The economy is booming, so everyone's happy—right? Not necessarily. Just about everyone I know has more money than I do, but that doesn't stop them from worrying about it.
Bill and Jean insist they cannot "afford" to sell their luxury three-story townhouse in order to move into a one-story condo. Even though Bill, an octogenarian, has had so many falls he's on a first-name basis at the ER.
Suzie, who cashed out as a Wall Street trader in her early forties, likes to pass herself off as a thrifty substitute teacher who brings her own lunch, rather than admit she has millions squirreled away.
Mindy and Sam, wealthy world-trotting boomers, are running out of friends to care for their aging Cockapoo while they galivant the globe because they don't want to pay a professional dogsitter.
And then there's my favorite: Sheila, who obsessively scans the classifieds every day to see how she would "manage" should she suddenly lose her lucrative law practice, her husband's six-figure income, their luxury condo and waterfront vacation home.
What do I have in common with these people? Everything and nothing. Like them, I grew up in an upwardly mobile, middle-class family. I, too, have a graduate degree, worked in a so-called "glamour industry" and had "all the advantages." I took skiing lessons. Art classes. And knew my way around Europe and Saks Fifth Avenue while still in my teens.
However, when it comes to attitudes about money, this is where the waters part. While my millionaire friends angst over the daily vicissitudes of the stock market and prime rate, I couldn't care less. I don't have an IRA, pension or sugar daddy. What I have is the ability to live comfortably within my means.
With a modest income and an even more modest social security stipend, I am living large at an annual figure that would cause most of my friends to cower under the covers, albeit debt-free and with a line of credit for emergencies. This was not my plan. But, like many others, I have adjusted to unexpected financial setbacks. Big ones.
As a result, I do not own a home in the most desirable area. Instead, I rent a sunny, spacious apartment on a tree-lined street in the adjacent zip code. My car is not a Lexus, Prius or even a late-model Honda. It's a 2002 Saturn with 70,000 miles that runs just fine, thank you. The Prada, Ralph Lauren and Gucci labels in my closet come from friends who outgrew them, or the local consignment shop. Same goes for my furniture. I had no trouble accepting a gently worn Danish modern sofa from a friend leaning toward French provincial.
While the majority of my female friends would rather plop a brown paper bag over their head than miss their weekly salon appointment, I wash and color my hair myself. (Because I'm worth it.) Two or three times a year, I get a trim from a professional stylist. I also do my own manicures and pedicures. Thanks to those childhood art lessons, I'm agile with a brush.
Am I starving? Hardly. I don't deprive myself of anything I crave, be it fresh salmon, a triple crème brie or artisanal bread. My house wine is an inexpensive Chilean cabernet, not Chateau Lafite Rothschild. I don't buy pricey coffee concoctions at Starbucks—instead, I make a mean brew at home.
Restaurants, even fast-food chains, can be a serious drain. I limit my dining out budget. Does that kill my social life? Not at all. When friends invite me to swank restaurants beyond my means, they graciously pick up the tab, fully aware of my situation. When it's time to reciprocate, I whip up a cheesecake.
Before you suggest I seek the wise counsel of a financial advisor or a psychiatrist, let me explain. I inherited my blasé attitude about money from my Russian immigrant grandfather who made and lost a fortune before he was 30. When the Great Depression hit, he took a train to Montreal to jump off a skyscraper. Fortunately, Grandad reconsidered, took the train home and swiftly restored the family to prosperity. I knew him as a kindly, rich man who taught me an invaluable lesson. Whenever I expressed concern about a lost wallet or a missing ring, he would say, "Sweetheart, it's only money."
Granted, not every successful person I know has a neurotic relationship with their wealth. Some know the difference between their bottom line and their self-worth. But many continue to do a nervous dance, bouncing from guilt to fear, as if a sudden fluctuation in the market could wipe them off the map.
So, while my flush friends wake in the middle of the night wondering if their 401K has gone off the rails, I sleep soundly. Whether the market goes up, down or sideways, I know I'll always be OK. Because, no matter what happens, I will continue to live—quite happily—within my means. And my cheesecake recipe is a killer.