“Ask me why does a man … have to reach beyond his need … I don’t know.” — from “Ask Me ‘Bout Nothin’ But the Blues” as performed by Boz Scaggs

One of my favorite Ron Howard movies is “The Paper.” Released in 1994 and starring Michael Keaton, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close and Marisa Tomei, “The Paper” depicts 24 hours on the floor of the fictional New York Sun. Two out-of-town businessmen are found murdered in the city, and Keaton, as editor Henry Hackett, attempts to prove that the two teens nabbed for the incident are innocent.

One of the movie’s many subplots is Managing Editor Glenn Close’s constant battle for higher pay. Robert Duvall, her boss, tells Close that the issue really isn’t her pay, but that she’s trying to live beyond her means. And to illustrate his point, Duvall relates a story about his participation in the coverage of the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France.

Duvall and friends dine in Grenoble’s finest restaurant, a bistro with no prices on the menu. They order appetizers and expensive wines and exotic entrees. When the check arrives, it’s upwards of $12,000, and while he and the other reporters are on expense accounts, they can’t sign for that kind of bill.

The reporters are on the brink of wiring home for more money when a small man seated near their table calls the waiter over, scribbles briefly on a napkin, and settles the bill. The small man was Pablo Picasso, and his signature on the napkin paid the party’s large dinner tab. “The people we cover, we move in their world,” says Duvall, “but it is their world. You can’t live like them. You’ll never keep up.”

Who among us hasn’t brushed up against great wealth, either in person or watching television, and thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live like that?” But here’s the rub. All wealth is relative. To the multi-millionaire, Warren Buffett’s estate looks gargantuan. To a single mom struggling to make rent, a person who owns their own home seems wealthy.

Avoiding the temptation to compare one’s own financial situation to that of another is one of the hallmarks of personal financial maturity. Certainly it’s healthy to appreciate fine things owned by others, and even to aspire to be able to procure some of those same things for ourselves and our family. But only we truly know our own financial situation, and what we really can and can’t afford within our personal budget.

There will always be folks with less and more money than ourselves. Admiring the aesthetics and quality of another’s home or possessions without attempting to reach beyond our own means to imitate that lifestyle is an art in itself. For many of us, that’s a worthwhile aspiration.

Margaret R. McDowell, ChFC, AIF, a syndicated economic columnist, is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management, LLC, (850-608-6121 — www.arborwealth.net), a “fee-only” registered investment advisory firm located near Sandestin. This column should not be considered personalized investment advice and provides no assurance that any specific strategy or investment will be suitable or profitable for an investor.