I've done this, and you've probably done it too: look at a neighbor or friend who's in roughly the same financial position as you and think, "how did they do it?"
How can they afford such a beautifully decorated house and the lavish vacations they brag about on Instagram? How can they afford private school tuition?
The feeling is tinged with jealousy, but also with curiosity. And often with a lot of self-blame. They must be better at managing money than me and my husband. What are we doing wrong?
Just look at a BBS on the popular Mr Money Mustache blog. A question on the BBS -- whether "everyone looks rich" is "really an illusion created by a pile of debt" -- has attracted all sorts of opinions, but quite a few have echoed commenter GeorgeC's.
只要看看深受欢迎的“钱胡子先生”(Mr Money Mustache)博客上的一个论坛就知道了。论坛上的一个问题——“每个人看起来都很富有”是否“真的是债务堆出来的错觉”——吸引了各种各样的意见，但也有不少人表达了与评论者GeorgeC一样的看法。
I often have this melancholy, as if everyone around me is rich, he wrote, adding that he often wonders how people he knows who earn as much as he does can afford what he cannot.
To be honest, sometimes it makes me feel a little stupid and sometimes I even feel like I'm failing at what I'm doing, he added.
There is no doubt that most people can improve the way they handle their finances. But better financial management is usually not the culprit: when some people seem to be able to afford much more than their income suggests, it is often because they have invisible wealth or debt.
Wealth is even more hidden than income because there are no jobs to associate with, said Dalton Conley, a sociology professor at Princeton university. We have a rough idea of what professors or corporate lawyers earn, but "when it comes to household wealth, we have no clue".
Allen, who lives in the Washington area, knows the feeling of jealousy and curiosity. Like others who discussed personal experiences in this article, Ms. Allen asked not to be identified, using only her middle name, in order to publicly share private thoughts about her friends' spending habits.
Over the years, Ms. Allen has watched friends who work like her and have the same number of children spend more generously in almost every way than her family. They spent a lot of money on expanding the house. They went on vacation twice as often as her family, and farther away. They drive better cars.
She had a hard time feeling that she and her husband were just not as good at managing their finances.
When we don't know the whole story, we condemn ourselves, she said.
Then everything fell apart. It turned out that the family lived mainly on debt. They owe more on their house than it is worth and have to sell it. They are now living in a rented apartment.
I do feel relieved, Mr. Allen said. "I guess we didn't do anything wrong."
Of course, not everyone who seems to be spending beyond their means is running out of credit CARDS.
Sharon (not her real name) lives in westchester county, New York, where relatives paid for her child's college tuition and other help for the family.
She doesn't like to share it. "some of it is because I want to protect my husband's image and not let people know that he is relying on your help," she said. "I feel lucky, too. It doesn't feel fair. I don't feel well, but I'm glad to have that help."
Frederick Wherry, a sociology professor at Princeton university, agrees. "One of the things that helps us protect ourselves as we navigate our way through life is that we rely so heavily on secrecy," he said. "We do try to protect what we know about ourselves and what other people know about us."
I agree with that feeling. My parents helped pay for my sons' college tuition, and while I may mention it when discussing college costs, I certainly won't emphasize it. I would rather be seen as a disciplined, savvy person who could save hundreds of thousands of dollars for my sons' eight years of college than someone who relied on their parents for help. So I'm part of the problem.
Not only do people want to downplay their inherited wealth or money, "but they actively try to hide it," Mr. Conley said. "We have an individualistic ideology that worships self-made men and women."
In theory, there is a correlation between working harder and earning more, said Evan Polman, a marketing professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison School of Business. "Inheritance violates this correlation."
从理论上讲，工作更努力和收入更高之间是有关联性的，威斯康星大学麦迪逊商学院(University of Wisconsin at Madison School of Business)市场营销学教授埃文·波尔曼(Evan Polman)说。“继承违反了这种相关性。”
So, what's the big deal? What if we don't know where our neighbors got the money for their new renovation? Few want everyone's finances to be transparent.
But this secrecy reinforces the idea that wealth can only be accumulated through individual choices, not through laws and policies or through our national history.
It seems to be a straightforward cultural issue, but public policy also plays a role in how we think about money secrecy and its consequences, said Ms. Whery, the director of the Dignity and Debt Network. People need to understand that others are in similar situations -- struggling to get into college, retirement or health insurance -- to realize that this is not a personal failure and to push for reform.
“这似乎是一个直截了当的文化问题，但在我们如何看待金钱保密及其后果方面，公共政策也在发挥作用，”身为尊严与债务网络(Dignity and Debt Network)主任的惠里说。人们需要理解其他人也处于类似的情况——为上大学、退休或医疗保险而苦苦挣扎——才能意识到这不是个人的失败，并且推动改革。
That's what we need to solve, he said. "If it's just you, nothing will change."
These problems are likely to be addressed differently in affluent areas than in low - and middle-income communities. In low - and middle-income neighborhoods, "you may be more aware of your neighbors' plight," whalley said. "Yes, we need to take responsibility for ourselves, but it's more of a feeling that something is affecting our lives that is far beyond my personal reach."
In countries that are more unionized, the confidentiality of money may be somewhat different, Mr. Conley said. "wages are more transparent."
It is said that if we only look at the appearance of wealth, we will focus on the wrong things. The reality today is that if we're going to envy our neighbors, it shouldn't be for their BMW or their new pool. They should envy their generous retirement accounts or generous health insurance, because the ability to save large amounts of money to secure the future of us and our children is today's true sign of wealth.
The top 1 percent of households also make ostentatious spending, but "what really sets them apart is their inconspicuous consumer spending," said Elizabeth currid-halkett, a professor of public policy at the university of southern California and author of the book "little by little: The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of The Aspirational Class is A book that analyzes American spending habits.
最富有的1%的家庭也会有用于炫耀的支出，但是“真正让他们与众不同的，是他们的不显眼的消费支出，”南加州大学公共政策教授伊丽莎白·卡里德-霍尔基特(Elizabeth Currid-Halkett)说，她的书《积少成多：一个关于渴望出人头地的阶层的推论》(The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class)是一本分析美国人消费习惯的著作。
Over the past few decades, the rich have increased their spending on education and retirement, while the middle class has largely stayed the same.
For example, in 2014, the last year of the khald-holkett analysis, the top 1 percent of American earners -- making at least $340,000 a year -- spent an average of 6 percent of their total spending on education. According to her research, the percentage has risen significantly since 1996.
The middle class -- those earning between $40,000 and $60,000 a year in 2014 -- spends only about 1 percent of their income on education, a figure that has remained unchanged for nearly two decades, Mr. Khald-holkitt said.
About 20 percent of high earners spend on personal insurance and pensions -- an average of $32,500 a year in 2014 -- compared with less than $4,000, or about 8 percent, for the middle class.
The changing consumption patterns of the rich are probably the biggest sign of class division in America today, she said.
No doubt some people will laugh at those who compare themselves to their neighbors and suggest that such people focus on their own lives. This makes sense. But competitiveness and curiosity are part of human nature.
Charles (that's his middle name), who lives in the greater phoenix area, says he has assumptions about friends who seem to be spending money all the time but have no visible income.
What they do is absolutely mind-blowing to my wife and me, he said. "I think our lives are totally fine. But I do think there are people all over the country who look at it and think, 'how did they do it? How can they afford it? '"