As our children snacked on orange slices and blueberries a new friend and I chatted under a shady pavilion. We asked each other introductory questions like: What do you like to do for fun? Where did you grow up? You know the basic stuff.
Eventually we finished eating and began to pack up. One minute my friend was plopping discarded orange rinds into a bag. The next she turned and said, “You are the richest person I know.”
The words rolled off her tongue like any other indisputable fact. She could have said the grass is green or the sky is blue. Her tone wouldn’t have sounded any different. It was simply a thought she believed to be true.
I felt the blood rush to my face immediately. “What makes you think I’m rich?” I asked. I thought about our past interactions and conversations. Did I do or say something to make her feel that way?
“You own a big house and drive a big, new SUV,” she said quite matter of factly. “My friends and family live in apartments and drive small, old cars.”
Moments earlier we were discussing our kids favorite pastimes. Her daughter’s love of dance. My son’s fondness for puzzles. How had the conversation turned to wealth?
More importantly, why did my cheeks flush when she made this particular comment? Why did I feel so incredibly uncomfortable discussing this topic?
Modest About Money
I am not the type of person to flaunt my wealth. In fact, I am incredibly modest about money.
Every day I read blog posts and news articles listing the financial accomplishments of those seeking wealth. They include details like:
- I saved $1,000,000.
- I retired at 30.
- I own multiple rental properties.
You can find names, financial figures and smiling images all over the news and you can practically feel the pride emanating from those pictures. I applaud those who share their stories, but I could never do the same. Instead I hide my wealth from those who know me.
Why do I hide?
This question has lingered in the back of my mind for years. How can I write a blog about money, yet shy away from financial success in real life?
I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason until a very specific memory popped into my mind.
My Best Friend
Growing up my best friend and I lived directly across the street from one another. We were inseparable as small children and remained close throughout high school. I went to my friend’s house every day after school and all day, (from morning until nightfall), in the summer.
We lived in a working class neighborhood in identical three bedroom, 1200 square foot houses. Neither of our moms worked when we were little, but our dads probably earned comparable incomes. My dad worked for the government. Her dad owned a small construction company.
We were close until I left for college. When I went away to school my friend stayed home and found a job as an office assistant. I think she wanted to go to college, but no one in her family had ever gone before.
Losing That Sense Of Belonging
When I returned home the summer after freshman year I immediately went to visit her. I couldn’t wait to catch up. We talked like old friends do. We rattled on and on like no time had passed since we last chatted.
As we were talking her dad walked into the kitchen. “Oh,” he said, “Little Ms. College Student has come for a visit. I’m surprised to see you here. Aren’t you too good for us now?”
I was eighteen at the time and unsure of what to say. His words hung in the air around me. I loved this family like they were my own. My best friend’s mother had acted like a second mother when I was growing up. My best friend was like a sister to me.
Suddenly I felt like an unwanted outsider.
Emotions and Money
When I reflect back on that moment I’m unable to describe my emotional state. Perhaps I felt embarrassed by his words, ashamed of my opportunities or guilty for talking about my experiences. Perhaps it was all of the above.
Money was always tight in my friend’s household. Her parents constantly mismanaged it. Contracting work comes and goes, but whenever my friend’s dad landed a big contract he’d blow through everything he earned.
If there was a lapse between contracts he couldn’t pay the bills. They sat in a stack on the edge of their kitchen table. My friend’s mom would circle the amount owed with a bright red marker and show them to her dad as soon as he walked in the door.
College didn’t provide me with a bucket full of money, but it did give me a ticket to a higher-paying job and a better future. Maybe that was too much for him. Was he disheartened by his own path in life? Was he jealous of the path that stood before me?
Maybe he thought I didn’t deserve the rewards a college degree would provide or perhaps he felt guilty that his daughter wouldn’t receive the same opportunities. I’ll never know. Similar incidents followed this one. My presence was no longer desired in their home and it became quite clear that my friend and I would soon part ways.
Eventually I would earn more money than my friend, her sister and parents combined. Clearly her dad was uncomfortable with that idea and many others.
Our relationship was never the same after that. My friend remained in our small town, while I moved away. Her family still struggles to pay the bills. Many of them still live together because one income is not enough to support an entire household.
I will always wonder what kind of life she could have had. How college could have helped her succeed in life? What opportunities she could have found as a result of a degree?
I will never forget the moments we shared as children. When I see her today, (without her family), I can’t stop smiling. If I could wish success for anyone in life I would most definitely wish it for her.
I learned a valuable lesson from my friend’s father. In order to fit in sometimes you have to downplay your success. I suppose I have taken this lesson to heart. I’ve hidden my success and my wealth for decades.
So you can imagine my shock when my new friend said, “You are the richest person I know.” I work so incredibly hard to make it look like we’re not wealthy. I am the quintessential millionaire next door. My lifestyle does not reflect my bank totals.
So what did I do when she made the ‘richest‘ comment? I downplayed my success the same way I always do.
“We bought our house when the market was low,” I said. “Oh and we just replaced our car. The old one was over fifteen years old.”
Those things are true. Another truth: I am the richest person she knows.
The Stigma Behind Wealth
What does the word ‘rich’ convey to you? To much of the world it represents someone who is unsympathetic and uncaring. It’s a harsh adjective to use in a world where others are struggling.
If you search for the word ‘rich‘ you will find synonyms like wealthy, affluent, prosperous and plush, but in this day and age even those words carry a significant weight with them. Consider the term’ filthy rich.’ The original definition included those who earned their money dishonestly. Now ‘filthy rich’ refers to someone who has so much money it’s deemed offensive.
In fact, the word ‘rich’ has assumed such a negative connotation that many people have stopped using it. They now use the term ‘well-off‘ instead.
For the record my friend didn’t say, “it’s bad to be rich.” She simply stated her observation. I connected the dots between her words and that idea.
Wealth Divides Us
My friend’s dad permitted my education and eventual wealth to divide us from one another. It was a division that didn’t need to occur. His words would have been better off left unspoken.
As an adult I can see the pain that echoed through his comments. As an eighteen year old I could only feel the pain he inflicted.
My wealth and education are not the only attributes that define me. Who I am and how I behave are much more important than how many degrees I’ve earned or how much money I’ve saved along the way.
I will be judged. We all judge one another, but I don’t want money to be a deciding factor in my relationships. I keep my financial details bound up safe where my money can’t be used against me.