This thought hit me a few weeks ago. I was standing in line at the grocery store deli waiting to order lunchmeat and cheese. I am rich.
I read an article a while back stating that people in the top 20% of income earners don’t feel rich or wealthy. You can read it here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/i-dont-feel-wealthy-the-upper-middle-class-is-worried-about-paying-for-the-tax-overhaul/2017/11/09/a5cf1acc-c55e-11e7-aae0-cb18a8c29c65_story.html?utm_term=.b14dadbea132
It’s really obscene. Maybe, because I’ve been poor before, I feel differently. I think the complaint those people are making is that they’ve made choices, unavailable to the rest of the population, that are expensive and eating up their income. The failure is the recognition that they are making those expensive choices.
My climb to being rich has been a long road. Now, I want to be clear, we are not yet members of the top 20%. We’re above median and below a six-figure income. According to CNN Money, we qualify for being in the top 25%. Yay?
I grew up in a middle class family. My parents (er, the bank) owned their own home and they each had their own (previously used) cars. Even though my parents were very frugal, we still had a VCR, a game console (not the expensive Atari) and eventually, a computer. (These were the 80s.) We didn’t worry about food. Medical care was a struggle-when we were sick, we REALLY had to be sick to be allowed to go to the doctor. They even managed to put aside some money for me and my sister to go to college. I would be the first person in my family to go to college. I was also lucky enough that my dad gave me a car for college. (It was the family car to be mine upon graduation from high school. He took it back later after I had made some bad financial decisions.)
College and after were really lean years. When I began college, I insisted on going to the main state school, which was expensive, and I insisted on not living in the dormitory. I was stupid. I worked at McDonald’s full-time and my dad would periodically give me some money. I barely slept. I did manage to pay all of my bills, but that didn’t leave much money for food. So, I ate one meal a day. The manager at McDonald’s felt sorry for me, so he allowed me to have -for free- an All-American meal (cheeseburger, small fry and drink) every day that I worked. On the remaining days, it was Ramen-Remember when they were 10 for $1? I hate Ramen.
I remember being so jealous of my roommate. Her parents paid for all of her bills. She didn’t eat leftovers, but didn’t share, either. She would make a skillet of Hamburger Helper, eat a serving and throw the rest in the sink down the garbage disposal. I don’t know if she realized that I was in such dire straits. That was my freshman year.
After that, I moved to a smaller, more reasonably priced school. I found a small, crappy apartment for $200 per month that could not hold any heat. This was actually okay because Oklahoma winters are so short. The sewer backed up into the tub on more than one occasion. The landlady would come over with some Drano and all would be well. I ate more, but apparently not enough, according to my mother. When she would visit, she would be appalled at how empty my refrigerator and cabinets were, so she would buy groceries to fill them. (She was definitely not wealthy and really didn’t have the money to spare, but … priorities.) I had difficulty paying for school and books, so I went part-time. I took only the number of classes that I could afford each semester.
After a year and a half of that, I married my first husband, in large part because I learned that I would be eligible for financial aid if I was married. It was a terrible decision, but I did receive grants to pay my tuition. The grants didn’t cover the cost of books, so for most classes, I didn’t buy the books. I had a couple of really good professors who would make copies of the problem sets in the books and give them to me. We had also bought a trailer-it was pretty nice. My ex-husband couldn’t seem to keep a job for more than a few weeks at a time and we had made some very bad decisions with credit cards, so I continued working full time. I had moved on to waitressing. $2.13 per hour plus tips, even if people didn’t tip. We received food stamps twice during this time.
We also went through a few crappy used cars. I feared traveling out of the town where I lived. The cars would be very cranky about when and if they would actually work. I walked home from work many times because my car decided to stall at a stop sign and wouldn’t restart.
My final year of college went pretty well financially. My ex-husband had promised to pay for everything so that I could focus on finishing school. I quit my job. Two weeks into that year, he and his boss at his new job had some argument and he quit. I stubbornly refused to go back to work, so I borrowed the money for school and I asked my ex-husband for a divorce. We lived together and our relationship was on-again/off-again for the remainder of that year. We didn’t actually get a divorce until months after I graduated college. When I graduated, I moved out.
I joined the Marine Corps right out of college. I am not a Marine. I didn’t survive training. A couple of weeks in, I was injured and had a bad reaction to medication. I almost died. So, I was medically separated and sent home. Of course, I had no home, so I moved in with my mother and step-father. They took good care of me for three months during my recovery. I don’t think I ever paid them back.
I got a job at a book store and found another crappy apartment. This one cost $210 per month. The cold air blew through the walls, the toilet couldn’t flush the toilet paper and sewage seeped into the shower from the above apartment. My best friend became my roommate. He worked at the bookstore with me. We had a great time together. Those years that we lived together were transformative for us on many levels. I was also able to purchase my first new car. It was cheap. The only bell or whistle on it was a cd player. I had decided that I was done with used cars after the last one left me stranded on the interstate in the middle of nowhere.
I eventually found a job using my degree, but a couple of years later, I decided to go to law school. I borrowed money for law school and my grandparents bailed me out of a roommate rent fiasco. (They were the first ones I paid back after I had a job.) I didn’t find a legal job right out of law school, so I held two jobs to pay the bills-those student loans came due. I worked as a manager of a video store and went back to waitressing. (Just so you know, I am a terrible waitress.) After almost a year of searching, my former boss hired me for the position I still hold. It’s been almost eleven years and here I am … rich.
I mean, here I am paying $7 a pound for some salami that we love. I know it seems like a little thing, but in many years past, I would not have allowed that to be an option. Now, we want it: I buy it. If I want some maple-honey ham (at $9 a pound!), I buy it. I don’t give it a second thought. We do still have a budget, but our income allows for such monthly extravagance. We are major board gamers. We have a budget entry for purchasing board games and attending board gaming events. Both of our cars, that we bought new, are paid for, but when we will need to replace them, we can afford it. No more crappy cars for me. We have a diabetic cat who requires special food, regular testing and twice-daily insulin shots. We have the means to work that cost into the budget. (Of course, knowing me, we’d work the cost into the budget even without the ability. He’d get his needs met even if that meant we were living in a car.) My debt (I was the only one carrying debt when we married) is almost half what it was eight years ago. I have calculated that if we’re diligent, we can be completely debt free, including the house, in eleven years. (The real question is whether we will be diligent.) I couldn’t do this if I wasn’t rich.
Of course, being rich doesn’t mean that you don’t have budgets. My husband and I have a budget. We don’t save much, our focus is on the debt while still enjoying fancy cheese. And, I’m still affected by my experiences. I still stretch my dollars. I wait to buy clothes until I have coupons and there’s a sale. I put off buying things I want. My husband recently reminded me that we can afford that $40 thing on my Etsy list that I’ve wanted for months. Just because I attempt to be frugal doesn’t diminish the fact that I am rich.
The other day, I saw a couple walking down the street. It was about -10 degrees. The woman was wearing thin cotton pants that were too big for her and a thin coat. The man was in very-worn jeans and a thin coat. Neither of them had gloves or appropriate shoes/boots. That’s the true face of poverty. I have an amazing winter coat. I got it half-off for $125 about nine years ago. It’s still wonderful and warm. It barely shows any wear and I live in Vermont where I use it about five or six months out of each year. It’s had salt and mud on it, yet it is still holding up very well. For me, it was a one-time cost that has lasted many years. For that couple, that one-time cost is unattainable. They have to settle for the cheap Wal-Mart or thrift-store crappy coat that will disintegrate before the next winter, so they have to spend that money every year. I am rich because I no longer have to do that.
I want the people from that article cited above and those in the top 20% to stop complaining. If you can afford to attend Mommy & Me Yoga, you are rich. If you can afford to send your children to private school, you are rich. If you can afford to live in the “nice” neighborhood, you are rich. If you can afford a $250 coat, you are rich.
Stop complaining about having to pay taxes. My husband and I had a meeting with the bank a few months ago and I noted just how much money we make, the banker responded, “Yeah, but you have to pay more taxes.” First, if you have the ability to pay 25-35% of your income in taxes and still pay all of your bills, have nice things and have spending money, shut up. Second, those taxes aren’t a theft from you. You are investing in your community. You are paying for roads, schools, emergency personnel, military, health care for the poor, food stamps, and so on. Yes, we may disagree on how we want our collective money spent, but that doesn’t mean that we are getting nothing for it. So what if I have to pay more now that I have increased income? I have more to give.
And, stop thinking that you got their on your own. Very few people can say that. I know that I didn’t. When I bought my house, I qualified for a grant to pay the down payment. At the time, my income was below median. I received grants for college and some scholarships for law school on top of the fact that every school I attend was publicly funded. My mother put me up when I was homeless. My grandparents did it later when I became homeless again. My dad gave me some of our household furniture when I moved out for college and my parents helped me out financially when I was in school (and, sometimes still do). The list can go on and on. You need to recognize that you received a lot of help along the way. You didn’t get there by yourself. Yes, you may work hard -I work hard- but that doesn’t make you any less rich. I know without a doubt that right now, I am rich.