Our unquenchable greed: "Barely squeaking by on $300,000 a year"

Psychologists speak of “the hedonic treadmill”: our drive to work harder and harder to acquire fancy stuff that actually makes us no happier (after a brief burst of excitement). We’re always looking around and comparing ourselves to those who have more stuff — faster cars, bigger houses, more elite country club memberships, more glamorous vacations — than we do.

Though we’re quick to take whatever stuff we possess for granted, we’re astonishingly addicted to it and scarcely able to conceive of life without it.

Many families live very happily in $125,000 homes, yet a woman profiled in Sunday’s Washington Post insists she’s “barely squeaking by” in her $2.5 million home with her mere $300,000 annual income:

Her property taxes [on her $2.5 million house] are $35,000 a year, the nanny is $40,000 and the gardener is $500 a month.

“I can ride this storm out,” says Steins…

Laura Steins doesn’t mind saying that she is barely squeaking by on $300,000 a year. She lives in a place where the boom years of Wall Street pushed the standard of living to astonishing heights. Where fifth-graders shop at a store called Lester’s that sells $114 tween-size True Religion jeans. Where a cup of fresh spinach and carrot juice called the Iron Maiden costs $7.95…

As a vice president at MasterCard’s corporate office in Purchase, N.Y., she earns a base pay of $150,000 plus a bonus. This year she’ll take home 10 percent less because of a smaller bonus. She receives $75,000 a year in child support from her ex-husband. She figures she will pull an additional $50,000 from a personal investment account to “pick up the slack.”

The nanny and property taxes take $75,000 right off the top, but Steins considers both non-negotiable facts of her life and not discretionary. When she bought out her husband’s share of the house after their 2006 divorce, she assumed the costs of keeping it afloat — $8,000 to $10,000 a month. There’s a pool man, a gardener and someone to plow the snow from the quarter-mile-long driveway.

As tight as money is, she has decided that living in a 4,000-square-foot house on three acres is the practical thing to do…

“We might live in nice houses and drive nice cars, but we’re just holding on,” she says.

Posted by James on Tuesday, August 18, 2009