living with money

My Deep, Burning Class Rage

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photo: Getty

Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want. In Living With Money, we talk to people about the stories behind their bank balances. Here’s how a 40-year-old woman in New York copes with “class rage” — the feeling that all her friends and colleagues are wealthier, and she’ll never be able to catch up.

I define class rage pretty specifically. It’s how I feel when I think that someone is in a similar financial situation to me, and then I discover that they actually have this extra source of money. When I was younger, it was like, “Oh wait, you come from a rich family.” But now it’s like, there’s a secret trust fund. Or a wealthy spouse. At my core, I believe that if you have money, your life is easier. If a person grew up rich, or with relative financial security, then I just can’t relate to them at all.

I work in book publishing in New York, which definitely compounds this problem. The publishing world is full of wealthy people — like a lot of creative industries, it has some glamour but it doesn’t pay well. So if you want to live comfortably, it helps if you have another income source. And these aren’t the types of wealthy people who flaunt their money. They tend to be more embarrassed about it. So they downplay it, like, “Oh, I’m just a poor book editor. I just do this job because I love literature.” And I’m like, no! You do this job because you can! That’s what really gets to me.

I don’t feel this way toward rich people in general, like celebrities or bankers on Wall Street. It’s not about rich people who make a lot of money at their jobs. Instead, I feel it toward people who have always had money — who’ve had this sense of backup that allows them to experiment in life and do what they want. I’m so jealous of that built-in freedom.

I know that these are unfair assumptions, and I might sound like a terrible person. I have plenty of rich colleagues who still work hard and are nice, good people. I hate that I feel this way. And I’m sure that lots of people might feel the same way about me — money and resources are all relative. But I have quite a bit of debt and my whole life feels so tenuous sometimes. I’m 40 and I’m single and I spend almost all of my money on rent and I’m constantly stressed about finances. I blame a lot of my problems on money, even though I know that’s irrational — they’re not really money problems. I just can’t shake the fact that if I had more financial security, my life would be much better. I don’t get jealous about material things — it’s lifestyle stuff, like having the freedom to go out for dinner without having to go consign my clothes to pay for it, which I have definitely done.

I was always jealous of people with money. When I was growing up, my dad was a high school teacher and my mom mostly did temp work, sort of picking up jobs where she could. We weren’t dirt poor, but it was very hand-to-mouth. Money was always an issue. At one point when I was a kid, my dad got cancer and the medical bills put my parents into a lot of debt. They tried not to make a big deal out of it, but there was always just this level of concern. There was no cushion. We had one car and it was always breaking down. I always knew that if I wanted anything, I’d have to work very hard for it, probably harder than most people I knew. Asking my parents for money was and is definitely never an option.

When I went to college, that was the first time I noticed a real divide between people who had money and people who didn’t, because some of us needed jobs. It was also the first time I became aware of how it impacted how you could perform. Like, I had to work three nights a week, so I literally didn’t have as much time to spend on my assignments as I wanted to. When I moved to New York in my mid-20s for grad school, I saved up for a year beforehand, working seven days a week, often double shifts. I got a full scholarship, but I still had to pay rent and support myself. And I’ve just been in survival mode ever since. When I finished my MFA, I was earning $25,000 a year and my rent was $1,200 a month. You do the math.

In grad school, I saw a whole new level of privilege. I was working three jobs and my friends and I would talk about struggling with money and then I’d realize that their parents were paying their rent. Or they could charge things to their parents’ credit cards in an “emergency.” Or that some of them had never had a job before in their lives. I became aware of the sheer amount of money that had gone into some of these people. Like, between their private schooling and Ivy League college and grad school, that’s more money than I’ll ever make in my lifetime. To be this walking investment, with this price tag on your life — I can’t understand what that would feel like. I’m sure there’s some pressure, and that must suck. But at the same time, the road has been smoothed for you.

One of my close friends from my MFA program, we had pretty similar career struggles and worked in very similar jobs, and it seemed like we were on a similar path in life. And I did occasionally notice that she’d say something like, “Oh, my family has this little ramshackle cabin in the woods somewhere, it’s covered in cobwebs,” when she really should have said, “I have a ski house in Colorado.” But I didn’t really know the extent of it until she had a baby. And that’s when a line was drawn. Suddenly, she was looking at real estate, buying an apartment, hiring a full-time nanny. And I’m not proud of this, but it changed how I felt about our entire relationship. I felt deceived. I know that people shouldn’t have to declare how much money they have in their family as a prerequisite for friendship. But it was more that what had felt to me like a shared struggle wasn’t real for her. When we had talked about our worries, about our careers and our futures, all those conversations suddenly felt tainted. It’s possible that she was doing it just to fit in and be friendly. But I felt like I’d been fooled.

We drifted apart after that, which is what usually happens when I find out about somebody’s money. I’ve never gotten in a fight over it. I just sort of stew, and then there’s this psychological distance that emerges.

I can’t do a lot of things because of money. Everyone says that — “I’m too poor, I can’t go out.” And that enrages me because I really mean it. It’s isolating, because I can’t talk about it. I can’t say, “I have $7 in my checking account,” because it scares people. And no one wants to be around someone who complains about money. I definitely have had to cut out a lot of acquaintances and networking opportunities because I cannot afford to just meet for a drink. I’m sure that people think that I’m depressed or I’ve just drifted off or something, but it’s really just the money.

I completely understand why people downplay their wealth. I would probably do the same thing if I were around someone with a lot less money than me. But what annoys me is the hypocrisy of it, acting like you haven’t had a leg up. I would just prefer people to be honest. Just accept that you’re privileged. Accept that you’re lucky. Accept that certain things are easier for you because of money. But people never do. Sometimes I wonder if they’re even aware.

What really haunts me is when I feel like I’ve been naïve. Like, with a co-worker, we do similar things and probably make similar amounts of money. She’s in a relationship, so at first I thought maybe that helped her financial situation. But then I found out she went to a private school in the city and her mom is a CEO of something, and that’s when the rage set in. I get this sort of tunnel vision and I don’t want anything to do with her. I’ll think, well, if that’s how she’s getting by, what am I doing here? I don’t have an alternative supply of money. I’ve been chasing this career that can’t possibly work out for me in the long run, but it can for her. It makes me not want to read anything she wrote, or compete with her, or operate in the same world. If she didn’t have money, she wouldn’t have the luxury of doing whatever she wants, creatively. She would have to suck it up and sell out and do things that don’t make her happy, like I do.

These types of discoveries happen all the time. It’s not like you ever see a dollar amount. It’s more like you find out that someone has a second house upstate or you see their vacations on Instagram. I start adding things up in my head, and it all boils down to, “This person can’t have paid for that.” And it makes me go back over every interaction we’ve had and think about how it’s tainted. It doesn’t necessarily make me not like them. It just makes me not take them as seriously. It feels like a betrayal.

I don’t know anyone my age who’s as financially unstable as I am, and I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to stick it out in this job, in New York. But at the same time, I’ve worked so hard to get where I am — how can I quit now?

My Deep, Burning Class Rage