If I had a dollar for every time the words, “Oh, I really shouldn’t spend money,” escaped my lips, I’d have no need for the phrase. Everyone knows New York City is expensive, but what you can’t understand until you experience it firsthand is that it isn’t an itchy, guilty, well-all-right-if-you-insist kind of expensive. It’s a gross, prohibitive, internally violating kind of expensive. When I’ve visited in the past, I’ve always considered it vacation and gleefully lived beyond my means. Now that I live here, reality is setting in, and I’ll be honest: it’s bleak. I’m not paying rent yet, but I’m saving like I am, and to say that my new lifestyle has been an adjustment would be an understatement. Last weekend, I had a meltdown at the hair salon. Not because of the bad haircut, but because if I’d wanted a bad haircut, I could have done it myself and bought dinner.
There’s a lot of debt here. But there’s a lot of privilege here, too. I marvel at those who can eat out every time hunger strikes, take cabs up and down the city at will, buy clothes without silently converting them into utilities—even in my own age demographic. I have friends who, by their own merit, make more money than I do. I also have friends who continue to receive postgraduate “financial aid” from their parents. And you know what? It’s not fair for me to resent either camp. It’s fruitless, and it’s none of my business. For a long time, I had it just as good, and the cutoff sure didn’t happen the moment I turned 18. Functionally speaking, financial disparity isn’t going anywhere. Given my profession – which, it bears noting, I chose – and, it bears noting, I love – there’s a good chance I could be just as poor five, ten, twenty years from now. Might as well get used to it.
Perhaps the harshest disparity exists in that awkward moment when your parents’ financial situation ceases to have anything to do with yours. Going from Fairfax County (which boasts the second-highest median income in the United States) and Northwestern (which boasts the second-highest number of North Faces per capita in the United States) to just above the urban poverty line is a hard fall when you’ve had the chance to develop a taste for quality. I’m not talking about designer clothes and five-star restaurants. I mean J.Crew and Fage yogurt. “Affordable luxuries” that currently exist beyond my reach. I’m no princess – I’ve held part-time jobs since I was fifteen, and I’ve long paid for my own clothing and entertainment, as well as textbooks and groceries in recent years – but while I earned that cash myself, I’ve also always had it to spend at my discretion. My basic needs were taken care of, and anything extra I made was just that—extra.
What’s more, in many ways, I do still benefit from my upbringing. My ability to take unpaid internships when I was younger undoubtedly allowed me to get the job I currently have, and the fact that I’m not paying off student loans is a blessing I often take for granted. I have to check myself hard when I’m tempted to be self-righteous about standing on my own two feet (temporary living situation excluded), because social class boundaries are as much about emotional armor as they are about logistical concerns, and nobody wants to hang out with a monetary mean girl. I’m not quite passive-aggressive enough to make jabs like “must be nice,” but I’m totally guilty of volunteering “I can’t afford it” when a simple “no thanks” would suffice. Why? Just like where other people’s money comes from is none of my business, why I’m not spending is none of theirs.
I’d love to say that I’ve come to view my relative poverty as a blessing—something that forces me to take stock of my values. That would be a lie. Honestly, not having money is a major buzzkill, not to mention a source of stress. What I have come to realize, though, is that I don’t want to be a money shamer. I don’t want to preemptively exclude myself by being the bitter poor one. I’d rather help a girlfriend pick out a dress at an upscale department store, obnoxiously try on the entire Jason Wu collection, revel in the fact that I can con the staff into thinking I need to be serviced, and then go home to my well-worn but no less well-fitting favorites. I’d rather swig my Jack Daniels from a water bottle in the cab, and then dance the night away next to suckers holding overpriced mixed drinks (and treat myself to one superb cocktail when the occasion demands). I’d rather pinch pennies all week to drop a small fortune on brunch, and then walk home by way of three different grocery stores to pay 30 cents less for a can of chickpeas.
Have you been guilty of money shaming? Have you been the victim of money shaming? Can you set me up with a sugar daddy?