I Learned the Hard Way: I Felt Rich, But I Wasn’t


Check out another great post from our friends at The Billfold:

I went to a private Montessori school in Atlanta from preschool through the third grade that my middle-class parents were able to pay for with a scholarship that I got for doing extremely well on little-kid-level standardized tests. The majority of the families that sent their children there were very well-off.

There was a lot of excess around me but I was young, so I just took it all in stride. My earliest and most vivid memories are of school events and visiting my friends at their homes. At school, we went to the Ritz Carlton for high tea when we learned about England. For “France Day,” the school would hire fancy chefs who made fresh beignets for everyone and served them in a little café that the school set up outside. For “Italy Day,” we would make fresh pasta and pose for pictures in a real gondola. There was a yearly auction of the various crafts and paintings we had created that would raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the school.

My classmates lived in subdivisions with golf courses and country clubs. One classmate’s dad was a neurosurgeon, and her parents threw her 10th birthday bash in their three-story McMansion complete with an elevator and labyrinth of a basement. They hired the local radio station to broadcast from the party, and commissioned manicurists to give all 100 or so child guests manis and pedis in their cavernous living room.

I felt right at home in another friend’s house, which had acres of beautifully landscaped gardens, a huge swimming pool with waterfalls in the backyard, and a quiet, ever-present housekeeper. My best friend at the time lived in a huge old house that had a beautiful kitchen with heavy wooden beams crossing the ceiling and a wood-burning brick oven. Her parents would teach us how to make pizza with organic meats and vegetables, and then slide the pizza next to the fire to bake. I felt like I belonged to this world of luxurious sights, smells and activities.

But I didn’t belong. My family has never been wealthy. My mom was a stay-at-home mom who sometimes published freelance medical articles, and my dad was a computer programmer who got very sporadic contract work, usually in other states. The money would run dry between jobs. I have three younger sisters, and we all shared bedrooms. We owned our house, a medium-sized 3-bedroom, 2-bath located an hour outside of the city, but lived very frugally, wearing thrifted clothing sent in a box from my grandma in Milwaukee. We pinched pennies and ate sparingly. Some people would call this a middle class life—college-educated parents, a house, the suburbs—I do not.

I think it’s unacceptable that so many people delude themselves into thinking they’re a part of the middle class. My parents thought they were solidly in the middle class, but so did my classmates’ families. My parents thought my classmates’ parents were rich. Their parents thought my family was poor, and treated my parents with condescension for not dressing us in designer jeans, or buying us organic food. As I got older, and eventually went to public school with all the other kids in my income bracket, I realized that my family’s income level was not even comparable to my old classmates’ families, who earned multiples of what my parents earned.

My early childhood gave me expectations of wealth that were never fulfilled. I learned to expect that spending summers in France was normal, that Ivy League schools were realistic possibilities, and that one day I would have a beautifully restored 5-bedroom, 5-and-a-half bath home in a historic, tree-lined area of the city.

My parents’ attitude toward money irritated me. They thought dinner out at a chain-restaurant steakhouse qualified as an indulgence, and their penny-shaving, coupon-clipping, cheap quality clothes-buying habits may have led to a delicately balanced, financial stable life, but they seemed very tacky, and embarrassing to me. Big spending led to guilt-tripping. Even buying name brand food at the grocery store was thought of as almost sinful, when a perfectly decent, 20-cent cheaper alternative was available. I don’t want to have to think that way.

I know class isn’t supposed to matter, but it does. My primary goal is not to become wealthy, but who can say they wouldn’t like to be rich? I will probably never reach the financial heights that my friend’s parents reached, and that’s fine on some level. I can have a fulfilling life without all the material benefits that come with having lots of money.

But my earliest memories are of what I could have, and that immersion into wealth made me feel discontent with anything less. I am probably a card-carrying member of the middle class just for even thinking this, but what everything really boils down to is: Money equals freedom, and I want to be free.

  • Cardinal5

    thats hardly freedom as you must trade yor life for it

  • LV fan

    What is the purpose of this artical? Who cares that the author has (multiple meanings) of “class” issues. I didn’t learn anything from this read.  

  • Wise One

    How sad that your childhood experiences distorted your views of money and freedom.  If money equalled freedom, the very wealthy would have no problems, would never become alcoholics or drug addicts, would never get divorced or commit suicide.  All you have to do is browse the tabloids in the supermarket checkout line to see that all those things happen to people with plenty of money.  Often, having too much money is a much bigger problem for people than having too little.  It makes people shallow and arrogant and self-sufficient and greedy, and short-circuits the development of character.  No, freedom comes from living an ordered life, from wisdom, good relationships, and wise management of the resources with which you are blessed.  You have believed some deadly lies and the sooner you find out where true peace and joy are found, the better chance you have of experiencing those things.  Material wealth will not do it.  Just ask Tony Scott, the successful and extremely wealthy movie director.  Oh, that’s right, you can’t.  He jumped off a bridge last week.

  • Opinionated

    Sorry, this comment turned into a monster.  Clearly I have strong feelings on this issue!

    As a child you are trapped within the cultural and financial situation of your family.  The way to rise above this level is to work hard enough in high school to gain acceptance to a college with a need-blind financial aid policy–including the entire Ivy League but also a number of colleges with large endowments but lower selectivity, particularly women’s colleges.  While in college you need to work hard to earn good grades, make friends with students who come from more privileged backgrounds than your own, and network with their families.   You need to pursue summer internships at big names, and rich colleges often provide stipends to students pursuing internships.  You need to have a major which signals quantitative ability, like math, economics, or statistics.  In your senior year you need to network and apply for jobs like crazy, and if you don’t get a job before you graduate, you need to not move back to whatever small town or suburb you came from but head to a big city and cram into a tiny apartment with 5 other people and NETWORK until you manage to get a good job.  If you totally run out of money, go teach English in Korea for a year, save your salary, return to America and try again.  Once you pass the initial hurtle of obtaining a good job, it’s all uphill, and you become the architect of your new cultural and financial reality.
    This is the best path I am aware of to upward mobility, and I have a number of friends who have benefited from following this path.  Everything I have said above is accessible to people who are willing to set goals, work hard, and do the appropriate research.  For example, my younger sister is currently a student at Smith College, which has a massive endowment, provides her with ample financial aid, offers an internship stipend to every student, does not require applicants to submit standardized test scores, and has an acceptance rate of about 50 percent.  My best friend David, a first-generation college student, went to a liberal arts college on a financial aid package that covered all his expenses and, midway through his senior year, got a job as an economic consultant in New York making about twice as much money as his parents combined.  My boyfriend, who also came from a low-income background and received tons of financial aid, got a job at a think tank in DC before graduating and also makes about twice as much money as his parents.  In our DC group house one of our roommate’s friends from Texas slept on our couch for 5 months until getting a job as a paralegal with the ACLU.  One year ago I knew five or six young people with degrees from good colleges–Hamilton, Wellesley, Middlebury, the University of Michigan–living in the DC area who did not have jobs and all of them have since managed to find full-time positions with middle-class salaries.  In contrast, I also have a lot of friends who were unwilling to persevere through college, unwilling to relocate to pursue better employment opportunities, or unwilling to be flexible in the kind of work they’re willing to do, and things have not turned out as rosily for them.  Improving your circumstances takes hard work, ingenuity, a robust social network, and luck, but it is definitely achievable.  

  • SustainaBillyTea

    I’ve read that people who grew up poor working class and used to never having money – when they get some, e.g. winning the lottery, they tend to blow it all quickly on lavish spending – and 2 years later will be back to being poor – the familiar.

    People who grew up middle class – and always had enough if they manage carefully – if they win lotto, put it in the bank, with little or no change to their daily lifestyle.

    People who grew up in luxury and then later come down when they leave the feathered nest – tend to go into hiding to scrimp and save, then throw occasional lavish parties – to give the illusion that they are still rich – even tho’ they aren’t …

    I had a school friend who grew up ‘rich’ but quickly went into poverty -
    I visited him renting a cheap remote farmhouse where he complained that his
    Siamese cat refused to eat any food except fresh trout – I thought but didn’t
    say ‘who trained him’ …

  • LVreader

    Billfold articles so often seem to be about young people who think material things and status and posh living are the keys to happiness and self-worth. Makes me sad. Some of us are savers and some of us are spenders, I understand that different people get satisfaction from money in different ways. But this author seems hung up on the “embarrassment” and disappointment of not having what her rich friends had, but shows no appreciation for the fact that her parents were scrimping and saving to provide for her as best they could. To me it sounds like her problem is simple jealousy, not any lack of freedom. And paying for manis & pedis for 100 10-year-olds?! That is just riDONCulous IMHO.