We love being upper-middle class. Upper middle class is a wonderful world. #1 never ever wants to go back.
Visiting DH’s family for the holidays provides perspective in many ways. They have a lot of money pressures that we don’t have because given our current economic class, we don’t have anything to prove.
One of the weird things about our current social/educational/economic class is that … for example… I don’t throw away a sock just because there’s a small hole in it. I don’t really care if there’s a hole in it or not. The hole doesn’t say anything about me or my needs. I don’t wear thick socks often enough to need a bunch of extras, so some of the socks with holes end up getting packed when we visit the in-laws over break. I don’t really think it’s a big deal, but my SIL comments. My MIL got me thick socks for Christmas this year.
And we don’t have car payments because we never bought an SUV. Two kids in carseats fit into a 10 year old Hyundai Accent. (And we never did get the cosmetic work done when DH’s Civic got hit while parked. I wonder if they think we’re misers. Though my SIL must not have noticed, or she would have said something.)
Another example– we’ve talked about the crazy gift-giving before. We only get that from DH’s side of the family. So Santa just does stockings and we get a small gift for each DC (this year it was a winter coat for DC1, nothing for DC2 because ze is too young to notice who gives each gift). My parents mainly get us books. (My parents are kind of weird class-wise.) This insane amount of gift-buying is standard for DH’s family– even when they didn’t have money when DH was little, they still scrimped and saved to spoil their kids at Christmas. DH’s extended relatives who are even less well-off go into deeper debt each year to provide presents– spending more money on each kid (and on their worse-off extended relatives) than we would spend even if DH’s parents didn’t provide presents. It’s a way of proving that they’re not poor that keeps them from ever getting ahead of their debt.
We also haven’t had to buy much clothing for our children other than shoes and the occasional set of underpants or socks because of the generosity of DH’s parents and hand-me-downs we’ve gotten from friends, colleagues, students, etc. Families we know making hundreds of thousands of dollars/year in Northern CA have extensive hand-me-down chains.
DH’s brother’s (SAH) wife was talking about how they get that huge amount of gifts and clothing new from both sets of grandparents, and now that they’re having a third child (whose gender will presumably match the gender of one of the first two children), they are buying more things on top of that. Why do they buy clothing when the children already have more clothing than they could ever wear? Because children shouldn’t wear hand-me-downs.
We are totally on board with hand-me-downs. But many of the hand-me-downs we get are very nice quality (because they were presents to our likewise-affluent friends). Of course, we also don’t mind putting our toddlers in heavily stained (but otherwise clean) clothing either– they have both been very good at adding additional stains. Nobody that we work or socialize with is going to think that we can’t afford nice clothing or that we don’t take care of our children if they wear a shirt with stain marks across the front. We’ve got the luxury and privilege of people not making negative assumptions about our income or net worth based on what our children wear. (Also, DC1 wears uniforms to school. And I don’t have to go to SAHM playgroups.) We also have the luxury of handing the clothing down again and being able to feel affluent about that, rather than needing to sell it.
Being able to buy high quality clothing that lasts a long time also means that it’s easier to buy classics that don’t really go out of style, which means they can be worn longer. I have a lot of basics in classic styles. When you live an H&M lifestyle, you have to keep changing out your clothing because it’s easy to tell when something goes out of fashion, and the quality isn’t good enough to keep it for 30+ years even if it weren’t fashionable. Current fashion changes mean I can mix and match sweater sets rather than wearing matched sets, but I can still wear the same pieces, just in different combinations. And again, nobody is going to think I’m poor because I’m wearing a (thrift-store purchased) 10-15 year old Ann Taylor or Brooks Brothers business casual outfit because nobody is going to know. The same isn’t necessarily true of Walmart’s finest (though I do have some t-shirts from Walmart that I got in high school that are just now wearing out…).
As a (mostly lower middle class, occasionally genteel poor, always worried about lack of money) kid there were definitely more pressures to spend for appearances’ sake. But people didn’t just tease me about the rusty VW bug my mom drove (that I loved) or my lack of an Express bag (I eventually got one)… my material possessions were pretty low on the list of things I was bullied about (and the only thing that was external to me). It was easier for me to just reject their views of fashion and go completely into my own funky style (which involved a lot of thrift-store hats), at least until grunge came into fashion (a style I completely embraced). But those pressures are gone among the people we associate with and we only see them in action when we visit DH’s family.
Feelings and privilege are complex.
Now, we’re in the educated liberal crunchy upper-middle-class. Not the wealthy (lower) upper-class. We don’t rub shoulders with movie stars or even corporate lawyers or financiers. We’d love to be making that kind of money, but still living our crunchy upper middle class lives. We hear from people who do rub shoulders with lawyers and financiers that there’s lots of stupid money stresses there too. Cars and diamonds and so on are back to being status symbols. Items are expensive not because they’re quality but because they’re in fashion. It all sounds very nouveau riche. Crass. Obviously I must come from old money… or my parents are Northern Californians instead of Southern. We probably have something we compete on or use as a class marker that we’re too blind to see, but it isn’t $tuff, and that saves us a lot of money.
Update: This NYMag article is really interesting. (It definitely does show that my family growing up is very weird class-wise.)
Do people judge you by how you spend your money or what kind of clothing you wear? Do you have to spend money for status reasons or can you save money because you don’t have anything to prove? How do you deal with the pressure of trying not to seem poor?