Whenever I get an invitation to a party — before I mark it on my calendar, before I RSVP — I Zillow the address. It’s become a habit, something I do without realizing it, even though I know that looking up the sale price of someone’s home is similar to peeking into their medicine cabinet when you’re over for dinner.
I’m aware it’s wrong, so why do it? Because it’s there, it’s tempting and it can be incredibly revealing.
To me, sales records found on Zillow (or Redfin, Trulia, Movoto, Streeteasy — you name it) are one of the few places where I can get a glimpse into the financial life of another person. And since money matters are often guarded even more tightly than sex life secrets, there’s something satisfying about being able to see a number in black and white.
But like peeking into a medicine cabinet, it never ends up making me feel amazing about myself. So why can’t I stop?
I haven’t always been obsessed with how much my friends have in the bank.
In my 20s, money just felt like a commodity, and my friends and I were pretty open about it. We regularly shared our salaries. Someone who made more would offer to float the bar tab, and someone who made less would host a BYOB potluck at her shared apartment.
Back then, money felt like a boat — essential to get you from point A to point B. As long as you had one, it didn’t matter if the boat was a kayak or a yacht.
But gradually, as we got older, moved up in our careers, settled down with partners and began having children, money started to stand for so much more — or at least it did to me. Money became a symbol for making good life decisions, from choosing the “right” partner to hunkering down and staying the course at a boring-but-lucrative desk job.
I was lucky enough to be able to make a living as a writer, but my income varied wildly from month to month, and I would often use any excess cash after paying bills and expenses to “invest” in experiences — vacations to Costa Rica, backpacking around Europe, a summer in Dublin. Luckily, I didn’t carry debt — but I also didn’t have much left over to save.
And then, at 32, I became unexpectedly pregnant.
As I settled down in my life, I began to see money as an anchor: Something that would let me buy a home and stake a forever claim to good schools and nice parks and fenced-in backyards.
I’d never realized in my 20s that I even wanted this anchor, and I felt almost betrayed that my friends had not only known they would want one in the future, but had made the financial decisions necessary to make it happen. Sure, we may have all been pooling dollar bills in the bar a decade earlier and joking about how broke we felt, but they somehow prepared for a more stable financial future while I hadn’t.
I know this sounds desperately naive. And I wasn’t that unprepared. Even in my freelancing and traveling days, I had committed to investing (a small amount) in a monthly retirement fund. I had some money in a savings account that I considered untouchable from a small inheritance. I guess the biggest blow was just how quickly my relationship to money had changed. I had never felt jealous about money before. But now, as friends became homeowners, I did.
But I knew I had to shake the jealousy to move on with my own life.
Ultimately, what made me a little less obsessive was to turn my focus away from my friends’ finances and toward my own. I began researching the homebuying process. I got an idea of how much my savings would cover and how far I’d have to go to get what I wanted. I stopped merely plugging in my friends’ addresses on Zillow and started to actually browse listings in my expected price range.
And finally, instead of sneakily trying to suss out friend’s finances, I began talking about financial decisions and difficulties with them. I asked them for their advice about buying a house.
I learned some of their down payments came with the support of family, and I heard some cautionary tales about exorbitant mortgages. These conversations felt more evolved and cautious than our let it all hang out salary comparisons of our 20s, but they also felt richer. Instead of feeling like I was comparing, I felt like I was learning.
But I’m not perfect. When an invite comes, I still feel the urge to open up my Zillow app. And occasionally I’ll look. But for now, I mostly focus on neighboring homes that are for sale that I might buy one day.