Growing up with extremely wealthy friends shaped the person I am today—for better and for worse. The moment I read the words “lifestyle creep” many memories came rushing back to me, so, after much mental processing and reprocessing, I’m sharing my new perspective on old ideals and bad habits that no longer serve me, or my financial goals.
Imagine this: you live in an expensive city full of expensive things owned by other people. Everywhere you look, there’s a sports car, a luxury house, a shopping bag stuffed with designer clothing. Your friends, neighbors, and peers all seem exorbitantly wealthy. Everyone’s an influencer or an investor or an entrepreneur, and nobody appears to spend any time actually working.
You’re surrounded by very, very rich people. You, meanwhile, are very, very not rich.
Maybe you don’t have to imagine this. Maybe you live it every day. Perhaps you reside in an overpriced city like San Francisco or New York—or an even more affluent nearby suburb like Atherton, CA or Short Hills, NJ. Maybe people in your social circle can easily drop three figures on brunch, four figures on an afternoon of shopping, and six figures on an impromptu trip to Bali. Or maybe you’re scrolling through Instagram, inundated with images of a lifestyle you don’t have.
Amid all that money, you feel alone. Uncomfortable. Judged. Inadequate. You have no idea how to keep up and stay ahead of lifestyle creep. You’re not sure how you’ll ever fit in with the rich; you’re not sure you want to fit in. You can feel those other people looking down at you and making assumptions about you.
It’s a shallow, materialistic world and—in spite of yourself—you’re totally caught up in it.
Congratulations, you’re Ryan Atwood
Who’s Ryan Atwood? If you weren’t born in the 80s or 90s, or somehow missed the television phenomenon that was The OC, let me fill you in.
The OC revolved around a group of teenagers—Marissa Cooper, Summer Roberts, Seth Cohen and, the protagonist, Ryan—and their dramatic shenanigans that ensued in Newport Beach, CA.
You might look at me today and assume that I identified with Marissa or Summer. In fact, (#HumbleBrag) I was dubbed Rachel Bilson’s “celebrity lookalike” by my high school yearbook in freshman year.
But looks can be deceiving.
The character that I felt and still feel the most connected to was Ryan, whose iconic moment in the first episode of the show involved punching the most my-father-will-hear-about-this douchebag you’ve ever seen.
Photo credit: @ezanzi on Weheartit
What it’s like living among the one percent
Before you ask: no, I didn’t go around punching people in the face. I wasn’t a troubled teenager with abusive, alcoholic parents and a history of violence. But I definitely grew up feeling poor, trashy, and like I was from “the other side of the tracks” like him.
Literally, a kid once asked me if my childhood home was a “garbage dump.”
I did quip back and tell that boy how much he looked like Casper the Friendly Ghost. (I’m no angel in this story, and was still an immature teen in my own right.) I’d like to think that today we’d be bigger people—or at least have better ways of insulting each other.
Nonetheless, his insult hurt. It stung because deep down, I knew there was some truth to it.
From the apartment my parents had in San Francisco to the one-story home (or “charming bungalow” if you speak Realtor) they bought across the bay in Piedmont, I consider myself extremely lucky to have grown up in such a vibrant, sunny, progressive, and beautiful area. Both those homes overlooked the Bay Bridge and even the Golden Gate Bridge on sunny, clear days.
But it’s all relative.
The Bay Area—and really, every coastal city in California—is full of ridiculously rich people. The town I grew up in was no exception, and the families in my neighborhood were some of the wealthiest families on the planet.
My house wasn’t a literal garbage dump but it was small, cluttered, and pretty chaotic. I couldn’t help but contrast our life with the lives of the people in the mansions on the hill. Their lives seemed normal; ours somehow different or less than. That feeling was a reality I couldn’t ignore.
That was then—but it’s still kinda now
As I grew up, I developed a broader and deeper perspective. Going to college was a big wake-up moment. With every friend I made outside my school district and hometown, I better understood the diversity of people’s backgrounds and experiences.
Today, I can look back and realize my idea of “normal” wasn’t normal at all.
That said, we all have scars from high school, from feeling different or left out or less than. In many ways, where I grew up impacted who I am today and the relationship I’ve had with money. Those scars aren’t entirely bad things. While they can create future anxieties, they can also make us resilient.
I want to take this opportunity to share a few pieces of advice—lessons I wish I had learned earlier about what it means to have (and not have) a crapload of money:
What I got wrong trying to fit in with rich kids—and how I’m bouncing back as an adult
1. Realize your point-of-view about money can be skewed no matter where you stand
The stereotype of a rich douchebag is ingrained in our culture. From Ebenezer Scrooge to Cruella de Vil, wealthy characters in stories are almost always portrayed as callous, vile, and out-of-touch with reality. Money, after all, is the root of all evil… right?
Not quite. At least, having money isn’t what makes you evil. Just as an obsession with one’s own money can cloud a rich person’s perspective, it can do the same to someone preoccupied with money they don’t have.
While I can look back now and appreciate so much of my upbringing and the sacrifices my parents made, I was—and probably still am—a spoiled brat. Not spoiled by what I did have but by what I didn’t.
The mental fallacies that dominated my thoughts seem almost comical now:
- People only care about money.
- It’s easy to tell if someone is wealthy.
- Friendships are transactional.
- You have to spend money to make money.
- You need to make money to be rich. (Steve wrote an excellent post on this fallacy last year.)
- Being friends with rich people will make you rich too.
- The goal is to have it all.
These are all misguided and unkind ideas. More importantly, they have no use in terms of actually making money or living a fulfilling life.
It’s these skewed, myopic thoughts that exacerbate lifestyle creep—on both sides of the equation. Keeping up with the Joneses or Kardashians or Vanderbilts is pointless. It’s a constant pursuit of nothing. Nobody wins—except for the luxury brands.
2. Keep in mind that not all rich people are douchebags (and not all douchebags are rich)
The ugly side of money can be eye-opening. Some (not all) of those kids around me in high school weren’t just rich; they were also cruel. As I worked my hardest to hide how different I felt on a socioeconomic level, I was still—according to some—“trash,” and my childhood home was still a “garbage dump.”
But for every ten douchebags out there driving Daddy’s Mercedes, there were also a few with hearts of gold. Most of the time they were “richer than God himself”—but you would never know. I’m talking owned-their-own-family-ranch or vineyard or private-jet rich. And yet they still shopped at Costco—because who doesn’t love Costco?—like the rest of us.
Non-douchebags don’t refuse to talk about money, but they don’t necessarily lead with the topic. They understand that their money does not equate to their inherent value. Most of all, they don’t act entitled to anything. They work hard for what they want instead of assuming the world owes them something because of who they are.
This, dear readers, is called class. You can’t buy it, but if you have it and you have a lot of money, you’re destined for a great life. If you find yourself with a friend like this, trust them and learn from the ways they look at life—because we all deserve to see the world through their lenses.
3. Know your worth—with or without money
You don’t need money to be creative. In fact, lacking resources can be one of the greatest motivators for thinking outside the box and forcing you to use your imagination. However, in so many ways, getting the freedom to be creative without being a starving artist is a luxury only those that come from wealth can afford.
Growing up in a public school system in an affluent area ensured that creative curricula such as arts, theater, and music were always funded. Because of the talents I inherited from my grandma, an artist in her own right, I did it all. Including singing in front of huge audiences from Carnegie Hall to all across Germany and acting in school plays alongside students and friends who are now rising film and TV stars.
In fact, this is a big reason why I’m here today writing for a living. I attribute much of my professional success as a writer for blogs like this to the programs I had and the encouragement I received from people who seemed to “have it all.” Deep down I think my inner voice was saying “If people I perceived to be successful (aka wealthy) were telling me I should pursue this, shouldn’t I listen?”
While I know I would have always had creative hobbies, it’s hard to say what I would’ve pursued professionally without the value exchanges I witnessed with affluent family friends around creativity and the arts.
4. Remember: it’s okay to want what you don’t have…
Money is a powerful motivator. Seeing the way rich people live exposes you to the myriad possibilities wealth can afford.
They say you need to see something to believe it’s possible. One of the best ways to expand your idea of what’s possible is to get outside your comfort zone and risk dealing with all the potential weirdness that comes from witnessing extreme wealth disparities. Assimilating into a group of rich people may trigger imposter syndrome, but it can also help clarify your dreams and potential. You start to wonder about—and perhaps plan for—a different life five, 10, 20 years ahead.
I don’t think I’d have much of a career if I didn’t allow myself to have these experiences and use them as fuel. Feeling less-than gave me an inviolable sense of determination. I can deal with hearing “no” pretty graciously, but that doesn’t mean I quit. I’ve advocated for myself in my life, particularly in my career.
Without the experience of being around the upper crust, I might have been more passive and taken a backseat approach—leaving lots of money and, well, life on the table.
For instance, owning a home was something I pushed myself to do earlier than most people I grew up with. First of all, I live in Portland, Oregon, a much more reasonable housing market compared to anywhere in California with surprisingly similar salaries. Doing that math was enough to make me determined to find a way to get property I could call my own. Luckily, my husband (fiancé at the time we purchased our house) was on board.
I could not be more proud of our mid-century ranch fixer-upper but will say there are days when I look at the shower tiles that desperately need to be regrouted and think about that garbage dump comment again. Patience, Melissa, patience.
5. …but money can’t be the ultimate goal
Clearly, I have baggage with money. I suspect everyone does, even (especially?) the one percent. Experience has taught me there’s no way to shed that baggage entirely. I continue to think of myself as an underdog—as a Ryan Atwood—in a world full of punchable faces.
At the same time, I’ve come to realize that I’m someone else’s idea of a rich douchebag. As ridiculous as that feels to me. If you’re that person, please remember that money is relative. There’s always someone with more, and someone with less. None of us can control that.
But we can walk away from lifestyle creep.
We can remind ourselves that money isn’t everything; it’s the means to make things happen. By understanding ourselves and our own relationships with money, we can choose to be humble, live authentically, maximize the time we spend in meaningful pursuits, and always give the people cross paths with in life a chance to be a good person.
This is exactly why I love the idea of financial independence.
To me, financial independence means freedom from money as an all-consuming, dominating force in our lives. It’s about not letting money—other people’s or one’s own—influence how, where, and why we live.
You don’t need to be wealthy or retired to start practicing financial independence. Ask yourself: What do I want to do today, Vanderbilts and Instagram be damned? What would make me happy?
You might think of something that costs (a lot of) money. That’s good. Use it as motivation.
But there’s also a fair chance you’ll land on something you can do for cheap or free, right now—something like, I don’t know, binge-watching The OC. Chrismukkah Season is coming after all.
Were there early life lessons that impacted your relationship with money?
Maybe no one ever called your house a garbage dump or called on your parents losers for driving an old Ford Aerostar minivan (Hey! That’s only okay when I say it!), but if there’s one thing I’ve learned as an adult, it’s that we all tend to have behaviors and make decisions based on our childhoods—especially when it comes to money.
If you’re comfortable, share the weirdest money-related habit or opinion you have and how you’ve traced it back to your upbringing in the comments!