The New Status Guilt

With the economy in free fall, guys with big wallets are working extra hard to hide their success from their friends.

When Pierce Mattie, the 33-year-old CEO of a public-relations company, threw a party at his Fire Island beach house in September, he decided not to wear his new one-carat-diamond pendant necklace. He didn’t want his friends from Lehman Brothers to see it. “Their jobs were in jeopardy,“ he says. “I didn’t want them to say ‘How can you wear that?’“ Instead of his Louis Vuitton briefcase, Mattie now carries a Coach bag to the office. (“Coach is safer. We have to be really sensitive with clients about what we did on weekends and what new purchases we made.“) Given the chill on Wall Street, he even feels guilty about the July engagement party he and his fiancée threw at the Waldorf-Astoria. As he watched 80 of his friends and family—some fresh off a plane from London or Vancouver—drink Veuve Clicquot, eat cake, and pose for one of six photographers, he kept thinking to himself, We should have done something on a smaller scale.

Welcome to the new social conundrum. In a world filled with dismal economic news, where guys who once banked bonuses double the size of their salaries are now firing their nannies, men who are still flush find themselves downplaying their success. They’re still spending like it’s boom times, of course. But they’re keeping their high rolling quiet, pretending that that Dolce & Gabbana suit is five years old, changing the subject the moment that summer trip to Phuket comes up, telling people they bought the new Audi at a fire sale.

The gulf between what they do and what they say is as wide as the mountain vistas in Aspen.

“During a downturn, the economic divide is exacerbated,“ says Joan DiFuria, cofounder of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute in Kentfield, California, a company that helps people cope with the emotional problems that come with wealth. “People who are wealthy go underground.“

It’s only natural to be evasive when you’re enjoying dinners at Cipriani and cashmere cardigans from Brunello Cucinelli while your friends are putting their golf clubs up for sale on eBay. Dr. Jim Grubman, a psychologist in central Massachusetts who counsels wealthy individuals and their financial advisers, says there are two reasons for this: (1) People want to avoid inviting envy or resentment from their friends and (2) they feel guilty about indulging themselves when their fellow man is suffering. “In good times, I can show you my Rolex and you can show me your new Gucci wallet,“ Grubman says. “In bad times, you go back to the haves and have-nots. If you can no longer afford things and I still can, it might cause a separation between us.“

So guys like Mattie say they’re shopping for wedding bands at Zales when in fact they’re surveying the options at Cartier. “We simply edit ourselves when we’re talking with people we know will be frustrated,“ he says. And guys like Matthew, a public-relations executive, pass up the Rolex Submariner for their 40th birthday in favor of a Breitling. “If someone compliments it,“ he says, “I’ll just say thanks and cut off the conversation.“

One fellow, a 37-year-old partner at a New York fashion firm, routinely buys dinner for an artist friend who lost his funding, but he tells him he’s expensing it. “You’ve got to make a big fuss of saying ‘Don’t worry, I’m not paying for this myself,’“ he says. The fashion-firm partner wants to buy a nice new watch too, but he can’t bring himself to do it. “It’s not as much fun to have something like that when someone else is getting kicked out of his apartment,“ he says. “If I bought it two years ago, everyone would be patting me on the back. Now they’re like, ‘Ooooh.’ I wouldn’t say they’re jealous. I’d say they’re miserable.“

What Mattie and his peers are experiencing, Grubman says, is something akin to survivor’s guilt. “You should feel proud that you’re doing well,“ he explains. “But sometimes it’s hard.“

Suzanna de Baca, the head of a wealth-management firm in Des Moines, can attest to that. She has a client in his thirties who was so wary of approaching his buddies about planning their annual trip to Europe that he decided instead to vacation with his mother. “He didn’t want to downsize his life,“ de Baca says, “but he didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.“

That, it would seem, is the choice of the day: You can spend more quality time with Mom or you can man up and tell the truth. Before sharing your plans for, say, a weekend trip to the Costa Brava, acknowledge how fortunate you are to be able to afford it. Grubman offers these words as an example: “I know it’s extravagant, but I’ve been doing really well in my work and I’m lucky to get to go someplace nice.“

The thing you do not want to do is start grousing with your pals about the high cost of milk. De Baca likens that approach to two guys on a golf course saying “Hey, I owned Freddie“ followed by a whole lot of expletives. “You know those losses aren’t hurting them on an irretrievable level,“ she explains. “They’re saying things like ‘It’s really expensive to fill my private plane with gas.’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, but you still have the plane.’“

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