In a hesitant description of a childhood between two socioeconomic brackets, Claire explains the reality of knowing where you come from: “My father has always lived on the edge as far as money goes, and that hasn’t changed as I’ve gotten older. He had a ‘hands-on’ approach to teaching me life skills, so to speak, and one of the things he liked to do was make me fill out his checkbook for him when I was in elementary school. That’s when I learned just how little money we had from week to week. It was a really scary thing to realize. Later, when I was in junior high, my mom married a man who was wealthier than we were. It made me feel like I was always ‘passing’ as well-off at school, until some kind of situation would arise that would remind me of my place.”
Close your eyes and throw a dart at a newspaper. Open up a magazine. Flip to any news channel. You will hit at least one piece about this generation’s heightened expectations about what life should give them: a generous salary, a job that is somewhere just above entry-level (come on, what did we go to college for?), the option to buy a house should we want one (though we likely don’t), and the freedom to move around. We want it all, apparently, and couldn’t be more clear about our disappointment in life’s failure to provide that for us. And one of the more defining lines of reasoning for this generation’s often-crippling sense of entitlement and self-interest is that we were raised on everything. Apparently, we were given piano lessons, ballet classes, after-school tutors, French lessons, and parents who would stop at nothing to ensure that we were special. But speaking personally, and I believe for many more of us than might readily admit, few things could be more foreign.
When I was a kid, my family needed help. My mom and dad, two kids in their twenties, were finishing their degree and building their business, respectively, and aid from the government to get on our feet was something we were grateful for. Our neighborhood, though humble, was by no means unlivable, and there was a vibrant sense of community — emphasized undoubtedly by the fact that we all knew how hard we had to work. And though I was young — perhaps too young to really understand the idea of needing help with bills — I was aware that we were different. At my magnet school across the city, mostly populated with kids from wealthier suburbs, I felt a palpable divide. There were two sides of life to be experienced, and I was probably on the wrong one.
As my parents grew their business and built their life together, as we moved into bigger and better homes in more desirable zip codes, I began to see life in a different way. Little by little, things that once seemed inordinately posh to me — travel, holiday vacations, new cars — became a part of our lives. There was that different side of life that I’d always heard about and been peripherally exposed to, and now I was living it. To have an overfull kitchen, a plush bedroom, new clothes bursting from my closet — it seemed a life that I had taken by sleight of hand, that I hadn’t really grown into. And as I was surrounded by more and more privilege, it became apparent to me that so many of the things that seemed nearly miraculous were commonplace for others, even mundane. A life of comfort and security — something so many cannot even imagine — was considered a given for many of my new friends.
Yet, somehow, when this generation’s collective childhood is referred to, there is an overreaching sense of privilege and access that we were all supposed to have had, that is now leading us to this sense of entitlement and deserving uniqueness — and yet I have serious doubts that such an upbringing was the case for the majority, let alone universal. In fact, the same embarrassment that kids from the wrong side of the city felt growing up — the ones with the hand-me-down clothes and maybe not quite enough to eat in their lunchbox — is still palpable in young adulthood. This need to “fake it” in some way, to pretend that we all came from a certain background, one that trained us and gave us the pedigree for a life of comfort and status, is as much about shame as it is about ego. In asking some of my readers about their experiences of growing up with less (though not necessarily not enough), I found that one of the most pervasive sentiments was this one of having to pretend — around coworkers, around strangers, even around their friends today.
Rachel, who grew up in a “frugal” home but was often surrounded by wealth and privilege in the elite world of horseback riding, was always keenly aware of her place in things: “To say we were rich is a half-hearted lie. To say we were poor is also a half-hearted lie. And to say we were middle-class just doesn’t seem to fit, either. Being in the horse world I was surrounded by wealth you can only imagine. To them, we were always the poor ones.”
This awareness of money, and what it means — where it places you — seems to be one of the more defining points of growing up with less. For many of the people I spoke with, it wasn’t until they were in their teens and even twenties that they realized some of their classmates and friends didn’t know what money really was, at least not in the parental sense. And this hyper-awareness of what can be afforded carried well into adulthood. For Mike, a man who built his career from nothing, with no formal education, and from a poor family, this sense of budgeting is a point of pride: “There’s a certain matter of adjusting your expectations of life to suit your reality. Don’t expect steak if you can only afford beans. Don’t look at a bill as something that will bury you. Look at it as a chance to prove to someone (even if it’s just the data entry person that enters your check into the system) that you can complete something.”
It doesn’t take a finger on the pulse of income disparity in this country to understand that no one, no child or adult, wants to admit that they have less than those around us. In suburban America, in the schools and neighborhood events and McMansions and expansive green lawns that define childhood for so many (and the cruel classmates of many others), there is a certain expectation that things are taken care of. Admitting that you couldn’t afford something, that you went without something, or that something was just out of reach, meant that you were to be pitied. Children, in a less-refined parroting of their parents, are quick to point out someone with holes in their shoes or an inability to attend a pricy school trip. And in story after story that I received, there was a constant theme of blending in, becoming invisible as an alternative to sticking out as the poor kid, a wounded gazelle ready for the lions.
The people I spoke to referenced their inability to tell anyone about the way they grew up, even today. They admit to nodding along to stories of being lavished with attention, programs, and access. Of course we all went to that sleepaway camp. Of course we all had ballet lessons. Of course we got that new toy car to drive around the block in. Who didn’t? It’s easier to fit into the description of our generation as an army of Special Snowflakes who wanted for nothing than to oust ourselves as the ones who worried about dinner that night, or whether the car would be working.
Which isn’t to say that growing up without luxury was a bad thing. Many people wrote fondly to me about not having much in the way of material goods, but feeling a deep connection to family, to time spent together. Jessica writes, “I don’t remember ever thinking about clothes I needed, because they didn’t instill in my young self the sense that it’s important to track and emulate the latest styles. We had enough toys (you might describe them as well-loved — I still have a doll in a box somewhere that ‘broke its leg’ that my dad gave a duct tape ‘cast’).”
Chris muses about his own upbringing, “I never had a gaming system, not even the original Nintendo. So when I went over to my friends’ places, my inexperience would manifest itself in losing streaks of amazing lengths. And we never had cable. So references to shows on Nickelodeon, MTV, and VH1 went over my head. We went to movies only rarely. What did I do instead? My mom took us on picnics and to the library. I played outside. I read a lot. I developed a different set of cultural references. And in the end, that hasn’t been so bad.”
Though the degrees of want which the people I spoke to experienced varied widely, there was a consistent sense of being helped, encouraged, and taught important lessons — in financially feasible ways. (Private lessons and tutors may have been out, but that doesn’t stop a parent from helping with homework.) But the attention on how “unique” we were may have simply been a luxury our families couldn’t quite invest in. We were encouraged to do things like get a job as soon as we came of age (many spoke of sweeping floors and delivering papers as soon as they turned 12 or 13, and helping the family out with weekly expenses). We were to save every penny and put it towards our future, to focus as much as possible on school and to make something of ourselves through hard work. We were taught that no job, no well-earned day’s pay, was beneath us.
These lessons, though far less glamorous, were ones that needed to be imparted on children of low income. We had to understand that the path to financial comfort and professional success is hard-wrought, and often incrementally unfulfilling. Just as our parents would work, step by step, to make something of themselves before our eyes, we would be expected to do the same thing. And when we were looked at strangely for not having the laundry list of activities our parents put us in to cultivate our certain genius, we knew it was because we were poor. We were poor, and thus our worth would have to be proved on our own. We weren’t going to get access to many of these amazing opportunities, and it was something we would have to construct for ourselves.
Yet even when such success and comfort was achieved, change in income can come swiftly and erase any foothold that may have been made in life. For Zuha, whose father lost his good job after the dot-com bubble burst, this couldn’t have been more clear: “Relating to money, one of the worst things my family experienced was foreclosure. I loved our house. It was the one stable thing in my entire life. It was always there. It was small. I could close my eyes and navigate through the entire place without bumping into anything. I knew how many steps it took to get from my room to the kitchen. I loved all the rose bushes that surrounded the perimeter of it. My family currently rents a house now. We’ve lived in it for almost five years, but I still don’t feel like it’s ours.”
When I put the call out for stories and experiences, I got many people who, though not ready to reveal their family’s struggles with money — even under a pseudonym — were excited to see lower-income childhoods being talked about. There is a narrative, whether we realize it or not, going on amongst our generation, that praises a certain ease with money. Even shows about young adults struggling with money often reference a very plush family background and being “cut off” from a steady stream of accessible income. There are money problems, but not dangerous ones. The family might not be millionaires, but the kids don’t want for anything. Any mention of being “broke” is one that can be resolved in a call to dad, or a two-episode arch maximum. We write, often without realizing it, from a position of access and experience that, for many, is unimaginable. And the constant barrage of expectations about what money should and should not mean to us — the degree to which it is acceptable to be poor — leaves many feeling as though real problems with money, especially those we were raised in and thus can feel defined by, are not to be spoken about.
One need look no further than this generation’s relationship with debt to see the degree to which we are removed from the consequences of money. For many of us, taking out tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars that we’re entirely unsure of how to repay, seems a consequence of living a life normally. Our parents, if they did dissuade us, certainly didn’t prevent it from happening. We know few people who don’t owe money somewhere, and who aren’t living perpetually in the negative, no matter what our checking accounts might say. And what is more disturbing than the acquisition of debt itself is the nonchalance with which we live with it. Debt is now a constant, something not to be discussed, and something that certainly doesn’t effect our socioeconomic status — we still consider ourselves fairly well-off, even with a fraction of a percentage of what we owe securely in the bank. This utter blindness to money coupled with the pressure to not discuss our economic shortcomings leaves a generation completely removed from its own description of itself.
It’s hard not to wonder how many of us exist day-to-day with an entire secret life of money problems behind them, leering over their shoulder as they watch fairy-tale versions of neediness on the shows they illegally download. How many of us live with a thin veneer of complaint about how, “Oh, everything is so expensive” while failing to acknowledge the mountains of debt or the history of struggling with money before we even really knew what it was? The degree of catharsis that permeated the mails I received was staggering, an outpouring of honesty about stories that, from not having a lunch at school to having their house foreclosed on overnight, probably didn’t get mentioned at happy hour with coworkers. And yet, no matter how many of us have a history of welfare, or an inability to balance a checkbook, or a genuine fear of ending up homeless no matter how successful we become, we will all still paint ourselves with the same brush of Helicopter Parents and Suburban Comfort.
There is perhaps a certain resentment to this idea that we were all raised in an insular bubble of relative success. When there are such profound socioeconomic divides in the same school zones, we can tend to overlook the fact that not everyone attending these classes goes home to the same environment. And whether or not investing so heavily in your child is ultimately detrimental to their personal sense of work ethic is something only time will tell. There are successful, hard-working people from all backgrounds, and that will likely continue for the foreseeable future. What is important, though, is recognizing that we all came from different places, and were imparted different lessons for how to navigate life as an adult. The children from poor backgrounds will likely always feel this divide, will feel acutely aware of money and what it means, no matter where they end up in life.
But honesty is possible. We can come clean about struggling with money, and the lessons we took from it, and perhaps even use it to prevent falling into the same traps we didn’t get to choose when we were young. No one needs to grow up poor to realize that we are a generation that doesn’t know what money means, but if we all felt more comfortable about admitting where we come from, and the realities we’re living with today, perhaps it would be harder to fall into traps of easy credit and reckless spending. Perhaps we could come to terms with the constant comparisons we felt when we were younger — no matter where we fell on the spectrum — that we are still dealing with today. Because it doesn’t matter what your neighbor makes, or which friend you think makes more than you did. We all have to live with our own financial past and present, and just pretending we’re okay doesn’t help anyone.