If you’ve ever scrolled through social media posts only to be gripped with envy when you see a friend posing in front of their beautiful house or enjoying themselves at a luxurious resort, then you understand how easy it is to want what other people have. Financial envy is real, and sometimes it can be ugly.
“Financial envy is absolutely normal. It’s part of the human condition,” says Yvonne Hampton, who holds a doctorate in personal financial planning and runs a financial therapy practice in the Kansas City, Missouri, area.
And it’s not necessarily a bad thing, she adds. “It’s an opportunity to dig more deeply internally about why we have that feeling so we can work through it and be happier in our own lives.”
If you’re wondering how to turn the so-called green-eyed monster into a positive force in your life, here are five steps to take.
1. LET GO OF SHAME
“A lot of progress can be made simply by acknowledging: ‘Yes, I feel envious,’” says Rick Kahler, a certified financial therapist and certified financial planner in Rapid City, South Dakota. “Be compassionate toward yourself,” he adds.
Then, you can more easily turn toward the concrete steps that help you meet your financial goals, whether it’s paying off debt, saving for a down payment or building up an emergency fund for greater financial security.
2. GET SPECIFIC ABOUT YOUR TRIGGERS
People are more likely to feel envious of people in their own peer group versus mega-rich icons like Jeff Bezos or Oprah Winfrey, Hampton says. “Those feelings are a signal: If you are envious of a neighbor getting a new car, what is that feeling?”
Perhaps it’s rooted in a desire to earn more money or spend your money differently. Once you figure out the cause of the feeling, then you can address it and make changes in your own life.
“It can give us insight into what we really want,” Hampton says. If it truly is about buying a car, then you can give yourself a savings goal and start setting money aside each month.
3. USE ENVY AS A MOTIVATOR, NOT A DETRACTOR
Some forms of envy may be helpful, says Robert Leahy, author of “The Jealousy Cure” and clinical professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine. He notes that envy is visible across cultures governed by hierarchies, including with animals like dogs, and even in human toddlers. In its most positive light, envy can lead us to learn from the success of others and apply lessons to our own lives.
But it also has a dark side, stirring up feelings of inferiority and insecurity. Envy can lead to self-harm, such as cultivating feelings of hatred toward wealthy people, which can drain energy away from your own life and pursuits, said Rainer Zitelmann, a historian and sociologist and author of “The Art of a Successful Life,” in an email from his home in Berlin, Germany.
Zitelmann warns that unchecked envy can easily become destructive. “You should acknowledge envy whenever you experience it, because envious people only end up harming themselves,” he wrote.
4. RECOGNIZE WHAT YOU DON’T SEE
While your first reaction to a friend’s social media posts might be envy, the truth of their situation could be far more complex than the photo suggests, Hampton points out.
“We don’t know the whole story. You don’t know how long they saved for that house, or how hard they worked for it, or if their parents paid for it. Maybe they’re screaming at 3 a.m. about paying the mortgage,” she says.
It’s easy to feel jealous of someone’s public posts that showcase the highlights of their life without any of the behind-the-scenes struggle.
“In all the time I’ve been doing (financial therapy), I’ve never met someone who felt like they had it all. We’re all dealing with something. Even if you’re at the higher income spectrum, there are still challenges and these are challenging times with inflationary pressures,” Hampton says.
5. REFLECT ON WHAT ACTUALLY BRINGS YOU JOY
Leahy suggests a thought exercise to counteract materialistic envy: “Imagine everything has been taken away,” he says, including all of your possessions. You get one thing back at a time, but only if you can make the case that you appreciate it. That process clarifies your values, he says. “You can see you have many different sources of satisfaction and purpose.”
And in a final tip from Leahy: Think back to an experience of real contentment in your life. It might have been as simple as sitting by a lake with a friend — perhaps not an Instagrammable moment, but one that was far more meaningful.