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. “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. 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 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 and rattled on and on as if a year hadn’t passed.
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 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 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. Maybe, it was all of the above.
Money was always tight in my friend’s household. Unfortunately, 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. So 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 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 my friend and I soon parted ways.
Eventually, I would earn more money than my friend, her sister, and parents combined. My friend’s 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 led. How could college have helped her succeed in life? What opportunities could she find with 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 accounts.
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 significant weight with them.
For example, consider the term’ filthy rich.’ The original definition referred to those who earn money dishonestly. Now ‘filthy rich’ refers to someone who has so much money it’s deemed offensive.
The word ‘rich’ assumes such a negative connotation that many people don’t use 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. But, 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. So I keep my financial details bound up safe where my money can’t be used against me.
30 thoughts on “When Rich Feels Like A Dirty Word”
I came across your post from a link on Get Rich Slowly. It was an excellent (and timely) read, as my husband has been dealing with comments from friends about our financial choices of late.
I’ve been a SAHM since my daughter was born – she’s 22 today.
We lived frugally on one income in the NorthEast so our children could be home-schooled. We drive older cars (no payments), our kids have always worked since high school – and paid for their own college (we helped in other ways – cars to drive, books, travel costs).
We don’t do fancy vacations, or have the latest tech, but have a ‘rich’ life by enjoying what is important to us.
Living the life you love and making sound financial choices is valuable for peace of heart and mind.
Thanks for a great post!
Hi Deb, Thank you for such a kind and lovely comment. I love your definition of a ‘rich’ life and I couldn’t agree with you more! A rich life is not made of fancy vacations and expensive computers it’s made by enjoying what is important to you. It’s a blessing to ‘live the life you love!” Thank you for reminding me of that fact.
I think that it comes down to living a lifestyle different from your social group. It’s natural for people to be comfortable with others that are like them. When you are “rich” people expect you to do “rich” things. For those who are not wealthy, that means doing the things they see “rich” people do through the media. When you are different, there is a natural element of distrust because you don’t fit their stereotype.
My husband and I both came from very well off upper middle class families, yet we have always chosen to buy houses half the size where we grew up, which also means in less affluent areas. I think people always expect upward mobility in lifestyle. It confuses some that we would choose otherwise, and others think we are poor. In fact, our own son thought we were poor while we were remodeling our house and basically camping in it. All his friends from school would comment on how small our house was and its condition (we live in a boundary with a wide socioeconomic demographic all the way up to 15,000 square foot houses). We of course let him know about our financial choices and how we prefer a small house and my husband likes home projects even though we could afford much more. It was a good lesson for him because now he is happy living in a small house and doesn’t see the need or have the desire for a bigger one in his own future. It’s interesting how an abundant and intentional mindset affects children and their wants.
Now I am faced with the opposite issue. Because I am pursuing my passion, I am frequently mingling with very wealthy and influential groups of people. I remember entering an art gallery for a princess’ reception, and the host immediately came up to me, obviously did a once over of my non fashionable clothing and simple shoes and proceeded to nicely interrogate me as to my invitation and who I knew. I realized that how you dress, spend, and act to fit in really do matter on both ends of the spectrum. I also met many more people at this particular reception who were quite a bit more gracious, but it made me realize that I might need an outfit or two in my wardrobe to be taken seriously by some people in this new world, or at least to make them comfortable and like they are talking to a peer.
I think of it as manners. The point is to make people feel comfortable and be socially gracious. That means being socially and culturally aware and acting in ways that make others comfortable. Of course, there are times to make others uncomfortable, but those are rare and usually based on core values.
Now I am just not sure how to navigate in two very different societies. At heart, I am a middle class person and even my fancy dreams are the dreams of a middle class person. I am comfortable with that, and that’s how I live most of my life. However, because I am truly striving to make very impactful changes for society, I feel I also need to grow into this new role. I guess my worry is how to explain to my neighbor why I am wearing nice clothing, or the inevitable shock on a wealthy person’s face if they ever see my chosen home.
It’s hard when you live a life outside the mold.
As for Forbes, the best lesson my dad ever taught me was the value of anonymity. Freedom is truly valuable, and you give a lot of that up when you are famous, especially when you are famous for having money. Anonymity is freedom. I am inspired by your resolve to remain anonymous for Forbes.
Anonymous, this is the most thoughtful and thought provoking comment I have received in quite some time. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It’s true that “it’s hard when you live a life outside the mold.” It’s also true that your friends, family and business partners change so that you can fit into one group and no longer fit within another. Over the years I have learned to feel comfortable in my own skin. This is and will continue to be a long work in progress, but I am certainly getting better as the years go on. I have learned above all else to feel good about who I am with or without money. For instance, am I a good person, do I help others, do I go out of my way to be kind, etc? These attributes and characteristics have absolutely nothing to do with money. When you mingle with different groups keep that idea in mind. It doesn’t matter so much how others perceive us. It matters how we perceive ourselves. Thank you for your comment about Forbes. I know we live in a world where people want to be famous, but I do not have the desire for that. I want to express my thoughts and have others share their thoughts with me, but I don’t need to provide my name and photo to make that happen 🙂
Your friend was just making a statement of fact perhaps?
She was indeed. It wasn’t what she said, but how I responded to her words that caused me to write this post.
I wonder what I say in such a conversation. Probably something like you did to downplay it. I don’t know if people will ever say that to us though. Our cars are 8 years old and our house is just about the town median price. Living within our means naturally hides our money. The other thing is that much of the money is in retirement accounts or rental properties that most people don’t see.
The strange thing is that we almost literally the poorest people I know. We don’t know a lot of people, but many of my school friends graduated as lawyers or doctors. Our kids’ private school has lots of rich parents – it’s a prerequisite to pay for the school. We do know some moderate people in Boy Scouts, but it’s been hard to get to know them with COVID. Many families left due to that and the national lawsuits.
It’s weird to have money divide you when you are in the top 5-10% of net worth, but not the 1-2% like your circle. Maybe if we flaunted our money more, we could fit In better with them, but I’m not sure that’s who I want to be.
My childhood and early adult experiences certainly influenced my desire to “fit in.” As you said, you can spend more money to fit in with those who flaunt their wealth or spend very little to fit in with those who have less. I want to be the most authentic version of myself, but sometimes that is difficult. And, like you, I wouldn’t want to spend more money just to fit in with those who like to flaunt their wealth.
As you know, my oldest son attended private school for awhile, but the parents there were all very down to earth and few of them were wealthy. Most were scrounging up money to pay for a better education for their kids. Your situation sounds like it is very different from the one we experienced. For that, I am grateful.
It’s funny how I almost get embarrassed by our situation in relation to money. I do not talk about it with my family or close friends and shy away from money related topics in general conversation. They all know I moved to part time work but no one really asks how we are managing without a full time job. I wonder what they think. I wish I felt more comfortable to share our FIRE ideas with them.
It’s hard, but I’ve learned to talk about it much more openly. I just leave myself out of the conversation. Like, “hey have you heard…” or “I just read…” If you try it out, let me know if it works! You can also send them links to other sites or podcasts and then see if they bring finances up in future conversations.