Fortunate Misfortune: Thoughts on Privilege

About a year ago I met a young woman on Craigslist with the goal of finding an ongoing exercise/running partner. Unlike other strictly platonic folks I’ve met in the past, never to see or hear from again, we totally hit it off. Her friendly, quirky and talkative personality was refreshing, and we always seemed to have something to talk about to take our minds off our increasingly pounding heart rates.

Even though I don’t mean to, I always judge people immediately regarding their socioeconomic status. I’m aware that I do this, and feel bad about it, but I do it nonetheless. I grew up upper middle class with friends all over the middle class spectrum (some on the lower end of it) but always found myself meshing best with others who came from the upper middle class side of town, so to speak. Anyone who was upper upper middle class, or lower upper class was usually too spoiled for me to handle, so there was a group of people who I felt naturally comfortable around somewhere in the middle of American socioeconomic rank.

I’ve always been aware of my privilege, as well as my lack of great wealth as some others have. I know a large reason I am where I am today is due to my luck of being born into a family that could afford to send me to college with no debts, and help see me on to my financial independence (from my parents, not from working) at age 21.

My new friend, who I have seen off and on again this last year, never came off as someone with a lot of money. I didn’t really think too much about her socioeconomic status, but she seemed to be middle class, making her own money through building her impressive career in design. Her fiancee, now husband, could have been middle class or lower middle class, but it was clear she was supporting him as he completes his education. I didn’t once think this girl is loaded.

Loaded is not the right word to use. Through a series of events, some terribly tragic, and others just random, she is virtually a multi-millionaire. Not a billionaire, but still, through chance, fate, and unfortunate fortune, she doesn’t need to worry about money, even though she doesn’t want to live like she doesn’t need to worry about it.

Adopted at a young age, she grew up in a household with entrepreneurial parents. They own a storage facility that they built from the ground up for less than $1M, and it’s now worth $2M to $3M. Besides its value, it also takes in about $40k per month currently even though it’s not fully occupied due to the economy. They own two houses and have saved well through their life. Until recently, my friend was destined to one day split this fortune with her brother. That is, until tragedy struck.

Her brother went into the army and was killed only a few weeks after his first tour in Iraq. Her family was absolutely devastated, and will never fully recover. But one strange financial twist to the situation was that apparently all army families, if their loved one is killed in combat, get $100k in memory. In addition to this, her brother decided to take out a large life insurance policy out on himself, which resulted in a random $400k check upon his death. This terrible tragedy left my friend with $500k in the bank (no small sum of change) that she doesn’t want to touch, and feels terrible about. Yet that sum of money will change her life, as will the one-day inheritance from her parents. It seems the worst of fortune in one’s family offers, at times, the best of financial gain. Even with typical family inheritance, in a morbid awful way, families with parents that die in early retirement leave behind great wealth, versus those who live into their hundreds.

This is not to say that anyone, sans the occasional sociopath, would ever wish death on a loved one in order to have financial cushion in their bank accounts. But the reality is that wealth — especially inherited wealth of families that can be passed on for generations and spew centuries of inequality — is often spurred by tragedy and other unfortunate circumstance. Wealth built in one lifetime is rarely as large as family wealth built over the years, and while wealth can be invested and grow on its own, it often is the result of these occurrences that no one would ever wish for, but many find themselves entangled in.

There is no moral of the story here, but just some thoughts on socioeconomic status and wealth that I wanted to capture after tonight’s conversation. I greatly enjoyed the open and honest talk about wealth and privilege, and it was refreshing to speak to someone who is — in sheer financial terms — doing better than I am and also dealing with mixed feelings of guilt, gratefulness, and psychological avoidance of financial truth.

I also thought about the friendships I have with those who grew up in lower or higher socioeconomic status and realized that there is definitely some barrier in our conversations and connection, this unspoken discomfort with being around someone who either does not have to work to get by, or who has a psychological block keeping them in their socioeconomic status (ie not finishing college even if they are very intelligent), and the shared comfort felt with someone in a similar socioeconomic status. This is not to say I can’t be friends with people richer or poorer, but there is definitely something about befriending people who are on the same financial page as you versus others who are playing entirely different financial games, and who started either 10 steps behind or 10 steps ahead.

 

 

 

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One comment

  1. I grew up in a nice middle class neighbourhood and thus all of my elementary school friends grew up in detached houses, with backyards. It wasn't until high school where I became friends with people who lived in the not as nice neighbourhoods and lived in townhouse complexes. Obviously nothing wrong with that, but it was a bit of an eye opener for me. Being a naive teenager, I just assumed everyone lived the same as my family and I.

    I dated someone for almost a year who struggled financially growing up. He mentioned to me that I had it easy and everything was handed to me and I was silver spoon fed. I was shocked because I never looked at it that way and had never met anyway who had such financial hardship. Now that he was successful, he spent a lot of money on things, which may have been due to the fact that he didn't have so much growing up.

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