Money Envy

I usually catch NBC's The Office on a two-inch screen at 37,000 feet. It was there that I laughed out loud a few days ago. Dwight was at a cocktail party and questioned his host about the square footage of her home — the equivalent of social suicide.

The timing was perfect. I was working on this morning's Today Show story about money, and how questions like Dwight's are considered bad manners in a society where we freely discuss the intimate details of our lives but would never disclose our salary. Whether it's how much we paid for our house or the size of the diamond on our finger, they are topics still considered off limits, taboo.

Yet those friends who always seem to have a new car in the driveway make us wonder, how do they do it? For some, keeping up with the Joneses is an all-consuming quest. If the neighbors are jetting to St. Barts for Spring Break, doesn't it stand to reason that we should be there too? At least, that's the rationale. Everyone wants to live the high life, but the reality of making it happen is putting millions of Americans in the red as they try to appear flush with green.

Experts say it's human nature to compare our financial situation to those around us. But there's also this: We only look up. Rarely do people compare themselves to friends, neighbors or co-workers making less than they do — only those earning more. And that's a hard contest to win.

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