More thoughts on class

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?

67 Responses to “More thoughts on class”

  1. Friendly guy Says:

    Wow, this really hits home for me. My family didn’t have much money when I was growing up, to put it mildly, and now I don’t have those same worries.

    But in a weird way, this makes me uncomfortable. The discomfort isn’t with a lack of money concern, but rather with extravagance. I’m sure I could afford a new car, but I’m quite happy with my second hand one. I feel guilty about going on vacations.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Well, there’s no need for extravagance, is there? Not that you should feel guilty about vacations.

      I will say that one of my own pathologies is to look at my money whenever I feel stressed. It calms me. And i’m sure it’s at least partly because of how I was brought up–a typical first gen response.

      • Donna Freedman Says:

        Me too! I count my change, look at the emergency stash, figure out which editors owe me money and add it all up to what’s in the bank.

        I thought it was just me.

        As for the rest, I’m pretty low-maintenance. Haven’t bought new dress slacks since a divorce court hearing in 2004. In the last three years I’ve bought one T-shirt, from a thrift store; still wearing stuff I bought cheaply or obtained for free too many years ago to count. (Some are from the 1990s and no, I am not kidding.)

        A friend just divested of a bunch of shirts and blazer-y things that don’t fit her any longer. They’re of such excellent quality and show such minimal wear that I may not have to buy shirts or blazer-y things for another 10 years. And I buy a “new” pair of jeans from the thrift store every couple of years, when the old ones are giving out.

        In part that’s because I work from home and usually wear sweatpants and T-shirt, plus a bathrobe if it’s chilly. Those sweatpants are at least 12 years old and finally starting to give out. But that’s OK, because I found a screamin’ deal on new fleece pants (clearance plus coupon, less than $6 each) recently; I bought three pairs.

        I’m built for comfort, not for speed. It’s possible for me to clean up nicely, but I rarely have to do this. Hell, people wear jeans to the opera here in Anchorage.

        My DF drives a 1999 Subaru and he likes thrift stores as much as I do. We’re of the mindset that nobody can make you feel inferior without your permission and also that if you don’t tell anyone where you bought the jacket then you can’t be derided for being “cheap.”

        Then again, I have relatives/friends similar to your extended family who would NEVER buy secondhand or let their kids wear hand-me-downs. Appearance is everything, even if it means charging clothing/toys/accessories/vacations you can’t afford.

        Privilege is a complicated thing.

  2. First Gen American Says:

    My MIL although not poor but she still has a thing about my kids having patches on their pants because they didn’t have that much money when her kids were little. Although I’d like to think that I’d still be that way even if I weren’t upper middle class.

    Babci has a thing about the clothes being clean, mended and ironed. Being poor was ok, but being dirty is uncivilized. So as a result I have a thing about wearing stained clothes.

    We give eggs as gifts to people and although a dozen eggs is cheap, most people find us generous because we give them away. They are also something not easily bought. (People say they are the best eggs they have ever eaten). So when you are wealthier it’s not the dollar amount of an item that’s important but the time, thought, or rarity of an item that has value with my peer group.

    Hand me downs rock.

    • Linda Says:

      I used to give eggs, too, when I had hens. (*sigh* I miss my chickens.) I also gave out homemade jams and pickles. I still do that and have built up a lot of goodwill with new neighbors by giving them homemade jam when I first got to know them.

  3. Holly@ClubThrifty Says:

    Our ideas on money sound similar to yours. We don’t replace holes with socks (or underwear, because all of my husband’s boxers and falling apart), we don’t fix dents in cars, we happily accept hand-me-downs and buy stuff at garage sales. I think it’s easier to ignore the pressures to look like you have money when you truly have some. I know when I was younger (early 20s) and didn’t have much, I put a lot more effort into looking like I did.

  4. Taylor Lee @ Engineer Cents Says:

    I feel like it’s as much a social class thing as economic class. I remember growing up poor and being jeered at by wealthy classmates for my ripped up jeans and baggy T-shirts. Now I spend time with people of middle to upper-middle class who couldn’t care less about that because we’re all academics, engineers, and artists (and, frankly, not teenagers).

    Not to say there are no longer social pressures, but they manifest themselves differently. Instead of a new car, it’s a well-located home in a good school district. Instead of nice looking clothes, it’s the well-cared-for and exercised body. Instead of big bundles of Xmas presents, it’s a well-stocked 529. They’re all indicators of status, but I feel like they pick up or drop off in importance based off your class.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Excellent point. Sometimes it’s just harder to *see* where the minefields are.

    • First Gen American Says:

      The fitness thing has always been huge in my peer group but it’s very perceptive to link it to just a different kind of status. I admit that even though I helped my friend dig it, I still was very envious that his snow cave was bigger than mine. We also spent a boatload of money moving to a much better school district.

  5. earthandink Says:

    Complex for me. I grew up well-off and am now at the bottom rung economically, but there are things I got from growing up well off, that make a difference now. For me it’s not clothes but being unable to afford dentistry that is keeping me in a place where I get a great deal of judgement from strangers. It’s a lot like being bullied and it’s so hard that it brings me to my knees. I once read an article in a feminist journal 20 years ago about class and the title was something like “they will know us by our teeth” and I would say that that is without doubt a truism.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Scalzi’s “Being Poor” has a lot of comments about teeth in the comments. Frontline had a documentary on the topic a few years ago that really drove that point in.

      • middle_class Says:

        I never knew that teeth could be a sign of income but it makes sense given that poorer children have little access to dental care. I just read that the Denti-Cal program for lower-income children isn’t doing much because most dentists refuse to accept patients on this program.

    • Donna Freedman Says:

      My daughter’s fiance (now husband) had terrible teeth due to an inherited calcium deficiency and also heavy corticosteroid use during his childhood (asthma, severe eczema).
      With so much focus on “meth mouth” these days, he often feared that people thought he was a drug addict.
      Ultimately he had the remains of them pulled and got dentures. Now they’re saving up for dental implants, which cost a fortune.
      The way your teeth look DOES matter, and it’s a privilege thing in terms of making fun of people with dental challenges. You can buy those “Billy Bob teeth” in the costume section during Halloween and get a big laugh at the party. Except that it isn’t funny.

      • delagar Says:

        Here in Northwest Arkansas, many of my students are missing teeth, and many others have just terrible teeth. They can’t afford dentists; or when they get to a dentist (we have a “free” clinic — actually, included in their tuition — on campus) they can’t afford the more expensive options of caps or crowns, and end up having their teeth pulled: even front teeth.

        Well, you can imagine what this does to their chances of being hired in any middle-class or upper-middle class job, or getting into graduate school, or anything similar. Do you want to hire a tax attorney or am accountant or physician who is missing her upper incisor?

        These are otherwise intelligent students. But we have no fluoride in our water, because that’s evil, and they had no access to dental care as children, and what is the solution?

      • Rosa Says:

        I knew a number of people who spent the first years of their first middle-class job, or their time in the armed services, getting their teeth fixed. Rural living + not enough cash for cosmetic dentistry. And it makes a HUGE difference to how people see you.

  6. Cardinal Says:

    I think the academic subculture is a bit of an anomaly too, compared to others of similar income — among academics, clothes & cars are perceived as superficial and not worth paying much attention to, with the result that having too-expensive clothes/jewellery/vehicles can mark you as not being a serious scholar, and would thereby lower your status. Everyone has the best & most expensive tech (because that’s for “work”, don’t you know), but more people are driving ~10-year-old Toyotas than 1-year-old BMWs.

  7. MutantSupermodel Says:

    From what I understand of class breakdowns my boyfriend would be working class and I would be lower middle class but together we’re middle class. Most of my immediate family is upper middle, one is middle but he is single so it’s perfect. All of my friends are either middle or lower middle class. My kids’ classmates are all upper middle to upper class and there are some that are way up there. I think that the mix is pretty healthy. I do feel some pressure sometimes but I’m enough of a black sheep to shrug it off. I like that my kids are exposed to a pretty wide variety of lifestyles. I think it’s helpful in forming a good perspective on life. They have some friends who are better off than they are, some about the same, and some that are not as well off as they are. And I think that helps them see that money is hardly everything. I would like to get a little closer to upper middle. I think that is the best spot to be in. I don’t think we’ll have too much societal pressure regarding money because our inner circle is pretty even keel and we are not surounded by friends who are lawyers and medical professionals like, for example, my brother and his wife are. I absolutely love hand me downs and wish I knew more people who were into them. I have been through cycles with Goodwill and right now I’m in the I love it camp again. But I also really enjoy discount department stores a lot. Honestly I found that I was feeling more pressure regarding money from blogs than anything else.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      #2 grew up solidly upper-middle class. And I love me some Goodwill clothes. Most of the time when I get compliments on a piece of clothing, it’s something I picked out at a thrift store for under $5.

  8. Leigh Says:

    It’s interesting observing things at my job. People, for example, wear really old jeans and t-shirts, yet drive fancy cars. People wear much uglier clothes than they did at my last job! But a lot of these old guys are probably millionaire next doors who are still working. It’s quite a different environment from all the young people at my last job.

  9. middle_class Says:

    This hits home for me since my blog is all about giving a voice to the middle-class. Even though I identify as middle-class, I am probably closer to lower-middle class right now due to unique financial stresses. I do see people who make less or about the same who spend A LOT on gifts. I can understand the pressure even though we don’t succumb to it. It’s hard to live paycheck by paycheck all year long. Some people feel bad that they can’t give their kids more financially and lavish gifts for kids is a way to make up for that. For the adults, rewarding themselves isn’t a big savings account; it’s having obvious signs of “wealth” like TVs, smartphones and new cars so that their family and friends think they’re doing well.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It would be interesting to see how people from different SES answer your priority questions in your latest post.

      • middle_class Says:

        Maybe I should ask readers to identify their SES background after their comment! My 3rd post about Hard Choices is coming up soon (tomorrow) where I give even more info to consider for my decisions. Hope you can weigh in!

    • Rosa Says:

      I find myself giving nicer gifts to less-secure friends & relatives, and wearing nicer clothes around them, and just in general spending more than I usually would around them, because otherwise they worry about us – or feel slighted. Either is bad.

      I learned when my kid was a toddler that I had to loosen up some of my environmental objections to things like glow necklaces and individually plastic-wrapped fudgesicles when out and about in the neighborhood, because other moms would assume I just didn’t have the money and spend money I don’t know if *they* really had on my kid.

      I’m just glad we picked right and we’re right in the middle at school, not at the top or the bottom, so mostly our spending habits are not noticeable.

  10. Foscavista Says:

    I know that there is no general consensus, but how are you two defining middle class and upper-middle class? I have a hard time deciding where we belong, per se. (Yet, who cares where we fall?)

    Yet, I agree on the frugal, not extravagant, lifestyle. I have holes in some of my dress socks, but no one can see them, and when would I take my dress shoes off while I teach?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We are not defining it! We’re going with the porn definition “we know it when we see it.”

      • Foscavista Says:

        I see; I’m afraid if I “know it when [I] see it,” I would be fooling myself.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Who knows, we may be as well!

        But there’s really no set definition. And with the way that there’s so much income inequality in the US, there’s a huge difference between someone in the top 10% and the top 1%, even though the top 10% is a pretty nice place to be. (Hint: if you are in the top 1% you’re rich, not middle class. Period.)

      • Foscavista Says:

        I know it’s a complicated question; my apologies if I am moving “off topic” from the post.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        we’re one of those blogs where off-topic is welcomed :)

      • Katherine Says:

        Knowing it when you see it certainly requires a broad perspective on how other people live. I grew up in super-wealthy town and if you had asked me as a teenager I would have said my family was lower-middle class. Now that I’m an adult, I realize that my family was rich!

        The most common 18th birthday or HS graduation gift that parents gave the girls in my high school class was a brand new Volvo sedan. My parents bought me a Toyota Camry that was older than I was, and our house was a lot smaller than many of my friends’. My parents quietly disapproved of the fact that pretty much the only social activity was shopping, but now I see that was mostly because shopping all the time is a social class marker that didn’t match their class. Now I live in the real world, and I know that since my parents cash-flowed my ivy-league tuition and living expenses, I can’t claim that my family was anything other than rich!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That is absolutely true, and is arguably one of the reasons Republican politicians are so out of touch!

  11. Sarabeth Says:

    I see this in action at the daycare our daughter goes to. It’s very diverse by design, both in terms of economic class but also in terms of race and ability (they have a special needs integration program). As the white, UMC professor, I send my kid in with unmatched socks, no shoes (she’s still in the infant room), and clothes that are clean-but-dingy (since we don’t care to spend our time getting blueberry stains out of onesies). Many of the other kids, who are from different race and/or class backgrounds, show up in fully matching outfits, branded shoes, etc. Part of this is probably just personal preference – I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my own clothes, either. But also, I am 100% confident that my family gets the benefit of the doubt from our daycare staff. No one is going to call CPS on us, even if our daughter shows up with a huge bruise on her forehead (which has happened when she fell into the side of the sandbox) and grungy clothes. No one is going to question our parenting in more subtle ways, either. I’d bet that black families and working-class families don’t take that for granted in the same way, and that dressing their kids “nicely” is partly about making the point that they are good parents who care about their kids.

    Also, it’s a great thing about remote work: my husband makes Bay Area tech world money (or a close approximation thereof) but we live in the rust belt. That insulates us from a lot of status pressure.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s a really good point. And fits well with this theme I’ve been coming across in the past couple of years– people aren’t stupid. Things that seem irrational when you’re in one situation are completely rational in another. And the privileged get a lot of leeway while less privileged across any dimension (race/gender/SES) have to be perfect or whatever bad thing that happens to them is considered to be their fault.

      • bogart Says:

        The book The Warmth of Other Suns provides an interesting account of this issue for African Americans who emigrated from the US South to other parts of the country (mostly Northeastern and Midwestern urban centers), and some of the effects of moving back and forth across places with different rules, laws, and norms. I have sometimes also wondered (but never asked, so far) about the experience of the member of my (extended-by-marriage) family who spent childhood moving back and forth across the Iron Curtain WRT to this type of issue — not the Jim Crow South, obviously, but two other systems very different from one another.

      • Rosa Says:

        YES.

        Now, how do we get this message across? Even in liberal helping-people nonprofitland, I see so much blindness on why the people we’re trying to help might not want or need the help we’re offering. And I know I still have spots of it myself.

  12. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    PhysioWife and I are rich, but we don’t spend much money on visible signifiers of wealth such as clothes, jewelry, or cars. What we do spend money on is travel, food, and philanthropy: flying first class, staying in the best hotels, eating in the best restaurants, and giving substantially of our time and money to a variety of causes and institutions. If you saw us sitting in a cafe or wherever, I don’t think it would be apparent that we are rich. And we have zero debt, other than mortgage. It is definitely a privilege to be in a social and professional environment where there is no pressure to appear affluent, and I consider myself lucky that I don’t need to give a flying f*cke whether I look the part or not. As has been pointed out, only affluent people can afford to not dress up, like Zuckerberg in his hoodie.

  13. chacha1 Says:

    I consider myself upper middle class. I have a master’s degree, my husband has a B.S. and a successful business, and the household income is reliably over $125K. That puts us in what, the 90th percentile income-wise? That plus being fit, white, married, a native English speaker, and decently good-looking, plus working in a posh office job, gives me so many levels of privilege that I really don’t have to GAF what other people think of how I present myself.

    I choose clothes for comfort, though always within the parameters of “looks tidy and suits the business-casual environment.” My car is a 20-yr-old Accord. My apartment is in Beverly Hills and is huge, but we’ve been there so long and the building is so old that the place is cheaper than anything we’ve seen that is remotely comparable.

    Someone meeting me for the first time would probably peg me pretty accurately based on confidence more than anything else (since I don’t have the conventional signals like fancy car or fashionable clothes). They wouldn’t necessarily guess that I cut and color my own hair at home because I’m too cheap to go to a salon. :-)

    This is probably a lifetime view, too. I lived for many years in a doublewide trailer on a dirt road in South Georgia, but both my parents were college-educated and employed, and there was never any doubt in my mind that we were better off than 90% of my age peers.

    • Liz Says:

      Interesting point about confidence.

      • chacha1 Says:

        It’s much easier to be confident when you know there is nothing anybody can do that is really going to mess you up. :-) Privilege = large buffer zones. I was a lot less assertive when I had no money in the bank.

  14. Linda Says:

    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? Well, for me I’d say yes, but that’s because I’m working in a profession where I’m expected to dress a certain way (business casual to business formal) which is not comfortable or intuitive for me. I’d much rather wear jeans or workout pants and t-shirts every day.

    I have to spend money on clothing that fits this standard, though, and because of my position as being at the more senior end of the management scale I feel a subtle pressure to buy stuff that is not really cheap. I like thrift and consignment stores, but they seem to require either luck or an investment of time that I don’t have to find “the good stuff.” So, I’m glad that I probably fall into the upper middle class part of the spectrum. It allows me to go to Nordstrom every couple years and a buy some classy clothes that will last and not spend tons of time hunting it down.

    It also allows me to buy the expensive shoes that my feet seem to require. And I don’t mean fancy, designer heels. I mean stylish yet comfortable stuff like Munro or Rieker. I think that’s another “being poor means” thing: having feet that hurt a lot because cheap shoes rarely fit well or provide adequate support, cushioning, and ventilation.

    I grew up lower or middle middle class. We couldn’t buy the designer jeans and cool clothes that I wanted when I was a teenager. We ate a lot of hamburger and cheap cuts of meat. (But we ate meat, so we were definitely not poor.) I learned a lot of frugal habits that I don’t mind continuing to practice to this day. But I do get rid of socks with holes (even my hand knit ones!) and clothes that are really worn out or badly stained. I try to get stains out first, and am usually successful. I also find that air drying my clothes and not using fabric softener results in much less wear on them, so even cheap stuff tends to last a long time.

    I’ve noticed that there are many consignment and thrift stores in the Bay Area. I also noticed that there were quite a few up the west coast as far as Portland when I did a driving trip a few years ago. I don’t recall there being as many nice thrift and consignment stores in the Chicago area at all. It was frankly a pain for me to go to any sort of thrift store in my old Chicago neighborhood because they tended to be located in inconvenient areas or were very poorly organized. There were no Goodwill stores in Chicago, just Salvation Army and some privately run thrift stores. They did not have changing rooms to try things on, so you had to have a measuring tape to check how things fit or try them on over your clothes. It sucked shopping at thrift stores then.

    I think there is more acceptance in Northern CA with shopping at thrift and consignment stores to offset some of the high cost of living up here, even among the upper middle class.

    While my higher salary allowed me to move to the greater Bay Area and live here pretty comfortably, I carry around a low level of anxiety that I am doomed if something happens to my current job. I am conscious that I would have to make adjustments to my living standards and style, and am always gathering information about ways to save money out here.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s one of the reasons our friends who bought in Silicon Valley wanted to be able to put 40% down before committing (the other reason being they wanted to avoid having to get a jumbo loan). The mortgage payment on a million dollar home with 20% down seems possible when you’re bringing in 200K/year and all of a sudden isn’t manageable anymore if someone loses a job or ends up getting a lower paying job. It has to be even harder if you don’t have that second worker to smooth out risk.

      • Linda Says:

        The really cynical part of me thinks “Well, if I do end up a homeless bag lady, at least I’m now in an area where that would be a bit easier than the frigid and stingy Midwest.” :-/

  15. Debbie M Says:

    In my high school sociology class, I was taught that class isn’t just about income. By income, our family was working class with occasional dips into poverty levels, but by attitude, they were middle class. For example, they like wine more than beer and expected to be able to send us to college. But the issues you’re describing mostly seem more tied to cash flow than class.

    I feel as rich as you (except for tax issues) at my lower middle class salary. (My highest salary ever was 45K; my current salary is 27K.) Ever since I got rid of my first car that was costing me my life savings every time it broke, I’ve been able to have enough savings to deal with emergencies as well as to be able to afford everything I needed and most things I’ve wanted. That savings, which enables me to minimize my financial stress, actually makes me feel quite rich.

    One thing that has worked in my favor is to be so socially clueless that I don’t even know how people are judging me. (Except for a couple of instances where someone who dresses very well complimented me on what I was wearing in such a way that I couldn’t help thinking it was a back-handed compliment.) It also helps that I live in a city that is extremely casual. And I don’t have kids, so I don’t see how things are in the schools.

    Most of my current friends met me in grad school when we were all poor–also handy. And although they all went on to get high-paying high-status jobs while I couldn’t even get the public-school teaching jobs I was trying for and ended up in mediocre-paying mediocre-status bureaucrat jobs, they already liked me by then. Mwahaha!

    I really don’t feel any pressure to try not to seem poor. My peers occasionally pressure me to get a cell phone and, you know, turn it on, but that’s all I’ve noticed.

    I actually feel more (internal) pressure not to seem rich. I sometimes drive through low-income parts of town, and I feel more comfortable doing so in a beat-up old Toyota than I would in a shiny brand new car. And I wouldn’t want to make the outside of my house look so great that people would feel like it might be a good place to rob.

  16. Julie @ HappinessSavouredHot Says:

    I like your lucidity. Having the money does not mean you should spend it. And living above one’s needs, no matter how common these days, is never a good idea. In some aspects I am fine with frugality, in some others I appreciate quality (even luxury, sometimes) but I always try to be mindful, really appreciate what I have, and be true to my real needs (as opposed to wants).

  17. David Stern Says:

    I’ve never cared if people thought I was poor or not. I might care though if they thought I had poor taste. I’m not an American though. My father came from a relatively wealthy family of art-dealers though growing up we were lower middle class – he was a refugee. My mother started working class and got a college degree. Now that we have just bought a house for the first time at age 50 I feel that I must really be upper middle class finally ;)

  18. Rosa Says:

    Here is a thing I have noticed: working-class people I invite to things are really wary of free events and free stuff, things middle-class people take up with no shame or guilt. We go to a lot of things with our kid – free kids theater, free movies at the public library, free Saturday at the kids’ museum, playing in the creek at the park – and whenever I invite a working-class classmate or acquaintance, they want to do the version that costs money (movies at the regular theater, amusement park, etc). I used to think it was something about me – that I was making people feel like I thought they couldn’t afford things, or something – but I look around at the crowds at these events and if it is me, it’s not unique to me, the crowds are mostly middle class parents who could probably afford the more expensive thing but choose the free one. The movies at the library are definitely more middle class than the general “Take kids to the library” crowd I see when I’m there various times during the week.

    A lot of these are artier and less mainstream than the paid version, so there’s a certain hipster bike indy parent thing going on that might just not appeal to everyone, but a lot of it is just my habitual watching for the free or cheaper version of whatever we want to do.

    • sciliz Says:

      This might also pertain to the circle of friends of the other parents…if they know they can go to the free stuff anytime, they might want to go to the more expensive stuff with you, because they realize it can be suggested with less awkwardness since you can afford it. Also, everybody spends on their kids. If you’re comfortably/consistently middle class, maybe your more likely to opt for classes, sports and extracurriculars (which may make you feel like the kid budget is already high when the spontaneous amusement park visit opportunity arises). If you’re more working class, occasional treats like one visit to the theatre are easier to fit in an unstable buget that occasionally has room for treasts.

      I wish I’d had the sociological background to discuss this stuff when I was much younger.

      • Rosa Says:

        oh yeah, we spend a TON on our kid. But a lot of it is invisible – like our kid is doing the same activities as the other kids we know, but the cost is sliding-scale or free-if-you-get-free-lunch, so you’d have to know the family pretty well to have any idea what the activity actually cost them. Which is one of the awesome things about our neighborhood and school – it’s rich enough to have those resources and poor enough that they’re offered. These are mostly friends from those kinds of activities, actually, whose moms & dads I know well enough to have an idea what their jobs/houses are like.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      … I have to admit that all of my attempts to do playdates with lower SES kids completely failed. Folks would say yes but never find a time or we’d find a time and they’d cancel at the last minute. I’m pretty sure it was nothing about my personality etc. because these were kids my kid was friends with at daycare back in the day and didn’t know much about me other than very basic stuff. Playdates have almost entirely happened since having kids when a high SES family invites DC1 over (and then we reciprocate at a later date).

      As I’ve said before, that’s one thing that bugs me about the South. In the Midwest, professor = teacher. Here we’re on pedestals and perfectly amiable conversations can get uncomfortable right after I say what I do for a living.

  19. gwinne Says:

    This is really interesting. I’ll need to read the comment thread.

    In a lot of ways this sounds like me. I was young and formative enough in my family’s “poor” stage that it definitely influenced my attitude toward money. I save. My sister and brother spend, even when they don’t really have the money.

    I’d consider myself middle class, in terms of my own salary (is there an actual figure to distinguish middle from upper?) I didn’t meet, for example, Laura Vanderkam’s $100K criteria for successful women. Not even close. Despite being a prof at a major research university (humanities. blah). But I have family who work in stocks and money was invested wisely…and although it made my stomach churn, for example, I paid cash for the new car. Mostly, except for things like cars, I forget that money exists…too remote from my daily life and not really intended for daily use.

    Mostly I’m practical about money, I think, using it for things that are (a) needed or (b) beautiful or otherwise life enhancing. Like, I’m thinking about looking for a new chair for the living room, because the current chair (which is covered with a blanket to cover up godawful upholstery and rips) I’ve had since I got it for free in graduate school probably 15 years ago.

    And for what it’s worth, I fix socks :)

  20. OMDG Says:

    The last time I went shopping with a friend (over 10 years ago), she made obnoxious comments about how much money I spent on a few work shirts ($40 each x 2 shirts — on sale) which… I still have and use because they still look nice. Meanwhile, she spent over $100 on makeup. Generally I find it in extremely poor taste when people make judgmental comments about how others spend their money or talk about their own purchasing habits / thriftiness / where other people shop as though their own choices are in some way superior.

    I have no time and spend all my money on childcare. I hate all shopping, and haven’t found something wearable at a thrift store since 1996, and the latest neighborhood child clothes swap happened when I was on call. Fortunately, since I wear scrubs most days, I don’t have to shop often. My idea of luxury is nice socks. I also like buying clothes for my kid. I feel lucky that if we’re at Target and she says she wants a $10 Thomas the Train T-shirt, I can just say yes (it’s still her favorite).

  21. Ana Says:

    Don’t have much unique to say, but found this comment thread fascinating. I honestly never put much thought into the idea the the less privileged have more of a need to “keep up appearances”. This seems to play out in how people dress their kids at my kids (very diverse, SES & racially) daycare. I do feel that some “frugal” practices seem to be more common among the better off, who may have more time & energy to do things like gardening vegetables to eat, mending things, selling & buying used items, going to consignment sales or swaps, even shopping thrift stores for quality items (vs. buying cheap but new fast fashion) and then (of course) bragging about it all and judging those who are “wasting their money”.

    • Ana Says:

      we throw out socks with holes because our feet get cold and we have plenty of non-holey socks. other than that we do all the same things you mention.

    • OMDG Says:

      I think the point you are making about how “being frugal” is an upper middle class virtue is spot on. And OMG the value judgements about people who don’t go thrifting/grow their own vegetables/mend their own clothes. I can’t stand it. Sigh. Annoying hipsters.

  22. Link love (Powered by anticipation) - NZ Muse Says:

    […] Thoughts on class and money (with a great comment thread) […]

  23. Revanche Says:

    We have the occasional in-law who liberally scoffed at us for buying used cars and using generic medication. seriously. scoffed. out loud. but who the hell cares about that? I pay my bills on my own like an adult. Which is to say, I am also judging in the opposite direction: if you must have status symbols *and* scoff at my lifestyle, then probably you should actually be able to afford your status symbols and not need your parents to subsidize you in your 40s. Just because they will doesn’t mean you should take their proffered money.

    99% of the time, I have no idea if anyone’s judging me for “looking poor” and I honestly do not care because I’ve BEEN poor and that feels much worse than someone thinking less of me for not having money. I can afford to not care because I’m now living a life, with all its stresses, that is an absolute picnic in comparison economically (my health can go kick rocks). So I wear my socks with holes as nonchalantly as my mismatched whatever else I’ve got cause my clothes say absolutely nothing about me as a person other than I have a surprising comfort level with slobbiness. Somewhat like Donna, I dress for comfort, period. I do make some effort professionally but that’s another thing ;)

    I specifically requested hand me downs for our newborn from some family and that’s a privilege – my parents had to buy us yard sale clothes for most of our childhoods because 25 cents/pants or 10 cents/shirts was the kind of money we had and vast though our family was, no one had money. I’m resoundingly aware of the kind of privilege that comes with saying “we’re not asking anyone for anything for Little Bean, but if you’d like to unload your old stuff, we’re happy to take it.” and getting really decent stuff. That didn’t happen with the first generation of immigrants 30 years ago. We shared, sure, but there wasn’t much to share.

    We do have those Southern CA friends: the corporate lawyers, the surgeons, the doctors, all of whom enjoy the lavish lifestyle complete with dazzling cars (I’ll happily admire your Aston Martin from here… for free) and fine dining lifestyles. While none of them are part of the judgy crowd, I can appreciate that it’s even easier for me to not care about fitting in here in Northern CA where I think any judging happens a bit more at an intellectual or fitness level. I think all of PiC’s friends are into some kind of sport or crunchy granola health thing and none of that is me either. Probably some of the more intellectual stuff will be harder than the superficial stuff for me to keep walking past.

    I suspect a lot of this has to do with age, actually having money now, and the security of knowing yourself. Mom had the worst time when she was hiding her dental problems from me, not wanting to tell me about another expense. She was both in pain and embarrassed because it was another thing people would judge her about. I used to really feel the weirdness of still living in an apartment as an adult, especially when homebuying is the norm for most of our friends, but again: Bay Area. Houses aren’t cheap!

    We’ll see what having a kid out in the world does to these perceptions ….

  24. save. spend. splurge. Says:

    All interesting points. We are in the upper middle class.. probably upper class compared to others in our age groups (hard to say, we freelance..).. but we also don’t have the same hangups.

    All the things you’ve noted like not fixing the car when it got bumped, or socks with holes, all apply to me. I also (like one of the commenters) specifically requested for hand me downs and secondhand clothing from family for Baby Bun rather than buying new.

    We have the money.. that’s not the point, and we DO spend it, we are not miserly, but we’re practical and we don’t have anything to prove.

    Although my partner the other day mentioned that people who dress up look like they have something to prove because rich people don’t dress up, they keep their money.

    I guess so.. but even if I had millions I’d wear nice clothes because it makes me happy, not that I dress for anyone else. I dress for me because I enjoy looking nice.

    Great post. Will link.

  25. In the world of Save. Spend. Splurge. Says:

    […] Great reflective post on class and its complex workings […]


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