A Tough Love Treatment Plan for Money Envy

Money Envy Pervades Our Culture

How much of your budget-busting, discretionary spending on entertainment, cars, clothes, electronics, and vacations is motivated by what you see others in your life are spending around you?  

Be honest – you know you are paying attention to the big spenders in your circle of neighbors, friends and family.  You also know that you are influenced by what your co-worker is doing and spending, wondering if his or her paycheck is really that much bigger than yours.  In each case, you are probably asking yourself why everyone around you seems to have more money than you, why they deserve to buy what you don’t have. 

Do these feelings make you want to spend more?  Do you surrender to these urges and buy things you cannot afford?  Trade up for a new car?  Finance that vacation with credit cards?  Welcome to the club.  There are lots of members of this club.  Many of them are deeply in debt – broke – living paycheck to paycheck (if they are breaking even at all). 

What is this club?  The popular slang phrase for members of this club is “keeping up with the Joneses.”  The hard truth term is “money envy.”  

What is money envy?  The dictionary tells us that envy is the “desire for others’ traits, status, abilities, or situation.”  Money envy, then, is when we desire the possessions, the luxuries, the perceived spending freedoms, of those around us. 

Envy was known in the medieval church as one of the “seven deadly sins.”  We are not talking here about a sin in the spiritual sense.  But when we make spending decisions – irrational spending decisions at that – based on what others are doing, we are committing a sin against the financial well-being of ourselves and our families.  That, my friends, is a condition that needs to be treated and cured.  

Unfortunately, some people treat money envy with “retail therapy.”  They seek treatment at the mall or on eBay.  Mr. ToughMoneyLove has a better idea.  This is my alternative tough love treatment plan for money envy. 

Treatment Step 1:  Own Your Envy 

You cannot aggressively treat and cure what you don’t acknowledge exists.  We must find a way to accept how much of our money behavior is influenced by the spending and materialism around us.  Pop psychology calls this “owning the problem.”  You must own your envy before you can treat it. 

How do we “own” our money envy?  Here are some suggestions.  Next time you find yourself staring at your neighbor’s new car, your friend’s new diamond earrings, or your brother’s new golf clubs, ask yourself if you would even be thinking about these material objects at that moment if you hadn’t seen them in the possession of someone you knew.  That should tell you something right then and there about the source of the feelings that you have. 

Also consider that we generally do not compare ourselves to people we don’t know.  Why?  Because we do not have enough information about that person to even begin to make a valid comparison.  There is nothing for us to gain or lose from such a comparison.  It would be as if we were truly envious of a wealthy character in a movie we are watching.  That doesn’t happen. 

On the other hand, when we compare ourselves to people we know, and negative feelings are created from that comparison, we know inside that having such feelings can’t be good.  (If you can’t agree that negative feelings in the presence of friends or family are not good, you have other issues.)  When those negative feelings are triggered by a comparison of ownership of things by friends or family, we must logically accept that we are in a bad place – we have money envy and we must own it. 

Part of owning the money envy problem includes this understanding:  There will always be someone who makes more money than you, who owns more stuff than you.  A study by Andrew Oswald of Warwick University and David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College found that even if our incomes are rising, we tend to become less happy if the incomes of others are increasing more.  In other words, money envy cannot be completely cured by having more money or more stuff. 

Finally, consider this.  Owning a problem gives you power.  Once you own the problem, it’s something that you can put on your to-do list.  That is a big help.  A few years ago, I read about a study of people suffering from depression.  The study concluded that taking something off of your “to-do” list, even one thing, had as much or more of a mood elevating effect than did medication.  If that is true, wouldn’t it be great to own that money envy, put it on your to-do list, and then take it off? 

Treatment Step 2:  Confirm the Facts 

Now that we own our problem, go back and read the definition of envy.  For envy to have any validity, our assumption that the person who is the object of our envy is really in a better place must be true.  Let me give you an extreme example of what I am talking about.  If your neighbor rolls home one Saturday night driving a new Porsche, those feelings of envy might start bubbling up.  You are immediately thinking – how can he afford that car and why can’t I have one?  But what if you were told a few minutes later that your neighbor was driving a stolen car?  Or that it was a kit car, built on a Chevy chassis?  Your feelings would be entirely different, and they probably would not be negative feelings at all. 

Granted, you are not going to be fortunate enough to discover that all of your “wealthier” friends and family members are in the mob or are printing their own twenty-dollar bills.  On the other hand, it is highly likely that they are no better off than you are in the money department.  Rather, they are spending money they don’t have and the house of cards hasn’t collapsed yet. 

I’m not suggesting that you confront your friend or family member and ask to see their pay stub or bank statement.  But you can do something, with a subtle approach.  When your friend tells you about her upcoming vacation trip to Paris, try something like this:  “Gosh, that sounds so exciting.  I would love to go to Paris.  How long did it take you to save for that trip?”  Then watch her body language very closely.  You might get an honest answer like “well I can’t really afford it but what the heck, I’ve always wanted to go.  That’s what credit cards are for, right?”  I hope you see my point.  This friend might be going to Paris, but financially she is no more able than you are.  A definite envy-killer. 

Your friend could have a different answer, perhaps telling you how long and hard she scrimped and saved for the trip.  In that case, you will be envious of her frugality, not her wealth.  That is a lot better place to be for you. 

Bottom line:  Before you get carried away on the envy train, get the facts.  You might find out that you are OK after all. 

Treatment Step 3:  Find Your Place

This step should be quick and easy.  When those negative envy feelings are creeping in, triggered by your thoughts of people you know that are higher up on the money ladder, stop and look down the ladder.  You probably know someone who is in bad shape financially, maybe due to illness or job loss.  (Even if you don’t, watch the nightly news and you will find those people.)  Allow yourself to feel empathy for those people, as you should.  Contrast those feelings of empathy with your earlier thoughts while looking up the ladder.  Doesn’t really make sense, does it? 

In my own life, I work in a professional services industry where all I have to sell is my time.  I’ve done well but in the past have envied those who build equity in their own businesses and sell the businesses for massive gains.  I will never be able to do that.  I’ve finally accepted that.  It helps to know your place. 

While you are looking down that economic ladder, also consider this.  Do you expect those who are not as well off as you to like you or respect you more as a person, just because you have a newer car or larger bank account?  Of course you don’t.  It just doesn’t work that way.  The world is filled with miserable rich people.  Another definite envy-killer. 

Treatment Step 4 – Find Your Reality

This final treatment step for money envy is, at its core, a spiritual one.  This step requires you to identify what you value most in life and how your money relates to it.  Then you must assign and set specific financial goals to those values.  For example, if your children are young and the primary focus of your love and attention, then maybe you need to be saving more to put them through college.  Then do it.  If you remain focused on what you value most, including financial goals that support those values, you will be less distracted by what others are spending around you.  Even if you notice that your friends are spending a lot of time at four star resorts, you can smile inwardly, knowing that your money is going to where your heart is. 

Feel better yet?  Maybe not, but you can get there.  Good luck

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One Response to “A Tough Love Treatment Plan for Money Envy”
  1. This post couldn’t have been more timely for me. I’ve spent the last little while with friends who have just moved back and bought a beautiful house, a nice car, and a TV that makes mine look like a piece of crap. Envy was fully in season for me.

    As you point out, I have no idea what their underlying financial situation is- I assume it’s pretty good, but I really don’t know for sure. But my reasons for wanting all their great stuff really have very little to do with need or utility, it’s all about appearances. Heck, I’m colour blind- what do I need a high def, crystal clear true life colour TV for?? The only answer is to feel like I’m successful and impress those around me. And that’s a pretty bad reason.

    I’m working on Steps 3 and 4, and I’ve noticed a big difference in my envy level since I started consciously thinking about these issues. I’m assuming that it’s a lifelong struggle, though- I don’t expect to someday mgically be relieved of all envy and desire and decide to go live out my days as a Buddhist monk. Then again, who knows?

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