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Green with Envy

Excerpted from
Green With Envy: Why Keeping up with the Joneses is Keeping Us in Debt
by Shira Boss

It started even before the couple next door moved in. The comparison. The envy.

My husband and I live in a relatively small apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where the gossip--the news, as it were--traffics in our cramped elevator or basement laundry room. Behind its thirty doors, our building houses a flutist, a filmmaker, lawyers (both corporate and public sector), interior designers, a nurse, an accountant, a grad student, an expatriate retiree who feeds the birds in Central Park, and the usual coterie of mystery inhabitants: They're around, even during the weekdays, they own cars (unusual in this area, where parking spaces start at $400 per month), they seem to be supporting themselves comfortably, but we're not sure how. The building has units from rectangular studios to penthouse two-bedrooms. Perhaps what sets the residents apart the most is how long each has lived here. Considering how real estate values have tumbled upward in recent years, the newcomers are consistently quite a bit better off than those of us already here. Five years after moving in, for example, our mortgage--the one we stretched our debt-to-income ratio to the absolute outside limit to get--is about equal to what the down payment would be now.

In this environment, the most prized fruit of the grapevine is which apartment is being sold, and for how much. So when our neighbors right next door to us put their place on the market, you can be sure we were interested in who was moving in, and at what price.

And then we heard. In the elevator. The seller told me that a young couple our age was buying it--for over the asking price--and that they were paying cash.


Somebody's daddy has some money! our neighbor guessed.

Yeah, I guess so. We couldn't imagine living mortgage-free at our age in Manhattan. And most of our friends couldn't imagine owning any property here at all. We had been the envy of our friends for having scraped together a down payment and bargaining our way into a mortgage. But hearing about our new neighbors, who would have no mortgage at all, we were the ones who felt kind of behind. And certainly mystified. We couldn't help but wonder where that kind of money was coming from.

There were two possibilities as to how the buyers accomplished this very large cash purchase, and my husband and I speculated about them at length. Either, as the seller thought, Mommy and Daddy helped them out by writing an enormous check (and that's how we referred to them, "Mommy and Daddy," as opposed to when our parents helped us out, in which case they were referred to simply as "our parents"); or they belonged to that dreaded class of twentysomething dot-com millionaires. We weren't sure which was preferable. Both seemed frustratingly undeserved.

We met. We had been ready to be annoyed by them, for them to be privileged, East Egg people, or intolerable hipsters, but actually John and Tina were very nice, apparently normal people. They seemed like a quirkily mismatched couple: Tina, a petite, brunette Italian, had a stylish haircut and wore chic clothes surely from a downtown boutique. John, a taller, blond, we-soon-learned Upper West Side Jewish native, seemed more like a kindred spirit to me. He had just gotten out of a PhD program for geography (we got that bit of info from looking them up on Google) and dressed simply in jeans and flannel shirts. They seemed to go to work in the morning like everyone else. I had visions of becoming good friends and living like the two couples on the 1950s sitcom The Honeymooners, always dropping in on each other. We put their finances out of our minds. None of our business, we told ourselves.

Then on a Friday afternoon I ran into Tina waiting in the lobby of our building with a small (new, chic) suitcase.

Going away for the weekend? I asked.

Yeah, I'm just waiting for John to bring the car around. We need so many things for the apartment--we're going antiquing Upstate.

Antiquing? Who uses antique as a verb? I wondered. Does it mean the same thing as hitting flea markets for neat old stuff? Because I would have been fine with hearing that, but the idea of our young neighbors going on an antiquing spree--when, years after moving in, we were still waiting to buy something to cover our windows--reminded me instantly of their wealth, and that they could afford to do things differently.

After making smalltalk about antiquing, I turned to the elevator and pushed the call button, but I was interrupted by a question:

Can you recommend a good cleaning lady?

I froze. We all have different definitions of financial success, and mine is being able to afford a cleaning lady. I had a boyfriend once who lived in his parents' six-bedroom place off Park Avenue, with a live-in cook and a cleaning lady who spent every other day scouring the apartment. It was like living in a 5-star hotel, or what I imagined that would be like. Thick white towels were always folded and fresh. When you threw anything into any wastebasket, it blinked back at you from the bottom. Clutter never had a chance. Nor dust, nor dirty dishes. The best part was that my boyfriend never had to give any of these chores a thought. To my mind he dwelled in housekeeping nirvana: total comfort, zero effort.

My husband and I have had the usual "discussions" about keeping our home clean, and not even clean clean, but just keeping it from sliding into squalor. We've often ended up with the solution that if we paid somebody else to do the dirty work even now and then, we wouldn't have this tension. I've heard that solution from married people and read it in women's magazines: "Hire a cleaner. It'll save you hundreds in therapy bills!" But it has always felt financially impossible. Money that would go to a cleaner could be put toward a dozen more important things. Necessary things. Later, we end up saying, when we have enough money.

But our new neighbors, they evidently already had enough money, and they could afford a cleaning lady.

Rather than play along, I decided to confront the envy by just being frank.

No, I told her. Actually, it's my dream to have a cleaning lady, though.

Tina, being a nice person, tried to make me feel better by saying, Yeah, it's been so long since we've had one.

So what's changed recently? I wanted to know. Whence these cleaning lady funds?

I'm not proud to recount my conversation later with my husband. Antiquing? I mocked. And who keeps a car in the city, anyway? That's ridiculous. It's cheaper to rent one whenever you need it. Insurance, parking, not to mention the cost of the car itself--what's the point of paying for all of that when you can hardly ever use a car here anyway?

My husband's response was even more delicious. Well, we know how they can afford it, he said smugly. Without a mortgage, we could afford a lot of extra things too.

From then on, every expenditure we noticed--packages arriving seemingly daily from Bloomingdale's and Restoration Hardware, hiring someone to repaint their apartment, the installation of the antiques!--it was all dismissed as "mortgage money."

They are the Joneses, and we are not keeping up. However much we understand that we are not--not, under any circumstance--to covet our neighbor's anything or to attempt to keep up with the Joneses, we can't seem to help it. We are gripped by this involuntary urge, a drive to compare and compete that is ingrained, at least in Americans, if not all people.

We have been challenging ourselves to keep up with the Joneses for time eternal, even though it frays our nerves and is a quest without any destination. We know we shouldn't do it, we try not to, yet we find it irresistible.

It's not just that we want more for ourselves but that we specifically want more than, or at least as much as, what others have. That's how we know how much we deserve: It depends on what the other guy has. Since the days of Cain and Abel we have been bickering and jostling over who has the better lot. Wealth and well-being are largely a mindset, and how we're doing in relation to the company we keep is key to our contentment.

It would seem logical that the people we envy the most would be those at the top of the ladder, the rich and famous. It's true that we are fascinated by the wealthy and celebrities, and might fantasize about living their lives, but we are driven by just that, curiosity and fantasizing. We don't really expect that with enough hard work and some good luck we will end up with millions in the bank and our whereabouts splashed across the cover of People magazine. It might happen to some, but we don't count on it.

Who we truly envy are our closest peers. Psychologist Herbert Hyman defined this phenomenon in 1942 in an article titled "The Psychology of Status." He said we compare ourselves within "reference groups" of those around us and who are similar to us. We look to our classmates, our co-workers, our siblings and our neighbors to see how we measure up and, secretly, who we must catch up with. The super rich and famous have too many variables for us to match, but those with similar backgrounds to ours, with similar advantages and opportunities, those are the people we believe we should be able to match. When one among us breaks away and does much better financially, we feel put down. We want some kind of explanation. Are they just smarter? Did they make better decisions? Why them and not us? Is this fair, after all?

Our visions of success are built on a scaffolding of comparison, and planked with envy. Envy is the only vice warned against in both the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins. In Dante's purgatory, the closest rung to hell is pride, the second closest is envy. Manhattan therapist Anita Weinreb Katz describes envy like this: "You want what that person has, and you want to destroy the person who has it. It's a very primitive feeling."

It's not pretty. We're certainly not proud of it, and usually don't want to admit that we are in its jaws. That leads us straight into troublesome secrecy. The don't ask, don't tell policy of life that lets us live around other people. On the rare occasion that someone admits bald-faced envy, we nearly crumble with commiseration and relief. A treasured quote from writer Gore Vidal: "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies." We can laugh that off as an artistic temperament, but when we're honest with ourselves we know that there is more there, that we suffer similarly, by letting our relative positions in our various groups affect our well-being, whether we mean to or not. So we can't help ourselves from quietly scoping others' situations, from private investigating to figure out what others have and, consequently, what we should have too.

Tina invited me over for a late-afternoon glass of wine, to get further acquainted. My Honeymooners plan was progressing. As we walked up the stairs to her living room, she asked me what I do and I told her I'm a journalist.

Really? she asked. She seemed excited by it, and I felt proud that my job impressed her. Then she announced, I work for the New York Times!

No way! I said, while I really did think to myself, NO WAY! A competitive mushroom popped out at me like an airbag. I might not care about her wearing better clothes, but when it comes to career I didn't need competition living next door, on staff at the Times. Forget the Honeymooners, that was two generations ago. Times were gentler. I wanted to go back down the stairs and ignore our new neighbors and their wealthy parents and paid-for apartment forevermore.

Instead, I kept up the conversation with a dry throat: You're a reporter too? What do you cover?

No, I work in Web development.

Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. She is not a journalist! I do not have to read her articles in the paper, talk shop, or keep up in any way! What a relief. We can be friends again. Maybe I'll knock on the door to borrow half a cup of sugar one day. I even scoffed a little at Web development. Boring, I thought.

My relief was short-lived. By the time we reached the top of the stairs it came to me: Web development . . . the Internet . . . dot-com millionaire.

Everyone heard stories of twentysomething millionaires minted in the late 1990s. They couldn't be avoided. They were on television, they were on the covers of magazines, and there weren't just a few junior moguls, they seemed to be everywhere. The economy was shaken up like a snow globe, and money really did seem to grow on trees, there for the plucking. The idea of building up a career or business through years of hard work was actually mocked. People used to ask me what I was doing still writing for newspapers and magazines, those relics: Why didn't I get an Internet job?

Seeing our peers get enormously wealthy on stock options was, to say the least, irksome. We were just as smart and educated and ambitious--how was it fair that they were so much more successful financially? It shouldn't be any of our business how much money our cohorts make, or how they do it. Why do we chip away at clues, then, building a financial profile of our friends and figuring out where we fit on the scale?

In the United States, at least, where productivity is valued more highly than anything and is generally measured in dollars, this comparison and competition is inbred. It feeds the system. The drive to consume more, to have more and better things, and continually to raise our level of comfort, is stronger here than any other place on earth.

The American Dream itself--the novel system in which every one of us, regardless of background, is not only able but expected to move up, to do better and have more--is at its heart about competition. We're trained to gaze up one level from where we are and to aspire to get what those people have. Once we accomplish that much, we're looking up again. By cultural design, there is no end to it.

Setting our goals based on what others are doing goes even deeper than human nature. Fleas, for instance, do some keeping up with the Joneses of their own. They are the world's highest jumpers. When you put a population of fleas into a box and put the lid on, a few times they'll jump up and donk their heads on the ceiling. Pretty quickly, though, they learn to jump just as high as the ceiling without hitting it. Take the lid off and they still won't jump any higher--until a new flea moves into the box who doesn't know anything about the old lid. The new flea jumps to great heights. The others see it. Then they all start jumping higher again.

Climbing over the Joneses isn't only a social and financial phenomenon but an economic one. Moving up is our reward for hard work. Desire and envy are the engines that keep us going. Trade up. Earn more. Improve. This is what keeps our capitalist economy throbbing. So while we're told not to attempt to keep up with the Joneses, tsk-tsk, we're also shown that that is exactly what we should do. If we all minded our own business, if we were all content with our lot as it is, the economy would slow and our standard of living--which we measure, for the most part, in things--would tumble. "An economy primarily driven by growth must generate discontent," writes psychologist Paul Wachtel in The Poverty of Affluence. "We cannot be content or the entire economic machine would grind to a halt."

The trouble is that what's good for the whole is not necessarily healthy for us as individuals. As Wachtel describes it, "Our personal lives run aground on the perpetual generation of desire and discontent." Americans are working longer hours and earning more money than ever before, but the reward in terms of greater satisfaction with our lives has failed to materialize. A survey asked who in America feels they have achieved the American Dream. Among those earning less than $15,000 per year, only 5 percent agreed. What about among those earning more than $50,000, which is the top half of the American public? A near tie, at 6 percent. In the Bible a teacher says, "And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man's envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind" (Ecclesiastes 4:4). Keeping up with the Joneses puts us on a never-ending, stomach-yanking roller coaster. And we bring it on ourselves.

As soon as John and Tina got back from their tropical honeymoon, she quit her job at the Times. The economy was in the midst of a major slump. Nobody who had a job was complaining, or at least nobody was quitting. But that's what dot-com millionairehood was all about: You did what you enjoyed, you worked while it was exciting, and then whenever you felt like it, you walked away. And so she did.

She was in the right industry at the right time, that's for sure, my husband said with a sigh.

Contrasting our situation with theirs was painful. Tina talked about how they would soon start "popping out the kids." The idea of us having children ourselves, while attractive in theory, seemed practically impossible. We figured John and Tina probably did argue, like everyone, but they probably didn't argue about money stress, like we did. It wasn't the material goodies we grew envious of, it was the ease with which they seemed to be able to live. From the clues we collected, John and Tina seemed able to afford a psychological lifestyle that, to our disappointment, far surpassed ours. While our lives felt suffocatingly on hold while we straightened out our financial issues, our next-door neighbors, at our age, were living carefree, apparently enjoying life and each other to the fullest.

As for us, after meeting each other in the Middle East, we spent two years in a very long-distance relationship. A lot of our funds went toward plane tickets and phone calls. After we got engaged, one of us had to move. He earned enough as an engineer to support us in his country, but I didn't speak the language at the time, and even though I had worked there for several months it had been quite stressful. English wasn't a problem for him, though, and we figured his European degree and engineering background were marketable anywhere. He would relocate and look for a job as a management consultant. At that time the economy was booming; there weren't enough workers to go around. As one of my friends assured me, Your nail salon woman could get a job as a consultant.

Copyright © 2006 by Shira J. Boss

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