As I grew up, my family was both privileged and frugal, but at the time I only recognized the latter.
When our family went out for dinner (once a month, as I remember), we did not order beverages, and in lieu of restaurant desserts we’d stop by the grocery store on the way home to pick up deeply discounted doughnuts (could they have been $1.99 a dozen?) to eat in front of the TV. We were the last people I knew to acquire a VCR, or a microwave, or an answering machine. For years in the ’80s, my parents drove a 1967 Buick Skylark whose engine would cut anytime they attempted a left turn in the rain. That lasted until we acquired a dented, red VW van, the type with a white top, with no working heater to speak of.
I didn’t feel poor (the “poor people” were the ones who shopped at the thrift stores to which we virtuously donated my outgrown off-brand blue jeans), but I knew we weren’t as wealthy as my (public school) classmates who lived up in the foothills. What I wore and did and drove never seemed nearly as extravagant as what I saw among them. I never felt stress around money in our family; there was never a question of not being able to pay the bills (except, I’m sure, during the many months my dad was unemployed in the early 1980s recession, when I was too young to know or notice). But the attitude around money was not one of ease, either. We were not to waste it.
On the other hand, after a certain point, we took a yearly week-long family vacation to Hawaii. My mom was never in the labor force in a significant way. Most hugely, my parents, with a minimum of work-study assistance, footed the bill for my fancy liberal arts college education. Perhaps more important to my class identity, that ultra-expensive college education was in my inarguable life plan, possibly from the moment of my birth.
In the years since I moved away from my parents, the luxury of their world has both increased and been thrown into more stunning relief against the shape of my own life. Out of college, I chose a year-long ‘volunteer’ job where I worked for a stipend and lived in an old house in a working class neighborhood in the city. Then I lived for a year in a developing country where the “middle class” familes I encountered owned fewer possessions, total, than were crammed into one closet of my parents’ house back home. Then I entered a period of several years of living in grad student apartments, places where things were always quirky-verging-on-shabby.
My work and daily travels during those years brought me (as they do today) into neighborhoods full of much more struggle than what I experienced myself. I shopped (and still do) at thrift stores alongside (and as one of) the “poor people” I’d felt so great about “helping” with my middle-class castoffs as a kid.
Each visit to my parents’ place was a stranger journey into fanciness and into the comfort they’d amassed through my dad’s long and soul-sucking career with a (famously spill-prone) giant corporation. Stepping into their house (now a different one from where I grew up) was like entering an alternate reality, where everything was spotless and perfectly maintained and well thought-out and matching and peaceful and undeniably pleasurable. (My parents maintain a weird denial of the swankiness of all this, which I guess is a story for another day.)
And returning home, I always felt (feel) both relieved and ashamed. Relieved because what A and I have, we’ve earned through work that we both feel good about. Relieved because, at heart, I am sloppier than my mother, and I love to be where no one’s worrying about what crumbs my children or I might drop. But ashamed because of a nagging sense that I’ve fallen. A and I have both chosen our jobs based on what we love and believe. We make choices within our means, shelling out extravagant amounts for super high quality child care, shunning cell phones, cable, and most forms of accumulation, and avoiding debt beyond our mortgage, but these days we pretty much don’t save a dime. Not for improvements to our 90-year-old house, not for retirement, and not for the top-notch college education whose inevitability is inexplicably in our indelible plan for our daughters, even as we have no clue on earth how we’d pay for it.
It’s not an existence that I can complain about. Most of the time, our life feels about as rich as I can handle, and only when I hear about friends’ intriguing world travels or visit exceptionally lovely homes do I have real pangs for the life that a more ambitious career would allow.
I’ve rattled on this long about the peculiarities of my financial life because I suspect I’m not alone in sensing and, somehow, mourning, the fact that my kids won’t have the “advantages” that I did growing up, and in feeling an infrequent but intense unease with where I am in our country’s silent class ecosystem.
Like many people in this country (particularly those of my age and political inclination) I’ve repeated and, for the most part, believed the mantra that money isn’t the most important thing. My fear, now, is that money is a more important part of how we’re made—will be a more important part of how my children are made—than I’ve so far been willing to admit.