Grace Under Affluence

Handling the pressure of today's tight economy on your social circles



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The wealthy don’t have it as easy as one might think. Thanks to an economy that has deeply rattled our collective sense of security, many are living on uneasy street, feeling the burdens of wealth at the same time that they’re luxuriating in its rewards. And nowhere do the still-have feel more ill at ease perhaps than in the company of friends who have a lot less.

“The people I deal with haven’t felt any effect from the economic downturn,” says Ronald Sheiman, a Westport tax attorney who works with high net worth individuals, “but they are being affected by the people around them who have money problems. My clients have said they feel uncomfortable appearing overly prosperous when others aren’t. There’s a generalized concern that there are people out there who are suffering, and that’s moderating everybody’s behavior. People are trying to be a little more discreet.”

If that’s true, the current state of fiscal affairs appears to demand a lot of discretion, as well as generous amounts of sensitivity and compassion — especially when it comes to friendships. While the very rich remain rich, acquaintances who have long considered themselves well-off are suddenly finding themselves closer to the edge.

I’m thinking of old friends like Gary and Darcy. He still has his company; she is still beautiful. Their children graduated from top schools, and they have a wonderful house. But business reversals and a serious illness have left them with less than they once had: Less money and a smaller house, to be sure, but also less security, less confidence, less of their old lifestyle to an extent. They’ve also begun experiencing the gap between wealthy friends and themselves — not in extravagant ways but in the nuances of everyday life.

Recently, the couple visited friends in semi-retirement at their second home in Florida. “They wouldn’t let us pay for lunch or dinner or anything,” Darcy says. “I know it was out of love and care, but in some respects it was embarrassing. You feel somewhat diminished. I finally said, ‘Let me freaking pay for something. We’re not poor!’ ”

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