Why Money Makes Us Squirm

By Joel Stein Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

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Why Money Makes Us Squirm:

Like all people who are getting divorced, my friend talked about loneliness, his sex life and the damage divorce would do to his kids. After five minutes of this, he—like all people who are getting divorced—spent half an hour talking about money. My friend said he was lucky in that he had saved up “a pretty big chunk.” When I gingerly asked him how much “a pretty big chunk” was, he gingerly said, “A lot more than you’d think.” This went on for a few minutes. He said “quite a bit,” “a good start” and “not nearly enough to retire.” It was like playing The Price Is Right’s Showcase Showdown with a car salesman.

For the next few weeks I kept coming up with equations to try to figure out how much he had—approximating his salary, his mortgage and the number of times he eats out each week. I had no idea why this bothered me so much—especially since I spent no time whatsoever trying to figure out why he was getting divorced.

That’s because men never talk about money. We’ll tell each other about genital warts, prostitutes, prostitutes we got genital warts from, prostitutes we’ve given genital warts to, prostitutes who got genital warts from other prostitutes at particularly good bachelor parties—but not about our salaries, how much we’ve saved for retirement or even our tax bracket. It’s way too personal. More so than the number of women we’ve slept with or the number of people who work for us, money is how we rank one another. Women rank one another in much healthier ways, like by who is skinnier. The Forbes 400 is our People magazine’s 100 Most Beautiful People.

Money has totally different purposes for men and women. Women actually see money as something they use just to buy things. That’s why they split the check when they go out to dinner. They want to keep their money for clothes and jewelry and expensive juices. But for men, the purpose of money is to grab the check. Money is for establishing dominance. We are herd animals, and people with platinum status get on the plane first. It’s why, even in adulthood, we say things like “Would you drink the entire jar of pickle juice if I gave you $300?” If we could sell each other into slavery, we totally would.

Our idols are Mark Zuckerberg and Warren Buffett—guys so badass they greedily accumulate money with no interest in spending it. Zuckerberg wears a hoodie and had his wedding in his backyard. Buffett has lived in the same small Omaha house for years and has a Cadillac DTS that he drives himself. The only thing he has splurged on is a giant flatscreen so he can watch Cornhusker games. Despite his money and his hot wife, no man wants to be Donald Trump, who puts gold on everything and fusses about his hair. What’s the point of making a lot of money if you have to live like a Real Housewife? The last time Warren Buffett thought about his hair was during puberty.

For men, there’s absolutely nothing better than an athlete declaring bankruptcy. Those guys who were cooler than even the coolest guy in our high school, who got more action than we’ve gotten vicariously in POV porn—they got done in by shopping sprees. Did Mike Tyson really need tigers? Did Warren Sapp need to create a family crest and put it on the chairs in his screening room? Did Lenny Dykstra need any of those gold chains?

These bankruptcies restore a little bit of fairness to a frustrating game with random rules. Guys who do things that are even less consequential than writing a column for Playboy—high-frequency traders, creators of apps, Piers Morgan—make tons more than I do. Teachers, nurses and cancer researchers make less. Which is why we’re obsessed with athletes’ salaries in the first place. Sports have definitive metrics, so if Alex Rodriguez hits only .272, we can get accurately angry at the crappiness of capitalism. And of Alex Rodriguez.

But all this jealousy and schadenfreude hurts our friendships. Because men friend for life, I have high school and college friends whose incomes are wildly different from mine. Women make new friends continually at every stage of their lives because most of their conversations are about shoes and handbags. But not knowing how much my friends make, I never know which restaurant to pick for dinner. I feel as though I’m never supposed to mention money around my friends who have less—even though many of them spent their 20s taunting me with the fact that they got laid much more than I did. Of course their method of taunting was simply getting laid much more than I did. Still, they could have shielded me from it. Just like I could have not forced them to go on a tour of my house, ending in my wine closet.

So after a month of wondering about my divorcing friend’s money, I decided to do something no man has ever done: I told him how much I had saved up. It was nearly the same amount he had, thus making us far closer friends than ever before. I would tell you how much this is, but that would preclude you from being my friend. Perhaps even from reading this column. Let’s just say it’s exactly as much as you’ve saved.


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