The class war waged in my head

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Recently, I've begun to shy away from too many personal posts on this here blog. This has been a fairly conscious decision--I'm not sure my personal thoughts and anecdotes are really all that interesting or help to build a readership. In part, it has been laziness, too--it's much easier to post links, write reviews, and point out things that I think are cool than it is to dive into my innermost thoughts and try to fish something usable out and write about it.

Still, the days of the personal post are not gone. They may be more infrequent, but I suspect they'll never disappear. I just have too much shit bottled up inside me that needs to go somewhere. And today, as is often the case, that bottled up shit is all about money, class, and guilt.

I grew up working class. My family is, largely, working class (with a few exceptions), as is the town in which I grew up. As is the case, I think, with many class straddlers (I take this term from this book), my life looks much, much different now than it would if I still lived in the society in which I grew up. I am still sometimes shocked by the amounts I pay for things, and by the things I pay for. This has been true for as long as I've lived in a city, to some extent--city prices and country prices are just different--but it's far more so now, in an expensive suburb, living an expensive suburban lifestyle. My rent is outrageous (as is the size of my house). My organic grocery bills are mind-blowing. So is what we'll spend on a nice dinner out. I get manicures. I pay someone to cut the lawn. These are things I expect always so struggle with, and to feel some guilt about.

The new feeling of guilt, however, comes not from comparing myself to my family, but to my friends. I've come to realize, over the past few months, that Mark and I have more money than most of our cohort (with a few notable exceptions). This seems new, though I guess it's not all that new. When we were all just out of college, with stupid jobs or going to graduate school, everybody was similarly broke. We had junker cars, or no cars. We lived in groups. We ate on the cheap. We didn't travel (well, those of us who weren't under parental subsidy didn't, anyway). Slowly, though, things have changed. Some of us, including me, have moved into professional jobs, then moved up in those jobs, and are now making nice salaries. Others have obtained professional degrees, or PhDs, and moved into the highest social class, if not the highest economic one. For the most part, none of us have had children, but we've bought houses, cars, taken expensive trips. These things, taken as they come, have seemed reasonable and natural, but in total, paint a rather striking picture of the class we're now in.

And others of our cohort haven't been so lucky. Some can't find jobs at all, some can find only subsistence work. Student loans stay in deferment, credit card debt piles up. I try to figure out what I should be contributing to my retirement account and I have friends who can barely pay their rent. I recently posted a Groupon for Whole Foods on my Facebook, and got a response from a good friend who couldn't believe the people he knew could afford Whole Foods. Mark and I have been shopping there for years. It's become so normal, I'd almost forgotten it is a luxury market.

There is no reason, beyond luck, for this discrepancy. I fell into a career that pays quite well. Mark has been successful in his field, has met the right people, and is now in a position that could, with continued luck, set him up for exactly the career he planned as a best-case scenario. We're not smarter than our friends. We didn't work harder. We got lucky. And yeah, I think we've done a pretty good job capitalizing on our luck, building on it and making good decisions, but really, the luck is all that separates us from those who aren't doing as well.

How do you reconcile that? How do you look at the people you love, watch them struggle, and feel OK about not having to struggle that way yourself? More than anything else, I think, this keeps me up at night. As I turn into this extraordinarily privileged person, this upper middle class white lady, with a new car and a big house, who shops at Whole Foods without considering the cost, how do I make sure to remember how lucky I am, and that this isn't about my being gifted in any way, or "earning" anything? Is there a way to keep that in mind without being so paralyzed by the guilt that you don't even try? Guilt is so rarely a useful emotion--how can I make it one?

8 Comments

Why do you feel guilty for making good decisions and for having the opportunities to make those decisions? We are where we are largely through luck as well, our income 7 years ago put us well below the poverty rate. Now we bring in 12 times that, due to a series of extremely fortunate opportunities. We try to support our friends and family as much as we reasonably can, we give a lot to our community and we contribute for our friends who do missionary work. Family is trickier, because they don't want the help, but we do what we can. Hosting family gatherings, and such.

I happen to know that you make a conscious effort to give back, and that puts you one step ahead of many in my opinion. You show great self-awareness, and just because you've been lucky and blessed does not mean that you are not deserving or are any less deserving than the next guy. I don't know that you're any *more* deserving, but you're certainly just as, if you know what I mean. I'm happy to see you remember the less fortunate and not take things for granted. It means a lot to those of us around you who aren't so blessed financially, but are certainly lucky in many other ways. :)

I am in (as you know) a similar situation, though the discrepancy for most of my friends is not luck. It’s career choice. Which makes it more complicated to me. When we were in a situation where al of us had similar jobs and someone was un or underemployed, we’d all pitch in and help someone out. But now these people have made the choice to never make any more money than what they currently make, that’s awkward. I am not (nor would they want me) going to pitch in all the time for them. But I have gotten guff from my friends in this situation that certain things my group of friends choose to do is “too expensive.” That irritates me. Even when something was too expensive for me, I would have NEVER have said that as it implies everyone else is a spendthrift. Also I would point out these events are generally dinner out somewhere that’s under 15$ a plate. My feeling is a lot of these things are not too expensive, we’ve just made different choices. These people have the money to do lots of stuff I wouldn’t spend money on even though I have it. I think if it’s approached this way, as “I choose not to do that” (because I also choose to have a fulfilling career that will only ever pay me 30K or because it’s not worth the money to me), then that’s reasonable. I just cannot stand when people participate in the same activity as everyone else and THEN cry poor.

Oddly I get the same thing from the other direction from couples, especially with travel. Essentially, if I am traveling with a couple, everything is half the price for them as it is for me and they have been kind of insensitive about it.

I honestly never ever want to hear someone say something is too expensive for them. It rings false. My parents would’ve died rather than say something was too expensive for them, even when most stuff was.

Oddly my family is totally the most assy about this subject. They definitely think making money is 100% luck. When I try to explain I also, oh got two degrees which allowed me to get this job they think that's also just luck. Like, hello, I made a plan and I did things that weren't immediate gratification to get here. Nope. Just luck.

I've been keeping the personal stuff off my blog too. It is just one of those things that is always a struggle on what you want to share and what you should share. I grew up in a very working class family that was a times beyond hand to mouth. In high school I used to stand in line for free groceries. Then the next year I'd get a whole new wardrobe at the limited (back when it was fancy and euro)

Now I get manicures. Spend over $600 a month in food some months. Buy a $30 lipstick. But you know what? Who cares? If your bills are paid, you have a nest egg, you put away for retirement who cares if you get a manicure. I know I suffer from crippling catholic guilt and I am not even catholic (but half my family is) It will always be a struggle mentally. Seriously. Damned if you do or you don't. So why not enjoy yourself as long as you are within your means?

It has taken me a long time and I am not good at it but you can't compare yourself to others. you are no better or worse then someone who is stuggling with money. You might have issues they couldn't fathrom having. Everyone has a battle just they are always a bit different.

you can remember how lucky you are by appreciating what you have and knowing it can be taken away tomorrow. Don't buy anything you don't LOVE. Don't throw things away you could donate. etc. Take care of the things you have. Polish the fancy shoes, hang the new shirt up.

I love your personal posts...they are what I read for, 100%.

I really disagree with a lot of what the other commentors have said, for various reasons. I don't see why people shouldn't comment that something is too expensive for them (I think I'm just not "getting" that comment, perhaps) and I definitely don't think it's a "who cares?" situation. I think it's good to care, and important to care. "Who cares?" is in part what leads to the huge income discrepancies in the US, IMO.

I struggle with this too though. Not with regards to my family - I'm in pretty much the same class as my parents. Somewhat with friends. But mostly, it's an struggle related to the folks I work with (clients, not coworkers) . I don't make a lot of money, not at all. But my expenses are pretty low, and so I have a fair amount of discretionary funds. Spending every day with people who have literally zero discretionary funds leaves me feeling definitely spoiled. We're taking a three day weekend - two nights at a cheap B&B in Maine, and honestly I am struggling not to feel guilty about it. On the one hand, my job is wearing me DOWN in a serious way, and the more fun and pampering I can have on the weekends, the more able I will be. On the other hand, it feels seriously illogical to spend hundreds of dollars in one weekend, just for fun.

In fact, it feels more than illogical...it sometimes feels disgusting. And sure, I deserve it just as much as anyone. But here's the catch - there are people out there who deserve things even more basic, and don't have them. AND, I could give them those things. (Couldn't give hundreds directly to my clients, but you know what I mean.) The way we spend our money ISN'T neutral! We CAN spend our money in ways that make things better for other people, and give them things that everyone truly does deserve. Clean water. Food. Health care. So it's definitely not a "who cares?" situation, not in my mind.

Honestly, this is where my morals are overcome by self interest. That's the bottom line. Morally, I think I should keep the money that I need to have a healthy, simple, frugal life, and donate the rest. (Many people would probably say that the amount we make is pretty close to what you need for a simple frugal life, but that's not really true.) In reality, I'm not going to do that. I agree...it is hard to reconcile, as it probably should be.

I don't really know what we should do with those feelings. I don't think that finding a way to feel good about exorbitant spending is a good answer (nor am I trying to suggest that's the answer you're looking for). FWIW, I've always been impressed and inspired by your commitment to making contributions to the causes you believe in. You're one of the only people I know who does that on the regular. And I've just been reminded that student loans and saving accounts aren't the only place to be squirreling away my extra funds. So thank you.

Wow, coming in late to this one, but I have to comment, too, even though there have been some great comments to this point. I may possibly be the only man to comment, though, so maybe that counts for something.

As usual, we have a lot in common. I grew up in a working-class (sometimes lower) family in a working-class town. I went to college, but didn't end up finishing, finding my way in my career through a combination of determination, hard work, and the sheer luck of being in the right time at the right place. That last one haunts me the most, even 11 years after I "made it". It would be so easy to just say I made it on the strength of that hard work and determination alone, but I know the truth, and because of that, I continue to feel a great deal of guilt when I see the gap between my own lifestyle and that of my friends back home.

Of course, now that I'm slowly starting to see my fiction writing career pick up, my guilt is starting to double up on me.

Like you, I try to find ways to "give back", to be more aware of that gap and the inequality of opportunity that exists and work to support changing that, through teaching ESL, giving to causes that support education, and trying to help out friends and family where I can, but there's always that question in the back of my head of whether I'm doing enough and whether it's for the right reasons - do I really want to help people out, or just assuage my guilt?

I think you can end up driving yourself crazy asking those questions, though. In the end, we just have what we're given and have to do the best we can with it. No one can change it all and I think it might even be counterproductive to torpedo your own success - who better to push forward and "give back" than someone who's been on the other end of the income gap? I've tried to settle with the answers above and work as a kind of "vanguard", but I imagine it's never going to be 100% easy. I can definitely relate.

W/R/T Jess' comment, I'll try to explain. I think for me never saying things are too expensive for you is a pride & politeness thing. My parents grew up in weird foreigner ghetto situations, so I am guessing this is a result of that, but also is something that a lot of people I know who grow up in poor urban situations. If you're actually poor, you make do. You don't cry poor. If you're poor, you're obviously not going to pull the wool over anyone's eyes, but you look presentable. You never complain about it in polite company or bring it up. Sure, you make different decisions than non-poor people, but if they ask you to a fancy restaurant you just say you're busy not that you can't afford it. It's rude to do that because it basically puts the other person in an awkward position--s/he has to offer to pay or feel bad that they can afford it. It's a matter of politeness. Because talking about money is awkward and embarrassing. It's polite in the same way that you wouldn't go up to your poor friends and tell them about the awesome bonus you got that is more than their yearly salary. It's a dick move.

This is why, until this day, my entire family mocks all of my friends from college and grad school when they say they can't do something because of money. Actually poor people would never admit they couldn't do that for fear of embarrassment in their experience. I find it embarrassing on behalf of my friends when they say this. And again, with everyone I know it's less that they don't have the money to do something but they have CHOSEN to spend the money elsewhere, which is different from not having it.

Jenny - thanks for clarifying.

I guess I don't think of an honest "I can't afford that" as "crying poor"...but rather just being honest. And the other person is sort of responsible for dealing with their own feelings of guilt or obligation or whatever. I have lots of weird and not socially accepted opinions about what is polite or rude though. :p

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