Thursday, May 31, 2012

What Are You Worth?

Recently our downstairs neighbors invited us to a party. We didn't really know them, except to say hello in the elevator. Their invite said they'd be "having a few friends in". Imagine our surprise when we found there were at least fifty guests! The party was catered by a local, very fancy German restaurant. There was a massive buffet. In addition, the caterers brought in kegs of draught beer, which was being served by the restaurant staff (dressed in Bavarian costume, yet!)

I have to admit it. I was intimidated by this show of wealth.

We live in the same building. Their apartment had more or less the same layout as ours. However, they'd obviously spent thousands of dollars renovating their space. Now I love our apartment - it's huge and comfortable, and for its size and location, incredibly cheap. But it's a bit rundown. We don't want to bother the landlords concerning cosmetic improvements - we don't want them to raise the rent!

My family brought me up to feel that being thrifty was a virtue. I was budgeting my allowance from the time I was eight or nine. I worked as a department store salesgirl and a supermarket clerk in high school so I could augment my pocket money. I learned the thrill of bargain hunting from my mom and grandma. Even now, I really can't enjoy a new purchase if I have to pay full price for it.

My husband and I live modestly. Our salaries are low by American standards; our expenses are pretty low as well. We have virtually no debt and even manage to save a bit. We're self-sufficient. Yet experiences like our neighbors party sometimes make me feel as though we're worth less because we're not rich.

These days, it seems, people equate money and value. The wealthy are admired as role models. If you're rich, that must mean you're smart and skillful. If you don't have a lot of money - and the material things to show it - this implies that you're either lazy or incompetent.

Well, I'm not either of those things. It's just that I've chosen comfort and lower stress instead of chasing after the cash. I hate myself for allowing the current adoration of wealth to affect my self-image, but sometimes it does.

I really liked our neighbors. We seemed to have a lot in common with them. So my husband and I left an invitation in their mail box, suggesting that they come up for a glass of wine.

They never replied. And I wonder whether it's because they think we're poor - and thus not worth much. Or am I just being paranoid?

Does anyone else suffer from this sort of delusion - the notion that you're being judged as less worthy because you have less money? I'm really curious.


Joan said...

I have somehow ended up acquainted with a group of people where anyone that's not upper middle class is judged as "irresponsible." It's a really foreign concept to me, and I'm struggling with it, in a way.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, Joan,

Yes, this is exactly what I'm talking about. And even though I don't feel that way at all, I can't help be contaminated by this perspective, which seems very prevalent.

Word Actress said...

God, I live in Silicon Valley where Mark Zuckerberg, 29, of FB fame is worth billions. My friends and I
feel inferior all the time, not because we don't measure up, we do in terms of accomplishments, education, etc. We just don't have the monetary status (and majors)that these whiz kidz have. One guy started at
FB a few weeks before they went public and he too, just being in the right place at the right time, is now
an instant millionaire. You and your hubby are on the same page, living a great life, I wouldn't worry too much Lisabet. Myself and all of my friends, we're wondering if we can even afford to live here in
California for much longer. If Romney gets elected we're completely screwed. Feel lucky, Lisabet, 'cuz you are. Your values and your life is in exactly the right place...

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Great post, Lisabet. I live in Scotland where it's frowned upon to have too much show of wealth, or anything else! But we still have different areas that mean 'money'. I grew up in a less well off area and my husband and I now own our nice home, but most people take each other as they find them.

Gail Roughton said...

I work with lawyers, have all my life. By most standards, especially mine, lawyers make a lot of money. And they spend it. Lots of them live pay check to pay check and their financial stress level is as great as that of folks with much lower incomes. Because those parties and big houses and expensive cars and private schools and colleges ain't cheap. I think we'd be amazed if we actually looked at "rich" people's net worth in comparison with their debt level. And they're not nearly as happy as those of us who know we'll never be rich but have learned to live (more or less--or as much as possible) within our means.

Cassandra Gold said...

I grew up in a family that was clinging to the rungs of lower middle class. We had yard sale, handmade, or hand-me-down clothes, my mom used an epic number of coupons when grocery shopping, we almost never ate out, going to the movies (matinee only) was a huge treat, etc. As a child and young teenager I was often embarrassed by my unfashionable clothing, but now I'm thankful for how I grew up.

From my mother, I learned how to find the best deals on pretty much anything, how to budget and save, and how to appreciate what I had. From my dad, I learned the importance of hard work and getting an education. From my own embarrassment I learned not to judge others based on their clothing or possessions.

Today, my husband and I are comfortable, not wealthy, but we both know how to live below our means. All around me I see people trying to put on a show of having more money than they have, and I just don't get it. With the economy not being so great, maybe people will finally re-learn thrift.

I think you have the right attitude, Lisabet! Being happy with your life is worth much more than the almighty dollar. If your neighbors decided no to take you up on your invite because they see you as poor, then they're not the sort of people that would make good friends anyway. :/

Delicious Romance From Cerise DeLand said...

Lisabet, I know you have the right attitude! I gave up a VERY lucrative corporate and lobbying career in Washington to write full time decades ago. I stayed home to write and today, my adult children say they are grateful. They learned that one must follow one's dream. One son was a poet. One is an indie film producer who teaches high school 9-5. My daughter resigned her own high profile very lucrative job last year to go home and find herself. Now, after many months, she thinks she knows what that is. EDITING and writing!
Money does not make your life happy or enrich it. Only knowing thyself, one's unique talents and finding the path to use them to your own benefit and everyone else's is the way to find one's own nirvana here on earth.
The neighbors' show of wealth is wonderful. Hopefully a lot of people enjoyed it! Which was really what all that was supposed to be about, right?

Bellina said...

I have wealthy clients who still feel poor! It's not how much you have, it's how much you feel you need. We also live simply, and though sometimes I wish for more "things", I sure don't want the stress that goes with it.

Is it worth having a high-stress, high dollar career to have numerous physical problems, brought on by the high stress, later in life? I think not.

Live simply, enjoy life!

Naomi Bellina

Ranae Rose said...

Lisabet, you're absolutely right that many people judge people almost entirely off of their income (or perceived income). I've dealt with this all my life and frankly, it pisses me off. I grew up in a military family and as an adult, am married to someone who works in law enforcement (and I was very young when we got married). My life has been a happy one, but as you can probably imagine, financially, I've always struggled to make ends meet. Because of my life experiences and the way I grew up, I've come to admire people who work hard and make do with little (and have often felt wary of wealthy people), but by the time I became an adult (barely) I came to realize that most people think in just the opposite way.

I quickly learned things like how I was treated while in public and / or shopping depended entirely on how I dressed. If I wore jeans, people would stop me on my way out of the store and interrogate me, rifling through my (paid for) items and demanding to check them to my receipt to make sure I hadn't stolen anything. But if I wore a nice dress, no one would bother me. Things like that, however, were petty annoyances compared to the more serious issues being judged as poor (which, okay, I was) caused.

Poor people do not get the same treatment from law enforcement and other public services that middle class or wealthy people do. I found this out when I was living in a crappy income-based apartment place (my husband was not working in law enforcement at the time, BTW). I was a teen girl (college student) at home alone at night in my apartment.

Some men had come from a nearby city and were illegally selling weapons out of their cars in the parking lot in front of my unit. Armed, they tried to get into my apartment. When I called 911 the operator started giving me a huge bitchy attitude after I told her where I lived. She refused to send help. So I just had to sit in my apartment while this went on and on and they lurked on my doorsteps while my dog threw a fit (which I believe is why they eventually left me alone). I was SO outraged after this!

I quickly found that as a penniless (but young and attractive) woman, the only way I was going to get any help from the police was if I approached (male) officers directly wherever I found them and talked to them. They would give me their info and ways to contact them (without going through 911) if I needed help. But you know what, I should not have had to flirt with police officers in order to get anyone from law enforcement to listen to me!

Even then, I didn't rely on law enforcement after that. Whenever I had trouble, my first line of defense was my family whenever possible. They'd help me whenever my physical safety was in question. As for things like vandalism and destruction of what little property I had, I just had to deal with it.

Fast-forward a few years and I'm in a much better place, and making more money than I ever had before thanks to my writing (which I'm sure wouldn't impress some people, but is significant to me), I no longer have to deal with that. In fact, most people in my neighborhood live on welfare. In comparison, I'm the wealthy one. Heck, I get to drive a car I bought new down the street while many people have to walk. It's all relative.

Sorry about the length of this epic comment. Your post just resonated with me so strongly and this issue is one that really, really bothers me. I couldn't resist sharing my long-winded thoughts.

Jude Mason said...

Oh my, what a can of worms you've opened up this time, Lisabet. LOL Like many of the others who've posted here, I grew up being poor, but to be honest, I didn't know it until my late teens. Going to a movie or eating out, I don't remember doing either until I was in my teens and had saved enough to do it on my own. Mom made our clothing, which were never stylish or trendy, but were definitely serviceable. We had two pairs of shoes, one for school, the other were the old pair from last year. If they got too small, the toes were cut out. Instant sandals! We had a large garden and chickens, and that's what we ate.

When I was in my later teen years, I remember being teased mercilessly for being poor. Looking back, it seems many of my fellow students were in the same boat, so the sting wasn't quite so harsh, but there was still a sting.

But you know, I am so glad I grew up the way I did. I know how to make things stretch. When my husband lost his job, we had to make it for a year with no income except what I made writing. That went for the mortgage and bills. I worked my butt off and we did it. Food, clothing, any extras, we had to find other ways to deal with them. Thank heaven I'd been taught how to can, dry, smoke and preserve food. Anything we got, was stored.

Lisabet, knowing you're happy with your life is much more important than always being unhappy and reaching for what you may never attain. You and your husband have learned that, lived that for years. Don't doubt yourselves. New is not always better. Time together is.


Ayla Ruse said...

Hi Lisabet,

This post and the resulting comments are true in so many ways. Like you, I've been to gatherings of those who have "more," and returned invites usually aren't accepted. There's still a friendship/acquaintance there, but I've also never pushed the need to find out why they never dropped by our place. I've taken the attitude of don't ask if you don't really want to know the answer. That may make me cowardly, but I move on.

It is hard. As much as society may pretend there aren't different social classes, there are. We who struggle or choose to live by modest means often bear the brunt of this ignored separation.

It also hurts when we want to pursue a friendship with someone who may be of a different status, but that person ignores the offer. This can be a two-way street. I've known of a poorer person rejecting the friendship of someone with money, simply because the other person had money.

Overall, this topic can branch into so many frustrating directions. I suppose that as long as you are happy, that's all that matters in the end.

Take care,

Maggie Nash said...

People are funny creatures. I've arrived to the stage of life now that if someone feels the need to impress by showing off their expensive things, or their accomplishments, then I almost feel sorry for them. It must be a constant stress trying to present a certain facade to the world at large.

If they choose not to reciprocate accepting my invitations, then that probably confirms it. I try to remember that they are the ones with the problem. Me, I'm quite happy with where I am. The people that mean something to me don't care how much money I have or what "things" I own and I'm happy to be in their circle.

It's a much more fun place to be :-)

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Mary,

I'm not worried, except that I don't like it when I start feeling intimidated by wealth.

I have a friend who lives in San Francisco. She says that all anybody is talking about these days is FB millionaires. She's pretty fed up!

Lisabet Sarai said...

Ah, Rosemary!

I didn't know you were from Scotland. A great place, with strong traditional values!

I grew up Jewish. And yes, there are a lot of stereotypes about Jews being misers, but that's not at all the way my family is/was. We were just careful about money.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Gail,

You're definitely right about people who live beyond their means. When we "downsized" our salaries by moving overseas, we also eliminated all our debt. What a relief!

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, Cassandra,

It sounds as though your upbringing was very similar to mine. I never felt poor but I know my mom worked hard to economize. And you know, you appreciate things like movies or going out to a restaurant a lot more when you don't do it all the time.

I must say that I have no real evidence that our neighbors look down on us. They still seem friendly when we meet them in the elevator.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Well said, Cerise! I really agree with you. I tell my students that when they are considering what jobs to accept, they should pay much more attention to the kind of work, and whether they think they'll be comfortable in the company, than to the salary. One young man a few years ago didn't take my advice - he chose a job that had a higher salary rather than one that attracted him more. He has since told me that I was right... ;^)

Lisabet Sarai said...

Wow, Ranae!

I've never been in such a dire situation, or judged so harshly, but I really appreciate your sharing these stories. You're so right - appearances count so much, it's scary.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Jude,

Thanks so much for dropping by.

In the 2000 recession, my husband and I were both unemployed for a year and a half. If it had not been for the lessons I learned from my mom, we would have lost our house, maybe worse.

Even now, I get some comfort from the knowledge that we could live even more cheaply, though less comfortably, if we had to.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, Ayla,

Thanks for your comments. You're right, there are many lessons here. I'm just a bit ashamed of myself letting the situation bother me, or for being intimidated. Because you know, even if I had that kind of money, I probably wouldn't spend it on renovating our apartment. I'd much rather use it on travel. Different strokes.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Maggie,

You're completely right. Anyway, I don't want to be unfair to these people. It's possible they just didn't like us, for other reasons - or even, I suppose, that they didn't get the invite, though we put it in their locked mailbox.

Who knows? I really don't want to let it get me stressed.

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