How the Other Half Lives

My wife and I have a relatively vibrant social circle, filled with all different kinds of people. Some of them like to come over to play board games, while others love to swap six packs of our latest home brews. Some love potluck dinner parties, while others prefer to go out occasionally to really nice restaurants. Some like comedies, while others prefer dramas.

There are moments when some of our friends do things that bring forth bits of jealousy in our hearts. We’re friends with one couple that takes at least one amazing trip each year. We have another friend that has an absolutely spotless Tesla Roadster. Another close friend lives in what I can only describe as a mansion, but it’s done incredibly tastefully and it actually feels like a home.

It is really easy to find myself sometimes caught up in a feeling of jealousy and envy. I would love to travel to Shanghai for two weeks. I would love to cruise around in that Roadster whenever I felt like it. I’d love to live in a house that looks like it leaped out of the pages of Architectural Digest.

Here’s the reality, though.

47% of Americans would have to sell something to be able to cover a $400 emergency, or would completely fail to cover it at all.

78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, meaning that if they missed a single paycheck, they would struggle to be able to make ends meet.

71% of US workers identify themselves as being in some level of consumer debt.

If you cross-check that with incomes in America, that means that there are a lot of people earning well over $100,000 per year who are living paycheck to paycheck and are dealing with credit card debt.

The reality is that most of the people in your life that you know are in some form of credit card debt and would massively struggle if they missed their next paycheck. Half of the people you know, give or take, would completely fall apart if hit with a $400 unexpected expense due to the fragility of their financial lives.

What does that mean in terms of day-to-day living? I’ll quote the first article I linked to above:

“I know what it is like to have to juggle creditors to make it through a week. I know what it is like to have to swallow my pride and constantly dun people to pay me so that I can pay others. I know what it is like to have liens slapped on me and to have my bank account levied by creditors. I know what it is like to be down to my last $5 —literally — while I wait for a paycheck to arrive, and I know what it is like to subsist for days on a diet of eggs. I know what it is like to dread going to the mailbox, because there will always be new bills to pay but seldom a check with which to pay them. I know what it is like to have to tell my daughter that I didn’t know if I would be able to pay for her wedding; it all depended on whether something good happened. And I know what it is like to have to borrow money from my adult daughters because my wife and I ran out of heating oil.”

Dread. Shame. Swallowing pride. Worry. Stress. Secrets.

It’s not the financial challenge itself that’s the problem. It’s the incredible negative impact that the financial challenge brings into your life.

It brings stress and worry, which makes it harder to feel good every day. Stress makes it harder to sleep well at night. Stress makes it easier to emotionally respond to things, often not in a positive way.

It brings dread and avoidance of simple things in life like checking the mail or using your credit card at a restaurant. It means subtly rethinking countless little choices every day, to maintain an elaborate dance around the realities of your financial life.

It brings shame, in those moments when you have to confess your financial mistakes and you have to let someone down because you couldn’t control your spending impulses.

It brings secrecy, which is like poison to relationships. When you’re constantly hiding something from your partner or from someone else you deeply trust, it becomes hard to look at yourself in the mirror. It becomes impossible to be the person you want to be in those relationships.

My goal here is not to look down at those people in those situations; in fact, I truly and sincerely hope that every single one of them finds a way to break into financial stability as soon as they possibly can. Instead, they’re here to serve as a reminder of what’s hidden behind the trips and the nice cars and the beautiful houses and the iPhone Xs.

For me, at least, if it comes down to a choice between a beautiful house with a debt load that keeps me awake at night or a house half that size that leaves me feeling at peace and without debt every night, I’m going to choose the latter. I’ve lived on both sides of that coin – give me the smaller, plainer house any day of the week.

If it comes down to a choice between wonderful trips overseas each year paired with a constant fear that my credit card is going to be declined and a constant dread at checking the mail and a constant dance to avoid losing face in those kinds of everyday situations versus a backpacking trip to a national park and no need to dread or fear or dance, I’ll choose the less flashy trip and the life without dread or fear.

If it comes down to having that Tesla Roadster but also having to get down in front of my son and tell him that we just can’t afford his band instrument this year or driving a comfortable and reliable car while also ensuring my child can live out his dreams without worry, then we’re going to be listening to Frere Jacques in a late model used car all year long.

If it comes down to having an iPhone X but having to hide the bill from my wife and make secret payments or being able to have a trusting relationship along with my old phone, then I’ll take the cheapest smartphone I can find, any day of the week.

I’ve been on both sides of almost all of those examples. I’ve been the person with all of the expensive stuff, and I’ve also been the person with the cheaper stuff. What I’ve learned is that the expensive stuff is fun for a little while, but it doesn’t bring you lasting joy.

What does bring you lasting joy is having as little stress as possible and as much freedom as possible in your daily life.

The freedom to not dread checking the mail and to not worry about picking up the phone is well worth not having the absolute latest smartphone.

The ability to sleep well at night without financial worries bearing down on me, even when things like a car repair are on the horizon, is well worth having a nice family vacation instead of an extravagant one.

The simple peace that comes from knowing that life can hand us a few pretty hard sucker punches and we’d be able to handle it and keep rolling is well worth living in a somewhat smaller but still nice house.

The little reminders of the peace and low stress of solid finances are constant in life. They form an underlying sense of contentment, one that I never felt during the times in my life where I spent money with reckless abandon.

So, when I feel that pang of jealousy toward the things that my friends have, I simply close my eyes and remind myself of the baggage that often comes along with such choices. Would I give up the low stress and contentment that my life currently has to add those things that my friends have? Nope.

That doesn’t mean I look down upon their choices. As far as I can tell, they’ve managed their finances to be able to afford it. I just know that in the reality of my own finances, I probably wouldn’t be able to pull those things off, and so I’m left with a choice.

Do I choose the extravagant perks, or do I choose low stress and contentment?

I’ll choose the latter every single day of the week. Perks come and go, but contentment stays with you. Low stress stays with you. A good night of sleep stays with you.

I will never again do anything that stands in the way of those things.

So, if you ever find yourself feeling jealous or envious, remember that, for the vast majority of Americans, those perks that you’re feeling jealous of come with a lot of baggage – stress, dread, fear, sleepless nights, and a lot of other things you can’t see on the surface. Then, remember that perks fade away pretty quickly and that contentment lasts.

Then ask yourself again whether you’re making the right choice.

You’ll likely find, like I often do, that the jealousy and envy fades, and you’re left with just contentment with your own life and true happiness for your friends and the pleasures that they enjoy.

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