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.
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.”
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?