A consistent theme of my own thoughts as I have gone throughout life is money. Not just money in terms of “Oh I got $20 for my birthday, sweet!”, but in terms of how intimately money could control one’s life. Most of this was my mother’s doing. Brought up by her own cripplingly frugal parents, she carried on their legacy of absolute thrift. True deprivation was not a part of my childhood, we lived a comfortable middle class lifestyle, but the question of money was always the first words articulated when it came to buying anything. I cannot remember the first time my mother asked me to consider the price of an item I wanted, and deliberate if it was worth the cost. The answer was, predictably, almost always no. This reached from special food at the grocery store to clothes to souvenirs on family vacations, and more often than not it was not about specific cost or perhaps even always money, it was about not wasting. Not buying objects or things that were not necessary, but as a child the two concepts, money and waste, were intrinsically connected.
As a kid, this gave me almost absurd anxiety. I went through the agonizing stress of being able to eat my entire lunch every day because the thought of throwing food away, and wasting money, was so far out of my realm of experiences it terrified me to no end. This emphasis on money gave me a bit of an obsession with it. I understood money was precious, and most definitely not limitless. Sometime in elementary school, I saved up for weeks doing chores around the house to make $10 to buy the full version of a computer game I loved. I did the whole thing myself, gave my parents the cash, and put in all the information from email to credit card number. Turns out I spelled my father’s email wrong and the $10 was lost to the world wide web. My parents were unsympathetic, “It was your fault,” they said, “if you want to buy the game you will have to save up to $10 again.” I vaguely remember my marginally upset reaction that my hard work had been in vain, but, for the most part, the experience simply served as reinforcement to my existing world-view of the scary power and scary vulnerability that money held.
Middle school, and the general process of growing-up and becoming aware of the world outside your immediate life brought new complexities to my relationship with money. For the first time, I realized my family was not poor. I had never thought in terms of class as young child, but I always assumed we did not have much money, and definitely not extra to spend on my own flimsy desires. But, alas, in middle school I realized our house in the country and our sheep and our ability to go on vacations and afford braces meant my family, in fact, had plenty of money. Sure we were not wealthy, and sure a significant reason my family could afford our lifestyle was my mother’s thrift, but still, we had money. Certainly enough to buy new clothes and the more expensive notebook at target (something that I had never had the nerve to argue for before) when fall came around and it was time to start a new year of school. Middle school was also the time I discovered the internet, and all the new worlds presented because of it. At a time when everyone is acutely aware of the way they present themselves to the world in relation to those around them, I realized money could affect this. I simply could not afford to dress the way I wanted to, in the clothes I saw modeled by my favorite bloggers and for the first time I directly connected the fact that my friend’s family took vacations every year to a new exotic country to the differences in our family’s incomes. I did not grasp a complete understanding of class, but I started to understand that different incomes and house values and inherited wealth of my friends’ families affected us quite distinctly. There was a reason my best friend had a huge shelf of her own books, and I had small stacks of library books on my floor.
A variety of experiences in high school coalesced to give me the bitterness I carry with me now when someone mentions wealth or class. The recession hit my family hard, and my father lost his job which resulted in our family being forced to move across the country for a much lower salary in a state that stood against most of our values, a state where we felt ostracized by our beliefs. The expensive move also contributed to financial hardships: suddenly we living on a very small budget, suddenly I was terrified if we would ever have a house, if I could go ever go back to my version of normal again, and suddenly my parents were tired and scared and discussing money every night in front of us. Moving to a new state with different social codes and groups also threw my idea of the popular kids and my own social standing in school into disarray. Suddenly I began to see the connections between class and popularity, between class and the “weird kids”. It hurts when, as a 14-yr-old, you believe there is the unsurmountable barrier of class between you and the cool kids, that no matter what you do, how you act, you and your family just can not fit into that group. As high school dragged on I became more aware of the unbelievable deep-set issue of class in America. The interconnected racism and classism, how acutely one’s family’s wealth determined one’s place in society – all of it frustrated me endlessly. I realized how privileged I was and I realized how there was nothing I could do to change the disgusting way so many kids were affected incomprehensibly more than myself. It did not help that throughout my life a good portion of my friends have been wealthier than me. As a kid it never bothered me (except for the whole books thing), but as I got older and conversations shifted to paying for college and paying for the thing we all wanted: nice clothes, a good camera, a penny board, traveling, I grew angry. So angry and bitter about the whole class mess, and the way those around me talked about it and reacted to it and did not care that sometimes it was a really big deal for me to spend money on something they did not even think about, I developed an instantaneous distrust if I realized someone was wealthy. I got mad and I am still so mad.
I have been trying to work through my bias and my dislike but I have been hopelessly unsuccessful. I still see people and judge them. I can, right now, never love certain people as fully as I could if I did not have that nagging thought that they have never worked a service job, or a job not gotten by their immense privilege. I was hoping that by writing this I could work out my feelings somehow, but everything I’ve written is something I think about constantly and incessantly. I have truly never met someone that is as outwardly aware and obsessed with class as me. It scares me and worries me, because going through life constantly evaluating people on their class, or at least their reactions to discussion about money, will not get me anywhere, but still, so far, it is always there. This piece is certainly not me complaining or wishing for more wealth, it is the whole system I hate, the way even an individual who is a privileged as me can be reduced to feeling like shit because of money. This piece is about the ways my own upbringing, despite being comfortable, has made me into the person I am today with all my complicated beliefs and hang-ups and biases. It is personal and individual and perhaps sort of pointless.