Envy, Anxiety, Secrecy, Taboos: The Subject Must Be
New York Times, February 3, 2007
Many consumers are propping up their elaborate
lifestyles with hidden debt. It’s something no one likes
to talk about.
I’M as guilty as the next person. I’ve sat around with
my pals wondering how a neighbor, a colleague, or, yes,
a good friend, can possibly afford to put that huge
addition on their house. Or take those many overseas
vacations. Or pay for the private schools and the fancy
summer camps and the second home.
Some people we just write off as trust fund babies or
hedge fund zillionaires or lucky dogs who got into the
stock market at the right time and cashed out.
But others are more perplexing. They look like us. They
seem to come from roughly the same backgrounds as us.
But they sure don’t act like us.
I don’t exactly envy them; I’m fairly satisfied with our
lives. Oh, occasionally I wish we had that house on
Martha’s Vineyard, or didn’t have to choose between
remodeling the bathroom or taking a summer trip, but
generally I know how fortunate we are.
But I do sometimes burn with curiosity about how they do
it. And wish that talking about money was not so fraught
in this society so I could just ask them to explain it.
For years, economists, academics and psychologists have
written about how money is the last taboo. It has become
a virtual cliché to say that people would rather talk
about their sex lives or child abuse than their
Elissa Schappell was a co-editor, with Jenny Offill, of
an anthology called “Money Changes Everything”
(Doubleday, 2007), a compilation by 22 writers, many
fairly well known, discussing how money, whether it
disappeared over generations or arrived in a sudden
windfall, affected their lives. But the contributors had
to write under their own names and some could not do it.
“We lost a good one,” Ms. Schappell said. “He had
written about his drug addiction, about a nervous
breakdown, but he would not write about money.”
That instinct, however, might be beginning to change.
The inability to address issues of money — and the envy
it causes — is creating more financial and psychological
distress than we can imagine, psychologists and social
scientists say. We overspend to keep up with neighbors
and friends; take jobs we’re not happy at to keep up a
lifestyle we think we should have; and compulsively
watch television shows that flaunt multimillion-dollar
homes and exotic vacations.
Although grappling with issues of money is certainly not
solely an American experience, the paradoxical way we
treat it is peculiarly our own and stems from our
contradictory history, said Dalton Conley, chairman of
the sociology department at New York University.
“One string is consumption, social status and
competition,” Professor Conley said. “That’s a strong
part of the social fabric in America. Another is the
Puritan string in American capitalism: to save, to lead
an inconspicuous life.”
The saving and the discreet lifestyle, however,
Professor Conley noted, have been somewhat lost in
recent times. Instead, no home seems to be big enough
and increasingly fancy cars idle in front of us on the
Sometimes it seems as if we must be doing something
wrong because we can’t possibly afford what they can —
even if we don’t want it.
The truth is, however, that we don’t know the truth,
said Shira Boss, author of “Green With Envy: Why Keeping
Up With the Joneses Is Keeping Us in Debt,” (Warner
“The accessibility and availability of debt has created
a fiction that wasn’t there 20 years ago,” Ms. Boss
said. “We don’t have a grip on who can afford what. Your
external lifestyle is a lot lower when you’re living
within your means — you can see extravagance, but not
Ms. Schappell said that editing her book made her
realize that “all the ready credit gives of the illusion
of living the American dream.”
In the introduction to their book, Ms. Schappell and Ms.
Offill note that “economists report that middle-class
families are now carrying record levels of credit card
debt, going without health insurance and filing for
bankruptcy at several times the rate of the early
“Turns out those McMansions and shiny S.U.V.’s have us
mortgaged up to our eyeballs, but until the wolf is
truly at the door, you won’t find many of us admitting
Ms. Schappell said she now believed, however, that the
old-fashioned ideal of working hard, saving and
gradually making it is a bankrupt one. Instead, the way
people envision growing rich, she said, is through a
windfall: “a malpractice lawsuit, the lottery or going
on a reality show — it’s the new American dream.”
But envying people is part of human nature, right? It is
one of the seven deadly sins, one of the Ten
Commandments. We’re always going to want what we don’t
have. There are studies and surveys that show people
never feel they have enough; for example, in 2005, PNC
Advisors — now PNC Wealth Management — asked 792 of its
rich private-banking clients what they would need to
feel financially secure; virtually all said they needed
to double their wealth.
Twenty-nine percent of those with more than $10 million
to invest also said having more money generated more
problems than it solved.
“For Americans, it’s all about the pursuit,” Ms. Boss
said. “It’s a question of degree. Envy is so
evil-sounding — there is a release in just saying it. I
try to say right away, ‘I’m so envious.’ We shouldn’t
beat ourselves up over it.”
Others say the problem is more one of society and less
one of individuals. That the drumbeat to consume more
all the time is so deafening that few can resist.
“I strongly disagree that it’s human nature,” said Allen
D. Kanner, a psychologist and co-editor of “Psychology
and Consumer Culture” (American Psychological
Association, 2004). “Our nature is being molded pretty
powerfully by the media. If we started a trend to
extract marketing from our lives, it would go a long way
to reducing money anxieties.” Mr. Kanner is also a
co-founder of the nonprofit Campaign for a
Commercial-Free Childhood (www.commercialfreechildhood.org).
Tim Kasser, an associate professor of psychology at Knox
College in Galesburg, Ill., said the answer was to want
There is a small movement, he said, heir to many such
groups in the past, called voluntary simplifiers who
have chosen to make do with less. This doesn’t mean they
live puritanical lives without modern conveniences, but
rather they have consciously chosen to make less money
and work fewer hours to spend more time with families
A study in 2005 of 200 “voluntary simplifiers” in 48
states compared with 200 similar people in the same
geographical areas who lived regular lives found that
the simplifiers were happier according to a variety of
criteria, said Professor Kasser, author of “The High
Price of Materialism” (MIT Press 2002). (Details about
the movement can be found at www.simpleliving.net.)
Even though we do tend to compare ourselves with those
who have more, not less, it does help to remember that
there is truth in clichés: money does not buy happiness.
“I’d like to have a lot more money,” Ms. Schappell said.
“I’d like to use a credit card and not cross my fingers.
I don’t want to be a waitress again and I don’t want to
deliver balloons again. But money doesn’t make you feel
smarter or more attractive.
“You have to look at what money is standing in for in
your life. Is it safety? Does it make you socially
acceptable? Does it make you important?”
Attitudes about money may also change as the baby boom
generation moves toward retirement, Professor Conley
“The biggest birth core of the 20th century is now at
its peak earning years and about to retire,” he said.
“As this group leave their earning years, will they set
a leisure and consumption culture for the rest of us or
will they move into a more frugal mode of life and the
whole dynamic will change?”
Talking about our finances may also become slightly less
loaded, Mr. Conley predicted, as there is less and less
stability; most people no longer work for the same
company for years, nor have standardized contracts or
receive defined pension benefits.
“With the increased volatility, people feel more
desperate,” he said. “They may not say, ‘How much do you
make? How much did you pay for your house,’ but, in a
more subtle way, I think people feel the need to find
that out more than they did 15 years ago.”
I can see becoming more open about our finances with
friends and family. It is not that we have a lot to
hide, but occasionally I’ve wondered about certain
issues like how our income stacks up next to my sisters’
families’. Maybe I’ll bring that up at the next family
reunion. And I’ll suggest that they go first.
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