Growing Up with Rich Kids Made Me Feel Rich, Too

I went to a private Montessori school in Atlanta from preschool through the third grade that my middle-class parents were able to pay for with a scholarship that I got for doing extremely well on little-kid-level standardized tests. The majority of the families that sent their children there were very well-off.

There was a lot of excess around me but I was young, so I just took it all in stride. My earliest and most vivid memories are of school events and visiting my friends at their homes. At school, we went to the Ritz Carlton for high tea when we learned about England. For “France Day,” the school would hire fancy chefs who made fresh beignets for everyone and served them in a little café that the school set up outside. For “Italy Day,” we would make fresh pasta and pose for pictures in a real gondola. There was a yearly auction of the various crafts and paintings we had created that would raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the school.

My classmates lived in subdivisions with golf courses and country clubs. One classmate’s dad was a neurosurgeon, and her parents threw her 10th birthday bash in their three-story McMansion complete with an elevator and labyrinth of a basement. They hired the local radio station to broadcast from the party, and commissioned manicurists to give all 100 or so child guests manis and pedis in their cavernous living room. I felt right at home in another friend’s house, which had acres of beautifully landscaped gardens, a huge swimming pool with waterfalls in the backyard, and a quiet, ever-present housekeeper. My best friend at the time lived in a huge old house that had a beautiful kitchen with heavy wooden beams crossing the ceiling and a wood-burning brick oven. Her parents would teach us how to make pizza with organic meats and vegetables, and then slide the pizza next to the fire to bake. I felt like I belonged to this world of luxurious sights, smells and activities.

But I didn’t belong. My family has never been wealthy. My mom was a stay-at-home mom who sometimes published freelance medical articles, and my dad was a computer programmer who got very sporadic contract work, usually in other states. The money would run dry between jobs. I have three younger sisters, and we all shared bedrooms. We owned our house, a medium-sized 3-bedroom, 2-bath located an hour outside of the city, but lived very frugally, wearing thrifted clothing sent in a box from my grandma in Milwaukee. We pinched pennies and ate sparingly. Some people would call this a middle class life—college-educated parents, a house, the suburbs—I do not.

I think it’s unacceptable that so many people delude themselves into thinking they’re a part of the middle class. My parents thought they were solidly in the middle class, but so did my classmates’ families. My parents thought my classmates’ parents were rich. Their parents thought my family was poor, and treated my parents with condescension for not dressing us in designer jeans, or buying us organic food. As I got older, and eventually went to public school with all the other kids in my income bracket, I realized that my family’s income level was not even comparable to my old classmates’ families, who earned multiples of what my parents earned.

My early childhood gave me expectations of wealth that were never fulfilled. I learned to expect that spending summers in France was normal, that Ivy League schools were realistic possibilities, and that one day I would have a beautifully restored 5-bedroom, 5-and-a-half bath home in a historic, tree-lined area of the city. My parents’ attitude toward money irritated me. They thought dinner out at a chain-restaurant steakhouse qualified as an indulgence, and their penny-shaving, coupon-clipping, cheap quality clothes-buying habits may have led to a delicately balanced, financial stable life, but they seemed very tacky, and embarrassing to me. Big spending led to guilt-tripping. Even buying name brand food at the grocery store was thought of as almost sinful, when a perfectly decent, 20-cent cheaper alternative was available. I don’t want to have to think that way.

I know class isn’t supposed to matter, but it does. My primary goal is not to become wealthy, but who can say they wouldn’t like to be rich? I will probably never reach the financial heights that my friend’s parents reached, and that’s fine on some level. I can have a fulfilling life without all the material benefits that come with having lots of money. But my earliest memories are of what I could have, and that immersion into wealth made me feel discontent with anything less. I am probably a card-carrying member of the middle class just for even thinking this, but what everything really boils down to is: Money equals freedom, and I want to be free.

 

Amanda Tomas still lives in Atlanta while she saves up money to move somewhere else. Photo: Shutterstock/1000 Words

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38 Comments / Post A Comment

Megano! (#124)

Jesus f*cking Christ that birthday party!

EmmaG (#1,023)

“We pinched pennies and ate sparingly. Some people would call this a middle class life—college-educated parents, a house, the suburbs—I do not. I think it’s unacceptable that so many people delude themselves into thinking they’re a part of the middle class.”

So what is middle class in contemporary America?

melis (#42)

@EmmaG It’s based on a fairly complicated mani-pedi system. I’d explain it, but your cuticles are so rough, I’m afraid it would sail right over your head.

EmmaG (#1,023)

@melis Even my fingertips just scream “Prole”.

melis (#42)

@EmmaG Can you even afford gel wraps?

@EmmaG Yeah, what does the author consider it, if not middle class?

EmmaG (#1,023)

@melis I… haven’t a clue what that means. For real. Class consciousness is a bitch.

deepomega (#22)

@EmmaG Middle class is (or should be!) within a quartile of the median household income. Median’s around 50k, nationally, with quartiles at 25ish and 82ish. If you want to really stretch to find your family in middle class, feel free to use the state-by-state (or county by county!) data. See here.

Nick (#1,548)

@EmmaG Something like the White family from Breaking Bad, before Walt went into drugs?

@EmmaG My girlfriend’s mom (single mother) makes about $25,000 a year as a lab technician; she owns a large three-bedroom apartment in Paris, one of her daughters goes to university abroad, the other daughter goes to an elite private high school and takes trips to ski in Switzerland and study in Barcelona. The whole family goes to the Caribbean every year for about a month for vacation. <– Middle class in France.

branza (#660)

@EmmaG conclusion: let’s all move to France!

From ages three to eighteen my best friend and her family had a lot more money than mine did. However, we were definitely middle-class, and it just didn’t appear to be such a huge discrepancy in income. There were no private schools, no vacations in France for them, but it was obvious that they had a bit more money and just spent it in different ways. Because of this, I used to get jealous and complain to my mother, “Well _____ has like three American Girl Dolls, why can’t I even have one for Christmas?” or “Why does ____ get a brand new BMW and her parents pay her credit card?” Now, as I’m older, I realize the large difference between my family and hers incomes, but as a child it was still very annoying that her parents would just give her a 50 dollar bill to go out somewhere and I don’t think my parents ever just handed me money.
I obviously realize how privileged I was and am, but when you’re young, you just want to be like your friends and do what they do.

j-i-a (#746)

I grew up in a similar situation, middle-class in a private school full of people with elevators and multiple maids, and it was my entire life, first through twelfth grade. But aside from some elementary-school jealousy over primo Limited Too glitter apparel, I have never ever ever ever wanted to do the country-club, second-house-in-Aspen thing. Of course it would be nice to have a big safety net or a trust fund, but entitlements fuck you up, dull your realness, narrow your options!

@j-i-a Ooh, I see where you’re coming from but I don’t know about the rich having narrowed options. I feel like my friends who grew up with money give themselves more options, more room to try things and possibly mess up, knowing they have a safety net to fall back on. But who knows, my risk-averse nature could have nothing to do with having less money growing up… after all, you can’t perform a controlled experiment on your own life.

sockhopbop (#764)

@j-i-a I also feel like it’s easier for people not to wish they were rich when they also grow up with examples of middle-class/working-class families that built cool, love-filled lives for themselves. My teacher’s family was like that: they didn’t have all the pretty rich-people things, but they had an awesome dog and hiking and game nights. Meanwhile, my friend’s family had a huge house with a pool and Xbox, but it wasn’t nearly as fun… so now my dream for my life looks a lot more like the first than the second.

j-i-a (#746)

@cuminafterall For sure. I think individual family dynamics could completely negate my generalizations every single time, and I totally agree with you on the risk thing. However, I do think that there’s a “What is appropriate for people in my rarefied, image-centric social circle to do?” type of conscription that does end up happening in a lot of wealthy communities–and I personally just could not handle that one bit. Like when I decided to join the Peace Corps, one of my girlfriends said, verbatim, “Jia! Remember where you came from!”, as in, “charity” is best done when you’re old and wealthy and can throw big gala auctions, etc.

j-i-a (#746)

@sockhopbop I have a very similar dream of a teacher-family-house with dogs, hiking, game nights! Yeah–it’s like, when I’m hungover, I sometimes dream of having someone else do my laundry and dishes, but I think deep down I know that I do not at all want a big, cavernous, precious-object house where a housekeeper roams silently like a human Roomba and sweeps up everything that hasn’t been sanctioned by the decorator. Which of course is not the situation of all wealthy people, but it is a pretty common one where I’m from.

smartastic (#3,056)

@j-i-a I don’t know about narrowed options, but I would say (from personal experience) that having unlimited options can fuck you up. I grew up with a privileged enough background that my parents’ financial support allowed me to explore many career options after college. At the time this felt not so much like being spoiled as being given the ability to take my time finding the right path for me. But ultimately by my early 30s I realized that the way you find the right career path is by working and pushing against the contraints of a given field until you find a door out of it to something parallel but better for you (rinse and repeat). My friends with many more financial contraints have ended up in much more interesting and tailored to them positions than I did in the same amount of time.

goldstar (#1,819)

This is the advantage to being an unpopular reclusive book-nerd all through school (that mandates uniforms). I grew up on welfare, but thanks to the fact I didn’t really have friends to go visit/sleepovers with, it never really registered to me that getting all your clothes from thrift stores/ hand-me-down sacks from family friends was out of the ordinary. I was a scholarship kid in a private school, and then switched out to public school when I was 13 by choice, but luckily (?) I remained fairly insulated from comparisons by my own anti-social tendencies until I was able to get a part-time job and buy some of my own things.

Looking back now, I remember how excited I was when a new haul of the cast-offs/outgrown clothes would arrive. New stuff! Which I guess is also testament to my mom’s strength in keeping all of the financial struggle and anxiety hidden from us, so we never knew any better.

I feel guilty but I also totally identify with this. My childhood was very similar. I attended private schools but my family had a lower middle class income. I’m always grateful for the experience but it definitely made life frustrating at times. I appreciate that my parents thought to provide a quality education, but it always felt like i was being socialized in a way that i could never really live up to. I feel this even more acutely now having graduated from a private liberal arts college into a historically abysmal job market. I fully acknowledge that this is a prototypical “first world problem” but it definitely stings to have upper class tastes and a lower class income.

Amanda T (#1,842)

Hi, I am the author of this piece. I really enjoyed writing this and reading all the comments. Just want to say I think it’s interesting that some commenters’ reactions were defensive exaggurations ( ex. I would not like to be rich because… rich people are cold, zombielike, Roomba-maid employers… rich people are not authentic like I am in my comparative poverty… rich people have a terrible family life), which were strange because the rich people I knew were mostly thoughtful, considerate, generous, liberal-minded people who don’t fit any of those characterizations.
Also, @stuffisthings brought up another good point that I wanted to make but did not very ell, which is what passes for middle class living here is pretty crappy especially when you have experienced better. Its like if you start eating fresh, organic food its hard to go back to processed food- it tastes terrible.

TARDIStime (#1,633)

@Amanda T
I’d love to know why you called this piece “Growing up with rich kids made me feel rich, too”?
From the tone of your article, it really suggests that you actually feel quite poor by comparison.
Also, do you know how any of these families fared after the financial crisis? Did they appear to be “free” due to their seemingly endless wealth, or were they slaves to enormous debt? As a child, I doubt you could have told the difference, and if you suggest your parents owned their own home outright, and then compare that to the possibility of your friends’ parents still having enormous mortgages that they are now underwater on, who has the more stable financial bedrock provided for their (now) young adult children?

j-i-a (#746)

@Amanda T The comments you’re talking about all fall under my initial statement, which may (?) have read like a defensive exaggeration–but I think it’s more just two or three other people whose personal experience with very wealthy families has led us to contentment with our smaller, no-more-and-no-less-authentic lives, rather than “discontent with anything less,” as you put it. Also, the world being very large, it’s not implausible or strange that other people have had different experiences around wealth than you have, or come to different conclusions as a result.

sockhopbop (#764)

@j-i-a seconded! and @Amanda T, i certainly wasn’t trying to say that rich people don’t have good family lives or discount your experiences. just saying that the particular personal examples i saw around me growing up did not lead me to believe that rich people necessarily had happier lives. though i certainly agree they have more financial freedom.

Amanda T (#1,842)

@TARDIStime I titled my article half-joking, because I felt rich as a little kid but now that I’m older I notice the differences. I grew up in the 90′s so I’m sure some of the families have lost their financial footing. And my parents are still paying off the mortgage on their house to this day and still struggle some to support my younger sisters’ ambitions, so they aren’t exactly on solid ground.

@j-i-a & sockhopbop, I understand that the experiences you’ve had with rich people might differ from my personal experiences, but can you really say you’d really rather struggle throughout life? With the constant stress, anxiety, and with the knowledge that there are really good things out there that you will never, never be able to have? I feel like I’m being honest with myself when I say that yes, I would like to be rich, and I will try to get there myself if I can escape the catch-22 that is being poor, because I know for a fact that it is pretty sweet.

P.J. Morse (#665)

@Amanda T I had the same question as @TARDISTime regarding how the families you knew are doing now. After a little work in the financial sector, I saw the gap between lifestyle and money in the bank. Some people are indeed as rich as they look while others are swimming in debt because they feel the need to be at a certain place by a certain age (bad idea since they should be saving for retirement, but I digress). It is impossible to guess a person’s wealth based on appearance.

Oh, and I totally concur. Most processed food tastes foul, except Velveeta. If I claw my way into the upper crust, I will still melt Velveeta in my sandwiches.

Money = options. Having money gives you more choices.

I would say I grew up lower middle class but my parents were excessively frugal (eg no TV for years out of choice). I’ve never really brushed up against obvious wealth (I do have some friends with well-off, even rich families, but they’re super humble and not showy at all apart from having large houses to accommodate their large families) and I’ve certainly reflected a lot upon class differences since getting out into the real world.

cmcm (#267)

@eemusings@twitter Money gives you options/choices, but I think it actually limits people as well. I’m trying to find a way to get around saying “being poor gives you character” but… well, here’s the thing. I am really glad that my family wasn’t that well off. We were ‘middle class’, but my dad was self employed so some years things were tight. I remember my teacher asking where I got a dress and I proudly said it was from “the used clothes store!!” and getting confused and upset because she kind of giggled. Anyway, I learned to budget and be thrifty and understand the value of things. I got part time jobs starting when I legally could, and I feel that that really benefited me later on – while the people I grew up with who were rich kind of floundered around and had limited work/life skills because things had been easy.

It would have been nice to not worry about money, but at the same time, I’m glad I learned it then so that I am a fully functional adult on my own now. I do think many of the rich people I grew up with continued to be giant children for many years after it was appropriate.

Amanda T (#1,842)

@cmcm I guess to some extent I’m proud of my background, too, and it probably made me into the fairly responsible & completely independent person I am today. But oh my god, I would love to have the resources to try to do what I’d love to do, instead of sucking it up and putting my nose to the ground and working my ass off doing meaningless work to make ends meet! That doesn’t make you interesting – it drives you into submission.

cmcm (#267)

@Amanda T Actually you’re right. As much as I don’t mind working hard, it is phenomenally frustrating that all I want to do is do my damn PhD and if I don’t get funding it will never be possible. My poor parents are like WE JUST WISH WE COULD GIVE YOU THE TUITION MONEY.

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@cmcm I agree that I think the more money you have, the more limited you can be. Most of the people I know who are my age and have any kind of money have been working at the same job since college and they are BORED. But they are so entrenched in the mindset that money is everything, they refuse to make any kind of change.

Conversely, I grew up in a fairly middle class family in an otherwise working class-to-poor neighbourhood and was seriously, weirdly embarrassed by my parents “wealth” (owning their small bungalow, occasional car trip vacations, being consistently employed, having a home computer.)

When I got older, I met actual rich people and my fucking mind exploded. WHAT DO YOU DO WITH ALL THAT MONEY? WHY ARE YOU NOT ASHAMED OF YOUR CONSPICUOUS LIFESTYLE?

dee (#2,827)

rich is rich poor is poor we have 4 kid they have no christmas this year. danielle.ozbay@homail.com

This article really hit home, except i went to public school until the 8th grade through 11th then said screw that rich kids are way more stupid than my public school friends.

orejitasmiamor (#2,678)

Atlanta is ridiculously stratified. In terms of wealth distribution it is probably like any other city, but structurally it is very divided.Where I live, there are lots of doctors and lawyers and BMWs and people who are probably actually middle class. If you drive 15 minutes away, there are a lot of Latino immigrants and Vietnamese immigrants and the area is economically depressed. Drive another 20 minutes and you are in the swankiest suburbs with tennis courts and waterfalls and ridiculous golf courses. If you are in one of these bubbles, it is hard to interact with the others. Unlike other cities in the US, there is not a lot of mingling among the classes here.

Also, I think I work with some kids that go to the school the author went to and they are almost all mini-frat bros/sorority gals and if you ask them where they are considering going to school they rattle off a list of Ivy League schools. And the school costs more than my out of state public university tuition cost.

theorangetree (#6,507)

So all I can think of reading this is how sorry I am for her parents. It sounds like they tried so hard and she sounds like she despised them for it. What were they supposed to do, not save coupons or whatever and not be able to pay the rent? Maybe they shouldn’t have had one of the four children? I think there is a little much needed respect missing here.

His subject is good, long while I find this topic and I think it is here, world population day

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