I am doing more regular book reviews at American Debt Project, and Green With Envy: Why Keeping Up with the Joneses is Keeping Us in Debt was right on topic. I read constantly, but never many topical books. You know those books with paragraph-long titles? Like Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party or Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History? Hello, too many words, I almost blacked out. (But Griftopia sounds interesting.)
Besides their rambling titles, topical books often seem short-sighted to me. I prefer to read the classics in non-fiction that dissect important events in history, like All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (OK, so that has an extended title too, but I highly recommend it). Books that are written about things that are happening right now are usually topics better analyzed in newspapers and magazines. But I picked up Green with Envy because it caught my eye from the first sentence: “It started even before the couple next door moved in. The comparison. The envy.”
Green with Envy is not full of advice nor is it an in-depth analysis of our society and its relationship with money. It is about our relationship with money, but on a personal, individual level. Beginning with herself, Boss examines the personal stories of different types of people in varying financial situations. I was impressed by her level of honesty about openly envying her neighbor’s Bloomingdale’s packages that arrived on a daily basis. Her neighbors of the same age seem to have it way better than Boss and her husband, who are deep in student loan debt and living on one income. But she soon gets the real story as she begins writing this book, and her new neighbors very openly discuss the details of their not-so-perfect finances. From there, she details the story of another couple in Florida who seemed to moving up and up until they were in over their heads. This particular couple ended up in bankruptcy court but there was no happy ending where they reined in their spending and happily lived on less: Boss eloquently captures how they continued to envy their more comfortable friends and neighbors.
A surprising section of the book was dedicated to analyzing the personal finances of the Representatives of U.S. Congress. When the book was published, the salary of a Representative was $160,000 per year (it’s now at $174,000). While many Representatives and Senators are independently wealthy and could work without a salary (check this out for the wealthiest members of Congress), there are members who have only their salary. At first, this section seems ridiculous. Who cares if Congress doesn’t receive any housing allowance for their residence in Washington or travel stipends for their family to visit them at the Capitol? These fat cats have it made and they’ll have it even more made when they take their lobbyist gig after congress paying $500,000 a year! But as the stories of Congressmen with high credit card balances continued, it became clear that this wasn’t about pity or empathy for the poor little old Congressmen who have to make it on less than $200K per year. It was about revealing that there is always a set of Joneses to compare yourself to, and there will always be those who are doing better and doing more. The comparisons will never stop and they are challenging for those in the public eye who have to maintain an image of order and perfection at any cost.
Green with Envy also devotes a section to Baby Boomers, who have been the most prosperous generation of recent history, although that doesn’t mean many of their finances are not in disarray either. This generation, like many of us, hasn’t planned for retirement or planned for a time when they would be earning less.
The last chapter of the book, which does delve into a few ideas and pieces of advice, begins with Boss and her husband training for a marathon. The training became more about mental training than just physical training, and some of the mental training techniques used by marathon trainers could easily be applied to other great challenges in life. Consider:
The marathon folks teach the technique of using the phrase “but it doesn’t matter” after every negative thought or disappointment. As the authors suggest, I tried out this technique in other parts of life, at first for little things like when the line at the grocery store was taking forever (But it doesn’t matter!), and then for more seemingly significant things, like the neighbors jetting to Tahoe for the weekend (But it definitely doesn’t matter!). In this way, you start training and shaping your mindset so that you can start making life what you want it to be.
I tried it out already in my own life and loved it (not that I’m going to be running any marathons any time soon- those people are crazy! Maybe a half-marathon).
Green with Envy is a great read on our perceptions of our own money and other people’s money. It considers not only how we view money but how we view work, whether we would work if we didn’t need the money and how people who do have millions are not necessarily fulfilled (especially if it is inherited and not earned). I really enjoyed how the author took uncomfortable revelations to a new level, and she never excluded her own situations from being put on display. I thought this last quote from the book fit the idea of American Debt Project about understanding and talking about our finances:
In stepping forward to make changes in how you think about your personal financial situation and how we talk to one another about it, in confronting the taboo, keep in mind something the anthropologist Margaret Mead said: “We are our culture.” The taboo lives because we are keeping it alive by following it. When we act boldly, when we make our own decisions about what we’ll talk about and how we’ll view things, we improve our own culture.
Bold, baby. She is Shira, hear her roar.
(Note: Shira Boss wrote this book in 2006 and the paperback version that came out in 2007 is entitled Green with Envy: A Whole New Way to Look at Financial (Un)Happiness. I believe the content remained the same and my review is of the 2006 first edition.)