How “Growing Up Rich” Failed Me Financially

Hermes

It might come as a shock to many, but Zero had no concept of money when she moved to New York City after graduating college. This was mostly due to the fact that she was raised financially illiterate in an affluent household.

Before moving out to NYC, she had, quite frankly, never had to pay for anything herself in her life.

Growing up, she had an unlimited credit card from her parents (in reality, the limit was something like $30,000 ~ 50,000, but for any reasonable demand, it was unlimited). College, dorms, and all expenses were paid for, and she was encouraged to volunteer instead of work throughout high school and college years.

She had some odd jobs here and there, babysitting, working as a substitute teacher, working part time as a receptionist, or working in summer camp for a season, but income from those jobs didn’t amount to much, and they sat in her savings account untouched.

Her parents never talked about money growing up, except to share the tidbit fun fact that she loves cabbage so much because when she was a toddler, that’s all they could afford to feed her, so she was always being fed cabbages. (I don’t know man. I buy cabbages now, and they cost $8 a head and I don’t understand how this is the cheapest vegetable, but whatever.)

Finances were tight until her grandfather passed away when she was 3, and her mother inherited a modest sum of money. Using the money, her mother sent her father to graduate school so he could get a PhD, and they also bought their first house. Few years later, the family (along with a little sister that was acquired somewhere along the lines) moved to the US.

As an expat, and newly armed with a STEM PhD, her father’s income grew significantly. She grew up in a fairly affluent bubble of a suburb, where parents spent amazing amounts of cash in order to procure the houses that would send their kids to the best public schools in the county.

“We don’t have any money,” her mother would sigh.

But she had ballet lessons, tennis lessons, swimming lessons, violin lessons, ice skating lessons, and horseback riding lessons. She would be driven to all of her extracurricular activities by her mother who was a stay at home mother and keeper of the house, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and maintaining her domicile in place of the absent husband who was on business trips 3/4th of the month.

New clothes were procured when needed. Food was always plentiful, and homes were kept immaculate. If there was a school trip, the default was to go. If there were donations requested, they were given. She had never had to consider what money meant.

She and her friends considered their upbringing and the community to be normal. Only when she grew up and left the county to go to college did she begin to realize that they were raised in an utopia of sorts, with anything unsavory painted over and pushed under the rugs to retain the pristine looks.

College? Of course parents would pay. Food? Use the credit card. Medical costs? Of course parents would pay. Brain surgery? Ambulances? Emergency Rooms? She never saw the bills.

The default was that there was always money to cover what was “necessary,” and whatever her father could do to keep up the “facade,” he did. He never said a word about any expense or bill, and just kept paying them.

Only later, when she became a functional member of society, did she come to realize that her upbringing was not “normal,” and that she grew up in what is considered “Upper Class” household, along with 26% of people in her area.

Statistics from Pew Research. Try it out here: pewresearch.org

Her parents were trying to shield her from the realities of the world, by providing for her everything they believed she needed to succeed… Mostly education, extracurricular activities, and as much money as she needed to succeed.

Her full-time job, her mother always told her, was to be a student. So she never had to do any chores (except shovel snow or rake leaves on the weekends), never had to work for money, and could focus all her energy and time to her academics, varsity tennis team, and orchestra.

In their loving attempt to give her everything, they failed to realize that they did not equip her with the basic and fundamental knowledge and understanding of how money worked, and how to work with money.

Money was just a game of monopoly to her. She didn’t know what it meant or what it did, other than that if she handed over her credit card, she got what she was looking for. What came after that wasn’t any of her business. The balance was paid off in full every month by her father, and she never had to think about the costs of “buying.”

This was how she came in to New York City, with no full-time job and $6,000 in her bank account, which was her life savings from the small jobs she had here and there over the years. With no idea how much existing costs.

She quickly realized that she had to figure out how this “money” thing worked. And fast. Or she was going to run into a lot of problems.

She was set to earn $300/week, or $1,200/month from babysitting 2 days a week while she spent the rest of the time looking for full-time work and volunteering at a hospital.

Because she had no idea how to manage money in a healthy way, she just went to default of severely limiting her spending. And she was afraid. Afraid of running out. Afraid of not having enough. Afraid of her calculations not taking her until the next time she was paid.

Coming from “unlimited” monopoly money to “severely limited,” she had no idea how to bridge the gap between her past life and current life. And she became frantic about saving every penny.

It will take her years to develop healthier relationships with money (to be quite honest, she’s still working on it), and she wishes that her parents could have, instead of completely shielding from the way finances worked, to have given her a little more guidance.

But they did what they thought was best, and she received so much from them. They managed to make “Upper Class” look like “Normal” by buying modest homes and cars and never buying anything extravagant. But they spent a mountain of cash on education and extracurriculars. And to her, they were “invisible” because there was nothing visible coming out as a result of the money spent.

Because they never had “fancy” cars or “fancy” brand named items, she never “realized” that they were “rich.” And so thankfully, she never developed “fancy” tastes, which has served her well. But the small things she had taken for granted growing up, she realized as she began fending for herself, were very expensive.

And looking around in the “real” world was when she realized how different her upbringing was from most others. When she realized the full gravity of what “finishing college debt free” meant. What her parents had passed off as “normal” was not “normal,” and she found that just by not having this one burden, her starting point was much further along than most others.

Many things were taken for granted the first 25 years of her life. And she is so glad that she had moved out of the “bubble” and realized the amount privilege she had, and continue to have, because of her parents.

So this blog is her journey from a “Rich Financially Illiterate Girl from the Suburbs” to a “Financially Smart Girl in the City,” trying to figure out how to make her dollar stretch while spending money aligned with her values and passions.

She’s still a work in progress, but 5 years later, she thinks she’s doing alright for herself.

This whole post may come off as some misguided “Humble Brag.” But it’s not. I had no financial literacy, but my parents had put me in a place where I could start from 100 meters before my peers. And while my incomes have been fairly low for most of my career, it was only made possible by the fact that I had no debt to account for.

So with this understanding, I hope to create content and live my values. And if I am to have children, regardless of my financial situation, I would like to raise them knowing their privilege and provide them with financial literacy they deserve, even if it means they won’t be able to grow up “doing no chores” like I had.

Comments

  1. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life

    This is PRECISELY why I’m working so hard to teach JB how to think about “earnings”, “savings” and “spending” – before ze ever has to touch and manage real money. Because the philosophy we teach now, I hope, will help zir process the reality of needing to earn and save and spend, and give, a sometimes scarce commodity without resorting to unhealthy habits like you and I have picked up over the years when we were scared about money.

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      Zero

      Yes! Exactly! Coming from “money is swipe of a card with no implications yayyyyyy” to “ok this is extremely finite resource wtf do I do?!” I’ve developed a lot of unhealthy attachments to money and numbers… And I really hope that if I do have children, I can teach them to have much healthier relationships with money, how little or much they have. Because right now, nothing seems like enough, and it’s not healthy at all.

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  3. The Frugal Onion

    My parents never talked to us about money growing up and all I knew was if we wanted it.. we got it. Now that I am an adult I realized that my parents were not that financially savvy and gave us what they considered “the best” but at their own expense. I can admit that I am hyper-focused on FI and how I see/use money because of them and their attitude towards money. And if I have children, I want to be able to display a healthy relationship with money. (Sorry for rambling)

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      Zero

      I completely agree! They did what they thought was best, but in the process, their own retirement is compromised. And I had no idea how to deal with not having a lot of money when I got out into the real world. Anything below upper middle class income was frighteningly little… I want to not end up where they are, which makes me a tad neurotic… Like you, I definitely want to figure out a healthier relationship that’s not all or nothing, and teach the next generation!

  4. Rho | Their Money Goals

    Excellent post! If I may, I don’t think your parents completely failed you. Yes, it sucks that you didn’t know how money worked, but at least they raised you fairly modestly so you didn’t grow up thinking that everyone drives luxury cars and lives in McMansions. It’s also great that you were able to start your adult life debt free.

    To your point, though, this is something my husband and I think about with our kids. We’re working towards FI and want to make a better life for them because we both grew up poor, but at the same time, we want to make sure we teach them to be fiscally responsible so they don’t make the same mistakes with money that we did. I’m hoping we can strike the right balance!

  5. Cedar

    I was raised in a similar way, and struggle now on a limited income with spend/save cycles. I want to help my kids have a better idea of how to deal with money and make it work for you. I’m working on this, especially as the other half has differing views. I’ll be reading how you manage this with a lot of interest! Best of luck

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      Zero

      I’m so glad I’ve heard from many people that they are going through similar things! It’s definitely a “first world problem” and “privileged issue,” but to me, I think it’s very real. We were raised with unusual expectations of what is “normal” so we struggle to adjust to what “real” “average” is once we encounter limited income that is very different from the ones we had growing up. I think the opposite is very true as well, for people who grew up very poor, but get extremely high incomes when older, and they don’t know how to manage the excess money. I hope we’ll figure it out soon!! And pass on better money know hows to the next generation.

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      Zero

      Aghhh I must be doing cabbages wrong because I feel like $8 for a cabbage is completely ridiculous??? But I love cabbage???? LOL. Thank youuu!! I’m so excited to finally have a place to brain dump about money stuff without someone commenting every time that we’re too young to be thinking about saving so much! LOL.

  6. Aparna | Elementum Money

    I grew up in a middle class family in India. While education was a priority, the knowledge that money was a limited resources was always in the background and there were many trade offs made. That has actually served me well.

    I started blogging about Personal Finance more to talk about the increasingly complex products and how to make the most out of your money as the scenario in India is far different from what we saw growing up. Hoping to follow your blog and learn along your journey.

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      Zero

      Thank you for sharing your story, Aparna!! Life was such a different thing growing up that I’m still kind of reeling from how every small thing we did (like just go to Old Navy and buy a whole new set of clothes for both me and my sister) was SO expensive… I’m still learning!

  7. laurie@thethreeyearexperiment.com

    I also grew up in an upper class family, and didn’t get a ton of financial education from my parents. The reality of learning to clean my own house, cook my own food, and spend less than I earn has been a series of hard lessons as an adult. For that reason, I’m teaching my own kids about money, chores, responsibility, as much as I can, early on. Because it’s much easier for kids to learn those lessons than for adults, whose habits and tastes are largely set, to re-learn them! Great post!

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      Zero

      Hi Laurie,
      Thanks for coming by! Yes… Exactly! I can’t even imagine how much worse this “independence” thing would’ve been if we were the type of family to have support staff in the house! LOL. If I have kids, they are going to learn early as well… Because it was just not a conductive use of my time or anxiety to try to figure it out as an adult by myself! If only I could cook even 1/100th of the foods my mom could!!!

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