Each Friday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book of interest.
They’ve got vacation homes, backyard swimming pools, and three car garages. That’s what we see. What we don’t see is their secret shame: the unpaid bills, the desperate loans, and the sleepless nights.
That’s the blurb on the back of Shira Boss’s Green with Envy, and it strikes right to the heart of one of the big hidden truths about American consumerism. We’re all jealous of the stuff that other people have, but what we don’t see is their debt and their struggles to overcome it. I see the Lexus down the street, but I don’t see the $500 a month car payments, and seeing only one side of the coin makes it much easier to be envious of their good life.
It’s spelled out right on the cover in the subtitle: Why Keeping Up with the Joneses Is Keeping Us in Debt. What can we do to get past that idea? Let’s dig into the book and find out.
A Deeper Look at Green with Envy
Chapter One – Green with Envy
The book opens with a lengthy story about the author, her husband, and their new next door neighbors who seem to have everything. The frankness about the gossip that went on between her and her husband concerning the new neighbors and their seeming ability to spend money like water was refreshing, as was the admission that the fact that the neighbors had money to spend grayed her perspective on life. Of particular interest to me, though, was the glee the author and her husband felt when she discovered that in fact the neighbors were having financial problems, proving somehow that their lifestyle was a fraud.
There’s a lot of self-centeredness in that whole story, but it’s an identifiable self-centeredness. It’s something we see sometimes in ourselves, and it’s what we see in gossip hounds down the block who tell stories like, “Oh, did you SEE that car that Maggie just bought?” and the varying disgusting and petty jealous barbs that follow a question like that. It’s all familiar stuff, but depressing stuff, because you can see the hypocrisy and the logical failure behind it.
Chapter Two – The Money Next Door
The story of the neighbors continues here, focusing on the fact that one of them actually has a spending compulsion and they were racking up tens of thousands of dollars in home equity and credit card debt. They seemed to have everything – an amazing home decor, a car in the city, expensive haircuts and clothing, and so on, but it was all being fueled by credit cards. Viewing them from the outside, it would be incredibly easy to be jealous of their supposed largesse, but behind the walls it was a disaster, like a two by four internally ridden with termites. Even worse, one of them had developed a psychological addiction to spending, and she was adding thousands of dollars a month to her credit card balance. The spending was basically out of control, but she was in denial, using the rush of spending to quell the pain. In other words, those “perfect” next door neighbors had a disastrous life.
Sometimes, what seems up is actually down, and if you spend your time comparing yourself to what you see on the outside, you’ll end up breaking what’s on the inside. Don’t let your perceptions from afar about the people around you guide your decisions, especially your spending. The people next door with all the stuff might be hiding a nightmare behind those solid oak doors.
Chapter Three – Keeping Up with the Joneses
This chapter tells the story of a different couple, ones who moved into a neighborhood where they could just barely afford the mortgage and they were surrounded by people with a much higher standard of living than them. Instead of just keeping their eyes focused on their own situation, they began to constantly compare their own lifestyle and standard of living to those around them – and they began to adapt. Of course, when you have the lowest income in the neighborhood but you’re putting on the airs of a much higher income, it’s not surprising that you begin to turn to credit, and it’s no different for Dan and Tammy, the couple in this story. They eventually got dragged into bankruptcy, destroying their credit for a decade.
The lesson here is obvious: it’s far better to live in the best house on a low income street than the worst house on a high income street, because on the low income street there’s very little pressure to spend more than you’re already spending, whereas on the high income street there’s a ton of pressure to spend more than you have. Don’t fall into that trap. (Incidentally, we moved into what could best be described as an average house – the one to our north is comparable, the one to the south is nicer, and the one to the west is not quite as nice.)
Chapter Four – Capitol Secrets
Similarly, it can be an enormous financial problem to get into a job that has the appearance of earning far more than it does. Shira Boss uses the perfect example of congresspeople, which many people assume must be rich. After all, they make a strong salary and … they’re congresspeople. The truth, however, is that most congresspeople have difficulty making it financially. They’re almost required by their constituents to appear wealthy – wearing nice suits and the like – but many of them sleep on the couches in their office or share one bedroom apartments just to get by.
This is another valuable lesson: the general public often has vastly incorrect perceptions as to the earnings of particular job titles, and they often expect you to live up to those expectations. If you’re choosing a job that has the appearance of wealth without actually earning it, you’re going to be in for a challenging road.
Chapter Five – Baby Boomers Beware
Another area where people are often subtly pushed into living beyond their means is in terms of demographics. For example, as many Boomers approach retirement, there are some that are financially prepared and are living the high life, while others are not – and they try to emulate this high life without proper preparedness, leading to financial ruin and working until very near the end of their life. This is actually a situation I worry about for some of the members of my own family – I watch them inch closer to retirement age and stlll they lack appropriate financial planning.
The best way to avoid this is to keep your eye on your own ball and figure out what you actually want. Which is more important to you: living it up a little now and working until you fall down, or retiring a bit early and enjoying your final years without the pressures of work? It’s not an easy decision, but you should make it without the pressures of society mattering at all. It’s your life – do with it what you really want to do, not what the marketing suggests.
Chapter Six – Behind the Hedges
Another way that society can subtly encourage you to spend more is when you live in a neighborhood or town defined by the community (or the world) at large as a “wealthy” neighborhood or town. For example, merely hearing that a person lives in Palm Beach evokes an idea in the minds of many that the person must in fact be wealthy. Often, this isn’t true at all – people try hard to preserve that impression because it increases property value (on paper), but their day to day reality is often far from that one might associate with wealthy. It’s filled with the same challenges that we all face – not knowing how to act around others, misunderstanding how they appear to others, having to make hard choices.
It’s very easy to say, “Well, they’re rich,” as though that makes many of the societal challenges that humans face somehow easier. It doesn’t. In fact, in my own life I’ve sometimes seen the opposite to be true. My father has never been wealthy, but he is only socially uncomfortable in extremely rare situations. On the other hand, the wealthiest person I know is often completely unsure how to act in most situations, so he often just remains quiet – and thus many people treat him with disdain for being aloof in his richness. People are people, no matter what they have.
Chapter Seven – Conclusion
There are countless ways in which society influences the money we spend – or the perception of the money we spend. The best ways to fight it are easy: focus on your own values and constantly try to be yourself. In other words, don’t be judged by what you think others might think of you, and don’t judge yourself by the choices of the people around you. Just be yourself.
Some Thoughts on Green with Envy
After reading Green with Envy, my mind was filled with several different thoughts. Here are a few of the more compelling ones.
I experience the challenge of not knowing how to behave sometimes, too. When I tell people I’m a writer, they usually paint some sort of image in their head. I’ve come to find out that it’s usually an image of a frustrated writer, sitting at his keyboard hammering away, often boozing himself into a stupor to deal with his own personal demons. It’s been voiced enough as a stereotype to me that I’ve even joked to my wife about it, telling her that maybe I should take a bottle of gin to the office with me when I close the door and focus on writing. Stereotypes are rarely true.
You never know what your neighbor’s true financial situation is. A friend of mine recently bought a BMW, something he’s always dreamed of owning. I knew him well enough to know that he could barely afford the insurance, let alone the car. It turns out that he had been left the money by a relative who had told him that he should go buy that BMW with the money. It’s almost funny to see how people’s perspectives have changed about this fellow just because of his different car. It actually shows the shallowness and superficiality of others.
Whenever you look down the block, just imagine all of the different ways the people are actually paying for this stuff. Maybe it’s debt. Maybe it’s an inheritance. In either case, it’s not sustainable, and you shouldn’t jump on board to something unsustainable either.
Is Green with Envy Worth Reading?
I found the first three chapters of Green with Envy to be essential reading for anyone who feels a lot of jealousy about the luxury trappings of people living around them. It paints a real picture of the true reality of the situation – and it’s rarely the happy luxury you’re imagining in your head. The remainder of the book was interesting, but not as vital – it merely reinforced the points of the first three chapters in that appearances are often not what they seem and you’ll do well for yourself to try to look past the veneer and see the true picture before you get jealous.
Green with Envy was a very enjoyable quick read, the perfect book to check out of the library and read in the evenings before bed. While it doesn’t contain any profound personal finance insights, it does a magnificent job of exposing the realities of being jealous of what you think others have.
I recommend checking it out from the library for a light and insightful read, particularly if you’re feeling mighty jealous of that family down the block that has everything.