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3 ways to fight back against financial envy

A resentful awareness that some people have things that you can only wish for is normal. But there are ways to learn to minimize it and to make your own life more satisfying.

By MSN Smart Spending editor Sep 26, 2013 2:06PM
This post comes from Geoff Williams at partner site U.S. News & World Report.

USN logoThink everyone has it better than you? You aren't alone.

"Financial jealousy is a very real phenomenon and causes a fair amount of distress for the vulnerable," says Ramani Durvasula, a Los Angeles-based licensed clinical psychologist and psychology professor at California State University.

Couple with laptop (© Corbis)When it comes to feeling envious of other people's wealth, she observes that we have it tougher than our ancestors, who didn't live in a world of $15,000 purses and $1,000 shoes and weren't exposed to so-called "reality" television shows starring wealthy housewives and the Kardashian family.

But it isn't just TV that can make people feel as if everyone else is living the good life.

"Social media makes this hard, when people post vacation pictures and other fabulous stuff, leaving many people cringing in the name of social comparison and wondering how to keep up with the Joneses," Durvasula says.

Speaking of the Joneses, the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses," is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. The expression, which describes the frustrating experience of trying to achieve the same social status as one's neighbors, entered the American conversation when cartoonist Arthur R. "Pop" Momand debuted the comic strip "Keeping Up with the Joneses." (According to, the preeminent cartoon encyclopedic website, the strip was first printed in 1913.) The comic centered on the misadventures of Aloysius P. McGinnis and his family, who were perpetually trying to stay caught up with their always-unseen neighbors, the Joneses.

Of course, it's now virtually impossible to keep up with the Joneses. "Used to be, we would try to just keep up with our neighbors. Now the neighborhood is as big as the whole world," Durvasula says.

So if you feel beleaguered by reality TV stars, your wealthy cousins on Facebook or your neighbors' new car, backyard trampoline and swimming pool for the kids, don't beat yourself up. Financial envy is normal. In any case, here are some thoughts that may help you keep your ego in perspective.

1. Know that what you see may not reflect reality
Let us not mince words and be realistic. It is true that some people have more money than you, and compared to you, they may live a charmed life.

But not everyone who is living the good life is actually in a better place than you. "People can seem to be doing well, but appearances can be deceiving," says Sheila May, a forensic accountant and licensed CPA based in Scituate, Mass. "Debt, risky decisions and acquiring material possessions that take time and money or lose value are not good long-term moves."

May says she knows of plenty of people who lived lavishly only to discover in retirement that their money was running out. If you're spending within your means, she says, you should be proud of yourself rather than tear yourself down.

Xavier Epps, who runs a Woodbridge, Va.-based financial service company that specializes in helping individuals and small businesses, has a similar take. "While it's tempting to believe everything you see others post via social media, automatically discount 30% of what you see," Epps advises. He adds that people tend to post pictures of the new car, but they rarely complain later about not being able to afford it. We may not see it, but "there's always two sides to a situation," he says.

Financial planners are also warning investors not to let social media sites get them down. "I tell my clients to remember that just because they see an awesome vacation picture on Facebook, doesn't mean they're seeing the credit card debt that came with the trip," says Ann Arceo, president of Savvy Duo Financial Planning in Los Angeles, who specializes in helping newlyweds and young couples.

She adds: "Facebook is about as real as the reality TV shows many of us are addicted to watching."
2. Compare yourself to people poorer than you

"The mistake that most people make is comparing themselves to someone who is very wealthy. There is always someone who has more than you. If you're feeling envious of someone else's financial position, it usually just means you need to change your perspective," says Steven Hirsch, a CPA in Mineola, N.Y.

In other words, remember that compared to some people, you're Mr. or Ms. Jones. Hirsch adds that familiar but accurate truism: "Life isn't just about money. What dollar value would you put on your health? Your relationship with your significant other? Your friends? Your happiness? If you feel jealous of someone else's finances, remember that there are probably things that you have in your life that would make them jealous."

3. Use your envy as motivation

But if you really can't shake the feeling that you should have more material goods or as much money as your friends, family or acquaintances, a little envy can be useful, Epps says. "Take what you see as fuel to the fire to aspire you to work hard and live frugally so you can obtain such items more practically with less cost," he advises. "Constantly remind yourself of long-term goals."

Which, ideally, should be lots of money in the bank instead of a fancy sports car or another asset that rapidly depreciates in value, Epps says.

Jenna Mayhew, a therapist who runs an email-based counseling service in London, concurs. As she puts it, if you're chasing after money that you don't really need, you're likely never going to be satisfied and may always feel a bit uneasy. But some level of greed is in our genes.

"Materialism for the sake of survival is healthy and adaptive," Mayhew says. "It's a good thing to be driven to have enough money for medicine, food and safety."

More from U.S. News & World Report:

Sep 27, 2013 9:20AM

I guess I don't really get it.  Financial envy?  Jealous of what someone else has?  I guess that is something I got past sometime shortly after high school.


Sort of like my kids, when they see someone with an expensive car.  I tell them they likely don't own it, that they have it financed.  Then I tell them I could pay cash for one just like it, but choose not to so that they can go to college some day, and they won't have to worry about supporting me when I'm old.  They still would like us to have the car, but I think they kind of understand.

Sep 26, 2013 2:51PM
Wow, this is actually a good MSN money section article.  Oh wait, that's because it was actually written by US News and World Reports.
Sep 26, 2013 2:52PM
Comparing yourself to people poorer...  WTF does that accomplish.
Sep 26, 2013 3:15PM
#4- Visit poorer countries & make fun of them.
Sep 27, 2013 7:05PM
Growing up poor never prevented our family from thinking ourselves a little better off than others.  I don't know how that came about or why it was important.  Later in life I began to realize that most folks are pretty much the same.  We all have pride and we also realize that we have made mistakes.  We mostly hope that our children have profited from living in their time and in our household.  We always lived within our means and we pay our debts.  I hope that the people we come in contact with will judge us as being honest and truthful.  Otherwise I don't care.  I think that you should put family first and show them all the love you can.
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