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The color of envy, money and Christmas

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The freedom to live
Shira begins her book by courageously sharing her own not-so-nice feelings of envy that she held against her new neighbors in a small apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Shira and her husband had gotten word that the newcomers paid cash for their place -- and this was after the apartments had appreciated quite a bit in value. Every time Shira ran into "Tina," she was wearing a new designer outfit. Shira observed that Tina quit her job on a lark, and then subsequently decided to study interior decorating. By all appearances, this couple had it all, most importantly the freedom to choose what they wanted to do with their lives. Money was no obstacle, or so it seemed.

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"They are the Joneses, and we are not keeping up," Shira Boss writes. "However much we understand that we are not -- not, under any circumstance -- to covet our neighbor's anything or to attempt to keep up with the Joneses, we can't seem to help it. We are gripped by this involuntary urge, a drive to compare and compete that is ingrained, at least in Americans, if not all people. ...

"Since the days of Cain and Abel we have been bickering and jostling over who has the better lot. Wealth and well-being are largely a mindset, and how we're doing in relation to the company we keep is key to our contentment."

I argue that the competitive urge began before Cain and Abel's quarrel. It happened in the Garden of Eden when their parents partook of the forbidden fruit at the serpent's deceptive suggestion. Their desire to one-up the Creator caused them to sin, and consequently they sought clothing which, over the centuries, evolved into a strong desire for Tommy Bahama shirts and Donna Karan handbags.

OK, that's an oversimplification perhaps. But Boss' book warns that we can self-destruct if we fall into the trap of one-upmanship.

There are several nefarious forces at work. There's the ease of getting credit, the seductive lure of dozens of credit card offers each week. Television advertising bombards us with messages telling us that we need stuff that we really don't. And then there are subliminal messages in the background of sporting newscasts, such as the maxim, "Life takes Visa." What does that mean, anyway? Life takes Visa? How about if we invert it to say, "Visa takes life"?

Visa zaps the lifeblood right out of your finances, it depletes your future earnings. That is, if you let it.

Shira's neighbor Tina, it turns out, has a compulsive shopping disorder and her financial situation is not what it appears to be. The book also delves in the personal financial lives of "Dan and Tammy," a typical American couple who moved into a perfectly manicured, gated community in Orlando, Fla., and then slowly slipped off the edge of the debt precipice they created. It documents the difficulties that our congressional leaders have, trying to keep up two households on their income and the lengths to which some of them go to avoid financial ruin. There's a chapter dedicated to baby boomers, by the way, plus an inside look at the perspective of the spectacularly wealthy. Hint: Those who inherit money have a hard time getting motivated to work, and many envy us workers for our industriousness!

I won't give it all away, but "Green with Envy" is an excellent read for those who are resigned to going whole-hog this Christmas by spending money that they don't have on gifts.

Let's not get swept up in the euphoria of spending this holiday season. It's a temporary high that's followed by a gut-wrenching hangover when the credit card statements arrive.

Instead, let's approach this special time with a sensible plan and a strong spirit of gratitude. Envy and gratitude are mutually exclusive emotions, after all.

More stories by Barbara Whelehan
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The money and happiness correlation
For happiness, money's a tool
Getting a discount on inner peace
IRA penalty has multiple exceptions
Best times to shop for bargains
Remarriage saps Social Security benefit

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