Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Thrift Week, day two: Envy

Another day, another deadly sin. Today's topic in our Thrift Week symposium is envy and how it can hurt you financially. (Never mind emotionally and spiritually—that's beyond the scope of this blog.) The dangers of envy are somewhat similar to the perils of pride; it's just the motivation for them that's different. Both of them can lead you to spend too much, trying to maintain a lifestyle you can't afford. To illustrate this, let's introduce a character called Ivy (because she's green with envy, get it? Ah, sometimes I amuse even myself.)

Ivy is a recent college grad who's just landed her first job: an entry level-position at a high-class firm. But instead of being happy to have a firm footing on the corporate ladder, she's discontented because all her colleagues make so much more money and lead such extravagant lifestyles. She thinks, "I'm just as talented as these bozos! Why shouldn't I get to wear designer clothes and drive a Mercedes, too?" And so to assuage her feelings of resentment, she loads herself down with debt, taking out a massive car loan with the tiniest of down payments and giving her credit card regular workouts at high-end boutiques. She doesn't actually need a luxury car—she can get to and from work just fine on the subway—and she could put together a perfectly presentable, professional wardrobe at consignment shops, but she thinks she "deserves" the same lifestyle her colleagues have, even though she isn't yet earning the salary to support it.

Like Leo, Ivy's an extreme case. But just about any of us can fall victim to the occasional attack of "I deserve it" and wind up shelling out money for something we didn't really need, and might not even have wanted if someone else didn't have it. After all, sowing this kind of discontentment with our lot is more or less the whole purpose of advertising, whether it's for shampoo (your hair isn't pretty enough!), cars (your car isn't exciting enough!), or breakfast cereal (your cereal doesn't give you superhuman strength and unearthly beauty!).

Interestingly, studies show that what makes people feel rich or poor is not how much they have in absolute terms, but how much they have relative to those around them. For instance, a study at Harvard (cited in this story on the public radio show Marketplace) found that most respondents would rather earn $50,000 a year at a company where most of their colleagues earned $25,000 than earn $100,000 a year at a company where most of their colleagues earned $200,000. They would feel more content with their lot making only half as much money, as long as it were twice as much as everyone else made. Some scholars speculate that this response shows it isn't really about the money; people just want to earn more than their coworkers because they see the salary as an indication of how much they're valued in the workplace. But even so, the need to feel more valued than all their colleagues—to be, in effect, at the top of the grading curve—does smack of envy, and it does carry this basic disadvantage: that no matter how well someone like Ivy does at work, how fast she climbs, much she earns, how extravagantly she can live, she'll never be satisfied as long as there's someone else who's doing even better. Even if she reaches the very top of the corporate ladder, she'll always have to worry about someone else coming along to challenge that position—just like Snow White's stepmother constantly checking her mirror to make sure that she's still the fairest of them all.

Speaking for myself, I don't think I'd really be happy with either of the hypothetical jobs described above. I wouldn't like to make twice as much as all my coworkers, and I wouldn't want to make half as much either. I'd be much more comfortable in a work situation where everyone made $50,000 a year, because then I could interact with my coworkers on even terms, as equals. Given the choice, I'd prefer neither to envy others, nor to be an object of envy to them. Neither one really seems to make for a healthy relationship.

By the by, I've just realized that I've managed to get Marlowe's list of sins a bit out of order, because I confused "covetousness" with envy when it's supposed to be avarice. So I'll go back and pick up that one tomorrow.
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