring to, but
instead I just sighed and hedged and hinted, common tactics when it
comes to discussing money.
Well, I said, it feels like supporting two people on one
No kidding that's what it felt like, because that's what was going
on. I just couldn't come out with the truth.
Privately, money was making our life miserable. I got itchy and
irritable trying to work in a home office with someone else at home. He
left when he could, but without being able to afford recreation, he
resorted to wandering the streets or sitting alone in the park. It made
matters worse that he had left his entire social circle behind to move
Determined to be responsible, we tracked our expenses in detail. But
when we saw how much money we really needed to be making every month to
cover our fixed and necessary expenses, we got depressed and stopped
keeping track. Overwhelmed, my husband abandoned exercising and gained
weight. I became a nagger. To keep pace financially, I took on more work
than I could reasonably handle, and late at night, to get my mind off of
the stress, I went to bed hiding behind the latest Harry Potter.
A couple of times I went trolling the Internet for some kind of
support. Surely there had to be somebody talking about this kind of
situation, about handling the social side of financial problems. Wasn't
there a money doctor out there who could make us feel better?
I had never before understood why money is the often-cited number-one
reason for marital trouble and divorce. I had guessed it meant that
couples, having two separate personalities, couldn't come to terms on
how to handle the household money. Through experience, I realized that
it is money itself, as a very real character in our lives--a companion
that is as cranky, consuming, and irresistible as any lover--that causes
the strife. It's the secrecy, the shame, the acting, the convoluted
psychology of it all. We live in an ultra-open culture that freely
shares our most intimate concerns--but rarely when they involve money.
When it comes to the intersection of our personal finances and the orbit
of the world outside our front doors, we are suddenly starved of the
information that gushes on any other topic. I knew that other people
were in our same shape, miserable because of their financial situations
and even more so from the stress of covering them up, from leading a
kind of double life. But how to communicate with those people? I
couldn't even find them on the Internet, which meant that for all
practical purposes we were indeed alone.
As for my friends, even though I was not direct with them about what
was happening with us, I felt let down that they did not read between
the lines and figure it out for themselves. I expected support and some
kind of commiseration, even though their openly acknowledging the
situation might have been embarrassing. In the meantime, their own
endowments bothered me in a way they never had before: Every time a
friend openly indulged herself, I was reminded that I couldn't afford to
do so. I started wanting things I had never even wanted before, merely
because I knew I couldn't have them.
The problem we grappled with that became the most damaging was the
eventual rise of resentment. These were the first two years of our
marriage. That we were being cheated out of what was supposed to be one
of the most wonderful times in our lives frustrated me. What did we
do to deserve this? I wondered. Through my gray-tinted glasses,
every other couple on Broadway seemed to be having the time of their
lives. I was sure that come Monday morning, each went off to their
respective jobs, and when they got home they frolicked. I imagined their
lives as cozy and romantic, not consumed by financial worries.
Everyone is enjoying life but us, I convinced myself, even as I knew
it wasn't really true. I laughed bitterly when I read an item in a
women's magazine about how if a man earns less money than his partner
does it often damages the couple's sex life.
In the midst of our angst, John and Tina, to our eyes, fit right into
this carefree, honeymoon mold. So even though we had resolved to
concentrate on minding our own business, Tina quitting her job to
extract every second of joy out of life seemed to us like some sort of
We were feeding our frustration with assumptions. If we had hunted down
statistics and believed that they referred to just some of the people in
our own circle, and if we could have heard them describe their own
struggles, we wouldn't have felt so isolated.
In fact, we were far from the only ones living paycheck to paycheck.
One survey reported that most households are doing so sometimes, most of
the time, or always. The American Psychological Association recently
reported a survey that showed money to be the number-one stress in our
lives. The country as a whole owes $800 billion on its credit cards,
making an average balance of more than $7,500 for each household if we
divided up the debt among all of us. So some of that must belong to
households right next to ours. Every year, the National Opinion Research
Center asks people whether they are better or worse off financially than
the previous year, and consistently, millions declare themselves worse
off. In a recent survey, 78 percent of respondents said their debts were
"making their home life unhappy."
We say we know that money doesn't buy happiness, but we don't seem to
believe it. We want more, and the more we get the more we want.
According to research presented in the book The Overspent American,
"Among those making $30,000 or less, 81 percent said they would need
less than 20 percent more income to be satisfied, while only 40 percent
of those in the $75,000+ category would be satisfied with a 20 percent
We certainly were not the only ones whose relationship was being
strained by financial issues. We've all heard that money is the leading
cause of problems in marriages. Some research on bankruptcy shows that
couples who file for bankruptcy are at least twice as likely to file for
divorce as the general population.
As for unemployment, the fallout it causes, ranging from temporary
malaise to social and emotional implosion, is a shared experience but
one that isn't discussed openly. "People who have lived through downward
mobility," explains a book on the subject written by an anthropologist,
"are often secretive and cloistered or so bewildered by their fate that
they find it hard to explain to themselves, let alone to others, what
has befallen them." Therefore most of us don't hear about it, don't
understand it, and are never prepared for handling it.
My husband's and my problem, as it often happens, was larger than
fretting over the personal side of our finances. We were equally, or
perhaps more so, upset by contrasting ourselves to our better-off
friends and neighbors. It doesn't make logical sense why we should
concern ourselves with the financial situations of those around us.
After all, they're not paying our bills and we're not paying theirs.
Life is not a zero-sum game, with one person's gain having to be another
person's loss. So we have no real reason not to be glad for
another's success. Right? If only it worked that way. In fact, it does
matter to us. And the more difficulties we are having, the more the
success of others, frankly, aggravates us.
In our competitive, comparison-minded culture, relative success is
what matters. So another person's gain really can feel like our loss.
Economists refer to "positional goods," the things we buy that are meant
to set us a notch higher than others who don't have them; and
psychologists ponder "status anxiety," our worry that we are not keeping
up with others. In measuring where we stand, relativity is everything.
Professors at Harvard and the University of Miami conducted a survey
about income. They asked over 250 people whether they would prefer to
earn $50,000 per year while those around them earned $25,000, or to earn
$100,000 while those around them earned $200,000. More than half chose
the first scenario, giving up having twice as much total money in order
to have relatively more than others.
A more nuanced experiment showed even more strongly how important
relative wealth is to us. Researchers in Britain set up a computer
gambling game in which each player got 100 units of currency. The
subjects played to increase their wealth, and as they played they could
also see how well the other players were doing. Then a new level of the
game was introduced: First some random players were given a 500 unit
bonus, and then all players were given the ability to pay some of their
own currency in order to "burn" other players and reduce the other
players' wealth. In what came as a surprise to the researchers, the game
became all about burning. The players who hadn't gotten the bonus
immediately struck out against the newly rich. Although it hurt their
own wealth, two-thirds of the players spent their own currency to bring
the wealthier players down.
Another bit of Petri dish proof that we care all too much about how
much money our peers have comes from a recent experiment conducted at
Princeton. A series of two players were openly explained the terms of a
game that would be played only once: One player was given ten dollars
and had to make an offer of some amount of that money to the other
player. If the other player accepted the offer, both players would get
to keep their money. But if the other player refused the offer, then
neither would get to keep any money. Rational behavior says that Player
B would accept any offer, since doing so meant personal gain,
while refusal of any amount meant getting nothing. But that's not what
usually happened. When Player A's offer was seen as unfair (a piddling
dollar, for instance), it was usually refused by Player B, leaving both
players with zero. As one of the study's authors wrote, "Player B often
gives up a smaller sum so Player A doesn't get a larger sum."
The awareness and concern over what other people have is an issue for
us when we notice we have less, and also when we have more. When I lived
in the Middle East I learned about the belief in the "evil eye."
Everywhere you go in some regions, you are stared down by blue eyes,
mostly flattened disks of colored glass. One hangs at the entrance to
every home, from the rearview mirrors of taxis, and near a business'
cash register. Cafe owners cement them into the sidewalks in front of
their cafes, factory owners paint them on the sides of their factories.
Small eyes are wired into the designs of jewelry, sewn on to the fringe
of hand towels, glued to the tips of toothpicks. Recently they came up
with a new way to get the eyes into their lives: melting them into the
sides of tea glasses. What, visitors always ask, is with the
They are not the evil eye itself, they are warding off the evil eye.
The evil eye is, essentially, envy. These people believe that if you
enjoy good fortune, you'd better look out because others will envy you
and you will attract negative energy. You'll be struck down. The
thinking is similar to that of ancient Greece, when mortals were
cautious about having too much fun or achieving too much success because
the gods could get envious and bring them down. That is why modern-day
business owners are especially careful to engage the talismanic services
of the blue eyes. They want to do well, they certainly seek good
fortune, but they don't want to appear to be doing well. The eyes
help with that predicament.
At first I laughed this off as silly superstition. Now, however,
having been through tough times and the emotional and social havoc they
wreak, I am a believer in the evil eye. I don't know if blue charms help
prevent it, but the evil eye itself--the destructive force of envy--seems
very real. Maybe seeing the blue eyes everywhere helps people keep their
own envy in check because they are constantly being reminded of it, that
it is wrong and that they don't want it in their lives. As for myself I
don't know if living among the eyes when we were under hardship would
have helped me keep perspective, but, disconcertingly, what I saw
happening during that time is this: When things were rolling along great
for friends, I got glum. I didn't exactly wish them ill, but I didn't
genuinely celebrate for them, either. And believing that life's cycle of
ups and downs would spin around to everyone eventually did make me, very
privately, almost shamefully, feel better.
Tina decided to launch a new career as an interior designer. My mom
has a really good decorator, she explained, and I've always been
interested in it.
She started taking classes at the same time my husband entered
business school. The two of them commiserated about having homework;
John and I commiserated about having to do the cooking while our spouses
But on our side of the wall, our talk was not about how similar we
were to our neighbors but about how aggravatingly different. When my
husband was accepted to business school we nearly cried out of relief
and happiness. We had decided that if he didn't get in, he would have to
go back to his country and work there again for a while. Going back to
school meant our taking on six figures of student loans and braving two
more years on a single income, but it also meant we could stay together,
and it meant--or we had to believe it meant--nearly being guaranteed a
well-paying job after two years.
Tina, on the other hand, had voluntarily given up a well-paying job
and was going back to school on a whim because she happened to be
interested in it. To fill her idle time, apparently. To amuse herself.
Or so we figured. After a few months of classes, something shocking
Okay, I was not deliberately eavesdropping, but our building has very
thin walls. Really, everybody knows this. You don't have a conversation
in the hallway or while waiting for the elevator if you don't want the
neighbors in on it. Usually this is a drawback.
Yet Tina had, for some very odd reason, come up to her apartment
talking on her cell phone, and rather than entering her apartment, she
conversed in the hallway, right outside our doors.
And here's what I--inadvertently!--discovered: Things were not as they
had seemed. As I heard what she told her friend, I was not only
fascinated but guiltily thrilled.
We're paying $115 for cable. Say, $90 for our cell phones. Car
insurance is, like, $120 a month. Electricity, a hundred bucks, about
. . .
She gave the sympathetic listener (not meant to be me, mind you) a
detailed inventory of their monthly bills and announced a grand total
with alarm in her voice.
This kind of goody doesn't land at your doorstep every day--or,
normally, ever. I quickly and shamelessly compared their tab to our own.
And that's before, you know, just living, she said with
despair. She didn't know how they were making it, she reported.
The fact was, they weren't making it.
The worst part about comparisons is that we often make them based on
misinformation. We try to keep up with the Joneses, then it turns out,
as it did in our case, that the Joneses as we know them don't even
exist. Even when someone does in fact have the money it looks like they
have, which is often not the case, the funds do not add up to
contentment. Among American households surveyed that earn more than
$100,000 per year, 27 percent said that they did not have enough money
to buy the things they "really need." That gives new meaning to the
concept of personal finance. Our financial situations and what
they mean to our personal lives really do depend on our individual
circumstances, surroundings, and mindset. We cannot, even if we wanted to, step
into somebody else's life and experience what appears to be so good about it.
Whatever we thought we would enjoy of theirs--if we
only had what they have--wouldn't be the magic bullet we envision.
We perplex ourselves over scenarios that are not even true. My
husband and I had constructed the dossier of our next-door neighbors out
of circumstantial evidence and what turned out to be misleading
appearances. In the absence of hard information and honest explanations,
we cobble together our own image of the lives of the people we know and
to whom we compare ourselves. Even though we know, intellectually, that
everyone has his or her own problems, truly believing that the couple
next door, our co-worker, or better-off sibling doesn't really have it
better than we do is another matter. Nothing, in my experience, gives
greater comfort at these times of envy than recalling that things are
not as they seem.
The day I overheard Tina's conversation, I couldn't wait for my husband
to come home so that I could reveal the juicy gossip of The Real
Situation Next Door. We had gone wrong somewhere in our analysis. Tina
was apparently not a dot-com millionaire after all, not a lady of
leisure. And, mortgage or no mortgage, they did have money
worries like the rest of us. We had heard them complain briefly about
various expenses before, but we hadn't taken them seriously. After all,
the more money someone has, the more they seem to feel obligated to
complain publicly about high costs. (I had seen this in my Park Avenue
boyfriend. When we opened the menu at an expensive restaurant, he would
announce, Twenty-eight dollars for pasta--who are they kidding?!)
On the surface it was gossip, but on a deeper level, learning of our
neighbors' troubles was significant to us because we had come to feel so
achingly alone in our bleak financial world. Just as we had read into
their having a fully funded, joyful life together, now we could project
that just as we sometimes lost sleep over money, so did they. We no
longer felt singled out for suffering financial stress at the beginning
of a marriage. We had some proof that a couple just like us could be in
a somewhat similar situation, even though it didn't look like it from
However, rather than commiserating--how could we, given that we
weren't supposed to know their problems anyway--I gleefully recounted the
entire scene to several friends: You know our next-door neighbors
without the mortgage? Listen to this . . .
Some information and honesty go a long way toward curing the
comparisons that ail us. If we would only talk to one another about
money and status, about our desires and discontent. If only it were okay
to reveal what really goes on in our financial lives, not just factually
but emotionally, how much better off we would be. Truth is healing. Like
having daylight return after a night spent worrying in the darkness,
constructive confessions can banish our loneliness and soothe our
financial fretting. How much damage we do ourselves by hiding our money
misgivings, and how unnecessary this collective burden is. Our financial
and emotional welfare depend not on earning more or owing less but on
opening up and coming to understand the reality of those around us. The
Joneses lose their power over us when we get to know them and understand
what their own lives are really like, behind what is usually a tightly
How much better could my husband and I have felt if we had known the
details of what was going on with the money next door, let alone with a
few other people? Much. I can say this because I went
investigating--prying, even--to figure out a few Joneses and solve our
compulsion to keep up. I started by knocking on our neighbors' door and
spending some time truly catching up with the Joneses. From there I went
deeper into America, from suburbia to the nation's leaders and across
generations. And just to make absolutely sure that money doesn't solve
our problems, I got to know a billionaire and heard what most of us
never know about that world.
You are about to learn the intimate details of what has been called
America's last secret.
Green With Envy: Why Keeping up with the Joneses is Keeping Us in Debt from
Copyright © 2006 by Shira J. Boss