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.