MP Dunleavey

The Basics

Are you afraid to look poor?

If you spend money to avoid embarrassment, you're human. But if you're spending money you don't have, the price may be higher than you think.

By MP Dunleavey

Editor's note: Join columnist MP Dunleavey and a group of women as they seek to strip away the myths around money, liberate themselves from debt and find financial sanity. Follow the continuing quest of the Women in Red every other Wednesday in Dunleavey's column on MSN Money.

Wanting to appear rich and being afraid to look poor may sound like the same thing, but they're not.

One is racing to keep ahead of the Joneses, the other desperately trying to keep up. One is rooted in pride, the other in fear.

And though neither behavior is particularly smart, the fear of seeming broke is its own special torment, fraught with shame, anxiety and intricate acts of financial self-deception.

Think that's not you? See if any of these ring a bell:

  • Does wearing cheap clothes make you queasy? You don't mind getting a steal on designer duds but you shun secondhand stores, consignment shops and anything with the words "Old" or "Navy" in it. You would swear that everyone can smell it when you spend $9.99 on a shirt.

  • Are you embarrassed to use coupons? You love the concept of saving money, and those two-for-ones are a little tempting, but you'd rather die than stand at the register while people watch (impatiently) as you hand over little pieces of clipped paper. It screams cheapskate.

  • Do you feel judged by your décor? You may not have a dime in savings, but there's a good reason for that: Your living room looks like a Crate & Barrel ad. Credit card bills be damned, that "Monaco" living room makes you feel secure.

  • Did you buy your house, car, stereo or personal digital assistant to impress friends or family? If the phrase "Wait till Bill/Sarah/Aunt Tildy sees this" crossed your mind, even for a hot second, you know the answer.

People who are saddled with this particular demon often can't see how it skews their behavior, even when it drives them to commit financial acts that are vain, foolish, not terribly smart and, in the worst cases, downright damaging.

"I've worked with women who had a morbid fear of appearing less successful than colleagues," says Rachel Weingarten, the president of GTK Marketing in New York, "so much so that they would buy pricey cars or take ridiculously over-the-top vacations, just to keep up appearances."

"My friends and I joke about 'fake it till you make it' syndrome," writes a reader. "I'll refill my Clinique bottle eight or nine times with drugstore cleanser, just so I have a pretty, expensive bottle on my counter. It may be for the benefit of others, but it's also to trick myself into feeling that I'm surrounded by nice things."

We are not alone

I always knew I had a basic allergy to coupons, and I have, shall we say, issues with what I wear.

It has taken me years to realize that only Heidi Klum would be able to spot a $9.99 blouse at 50 paces and to feel proud of my ability to assemble a classy work outfit that costs no more than $50 or $60 (thank you, H&M!).

But it wasn't until my new pencil-tapping editor assigned this article that I looked in the mirror and saw my whole life reflected there, steeped in the constant preoccupation to not ever, please God, appear as if I were struggling financially.

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Although I grew up in what you might call reduced circumstances -- I remember asking my parents if we were poor, and, mortified, they said no, but I knew we were stretched -- I'm no longer in those shoes.

I've worked hard for the financial stability I've achieved in the decade between my early 30s and my early 40s. But it's hard to shake that early sense that having less somehow made me less.

Continued: Bad money moves

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