On Being Rich-ish: Lessons I learned becoming suddenly middle-class
There once was a guy who was very, very broke. To be clear, he wasn’t the brokest guy you’ve ever heard of. There were poorer people (he knew some, even) but he did spend a long, long time trying to raise a family on not a lot of money; think “a family of four on 35k or less in a major metropolitan area” destitute.
After a lot of lost sleep due to stress and a lot of lost time spent on optimizing resumes nobody ever read, he wrote an article about being poor, meant to let people outside the poor-people-bubble in on what it looked like from the inside. This was the beginning of the shift of the man’s luck; that article went pretty viral and suddenly people were paying attention to his writing.
Shortly after that, he got a pretty good job offer, cried in his car in the parking lot of his terrible cold-call sales job, and then suddenly wasn’t poor anymore.
I know it’s hard to tell, but: Surprise! It was me. That guy was me.
At that time I wasn’t sure if the whole “people reading the things I wrote” thing would keep up, but it seemed to me that if it did I’d eventually have to write an article that did the exact same thing in the other direction - basically to explain what it’s like to have amounts of money that, while not silly-high, aren’t depressingly low either. It’s now been a year and I have some of that knowledge, so I can finally make good on that thought.
You’d think that the ability to do this would be universal among people who haven’t been poor at all since they have more time at decent pay-rates than anyone else, but you’d be at least partially wrong. They know what it’s like to have money, but it’s all very usual; the stuff about it that’s weird or different skids off of their awareness without biting like a dull file on hardened steel. It’s not their fault - it’s just normal.
When I wrote the other article, I made a statement that was fairly easy to believe: that I wasn’t trying to make my target audience feel bad. That was true, and I think it was mostly accepted at face value. Here I’d like to try and assure my new target audience (the currently unwell-to-do) of something else - I’m not gloating. I get it. It sucks. But there were things I wanted to know when I was broke that nobody told me, and I’m in a position to tell them. I’m hoping it helps.
For my non-poor readers: feel free to listen in. I’m guessing everything still makes sense even if you’ve never known severe broke-ness, and I’m hoping it gives you the kind of overhearing-a-conversation context that you wouldn’t get from other methods.
The “Money goes just as fast” claim
There’s something that people with money say that doesn’t make sense: that regardless of how much money you have, you run out of it just as soon. When they say this, it’s usually in response to “If I can get to salary X, at least I don’t have to worry about paying Y” type statements. It’s almost always delivered as a wry, knowing observation with distinct “was I ever so young?” overtones.
Sometimes the statement is given in an inverted form, something like this: “Wait, how do you even approach survival with X when I struggle on X + $40,000?”. If the rich-ish speaker is mystified, the poor audience is even more so: if a person can survive on $30k, how are they finding similar difficulty at greater than 200% that income?
I used to think that this was simply a matter of different conceptions of the “broke” concept - essentially that these were people with budgets, and they were just feeling the pinch of being at the end of their allocated cash for the month once they had made their savings contributions and bought gold bullion to build a fence with.
Then I got to the first time I really didn’t have money left over to easily pay a bill even with my amplified income, got confused, paid closer attention, and got some details on what was happening. It’s insidious and sneaky, but there’s reasons why it happens.
The first things to keep in mind are health insurance and rich-people taxes (rich people pay net taxes. It turns out that’s how roads come to be). If you are broke enough (and have a family) the state covers this for you; when you hit a certain income level, they stop. From there, slightly higher taxes come in, as well as slightly reduced pseudo-welfare tax benefits. These two things alone might be a difference of $1000 or so a month.
But even if those account for a grand, that still leaves ~$2500 or so unaccounted for. Where’s it going? For me, it turned out that there was an awful lot of stuff we weren’t buying specifically because we couldn’t. Once that restriction came off, it turned out a lot of our thrift wasn’t as much of a character trait as we thought.
Food is huge here. When we were broke, there were constant economic sacrifices in terms of what we bought to eat. We bought more ramen and beans. We restocked less often, and with more restrictions on individual shopping trips. We’d get more rice, and less cheese (an enormous amount of money is spent on cheese once one has the option). We watched for sales pretty closely.
Once you have money, the default shifts immediately to “just get what you need”, with a healthy side of “and also what you want, if it’s reasonable”. When poor, I once spent about a week contemplating the impact of buying a jar of protein powder before pulling the trigger on this ostentatious luxury item. With greater-than-survival level money, you don’t do this; you just buy it.
This is a creeping effect that gets larger, too. Once-a-month-or-less pizza order timings creep up to weekly, and you buy expensive-but-easy convenience food. Fast food becomes a thing more often as you take advantage of that utility to cover busy days more easily. At some point, you look down at your receipts and your food bill has doubled.
A person at 36k a year gets $3000 a month compared to 80k’s $6700. That’s not a small gap, but a doubled food bill and insurance alone have eaten over $1000 of it.
Now imagine that same effect but with everything. You buy shoes more often. You spend a couple hundred dollars a month on meds you needed but that state insurance wouldn’t cover. You wash the car when it’s dirty. You replace things when they break and maintain things the way they are supposed to be maintained. When you move, you finally get a place that has enough space for everyone.
You go to social events you might otherwise have skipped, and you accept invitations to go on trips to visit family you otherwise couldn’t have come near affording. You stop being the only person who doesn’t bring a decent gift to your friend’s kid’s birthday party.
It’s all great, but you look down at the end of the month and find you’ve spent all your money, or at least enough of it that you feel strapped. It went just as fast. You start telling poor people that you and them are the same.
Now, here’s the disconnect: this all happens without you making anything that seems like an unreasonable purchase. It’s not all iPhones and bomber jackets; every discrete purchase was something you needed or at least something reasonable and useful to buy. If you have always lived your life this way and someone asks you where you are wasting all the money, you can honestly answer that you don’t think you wasted much of it - you just bought the things people buy to sustain their lives.
What you don’t see unless you stop to specifically examine your life relative to the lives of others is the effect of that. Yes, the money is all spent, but your kids are better clothed and have more school supplies. You are better fed and better housed. You haven’t hurt yourself fixing a mostly-dead washing machine for the tenth time this year, and your auto insurance hasn’t lapsed a single time.
If you’ve always had money, this feels normal. Hell, it feels normal even if you’ve only had the money a little while. Consider that the average person has never done an oil change themselves, much less fixed a car problem with their own hands. I was watching a show the other day where someone knew how to change a tire and everyone else was amazed. These are real people that exist.
Consider that most with money use Craigslist rarely and for big purchases, if at all. They aren’t being assholes; they just can’t imagine the thousands of small forced economies, or how life is when you have to make them.
Nothing is a catastrophe if you have money in the bank
A close friend and I both tell the same identical and unbelievable story:
The other day, something was going wrong with one of my tires, and the other three weren’t that far from failing in the same way. I went to the tire store and bought four new tires for it. They put them on, and I went home. It wasn’t a big deal.
If this story seems boring to you, it’s because you are like most people: something like the $500-1000 spent in this story is an inconvenience. It might even be a major inconvenience that keeps you from doing something else you wanted to do with the money. But you had the money in the bank to pay for the tires, so it wasn’t a catastrophe.
My friend and I both told each other this identical story at different times like it was the weirdest thing that ever happened. I didn’t go to a shady used tire store in south Phoenix. All the tires I bought matched. My credit was not checked. I didn’t have to get a ride to work for days/weeks until I got paid and spent future-rent-money on the problem. The problem just went away.
The other day my kid revealed he had been nursing a middle ear infection for a while. He was only just now telling us because he literally couldn’t sleep over the pain; he would have kept it quiet forever to stay consistent with his tough-kid mindset and to avoid doctors if it were possible to survive without doing so. (My wife informs me, as I write this, that he didn’t even tell us - she just heard him crying in his room. I swear we aren’t bad parents, he just doesn’t like to complain).
But now he was letting us know about it at 3 am. I got out of bed, drove him to urgent care, picked up some drugs and painkillers, and it was handled.
I didn’t have to deal with a single government employee; I didn’t have to wait a month. I didn’t have to find an aquarium supply store that sold pet amoxicillin. I didn’t have to explain to anyone that the smaller of my two children couldn’t go to a thing because we were in a days-to-weeks-long process of getting him treatment for a problem. I just showed up, handed someone a card that indicated I had a high-paying job, and the issue evaporated.
Hell, in that tire story above me and my wife went to Wendy’s while we waited. Can you imagine having enough loose cash that you can go to a slightly-higher-than-minimum priced fast food restaurant on the same damn day as a major financial event? We sat around and ate fries, mystified; we had become as Midas, surrounded by our piles of gold, Dave Thomas grinning down at us from heaven surrounded by sanctified orphans.
Again, all these things sucked. We didn’t want to do them. they were pains in the ass. But what they weren’t were major events spanning days or weeks of inconvenience. If you have money, most of your problems just go away. They take money with them, but they leave.
Hands down, this has been the biggest difference for us. It’s hard to explain the difference in stress; it’s not like you don’t have problems. You do. It’s not like those occurrences don’t add tension to your life; they do. But at the end of the day, it’s like the difference between going to Dracula’s house empty-handed as opposed to arriving armed with a box of holy water and stakes.
Note that for everyone who hasn’t been poor, this is normal. This isn’t an unjustified belief, either. The US lifestyle is designed around a certain income level; everything is priced with that level of wealth in mind. When they go buy tires or medicine, they don’t even notice; it’s just how things are supposed to be.
Everything past this point is luxury. It’s nice, but it’s not necessary and it doesn’t make that much of a deal; we could live without our weighted blanket and my wife could get by with off-brand Walmart running shoes. But there’s a minimum cost for a decent, low-effort lifestyle that avoids catastrophes, and a world of difference between meeting it and the myriad things you do to cope if you fail to.
You have something to lose
It’s probably time for me to clarify that I’m in no way suggesting that I’m worse off now than I was when I was broke. Louis CK once said this:
I was on a plane once, and I flew first class because I had a thing… I fly first class. Who cares? That’s the way it is. I’m not like you. I’m not. I’m not. All the things you do, I do a better version of all those things.
And humor aside that’s true here too. I’m not saying I have it terrible; the problems of the rich-ish are smaller, nicer problems on average. But at the same time, that’s something I can lose.
The wife and I have always very much wanted to buy a nice house. During this period of affluence, we were actually able to do that somehow. It’s not a mansion, but we like it a lot and it’s been a much better life since we did it. But our mortgage is about $700 higher than our rent was, and there’s other related expenses. It’s something we wanted and not something we think was super unreasonable, but it costs.
We are now used to having insurance. I know what my blood pressure is, and why people wince when they read it. We are both on medications that we wouldn’t literally die without, but which improve some aspects of our lives a great deal.
Both our cars are in good repair. Our insurance is paid up. Our washer and dryer work well. As CK said above, we have everything you have, but a little better. We also have some things you don’t have but want.
We are slightly terrified at all times of losing these things.
Don’t get us wrong; we know we’d survive. But I understand what you are going through at low-pay levels; I really do. At this point going back to the same kind of troubles I know you have, especially knowing the difference, would be something we’d survive at the same time as being awful.
A month or so back, things at my work (and the tech world in general) got dicey-looking for a while. I’m not sure there was ever any real risk to my job, but it felt that way for a while; I did the thing where you sit around and go: “Shit. I can’t ask her to go back to that, right? What do I do if this all falls apart?”. Make no mistake; she and the kids paid harder for me not doing great at the old wealth accumulation game than I did. Now they know the difference; what does it mean for them if it all crashes and burns?
Again, I’m not saying this is worse than not being where I’m at. You should punch me if I ever do. But it’s a thing. Having money removes a lot of stress, but not all.
You will never be quite like them
There’s this story you will hear every now and again from parents who have adopted kids from poorer countries. The basic format is that after they get the kids to the states, it’s months and months before they can get them to stop hiding food in their pockets. It takes a while for the kids to realize that the meals are going to keep coming - they don’t have to worry about starving to death.
When you get a good job, someone will ask you how much money you want to dump into your 401k. You will probably say “none” because you are conditioned to believe that trouble is just around the corner and a 401k seems like a great way to tie up money you are going to need once everything crumbles around you for the fourth time that year. If your company matches 401k contributions (it probably does, in this scenario), that’s throwing away free money. But you will at least be tempted to throw that money away because you don’t have any concept of things being fine for extended periods.
If you get a good job after a decade or so of shit jobs, it’s likely something weird happened - it’s a windfall, so to speak, and not something you are going to feel confident you will be able to repeat. Maybe you can and maybe you can’t, but you won’t feel secure.
I sit around waiting for the other shoe to drop for reasons that have nothing to do with reality; it’s a conditioned response. I expect things to get worse. I suspect if I was able to switch jobs three or four times while maintaining the same level of income, it might get better, but I’m not sure. Do you know who is sure? People who worked up to that income in normal, gradual ways.
I did a survey in my discord chat of people at higher income levels asking them how long it would take them to replace their jobs with a new job at a similar income level. The answers were overwhelmingly something like “A couple of months, maybe.”. They know this with a high level of confidence because they’ve worked their way up a ladder, getting confirmation at each level that they were valuable enough to secure that position. They’ve made laterals. They get contacted by headhunters.
All the people around you when you make it are people who have 401k accounts, and who couldn’t imagine not exercising that option. They are people who have accumulated wealth; an awful lot of them have significant savings. They have things like built-up equity in their houses. None of this is wrong to have! It’s good! But their mindset is fundamentally different; they stand on ground they perceiveto be more stable.
One day I will be like them, sort of. I will go to a car dealership and commit to a payment on a new Honda Odyssey (the can-do van for the connoisseur who knows the difference) without having a heart attack because of what-if-tomorrow-this-is-a-mistake-and-we-all-die style paranoia. I will still have tasted of words-in-red electricity bills, but the gap that persists between my psyche and theirs will get smaller.
But it’s not today.
I can’t stress enough that I’m not gloating. Middle-class-or-better people don’t like to talk about money, something that always confused me when I was broke. Poor people talk about money constantly; since mine was the more embarrassing situation, why should I be the one who was comfortable if they weren’t? I get it now. You realize you are talking to people who have a problem you can’t solve for them. The last thing you want to do is seem like you are rubbing your lack-of-problems in their faces.
I wanted to give you the information I now have, but I also wanted to tell you it can get better. Keep working. Take long shots. Email famous CEOs, explain your skills, and ask them for advice on how to get good jobs despite whatever is holding you back (for some reason, this sometimes makes progress where “can I have a job?” never would).
But keep working at it. And know that I get it; I know how it feels. I’ve been doing OK for a while now. I think we’ve been out of the pit for a year and a half. That doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten how it is. For folks who are still in there: I love you, I’m around to hear about your problems, and I hope you get out soon.
The Resident Contrarian is available for freelance writing.
Cassander of DSL notes that it’s not necessarily that the ground is perceived to be less stable, but that this is the big difference between genuine middle-class membership and what I have. Where I’m a tourist on actual unstable ground, they have put down genuine roots into tested, trustworthy soil.
"But at the end of the day, it’s like the difference between going to Dracula’s house empty-handed as opposed to arriving armed with a box of holy water and stakes."
I love this, and I'm stealing it and filing the serial numbers off.
I don't have the financial problems you reference to use it for, but it's a great metaphor for "this is bad, but we can make it less bad." Goes to show that the time you've put in over the years working on your writing has paid off in terms of skills, even if not directly as a job.
* My roommate is essentially destitute (although because she lives with me she doesn't feel it as much as she otherwise would) and it causes a real disconnect I have to be careful of when we talk. For example, she will celebrate or lament the cost of a particular kind of apple at a particular store. I know apples are cheap relative to anything else I buy/eat, so I don't know or care what they cost, generally speaking. (I mean, I know they are between $1 and $3 or so per pound. I don't think a banana costs $10.) Multiply by 1000 examples.
* When we were just coming out of being poor after college, my BFF bought a treadmill for her apartment. She spent some time fretting about how she would move this when she moved out, and then she realized that she would simply pay movers and they would take care of it. "Problems that can be solved with money are not real problems!" we marveled.
* Even though I guess you could say I "worked my way up" to my current income level, it has never not felt like a fluke. If I lost my job tomorrow, it wouldn't surprise me if my next job paid half as much.