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Envy is at the root of many financial woes

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By Michelle Singletary
Published:
When people face difficult situations, I try to find a life lesson, especially when it involves money.
Thatís the case outlined in the indictments against former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen, who are accused of accepting gifts and loans of at least $165,000 in exchange for political favors.
I want to leave the politics out of this. We shouldnít rush to declare the McDonnells guilty because an indictment is not a conviction ó and this could all blow up on the prosecutors.
The McDonnells havenít disputed that they received gifts and loans from Jonnie R. Williams, a Richmond businessman whose largesse included a Rolex watch for the ex-governor, a New York shopping spree for Maureen McDonnell to buy Oscar de la Renta and Louis Vuitton dresses and luxury accessories, and $15,000 used to pay the catering bill for her daughterís wedding. The McDonnells maintain they didnít promise anything in return for Williamsí generosity.
Nonetheless, their plight calls attention to the fact that many people ó at all income levels and stations of life ó get into financial difficulty (and legal trouble) trying to live above their means.
I read the 43-page indictment and among the things that jumped out at me was this email from Maureen McDonnell to a senior staff member in the governorís office: ďI need to talk to you about Inaugural clothing budget. I need answers and Bob is screaming about the thousands Iím charging up in credit card debt. We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us!! I need answers and I need help, and I need to get this done.Ē
Thereís something else that I noticed. In the filing, the government says Robert McDonnell and his children went golfing on Williamsí dime at an exclusive private golf club, charging him for their green fees, food and items from the pro shop. Golfing can be expensive, so I get the fees. I get the food. But I donít get buying merchandise from the pro shop and putting it on the tab of your host on multiple occasions.
I teach a class at my church about kids and money, and what I tell the parents is that your children live what they learn. And what many are learning is that their parents arenít far above what their income can handle. The kids benefit from what the parents buy them, but they also hear the arguments about the debt. They see the stress. Some learn that they donít want to live their adult lives in debt like their parents and they become thrifty. Others repeat what they see and become spendthrifts.
But I get it. I get that thereís pressure to live and look a certain way. If you are in a certain position, hold a certain job, live in a particular neighborhood, you feel even more compelled to have certain things. You get noticed when you drive a luxury car or wear brand-name clothes or shoes.
People make comments like ďYou are working that Louis VuittonĒ or ďThat is a fierce car.Ē The compliments are endorsements.
Those of us who wear discount clothes or drive not-so-fancy cars for years seldom get compliments like ďI want to be like you because I know youíre saving some money.Ē I havenít gotten a single compliment for my non-North Face jacket that looks almost exactly like ones you find in the popular brand-name outerwear line.
I donít care. Canít afford to care. I have other financial priorities.
Iím invited to a lot of upscale affairs often requiring a nice frock to meet the dress code. I could spend a lot of money making sure I had a lot of different dresses and designer shoes that stand up to the standards of the other attendees. But I donít. I wear the same few party dresses. I tell people brand-name shoes will give you the same corns and calluses as discount shoes.
Would it be disastrous if someone noticed I was wearing the same dress to a different event?
Not to me. Sure, some people may whisper. Still donít care. Iíve got kids to put through college and a mortgage I want to pay off before I retire. Itís a costly endeavor to spend to impress.
So are you mired in debt because of your desire to have a luxurious-looking life?
I look at cases like the McDonnells and check myself. When I hear about anyone, especially a movie star, professional athlete or politician, spending their way into trouble, I use it as a reminder that in the end itís not worth it to live above my means.

Michelle Singletary: michelle.singletary@washpost.com.Washington Post Writers Group
Story tags » Personal Finance

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