What the envy of money really looks like

Excerpt of “Borrowed Money: The Envy of Options” in the unfinished book Borrowed Glories: Envy, Inequality, and the Glory of God.

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By Tilly

“Seriously? I’m your age, I’m making $15 an hour and you’re going for six hour stretches buying things that you don’t need…”

Years after the fact, Amy still remembered the way she used to feel about her employer. She’d worked for a very young mother as a nanny when they were both about 23. Neither had grown up rich. But this young mother, who we’ll call Emma, had married an older and wealthy man. She had two children right away, and while they were still very small, Emma stumbled upon my friend Amy and impulsively hired her as a nanny.

It was a relationship of unseen tension:

house“She didn’t work, because she didn’t have to,” Amy said, tapping her fingers on my kitchen table. “It was amazing–she was the age of someone right out of college, and completely and fully supported in any hobby she would ever want to do. She could go and shop all day long, and not only did she have the money to pay for stuff that she saw, but she had someone she trusted at home keeping her children, cleaning her house.

“It was the convenience that she had–that I wanted. The ability to go out and do whatever you wanted at a moment’s notice for however long you wanted. If, after a day of shopping, she came home and wanted to go out to the nicest restaurant in town with her husband, they’d just go. If they were out and didn’t really feel like coming back at the agreed time, they’d call and say ‘we’ll double your rate for you to stay over’, because they could do that.

“The clothes! People recognized her for always being perfectly put together. She got to the point where she had so much, she had to give things away to make room for the new things. I got a taste of it, too, because she gave me a lot of things. And this fed my feelings.

“Plus there were certain physical characteristics, that were increased because of her money. For instance, she could always afford to get her hair highlighted. Every time it needed it. She changed her hair color constantly. She wore the best makeup and spent an hour and a half putting it on every morning while I watched her children… so I could keep them out of her hair while she beautified herself. She could always afford a personal trainer, so she was in shape, and she always bought organic food, so they were all healthy.

“I was most envious of the availability, of any of her ideas being allowed to to come to fruition. She wakes up she goes ‘hmmm… these pictures we took on our honeymoon, these two, I don’t like them, I’ll go get them photoshopped today.’ ‘Hmmm… I have acne, I’m going to go book a last minute facial, because I can do that.’ Dining out was a hobby of hers, alone or with friends. She was just so young; it was like all this money sort of landed in her lap and she thought ‘oh, this is fun’!

“She wants kids but doesn’t want to take care of them, so she can leave all day and experience a single life even though she’s the mother of two. She can pay people to like her, also. She doesn’t have any good friends, but if she says ‘I’m having an awesome expensive Christmas party, and we’re giving away gifts and having a nice caterer’, people will show up for that. People benefit from that close proximity to wealth.

“She experiences boredom, she books a trip. She hires me to stay over at her house for five days, or if she wants to take the children and pretend to be a mother for a few days on the trip, she takes me with her, most likely so she doesn’t feel so bad about leaving them behind.”

“What did I feel? It was a combination of wanting to please, and disliking her… I had this strange alliance in my mind to her, because if you were friends with her, you got stuff. You got to be a part of the group, just because of proximity. Either you got free stuff, or you got invited to social situations in which you benefited from this money that wasn’t even yours. I would feel the need to defend her in order to stay in her good graces.

“But I also felt superior to her in a way, just in matters of maturity or decision making. She was literally one year older than me, and I just felt more mature. So I didn’t feel the need to hide my resentment because I didn’t even feel that she would pick up on it. It was like ‘she’s not even going to get it, we’re not even mentally on the same level.’ I would make snide remarks, or I’m sure I had facial expressions, I can’t think of anything specific. Or subtle things I would say when describing my situation to others, about her.

“And the spending–sometimes I would just get angry about it. ‘Seriously, I’m your age, I’m making $15 an hour and you’re going for six hour stretches buying things that you don’t need, that you’re going to give to someone in a matter of a few months. It wasn’t specifically that I would have made a better decision in some big financial move, it was just ‘you’re not looking at the big picture here.’ I felt like she just had a shorter term mindset. She would purchase things, instead of investing on things like spending time with her family or learning something.

“She was extremely devoid of good friendships, so she would treat me as a confidante rather than hired help. That was strange too. She was extremely self conscious, so always spending money on things that would help her fit in. And honestly, she wasn’t very smart, so she only connected with people who were as shallow or as concerned with external things as she was, and people like that don’t get along well.”

When Amy had run out of things to say, she stopped abruptly and sat quietly, thinking. She hadn’t hesitated for a moment in her description, as if it had just been waiting on her tongue. The taste seemed to still be in her mouth–that bewildering, bitter flavor of envy. She moved in her seat as if she could still feel the burning heat of living too close to another person’s gloried lifestyle.

The tense relationship between nannies and mothers are almost a cliche. One woman, paying another to ‘stand in’ as parent to her child, and the jealousy that springs up over the affection of the child. The passive-aggressive management skills that rich mothers stereotypically resort to. The excess, the lonely kids, the inner conflict of a stand-in mother who becomes more attached than hired help should be. But envy–envy of the money that puts one woman in a position of authority over another, in a context that becomes deeply personal to both–that part is not often talked about.

Amy said that she hasn’t spoken to her former employer and ‘friend’ in four years.


Money = taste and experiences


To be envious of a person’s money is to be envious of nothing. It’s to be envious of paper, or of numbers on a page. Money cannot be absorbed into one’s person; it’s not like envying their mind or personality or character.

On the other hand, it’s not really the paper that you want, is it? It’s the things that the paper can get you. It’s not really the zeroes on the page—it’s the reality behind it. It’s what those zeroes mean for their owner. I don’t know many people who would enjoy sitting in a room counting coins, lying on them like a dragon, throwing bills in the air like people do in heist movies. But I do know lots of people who sit around and daydream about something they can’t afford to buy.

People are always surprised when they find out that they are materialistic. No one thinks that they are. Americans love to talk about how materialistic Americans are, but it just doesn’t often hit home: I am a lover of things. I am a lover of material—of stuff. Of matter. I am materialistic.

In my case, the materialism showed its face (surprise!) in the form of envy. And even now, I reserve the opinion that my brand of envy is special, and not exactly like other people’s materialism. Why? Because I don’t want another person’s stuff, exactly—or not the kinds of things people associate with materialism—I want their lifestyle.

Money can be about all kinds of things. It can be about food; it can be about clothes or cars or houses; it can be about travel. It can be about power, for some people—and there’s plenty of power in it. It can be about education, or having the option to ‘do what you love’, or about the convenience of not having to scrimp and budget.

For me, it’s connected very much with taste. I don’t get bent out of shape about iPhones or cars or even certain kinds of houses. But my idea of good taste, when I really examine it, involves money. This is when I really want money—when I see what it looks like when a woman can effortlessly surround herself with beautiful things, can effortlessly limit herself to beautiful places.

I never wanted a Lamborghini. I wanted a car that runs without giving me any trouble. I didn’t want to vacation on a private island with a private yacht. I wanted to be able to study abroad in France. I didn’t want a mansion in LA—I wanted a loft apartment in SoHo. These things were about taste, not ‘extravagance’. They have more to do with people (I want to be able to host little parties on my own patio) than bling (I want a patio with a view of the Montenegro skyline). They had more to do with experiences (I want to see the places pinned on my Pinterest page) than possessions (I want to have one hundred pairs of Jimmy Choos).

But the fact of the matter is, the experiences and friends I’ve created in some amorphous place in my mind would require money. They are about having what I want, when I want it. They are about safety, and a life of pleasure and ease. Few of us think of ourselves as the Kim Kardashian type; we’d rather think of ourselves as a Martha Stewart, Grace Kelly, or the Barefoot Contessa. But it’s going to come down to money, all the same.

I know people who possess this marriage of taste and just-enough-wealth to put it together. You walk into their house, and all you see is beautiful spaces. Walls painted a lovely shale gray, with crisp white slipcovers and high ceilings and antique bed frames. Willowy children wearing little j.Crew ensembles, colorful little leggings and dresses and topknots. The women themselves are studies in tasteful displays of expensive clothing. Nothing is about the money for them; it’s about what they like. And they just happen like riding boots in Italian leather, interesting fabrics, very well cut jackets, and high-end haircuts.

It’s hard for me to distinguish sometimes what exactly I’m wanting, when I feel that pull of desire for a person’s lifestyle. Sometimes I think it’s the ease with which they choose homes, apartments, meals, and clothing—seemingly without having to limit their choices so severely as I do. When I buy clothing, I do it at Goodwill. When I buy furniture, I do it at yard sales. This is out of both necessity and tightfistedness. There is some fictional world in my head where I wouldn’t have to budget so sharply and could fill my pantry at Whole Foods. Whether this world actually exists, I don’t know. How wealthy would I have to be to feel comfortable spending $12 for a small box of gluten-free biscuit mix? Not sure. You never know.

Yes, the ease that people seem to feel in making decisions when they have a comfortable margin at the edges of their lives—I wish I had that.

My envy in this arena of life has been less intense than in some of the others. More in passing, I guess. But it’s still there, and it can also greatly exacerbate other envies that are already present. Already upset that my friend seems to know she is smarter than me, I may take it as a slap to the face when I see her upscale apartment for the first time. After years of low-grade fever over my cousin’s artistic talent and general laissez-faire spirit, I may feel an extra burst of discomfort when I hear that she just bought a ticket to Rome…


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