That feeling when you see a low-income person with nicer stuff than you
My mother had heard that some kids at our church couldn’t afford new clothes. She asked me to help her pick out some clothes to give to them. This was the 90s so we went to the typical teenager stores of the time – Old Navy, Guess, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger.
When she gave them the clothes, I noticed that they discarded the Old Navy duds but were quite excited about the name-brand items. The name brand items weren’t better looking but they were emblazoned with the brand name (this was the 90s when that was the style). I thought this was peculiar because new clothes are new clothes. I proudly wore (and still wear) clothing from Walmart and would have been grateful for the gift.
Similarly, when I visited a child for whom I was performing pro bono services, I couldn’t help but notice that she was wearing a Helly Hansen coat. That coat was probably more expensive than the one I was wearing, as her attorney.
Something similar happened when I was talking to a woman I mentor at an event for our mentees. Nearby was a child of another mentee decked out in a shiny rose gold shirt with matching rose gold accessories, including cat ears, hair trinkets and shoes. I definitely never had such nice things when I was a kid, and I’m sure my parents earned at least quadruple the income that hers did.
The Confidence of the Middle Class
When I was younger, I didn’t quite understand the dichotomy. When you don’t have anything shouldn’t you be grateful for anything? Why spend a lot on clothes, particularly children’s clothes, when you are worried about the rent, the electric, the car, etc.? Shouldn’t these families learn to be minimalist and frugal?
But sometime after seeing my mom donate those clothes, something clicked for me. Yes, I was wearing cheap hand-me-down clothes. But I also never had to worry about where I was sleeping for the night. I never had to worry about where my next meal would come from.
Most importantly, I never had to worry about someone accusing me of being poor.
My family wasn’t rich, in absolute terms or in comparison with the people in my middle-class public school, but we were safe – both in terms of living in a safe neighborhood but also in terms of social status. I could “afford” to wear cheap clothes because I had confidence that if someone even joked about me being poor, my classmates could vouch for my living in their neighborhood in a suitably sized house.
Why the Poor Have Nice Stuff
If I were poor, I’m sure being called poor would be absolutely terrifying. I wouldn’t have the self-confidence of a middle-income person. I wouldn’t have people who could vouch for the size of my house or the white collar-ness of my parents’ jobs. Because of this anxiety, I’m sure I would change my lifestyle so I would never fear being accused of being poor. I would wear nicer clothes, eat fancier meals, drive a nice car. I would do these things not because it made mathematical sense, but because, I would want to avoid anyone second-guessing my social class, and thus, subtly second-guessing my worth. (I’m not saying a person’s worth is dependent on their social class, or that it should be that way – I’m just saying that many people feel this way).
I can remember talking to a friend who had grown up poor that it was a pretty common occurrence to see someone with nice new shoes. Everyone around him was poor, so it never made economical sense. But I think most of us can remember a time when they had something someone else wanted – and it felt great. Or when we were able to give our kids or loved ones something that they really wanted – and it felt great. We are all guilty of giving into our emotions over our head – and the poor are no different. There’s something about having something shiny and new that can make someone feel better about themselves, their lives, and give them hope for the future. It doesn’t make logical sense, but it makes emotional sense. And if something resonates emotionally, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily false or valueless. In small doses, a tiny purchase can bolster us – even as in large doses, they can ruin us.
You try to keep up appearances by buying nice things to bolster your own self esteem. Maybe you can barely afford rent but no one needs to know that. The very last straw isn’t homelessness or even when others stop believing in you. The last straw is when you can’t believe in yourself. And if you can’t have the stable life, you can at least look the part, to others and to yourself.
A Poverty Mindset
This mindset isn’t only held by the poor. You can grow up at any income level and still have a chip on your shoulder. There are people who grew up far richer than me that might identify with it. But it’s a mindset that is easier to overcome as a rich person than as a poor person. It’s a simple matter of looking around and being grateful for having the roof over your head. It’s much easier to be confident when you have some constants in your life.
When a rich person says that he could pull himself up by his bootstraps if he had a reduced income, he may be right. To be more specific, he is right that he may have the skills, health, education, connections and confidence that if he were put in a situation with low income, he could lift himself up by his very own bootstraps. He could visualize where he was before and say, well I got there once and I believe in myself to get there again.
But the poor aren’t “rich people pretending to be poor.” The poor are the way they are.
When people point at the poor and say, why do you have the newest iPhone or the big SUV when I, as a rich person, have a flip phone and take the bus, this is part of the reason why. It’s not that the poor are secretly not poor. They very much are. In fact, they are acting in ways that very much show that they’re poor, though perhaps not monetarily. They are poor of mindset. And that can be harder to fix than a cash flow problem. They may very well not believe that they can get out of their situation so the thinking may go, I might as well have my fun now. You may not have hope, but at least you have an Xbox.
The Unexpected Reason Why I’ts Harder for The Poor to Save
When people say, the poor shouldn’t care what other people think, that’s a fallacy too. The rich don’t need to care what people think of them. The rich can insulate themselves from people they don’t want to have around; the poor cannot. The poor have to see social workers, teachers, school administrators, government workers, neighbors and family because they rely on all these people to survive. So the poor have more people judging them than the rich. Thus, the poor have more people they want to and need to view them positively. In fact, the poor likely get a lot more bang for their buck by spending extravagantly on appearances.
Additionally, being rich drastically changes how you’re viewed even without spending any money. For instance, I can be frugal because I have so many indicators to show that I’m wealthy. When people come to visit, they don’t care that my furniture is secondhand Ikea because my apartment is in a neighborhood where the median home values are $1 million. They don’t notice the lack of TV, because I have a laptop laying around that costs over $1000. When I say I don’t have a car, the understanding is that I choose not to, not because I can’t – because everyone knows I’m a lawyer and I make bank.
Similarly, when I say my clothes are several years old, low-priced and sourced from ignoble locales like Payless and Walmart, it doesn’t affect others’ views of me because I’m young, thin, pretty and rich so my humble clothes seem more expensive when I wear them. Everything seems more expensive in my life because of me. It’s actually a waste for me to spend on more expensive things because I will get compliments whether my dress is from Target or Gucci.
The Dirty Secrets of the Rich
No one wants to wear Mark Zuckerberg’s clothes, but they want to be as rich as Zuckerberg and then be free to wear whatever they want. The people who get away with wearing junky things are the rich.
The purpose of expensive things is so people will think you’re rich. If you’re already rich, you don’t need people to think anything of you. People will come to you if you’re rich. If you’re poor, you still need to prove yourself to get a job, friends, connections, business partners, etc. The irony is that the Gucci works best for those that can’t afford it.
The dirty secret to being frugal is not caring what people think. The secret to not caring what people think is being rich.
If you don’t have these indicators of wealth, it’s a lot less likely that being frugal seems like a worthy goal. Having the junky items I have just makes you look poor, and no one wants to look poor without secretly being rich.