This gem called to me from atop a pile of paperbacks in a super-discount book warehouse. The kind that becomes a Halloween store beginning in August and then vanishes forever. I picked it up and put it down several times before forking over three dollars and taking it home with me.
The ambivalence came from the kind of schadenfreude that you need to actively speculate as to how your high-flying neighbors can afford all kinds of cool stuff when you’re eating Top Ramen and wondering how small a payment you can make to keep the electricity on. Or if you’d rather have electricity or water. Normally, I don’t concern myself with other people’s lifestyles, but sometimes there’s a moment of weakness, in the beauty salon or the checkout line, and I get sucked into making fun of Kim Kardashian’s ugly $20,000 dress.
Po’ Folks, it’s a trap! Comparing yourselves to others is the way to madness.
So I went home with my guilty pleasure, which I started referring to as “The Green Book,” and began reading. Shira Boss has picked through the neighbor’s trash so that you and I don’t have to. Specifically, her neighbor’s trash had a lot of Restoration Hardware boxes in it, and she was wondering (with lots of envy) how her neighbors with two entry-level jobs and a new baby could afford to remodel the New York apartment they rented. And where they came up with the funds for expensive designer dresses and the newest Mac powerbook and all the other perks of affluence.
“Green with Envy: a Whole New Way to Look at Financial (Un)Happiness,” looks through a lot of people’s trash and comes to some conclusions that you might not expect. Talking about money is society’s last taboo. “Nice” people don’t talk about money – how much they make and how much they spend. Most folks are just as financially desperate as you are, but they’re better at hiding it. Family money and parental bail-outs are far more common than you’d think. People spend a lot more money than they have. Of the households that carry debt, the average credit card debt is $15,607. This is less than it used to be, but the economic crisis took a lot of people from merely indebted all the way to bankrupt.
Boss makes a good case that no matter what your income level is, you will ratchet up your lifestyle to exceed it and thus always feel money stressed. In fact, people who are born rich often believe that if they lose their millions they can never earn it back and feel even more money pressure than those with average incomes, not less.
Boss also claims that the people who are the happiest with their financial circumstances are the ones who associate with others who are slightly less fortunate. Comparing financial circumstances with those who have less makes us feel more appreciation for the good things we have. Comparing lifestyles to those with more means and social mobility only serves to remind us of what we lack.
Boss considers materialism to be America’s biggest spiritual problem. You will never be able to attain enough “stuff” to feel complete, and the cycle of feeling inadequate and needing keeps perpetuating itself. This makes the end of the book seem unnecessarily moralistic, but otherwise it’s a very enjoyable read.