Financially-Sponsored People Need To Be Honest About Their Shit

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Recently, a good friend and I got on the subject of a woman we both loosely know. This woman has spoken, on several occasions, with judgment or derision about the work other women have done as artists or writers to earn money. This woman’s work is something she considers “pure” and “artistic,” and she’s never hesitant to criticize some of the less-prestigious work that often must be done to supplement a day-to-day income, or the ways in which said work must be monetized, like through advertisements. It’s a tough pill to swallow coming from anyone — and I’ve spoken openly about the fact that, even when you’ve reached some success, you still have to do work you’re not in love with — but it’s particularly tough coming from her, when she frequently does not have to work. Her partner is, to put it mildly, extremely rich. And by extension, so is she. And her choosiness in her work is in many ways afforded by this great relief in financial pressure, something I’m sure many people would be happy to try on for size.

When I was in college, I was ashamed of many things. I was ashamed to be living at home with my parents, ashamed to be at a community college for a minimum of two years, ashamed to have to work one or more jobs during school to help pay my tuition, ashamed to not be able to travel for my holidays. I thought that this made me an anomaly, that I was somehow defective or wrong for not being able to participate in what I perceived to be a “normal” life for my age bracket. Looking back now, I see that my parents were simply reasonable middle-class people who refused to go into debt or put me into debt, and who had set a budget for my four years of undergraduate education that required I contribute and start at community college. It turned out that I never even graduated, and looking back now I’m more than lucid that this was the best choice for my flighty, undecided 19-year-old self. But at the time, nothing could have been more humiliating.

And as an adult, I can see people around me all the time who are ashamed. They are ashamed to be living at home with their parents in their mid-20s because they’re saddled with student debt and are trying to get above water before they move out. They’re ashamed to have to work multiple jobs, sometimes one right after the other, because their 9-5 isn’t paying them enough. They’re ashamed to be taking work that is maybe not terribly prestigious or impressive, but which pay the bills well and on time. They’re ashamed to be renting a small room in an inconveniently-located neighborhood, instead of a big apartment in the city center where some of their friends are.

And having this website, I receive stories every single day from people who are deeply ashamed of their (totally average) financial situations because they perceive themselves to be incompetent or a failure somehow, because they see the lives playing out on their favorite shows or even with some of their own friends and feel that they cannot measure up. Many people write to me saying that they’ve gone into debt to dress a certain way at work, to go out at the same pace as their friends, or to live in an apartment that they can’t afford, but which makes them look a certain way.

And this is because, more than anything, we are not honest about our money. The people who have it — especially the people who have it from some other source than their own hard work — don’t want you to know about that. I know people whose rent is subsidized, or whose vacations are paid for, whose wardrobes are almost entirely gifted, or who have taken long pauses between jobs because they wanted to make sure they find the exact right thing. And you’re delusional if you don’t think those people are actively trying to hide that shit. And you know why? Because they know you would resent them, hate them, or think much less of them if you knew. And while I’m not saying that that is a justifiable response (at least in many cases), I am saying that it’s fucking unfair to not give people the truth, and to just let them feel inadequate instead.

Hell, I run a website about financial honesty and I don’t even come out there with my own situation that often. My truth? My boyfriend and I both come from normal middle-class families, but now, combined, we out-earn our parents. We’re technically considered upper-middle-class now, and though it’s our money, it’s still a lifestyle that is not universal for our age bracket and therefore is sometimes a source of guilt. People will write to me and ask how I manage to travel internationally multiple times a year, and I feel awful. My first instinct is not to answer, because the truth is that my boyfriend travels four days a week for work and therefore is constantly amassing a shitload of hotel and airfare points. Do I like that he’s gone most of the time? Of course not. Does it afford us a life of travel that we otherwise wouldn’t have? Absolutely. If I were on my own, I would not be traveling with such ease — and I didn’t before he had to travel so much for work — but the idea that anyone would feel inadequate looking at my falsely-inflated lifestyle makes me feel like a piece of crap.

I am at a place in my life where, for the first time, I’m able to be a bit more choosy about my own work and I don’t have to worry about every paycheck. I’m spending a bunch of money on adult braces this year (ugh) and, yeah, it stings, but it’s not the end of the world. I am able to save money regularly and have the mental fortitude to do so for the first time in my life, but it doesn’t stop me from going out pretty often and paying over a thousand dollars a month for my portion of rent. Though I could never just go for long periods of time without working, I was able to start my website and freelance for a few months to see how it would go instead of hopping right into a new job at the end of last year. I know that I am in a better situation than many people in my life, but I still fall on a bell curve. And I know how hard it is, even in the middle of said bell curve — even when your job is talking about personal finance! — to be honest. But it’s so important that people do so, particularly people who are not living a lifestyle based on their own personal choices and work.

And it’s CERTAINLY important to never judge what someone else must do for money when you’re not having to make those hard choices yourself. It is everyone’s duty, when they are living a life that is deceptive and aspirational in appearance, to be honest about what that means, and to never put the pressure on someone else to live up to what you’re getting for free, out of their own hard work and much-needed cash flow. Friendships and relationships should be built on honesty and mutual respect, and it’s hard to do that if you’re not frank about the truth of your situation. Because having been on both sides of the equation, I can say with confidence that nothing is worse than the shame you feel for not living well enough, except maybe the righteous indignation you feel when you realize that this magical lifestyle was never real to begin with.

  • Summer

    It’s too bad money is still such a ~taboo~ subject. It fascinates me to learn about the financial situations of others and how they got to where they are now (for better or worse). If we were all more open about this stuff, I think everyone would benefit in the long run…if for no other reason than eliminating judgment arising from uninformed perception.

    Can I ask what Marc does for work? Partially because I’m just curious, partially because I would love to travel for work on a regular basis, too, so I’m all ears whenever I hear of someone who does.

    • chelseafagan

      Sure! I don’t want to get into too much detail to protect his privacy, but he works for a consulting firm (one of the big ones). He’s in the consulting part, not the audit part though. I don’t know how much the audit people travel personally.

    • nycnative

      I agree, I’m always interested in other people’s financials because everyone is so different and I feel like I can learn from how other people balance things and where they save and how. I also share my stuff with friends for this reason and have been really open about how I lived at home for nearly two years after college (having parents who live in the city made that a lot easier, of course) to save a chunk of money. Someone else above mentioned that people look at her shamefully when they find out she lived at home, but everyone I’ve told immediately gets it (no matter how rich they are) and respects it. Anyone who would judge you for that is ridiculous!

    • Leah Knapp

      Hey Summer! Depending on what you’re interested in, college admissions is another field that allows you to travel a ton. Typically it’s 6-12 weeks annually, depending on where you work. It’s what I do, so naturally that came to mind 🙂

  • Jenn J.

    This sums up so much for me. I just moved out of my parents’ home after amassing a pretty decently sized savings account (which is now mostly gone thanks to my move) and paying what most people would consider a rent payment in student loans every month. Now I live in LA (got a new job) and had to rearrange my entire financial life to pay $1200 for a room in a tiny 3 bedroom house. Yes, I live near the beach but ONLY because my office is in Santa Monica (trying to maximize my time out of work). I always feel guilty for saying no to colleagues for not going out to lunch simply because I can’t afford to. I feel guilty for not paying as much as I used to for my student loans (hello graduated repayment plan). I also felt guilty for living at home. Basically it sucks both ways. Meanwhile, I have a friend who seems to always be gallivanting around the globe, attending the symphony/ballet/galas, living in SF and buying brand new Audis. It just slays me. Anyway, sorry for the rant. This post left me shaking my head yes the entire time. Thank you for the validation.

  • Amanda

    The amount of people that discredit your hard work and made snide comments about everything once they find out that you come from money is annoying. The fact that people feel so entitled to that information, because it is ‘unfair’ is ridiculous.

    I have had people make comments like ‘oh some people don’t have parents that just give them money to spend’ or ‘you went to a private school, and we still end up in the same place’. My financial situation is no ones business but my own.

    • elia

      Ugh. Way to prove the article’s entire point.

    • DK

      Nobody is entitled to your financial information but you should be cognizant of your entitlement. If you come from money, even if you’ve worked hard to succeed, you have to realize that your success has in large part come from your circumstances.

      Someone who has come from more difficult circumstances might disrespect your hard work because of your background, but this is where some empathy should come to play instead of your feeling expressed here, “how could they think that, I worked hard too.”

  • Annie Goldbaugh

    I have to remind myself multiple times a day that some of my friends had a lot more help than I did in transitioning from semi-dependent college students to working girl status. Whether their parents paid for their apartments, cars or clothes, or in some cases *helped* (ahem) them secure their big girl jobs, these people have had a very different experience than me. It’s hard not to be jealous when they go out to eat several nights a week, or can just take a weekend away on a whim, while I’m wondering if I can afford to spend $20 more on groceries this week without tapping into my savings (I’d rather starve).

    I recently inadvertently admitted to one of these friends just how little I currently make, and her shocked reaction was oddly comforting. I used to get a “booooo” or “c’moooon” whenever I declined an invitation to go out on a Thursday night, as though she thought I was *trying* to spoil her fun. In reality, I truly can’t afford a $20 cab ride, $40 dinner and $15 show on a weekly, or even monthly, basis. I hope that my reluctant confession will not only help her appreciate how fortunate she’s been, but also make her a little more sensitive to my situation. Shit, if she’ll just pick up that tab next time she drags me out for $12 cocktails, it’ll be a huge victory for me.

    • I recently got an enormous raise, and I still make about half of what most of my closest friends make. I’m completely honest about it, though, and most of them have really surprised me with how generous they’ve always been. It usually doesn’t mean that they’re picking up the bar tab for me – it’s more that they’re willing to choose a happy hour place over $12 cocktails, or we have dinner parties at home instead of going to fancy restaurants. I’m glad we’ve all found a way to stay close even while our incomes are far apart.

      • Annie

        I think now that some of my friends are aware of the huge income disparity, they’re more willing to do cheaper outings with me, whereas before, I felt like they thought I was just stuck in “college mode”– going to dive bars and cheap restaurants and whatnot. Dinner parties have become my main form of socializing lately– for about $60 I can feed 4-8 friends and don’t have to pay for cabs or any other bullshit. It’s wonderful!

  • Allegra

    I LOVE this article! I think being aware of your own situation, and how that could affect others is so important. I went from working on an education salary in NYC and making on my own (albeit with debt and four roommates in not so nice neighborhoods) to meeting my boyfriend, who is, for all intents and purposes, very successful and moving in with him and getting serious. My life changed dramatically for the better in a lot of ways – I work now because I want to, not because I have to, and I don’t worry about money. However, the AMAZING women who have been my friends since high school and college are still my friends, and some of what we used to bond over was how broke we all were. Many of my friends are still in that situation, working paycheck to paycheck, roommates, or even just really having to be cognizant of how much money their spending, and I’m not there anymore. At first, I wanted everything to be as it always has been, but quickly realized that it really doesn’t fly anymore. All of my friends have been in my apartment, know where I live and what vacations I go on, etc. When I started being more open, but also sensitive to their situations, things got way less weird. They’re happy for me, and I’m happy to have potlucks and hangouts in my living room, which means we all get to be together, but we aren’t breaking anyone’s bank.

  • Anthony Pantliano

    I understand where you’re coming from and agree completely. I’ve always been honest with money, maybe a bit too much. When my parent’s gifted me half of a condominium I always felt obliged to let people know that I only had to pay for half of it, but I’m not sure why exactly… maybe guilt?

    My cousin and her husband have been doing really, really well financially. They’ve paid off a house in 5 years and added a huge addition. It makes me wonder what I’ve doing wrong, especially since I was given half of my home. Only later did I find out, through my mom, that the extension was paid for by her parents.

  • nowlo

    A really nice piece about an important subject in personal finance that is rarely ever discussed. I remember reading an article earlier this year by a writer who talked frankly about how her work is subsidized by her husband’s generous salary. It allowed her the luxury of time to complete several novels without worrying about paying the mortgage or putting food on the table.

    If only more people acknowledged their privileges instead of falling back on the just world delusion that it was simply their hard work and talent that led to their success!

    I’m also reminded of the frequent cries of “sell out!” that used to (still?) accompanies artists who do commercial work or indie bands that get signed by major labels. It’s an insidious way of thinking that ends up making creative, interesting work a luxury only rich people can indulge in. I think most of us can agree that’s not the kind of world we want to live in.

  • MSR

    This piece was awesome and made me think of Meghan Daum’s “My Misspent Youth” which also touches on the idea of wanting your life to look a certain way (being able to be “carefree” and spend money out with your friends all the time, being able to have an “arty” job that pays like zero dollars instead of a less-cool 9-to-5), and gradually realizing that probably the only people who can have that life have a lot of money coming from somewhere.

  • Sophie T.

    Chelsea, thank you so much for your honestly. This was perfect and refreshing to hear!!! I LOVE LOVE LOVE The Financial Diet. It’s real and relevant and something we all need to read sometimes.

    I’m a twenty-something that took a pay cut to move back home and be closer to family. Yes, it was a very hard decision. Yes, I struggle financially because of it. But it was the best decision I could have made for my future. I was able to use my savings to buy a house, something I could have never done when I lived in a more expensive city. Yet, without my BF living with me, I could never afford it on my own because of other debt. I’m honest to people about it but yes, it stings sometimes having to admit that. Becoming an adult is hard and finances is definitely the hardest to understand.

  • Amy Oraftik

    Preach!

  • Callie Michelle

    I think there are many reasons why those who are privileged enough to be financially sponsored do not reveal their privilege. My partner and I are fortunate enough to be paying no rent, as his family owns the apartment we stay in. We travel often, due to air miles from the family business. We ARE privileged, there’s no doubt. But we both handle it differently. He avoids talking about it where possible, as he does not want to flaunt these excesses in front of people who may be in a different scenario. I, on the other hand, try to be as open as I can so people around us know – as much as possible – that we’re being helped along. Both of our actions stem from the same reasoning though: we don’t want to be seen as showing off. Especially not when it’s money that’s not inherently ours…

    • Aida Rosalia

      Exactly. I try not to brag about things my parents still pay for (computer, gas on occasion, and the wedding) on social media, but I make sure to tell my friends that actively see these things that it’s because of my parents. I do agree though with the idea that you might not want to be rude about how other people make their money, especially in a creative field, when you’re subsidized by someone else.

      • Callie Michelle

        No I do agree with that, absolutely. I do worry that many people assume that privileged individuals are somehow ‘begging’ their parents for money, and then bragging about it or hiding it or whatever. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure there are plenty. But from my personal experience, it gives mine and my partner’s parents great pleasure to be able to still care for their kids – empty nest and all. For example, it would greatly hurt their feelings should we ever say we wanted to move out and rent, given the whole reason they offered this apartment (without us ever asking – we assumed we’d be renting) was because they wanted to do their bit to help us save our money for a future house. I am so very aware that I’m speaking from a position of privilege here, but there are so many perspectives and reasons behind everything. Especially when it comes to money.

        • Aida Rosalia

          I see why you’re concerned, and maybe this just my own naive experience, but I’ve never thought of people who accept big stuff (rent for example) as begging their parents to pay for things. I go to a state school popular with the upper middle class, so I know a lot of people who have rent and school paid for all four years and I know that it’s not begging, it’s exactly what you said: their parents did well, they wanted to take care of their kids. My parents, if they were so blessed, would have done the same as they did for me pre-college (it was, don’t get a job, focus on school). So I hope that more people are actually of the opinion that it’s the parents helping their kids out not out of direct request. That’s always how I’ve seen it perceived! And I’m sorry if you’re ever gotten comments that suggest otherwise.