The Downside to Being Only a Little Rich

Why having the right house (in the right neighborhood, mind you) and the right clothes don’t mean you can slum it in a Buick.

We recently upgraded our Lexus RX 350 SUV, which we bought new, two years ago. The official rationale was that, with one baby in a car seat and another on the way, we couldn’t possibly fit our extended family of four in the cramped RX. The truth was, we had the smallest SUV of any of our friends.

My wife brought home some brochures for the new Range Rover—reasonably priced at $95,000. I suggested we look at larger Lexuses. She suggested that she had already put a hold on a Range Rover.

In the meantime, I had lunch with a friend who suggested we look at the Buick Enclave, a top-of-the-line General Motors SUV that had all the features of a comparable Lexus at a considerable discount. Later that night, I excitedly brandished the website printouts with the luxury descriptions of the Enclave and told her our problem was solved. My wife looked at me as if I had just suggested that we pack up and move to the M Streets.

“I’m not driving a Buick,” she declared. “There is no way I’m showing up at playgroup at Brook Hollow in a Buick.”

“But what about Ross Perot?” I argued. “He drives a Crown Vic.”

“Ross Perot is a billionaire,” she shrieked. “He can afford to drive anything he wants!”

So there it was. We weren’t affluent enough to drive a Buick. We had appearances to maintain. Anything less than a Mercedes or a BMW or a Lexus, and our friends would whisper about the financial reversal that we must have suffered. The fact was, our net worth was not so firmly fixed in our friends’ eyes that we could afford to drive what we wanted or what made sense. Essentially, we were financially insecure.

It’s a curse really, this having plenty of money to qualify as comfortably well off but not having enough money to be comfortably ourselves. And it’s even more of a hardship in Dallas, where the spotlight always shines on how much money you have. Or don’t.

The other day, for example, I met some friends for lunch at a local sushi place. I zipped into an empty parking spot not 20 feet from the front door, happy with the five bucks I was saving, and was sauntering past the valet when he gave me The Look. It didn’t matter that my suit cost more than his car. He had assumed that superior, no-attempt-to-conceal look of disdain that service people will give you when they notice you studying the tag too closely or when they see your eyes shift to the right to check the menu prices. Mark Cuban could peddle up on a battered bicycle, padlock it to a fence post, and he would be backslapped and congratulated through the door. Me, because I couldn’t park my own car with the confident economizing of the obviously moneyed class, I got the valet parker’s back as I skulked into the restaurant, my shoulders drooping.

So we bought a larger Lexus, which was the least expensive luxury SUV we could afford and still maintain a conspicuous claim to our semi-affluence. To celebrate with some sensible savings, I found myself shopping at Neiman Marcus during Last Call. I had called ahead to have my shopper pull some summer-weight blazers that I could wear at evening parties, but I didn’t like anything he was showing me. I drifted out of the sale section and spied a dark blue windowpane jacket that was just what I was looking for. As I shrugged it on, I said, “This is it,” with nary a glance at the price tag. “Now I just need some more jeans.”

For years, my wife had complained about the “old man” Gap jeans that I wore. So she had bought me some of the modern designer jeans that look worn, dirty, and permanently wrinkled. I was wearing one of those pairs just then and felt fashionably young and hip. “Of course, we don’t have the brand of jeans you’re wearing,” my shopper said. “They’re Gap jeans.” My face flushed scarlet. Oh, she’s going to get it, I thought, my mind racing through different Fatal Vision scenarios for my wife as I waited for The Look.

“I love how you pair an $1,800 Zegna jacket with Gap jeans,” he said. “There is just such an old-money, thrown-together insouciance to it.”

“You know me,” I said, not letting the $1,800 surprise show in my face. “I never know what label I’m wearing. I just buy what I like.”

So I might not be wealthy enough to drive a Buick—but I’m rich enough to wear Gap jeans.

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