I have a bad habit. I’m often saying I can’t do something because “I’m too poor.”
But I need to come clean. I’m actually super rich.
No, not in love. Not in life-giving experiences. I mean with money. Finances. A healthy cushion. I have plenty for food and shelter, with plenty leftover for a sizeable clothing budget. I buy organic baby cereal even though it’s a dollar more than non-organic. That kind of rich.
Why am I saying this? Because for too long I’ve lived with a scarcity mentality that isn’t just unbecoming for an educated, employed, middle-class white woman, but actively works against me loving my neighbors.
And I’m not the only one. Last year, a co-worker was featured in an article about people who choose to do $600,000 renos instead of $1 million rebuilds on their heritage homes. It is a conundrum with serious financial implications, to be sure. But can we just say it? You’re rich.
To be clear: I don’t own a yacht. I live in a basement suite and have little-to-no prospects of owning a home in the city where I live. My husband and I share a car, which currently only has one of its four hubcaps left. It’s not a life of luxury.
Wealth is a game of categories. We feel like we’re poor if we have less than other people in our category. In that sense, I’ve always felt poor. I grew up in a small house with older cars. I genuinely thought that rich people ate name-brand cereal and had a garage-door opener.
“Rich” to me meant the ability to do more than I could currently do. What I didn’t realize is that for most of the world, “rich” easily encompasses most of the comforts I’d enjoyed all my life. Compared to my white, middle-class peers, I was on the bottom end. But I was still in the white middle class, and safely so.
I was missing the key point: I was comparing myself to others who were also benefitting from an age of affluence and extravagance the world has never seen before. I lived in a house. I had access to reliable transportation. Graduating high school was a forgone conclusion.
Our money struggles were real, and my parents felt them, but we weren’t poor. We were rich, and I still am, because of what I do have: the assumption of possibility.
It didn’t take long to notice a strange phenomenon in the private university I attended. My fellow students were almost constantly engaged in a strange inverse pissing match of “who has it worse?” comparing who was more on the hook for tuition, living expenses, and spending money. I had to take out student loans, buy my own books, and forgo any expensive travel studies, but my parents paid for my room and board, so I guess I was somewhere in the middle.
But here’s the thing: whether you left with $25,000 in debt or your doctor-dad paid for the whole shebang, whether at one point you only had $40 in your checking account (raises hand) or you got a monthly H&M stipend, we all still went to private university. Or just university. And that is freaking amazing.
About twice a year, Bob, who sells the street paper in my neighbourhood, invites a bunch of people out to dinner to celebrate his birthday, at random enough times that I’ve never quite caught when his actual birthday is. The first year I attended, I sat next to a woman from my neighborhood, whom I had never met. I’ll call her Melissa.
Melissa had two sons, the younger of whom was turning 18 that year. They lived in a basement apartment near my building.
“What is your son going to do once he graduates high school?” I asked, innocently enough. “Is he thinking of going to university?”
“University? No way. It’s not possible,” Melissa said.
Not possible? I work at a university. Many of us work to fundraise for low-income students to get scholarships. Our motto is that it’s possible for anyone to attend university.
I was completely unfamiliar with this narrative that Melissa was presenting. Not possible? I’d never met anyone with this mindset.
Ah, I thought. Here’s the difference: While we’re at work arguing over whether we should do a $600,000 reno or a $1 million demo, not sure if we have enough to pull either off, there are people out there who aren’t even thinking going to university is a possibility. These are the people we’re trying to serve, and we don’t have any idea what it’s like to be them.
When I shared Melissa’s story with some colleagues, they were insistent. He should just apply for a scholarship! Anything’s possible!
There it is, that assumption of possibility, so much more valuable than what you can list in an excel sheet for your house insurance.
It doesn’t matter if I live in a mansion, basement suite, heritage home: you’re still rich if you feel empowered enough to assume possibilities for yourself.
It’s a privilege that can be hard to recognize. After I graduated college, I was living month to month. It was 2009 and I had a degree in an industry that was in a freefall (print communications). I rented a single room, I ate Trader Joe’s burritos almost exclusively, and I once got a raise that increased my weekly income by one dollar.
I wasn’t rich by many definitions. But even then, I was more worried about how I’d pay for the trip to Hawaii I was definitely going to go on, not if I’d eat that week.
But when I glibly say, “I can’t, I’m poor,” (which I have) I am belittling the wealth of possibility I live with every day. I’m masking the difficulty, the lack of possibility, that many many people actually live with. That makes some people unable to even conceive of attending university, of saving for retirement, etc etc.
But in the last five years, I’ve had some more intimate contact with people living seriously at the margins of society. I’ve seen poor people who get caught in fee-prison (where one civil infraction grows exponentially, getting fines because you can’t pay your fine; fines because you drive without a license because it’s the only way to get to work to pay your fine, etc).
I’ve realized there is a line in the US, a line where if you are below it, almost everything works to keep you under that line. And unless you have extraordinary circumstances, like family members who can help pull you up past that line, you’re probably going to stay there. Bootstraps? Can’t afford them.
And if I insist that I’m poor because I have less than others in my category, I lose so much empathy for those who really do go without. I encourage myself to keep a tighter grip on what I do have, instead of sharing it with those who have less. Even though I know that if I lost everything, I’d have enough possibility to be fine. Thinking of myself as poor makes me less empathetic, less generous, and way more tone deaf to the needs of my neighbors.
Yes, I live in a basement suite. I likely will never be able to spend money with abandon. I still don’t have an automatic garage door opener (or a garage). But I’m super rich: I have possibility. And I can’t love other people well until I admit it.
If you enjoyed this piece, let us know by clicking the heart button and recommending it to others. For more loquacious luxury by women who have something to say, follow Since You Asked below — new content bi-weekly!