living with money

What Happened When I Unwittingly Married Into Money

Photo: Brooke Slezak/Getty Images

Living With Money explores the personal side of personal finance: how our bank balances do and don’t define who we are.

I first realized my in-laws had money, real money, when they bought a second house — to store their boat. Fewer than two miles separate their homes, making this renovated boat house a tricky thing to explain to friends. I try not to bring it up. It raises too many questions.

Eighteen months into my marriage, my husband and I relocated to the Pacific Northwest. This move put us for the first time within driving distance of his parents, who had recently retired in a gorgeous beach house in a sleepy coastal hamlet. This move also marked the beginning of a new chapter: realizing my husband’s family is rich.

While I reap the benefits of my in-laws’ wealth and generosity, I often find myself feeling uncomfortable and guilty. It’s such a stark contrast to my immigrant family upbringing, when I was always keenly aware that I was the “poorest” of my friends. I was raised in a middle-class family in an upper-class suburb of Houston. My mother, who emigrated from Hong Kong, never attended college. My father worked a blue-collar job for the postal service until he passed away when I was 19. We were exactly comfortable — and not in the way rich people say they are comfortable.

My in-laws have taken us on several luxury vacations. We’ve had fun touring castles in Scotland and exploring the jungles of Costa Rica. But these getaways bring emotional baggage, in equal parts sadness and guilt, because I could never take this kind of trip with my parents.

I couldn’t bear to tell my mom that my in-laws picked up the tab for vacation. Nobody loves free stuff more than my mother. (She once snagged a stash of complimentary tampons from the ladies room at a hotel even though she was a post-menopausal woman in her 60s.) Maybe she’d be ecstatic for me. But I certainly couldn’t risk making her feel bad.

I’m not ashamed of where I come from. I’m proud of the life I’ve built, in no small part to the sacrifices my parents and grandparents made. My parents paid for my college education. Several years after graduation, I gave up a lucrative career in financial services to go to journalism school. I put myself through grad school and moved to New York to work in magazine publishing. My personal life led me westward and eventually I settled in Portland, where I now work at a nonprofit.

It’s unclear to me how much money my in-laws actually have (not enough to pass the federal inheritance tax threshold, assures my husband). I don’t want to know. No good will come of it. I don’t want to make decisions based on a windfall I may or may not ever see. I don’t want numbers to color my perspective of two people I deeply respect, who raised my husband to be an incredibly down-to-earth, humble man.

Any trace of discomfort resulting from my in-laws’ wealth was compounded by the birth of my son last year. My husband and I set up a trust when our baby was seven weeks old. Apparently, this is what you do when you anticipate your child will someday inherit family money, still a foreign concept to me. I remember postponing the signing appointment with our lawyer until after my mom flew home. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her about the trust. It’s like I have survivor’s guilt — as applied to wealth.

I worry about my son growing up entitled. I don’t want him to know he has money or a safety net. I don’t want him to make reckless choices. A strong work ethic is important to me. I’ve been working since I was 16, not because my parents made me but because I didn’t want them paying for everything.
I know plenty of people, including my siblings, who are better off financially compared with their immigrant parents. Collectively, we are fulfilling the dream of every immigrant parent. My friends don’t feel guilty for their success, and neither do I. The difference is that my success feels earned, whereas the extra-bougie part of my lifestyle I lead, thanks to my in-laws, feels gratuitously undeserved.

Every now and again, I ask my husband if he feels guilty for the life he was born into or the life we’re building for our son. “Guilt is not a productive feeling,” he says. I wish it were that easy.

What Happened When I Unwittingly Married Into Money