I have a complicated (and unhealthy) relationship with money and like a lot of issues that need examining, this one starts with childhood.
My mother is obsessed with it. My father was frugal, but beyond that he hasn’t influenced me like my mother because he died when I was very young. I knew he was good about eating leftovers for lunch, and even if the leftovers were small and hardly worth saving, he’d save it anyway. This was probably because he grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution.
On the other hand, I suppose my mother’s preoccupation with greenbacks stems from growing up poor in rural Thailand. She was determined to get out of her small hometown. Although, she was strangely enough a picky eater when food was scarce. She’s worked many jobs.
My stepfather (as I call him out of convenience as he and my mother never married, but he raised me for a good part of my childhood) also grew up poor. He had seven siblings like my mother. His father was abusive when he was around. And my stepfather dropped out of high school during his first year because he decided selling drugs was more lucrative.
As far as I could tell, neither of them had a good relationship with money. One of them tried to run away from their debt. One of them barely made any money. Neither of them have ever collected unemployment. They’d have to be at death’s door to not work, and I’m not entirely positive they’d rest even then. Both of them were “working class heroes” doing the best that they could for us. I wouldn’t trade them, but I’m writing this to unravel my attitude towards money so that I can understand my unconscious ideas and blind spots surrounding it.
Realizing I have a problem (and I’m different)
I think it was sometime around college (obtaining my liberal arts education) that I realized I hated rich people. I resented the imbalance of the world. I decided that rich folks must have lazily inherited it or were immoral in their means to attain it. This was an unfair bias and it was an uncomfortable awareness to see in myself. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous “the first step is admitting you have a problem”.
When I was a Waldorf teacher I became acutely aware that I was working for primarily upper middle class and well-to-do families. But what really struck me, even after visiting their homes and seeing how they lived, was how they treated their children. It could not have been more different than my own childhood. My eyebrows rose when I saw what some of them brought for lunch, when the children were assertive, and not only that, when they were believed over others – including adults.
Children were seen, but not heard in my days. I went to public schools where the majority of us ate school lunches for 45 cents. We didn’t snitch on our classmates. We didn’t bother telling our parents how our day went or what happened. If we did the answer the question “how was school?” it was “fine”. We had to listen to adults. There was no choice in the matter.
Ultimately I was fired from that job, but looking back I see how much class differences, and maybe even cultural ones played into the divide between me and school. I didn’t belong. But I wasn’t the only working class teacher among the affluent student body. There were a total of four grade school teachers, three of us were fired, and the other one quit sensing the problems on the horizon.
This situation certainly did not help me have a better relationship with money, and my perceptions of people with money. I remember during this time I told my stepfather that I was making more money than I ever had in my life ($28,000 before taxes), and him warning me that the more you make the more you will spend. It turned out to be true.
When I was in college, I was given credit cards because I was receiving financial assistance from the government, so I suppose my “income” looked wonderful. I had no education regarding managing money and used the card freely, learning the hard way that spending money you don’t have is one hell of a drug.
After I graduated, I would worry about my debt from both credit cards and student loans. I look back at how poorly I managed my money. At one point I was working non-stop, at three jobs in an effort to cut into my debt. One night I couldn’t sleep tossing and turning over the fact that I couldn’t pay for things, my shame in suggesting to a friend if I should ask all my friends to help me out and chip in like $5 or something. Then I told myself that credit cards companies do not lie awake at night worrying so why the heck should I?
Eventually I did pay off my undergraduate student loans and credit cards. I only charge something if I know I can pay off the balance completely before it’s due. But this isn’t a success story – yet.
My longest relationship was with a man who made good money. Prior to him I was dating creative types, guys who rode their bicycles to work, and subsisted on PB&J’s, and other people’s lunches. People like to say it’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is a poor one. I don’t know. The rich ones were never around as far as I could tell. And even if he was, I wouldn’t be turned on.
Years ago, there was a couple that I spent a lot of time with. He was making very good money and he’d always pick up the tab when we ate out. It didn’t matter how much we protested. And I told myself I want to be like that. For a short time, and it wasn’t even a lot of money, I was able to return the favor to friends I knew were making less than me. Then when I was down on my luck, they picked up the check reminding me of all the times I did in the past.
When life did throw me the opportunities to walk into a fancy hotel or an expensive restaurant, I’d looked like a scared rabbit. Then I’d joke, “Oh, they know I don’t belong here.” I immediately put up a wall, felt self-conscious, and told myself that I didn’t want to belong either.
Then one day a fellow expat said to me, “You have just as much right to be here as the next” and that shook off my stupid “I’m not worthy” coat that I had been wearing for decades. These days, I’m much more comfortable with finer living (hahaha) and hold my head up high. Well, not too high.
Since living abroad, I’ve been in contact with many more people from different economic backgrounds. It’s been good for me. I’ve had old twisted ideas challenged. People with money are all colors, shapes, and sizes. I’ve gotten to know these people. We catch each other during snapshots in time. I can’t help the way I was raised and nor can they.
I don’t want to resent people with money or who grew up privileged. I know that I’m privileged too; it just depends on who you compare yourself to. And man oh man do we do a lot of comparing.
It’s time to believe I’m worthy of money. I deserve money. It’s not wrong to want it, but it’s damaging to believe that living at poverty level is the best I can hope for. It’s time to change the inner channel that I’ve been playing in my mind, and tune into something bigger, greater, and more fulfilling.
What’s your relationship with money?