Rich and anxious

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“The rich are different from you and me,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald. Author Rachel Sherman explains it’s because they have anxiety about having money.

When I first heard about her book “Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence,” my LOL reaction was, “Really? A book about how wealth makes rich people uncomfortable?” I imagine plenty of low-income people would “manage” to live with that stress. But as I read reviews, it was clear that, via Q&As with fifty monied New Yorkers (UES, UWS, all around the town and Westchester), the book was dead serious about how economic inequality affects even the “haves.”

Affluent people don’t want to not have money; they want to not be reduced to the unflattering stereotype that prevails in our society of what privilege looks like — the famously, morally bankrupt Gordon Gekko.

People such as those interviewed for the book want to distance themselves from the caricatures, mostly by speaking endlessly about their charitable giving and how hard they work — even if their jobs are volunteer.

For this group, the show is put on, not when a purchase is made at Bergdorf’s, but when a bargain is snagged at Target. The meals that are talked up are family dinners cooked themselves, clarifying they’re not out every night at four-star restaurants. Some even deny altogether being part of the upper class, emphasizing they don’t fly private or own a second home.

The book made me realize that there are people I’ve misunderstood. Other mothers at my child’s former school were abuzz about this really wealthy new family. When the mom was pointed out to me, I repeated, “The one in the T-shirt and sweatpants?” to make sure I’d heard correctly. I figured maybe she was a stay-at-home mother/freelancer as I was or just plain unfashionable. It never occurred to me that anyone in her social position would dress down purposely as to not call attention to herself.

Sherman’s research also showed that, to a somewhat lesser degree, I could actually relate to what was reported. The book triggered a memory from the early 90s when I was still newly married and an ad writer making a competitive salary. My husband, Neil, was a senior associate at a white-shoe law firm and much more successful in his career. I was teamed with a woman who from the get-go put herself in competition with me. At first, I thought it was because I was a few years younger with a trendy wardrobe. Then I realized that it was because her husband too was an attorney, but struggling in private practice.

My colleague decided to present herself as my polar opposite, dressing like Melissa Gilbert on Little House on the Prairie and playing the mom card, as I was still child-free. Most prominent in her agenda was to present her family as poor as church mice, even though unlike me, she had a car and a weekend home.

I had never spoken to any of my other co-workers about my personal finances, yet they knew all about Neil’s job thanks to inside info of salaries, perks and benefits provided by “Laura Ingalls” from when her spouse once worked at a similar type firm. She’d compliment my belongings loudly — in the hallway — in front of people, so everyone knew that I had “yet another” acquisition. After a while, her rep was as the down-to-earth one and my situation was perceived as what would be today’s equivalent of Ivanka and Jared.

When I would confront her, she’d turn things around and say I should be proud of having a nice life. Eventually, like those interviewed in Sherman’s book, I became uneasy as well as defensive, making sure people knew that whatever I had wasn’t inherited, but the product of Neil’s minimum 80-hour work weeks. (Earned vs. inherited money is a major theme in the book.) I also threw around the words “on sale” a lot.

Sherman doesn’t really offer an answer as to how affluent people should deal with their anxieties. Instead she poses questions: Should it be OK to be a millionaire as long as you are also hardworking and generous? Or should we strive for a society where extreme economic inequality is unacceptable?

I don’t have an answer either, just an observation: in a country that is so far behind many others in math skills, most everyone rich and poor seems to be very proficient at counting other people’s money.

Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novels “Back To Work She Goes” and “Fat Chick,” for which a movie is in the works.

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