Mike writes: “I’ve moved to Cambridge, MA (quite a change from the Waco, TX I’m used to) so that my wife may attend Harvard Law School. Which brings me to the reason of my writing — what is one to do when everyone around them is fabulously wealthy?
[Quick answer: Enjoy it; send thank-you notes.]
“I’ve got a typical consulting job, but all of my friends (and probably my wife) will in a few short years be making gobs of money (one is already making six figures and none are yet 25). I never intended on being wealthy or hanging out with the elites, but I’ve found that it just happens if you’ve got smart friends and get a decent education. Is that okay? Or should I attempt to stave it off?
[Quick answer: Why would you want to stave off being wealthy or hanging around with elite people? Snobby people, yes. But lots of elite people are anything but snobby. If Steven Spielberg ever invites me up for coffee, I’ll bound up the stairs.]
“I’m not resentful of them. I’ll probably join them if not from my own work, from my wife’s. But I’m not sure how to cope with this change. I always intended on being a starving academic but got disenchanted with academia and then married.
“I know you must have grappled with ‘how to keep up with the Jones’s when their making $500K a year’ and perhaps more significantly whether there is an absolute, maximum standard of living that one should have. I gladly welcome any comments you have, and, hey, you know any good places to get Mexican food in Boston?”
Mike: Sounds as if you’re a perfect candidate for “living beneath your means,” which I’ve always strongly advocated. For you, it should be entirely painless. And you will be able to secretly smile, watching at least some of your fabulously gobby friends spending a ton of money and taking on fabulous mortgages while you and your wife are saving. By all means hang out with them. Enjoy their good company and fine hors d’oevres. Reciprocate with your good company and fat-free onion dip. Enjoy going out on their boats. If I may quote from my own forthcoming book (the subtle beginning of what will in the coming weeks be a subtle campaign of shameless plugs for that book, called MY VAST FORTUNE: The Money Adventures of a Quixotic Capitalist, Random House, October, and available at 30% off right now at www.amazon.com): “Boats? The dumbest thing you can possibly do is buy a boat. For one hundredth the money and one thousandth the hassle, you can lavish a boat-owning pal with so many gifts he wouldn’t dream of leaving port without you.”
Make it your plan relatively quickly to accumulate impressive financial security. If your lifestyle is modest, you get a double boost: first, from being able to save more; second, from needing to accumulate less. (Do you know how much capital you need to amass to support a yachtsman’s lifestyle? Fugeddabowdit!)
Don’t remotely try to keep up with these Joneses in terms of spending — why should you? You think Malcolm Forbes invited Fran Lebowitz on his yacht all the time because she was rich? Take your friends out for funky Mexican food. Better still, have them over and serve them chili. One of the most successful hostesses I know in New York almost always serves her famous San Antonio chili. Surely they had chili in Waco, too? I’ve met everyone from Peter Jennings to Barbara Walters at her place, and each time what we get is: chili. Who cares? (And it’s actually very good chili.)
As for whether there’s “an absolute maximum standard of living that one should have,” surprisingly, there is: mine.