Don't Worry. Be Happy.
Our frustrations have less to do with the Dow and more to do with the Joneses. But there are ways to cope. (Just don't tell your friends.)
You know who's responsible for that financial angst you're suffering that uncomfortable feeling that you should be earning, and spending, more, only you can't? No, not your stingy employer or the IRS, but worse. People who are theoretically on your side: your friends, co-workers, and neighbors. Your financial satisfaction, research shows, has less to do with your own bank balance than with the apparent success of those around you. The technical term is "relative deprivation," but you may know it better as the sick sensation you get when your brother-in-law announces he's bought fractional ownership in a Gulfstream 200.
But there's good news for the envious (besides rising jet-fuel costs). Although the median income for working-age families last year was down for the fifth year in a row, it turns out the key to fiscal satisfaction is not earning enough to keep up with the Joneses, but rather choosing the right Joneses with whom to compete. (Hint: Seek out Joneses who fly commercial, on donated frequent-flier miles, to southern Florida, in late August.)
In practical terms, this means that no matter what the real estate agent says, do not stretch to buy the cheapest house in the nicest neighborhood you can claw your way into. As Erzo Luttmer, an assistant professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the author of an article titled "Neighbors as Negatives," told me, "Data suggests that those people are relatively unhappy compared with those who live in a neighborhood where they're relatively rich." What's more, peering through your blinds at your neighbor's new BMW and suffering increased mortgage strain aren't the worst of it. Luttmer found that people who live among richer neighbors fight more with their spouses about finances ("Till a ritzy neighborhood do us part").
But even if you stay put in Downscaleville, avoiding the bling'd can be challenging. A co-worker will thoughtlessly wear her designer handbag in your presence, mention a trendy restaurant she enjoyed, or oh, the cruelty invite you to her beachfront compound. Then what? Take the advice of Shira Boss, the author of Green With Envy: How Keeping Up With the Joneses Is Keeping Us in Debt, and remind yourself the object of your jealousy may be secretly deep in the red. "We know there's all this credit-card debt, but we never think it's the person we're talking to," she says. "The growth of debt over the last 20 years has started to build this fictional culture."
If you still find yourself hoping your best friend is up nights worrying about her Visa bill, it's time to read Hebrew College professor Solomon Schimmel's "10 Commandments for Coping With Envy" from his book The Seven Deadly Sins particularly No. 1 ("Reconsider the underlying assumptions you have about what makes you a worthy individual"), No. 3 ("Think about positive and valuable things you have that the envied person does not"), and, if you're strong enough, No. 5 ("Consider that the person you envy deserves the object or quality which he has as his just reward and that there may be good reasons why you do not").
Of course, if you can find a way to make a few extra bucks without feeling that it's somehow not quite enough, then by all means drop the spiritual approach and strike up a friendship with the Trumps. After all, sometimes the words of Woody Allen ring the truest: "Money," he said, "is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons." Beth Teitell is the Boston-based author of From Here to Maternity: The Education of a Rookie Mom. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.