Shortly after he left his first career as an engineer and mathematician to become a financial adviser, Jeff Salisbury was counseling a man who was a leader in his community and a top executive for a local company.

The man was in his early 60s, Jeff says, and when his retirement savings were compared to his debts, he barely had a positive net worth.

Yet both the man and his wife drove luxury vehicles, and they had a cabin at a nearby lake.

"I was shocked," Jeff says. "And that is actually a very typical scenario that I see."

He told me this story because he wanted to talk about Mike.

I shared Mike's story a few months ago. He wrote to me about the efforts he and his wife have made to maintain a nice, modest lifestyle. But he also noted that people who live around him, and who seem to make a similar salary, "spend like they have an unlimited supply of cash."

His question was, "What is 'normal,' and why does everyone around me seem to be able to eat out, travel and recreate and splurge more often than we do?"

Since I told you about Mike, several other readers have weighed in on his situation.

Jeff says he often talks to people who feel like Mike. Their confusion begins, Jeff says, because they tend to assume their free-spending neighbors are trying to do the right things financially, just like they are.

"But that perception is not true," Jeff says.

Instead, many of those people are spending money they don't have.

The generation to which Mike, Jeff and I belong tends to be "a little bit spoiled," Jeff says. "We're not willing to defer (spending) to later. We're not willing to plan for contingencies. We kind of want it now."

And as bad as 30- and 40-somethings are at delaying gratification, our children may be even worse. Several letter-writers commented on their children pressuring them to get the latest gadgets because their friends and neighbors have that stuff.

But as hard as financial discipline can be, Jeff says, Mike and others like him are doing the right thing by trying to be frugal.

"The first thing I'd say to Mike is, things are not as rosy out there as it appears," Jeff says. "I don't know any other way to say it. ... There's a reality out there that is not necessarily conveyed with the outward appearance of things."

In other words, while it is easy to see the gadgets and toys your neighbors have now, it's harder to picture where you all will be financially 20 or 30 years from now.

"I would dare say Mike ... is going to find himself, down the road when he's looking at retirement, with a lot of options that maybe his neighbors aren't going to have," Jeff says.

That's not to say Mike and the rest of us should live without any of the luxuries of life. "You've got to do some things now for happiness and satisfaction," Jeff says.

However, he says he was struck by a recent Christian Science Monitor article on the link between money and happiness. The article quoted a study that shows people at all income levels report needing 40 percent more money than they have now to reach a level they consider sufficient. So someone earning $50,000 per year feels like he "needs" $70,000 to be happy. But if he gets a raise and starts making $70,000, he soon will feel he "needs" about $98,000.

"Back to Mike, I'd say the truth is, if you had everything your neighbors have, it wouldn't be long before you're dissatisfied with that," Jeff says. "Call it 'happiness creep."'

The Monitor article suggests that it isn't money that makes people happy, but rather the feeling of success that some people receive through a higher income or more toys. Money can be a measure of success, the article says, but people need to remember that it is only a measure.

That's something to remember for those of us who feel like we're working as hard as we can, trying to manage our money well, and still aren't enjoying life like our neighbors are. We just might be better off than those luxuriously living Joneses in the long-run.

And if we focus on our successes and what we do have instead of a perceived failure to accumulate the creature comforts of life, we can be happier with our current situation, regardless of income.

It's a mental exercise that's worth trying. (Maybe I really don't need a big-screen TV to be happy! What a concept!)

I'd be interested to know your opinions on the subject. If you have a comment or a financial question, send it to [email protected] or to the Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.

E-mail: [email protected]