Shun caviar if you wish; you’re still gonna get crunched. “There’s a lot of ways that the spending at the top cascades down and imposes costs on people in the middle,” Frank says. “You’re not thinking of building a 40,000-square-foot house. But the hedge-fund guys are. So the guy in the middle now has to buy a house that’s about a third larger than 20 years ago, and that’s problematic just because he doesn’t really earn much more than the guy in the middle earned 30 years ago. You could say, ‘Well, suck it up—just buy the house you can afford.’ That’s the prudent thing to do. You can scale back, but you’re not going to be comfortable with what happens.”
You’re not going to be comfortable because, among other things, your kids could wind up stagnating in inferior schools. Lifestyle factors like that are going to make you feel . . . destitute. “I’m already going broke on a million dollars a year!”—that line seemed like a joke back in 1987, when master of the universe Sherman McCoy said it in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. Now it comes off as totally realistic. Mark Ketcham has two successful Bay Area businesses that cater to the luxury market: a winery and a vintage automobile dealership. “It may sound funny,” he observes, “but with a first home, a wife, and a couple of curtain crawlers that will need to be sent to college, you’re just getting by in San Francisco on $300,000 a year.”
You can surrender, simply stop trying to keep up with the luxocrats, but then what? “If you don’t keep up, you’re supposed to feel bad about who you are,” says Paul Stiles, 41, whose career path took him through both Wall Street and Silicon Valley before he threw in the towel and wrote Is the American Dream Killing You? “That’s the lever that the market’s using to get everybody to lead these ridiculous lives that are emptying them of all spirit. Why else would anyone do it? Even if they’re not really conscious of it, they’re afraid of feeling like shit about themselves. Even the guy who’s making half a million dollars feels like shit relative to the guys he’s in the office with.” Because in the end, the problem is not that your college classmate has become outrageously rich. The problem is what that presidential adviser at the Core Club said about the future. The problem is that you, after all your hard work, never expected to be poor.