The Why: Money Guilt

I mentioned before that I wanted to write more about “the why” behind our lifestyle choices in response to questions from readers like Alysa and Emily. But every time I sat down (well, laid down really) to do it, I couldn’t decide where to start; there are so many interrelated whys. I thought about starting with chronic illness because that obviously exerts a heavy influence on everything (hence the blog title that Neal still doesn’t get), but it just wasn’t clicking . . .

Until this morning when I read this post from Crystal at Budgeting in the Fun Stuff. As soon as I saw the title in my Google Reader, “I Do Not Feel Money Guilt,” I knew that’s where I had to start because “money guilt” and its effect on me predates even my health problems. Crystal writes:

It makes no sense to have money guilt.  I sympathize with anybody suffering through bad times.  I try to help anybody I can, strangers and friends alike.  I have volunteered with Meals on Wheels and now volunteer weekly for the local hospice.  BUT I will never feel guilty for what I work for, invest, and save.

I’m not going to argue about whether it makes sense to have money guilt (especially at this political moment in time), but what I know is that I have had a healthy dose of money guilt for just about as long as I can remember.

My early days were spent quite poor. We lived in a mobile home community, which I didn’t realize at the time was so loaded with meaning because it was all I knew.

The double-wide

Although my dad had a full-time job at UT Austin, it was not enough to make ends meet with two little kiddos. So every morning at 3:30 or 4:00 am, my parents would truck out of bed to deliver papers. My brother and I spent many happy (sleepy?) hours making rubber band balls while my parents folded papers.  The kids I knew then were all poor; there was no class struggle going on while we clandestinely played down at “the crick.”

This tree saw a lot of action/pinatas!

But somewhere along the line, maybe just when we were moving to California for greener pastures and more money, I realized that my family was different. We were poor at the moment, but between them, my parents already had three majors, two minors, and three college degrees, including a PhD. They were on their way up. We had a stint living with my paternal grandparents, but our next house was no double-wide.

I think it was only when we moved to Orange County (the O.C. as it will probably forever be known now) that it really hit me what the lives of the friends I left behind were in comparison. Many of them were smack dab in the middle of the intergenerational transmission of poverty (even though I didn’t know that term at the time). I saw that their parents were poor and had minimal education and low-wage jobs, and my friends didn’t know any different. I still remember the culture shock of comparing the inside of my new friends’ houses to those of my old friends. Some of them had lived in absolute filth and squalor, only we didn’t really know it. (I should note, for my mom’s sake, that she always kept an impeccably clean house — no small feat when you regularly have possums, raccoons, cockroaches, and scorpions crawling up through your floors during the night). And I felt guilty. I mean like really guilty. How could I embrace this new life, so far away from the hardships that I had barely noticed at the time but that might be a persistent part of the lives of my old friends? It seemed a betrayal to enjoy this new way of living.

And so I think part of me has forever struggled with what it means to be middle class. I could never give up the opportunity for higher education, an option that I’m sure was not available to some of those 8-year-old girlfriends I left behind, because I always knew that college would be my favorite thing (and it was). But I have resisted many of the other trappings of the middle class. In short, there’s a part of me that wants to live a small, cheap life because it feels wrong that I should have a bigger, nicer one than Gina and Rachelle and Maria and Tanya.

What I’ve written here is not prescriptive; I’m not telling you how I think people should think or feel. In fact, I am the first to admit that there is a level of dysfunction to my money guilt. I haven’t called myself pathologically frugal for nothing. (Exhibit A: it is more difficult for me to get massages that are probably medically advisable because they feel so darn luxurious to me.) I’m simply telling you a story — one of the many reasons why this “alternative lifestyle” sometimes feels like the only palatable option to me.

Do you have “money guilt”? Can you trace it back to anything in particular? Do you fight it, ignore it, embrace it?



Filed under The Why

6 responses to “The Why: Money Guilt

  1. Sabrina

    I have to agree that seeing my family struggle made me very aware of money and finances early on. We moved to a 4 bedroom double wide from a 2 bedroom trailer when I was in 3rd grade and my parents had 7 kids and the 8th was on his way. There were 5 girls in one room, my brother slept in the living room behind the couch, the baby in my parents’ room. I remember hearing comments at school about the difference between trailer kids and house kids, being ashamed of our cars and house and hand-me-down clothes, having people drop off bags of clothes and junk on our doorstep, being embarrassed that people know we shopped at DI (and look at me now, doing thrift shopping… ;)), never buying a yearbook or going to games or doing things with my friends, because if we did we wouldn’t have food, giving summer earnings to help get our family out of debt. I was super, super skinny and having people ask if I was anorexic or just starving was just awful, and yes it happened often. I hated it. I remember my first store-bought skirt that was my own, MY own! I was a junior in high school and we bought it at JcPenny. I still have it and wear it. (Why throw something out that still fits and looks fine? I just realized that I’m about to turn 30, so I’ve had it almost half my life…)

    I suppose I should mention, that I think our parents raised us on faith, not money (since we didn’t have any :)). Seeing my mom gather us together and say that we had no money and no food and we needed to pray, getting up and hearing the phone ring with someone who wanted my dad to do a job. He’d go do the job, get money and bring home food. I knew that God answered prayers and he was aware of us and somehow we’d make it. It really helped develop me spiritually, but it was tough every other way.

    Now, I keep a pretty close tab on where we are all the time. We have a five year plan (thankfully Matt gets a stipend so the money he gets paid is constant year round for the next 5 years) and we’ve planned out when we’ll buy a bigger car and other things. It has worked out well, because seeing projected income/expenses helped us know that it would be ok to buy me a harp. 🙂 I joke about us being poor, starving college students, but I know we’re really not, since we make more than my parents did when they had 8 kids at home. I definitely hate throwing food out, and try to build up our food storage every month. At one time, when I was a single Accountant and could save $1000 a month, I bought some more expensive clothes just because I could, but now I think that was totally wasteful when you can buy something just as good for $10 (I mean, I got 10 scarves at Goodwill for $1! Why pay $20 each?). I tried couponing but found that I spent more on stuff I didn’t need to feel like I was “saving”. I filter my emails from companies into a “Companies that want my money” folder so I remember more often they just want me to spend.

    I’m not really sure if that answers your question… I think about money a lot, cash flow, etc, (being an accountant helps with that too), but I definitely think that past experience influences a lot of what I do and why. So, this is kind of personal, but I’m assuming only a few people come here so I should be safe from anyone else really seeing this. 😉

  2. v. blanchard

    This post was so great, and I bet it was really hard to write. I really should write about this sometime, but it would be hard for me. I have a lot of the same issues you have, for some of the same reasons. It also reminded me of my Mrs. Brussels post. There is a part of me that kind of feels like no one should get any extra until everyone has enough, and it’s always going to be hard to not have some guilt in my life about that. I’m getting better, though, and gratitude (not just for what I have but who gave it to me, God, rather than crediting myself, and what it is for, that is, what God wants me to do with it) helps a lot. That was an abominable use of commas. Sorry.

    • llcall

      I love your comments (especially when there’s abominable common usage — gotta make me work for it!). This post wasn’t actually that hard for me to write, but it skirts around some things that are harder to express. This felt like more of a primer before I get into more troubling things, which I totally intend to do when I’m ready.

      Just as a sidenote — you should add a Search bar widget on your blog! I wanted to reread that Mrs. Brussels post and I had a heck of a time finding it at first.

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