Reader Request Week 2023 #7: Money Among the Generations
Posted on May 5, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 53 Comments
David Goldfarb asks:
Something that occurred to me to wonder about, a while ago: as someone who grew up poor, how do you feel about your daughter’s attitude towards money? I’ve seen posts from her where she talks in a fairly casual way about spending what to me (also upper middle class! pretty close to your age!) seem like eye-watering amounts.
I wouldn’t characterize them as eye-watering amounts, personally. Eye-watering to me would be something purchasing a new automobile, deciding after a month you don’t like it anymore, and then buying a new one. That would water my eyes, guaranteed. Athena, on the other hand, buys things like stickers and stuffed animals and monthly food box subscriptions, and while those can add up over time, like anything (please don’t ask me about my guitar purchases and subscriptions to music production stuff), they’re really not in the same league. Also, we’re not upper middle class, we’re rich. We try not to be dicks about that fact! But, you know. In conversations like this, that matters.
As for my daughter’s attitude about money, let me approach that sideways by talking about the movie Crazy Rich Asians. I remember watching that movie and something about it striking me, and that thing was that some of the characters in that movie reminded me, in a very specific way, of the kids I went to high school with. Many of you will recall that I went to private boarding school in Southern California. It was a very good experience for me, and also, as a scholarship student who in his senior year was living in a trailer park when he wasn’t at school, I was also aware that my perspective on money was very different than the perspective a lot of my classmates had. I thought about it a lot; they didn’t think about it at all.
Which was the same as the characters in Crazy Rich Asians. They had their various problems and concerns and issues, and none of them had to do with finances — or if they did, were about the use and daily maintenance of money, not the acquisition and rationing of it, and even then it was not much remarked on (except by Constance Wu’s middle class character, who was the audience’s way into the story). Now, very few of the kids I went to high school with had the same level of wealth as the characters in the movie, and I certainly don’t today, but that attitude about money — it’s there, and will be there, and thus, not something to worry about on a daily basis — was certainly similar. To be very clear, Crazy Rich Asians is a movie and everything in it is heightened for dramatic and comedic effect. But the money vibe in the movie is based in a reality, and I experienced it in high school.
Athena has the same money vibe as those kids I went to school with. Not snobby, not “I have money therefore I am better than you,” which is a vibe when it comes to money, but is a different vibe, which is important to note. Rather, simply, “the money is there and I don’t have to think about it.” Material and financial security was and is a baseline assumption for her. She has absolutely none of my (frankly) PTSD about money and the lack of it at various times in my early life, or about the utter unreliability of the money when we did have it. Even now, I look at what I have and think, well, this could all go away tomorrow, even though intellectually I know that’s not going to be the case. We have enough money now that I could probably never make another dime and yet still feed myself until I roll off this mortal coil. That doesn’t matter. At the core of me, the feeling of financial instability never goes away. Athena doesn’t have that, and never has.
Which feels like a win to me, you know? Look, I’m not going to pretend I was 100% The Best Dad Ever — I am human, watch me fumble even basic things — but getting my child into adulthood without her worrying even once if she was going to have a place to live, or dinner, or shoes, well. I’m going to take that and mark it on my ledger as a plus. I and her mother did that for her, and I feel pretty great about that. I wish every kid could feel that level of security, and we all know that it’s not what every kid gets to feel, and that, in this new gilded age of ours, it’s something fewer kids get to have as we go along.
Athena’s financial privilege was not something she was ignorant of growing up. We don’t live in an enclave of well-off people; we live in rural Ohio, with farmers and blue collar workers. At one point in elementary school her classmates, because kids are blunt this way, flat out asked her if she was rich. She didn’t know, so she asked us. We told her the truth about it, which was, yes, and also, if we ever heard of her using the fact to try to make herself feel she was somehow better than her classmates (or, really, anyone), we would very unhappy, and then she would be very unhappy about that. Athena, so far as I know, took that to heart. She understood that she had essentially lucked into financial security, and that as a child, none of it was due to her. She kept, within the bounds of her age and life experience, a reasonably good grip on the situation.
I think it helped that as soon as she understood the concept that we had money, and that I and Krissy worked for it, we kept her up to date on how that money was made and what use it was being put to. Athena was told early about how much we made, the ins and outs of the publishing business, how taxes work, what we spent and how and why, so that money was not merely an abstract concept to her, nor was how it came and went in the household. I also made sure she understood how much luck was involved with that money — on my side, not Krissy’s — and what my position was relative to most writers and creatives. And I made sure she understood how lucky both of us were to have Krissy in our lives, as she has an eagle-sharp eye both for managing money and making sure we know where every penny of it is.
For all that, if your baseline is financial security and solvency, you approach the world with a different perspective than someone whose baseline is not that. Athena has spent and spends more at her age than I would have at those same ages, goes out to eat more, travels more and otherwise makes financial decisions differently than I would. I don’t generally feel these choices are especially extravagant, especially the ones that she then uses as fodder for writing (hello restaurant, food and travel pieces here at Whatever!). But they are still different choices, and I find those different choices interesting.
There’s another aspect of this understanding about money which is not as obvious to other folks, because it’s nothing something that she or we discuss much, nor will I go into detail about it now, which is that Athena has more than once used her financial privilege to help friends and others, and did so even when younger than she is now. She understood early on that a thing that was a baseline for her wasn’t so for others, and strove to be helpful with what she had. Which makes me immensely proud of her as a parent. She is a good person, and to the extent that I at all helped with that, I am grateful.
Now that Athena is an adult, she is more enmeshed with the family finances, not less; she’s going to be an active part of both Scalzi Enterprises and the Scalzi Family Foundation, not just because she’s going to inherit, but because there are things she can and will contribute to both. What’s going to be interesting to me is if and how participating in the making and formal distribution of family money is going to change her relationship to that money. We’ll find out! And I’m very much looking forward to that.
(Disclosure: As this piece is about Athena, I showed it to her and invited her to make any edits or comments she wanted before it was posted. She made none. It is as I first wrote it.)
I certainly am impressed with your relationship with your daughter. Hardly surprised, but impressed nonetheless. Having no children of my own – just three great step-children whom I had no part of raising – I always stand in awe of those parents who are taking the time and interest in being part in their children’s lives. Good on you all!
Wonderful. I’m happy to see balanced money attitudes described. Good for all of you.
A it of topic, but where do you draw the line between “upper middle class” and “rich”? (I’m interested in the line drawing exercise of it all, not your personal levels of wealth, so this isn’t a sneaky request for that.)
Thanks especially for this one; it is the Q I would have asked if I had not decided it was too intrusive :).
I/we are struggling with very close to the same set of challenges, and I have had the same reaction to many of Athena’s posts on subscription boxes etc.: they would have made me (honestly, very) uncomfortable if one of our kids were spending that level of money. Like John, we grew up far, far less affluent than we are now; even in grad school there’s a family trope (because it’s true) that we did not have the 4$ to join our friends at the county fair. And then we got rich; mostly by working hard and being smart but also a very, very large portion of pure luck.
So our kids have never had that worry of whether they could afford a school field trip or the varsity-level tennis racquet or whatever. And we worry about the level of privilege that gives them as well as the different level of motivation it might have generated.
Happily, neither (yet!) has ever been a spender, nor appears to have lost the motivation to strive; we’re very thankful. But I worry about it every day.
[I have done a better job than my wife of adapting to our wealth in terms of being willing to spend it; but we’re still pretty penny-conscious. I don’t think the kids ever will or even ever could be to the same level.]
My grandmother grew up one of many kids, poor during the Depression, and she washed and folded tin foil after she used it. She’d mend socks until they were more mend than knit. There was always a massive garden, always a fully stocked root cellar. She wasn’t stingy, would always help someone in need, but that undercurrent of want never really went away, and in a way she became afraid of extravagance, of what it would mean to have enough to buy something pretty just because she wanted it.
It wasn’t that she wanted to be poor, but poor felt normal, and normal felt better than good. During early Covid I thought of her a lot.
It was my son who came home from one of his AP history classes and said – we are at least upper middle class – and it finally hit me – yes – we were well past “not missing meals” to “my kids have never worried about such things”
I’m in the fabled 1%; that’s rich. Even the lower end of the 1% is still rich.
As usual I appreciate your honesty and candidness. While not near your level of wealth, my kids also live a different lifestyle than I did at a young age, and I worry about the usual parent things that entails, such as the lack of appreciation for what they have, not valuing hard work, feeling superior, etc.
Just an editor type comment
This passage reads weird
“nothing something that she or we discuss much, ”
Rest of it – you guys are good people.
Athena also works for her income, including (but I imagine not limited to) her contributions to this blog. That can make a big difference in how a person views finances.
I was once asked to list the influencers I followed, those who inspired me to make purchases. At first I was confuzzled and thought, “I don’t follow influencers.”
I guess was thinking of online personalities in the stereotyped way you see on tv series. Then it occurred to me that I did indeed follow two influencers. So I put down “Athena Scalzi, Whatever Blog.” She’s the =only= online personality who has ever inspired me to go out and buy a product she reviewed.
The other I follow is a singer/model I used to gig with, a Youtuber named Howard Reese (@TheHRShowExperience). We trained with the same vocal coach in MD and performed a few times together before I moved.
During my early graduate school days when I was on an 11k stipend I definitely thought about money a lot, my then boyfriend now husband at the time was long distance and I couldn’t spare much to fly out to see him. I remember I had an observing session that was supposed to be on Christmas get cancelled, but I didn’t have the money to change my flight to stay longer while visiting him so I boarded my plane Christmas Eve all sad about not being able to stay, but then the plane had maintenance issues and they offered to give people vouchers if they didn’t want to wait it out and to reschedule their flights for free which I was like YES PLEASE.
All that to say, these days I wouldn’t have thought about it at all, I would have just coughed up whatever the cost was to change my flight, there is not a reality where I would give up more time and a holiday with someone I love to save a hundred dollars. And that freedom is definitely how money buys happiness.
On the other side, my mom ended up marrying someone very, very rich while I was already off at college but my younger sisters were still at home, and I have seen the ways in which money can warp perspective when it goes beyond a simple ‘I don’t really have to think about financial strain’.
I’m pretty glad that I wasn’t shaped by that money, and that I still get to benefit from it though. It sounds like Athena’s approach to money is more ‘freedom’ than ‘flaunting’, which is a nice spot to be.
I think the biggest thing any parent can do for their children is help them understand finances in general — how money can be made, what expenses the household has, taxes, budgeting, all of it.
Based on what you’ve said over the years, I think we grew up in very similar households from the standpoint of money – not nearly enough and PTSD about it all falling away. My parents never talked about money because it was a shame, and I had to learn hard lessons about how all of it worked.
At its core: understanding how money works (and doesn’t work) is the biggest leg up any parent can give their child, no matter whether they’re rich or poor because it’s key to preventing hard economic lessons.
My father, a blue collar worker, defined “rich” as “never having to ask yourself whether you can afford an item before buying it.” That definition has worked for me all my life.
This question reminds me that I was wondering why Athena got a job when she posted about that. (Admittedly it sounds like a pretty cool job, but it also sounds like she doesn’t need it from a financial perspective.)
Both my parents grew up lower middle class or upper poor. Some relatives on Dad’s side of the family were living in shacks in LA and slowly starving when the New Deal came along. Mom grew up near Columbus as the daughter of a Navy chaplain who died during the war. My grandparents owned their own houses, eventually. Dad’s parents in Hanford California.
Dad got his PHd at Ohio State and was firmly middle class to the end of his days.
Me, I still have a mortgage payment and if I had to I could pay the bills until retirement, if I was really careful. Basically upper class. But well off in some ways. Every month I’ve set aside money for the next car and in January I ordered an Audi A5 convertible which should be here in a few weeks and which I’ll pay cash for. Haven’t had to carry a balance on the credit card for many years either.
That said, I have sufficient life experience to know what it’s like to have rice and beans for dinner every day for a week because the rent is due and what it’s like to not have the rent anyway.
Whenever someone here in NoVa complains about the problems of having money I tell them they should try being poor for a while.
True story: I drove to the Michigan State Veterinary Clinic for one of my doggos. It’s located right in the middle of the campus, and I couldn’t help noticing a Lamborghini and a Maserati in the parking lot. Two ultra luxury cars seemed a bit much, so I asked the receptionist about that.
She said that wealthy students park in their lot all the time and pay the $50 fine like it’s a meter.
There’s rich, and then there’s RICH I guess.
I think attitudes about money are shaped largely by how much, or little, of it you had while growing up. I was raised in an extremely frugal family that never spent a dime on anything other than absolute necessities. Money was a scarce commodity and still is in my brain even though I was fortunate enough to come into enough money as an adult to not have to worry about it going forward. I still have a tough time buying something because I just want it. It seems what we learn as kids is the default position, even when the situation changes for the better.
My fathers’ forebears were miners – actually pretty well-off for working-class people and they goit a subsidised house, even when his father and grandfather stopped work after industrial injuries. My childhoos was patchy. I have never really had enough mobey, have little pension and no savings, and I will have to work for all my life. But my daughter is realtively well-off, has no kids and a two-income household, so perhaps that’s easing a bit. I do remember almost all my upbringing that the adults went on fancy holidays and we children went to the seaside with my mother’s parents… Hmmm
I know if I’m OK, I can buy books! When I’m broke, I go to the library
This is a very good and frank and encouraging column. Thanks.
Wow, what a great essay and discussion. I grew up lower middle class (and my mom grew up very poor, which affected our attitudes, too), married a man whose mother’s family had lost everything in WWII and therefore had huge anxiety about material things (didn’t throw out old shoes), and then he “hit the work lottery”, as in he started work for an IT company in the late 80s. We’re not in the 1%, but we are certainly in the 5%.
However, in the recession, he had no work for 4 years and we became very frugal so we wouldn’t have to live on savings and I was working 70 hours a week to make up a bit for the shortfall. This made my kids think we were poor for a while, because we were so conscious about our spending. We probably caused them money anxiety without meaning to, as we didn’t share our finances with them at their ages at the time.
Anyway, work picked up, I dropped hours, and we still have to reassure the kids years later that we can afford to pay for grad school for them if that’s what they want.
The main thing for me is I don’t do thrift store shopping. And I don’t buy used books. It makes me “feel poor”. (This is undoubtably great for all the authors out there who need people like me to buy their hardcovers! ;) ). I still have anxiety it could go away at any time. As life goes on and I see that I’ll probably have enough to get me through the remaining few decades, it’s now much more fun to give $ away and help people out, in spite of my own not-so-subconscious inherited worries.
(Disclosure: As this piece is about Athena, I showed it to her and invited her to make any edits or comments she wanted before it was posted. She made none. It is as I first wrote it.)
Thanks. Given how this piece was about Athena I KNEW that you’d show it to her ahead of time, but I was wondering throughout reading it, what she’d think of it. You didn’t have to provide that, so…thanks for the insight.
My wife and I discussed where we are on the ranking recently, after her recent success. We both agree we’re not rich by today’s standards. More upper middle class. When we were kids in the 60’s? Yes, we’d probably be considered rich. We’re certainly better off than our parents and grandparents were. I still worry about recent bounties going away, especially after having experienced her career crash 12 years or so ago. We don’t take anything for granted. But we try not to worry about that, and instead enjoy being comfortable on a day to day basis now without worrying if we’ve saved enough to pay the property tax every year.
I’ve been all over the money spectrum throughout my life, and am now pretty comfortably upper middle class (although that “upper” may be shrinking due to inflation — let’s just say that I’m grateful for a low mortgage and that our cars are paid off right now). My children have heard stories about how broke we were when they were young — their toys all fit into a milk crate, and we went to the park every day because it was free. I’d like to say they have some idea of how to manage money, since they don’t seem prone to extravagant spending, and our approach was very similar to yours as far as explaining where the dollars come from and where they go. My money anxiety has never really left me, so it’s interesting to hear from someone who is objectively doing better and still has the same anxiety.
I remember reading this question on the original post and thinking to myself “well that’s sort of impertinent” – but also thinking that I would love to know how the family finances have worked out for Athena.
I got curious while reading this thread and did a quick Google to see where I fall in the “percent” rankings. The general consensus is that based on income: nationally the top 10% make around $235k a year, the top 5% make around $350k a year, and the top 1% make around $900k a year. (I also found this link that breaks it out by state: https://www.cnbc.com/2022/01/24/how-much-money-you-have-to-earn-to-be-in-the-top-1percent-in-every-us-state.html)
My household is solidly in the top 10 of income by that measurement and on a state level (Georgia) is in the top 5% of income.
I know that for me personally the “line” that marked my movement from living paycheck-to-paycheck to financially-comfortable was when I could fill up my car at the gas station and not care what the total was. The day I didn’t have to stop short of “full” because of my budget was a game changer.
I’m not as well off as you are, but my wife and I live very comfortably and are but a few percentage points below you.
I did not grow up in a trailer, but we didn’t have trailer parks where I was. It was low income housing and my mother and I were on welfare and receiving food stamps (I don’t believe it was called SNAP in the early ’70s). My life changed pretty dramatically after my mom married my step dad so my late elementary and teen years were much better (we went from fort poor to blue collar), but I still have that same feeling that everything could be gone tomorrow. It’s not really a thing that’s likely to happen, but like you, can’t seem to shake the sentiment.
My kid did not grow up in rural Ohio, but in Fairfax county, VA. You know the area, you’re old house in Sterling is less than ten minutes from where I live (I don’t know the address, but Sterling isn’t that big and I don’t think any part of it is more than ten minutes away). His attitude is much the same as Athena’s, with the minor exception that all the kids around him were also in a similar socio economic bracket (Oakton high school draws 100% from super zips), so it wasn’t really until he went to college that he was in an environment where not everyone had enough money that it wasn’t something they never had to think about.
We made a point of telling him from the time he was old enough to understand that he was extremely lucky and that most kids do not grow up like that (contrary to his surroundings), but he never really had the first hand experience of seeing it until then.
He is extremely grateful, especially seeing his friends trying to pay off student debt, that he doesn’t have, but he definitely has a very different relationship with money than I ever will.
TL;DR, I can totally relate.
I found your response courageous. Your level of humanity, compassion, and intelligence continue to amaze.
I read a blog post years ago about different financial priorities and Startling Expenses, and as someone who grew up weird, it made a ton of sense: basically, while people are at different financial levels, it is entirely possible to shock someone at your same level (or at more-money level) by some things you choose to spend money on. My mom bought the fish bones left over from the fishmonger’s filleting; we shopped thrift stores; vacations were mostly camping. BUT we visited family that was halfway around the world about every 3-4 years, which would have been a Startling Expense for anyone else, whereas my mom would simply not consider buying things that were not on sale (at least, things that were ever on sale). Of course you buy the brand of yogurt you don’t really like instead of the brand of yogurt you do really like, because there’s a coupon.
And then I was a penny-scraping college student, and then a penny-scraping spouse of a grad student, so my late teens and 20s were cheap food, free food, and very few items of “discretionary spending” in general. We were never “at risk” because we actually had savings, but I had the “always earn more than you spend” thing and “don’t use savings” thing drilled into me, so it felt like we were shaving close to the edge, sometimes. But I remember when I realized in my late 20s that we were now both bringing in enough income that we could really quite reasonably afford things like an actual shower curtain instead of the $1 shower curtain liner we’d been using [and bleaching and repairing]. It was disorienting, to be honest, because it is a weird shift to know that 1. you can expand your purchasing levels but 2. you can’t expand all your purchasing levels [because it’s not that much money] and also 3. should we be giving the extra money away – the money which exceeds our basic needs and wants – instead of spending it on things that aren’t actually big priorities for us, like [for us] having a “real” shower curtain?
So I’ve definitely been perplexed by the subscription boxes and different restaurant ordering practices (not ordering one of the cheapest things on the menu – no drinks other than water, and definitely no desserts or appetizers), but 1. drastically different financial situation and 2. the concept of startling expenses.
That said, I still sometimes wonder whether, if one is ultra-rich, what responsibilities that brings and whether it’s ever actually appropriate to live full-on conspicuous consumption (where the amount you spend on one party is 10x greater than the annual salary of the employees who help set up the party) and yet nearly everyone in America lives conspicuous consumption, compared to subsistence farmers elsewhere in the world, so… I’m not sure.
But I am really glad that Athena is in the position of never needing to worry about where food/rent is coming from. And also really glad that she’s gotten the opportunity to earn zero-nepotism wages, because that’s just a delightful thing in and of itself, to earn and know you can earn even without pulling all your privileges into play, and that also helps keep the “… huh, this meal is X times the hourly minimum wage and would be out of reach for large sectors of the population” awareness alive, which I think is healthy both for interacting with people in different economic bands and for things like how you vote. (during a particularly tight time, we once had someone tell us, in recruiting us for a volunteer position that also assumed you’d be buying things, that “it only costs $30 a month, that’s nothing” and, like, buddy, we very rarely eat out because we have $100 in the budget for food for the two of us per month, $30 is not nothing! And if some politician is trying to tell you that a $100 annual fee for voter ID is “nominal” then some people will recognize that as likely to cause voter suppression and some will go “but it’s only $100 a year, what’s the problem?” and honestly we want more people in the first category and fewer in the latter one.)
(anyway. Thank you, all three of you, for being aware of the privilege of money and attempting to wield it well!)
This has been something I think a lot about too for the same reasons. I still haven’t figured out how to have rich kids, though since DC1 is heading off to college next year, it’s kind of late in the game.
Like, I’m still amazed at like thick paper towels (which we don’t generally buy, but I’m now ok about buying and not like rinsing out and reusing, so long as we get the kind that you can tear off a small portion for). And eating out approximately once a week is insane!
My kids just do not think about money the same way I did. (DH was bad with money but in different ways that also come from growing up low income!) And yes, still definitely have that fear that it could all go away, though not as much as I used to.
I think we’ve mostly been raising our kids as upper-middle-class rather than rich, because for most of their childhoods we were upper-middle-class rather than rich. It will be interesting to see if DC2 ends up with a different view about money than DC1, given the age difference and length of time rich. But also they’ve had moderate allowances most of their lives and have been met with “you can spend your own money on X if you want” which sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, so they don’t tend to ask for much.
I don’t know.
We can always say Yes to everything, trips, study abroad, etc. All the things I wouldn’t even tell my parents about because I knew it would lead to fighting about money if I went. We never fight about money (or anything, tbh). And there’s no problem replacing lost textbooks or anything that we can say “it’s just money” for. DC1 will graduate from college in 4 years with no debt in exchange for us paying the price of a pretty nice house. I also went to a similar elite college, but it was nearly free for my parents, and I was one of the poor ones while DH will be one of the rich ones.
I think they’re aware of their privilege, because they know we grew up much worse off and they regularly see various cousins and second cousins who aren’t rich.
I wonder where they get those numbers from.
https://dqydj.com/household-income-percentile-calculator/ has a much lower threshhold for top 1% household income in the US as a whole. Nowhere near 900K. (We’re not in the top 1% by that definition, but nobody thinks the cutoff for middle-class is 417K/year, except for people who make more than that.)
You and Athena have it better than Crazy Rich Asians. One thing hard to miss in the movie was that Nick’s father never made an appearance. He was working the whole time, so he never met his future daughter in law. Worse, the deal at the end has a dark side. Despite the romantic courtship, one gets the impression that now Nick will be the absent father, hard at work on the family fortune with little or no involvement with his children.
You and Athena have it much better than that.
The whole 1% nomenclature has always amused me because it’s hard to balance net worth vs income to have a single measurable metric. My high income days are (very happily) behind me and I’m at the tail end of my career; my current job income would barely qualify me as the 10%. But I’ve got a lot of money and calling myself part of the 10% would be pretty disingenuous (and I share Scalzi’s concerns about how talk about money without sounding like an asshole)
@Nick Mele: But…what’s “an item”? A book? A tankful of gas? A smartphone? A designer dress? A house? A private jet? For that matter, the word “afford” seems pretty fuzzy too.
@Kara: Absolutely the question was impertinent (good word) which was why I preemptively apologized for it.
@OGH: I really like your “1%” above, which definitely answers the question without being revealing. You are quite right to be proud of the success that you and Krissy have achieved; and it sounds like you’ve done a good job educating Athena about money. Thanks for answering my impertinent question.
The difference here isn’t buying at the level of subscription boxes, it’s that failing in college is something that can happen without financial ruin. It was courageous of Athena to share her struggles with higher ed, but wow do I envy that freedom to fail.
Growing up the way you grew up and then working your tuckus off for the money you have had set an example for Athena. I do hope she keeps that going.
I grew up in a charmed life not knowing we really were middle class. I thought we were filthy rich. My mother indulged me. Then I found out we were middle class.
I’ve lived with plenty, I’ve been homeless. In live comfortably.
I’ve instilled in my daughter she is financially responsible for her life at a very young life. She worked through high school, college, and graduated debt free. She’s saving for a home.
I still want the secret of Krissy’s hair, Scalzi. I need it. NEED IT!
It’s great that she’s so grounded. I also grew up in need of financial-assistance poor and then went through schooling surrounded by very privileged people. The worst was that a lot of them were very oblivious to their privilege which will never not anger me. On the other hand, I did meet a few people who, as you said, were aware of their financial security and thought nothing of sharing it, bless them.
Intention is everything, too. I knew some people who refused to partake in such sharing, wrapped up in their pride and turning up their noses at “charity.” It’s pretty clear when someone is stuck on their “savior” role and those people can take a hike, but it was just foolish to me to not enjoy something freely and happily given because of my pride.
Decades later, I still remember more than one occasion that my parents drove my sister and me to the landlord’s house, where we waited in the car while they asked for an extension on the rent until one of my father’s clients paid him. So although we were never homeless, I definitely felt that sense of insecurity. Even now I pinch myself that I live in a house worth more than half a million.
Unfortunately my parents were not good money managers. Watching them, I mostly learned what NOT to do. Which has at least helped me in the long run. Along with the same mix of hard work, smarts, and more than a little pure luck.
Many of you will recall that I went to private boarding school in Southern California. It was a very good experience for me, and also, as a scholarship student who in his senior year was living in a trailer park when he wasn’t at school, I was also aware that my perspective on money was very different than the perspective a lot of my classmates had. I thought about it a lot; they didn’t think about it at all.
My experience was quite similar – frosh/soph at a parochial school in Northern California on a full academic scholarship. I had classmates who would spend more money on a pair of sunglasses than my entire outfit cost for the day, including undergarments. The school changed their financial aid policy at the end of my sophomore year, and my scholarship would have been cut by 2/3 – and I was expected to work off that remaining third on-campus at slightly better than minimum wage for the time. (I finished my education in public school.)
I grew up poor, so did my wife, and we’re still not quite middle class, but that’s also due to some choices, to sacrifice money, in order to have free time, for example. But we both went to a very elite private college, as scholarship students, and there met Crazy Rich people, like actual royalty and such. Most were nice. Honestly, there’s a level of wealth that surpasses snobbishness, and is just thoughtlessly kind. For example, one of my wife’s college friends wanted my wife to attend a dressy event with her and other friends, but my wife had neither the money for the cover charge, nor the appropriate attire. The friend matter of fact said she’d already bought everyone’s tickets, and was also gleeful about taking my wife shopping. It was, she said, a gift to herself to have an excuse to shop in the city for a day. Not awkward or condescending, not even benevolent, just fun with a friend. My wife still notes that it’s the only time she’s ever been in a store by appointment, with no price tags.
First, let me commend you to the highest level for answering this question. Frankly, my wife and I talk about Athena more than you’d think, totally based on what she writes… and our own experiences in 70+ years. I would never think of asking you that question because it is not my business, and because if you’re happy (as you seem to be) that is all that matters.
It’s more that it seems like a waste of what seems to be a lot of potential, but as someone who heard about his own “potential” for decades I wouldn’t put that on anyone else.
We were always strictly middle class growing up. My father worked hard – sometimes half a day on Saturdays – and my mother worked once my sisters were old enough to be on their own. When we were kids my brother and I went to summer camp all summer for years while my father stayed in the city and worked,..and we took that more or less for granted.
My wife and I worked – my wife was a teacher and administrator for 34 years and taught administrators and principals how to do their jobs, even though she never was above a teachers’ salary. Nonetheless we went to Europe every summer (even though it took most of the next year to pay off the trip). I guess one key thing – we have no kids, so no education fees or tennis lessons or doctor bills – and we have always rented (by choice).
Now we’re old by some of your standards and have never been better off. We are at the “I can buy anything I want at any time without thinking about it” stage. But then, we don’t have expensive tastes, so that’s not an issue.
I think for my wife in particular, it is how we were brought up – you go to college, you study hard and graduate, then you get a job and work hard. She feels (I think) that Athena could be doing things, but then most of the children of our friends are not in a dissimilar position. Their generation is very different from their parents, and still more distant from us, the reviled Boomers. I’m glad to hear (not that I’m surprised) that she helps others (without bragging about it), and I hope she enjoys the rest of her life as much as her parents do theirs.
I have no problem with Our Gracious Host’s being rich—I want everyone to be rich, and jobless for that matter.
Notably, I especially have no problem with his being rich because I’ll guess that he’d rather that everyone be at least well-off: it’s very much the difference between the draft-dodging of George W. Bush and Donald Trump (who both supported other men’s still being drafted) and of Wm Clinton (who at least marched to oppose it, which wasn’t enough but more than nowt). I strongly doubt that Mr Scalzi considers his being rich proof of his intrinsic superiority, moral or intellectual, to all people, especially the poor.
In this wise I’ll mention that I worked for a few week with a few citizens of actually First-World nations with decent welfare and health-care. Something about them reminded me of some other people; I was unclear of whom, until a few days in I realised that these middle-class people reminded of the less putzlisch (to use a technical term) rich kids I’ve known. It’s almost as if growing-up without fear of economic disaster looming on the other side of a cancer diagnosis and/or one or two parents’ losing a job were good for one….
This is really a wonderful and generous post, John, thank you so much for writing it and thank you to Athena for being fine with it being shared. And a third thank you to everyone so far for your thoughtful responses.
Over the years I’ve reflected a lot on my rather schizophrenic relationship to money. My own internalized insecurities about money are not because my own immediate family was ever financial insecure (we were solidly upper-middle class), but more because of the financial vagaries in my extended family, especially my father’s family. My dad’s maternal family was quite well-off for at least a generation before he was born and his father, who came from a poor immigrant family, was a successful lawyer when he married my grandmother. My dad’s childhood during the depression and WW II, unlike many other children’s, was one of financial security and privilege. However, by the 1960s much of that family wealth had disappeared, and this meant that by the 70s, my dad, a successful lawyer in his own right, and his only successful sibling were offering financial support at various times to their widowed mother and to their two much less-successful siblings (and their families). So, although my own family was financially secure (albeit at slightly lower level than my father had grown up with); my cousins’ families were not at all. Because of this, I was all too aware of how easy it was for money to evaporate and of the difficulties that its lack could create. And while I learned that family should always support family in times of need; those times of need often created tensions and strain between the donor and recipient, no matter how much both tried to behave in a neutral fashion.
During grad school and for a few years after, my husband and I struggled at times to make ends meet, but I can’t say that we were ever poor in any meaningful way, even when our income was below the official poverty line. This was because 1) we were well educated and knew that the even in midst of an economic downturn, we would eventually find if not perfect positions, then at least decent paying ones; and 2) that, as much as it might make us feel like failures, we could always pick up the phone and ask our parents for help and we would have received it. Knowing those 2 things meant our calculations of how to handle emergencies or unexpected expenses were very different from people at our income level who didn’t have such resources or support to fall back on. Nonetheless we were very careful with our money for many years because we didn’t want to have to make that call to our parents.
My husband and I are now financially decently situated; yet that irrational fear that my financial resources could slip away like my paternal family’s inherited wealth has never completely disappeared.
John, I think that was the most thoughtful and honest description of personal wealth that I have ever read. Thank you. I am also impressed with the quality of the post responses. Good people.
I am in the position that I can help others to get over the various humps in their road and to support good charities. By the numbers mentioned, I am not even middle class, but because of savings (I’m retired), I need not worry.
I do not believe in trying to impress others. I drive a 5 year old Subaru instead of a $50k pickup truck. I have more than I need so I am content.
With the giant caveat that I am obviously not privy to the details of your finances, based on public statements that I can recall, it seems to me more like you became rich during Athena’s lifetime (even if you were always at least upper-middle class – but as you say, that distinction matters).
I wonder – not really asking exactly, just wondering – if this is something that Athena has noticed as she has grown up, and if so, if moving from an upper-middle class household to a “rich” one has affected her own attitude toward money. I don’t know, maybe for kids it’s more about meeting a baseline level of security and if one is not privy to the accounting or the investments it doesn’t really intrude upon one’s sphere of awareness. Anyway, this was an interesting post.
Another thing about household money – annual income vs. assets in retirement. We’re retired and we have big IRAs & no debt. But we know that money has to last somewhere between 10 & 30 years, and who knows what the markets will be doing. So we have been withdrawing carefully. Leslie knows she’ll get our house someday, and probably some money but who knows how much or when.
My personal test for “middle” vs “upper middle” vs “rich” is “what is the dollar value of setback that would ruin your day vs month vs year vs life.”
Or “what is the level of spend that you have to plan to handle?”
If dinner gets ruined, and you have to plan how you afford to replace it, you are poor. (i.e. what bill do I delay paying) If you can’t replace dinner, you’re destitute.
my personal signifier between upper middle & lower upper is “new car” or “braces.” Multi-thousand dollar purchases.
There was a time that I had to choose between dinner and phone bill. And it took me months to save enough to get the phone turned back on after missing that bill. But I got fortunate, and I was playing on the lowest difficulty setting, so things turned around.
I’m Athena, I guess. My parents came from modest backgrounds (not poor, I admit) and did well and we were the Rich Family in a small rural town. But their attitude towards us kids was: never discuss money. They were protecting us, I think they must have been concerned we’d brag about wealth (we would never have done that), but the practical effect of it was it taught me to be ashamed and awkward in any discussion about money and wages and &c. It’s been a serious impediment in my life.
Graz Scalzi, yours is a much better way to educate your kid about wealth.
I grew up middle class, but I became poor when my father kicked me out of the house for not having a job. (I may or may not have had undiagnosed Aspergers.)
In sharp contrast to my father, my mother’s response to my joblessness was to help me get a job, which made me a contributing member of society for thirty years in a dirty job that always needs to be done. A job that is now paying my excellent pension. I was just squeaking into the top 50% income of earners when I retired. I believe I’m now only in the top 75% by AGI but I’m reasonably wealthy because I own my own home and have no debt. Also, I used to say that “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it” about things with no obvious price tag, and now I can remind myself that this isn’t necessarily true anymore.
Also, yes, I don’t think I’m influenced by so-called influencers, but I have bought foods based on Athena’s recommendations. In fact, I may have been healthier when my junk food consumption was limited by cost. Now that it’s only limited by common sense, I may be in deep trouble.
Seconding David Hunt. Kudos for this graceful handling of a question that was both nosy and a bit condescending. For the record, I’ve never thought to worry about Athena’s spending habits. She doesn’t at all act like someone spoiled by wealth. (Not to mention that exactly zero of those sorts would dream of calling themselves “far left.”) I suspect it’s also very easy to overlook inflation in this equation. Like, of course it looks preposterous to parents if a kid spends $200 on a thing. But that’s…not very much these days.
Lots of recent upward mobility in my family, as in yours. My grandparents clawed their way up into the lower middle class, where things were a little tight but no longer desperately poor. Then my parents managed to go one further. They were so thrilled not to have to buy secondhand items for me. Throughout those years, they were careful to talk to me about poverty, their own upbringings, and how much luck is involved. I got a gentle lecture for acting spoiled only once, when I was about six; after that, I never forgot about how many people were so much less fortunate and how unfair this is. I grew up in an affluent neighborhood and watched other kids spend appalling amounts of money on useless things (one man complained to my not-very-sympathetic parents that his then-11-year-old daughter had gotten a $500 haircut). Me, I got really into bargain hunting, and I’ve continued to be very frugal as an adult. I think I’m also kind of done with unregulated capitalism in general.
People’s relationship with money is interesting to me because of the contrast between me and my husband. We grew with similar household income (about 55,000/year in today’s terms) But I grew up with the ‘never really thought about money’ attitude you describe while he had a lot of anxiety about it. I’ve come to realize that a lot of that was related to our extended family. If my parents had lost their jobs for a few months, any of their siblings could and would have helped them with basics. At worst, we could have moved into grandparents home. For him, none of the family they were still speaking to were in a position to help.
It’ll be interesting to see what our children will do as they get old enough to spend money themselves.
As a non-parent, thank you for this tiny glimpse into parenting.
I am a little anxious that stating in a public forum that Athena likes to help people will make her a target for scammers, but I’m sure you have already covered that with her.
Thanks also to other commenters for sharing their stories. In that vein, it is a little ironic that now that I am retired and living on a pension, I am better off than when I was working. I am by no means rich – I could not, for example, pay cash for a new car (I’d like to – electric, of course).
My first thought was – it really isn’t anyone’s business how Athena spends her money! But that said, I’m impressed with how you discuss money issues with her, which is something every kid needs to learn.
I also like how you include Athena in your blog and let her express herself. I may not read every post she writes, but her posts makes me smile. Precious father-daughter bonding moments!
According to a single, unverified source: Newly adult students go away to university, spend unconsciously in September, finally start to get a grip in October, and start to panic in November.
I don’t know the answer: I would guess that as kids they were rich enough to go to Disneyland, and have an allowance, so I don’t think budgeting their allowance was enough for them to practise the old (out of date?) Boy Scout law: A Scout is thrifty.
Somebody told me it’s no coincidence that as the U.S. people came to believe in debt their government went into debt to foreigners. (China) I can give no advice, but I do think we should be aware.
As someone who grew up slightly better off that you but still in the low income bracket, I wanted to say that yes, you absolutely develop PTSD. Not inviting friends over, not going with them to events or functions, skipping lunches, all the stuff that you mentioned in your essays on being poor leave a substantial mark on you.
It’s been decades since I had a credit card declined but there’s always that nagging feeling when I hand it to a server. My wife has it too. We can’t shake it. And what’s worse is when the unexpected happens (we both lost our jobs about two years ago) and it triggers it all over again. We climbed back out of that hole, but it definitely reopens old wounds.
I hope my daughter escapes at least that — we talk to her all the time about responsible decisions and she’s headed into a solid career field. I just hope she never, ever has to call a creditor and beg for an extension, or try to figure out how to pay for food this week, or cancel doctor’s appointments because hey, I just lost my job.