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Barbara Whelehan writes Boomer Bucks for Bankrate.com

The color of envy, money and Christmas

Thanksgiving kicks off the crazy season of Christmas parties, family dinners and festive gatherings with friends. It's a tricky time socially, when we strive to enjoy pleasant conversation and avoid faux pas by dodging topics that might trigger sudden drama.

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Unfortunately, it's not always possible to predict the direction of a conversation. For instance, one would think that the subject of jobs would be a fairly safe one to discuss. Several years ago, at a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by my in-laws, someone asked me about my work and I responded that I wrote newsletter and brochure copy for a few financial services firms. One of the dinner guests, a friend whom I rarely see, asked if I did work for the brokerage firm where she held an account. Yeah, I affirmed, that's one of my clients.

All hell broke loose. "You?" Mary kept repeating. "You write the brochures that I get with my account statements?" She was incredulous that her brokerage firm outsourced this important task to a mere financial writer, to someone whom she deemed inferior to herself. I had never heard this tone of blatant disrespect coming from Mary, who was normally a kind and lovely person. I was taken aback by her reaction.

It became obvious that she had not been adequately forewarned about the bear market that had clawed her account into shreds. And she needed to vent her frustrations on me. I told her she should take the matter up with her broker. Mary's tone turned apologetic, and she admitted that she couldn't because her broker happened to be a family relation.

It was an uncomfortable moment. But it exposed the stark differences in our finances. Mary had lived a frugal existence until her husband sold his business for a substantial sum of money a couple of years before. They were suddenly worth a lot -- several million bucks, judging from the beautiful home they had purchased and the lovely furnishings in it. Here she was, indirectly blaming me for the negative change in her financial circumstances. And my net worth was just a fraction of hers!

Not envious in the least
Honestly, I do not begrudge Mary and her husband for their money, nor do I begrudge anyone else for their wealth, for that matter. My self-worth is not defined by my monetary circumstances relative to those of other people. I swear. But it's impossible not to notice disparities, even if we don't know all the details of our friends' and relatives' financial situations.

For example, a family member was out of work last year. After about six months of pounding the pavement, Eddie suddenly had a few offers on the table. He confided to me that he was hitting up the firm he liked best for a salary-plus-bonus package that amounted to a sum roughly equivalent to three times my salary. And he ended up with the job.

Three decades earlier, Eddie had asked me what field of study he should pursue in college. "Study something that interests you," I counseled him. "But avoid business at all costs." After all, business was rife with corruption, I told him. "You don't want to sell your soul for a living, do you?"

In those days, of course, many boomers naively took that position about business. Never mind that business is the engine of the economy. Thank God he didn't take my advice! Now he's doing very well, and I'm genuinely happy for him.

If business is the economy's engine, consumers are the driver, and oftentimes they steer down the wrong road. A really good book that came out earlier this year shines a spotlight on how our perspective of what others have can lead us down a path of self-destruction. "Green with Envy: Why Keeping Up with the Joneses is Keeping Us in Debt" by Shira Boss is a fascinating exploration of the American psyche. It gives the reader a voyeuristic account of the financial lives of several people from all walks of life. At the same time it exposes the psychological reasons for the decisions they, and by extension, we as a society, make.

 
 
Next: "'Life takes Visa.' What does that mean, anyway?"
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