For me, when it comes to talking about money, no real conversation can be had unless you first talk about empathy and perspective. Too often, we think about money, even on a wide scale, as just being individual stories of triumph or failure, planning or failing to plan. And yes, the narratives about “How I did X” are great, and can be very useful. But without that core of empathy — remembering and acknowledging what was easier for you, relativizing what was harder — it’s easy to break money talk down into that obnoxious, bro-y narrative of “Stop being a failure and be more like ME.” Our goal at TFD has never been to give everyone a one-size-fits-all financial plan for our readers, because even if we were qualified to give that (and no one really is), such a thing could never exist. Even if people’s financial numbers are the same on the surface, their backgrounds, responsibilities, upbringings, and money literacy could be totally different.
Growing up poor can forever alter how someone approaches money, even if they become extremely financially comfortable. And similarly, growing up wealthy can make that core financial empathy — understanding that what is “normal” to you may not be anything near “normal” for someone else — all the harder to truly embrace. Speaking personally, as someone who was poor as a child and then moved to a very high-income town (where I was no longer poor, but certainly middle-class), I learned first-hand how growing up in an enclave of wealth can mean fundamentally misunderstanding what is “normal” for most of the country. So much of what my high school and college peers thought nothing of seemed incredibly luxurious to me, then and now, even when I’ve moved into an upper-middle-class household income bracket. Of course people had a pool, and two boats docked in slips at the end of their street, and the money to not have to take on student debt at a private college, and a new-ish German car, and semesters in Spain, and, and, and. You don’t?
And worse, when we grow up in serious financial privilege, we tend to ascribe a moral or ethical value to things that were simply a result of access. For example, traveling internationally through childhood or adolescence, going to an expensive, elite school, working unpaid internships, having grown up with a full schedule of extra-curriculars — all of these are given, intentionally or not, a value as an adult. We think of someone as inherently more cultured or smart for having experienced these things, even though they are available to anyone with enough money. And if you move to a big city as an adult, where much of this financial privilege is around you, you realize just how much having grown up with these experiences means “speaking the language” of the elite. It’s subconscious, most of the time, but it’s still a clear example of how easy it is to lack financial empathy.
To that end, I asked TFD readers who grew up wealthy to share the things that they didn’t realize weren’t normal when growing up, and here are their answers:
1. “Being able to change schools when one school wasn’t good. My parents weren’t happy with the public school we were zoned in, so after a year of me not having a great year there, they moved me and my two younger siblings to a Christian school down the road. It never occurred to me that most people just had to stay where they were put because private school is so expensive — I thought they just liked the public school.” – Olivia
2. “I did not realize that I was wealthy until I was seventeen. In fact, I very much considered my family on the lower end of middle class because of what some of my friends’ lives looked like. I knew we weren’t poor but I didn’t realize how far from normal my life like looked. When I moved to a pre-war apartment in Brooklyn when I was nineteen, I remember calling my mom and telling her that there’s so much mildew and dust build up in Brooklyn compared to Florida. I think she almost had a heart attack before explaining that mildew and dust exist everywhere but ours was taken care of by a woman who regularly cleaned our house for us. It never dawned on me that people had to do more than clean up spills, which is super embarrassing, but at least I know now.” – Stina
3. “I didn’t grow up extraordinarily wealthy, but we were always pretty well off. One thing I didn’t know was normal was that people pay car payments/lease. My parents always bought new cars in full and always told me that payments/leases were a rip off and I only found out a couple years ago that a lot of people can’t afford to buy new cars without payments/leases.” – Carrie
4. “The discovery that my family was even considered wealthy was a shock. Growing up, I never considered my family wealthy. We were well off, sure, but I had a lot of friends whose parents made more than mine did/do. I’ll be the first to tell you my siblings were, and still are, crazy spoiled by my parents and I’ve been insanely fortunate to never even come close to knowing what it’s like to go without. I also grew up in an extremely affluent area and, though I know now that my parents are clearly upper middle class (and the upper, upper middle at that), I naively assumed that because most of my friends and classmates lived in 1% households, that my parents’ (what I now know is) 5% income level was small potatoes. I was a freshman in college when I finally grasped just how good I had it. Obviously I wasn’t so delusional/up my own ass that I didn’t know that working class and poor people existed, but I definitely didn’t consider my family wealthy. I more or less thought my family was working class. Ah, privilege….” – Conni
5. “It took me a really long time to realize that not everyone got to travel growing up. I went to an international destination with my family at least once per year from the age of 10, and would always go to new places within the US for weekend trips and stuff. This just seemed normal to me, and everyone I knew, so when I was audibly shocked when a coworker at my first internship, who was about 26, said she was getting her first passport, I looked like a complete ass. I can’t imagine the kind of stuff people said behind my back at that point, but it was a splash of cold water in the face I needed: travel is a huge luxury.” – Laci
6. “I remember noticing more in high school than after, but I never understood everyone else talking about getting gas or being worried about getting gas. Growing up in my family, my gas was taken care of by my dad who founded his company. It was spun as a business expense, trying to eliminate some taxes in ways I didn’t understand. I know my car was bought by the company too — it was a depreciable asset. Going to a private Catholic high school, wanting a foreign car wasn’t out of the ordinary. Since I hung out around richer kids (played lacrosse but was definitely not a LaxBro), I wanted the same companies but recognized that maybe we could get a deal on a used one instead. (Seriously, nothing better than a mid-2000s Audi, still drive a 2006 A3 today.) But I felt the brand was a status symbol and because of who I hung out with and the reputation of the school, it was a something I needed in order to fit in. It was just one of those things that I took for granted: a car and the simplicity of keeping it running. Oddly enough, now I look at it from the other side: friends are taking on a car loan and brand new cars, but I still went after a used car on my last time out because I’d rather buy a car outright than pay interest on it. Which maybe fits in the same type of story, I could come up with cash for a used car where they can manage a monthly payment for the next 5 years. I’m pretty sure I could manage to afford similar things but still hold to a few of the same ideas of luxury brands as I did in high school.” – Patrick
7. “Honestly, a college education. I still had to take on some debt, because I chose an extremely expensive school, but I never had to work through school and my payments are very manageable. I didn’t understand just how hard it can be for so many people to get a college education, or how much it can mess things up for them, financially. For me, and pretty much everyone at my high school, it was a given that we’d all go to college. People just asked us ‘where?,’ it was never a question of whether or not we’d be going. Every parent in our town would proudly display the pennants and bumper stickers of where their kids were going, and it just wasn’t an option not to go (unless you were some huge academic fuckup, I guess). I simply didn’t understand how privileged we were.” – Jason
8. “Etiquette. I went to a great school and had a tutor and had parents who were both from wealthy backgrounds, so I grew up with a lot of old-school etiquette — really proper dialect and speech, knowing all the norms of dinner parties and small talk and such. I didn’t realize just how much of an advantage ‘sounding like a rich person’ was, until I started the job hunt in NYC.” – Alison
9. “1. My parents bought me a car when I got my license. 2. No student loans. 3. Literally no financial responsibility at all when it comes to credit card debt. 4. My parents would always fund my trips around the country to visit friends complete with spending money. I never saw it as being ‘spoiled,’ because I didn’t ask for these things and I appreciate my parents so much but it definitely wasn’t ‘normal.’ 5. I grew up in a wealthy neighborhood. Coach the brand was considered low class. A Coach clutch is what 14 year old girls got as a birthday present.” – Leena
10. “I think the biggest shock to me was understanding how expensive nice clothes are. We always did our big back-to-school shopping at places like Nordstrom and J.Crew and Banana Republic, and that just seemed like the normal, go-to stores. (People at my school would call Old Navy and Aeropostale ‘ghetto,’ which I know now is beyond horrible.) I took for granted that my clothes were always extremely high-quality, classic, and made me look ‘put-together.’ Now that I pay for my own clothes, I understand just how luxurious that was.” – Melanie
11. “Honestly, having a stay-at-home mom. The fact that we could live comfortably while my mom’s entire life was about taking care of us and making sure we had the best upbringing possible was maybe the most ‘privileged’ thing we had. Ironically, being a SAHM gave my mom serious depression, and I don’t even know if it was a good thing, overall, but I can tell you that having my mom there to cook every meal, play with us, do our homework with us, and read us a book at bedtime every time felt like living in a fairy tale.” – Bee
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