Book Review - Green with Envy by Shira Boss
I just finished a great book called Green with Envy, Why Keeping Up with the Joneses is Keeping Us in Debt. Written by Shira Boss, Green with Envy discusses what she calls America's last secret. People do not want to talk about money, especially money problems. But according to this book and I agree with it, money is a problem for most people, even people who have a lot of it.
Shira Boss has done a great job uncovering feelings people really have about money, including her own. Starting with the couple who moved in next door to them in Manhattan, who are the author's and husband's same age, who paid cash for their apartment and soon after moving in the wife quit her job to have babies. How could they possibly afford it and how could others keep up. The jealousy, the curiosity, the frustration of it all is very real for most people. No matter how much people make, their is always someone who makes more, has more, does more, vacations more, etc. Keeping up the Joneses is a game that Americans play constantly. According to Boss, this is what is keeping America in debt up to their eyeballs.
In Green with Envy, Shira Boss does in-depth interviews with numerous people to uncover what really goes on financially with people that other's deem as the Joneses. A couple that moves to a gated community and while trying to keep up with others in the area, blow through their savings and end up owing more than $100,000 in credit card debt. A baby boomer, who is fifty and has no retirement fund and sees no possibility of ever being able to save for retirement. His plan? To keep working.
On page 44, Boss discusses that frequently people have family money supporting their lifestyle. Most Americans do not have this luxury and when they try to keep up it can be disastrous. Trying to keep up with the Joneses sends the average American into debt. One of the problems in America is that people refuse to talk about money. So instead of realizing that the people next door aren't paying for their own vacations and are sending their kids to private school on Daddy's dime, they assume that other people can afford it and figure they should be able to as well.
I see this as one of the biggest problems that Boss only barely touches on. Entitlement. According to Webster's one of the definitions of entitlement is "belief that one is deserving of or entitled to certain privileges". To me privileges mean the extras in life, not the absolute needs like food, shelter and clothing. One of the problems in America (and possibly other countries, I just don't know first hand) is that people now believe that vacations, new cars, cell phones, cable TV, fancy clothes, dinners out and getting your nails painted are necessary and that they are entitled to them. You know, because they work so hard. I think most people work hard, but if you can't pay cash, then you shouldn't be purchasing the above.
In Green with Envy, Boss discusses how people sink further and further into debt, seemingly without realizing it. On page 64 she says
"Denial is a common phenomenon for people sinking deeper into the muck of debt. Thinking that things are not that bad, or that they will surely get better very soon, is a common affliction for people in a financial crisis, and it makes matters worse. Everyone thinks that they are different, that meltdown can't and won't happen to them."
I just can't imagine someone not realizing how bad the situation is when they have to borrow from one form of debt to pay the minimum payment on another form of debt. Why didn't it hit them when they couldn't pay more than the minimum? Why didn't it hit them when they had to use the credit card to purchase basic groceries or put gas in the car? Why didn't it hit them when their credit card was declined when they tried to purchase something else they didn't need? I just don't get it, but apparently denial is very common. I can see how it makes the situation worse.
Money is such a secret among people in America that they won't even discuss how much something costs, much less how much someone makes, or how much private school tuition is, or how much debt someone has. It isn't even OK to ask if someone took out a car loan to purchase the vehicle or paid cash. Why will no one talk about money? On page 77 Boss states that
"The usual network we rely on to get us through personal crises is dismantled in the case of financial failure. Just when we need to turn to friends and family, when we need to make honest disclosures and hear reassurances, instead we draw up inside our shells."
By not talking about money, it makes the problem worse. In a time of crises we truly feel alone. The truth is no one is alone when it comes to money problems and the sooner people realize that the better off everyone will be. If people could just start opening up about money, it would help everyone. Taking the secrets away would hopefully help people realize that everyone's situation is different. The people you are trying to keep up with have a totally different set of circumstances, therefore you shouldn't try to keep up with them and you shouldn't feel bad if you can't.
It was easy to get wrapped up in the stories about real individuals. It is satisfying to get a glimpse of other people's financial lives. I think it is natural for people to be curious. If so, why is it always so secret? I found the conclusion of the book very helpful and filled with good ideas for changing our mindset. On page 166 and 167 Boss states
"We preoccupy ourselves with other people's situations even though they should be irrelevant to us. We construct imaginary worlds of bliss and then pine to belong to them (or sometimes go into debt trying to belong to them). We convince ourselves that contentment is just around the corner, where some other people seem to be already, and we could join them if we could just get a little further along ourselves."
The truth is we need to be content with what we have. We need to tell ourselves that what others have and what others are doing does not matter in our lives. We need to remind ourselves, sometimes frequently, that "Things are not as they seem." p169. She is right about that. People keep things so secret, that truly nothing finance wise is as it seems. We need to stop being green with envy and stop trying to keep up with the Joneses.