What Happens When You Make Way More (Or Less) Than Your Parents Did

Moving around the socio-economic ladder

When I think of my childhood, I picture all the shenanigans my siblings and I got into, our epic family road trips, and spending holidays with our extended family. What’s not in the picture is an abundance of money. As a kid and later as a teen, I definitely knew that we weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor either—we were solidly in the middle. Both of my parents worked in state government in professional jobs—and when I was growing up that meant they were able to provide a good life for their kids, though it was by no means flashy.

We lived in the same three bedroom home my entire life, with one bathroom for six people. It was a treat to go out for family breakfast on the weekend or order pizza. Our summer vacation would probably be a family road trip in our minivan to a theme park like Cedar Point or Kings Island. I didn’t have a car until I got to college (and paid for it myself), and my parents only allowed me to get a pager after I got my first job at McDonald’s and could pay the bill myself.

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In college, I was a broke college student, and then a broke grad student. While I had classmates that drove fancy cars and spent their summers in Europe, I’d paid cash for a ten-year-old Altima that kept breaking down, and I interned each summer both for the experience and the money. Then things began to change when I got my first “real” job. Thanks to my career path, I knew I was destined to make more than my parents, but I had no idea that it would happen so quickly. After five years of working, I made more than what my parents made when I was kid, combined.

Even with my nice salary, things didn’t really start to change until I moved in with my now-husband. Then things subtly shifted: I had more money in my bank account after I’d paid all the bills; we managed to have a date night each week. Even when we had our daughter, expenses like daycare didn’t feel like a hardship.

Subconsciously I knew that we were now considered high earners—this Washington Post calculator showed me that were are above middle class both in our area, and nationally. But it doesn’t feel like I’m a high earner, at least not to me. In my head, I’m still the same girl who worked at McDonald’s for minimum wage, and bummed rides from her friends because she didn’t have car. Sure, some things in my lifestyle have changed, like my collection of fancy handbags, and the stamps in our passport. But we live in a modest home, drive used cars, and scrutinize every bill that comes in.

When I sat down and thought about it, I realized that a lot of views I have around money are rooted in the way I was raised. As one of four kids, I grew up on a lot of spaghetti for dinner. Shoes from Payless and a new school wardrobe from J.C. Penney was a treat. My mom’s love of thrift shopping and only buying things on sale rubbed off on me too—it’s rare to find me pay full price for anything. Intellectually I know I don’t need to pinch pennies, but I can’t shake the messages my parents repeated over and over—to go to school, get a good job, and save money.

I have friends who grew up upper middle class, and the biggest difference that I’ve seen between them and me is their ease with money, specifically using it as a tool. I’m extremely risk averse, which is why I’m not a big gambler or a big investor. I still check my main accounts daily to make sure no one has stolen my money or overcharged me. It took me until this year to finally buy a house, not because I didn’t have the ability to do so, but because I still remembered my parents telling me that buying a house was the biggest decision I could ever make (though on second thought, I’m sure getting married and having a child were also equally big decisions). I’ve worked hard to build a life, and part of me is still terrified that one day it could all come crumbling down, from one bad decision or purchase.

Logic and our tax bill tells me that I’ve moved beyond the lower middle class upbringing of my youth, but I still can’t wrap my head around the idea that my socioeconomic status has moved up.

I can’t be the only one who has gone through this struggle. tell me, how you dealt with it? Did you ever think of yourself differently?

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