The greatest frustration today is that most of us are making more money than we ever dreamed possible, but we can't afford lamb chops or a new car. I knew times had changed when I splurged on lamb, and my 8-year-old asked, "What's a lamb chop?"
His with such questions, we seek constant reassurance that the weakness is not ourselves, but because we are all victims of inflation.
We devour articles about how Sam and Sylvia, both professionals bringing in $95,000 a year, have to cut corners to "get by." The corners may be buying bottom-of-the-barrel caviar or California wines or designer dresses at Loehmann's, but we feel better hearing about their disappointments. "We love the Caribbean," they lament, "but this year we'll share time in a condominium at the beach."
Another article that bolsters our confidence is the one about John and Becky who have run up their revolving charge accounts to bankruptcy. It makes your $500 Master Card balance seem reasonable, even if you can't remember what it bought.
We put numbers on everything and compare our numbers with those of others. Nothing is private, and we seem to carry a banner that proclaims, "Shout out your numbers loud and strong."
When I was growing up, people would never ask (or tell) the salary of the man of the house. Occasionally it was whispered, "His salary is in five figures." (It's been a long time since I was growing up.)
Today, GS levels and salaries are published in the paper. When someone proclaims, "I've been promoted to GS-14," he expects you to know what that means in dollars and cents.
Another thing never discussed when I was a child was the price of your house. Again, it may have been whispered, "That must have cost $30,000!" But it was never said aloud.
Now one of the best-read sections of the newspaper is the one that tells who bought what house for what price.
If we admit, we actually paid a premium price, the fun is watching eyes bug out as the listener computes the mortgage at 16 percent. Or we may boast about how smart, or lucky, we were to make a killing "way back" so that now we can afford a place beyond the reach of most of our contemporaries.
Sometimes we come right out and discuss the size of our mortgage payments.
The average "brag price" these days seems to be $1,200 to $1,500. If you expect to impress anyone with a $500 to $1000 monthly payment anymore, forget it.
After we buy a new car, we leave the price sticker on just long enough so that our neighbors and co-workers can gasp with us. About 6 months, or just before the writing fades completely off the paper, should do it. A car can't speak for itself; if you don't leave the price tag on, no one will guess the plain, stripped-down compact cost $8,200.
When utility bills arrive, neighbors ask each other in strained voices, "Was your electric bill high?" (We are really asking, "Am I doing something wrong?")
The answer is likely to be, "Just awful! It was $105, and the heat and air-conditioner is off; I washed in cold water and made the kids take a shower at the pool." (No self-respecting parent will admit washing in hot water or letting her kids take a bath every day.)
When someone makes a major purchase, like carpeting, a roof, or a refrigerator, friends don't say, "The rug is lovely and sets off your tangerine floor pillows beautifully." The say "That's great; it must have cost you a fortune!"
Rather than smile agreeably, we are apt to say, "We decided we wanted quality, but this wasn't bad. It was on sale for $3,000."
For appliances or maintenance purchases, we want to be sure we got the best buy or the best quality. It's hard to claim both. When someone gets a new roof, a cocky neighbor may comment, "Gee, your new roof looks nice. Set you back much?"
To maintain his self-assurance, the questioner has two reponses ready. If the price is high, he says, "The cost must have gone up a lot. Mine was half that last week." If the price is low, he says with aplomb, "Nice -- of course ours was a bit higher, but we got an R-rating of 120."
When we take a trip, friends don't ask, "Did you have a good time?" They say, "WOW! I'm so glad we went in 1966. That must have cost a bundle!"
Rather than drive the questioner mad by saying, "Yes, but it was worth it," we're liable to counter, "even with our superdooper-three-year-in-advance airline tickets, it cost $4,000. And, of course, we ate in those charming inns rather than the expensive places."
One person wants to display how prices went up; the other is showing off how well he is doing. Both are fanning their fragile egos.
When you're making $45,000 and you have to buy day-old bread, it's hard to feel successful. We comparison-shop ourselves to death, both before and after any purchase. We talk money about groceries, doctor bills, kids' lessons, electricity, clothes, appliances, dining out, theater tickets, vacations, furniture, school tuition, and gasoline.
Was Longfellow thinking of us when he wrote, "Tell me not, in mournful numbers, life is but an empty dream?"