Marrying Up

How getting married forced me to face my class privilege

by Liz Sullivan

When I first started dating my husband, I didn’t know he was wealthy. We were in college and he had a job, a regular apartment, bought two-buck chuck for date night, and parties always included two large pizzas for $20. It all seemed pretty standard.

Eventually, the clues started to add up. His family had multiple homes. They went on ski vacations to Canada for the holidays. Twice a year, they had a weekend of “family meetings” with a coach where they talked about tax structure and estate planning. I didn’t attend these meetings for the first few years of our relationship; now, I understand that they were protecting information about assets and investments, but at the time, it seemed strange, confusing, and exclusive. Eventually, Alex mentioned that his dad’s company went public when Alex was in high school, and his family had started a new foundation. I don’t even think I knew what a foundation was at the time.

The first time I felt our class difference acutely was when we decided to try to plan a trip to Ireland with his family. I was invited along, but when I saw the plane tickets were $1300, I explained that I just didn’t have the money to make that happen. After much discussion, his parents offered to pay for my plane ticket. I was thankful and overwhelmed and excited about visiting a new country. I also felt guilty as fuck. It somehow felt like a betrayal of my family to accept such a gift, since they would have given it to me if they could have.

Growing up, there were some instances of “no that’s too expensive,” but there were many more of “sure, we can do that.” I had an allowance, my dad turned over his 1987 Mustang when I turned sixteen, I didn’t have to work in college, and I graduated with relatively minimal debt. Our family was solidly, and as far as I remember, happily, middle class. And while I knew there were people that had more than us, and people that had less, the concept of class was outside my realm of thinking.

As my relationship with Alex got more serious, I was invited to attend parts of the family meetings, and eventually the full weekend. I joined them for ski vacations (where I sat in the lodge and read because skiing is just not my thing). I got more interested and involved in philanthropic and socially responsible investing work.

But despite having a grand old time, we butted up against class issues in awkward and weird ways. We had different ideas of what was “expensive.” Visiting with his family often included an international flight and a weeklong vacation, whereas visiting mine meant visiting suburbia for the weekend and playing cards. With his parent’s help, we eventually bought a house in San Francisco. I should say, he bought a house because I couldn’t significantly contribute enough to be included on the paperwork. I simultaneously wanted to celebrate and throw up. I still have trouble verbalizing most of the time that we own our home.

On top of feeling out of my element, it felt ridiculous and insensitive to be complaining about vacations and buying a house and not having to watch my cash flow like a hawk. I felt pressure to feel grateful and excited, instead of uncomfortable and undeserving. I had no framing for how to think about class or class differences. When I tried to talk about feeling like I was straddling two worlds, people looked at me like I was insane.

It’s important for me to state that neither my husband nor his family had a particular set of expectations around what it meant to be wealthy. Because it happened suddenly and later in life, his parents immediately knew they wanted to proactively and consciously handle being wealthy. Yes, they had multiple homes, but they were also very socially conscious, and for lack of a better word, down to earth. In terms of family and personal dynamics, I didn’t feel different hanging out with them than I did hanging out with my own family.

Most of the tension stemmed from the expectations and internalized feelings I had about what it meant to be wealthy. And I felt (and continue to feel) conflicted about enjoying luxuries that weren’t available to my family and friends. I also started to realize that my class privilege, while expanded by my relationship with Alex, wasn’t new. I had grown up with a ton of privilege and opportunities that I hadn’t recognized. Which also meant I had been living in a bubble where I didn’t realize how that privilege was influencing my way of being in the world.

Eventually, I found an organization that organizes young people with wealth towards creating a more socially, racially, and economically just world. I found a community of people facing the question: what does it mean to be wealthy in a world with such huge economic disparities? How do we act responsibly? Is it okay to enjoy nice vacations and owning a home? Should I give it all away? Ultimately, we face the question: how much is enough? And it’s fascinating to see how that changed for me as I had access to more.

Getting married brought up a whole new set of issues around budgeting and expectations, and brought our families squarely into the conversation around class. It isn’t just Alex and me in a cross-class relationship; our families are too, and they were having to face it. I shed a lot of tears before realizing that I’d been actively working on my relationship to class and wealth for two years and was only scratching the surface—so how could I expect anyone else to automatically get it?

After the wedding (which was joyous and wonderful and lovely in all the right ways), and our honeymoon, I found myself facing the reality that now I wasn’t just a partner to a young person with wealth. I was legally bound to one—with a prenup that put me on the deed of the house. And the reality that in his thirties, Alex will have access to a trust that we will have to decide how to administer. Not to mention the fact that Alex, as a tech sector employee, is a wealth earner himself. And while he has always been of the mind that his money is our money, I have been more resistant to accept the new responsibility of being a young person with wealth. But marrying him pretty much sealed the deal.

My relationship with Alex blew my relationship with class, wealth, and privilege out of the water. I’m so thankful for it, and it’s also overwhelming and messy and sometimes exhausting. Once I started digging into my class privilege, my eyes were opened to my white privilege. I started exploring my feminism more deeply and intentionally. This new lens has made me literally question my life’s purpose, and the decisions I make every day.

So many people say, “marry rich,” like it’s all gold plated hummingbirds and rainbows. Like it will solve all your problems. Instead, I found that marrying rich brought up a lot more shit than it solved. It’s made me more acutely aware of the privilege I’ve held my whole life and has made me commit my life to fighting for justice in a way that I never would have otherwise.

Liz Sullivan

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  • Kaitlin

    I’m so glad this discussion has been brought up; it’s one of those issues I have trouble articulating because it sounds like it shouldn’t be a problem (“oh, you’re marrying someone who can take care of you, and you’re upset that you can’t contribute as much to the relationship and your future life? that’s the dream!” say the imaginary people in my head). I’m also “marrying up,” although in a much more limited way. But as someone who had grown up in a single-parent household where we were never very sure about where we would live next month or what we would eat that night for dinner, (and even still I recognize the privilege I had), it’s amazing how marrying into a solid middle-class man who has never not been middle-class raises all sorts of questions/issues. And guilt. Tonnnnnnns of guilt. So thank you for opening this conversation!

    • I feel you.
      My husband is from a well-off family. Who went bankrupt the year we met due to a single bad investment.
      But he is also a substantially educated high-earner, with potential for more.
      It meant when I got made redundant, we didn’t have to stress about work. When I got pregnant while still job hunting after that redundancy (layoff), we could afford for me to stay at home for a couple of years.
      And yet.
      I grew up in a family where my parents both worked and contributed fairly evenly. Where we would not have survived on one income. Where we struggled when I was little and got more comfortable through hard savings as I got older.
      Being comfortably enough off that I can go back to university for the next 2 years and put our child in daycare for it before then returning to the workforce? Its a damned scary and guilt-inducing place. I have a brain, and I have an education and I feel I should be using them to contribute to our household.
      And at the same time, I also feel guilty for being worried about it. Because we are comfortably off. I’m so glad one of my good friends is in the same situation – we can talk about it without having to qualify our statements.

  • Elizabeth

    Oh, this speaks to me. I did not marry up in the same way you did – my family was very comfortable growing up and I had no loans or debt post-college and my husband’s was solidly upper-middle class as well – but recently my in-laws have earned more money as their careers have matured so differences have appeared.

    I have so much general *ick* around the fact that they are paying for my husband’s very expensive graduate school education, have paid for plane tickets, and have even offered to pay for child care so we could have children sooner. They have helped my siblings-in-law buy houses, so I imagine that will be on the table is well. I am having trouble reconciling the part of me that took care of myself comfortably in an expensive city post-college and paid cash for a car with this new situation. I cannot help but think that I am losing some modicum of control when we accept anything.

    Thank you for this post and sharing your experience!

    • MC

      “I cannot help but think that I am losing some modicum of control when we accept anything.” I wholeheartedly relate to this. I have a lot of pride attached to the fact that I worked all through college and immediately after, got scholarships, and have paid off more than half of my students loans on my own. Letting my fiance (and his family) help to support me/us has been SO HARD because it feels like I am surrendering my independence – which, y’know, I kind of am because that’s part of the point of marriage – we’re in this together. But ugh, it is challenging.

    • Eh

      I’m in totally a different situation (I married down) but I get the *ick* factor.

      My family was solidly middle class but we were raised to be self-sufficient. My father helped me a little while during my undergrad but I was expected to pay for most of it (through a combination of getting scholarships and working). And my dad did not help me at all during grad school. Within two months of finishing school I paid off my student loans. My father also told me years ago how much I was getting to help with my wedding. It wasn’t a lot of money but it definitely helped. Since me and my siblings never expect money from our father we have managed the ups and downs of life pretty well (my brother and sister are both working class and don’t resent our father for not boosting them up to the level we had growing up because they know they can sustain their current lifestyle).

      My husband on the other hand comes from a working class family that is aspiring to be middle class by doing what they think middle class people do (so they appear to be middle class from the outside, even if they can’t afford it). My in-laws did not want their sons to know how little they earned so they didn’t explain finances to them growing up. As a result, my husband does not know how to deal with personal or household finances (this has been a struggle for us), and he knows that if he gets in trouble his parents will bail him out because they have always given him the money when he needed it. When my husband went to university his parents paid his tuition (he took loans to pay for his living expenses since he did not make much money at his part time job). Later, when he went back to school he was supposed to pay his own way but when my husband didn’t earn enough money in the summer to pay his tuition for college, and he couldn’t get any more government loans and banks wouldn’t loan him money, he more or less expected his parents to cut him a cheque (*ick*! – we had just started dating and I couldn’t believe how entitled he was – there was no conversation other than that he needed X amount of money). Near the end of that school year he didn’t have enough money to pay rent. Even though he had watched his bank account deplete he never thought of getting a job (he had stopped working part time to focus on school). He ended up piling on some credit card debt and then his parents took him to the casino and gave him $40 to play the slots – he won $1000 and problem solved. When he graduated from college his parents gave him a gift of a lot of money (because they gave his brother a used car so his gift had to be of equal value). When we got married his parents gave us a lot of money (the same large amount his brother got for his wedding – his mother took me to a bridal show and told me how much they were giving us and I cringed and then she told me not to tell him because they were going to tell him, which made me even more uncomfortable *ick*!) – we saved part of it and added it to our house down payment money (since we were told it could go towards our wedding and/or house). His parents have had a hard time financially – when my husband was in university his mom lost her job (luckily she wasn’t unemployed long) and the factory his father works at has had unpaid shutdowns and hours have been cut back and his father has been demoted (to the lowest pay grade). His father is just happy that he hasn’t been laid off yet (though he sees that coming in the near future as the factory looks like it will be closing). They have sacrificed a lot to make sure their sons have everything they want but their sons don’t see or appreciate their sacrifice.

  • LBH

    The disparity is not that great between me and my husband, but it exists, and I’m in the opposite position. Which has also been tricky. Marrying my husband meant marrying his debt, some of which (a Parent Plus loan that we’re responsible for — but which we don’t get the interest credit we pay for tax purposes, nor do we get to count it with our other educational debt for reducing the monthly payment, and which essentially I’m responsible for because he’s gone back to professional school in his 30s) I think was an incredibly poor decision on he and his family’s fault. I, in theory, could go to my family for help, but my parents raised us to be pretty self sufficient, so it feels like a betrayal to what they taught me to need to. It feels like the relationship between families and money, especially when you bring a new family and their relationship to money into the mix, is tricky, messy work.

    • Gina

      I would love to see an APW article on this subject. I don’t think we talk enough about what “marrying each other’s debt” means. I totally feel you on resenting his Parent Plus loan. It doesn’t seem fair to inherit something that you never would have chosen for yourself, especially when his family is partially responsible.

      In some ways it was good for my husband and I to deal with his debt, because we figured out really fast what different debt philosophies we’d been brought up with (me: never carry a balance on your credit cards, buy cars in cash, etc; him: credit card balance, student loan debt, car payment). But in some ways it was frustrating because I felt like, all the sudden, I was responsible for decisions he’d made when we weren’t even together! It’s such a hard thing, and I’m working on not resenting it.

      • Agreed–I would love to read something about taking on someone else’s debt. This is something I’m weighing in my current relationship–he has student loan and credit card debt, I don’t.

        • Anon.

          Not quite so specific, but treats the issue: Marriage as Mini-Socialism

          • Meg Keene

            I was going to say. I just left a comment above, and was like “Oh, I’m just repeating my general thesis here.”

        • Eh

          I’m in a similar situation. My husband has agreed to pay for his debt as it’s his debt (I have a rought idea off how much it is and how much he pays on it a month). That said I’m the breadwinner so I support him. Until recently I dealt with all of the household finances (he gave me a set amount each month and I paid all of the bills). When we bought our house we decided to split the fiances a bit and he contributes more. As newly weds and first time house owners we’re stil trying to figure this all out.

        • p.

          I paid off my husband’s student loans. But as Meg noted above, student loans are very different now. My husband and I graduated in 1998 and by the early 2000s, he had about $7K left. I was working a corporate job that paid annual bonuses and I paid off his loan. We weren’t married yet but we were starting to talk about buying a house and to me the first step was to eliminate our debt.

      • LBH

        The responsible for decisions you weren’t a part of is tough for me. I work on it a lot too. I don’t resent my husband, but I do resent some decisions he made, and it is hard to be the one working and carrying the burden. I knew what I was signing up for, he didn’t hide the ball or anything, but that doesn’t make it any less difficult. I agree — we need to talk about this stuff more!

        • Anon for this

          Oh, I agree so much! I moved from an apartment into my husband’s house after dating for 2 years. He had bought the house, basically, on a total impulse because he liked the (unfinished) attic. Seriously. (He has ADD, and impulsive purchases, while generally not as large as a house, are somewhat common for him.)

          The house is small, which in and of itself isn’t a problem, but it has literally 2 tiny closets in the entire house, a horrible tiny bathroom, a kitchen with no cabinets, and still the unfinished attic and an unfinished basement from hell.

          The housing market is still not great in our part of the country, and I can’t imagine anyone wanting to buy this place anyway. It will take so much renovation — and money we don’t currently have — to make it sellable that most days I’m resigned to living the rest of my life here. And that’s depressing, because I don’t like this house.

          So yeah, there are days I DEEPLY resent my husband’s impulse purchase of this house before he ever met me. And I knew it was part of the deal when I married him, but it doesn’t make me feel any better about the house.

          I’d love to have a more substantial conversation about these issues here.

          • LBH

            Also married to someone with ADD, and that’s a whole other wealth of issues that in turn influences our attitudes about money. But it sucks to live somewhere you’re merely resigned to with no end in sight. You’re not alone, if it’s a (small) consolation.

        • lady brett

          this is so interesting to me, because in a lot of ways we are responsible for *so many* decisions our spouses made before us (my decision to stay in my previous relationship for so long left me with insecurities that are still impacting our sex life six years later – my decision not to address my mental health on my own means *we* are addressing it together, and my spouse has to deal with it in ways that i could probably have mitigated but didn’t). but the money ones seem so much harder to reconcile. i think because it’s so concrete: now you (we) have $___ in debt that is keeping us from ____, whereas the other decisions have effects that are both fuzzier (what does “less crazy” mean, and how would our life be different if i were “less crazy”) and so closely tied to our *selves* that it would be hard to resent those decisions without resenting your spouse as a person.

          • Sarah

            “in a lot of ways we are responsible for *so many* decisions our spouses made before us…” Wow, I never thought about it like that, but you are so so so right. This is why I have trouble thinking about people having a problem with say, student loan debt. I have a TON of it, and yet, if my fiance were to become upset about it, I’d balk. And you articulated exactly why I would balk. Because that student loan debt is part of me. If I hadn’t taken it on, I would never have gone to the college I did, or had the experiences that I’ve had with struggling to pay it off…it has shaped me. And a rejection of that would be a rejection of me, also.

            This is the same as my fiance’s various lingering issues. I take them on wholeheartedly because I love him and I want to take on his baggage, the same way he takes on my baggage, debt included. Thanks for articulating this feeling for me.

          • LBH

            Oh, see, I read Lady Brett’s comment as saying that rejecting (or at least resenting) student loans, or a poor financial decision (they’re not always the same — I have student loans as well that I view as a good investment) or whatever, is not the same as rejecting like, a fundamental thing about your spouse, like their mental health issues, or their position on parenting because of their parents, etc. Even though both of them are decisions made before us. I don’t want to assume that’s what she meant, though. For example, if my husband resented that I struggle with anxiety, that would be heartbreaking for me, because that feels like something I can’t change. My (sometimes) resentment of him making what to me feels like a poor financial decision could have been changed. Though that too perhaps comes from a place of privilege — I went to a state school and had decent scholarships, so I didn’t have to take out something like (in my previous example) a Parent Plus loan. He went to a private liberal arts school that was significantly more expensive. So much so that we’re still paying on that loan over a decade later, with a balance more than the balance I took out for law school. Maybe I (or my family) had better guidance on school costing less. It’s just especially tricky for me because I’m the first college graduate in my family, and I work really hard to pay for my own stuff, and now I’m working really hard to pay for someone else’s stuff, stuff that I will never see as a good investment. It’s not me rejecting him, it’s just a struggle.

          • Sarah

            On a second read, you might be right about lady brett’s main point.

            My perspective on this, though, as someone with high five-figures of student loan debt, is that I wasn’t making those decisions as a completely informed consumer. For one, I was 18 when I started taking out the debt. Second, they were made partly out of desire (for a college education at that specific college) and partly out of need (I mean, some people say otherwise but I consider college a need), and there’s pretty much nothing that would have changed the situation under which I borrowed that amount of money.

            I’m also only talking for myself! If my fiance rejected my debt, I would feel that, hard. But not everyone is the same way. I do view my “decision” to take out that much debt as, not really a decision, but others come into debt differently and with more decisions than I had.

          • Sara P

            I wish we talked about 18-year-olds taking on huge amounts of debt more often. It’s really kind of crazy when you think about it.

          • MC

            AGREED. I was amazed, even at 18, that taking on a student loan was SO EASY for me. All I had to do was sign some paperwork, really. I was like, shouldn’t I have to talk to a real person about this first? I had a pretty good idea of what i was signing up for but I know a lot of my college peers did not.

          • Sara P

            I have thought for a while now that there should be totally independent financial counselors available to college students about to take on debt. Or, hell, high schoolers deciding where to go to school. I believe in university education, but I think we all need to think harder about it.

          • Class of 1980

            I think we need to question why college used to be so much cheaper and ask ourselves what happened.

            College tuition was a fraction of today’s cost before the gov’t started guaranteeing student loans. Now that loans are guaranteed, the lender doesn’t care if you can’t pay it back – or if you will be in debt the rest of your life – because THEY get paid no matter what. That’s why it’s SO EASY to get huge loans.

            Once kids were able to get such high loan amounts, colleges were able to raise tuitions to the sky. So they did. Before, they couldn’t charge so much, because kids couldn’t borrow that much.

            The free market used to exert downward pressure, but gov’t backed loans eliminated that pressure. All the proposals to “fix” the problem don’t address the underlying issue.

            We’ve ruined the lives of a whole generation.

          • Sara P

            That’s the best explanation I’ve ever read. I wonder what it would take (politically, socially, not practically so much) to get it turned around?

          • lady brett

            socially, one thing that needs to happen is to realistically evaluate the job skills needed for jobs and then provide them through whatever means are most reasonable (in my mind this includes a lot more formalized on-the-job training and trade school education). so many jobs that require a college degree don’t really require a college education. i think this would lead to a better-trained workforce, as well as less expensive paths to employment (not single-handedly, but in hand with discussion about other problems like the above about loans).

          • Meg Keene


          • “I have a TON of it, and yet, if my fiance were to become upset about it, I’d balk.”

            Yeah. Me too. Big time. And that’s not to say I don’t have sympathy for people who are struggling with resentment over their partner’s debt – especially when it connects to differences in values that are still being negotiated.

            But my student debt is such a HUGE part of who I am. It connects with my values around education, how I have to weigh the next 10ish years of my financial future, where I come from both w/ struggles & privileges, I could go on ;P… It was to me that my husband was at least cool with my debt, because it not it honestly would really feel like he was rejecting some of the most important parts of who I am.

            Again, not trying to lay guilt AT ALL on anyone who *does* have resentment. I just question seeing people’s financial lives/debts as being a different “type” of baggage than the other choices people make. Everyone’s different, but for me it’s pretty fundamental :).

          • Me

            I find myself resenting not my fiance’s student debt, but what he has done since graduation. After graduation (well and the bar) I immediately got a job, and started paying down my loans. I lived with my parents for free (privilege denied many, i know) when I could have easily afforded my own place, kept an old car, etc so I could pay down about $50K in about 18M. He is paying the minimum payments and has even had those reduced so he’ll be stretching the payments for the next 30 years (instead of the standard 10). I consider debt such a constraint on freedom that i just cannot understand why he wouldn’t pay it off ASAP.

          • LBH

            I completely agree. The baggage we carry is varied. My husband was married previously, and tends to do what I call “putting his shit on me” about certain issues from his previous marriage (my husband sounds terrible in my descriptions today, but really he’s lovely and fantastic, these are just the few things we butt heads on). In turn, I bring my trust issues and my restlessness, and my experiences as well. But money issues do feel different for me too, because of what I think you highlighted well about what it keeps us from — having a baby, buying a house, taking vacations, etc. Our ability to make progress on financial stuff seems much more hindered by the rest of the world than our ability to make progress on other things.

          • Meg Keene

            Agreed, though I’m not sure I personally resent the money stuff any more or less. It just seems to me like you’re signing up for the whole package. And some of that package is based on things that are not really fair to sell as “choices” anyway. Like, shitty baggage from childhood, family situations, etc. I think money falls under that rubric. Like, sure, a Parent Plus loan might look like a bad call now, if you didn’t have to face the decision then. But at the time, a Parent Plus loan might have made the difference between staying in college and dropping out (that sort of thing was make or break for a lot of my friends, some of whom had to leave school).

            Our histories are just so complex, and money is one of the threads in that tangle.

            But YES. What I’m saying is I really really agree with this, “in a lot of ways we are responsible for *so many* decisions our spouses made before us.”

          • Maddie Eisenhart

            You know, that makes me wonder if we’d have approached this any differently if we’d not been so young when we got together. I mean, for all intents and purposes, Michael KNEW what I was doing when I went to NYU, but I also don’t think either one of us understood what debt REALLY looks and feels like, because our parents had done such a good job of shielding us from their own financial struggles. I’ll tell you, I applied for my debt with the expectation of making $60K out of college. Because that’s what you believe when you’re 18 and about to move to New York to start your career in the entertainment industry. HEAD DESK.

          • Sarah

            I also thought I would make at least $60k after graduating from college when I was 18. I have NO IDEA where I got that from!!!!!! UGH.

          • malkavian

            Same here, but I think I got that number by knowing what my dad (who had 1 semester of community college before he dropped out due to it being ‘too hard’) got paid from filling out the FAFSA, and thinking that an entry level position in bio research would pay at least that much if not more.

            Then the recession happened and, as it turns out, being a scientist isn’t exactly a well-paying job.

          • Liz

            This is why I think practical financial education should be a part of every college curriculum. I had no idea what it REALLY would look and feel like, even though I got it on an abstract level.

          • Sara P

            Yes! And more of it in high school, too.

          • Maddie Eisenhart

            I couldn’t agree more. I remember seeing an article a while back about Home Ec and how the younger generations could really use it right now, and as I approach my late twenties with just a tenuous grasp on how to manage finances and how to cook…anything, I wish more than ever it had been a priority in high school or college. I’m a smart kid, but I wasn’t taught the practical sciences of being an adult. And I’ve suffered for it. Because learning as an adult AFTER making mistakes is way harder than learning as a kid and developing good habits.

          • Sara P

            I remember taking a personal finances course my senior year – we learned to balance checkbooks and set up budgets. I’m not sure it helped anybody? Like, I can write a check, which impresses people every once in a while (sigh), but I use the internet to track my budget, so I haven’t balanced a checkbook for real in 10 years. I think maybe learning more about how to make your money work for you (investing, especially), would have been super helpful when I got out of school and suddenly had extra money to do stuff with. I’m just now starting to do something with it other than spend most of it and throw the rest in a savings account, after 4 years of working (with some breaks, making enough to set some aside, which I know is still pretty unusual for anyone who has graduated from college since about 2008). But I’m learning from my boyfriend, who is a self-taught investing type (and very good with money).

            It’s weird.

          • Bethany

            THIS. So glad I’m not the only one struggling to figure out how to be an adult after I’m already adult sized. In anticipation of my 10 year reunion last year, I thought about what realistically I would have changed if I knew then what I know now. First thing that popped in my brain? Home Ec.

            However, I am super grateful for things like Pinterest and the emerging Homemaker movement (for lack of a better term) blogs.

          • Lauren from NH

            The debt itself, also doesn’t bother me. It’s more “adult literacy” (don’t really know how to term this) surprises that make me check some rising resentment. I have bit by bit learned how little my partner knows about money and how to use and manage it responsibly. That has been a challenge and a half that I did not expect. There seem to be over arching concepts I understand about cash flow, save some today for a bad day tomorrow that he struggles to internalize. I don’t think it’s just a matter of the saver spender paradigm, it’s thoughtful active decisions about what to do with you money versus just doing what you want if you can afford it. So it can feel like I am up against years and years of training in not thinking about money as it is handled by his family and now asking him to think about, he kind of doesn’t know how or lacks the instincts.

          • MC

            Yes yes yes. My fiance’s family paid for SO MUCH of his expenses through his life and early adulthood, and since we have lived together I have really seen how little he was taught about how to responsibly save/spend money. Realized the extent to which he’d been sheltered from his family’s financial decisions was a huge wake-up call for him.

          • AnonFN

            I’ll raise my hand and admit that I am that person in my relationship – and it’s something that I resent having been sheltered from now that I recognize what a handicap it is. My parents earn enough money that they have been able to cover any major financial issues/committments that my brother and I have had, but they have also been in a lot of debt themselves as the result of several poor decisions. The situation is just made worse by the fact that my parents communicate very poorly about their finances and often have conflicting ideas about how to save/spend/invest their money. Boyfriend’s parents raised three kids on one salary while building a house. I’m grateful that I can at least learn from him/them now.

          • ElisabethJoanne

            On financial literacy, we run into things that remind me of an APW piece awhile back about cooking. “It’s not fair that no one taught you husband to cook, and now you have to, but you can’t get stuck on what’s fair.” [I paraphrase.] I get annoyed I have to explain to him how to challenge a medical bill or get an answer from a bureaucrat, but getting stuck on what’s fair doesn’t get our baby family anywhere, and certainly doesn’t get us the write-off from the doctor’s office or our lost tax refund.

            I can mention that my husband has a MBA from a top-10 program. It’s not that he’s bad with money or anything, but there’s just so much to personal finance, you have to really pay attention for years to everything life has to teach you to have things work well.

          • Fiona

            This makes so much sense! I often think about what I signed up for when I made the commitment to marry someone from a third world country. Even though he’s older, his being foreign means that I will be professionally established long before he is, so supporting the family will be up to me, at least initially. Neither of us have student loans due to *amazing* scholarships respectively, though neither of us have money either.

            But mostly, by marrying him, I’m signing up for his family obligations. FS wants to buy his father’s farmland for him so he doesn’t rent anymore, which means I will be buying it too. I support his decision to do that, but it’s (shamefully) hard not to feel resentful of this rather large future purchase that has nothing to do with establishing the two of us financially. You know what I mean? I feel icky for even saying that.

      • Meg Keene

        This is so interesting to me, since I have a weirdly flipped around relationship with it. My family had way less money than my husband’s growing up, which, obviously means a lot of things. But in terms of loans, it means his school was totally paid for, and I went to school on a mix of large scholarships, and loans, and help from my family that they near killed themselves with overwork to provide. I then supported myself after college for quite awhile on… not a lot. But by the time we got married, I’d managed to pay down my loans, since I’d gotten a actually decently paying job, and I was so unused to it I funneled all the money into loans right quick. (REALLY important note: I graduated in ’02, which is right before the student loan crisis got out of control, so while I had the average amount of loans for that period, the average amount has gone up something like 5X in the interim. Hence me being able to pay off my loans. But I digress.)

        Anyway, getting married meant supporting him through his last year of law school, and helping to shoulder law school loan debt.

        Possibly because this is just my frame of reference: you mostly do it yourself, you take on big loans, you work hard and pay them off over time (in this case a long time), I’ve never thought twice about marrying into someone else’s debt. I just don’t think of it as someone else’s debt, I suppose. I think of it as our debt. It’s helping to build a life we both share in, so we pay it off together.

        THAT SAID. If I’d married into, say, $20K of credit card debt on random overspending in his 20s (as opposed to survival in his 20s), I would be far less graceful about it, I’m sure. Though we’d still be paying it off together, without question. A shared future is a shared future, and that’s what I signed up for (even though sometimes it sucks).

        • Class of 1980

          I agree with you that it should be thought of as “our” debt, but in the event of a divorce that plan goes wonky.

          My sister married a guy years ago and paid off a ton of his debt. And I really mean a TON. Then they got a divorce and her life went downhill for a number of years after that. She should never have parted with that money.

          She’s okay now, but looking out for “their” debt, which was really his debt, made her subsequent life so much harder than it needed to be. And she lost ground for her own retirement.

          Life can really throw some curve balls.

          • Class of 1980

            All that to say that I don’t have the answer. ;)

          • Yeah, I can totally see that point. I am just so thankful my ex and I did not have debt. And we didn’t have too much to split up, so at least that was pretty straightforward. But I think I would want to do a pre-nup if I got married again someday. This stuff could have been way worse, and I wouldn’t want to go through worse…

        • Gina

          I agree completely. And although there’s no “good debt”, I do think of some debts as more valid than others. I need to work on having your attitude, because, as you say, a shared future is a shared future. I have law school debt that I automatically rank as superior to his car loan debt, but that doesn’t help either of us. The solution is to tackle it together.

          Congrats on paying your loans down so quickly. That’s a huge achievement!

    • Maddie Eisenhart

      I don’t want to name names here, but someone I know is also the proud of owner of a really truly terrible student loan (cough, it’s me, cough), one that we didn’t fully understand when we took out, and which carried a near ten percent interest rate that accrued DURING college (it’s basically the same as the Plus loan, I think, except the repayment terms are longer. But let’s say for argument’s sake that I had nearly six figures in student debt when I graduated into a recession.) In any case, I know for the first few years of our marriage, Michael considered it very much my problem, to deal with my family on. Which we mostly do. The important work, however, has been in the emotional shift in how we deal with the debt. For a while it was, “I’m not even touching that with a ten foot pole,” which left me to feel very isolated and like I’d be screwed if my family ever backed out of our repayment agreement (they help me with part, and I pay the rest, since it was at their encouragement that we took it out.) Now, even though my family still pays a significant chunk of the loan, the balance has shifted, and the debt has been looped into what we consider “our debt.” Even though we’re not approaching the money any differently from a logistical standpoint, it makes a huge difference knowing that we’re in it together, paying this down, so that we can eventually have it out of our hair forever.

      ALL that said, is there a reason you can’t use the interest on your taxes? I learned this week that I could have been claiming the interest on my shitty loan if I can prove it went specifically toward educational purposes. I’m actually about to meet with an accountant to talk about amending old tax forms to remedy the situation.

      But yeah, marrying into debt is hard. Michael and I both married into a fair amount of debt (mine was higher, and technically “riskier” because his went toward an engineering degree), and then we both accrued a really good chunk of consumer debt out of college when the economy sucked and we, frankly, lived beyond our means. But approaching it as something we’re tackling together is the only way we’ve been able to attack it in a healthy way, without one or the other feeling solely responsible. Because at the end of the day, even if it does belong to one or the other of us, we can’t move forward in our life TOGETHER until this is taken care of.

      • LBH

        I think we may be at a stage between it being his debt and it being our debt. I still think of it as his when I’m resentful of it (which isn’t all the time, it was just the point I was making earlier, but I do feel that way sometimes about it), but I’m also literally the only one working, so I’m the one making payments on it. You don’t get to defer while you’re in school (he’s in law school) when the debt isn’t in your name — because it’s a parent loan, it’s in his mom’s name — which is also why we can’t claim the interest paid. I think your point is still good for me though — if I can think of it more as our debt/do the emotional work to get there, it would help.

    • ElisabethJoanne

      Debt is hard for a lot of people because it’s so concrete. At least, that’s how it is for me. How to “price” the burden of his ADD and depression and resulting sexual dysfunction? You can’t. Same with his childhood abuse. But a student loan payment is $x each month, and it’s easy to figure out how many pairs of shoes, or what kind of nicer apartment that would buy.

      My husband has never been able to contribute financially to the household, and it took me a long time to adjust my thinking regarding all husband-related expenses – extra groceries, parking tickets, insurance premiums, etc. Sometimes I still get upset when I see a big medical bill.

      Two things have helped. First, just time in the new budget. At first, I contrasted our married budget to my single budget. But the longer I deal with the married budget, the more comfortable I am with it. Second, he’s been able to defer his student loan payments while he’s been unemployed, but I’ve continued to make payments on mine. That’s community property income going towards an individual debt. Which means, if we were to divorce, I’d actually owe him money. So while part of me goes “I’m paying all this money to support you!” another part goes “Legally, I’m still coming out ahead.”

      • MC

        I was also initially uncomfortable with our cohabitation budget because I was so damn comfortable (and proud of) my single budget. It felt so financially irresponsible to be spending so much more on groceries than I used to, even though logically it makes total sense that two people need to eat more than one person. So yes, totally with you there.

        • LBH

          YES. When you’re so great (you think) with money on your own, it’s hard to give that up.

        • ElisabethJoanne

          A lot of it is that “financial responsibility” is kind of “a place for every dollar, and every dollar in its place.” I felt that my single budget had no wiggle room. All income was accounted for, even if some of that was eating out twice a week and more new clothes than I really needed. Still, I FELT a REAL lifestyle hit when I got married, and that was hard while I adjusted to my new lifestyle.

      • LBH

        I agree. That’s the difficulty for me too. But part of it is just that even if I wasn’t better off in any other way, I did feel more secure financially when I was on my own, and that’s tough.

        As a side note, it’s actually been really great for me to see that other women sometimes struggle with an ADD husband. I love my husband, and don’t think ADD is a made up disease, and don’t think it makes him a bad person or something, but damn if it isn’t trying sometimes.

        • ElisabethJoanne

          When first adapting to knowing and understanding he had ADD, a lot of my struggle was, “Is this an ADD thing I should address gently, or is this just an off day/moment for one or both of us?” It still comes up as we’re still sorting through chores. I don’t want to assign him chores with a ton of executive function, but, at the same time, I don’t want to right off him ever doing the laundry just because it didn’t turn out well the first time.

          Like with the budget, just living our new lives has cleared up a lot of issues. Other things, we discuss sometimes too openly. I’ll ask, “Do you need to keep hyper-focusing on that, or can we talk?” “I don’t want to be a nag, but you often forget x, and I’m just trying to help.” Etc.

          • LBH

            We’re basically in exactly the same place it sounds like. I kind of default to “We can discuss strategies for how we can better work on something, or who is responsible for what, but it doesn’t just all fall on me because you have ADD.” But in a nicer, less blunt way than that (e.g. “is there a better time to bring this up?”). Our marriage is really great in that I feel like we can discuss anything, but discussing doesn’t necessarily lead to change, which can sometimes frustrate me.

          • Greta M.

            Would love to see an APW post on this! I’m also in the same boat :)

          • Stephanie B.

            My husband has ADD, and while he definitely has issues with it (his relationship with time, for instance, is like a frog trying to use a hairbrush to tell time), he’s also worked his ass off to learn about it, get coaching and counseling, and get involved with a local ADD support group. (If you have a chapter of CHADD in your area, it can be VERY helpful, both for the person with ADD, and the partner [or parent] of a person with ADD. I highly, HIGHLY recommend it.)

            It’s one of those things that will never be cured, but he works so hard to manage it, and to live within the constraints it creates, and I am so proud of him for that.

            But yeah, I’m with you on the frustration of discussion not leading to change. That happens…a LOT around here.

          • Pinkrose

            I second this. I was diagnosed in fourth grade, which lead to my father and then my younger brother being diagnosed, and my parents (mostly my mother) read what ever they could on ADHD. And when we found out about CHADD, my mother joined that as well, though we didn’t find out about the chapters till recently.

            The biggest thing I would suggest to anyone who lives with someone with ADHD in their life (most men have they hyperactive type) is to READ read read. Learn as much as you can about it, and how it works, what you can do to help. Learn what routines the person has in place and how they help them. Routines mean that things get done.

            I have routines for just about everything, from going to the bathroom, to getting dressed/undressed, to making sandwiches, and folding laundry; I really don’t like it when I am in the middle of getting dressed and realize that I forgot to get socks out. I know my father has a VERY involved wake up/get ready routine on the days he works, that he has been doing since before I can remember.

            Even as a person with ADHD, I still am learning things from reading about ADHD; and they are discovering new things about how it works all the time. One of they best descriptions of ADHD was the “Sleepy Secretary”:

            On another note, ADHD people are awesome think on their feet, come up with innovative solutions people in emergencies/crisis, but are just abysmal with boring mundane everyday stuff.

          • LBH

            This is a really great article. Thanks. I actually just forwarded it on to my husband. I’m diagnosed ADHD too, but it manifests in completely different ways than with my husband, so it’s hard to compare them. I wasn’t diagnosed until college, and it was a relief after being thrown depression meds that never helped me. I rely mainly on being excessively organized because otherwise I get nothing done. But even my perception of how I deal with being ADHD is apparently different than how my husband sees me — I read that article and would say I’m the burnt out secretary — but my husband immediately messaged me back to tell me I’m the accommodated secretary.

  • Jessica LK

    Thank you for writing this, it articulates well feelings I’ve had to grapple with throughout my relationship with my partner. In particular the feelings of guilt, oh my gosh, the guilt. Any time I’ve tried to talk about this I couldn’t, mostly because I felt like I had no right to have any negative feelings, because they weren’t “serious enough”. So, I’m glad to see someone address it.
    Our situation is different, but at the end of the day if I chose to have a career, or a job it will be because I want to, not because I need to. And, I am not career oriented, and find deep satisfaction at home. And ever since graduating with my masters (something I got primarily for personal interest rather than career advancement) I fear so much the question “what do you do?” because at the moment, the short answer is, nothing. And I’d much rather spend my time working within the community, or volunteering than working in a traditional sense. But how can I talk to my friends about this when they’re struggling to find jobs? How can I voice my inner conflict about this life I just happened to fall into without seeming ungrateful? How can I listen to his friends discuss which airline has the best international business class without feeling like we’re terrible people who should probably be trying to save the world with every resource we have (to be fair-they’re doctors, so, they are doing good). Or, how do I reconcile the nice things in my life and not feeling like my volunteerism or giving back is enough to justify it?

    I didn’t grow up this way, though my family has done well recently.But he grew up with wealth as the norm, in one of the richest suburbs in the states . And so, to his friends and community it is normal, but not to mine. So I have to straddle both worlds, and occasionally blanket lie to people back home about my situation to avoid awkwardness (mine-not theirs). So sometimes I feel like my life has this dirty secret, like how dare I have any conflicting or negative feelings about this “good life.”

    All that is to say, thank you for this article, and for helping me sort out some of the feelings swirling around my mind lately.

    • anon for now

      “The awkwardness (mine–not theirs)” — this is something I feel a lot. Not because of a partner, but because of working and living in an environment in which I feel my (upper-middle-) class privilege all the time. I live off my current salary and don’t get financial support from my parents (who aren’t wealthy but are very comfortable, which makes them wealthy by many standards), but I know that I was lucky to grow up in a world in which early scrimping enabled later stability and that if calamity were to strike, my family would be able to pitch in, a luxury many of my friends lack.

      So…I feel weird and never know what to do or say in conversations around money. It’s also tricky because it’s been thrown at me as an insult and accusation — “what could you, privileged white girl, know” — which makes me want to conceal everything possible about my background which, in the long run, is probably neither healthy nor helpful. So….this leaves me…confused?

      • lady brett

        “who aren’t wealthy but are very comfortable, which makes them wealthy by many standards”
        yes. this kind of total subjectivity of the words we use around money is one of the things that makes it so fraught to talk about – if we don’t have any idea what each other mean when we say “wealthy” (or “expensive” or “broke”), well, no wonder these conversations are so difficult – our level of privilege completely changes even the meaning of the words.

        • Sarah

          Yes definitely. I try very hard to avoid calling myself broke (even though I feel it, but let’s be real…I haven’t lived paycheck to paycheck in about a year since my fiance and I combined finances). I also try to avoid calling my family poor, because while they were on food stamps, we’ve got other resources at our disposal that allowed me to attend a prestigious university, and allows them to avoid discrimination, so I use the term lower-middle-class. Very interesting stuff.

        • Liz

          The language thing is huge, and makes a big difference. We all have different barometers of what “broke” “or “wealthy” means and it can also depend on where we live and what our cost of living is, compared to the money we’re bringing in. Add that to the fact that talking about money makes a lot of people uncomfortable (for totally valid reasons), and it makes it a challenge!

    • Meg Keene

      Straddling two worlds is (really) hard, in whatever form that takes. Just wanted to take a moment to validate that.

      • breezyred

        Yes. And while this discussion is mostly about straddling worlds of class and wealth, it is only part of the discussion. There is really no end all the ways in which we have different privileges: class, race, ethnicity, immigrant status, family educational attainment, family expectations… So we are both straddling two worlds in nearly all situations we are in as adults.

        • Sarah

          This. When my FH and first met I thought the biggest difference between us and between our families was language and culture, and I started learning Spanish in an effort to bridge the divide. And while this has helped me to understand our differences to an extent, it is really only the tip of the iceberg. Yes, I have achieved a higher level of education than he has but that has nothing to do with me being smarter or working harder than him. My family is white, middle class and both my parents went to university and had relatively good jobs. His family are working class Latino migrants, and his mother didn’t even make it to high school. My privilege means I had parents who had the time and skills to teach me to read and play an active role in my education. My privilege means that I rarely, if ever, have had to deal with bosses/colleagues/customers treating me differently because of my race. My privilege means that I have confidence in people (the government, the bank, school etc) taking me and my needs seriously. I have always known that I was lucky to have grown up in my family, and I was aware that lots of people were a lot worse off than us. But this was fairly abstract until I had known my FH for several years.
          In my experience culture is in general much easier topic to approach. Differences in skin colour, language, food and traditions are often much more visible visible than, say, class differences.

  • Dom

    We are in a really weird situation. His family has a lot of money, and he grew up around friends with even more money. However, his father was an extremely poor immigrant from Denmark who single-handily supported the family all the while working towards his education. FH grew up acutely aware of the fact that this money is a hard earned privilege. On the other hand, FH never had to pay for any of his school, and he took sailing lessons and all this other stuff I never had growing up with a mother who became physically disabled when she was 36 years old.

    But the family motto is that the life you have is the life you work for. So even though his mother lives in a huge house, we live in a perfectly lower-middle class neighbourhood because that is all we can afford. We bounce between my parents old, well used house that has been the only point of stability in their lives for 20 years and his mothers massive oak infused decor which she displays with pride. All the while, both sides keep saying the same thing: “Life happens. Sometimes you have good luck and sometimes you have bad, so you need to prepare for the worst and anticipate the best.”

    So it is all well and good to notice and appreciate the privilege that comes out of pure luck of the draw, it is also important to never forget that a privilege can be gained or lost at any point in time. I am blessed to be part of two hard working families, no matter where they started and where we end up.

    • Class of 1980

      “So it is all well and good to notice and appreciate the privilege that
      comes out of pure luck of the draw, it is also important to never forget
      that a privilege can be gained or lost at any point in time.”

      THIS. This is what I live by.

      Our business has been on a major upswing and many of our competitors have bitten the dust. So, there is more money flowing through our hands than ever.

      We recently hired someone to take over a lot of the busy work that needed to be done, but drove us nuts. This new employee is a friend who lost his job right at the start of the economic disaster. It’s surreal to know that we’ve impacted this person’s life and turned it around after he’s been in hell for the last few years. We can even hear it in his voice that he’s regaining his peace of mind. At the same time, I am helping out my mom, who lost her entire retirement due to the economy and a terrible financial planner.

      I don’t feel guilty; I feel humbled.

      And I always try to remember that the shoe could be on the other foot. Our good fortune is a privilege and could be lost at any time. I try to treat the people who depend on us with respect, because the Universe could have reversed our situations. I’m just the custodian of the money.

      Maybe the fact that I’m older and know what it’s like to work for idiots, or be at the mercy of someone powerful has colored my feelings. I never want to take good fortune for granted.

      • Liz

        I can really relate to this – as both sets of parents have this mentality also, despite the fact that I somehow ended up with a lot of feelings around class/wealth/etc. I’m really thankful to have had great examples of hard work growing up, as did Alex, so we both know if we lose the privilege we have now, we have the skills to support ourselves. Someone I met through all of this work once used the phrase “gratitude not guilt” to appreciate the privilege we have, which I like. At the same time, I want to make sure we’re being responsible, proactive, and using the privilege we have at this moment to positively impact the world and our community because I fully expect that if we do lose it at some point, our community will support us in a similar way.

  • Zach

    1. Great post! Thank you.
    2. Was the group Resource Generation? I have a number of friends who have worked there or been involved with them, and they are fantastic! If that’s not the group, I definitely recommend checking out Resource Generation for great conversations about how to use the privilege and wealth that you have access to for good.

    • addiez

      Liz, if the group wasn’t Resource Generation, would you mind sharing what it is?

      Thanks Zach, I’m definitely going to look into RG.

      • Liz

        It was RG! It’s a great org – it’s probably the only reason I could feel comfortable writing a piece like this! They have helped me tremendously in practical and personal ways.

        • addiez

          Thank you! Appreciate the tip.

  • Sarah

    I really appreciate this post, and I relate to it. Though, the major difference in wealth between my fiance’s family and mine has brought my *lack* of privilege to the forefront of my mind. It never occurred to me before I went to college that my family was lower-middle-class. I got smacked with that as soon as I started at the most expensive college in the country (with a huge scholarship). That feeling left me when I graduated and got a job faster than a lot of my friends. When I met my fiance, we were on the same footing. His parents cut him off the day after he graduated, and he supported himself the same way I did.

    Now that we’re engaged, the money that his parents have, while not trust-fund level, is multiple homes and international vacations level. My parents, meanwhile, make less money than my fiance and I do together, have been on food stamps in the last few years, and borrow money from me semi regularly. This is happening while my fiance’s parents jet us off to Las Vegas for a family trip, and tell us that we can go anywhere in the world for our honeymoon, their treat. It’s apparent when my fiance talks about all of his overseas trips throughout his life, and for study-abroad, and I have absolutely nothing that compares. He was appalled when I told him I never went to Disney World (and yes, my lack of privilege has gotten him to examine his own, in turn, making very interesting conversations). I went on my first vacation EVER when his family took us to Las Vegas. I was sitting in the spa just, in awe, and simultaneously feeling incredibly guilty. When my parents come to town to visit, they stay with us on our pull-out, and we buy them dinner. When his parents come to town, we eat at Mario Batali’s restaurant, and they stay in a hotel.

    It’s hard to navigate these feelings. I mostly worry for the feelings of my family. I know that they wished they could have done more for me, like paying for college (oh yeah, I have major student loans), and paying for our upcoming wedding. They keep promising that their business is going to take off and that they will spend all their extra money on my wedding because they feel so much that they want to give me everything they can. And I don’t know how I feel about that because I know how much they struggle. And now, my fiance’s parents have offered to pay so that we can have the wedding we want after they realized that my family isn’t in the financial position to pay for the reception (as is traditional). We had to gently tell them that we just aren’t doing things the traditional way because we aren’t traditional…While true, it’s mostly because of my parents’ limitations. I feel like I can’t talk to them about it. Not ONLY that, but they are republicans and feel certain ways about people who have been on food stamps (ugh) which, yeah, is my family.

    In short, thank you for this post! Money is so hard to navigate because it brings up so many feelings for EVERYONE. Thankfully my fiance and I are really good at talking about this stuff, and it hasn’t affected us inter-personally. This is mostly a solo-struggle for me, as encountering his privilege must be for him.

    • NrgGrl

      THIS (entire paragraph): “It’s hard to navigate these feelings. I mostly worry for the feelings of my family…” My situation is eerily similar. I don’t have any words of advice other than to say thank you for sharing your experience and to hang in there.

      • AKJ

        Same here. His family has taken me on amazing vacations, spa trips when they visit, etc. it’s so nice and I so appreciate it. At the same time, my dad has a hard time even affording a plane ticket to visit (I’m usually offering to help pay it) and when he does visit, we try to pick up meals, etc as much as possible. His parents have also offered to help pay very expensive co-pays on some medication I may need, something I know my dad wishes he could offer but never could. It’s been hard for me to reconcile this, but at the same time forced me to open up and accept generosity. And I feel fortunate to have a security net I never knew growing up, but still struggle with feelings of guilt, especially re: my awesome dad who struggled as a single parent to make ends meet.

    • GCDC

      Solidarity fist bumps, lady. I was in a similar situation, down to my husband’s parents paying for the wedding after they realized my parents couldn’t. I spent the entire wedding planning process simultaneously trying to reassure my family that I was not rejecting them and the life that we had shared (not one of wealth, but full of other privileges) and trying to prove that I belonged in the world in which my husband was raised (one of considerable wealth and other privileges). Those mental gymnastics were not fun, and I truly sympathize with you.

      In short, I feel for you and good luck.

      • Sarah

        Wow, that’s exactly what I’m trying to get across to my family, while also being gracious and effusive towards his without sounding like I expected this from them (even though part of me was hoping they would do this, just to take the pressure off)…

        My family is still insisting that they will contribute significantly. I am repeatedly reminding them that I love the help they are giving us already (my mom is HEAVILY involved in planning and I love it), and that if they can’t help, then they don’t have to.

        Before his parents offered to pitch in, I was in tears on a weekly basis just thinking about the help that my parents promised, versus the likely possibility that they wouldn’t be able to give us anything and that we’d have to get this wedding on ourselves after paying deposits based on my parents’ estimates. I felt like, I can’t trust them to pay me back the $2000 I lent them 6 months ago, how can I rely on them to pull through and pay for X extravagant wedding thing that my mom wishes she could buy me? Thank god I don’t have to do that now. I was not ready to face my parents in that situation…

      • Saome

        I am going through this right now. My fiancé and I are getting merry next year and his family is paying for it, since my family does not have the funds. I love my in-laws and I am gretaful for what they are doing, but it still makes it really hard on me and my family. It is hard to keep the balance between both worlds.

    • Liz

      I can relate to so much of this, and I’m so glad you guys are good at talking about it! We GOT really good at talking about it because I had so many feelings! I also wanted to echo that I didn’t realize/consider class was a thing until I got into my relationship. I mean, I knew there were people with more or less money in the world, but it just never really crossed my mind that there was such a gradient and what practical considerations that includes. Most of my friends and friends families were in a similar situation to me, so I didn’t ever think about it.

      • Sarah

        I was lucky that he had some sense of his own privilege before we started our relationship, so we approach and talk about the topic in the same way, if that makes sense…A lot of my feelings are solved by a simple “I feel you.” And also reassuring me that he doesn’t feel weird visiting my family because they live in a rented house in a not-so-great part of town, and etc etc etc. He doesn’t, and he assuages my insecurities. It helps!

  • Anon for today

    Yes yes yes. Our family class differences are VERY subtle, which makes it even harder to process, vent, etc because, like you, who wants to complain about being slightly upgraded? It seems silly but it does cause tension. We’re learning to navigate even the smallest of changes in money priorities and class differences between families. Thank you for this post!

    • malkavian

      Same, my husband’s family is solidly middle class, where my family is someplace between lower middle class and just plain old poor depending on what metrics you’re using. Basically, technically their income is above poverty level, but we had to worry about utilities being shut off and their credit was not good enough to co-sign my student loans.

      There were sooo many little things that we were just not on the same page with for a very long time-for example when graduating college, he refused to buy a used car (unless it was one of those used cars that was practically new), even though he couldn’t really afford a new one or a lease, because they were ‘unreliable and unsafe’. But I found that incredibly insulting because my family only ever owned used cars, so it felt like he was defining my lived experiences as ‘not good enough’.

      • Meg Keene

        God this stuff is complicated, right? We’re only now buying cars in our early 30s (lots of years in NYC when we didn’t need one and couldn’t possibly have afforded one anyway). And now the conversation is sort of reversed. I’ll put off a car purchase forever (we have a 15 month old, and still only one car that can hold a car seat, which has resulted in total messes in minor emergencies). BUT, I’m phenomenally resistant to buying a new car (waste of money) or and older used car. Why? Because I grew up with cars that were always breaking and never reelable, and breaking down terrifyingly on the side of the freeway, or pouring smoke in a drive through, and never enough money to not struggle to repair them. So because of that, I’m like, “DAMN IT. Now that I have control, I’d rather not have a car than have to live through that again.” Because the amount of stress those cars caused was so palpable I can still feel it, just typing about it.

        By which I mean, I TOTALLY empathize with what you’re saying, like 110%. And I find it fascinating that my reaction to something very similar was the opposite.

        • Sarah

          Oh my, we’re not buying cars right now because we live in NYC for the foreseeable future, but this is how I feel about cars! We once had a car with no heat, and no muffler, and we had to sit in the car with blankets and earplugs. It was crazy. Also, the stuff about terrifying situations on the side of highways is so real. One time in college my car’s cooling system sprung a leak, and overheated. I drove it home like that because I couldn’t fathom calling someone to pick it up because I couldn’t afford it, much less get someone to repair it. So, I have the same reaction to old/used cars. One time my parents got a windfall of cash and they immediately bought a really new kinda fancy car outright instead of investing the money or something, because we had just had so many struggles with cars that it was one of our biggest financial issues (the repairs, the inconveniences, etc). It’s crazy that that’s what they spent the money on, but I gotta say that it improved their lives by a good margin.

        • Class of 1980

          The oldest car I ever drove was when we were trying to save money to support our business. My medium-age car had an engine go out, so I purchased an old used Honda from a friend for a quick fix. I honestly thought it would only be good for a couple of years, but being a Honda, it wouldn’t die.

          That car was nearly 20 years old before it started having problems on a regular basis and became a giant pain in the ass. Then I leased a new car, which was great – less money than buying and nothing to ever worry about. I’m now on my second lease and I love it. The lease is not a major bill for me, partly because I didn’t go out and get the most expensive car in the world.

          However, I’m totally proud that we toughed it out with that crazy Honda for several years, because a lot of people would have thrown in the towel sooner. That decision helped our business to get where it is now, so nothing but pride.

    • MC

      Yes, exactly. My partner’s family and my family probably would have been in the same economic level but mine got divorced when I was young and his family invests money really well (like, they talk all the time about their investments and how important it is, I don’t think I’ve ever heard either of my parents use the word). The things his family can do/afford without thinking about it (pay for family vacations, lend us a few thousand dollars to buy a car, etc.) make me feel very odd, and navigating that tension has been a big part of my fiance & my pre-marriage talks.

      One of the things that made me sure I was ready to get married was when my fiance finally acknowledged the privilege he had growing up – he always thought of himself as solid middle-class, and it took him a long time to come to terms with the fact that he is actually quite privileged. It drove me crazy when we were both in college and I was working and trying to graduate as quickly as possible and he was only working when he wanted to and being entirely supported by his parents, and he just took it for granted that that was normal. Being able to have frank discussions about our families’ economic backgrounds has made our relationship so much stronger.

  • GA

    SO UNBELIEVABLY SPOT ON. I too “married up.” My husband hails from a family of multiple homes, trust funds, extravagant vacations, business acumen, well-nurtured ambition, and investment savvy. His family is extremely laid-back and practical, so it isn’t immediately obvious, but once I became serious with my now-husband, it started becoming clear.

    It was for this reason that we had a fairly lavish wedding, a wedding that his parents paid for. My parents were once artists, now creative professionals, and people who’d rather pretend money didn’t exist than have any of it. (Though they do fine enough for themselves, they’re just not very skilled at making their money “work for them,” nor do they have any interest in becoming so.) The wedding made them uncomfortable, I think, though they never said so out loud. So it was during the planning process that I first truly realized what “marrying up” meant, and how it could be a sticky subject for people.

    My husband and I are still living on a fairly limited budget for now, and I have quite a bit of debt, but once we finish graduate school that budget will change drastically and that debt will probably disappear very fast. This should make me feel grateful. It does. But it also makes me feel unbelievably guilty sometimes, particularly as I’m terrible with money and in some ways have the ability to continue to be so. (Though I’m DEFINITELY trying to improve; just because I can continue my bad habit of impulse buying doesn’t mean I should.) Then I watch my friends (most of whom have worked their asses off to save their pennies or scraped themselves out of crippling debt or carefully molded their credit scores into something that could get them a half-decent car loan) despair over the lack of options for them and their uncertainty about their future. So I don’t talk about what I married into with them, though occasionally they’ll say things like, “You’re so lucky you don’t have to worry about this shit.” Can’t fault them. I AM lucky.

    But it’s absolutely an adjustment. I’m still coming to terms with it, and I’m glad you wrote this article because sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t acknowledge the difficulty. As lucky and grateful as I am, it really can be very hard at times. And facing this fact means facing my newly-acquired class privilege at the same time, something I’ve never needed to do before.

    Very thought-provoking article, and it shows me I still have quite a few things to work out. But in the end, I love my husband, and money wouldn’t change that either way! So that’s something to hold firm to. :)

  • Fiona

    So this post had me thinking a lot. I’m in the opposite position as Liz, as in: I’M the privileged one. FH comes from an immigrant, agricultural worker family who are economic refugees. He has a university education, but from a drastically underfunded public university and by merit of a full ride.
    On the other hand, my dad was a radiologist in the 90s, so he made insane amounts of money for a trained professional, and then proceeded to invest said money smartly. My mom and dad were children of blue collar parents, so they were both careful with money where it counted, but I have traveled internationally all of my life (how I actually met FH). As you can imagine, we each sometimes feel guilt or shame about our very different economic circumstances and life experiences.
    FH is immigrating to the United States sometime in the next few months, and I’m somewhat nervous for him to see my house and family’s property. Which is maybe crazy because he felt very nervous for me to visit his home community and see where his family lives and works–and lo and behold, I LOVED it there.
    We’re planning a wedding for this summer, and he seems to love it, but I also wonder if he feels like it’s ridiculous to spend so much money on a party.
    I know that FH’s prospects drastically changed as a result of our relationship, both in his home country and in mine. His opportunities have expanded to previously undreamed of levels, and I feel very odd to have had this affect on his future just because of who I am. Literally, he can walk into a store and get different treatment because I’m his partner.

    • Lauren from NH

      I also feel strange to know how much I have changed my partner’s prospects in life. It makes me somewhat resent his family for how poorly they prepared him for some of the opportunities and responsibilities they directed him towards (though really they did the best they could to set him up for a better life, and I am just securing this future and seeing it through, in a sense). He would never have graduated college without my help, he was woefully unprepared, and possibly only let in because of his background ( first gen college student, second gen American). ( I have very very mixed feelings about this, while minorities absolutely deserve opportunities to raise up, he truly would have failed if he had not met me or someone like me). His debt for this degree is huge! Before the last year and a half of intense coaching, he was completely financially irresponsible. Didn’t know which loans he had, rate amount, would make late payments, his account would bounce because he blew his paycheck somewhere else. I have helped him to get organized, set him up with some financial tools (thanks app world), remind him periodically to check in, and I hold him accountable when we spilt expenses.
      Another thing I was shocked he didn’t know…he was in a car accident before we moved in together and though it would have be ruled dual or no fault, he popped right out of the car, apologized to the other driver and said “it was my fault”. We realized his driving record now has a huge blip on it when our auto insurance doubled after they completed the record check.
      Some of these things are shocking gateways of privilege that I was not aware other people did not have. It makes me very confused and emotional to think that so many things I consider basic competencies and everyday tools are gateways that keep others from success.

      • ElisabethJoanne

        I’d love a post on financial (and other coaching) of a partner without sounding or feeling like a nag.

    • Ann

      I’m also the privileged one in my relationship–though it’s much more about present wealth. Both of us come from VERY highly educated (PhDs, MDs, lawyers, judges, etc all the norm in both families). His parents chose fulfilling jobs that, between the two of them, made a comfortable middle class (probably upper middle class by most measures) life. And I’m the child of two corporate lawyers. Between the two of us, my husband and I make an income just slightly below the median income in the US. My dad (my mom quit working a while back and volunteers nearly full time now) actually makes 100 times more than what my husband and I make. 100 times more. My parents didn’t disclose how much they made when I was growing up–I always pictured it being in the middle six figures since we had fancy vacations in Hawaii once every two years. When I was 13, I saw a tax return. My estimate of their income was off by almost an order of magnitude. It was hard for me to process what this meant–and it is my family.

      My husband has a lot of privilege and always felt very privileged growing up. And then he became part of my family. When he and I planned and budgeted for two weeks in Europe, my parents decided to throw in 4 nights at a 5 star hotel as a present. When I got in a car crash, my parents offered to buy me a new car outright. As someone said above, money means the ability to say yes. And my parents can say “yes” to ridiculous things. My parents also say yes to giving full scholarships to one student at each of their colleges each year. My parents say yes to making sure my brother has access to high quality medical care, despite not having insurance. It’s been hard for my partner to process the scale of my family’s wealth–his definition of privilege had been his own life.

      Dealing class differences is hard….

  • Laura C

    This is something I think about so much! His family has/had more money than mine, though my family is comfortably upper middle class. But the money was earned by his father, who died 15 years ago, so while his mother has a good job and there’s still plenty of money left from his father, it’s not flowing in like it once did, while my parents are continuing to save significant amounts of money. But their outlook on spending is so different from my parents’. His dad’s approach was basically “I can make more money, let’s have some fun.” And he could, and they did — a year in France when A was 6, where if you name a famous French chef, A will be like “my parents took me there,” generally travel all over the world eating at the best places and staying in hotels where … well, planning our honeymoon, we looked at prices for one A remembered staying in as a child and nearly swallowed our tongues. My parents live comfortably but pretty modestly. Like, we “only” went to Europe twice while I was growing up (and I got a college graduation trip to Ireland) and we eat at nice restaurants but like $25-30 main course nice, not $100 prix fixe nice.

    So it’s funny, because we are likely to inherit similar amounts in the long term. But only because of his father’s early death, and the kind of foundational assumptions about money we have are very different and there is a consistent mismatch. A mismatch, too, in the places his mom takes us for dinner vs. the places my parents take us. Ever since he started law school, he’s said “when I graduate, I’m getting my mom to take me to Le Bernardin,” and a couple months ago I was finally like “I’m going to sit that one out, because I don’t love fish and I don’t think I could stand having your mom spend that much on a meal I didn’t adore, I’d just be uncomfortable the whole time.” So now I think they’re doing Le Bernardin for lunch and we’ll go someplace else for dinner.

  • Anon for the day

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    My feelings of guilt (Liz says it best – “And I felt (and continue to feel) conflicted about enjoying luxuries that weren’t available to my family and friends.”) have always confused me… my diary entries are not quite as eloquent as this post, which captures my feelings to a T.

    We are currently planning our wedding and my future husbands family has generously offered to pay for everything. Everything. Since the two of us hold decent jobs, and since my parents are generously offering as much financial help as they can, we have pridefully and politely declined the full offer, but in the end they will pay for a (very) significant amount of the reception. It makes me feel guilty to have my dream wedding without even a slight struggle when some close friends (even some of my own bridesmaids) are making constant financial sacrifices to even have their wedding, which they are paying for themselves.

    Recently I was alone with my future in-laws and they explained that this is the reason they have made and saved their money all these years. To give to their family. It’s hard to feel guilty when they put it like that. They don’t have 6 convertibles in the driveway – they always share their good fortune with others. Like Liz, I didn’t know just how wealthy they were when we started dating (by no means part of the attraction when we were just teenagers!) – but it quickly became obvious when I was taken on yearly family vacations to Europe and not expected to pay a cent.

    This is why I love APW. There’s so much more to planning a wedding than a color scheme. Thanks again!!

    • 39bride

      “Recently I was alone with my future in-laws and they explained that this
      is the reason they have made and saved their money all these years. To
      give to their family. It’s hard to feel guilty when they put it like

      I wish everyone could have that attitude. Those of us with family/in-laws like that are so lucky. Having loving, non-manipulative (no strings attached to gifts) extended family with the desire and ability to help can be such a blessing. My well-to-do aunt and uncle hosted our lovely but laid back rehearsal dinner in their beautiful home because his family couldn’t have even begun to do something like that (finances was only the first of many impediments), and there was no room in our wedding budget for it. I will always be so grateful to them for their graceful generosity.

      • Ann

        “Recently I was alone with my future in-laws and they explained that this
        is the reason they have made and saved their money all these years. To
        give to their family. It’s hard to feel guilty when they put it like

        Yes. This is my dad, and my husband has slowly come to the realization that my dad made the choices he did in life to take care of his family. When my cousin got his girlfriend pregnant and went MIA? My dad made sure that she had what she needed financially. When my aunt lost her job? My dad made sure that the college tuition bills for her daughters, my cousins, were paid.

        My parents have offered us $200k to buy a house. They will pay for daycare for a grandchild since they know we couldn’t afford it but want us to have kids when we feel its right. My dad chose a life that would guarantee that his children could follow their dreams. I am fiercely independent–I resisted accepting financial help for several years after graduating college. But now that I see that my partner and I couldn’t possibly afford to have kids on the timeline we want without financial help, he and I are working through the emotions to be able to accept the help my parents are eager to offer. It helps a lot to know that my dad has made his choices in life in order to provide for his family. To refuse that help, particularly when it genuinely comes with no strings attached, hurts my parents. And that just ads to the complicated mess of emotion.

    • Anon

      I love this discussion! I’m in a very similar situation and it’s something hard to talk about. I wasn’t aware of my then boyfriend’s family situation. Even now after a year of marriage did I really grasp the scope of his parents wealth (in the millions). They paid for the wedding generously and we tried to pay for what we could like my dress and photographer etc. learning to accept generous gifts from them has been strange at first, but my partner explained it in a way that makes me feel less bad about it : “it’s nothing for them, doesn’t cause any hardship whatsoever, and they just can” purchase plane tickets and take us on cruises. Again I feel very fortunate but experiencing it from my own perspective and know there are people out there who have very little, and I know what that feels like. I tell my husband about my life and he gets to be exposed and learn about a different way of growing up and seeing the world.

      It’s been difficult to reconcile this privileged background he came from- trips and skiing and sailing etc, with my own. I immigrated on my own and worked 2 jobs to get by while going to school. My parents were unable to help but would have if they could. And now we are homeowners at 30 years old, something I could never even imagine before, and it amazes me every day. Having security, financial and emotional (with a loving partner after many bad relationships) is wonderful. And I feel so fortunate, like when our washing machine broke down we were able to just buy a new washer dryer the next day… Having health insurance is something I lived without for periods of time.

      And at the same time I struggle with sharing this with my friends who have less… I don’t want to create jealousy or judgement from anyone, for suddenly becoming one of “those people”. I struggle to find my place in this world I am new to. I am so grateful my partner is down to earth and was raised by good people who didn’t pay his way through life, but instead guided him. Now he helps keep us on a tight budget every month and yes, that includes my education debt- now ours. I’m glad he is so knowledgable and responsible with money management since I am lousy at it.

      I find it hard to know our combined income is more than my parent make. I am frustrated that my mom cannot retire at 65 because they just can’t afford to. I come from a low middle class family, and only later in life did I learn my parents were struggling to put food on the table. We never had much but we had a Great family supporting us.
      And while I”married up” I see how happy my parents are that I found the person I love, as well as that I will have security. It snot as easy as it might seem from the outside- our ‘perfect life’ includes medical issues, stress and anxiety.

      Thank you for giving us a place to talk about this without judgement or criticism. There a lot of feelings this brings up in me… I hope to get to a place where I don’t feel a little shame in telling people we own our home, or about trips and experiences money affords us.

    • Me!

      “There’s so much more to planning a wedding than a color scheme.”


  • Molly P

    Thanks for this look into a world I’ve never been a part of, but seen from the outside. My fiance and I are both from lower-middle class backgrounds and both of our parents have always struggled financially. We both have great family members who have always stepped up to the plate to help, but we know what it’s like to wonder if the lights will be on when we get home from school, or if we’ll have to eat ramen for supper again.

    My fiance’s parents are hardworking immigrants and he’s always had a great work ethic because of this. He has a great job in a STEM field and no student loan debt, but we are not well-off by any means.

    My sister, on the other hand, married into a situation similar to yours. Her husband has very (very) wealthy parents, and they live a lifestyle free from financial struggle that I’ll never fully understand, as someone making a low income and facing a seemingly-insurmountable pile of student loan debt. Neither of them would ever really have to worry about working, at all, if they didn’t want to.

    Even if I can’t truly understand what it’s like, it’s an interesting window into what my sister must struggle with sometimes, having married up in the truest sense. I can appreciate how you and your new family have worked to give back to the community. I think that’s really special.

  • never.the.same

    Liz, thank you for a really thoughtful piece.

    I think part of having money and being wealthy, is that money says yes. YES, you have access. That means YES to health care, yes to education, yes to living in a safe and beautiful neighborhood. And yes to privileges, too. Yes to dinner at that fabulous restaurant, yes to picking up that book/purse/bottle of wine without a second thought. Yes to travel and any problem that simply needs to be addressed with cash, like a sudden home repair or a car than functions. But most of all, it’s a big fat YES to security.

    I appreciate your choice to think critically about privilege and what it means, and how you can use it in your life and in the world for the better. But I think when we talk about wealth it’s easy to get caught up in the trappings, the “gold plated hummingbirds and rainbows” or house in San Francisco. But it’s also a rare privilege to feel so secure. It’s a privilege to ask “how much is enough?” instead of “will I have enough to keep me safe?” (Though both are such important questions.)

    • Meg Keene

      Ooooh. This reminds me of JK Rawlings (love her) answer to “What’s the best thing money has gotten you?” She always says, that as someone who lived on food stamps in public housing, every single day she remembers that the best thing money has bought her is the security of not having to worry how to pay the bills or feed her kids. Which, EXACTLY.

      Also, her husband still works as a doctor, and she still works as a writer (even though they could obviously never work again), because she points out that she wants to teach her kids that a life you can be proud of is about doing things you can be proud of, and sitting around and doing nothing with your loads of money is not a value she wants to pass on, even though it’s a possibility she stumbled into.

      • Lucy

        The other amazing thing about J.K. Rowling is her constant commitment to talking about all the kinds of government assistance she recieved and being grateful for it. She explicitly talks about how she won’t move to Monaco or some other tax-free haven because she feels responsible in giving back her tax dollars to the English system that enabled her success. I admire her a lot for that and for frequently bringing it up in news interviews. Not everyone will have her exact (and extreme) trajectory of success but her bringing it up both normalizes that path AND takes away stigma.

      • I remember feeling so encouraged when I read that she got a lot of rejection letters (12 maybe?) before she found she found a publisher for her first book,

    • Liz

      I have so much to say, but so much work to do! But I did want to pop in and echo, that after re-reading this after writing it, I had the explicit thought of “even being able to struggle with this is a privilege.” So I just wanted to thank you for calling that out and I think that’s definitely part of the discussion that makes it challenging. How do we talk about privilege in a way that both acknowledges its existence AND allows for less than positive feelings about it? And I love the idea of “money says YES.” That’s an awesome and succinct way to put it.

  • anon

    I love that APW tackles subjects like this. In so many spaces, discussions about personal class clashes would be seen as taboo. It’s so helpful to see it discussed frankly and respectfully. I’m also someone who is facing my class privilege in the context of our wedding, only I’m coming from the opposite perspective (I’m the one with the wealthy family). While I think there’s probably not a way to write about my “born-on-third-base” situation without sounding like a total asshole, I do want to say that this piece really distilled and articulated a lot of what my partner has said to me over the years about his struggles with my family’s money situation, especially in context of his family’s struggles and the guilt he feels accepting help from my parents.

    I think it’s easy for someone like me to want a clean separation between our family’s finances (“My parents are happy to pay for the wedding!” etc) and to feel hurt when someone in his family seems to resent my family’s contributions. But it’s so, so important to understand that it’s not that simple and that the system really has favored my family and, specifically, ME (i.e., I sure as hell didn’t hit a triple) in ways that it hasn’t favored the majority of people, including my partner’s family. And that gap can lead to conflict and ambivalence from all parties even when everyone genuinely loves each other and has each other’s best interest at heart. I think the more it’s encouraged to actually talk about these things, painful as they can be, the easier it is to find real common ground and understanding.

  • mg rising

    I can’t really articulate very well how impressed I am with this post. I’m impressed with Liz’s bravery in writing it, and how wonderfully she speaks about her experience, and I’m impressed with the APW staff for running it. It’s a great piece. Money and wealth and privilege are all so messy, and it’s so easy to forget that people on the fortunate side of that spectrum have feelings too.

    This is the first thing I’ve read on this topic from either perspective that didn’t make me instantly roll my eyes and go “ugh. Rich people.” To be perfectly honest though, my stomach still feels knotted up in jealousy and my inner Mean Girl has a lot of snotty things to say, which is patently absurd since I’m happy with my life and resources!

    I’m not sure sure what I’m going for in this comment, other than to say: This is wonderfully written and thought provoking, and I’m going to sit over here and examine why I’m still grouchy for someone to dare speak up about her life and feelings. Anyone else feeling conflicted, still?

    • Liz

      Thank you thank you thank you for this comment. Both for your kind words, and also to echo that even I feel conflicted about it and have my own inner mean girl saying a lot of snotty things, and I wrote the damn piece. It’s hard and totally valid to hold both of those feelings at the same time.

      • belleamie209

        it reminds me very much of the documentary The One Percent by Jamie Johnson. It’s refreshing to hear there are young wealthy people who are aware of and actively trying to help with the increasing economic disparity in this country (and worldwide).

  • Anony Too

    I have so many thoughts right now, as this is something we continue to face in different ways. I’m coming from the more privileged family in our partnership, and our reality is that it does impact our relationship. And that my fiance is conscious of it all the time, whereas I have the privilege of not thinking about it, unless it confronts me in the face. Good old privilege with a capital P.

    It has been part of our dating. My parents have been the ones to pay for the vacations we couldn’t afford otherwise. I’ve never known turning them down, but my fiance was deeply embarrassed and felt guilty to accept. It ate at him for years before he was willing to bring it up with me. It was even worse when we lived with my family while he was out of a job for seven months.

    It is part of our wedding planning. My mom is paying for everything, whereas we have refused money from his parents because we know that they don’t really have what they what like to give us. I am realizing how many times my mom comes across as showing off, in really off-putting ways, like taking the simple backyard BBQ that I asked her to host and having it catered, rather than just providing hot dogs and hamburgers like I asked. How do you tell your mom to stop being a snob and just serve f**ing hot dogs, when she is paying for everything and you can’t afford a wedding without her?

    It is also part of our future marriage. We will have the prenup, not because either of us is independently wealthy, but because we both bring so much student loan debt into the relationship.

    This sucks. It’s awkward. And it’s a reality of so many marriages. So glad we are having this convo.

  • Laura

    Really great post! I identify somewhat, and also have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to accept generosity from my/our parents (international vacations, fancy wedding, financial gifts, etc.). To have opportunities and experiences beyond our own means because we have family with privilege. I feel like it’s important that we don’t take it for granted.

    And generally I’d be interested in more posts on reconciling differences in our familial cultures. E.g., my fiance’s mom didn’t work for most of his life, while his dad was a workaholic (still is)

    • Jess

      Yes to reconciling family culture posts! If only I could write…

  • beelitenotfab

    This is really lovely and aware, I’m a big fan of all of us having conscious and real discussions about these things.

  • lolauren

    I just want to thank you for writing this post. I’m in a very similar situation with his family being wealthy and my own being lower middle class (I always thought we were middle…but I see now how much my parents struggle).

    To make things more complicated he’s black and I’m white. Most people assume that our racial differences would cause the most tension between our families but its actually money. “We” (and I say we because its entirely “him”) are financing our own wedding. I’ve now realized his family would have been happy to pay but he did it to shield me and my family from the “how much is each parent contributing?” discussion. For some reason just typing this is making me tear up. Money issues are so hard and so personal. Overall, I have to agree with many of the commenters that the hardest part is guilt I feel toward my family. My parents have never been to Europe, we don’t travel, and my fiance and I have gone on multiple international trips together. I had started not mentioning the trips because I felt so guilty but now I’m upfront and say “he’s taking us on this trip to celebrate, and I feel sort of weird about it” and they seem to understand. It’s not easy but I’m trying to be honest.

    There’s so much I could say, so many awkward differences, but mostly I just want to say thanks for writing this piece on A Practical Wedding. These issues make marriages so tricky and its so good to have a community where its discussed.

    • Sarah

      I feel you so hard on this one. I also tear up whenever I think about my family, and money, and our wedding, and his parent’s contributions, the nice trip we went on last month, our fancy honeymoon plans…We got the finances figured out before we had to have a really awkward conversation, but I’m pretty sure his parents just intuited that mine can’t contribute, so they stepped in. Now things will go smoothly (I think?) but I damn near had a heart attack anytime his parents started asking about my parents contribution (which we deflected because we truly just didn’t know). UGH

  • Rachael

    I love this essay and the discussion in the comments. My first reaction to all of this was a bit superficial, remembering an ex from a serious, long-term relationship where marriage was the assumed outcome. His family was very wealthy, I come from a lower middle-class family that struggled. I remembered how I really couldn’t reconcile that he could not see his own privilege. And I thought about how much easier it is now that I am married to someone with a similar (financial) background as my own.

    But then this all started to resonate more deeply with me in that my husband and I will likely be considerably more wealthy than nearly everyone else in our families. He has a well paying career and I am on the road to having a very well paying career (so much money that it made me ashamed the first time I heard the figures). Our incomes are going to be many times higher than either of our parents and still much higher than any of our siblings. And I feel very guilty about this, and a little terrified that it is going result in us being handled differently within our families. I’ve heard my family, for one, with the “ugh, rich people” kinds of comments, even when it is about a cousin or other distant relatives. But really, it’s already started – we have a comfortable income right now, much more so than our parents ever enjoyed, and there have been raised eyebrows at comments about our car, big trips we take, etc. I don’t know, I haven’t quite reconciled all of this yet. My husband and I have talked about the fact that if I do continue down this lucrative career path I’ve started that we would have to give a decent portion of it away in order for me to sleep at night.

    • Jess

      *this* is the story of my parents. It made me hyper aware of class growing up, and I think they still struggle with it.

  • MovinOnUp

    Thanks for this.

    Our situation is a little different, in that I suspect it involves a lot less money than your does, but it still brings up similar issues. My fiance and I both from from middle-class families, but we each chose very well paying careers that put us individually into the upper middle class and together…. we won’t be outright wealthy, but we’ll have plenty of disposable income.

    Meanwhile, several relatives have some debt or another that I could just make go away with a check. That makes the holidays sometimes awkward. Right now I think doing that is not smart in that we do need to save for a house in said expensive city, and we know our kids will not be getting any need based financial aid for college (and they shouldn’t!) so for us a college fund has to cover full tuition. But in the future? Are we the “rich uncle”? What responsibilities does that bring to our families?

    It’s really confusing and I just want to hire a financial adviser to help us sort this out, but I have no idea how to find one. And I don’t feel like I can talk about this with anyone I know…. because we’re richer than all of our peers.

    • Lucy

      Just wanted to second the idea of a financial advisor. Not because financial advisors are only for people with lots of disposable income, but mostly because it is invaluabe to have a sounding board that is not you, not your spouse and not friends or family. Money is emotional and a financial advisor can bring a dose of rational outsider perspective that can be so so helpful. I tend to be anxious about managing our money (even though we are very secure) and just one meeting with a financial advisor has calmed so many of my worries. Finding one can be hard, but it’s like any doctor or therapist, feel free to shop around! You don’t have to commit your investments to someone on the first meeting, you can just talk spending, hopes for the next 3, 5, 10 years and other overall questions before you get into the weeds of investing or not. I would try family friends who are older or even consider co-workers. Your bank might also have a referral list. Good luck!

  • Beth R

    This is a great post! While still in the middle class (in the bay area), marrying my husband definitely put me much closer to upper middle class than I have ever been in my life, and I feel really weird about it. We both come from families that struggled with money when we are young and so we both are extremely frugal and careful with our finances now (we stayed under budget for our wedding, even!). Being frugal means that we’ve now saved up enough for a nice deposit on a house, and with my husband’s income, we can technically afford something that is way outside my comfort zone. I struggle with the idea that, if we want to live in that dream neighborhood in a dream house, we could actually, technically do it. I don’t feel like…I don’t know…like we should. Like, who am I to live there? In that house that I always admired but assumed was far outside my reach. It feels excessive and irresponsible.

    And in a time where everyone around me is bitching about how absurd the housing market is in this area, I feel like I have to bitch along with them even though we can afford these absurd homes. I’m afraid I will unintentionally be a part of the negative gentrification of the east bay in a way that makes me uncomfortable, but what are we supposed to do? Buy something crappy in an unsafe neighborhood just so I don’t feel icky about having money? I’m still struggling with this new privilege and coming to terms with dual income living with a partner who makes double what I make. I guess it’s a matter of trying to put my money into my community in a way that makes me feel like I’m contributing positively.

    • Rachael

      Yes! I think now that I can see us in the future actually being able to afford all of those statuses of wealth it totally creeps me out. Your comment, and the one by MovinOnUp, really add to my own sentiments (see comment below) and struggle with someday being way more comfortable than my parents ever would have dreamed of.

  • I really enjoyed this post. Thank you for sharing it all with us!

  • Anon for today

    It’s so interesting to read this discussion. I am “marrying down” (?) I guess. My mother & stepfather currently are very comfortable & have worked hard to be where they are, my father is retired and living on a fixed income, but I don’t think he’s struggling. I grew up with just a single dad, so we never had a lot, but somehow I learned the art of squirreling away money. (I was also lucky –and still am– to have parents I can call on if something happens–and I realize how fortunate I am to have that and what a difference it has made for me.) My fiance’s family is “lower middle class” (I think) and *terrible* with money. Right after we got engaged, we had to loan his parents a lot of money because they were being evicted and then their car broke down. I should rephrase–*I* loaned his parents a lot of money. I also gave my fiance money to pay of his credit cards. I am not a high earner–I’m a teacher, but I live well within my means (and again, have the comfort of family I can turn to if necessary).

    We also discovered–as we were going to buy a car together–that his brother hasn’t been paying on a loan my fiance cosigned for in college, which has tanked his credit. (We are, of course, both now running yearly credit reports.) His brother was supposed to be “taking car of things” last February, and ensured us he was–but we just got a call from a collections agency! With all the other family stuff, we hadn’t been monitoring his brother–and that has now pulled my fiance’s credit down more.

    It’s frustrating. I want to be understanding, but I am so sick of his family’s choices affecting him & us. My fiance has straightened out his finances and is starting to save more, and he’s sick of every time he gets ahead having his family pull us down. We are seriously his parents’ first emergency contact if anything goes wrong, which drives me nuts. And we are watching them continue to make short-term decisions because they can’t afford anything–but his mother also refuses to get a job. (There may be some mental health issues there–not sure.)

    In any case, this turned into a rant. It has been interesting for me to look more closely at the values that I grew up with & for my fiance and I to work together to establish our own goals & ideas. We are having a somewhat “destination” wedding (in my hometown, about 12 hours away from his parents), and I’m still hoping that they will be able to attend the wedding without us swooping in to take care of everything (though we have funded a lot). I guess I am just not sure how to relate to them when it comes to money because their consistent bad choices have affected us a lot. My fiance is over it; I try to be understanding as much as possible, but when it’s one thing after another, it’s difficult.

    Has anyone dealt with this? How did you handle it?

    • Whitney S.

      Hi. Yeah. I’ve dealt with things kind of like this, but not to the extent that it seems you have. It’s hard. I would say my immediate family is upper middle class and that is what I would classify my upbringing as. SO family is blue collar with a lack of education and some obvious dysfunction financial and otherwise. He is the Yeti of his family to break out and get a medical degree is not even anything they would have dreamed for him.

      So. This lead to a “Come to Jesus” discussion which can only be described as the HARDEST discussion we’ve ever had. I needed to know what SO expectations were for providing support for his family. My parents have all the upper middle class trimmings of retirement plans and portfolios, good health insurance and so on. There was never a situation I imagined where I would need to support my parents extensively unless a catastrophe happens. His parents have no retirement outside of SS. They currently don’t have a stable financial situation. SO had to do some hard thinking about what he wanted to do and was comfortable doing, and how this fit into my own expectations. You have to figure out what your boundaries are with financial support together.

      This hard thinking led to him being ok with the fact that his parent’s lives will look different from my parent’s lives, and that we don’t have any plans as of right now to try to close the gap for his parents to make it look more similar to my parents if we are in the position to do so. So regular support isn’t a part of the plan. However, gifts and helping with health care is. This is the decision we came to that we will do for BOTH set of parents. But you know, this is not the only way to go. Plenty of people make a conscious choice to spread their financial success to those closest in effort to elevate their whole family.

      • Anon for 1 more day :)

        Thank you! We had a talk last night & set some boundaries, motivated by this discussion. We’d talked about boundaries before, but now they are there–a little scary!! I like the way you phrased this–I do not feel the need to make his parents’ lives look like my mom/stepdad, so I needed to know where we stood. Thank you for the advice!

    • malkavian

      I’m on the same end of this situation as your husband-I come from a lower-middle class family that is terrible with money. I am the only person in that family to graduate college and am working on a graduate degree. Hell, I even have a mom that refuses to/is unable to work and has untreated mental health issues.

      Your fiance is ‘over it’ because it’s the only way to really cope with the situation at hand. Understand that he cannot change his family’s behavior or the way they handle their money. The only thing you or he have control over is how much you are willing to contribute to them, which is something you will have to discuss with your fiance in the near future.

      Also keep in mind that saving money and getting ahead are very, very hard if you’re already poor. It’s not as simple as making a decision, it’s a daily struggle and it’s very, very tiring and actually very expensive. There’s writing out there that puts this struggle more eloquently than I probably can, but when you’re poor there’s nowhere to fall. Even a small emergency can be catastrophic. Then there’s the fact that climbing the money ladder involves resources and skills that you don’t always have if you’re poor, like needed healthcare, a reliable car, or savings in case there’s an emergency. So this doesn’t excuse his family if they’re treating you poorly, but understand that working your way out of poverty is the opposite of easy and they probably don’t have much control over their financial situation.

      • Anon for today

        Thanks, I appreciate your reply. I wasn’t trying to be insensitive to his family, and I understand that it is a struggle to get out of poverty. I work in the inner-city & have probably read a bunch of the writing you’re alluding to. And I think about those issues every day in regard to my students.

        I guess my issue is less with the financial situation & more with the way they deal with it. Everything is last-minute without honest conversations about the situation *between* his parents. Clearly there is a dynamic there I can’t begin to understand, but I was raised to work, so it astonishes me that despite their situation his mother & sister at home (age 18) don’t work.

        I don’t care that their lives don’t look like our life together or my parents’ lives–I’m just sick of being their Plan B when the members of their family aren’t contributing.

        • malkavian

          I understand that it’s frustrating. What you and your fiance need to do is set boundaries with his family about what you are and aren’t willing to support them with. Those boundaries could be anything you want, but they need to exist, and where they lie will depend a lot on your relationship to them. I have a very bad relationship with my own family for a number of reasons (abuse, addiction, stealing), so any aid I give to them is basically in the form of holiday gifts, and I mostly use those to buy them things they need and spoil my poor nephew.

          If they’re leaving things until last minute and his parents avoid talking about it, I’d guess that 1) their method of dealing with problems is avoidance and 2) they probably feel a decent amount of shame over the situation they’re in. I know my own parents tried very hard to hide how bad our financial situation was.

          Also, in regards to his mom and sister not working, do you know if they’ve been applying to jobs or not? The job market is really rough still, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they’ve been applying for at least some jobs and not getting callbacks. Also, if you suspect his mom has mental health issues, has he tried broaching that with her or have you offered to help with treatment?

          • Anon for 1 more day :)

            Thanks for your reply. My fiancé & I are pretty open about these issues. When I said he was “over it,” I was using his words–as he has been their Plan B for his entire 20s, and he is frustrated with that role as he has tried to carve out independence for himself & feels like his family keeps dragging him back into messes (his words).

            Their financial situation doesn’t bother me at all–my father is lower middle class & my mom is upper middle class, so I straddle those worlds, but my financial relationship with my own parents is different.

            I guess my resentment wasn’t helped by my future in-laws’ reaction to our engagement (“oh”) or my FMIL’s rudeness at the way I asked FSIL to be a bridesmaid. (I sent cards–sorry?) so to deal with that and then become their go-to lender was tough for me!

            There are some issues with his mother that I don’t understand & will never broach–and neither will my fiancé. His sister refused a job unless it paid a certain amount–but I think that’s some strangeness she picked up from her own mom.

            Basically–and most importantly–my fiancé & I have talked about this a lot and are on the same page–and he wavers toward “write them off” territory, which I let him dictate. So, I’m agreeing with you. Boundaries. We set them last night. I just don’t know what it will look like the next time something goes wrong and we don’t step in. I guess we’ll see…

          • Emily

            I was going to say the same thing as Malkavian. I’m in a similar situation as you (anon for today, and I wish I knew how to change my name). My husband’s family makes poor choices with money and has for his entire lifetime. Between us we’ve had multiple discussions about being rescuers or enablers and we’ve had to set boundaries for ourselves about how far we will go.

            At this point we try to provide ways his family can help themselves. For instance, when his brother got a DUI and wasn’t allowed to drive, we gave him a bicycle. He lives and works in a place where it is reasonable for him to bike back and forth to work. (We also noticed that the bicycle was never used and we pointed that out when he asked us for rides). We buy groceries and pay specific medical bills. We rarely give cash, instead paying the thing the cash is intended for ourselves (rent, car maintenance, etc).

            Before I knew my husband, he spent his entire 401K trying to help them not lose their house. They still lost their house and he had given up his savings. This was eye-opening for him. It’s very painful to watch. A friend has described the situation this way: they have a hole in their bucket, and no matter how much we fill the bucket it will always empty faster than we can fill it. It feels very selfish and greedy not to help more, but when our help continually leads to even more help being needed it is an impossible situation.

            I apparently have a lot to say about this! Thank you for this thread, APW. I’d like to see more exploration of these ideas; they are difficult and I appreciate the acknowledgement that these problems exist.

  • Sarah

    Wow. Thank you for addressing this. It’s too easy for people to say “must be nice” (what a vile, dismissive phrase) when you struggle with the change of socio-economic status that comes with marriage. I’m in a very similar situation to you in most ways. My in-laws didn’t grow up with money but have quite a bit now, that my husband stands to inherit, as well as him making a very good salary. My parents have money and resources too and I made a good salary, but we are decidedly middle class in comparison to my husband and in-laws. I’m lucky that my husband doesn’t like to spend a lot of money most days but I’m constantly amazed by what we are able to plop down for things that I know my parents scrimped and sacrificed for. I felt guilty that my parents contributed to our wedding, one that we could have easily paid for ourselves. It’s been a difficult adjustment and I suspect will be even more so when our little one comes along. I’ve worked very hard to be financially responsible and disciplined and our money merge has made that muddy. Of course I’m not upset we have money. It’s more that I don’t like the distance my new relationship creates between me and the life, the family, and friends I’ve always known.

  • Beezzer

    Wow, this is beautiful, a great write-up. :) Thank you for sharing.

  • Emily

    This is an incredible conversation and I thank you, Liz Sullivan, and APW for it.

    Before I go further, could someone list resources for communities of younger wealthy people who are excruciatingly aware of their privilege and want to get involved with socially responsible investing and dealing with the question of “what does it mean to be wealthy in a world with huge economic disparity?”

    I have been dealing with this (I’m the wealthy one) and I’ve felt very alone in it. So many mixed feelings! As I said, I’m excruciatingly aware of how many incredible blessings I have without having to work for it, blessings that have come my way as an accident of birth. As others have mentioned, I went through a long period of refusing to accept gifts of wealth from my family. At this point I have decided that is foolish– it is the Good Will Hunting (poorly paraphrased) “You have this opportunity that not many of us have. If you don’t take it, you are thumbing your nose at the rest of us.” So I am taking it but I am also trying hard to give back to the world and our families in a way that doesn’t enable.

    • rg

      Definitely check out Resource Generation, the organization Liz references in the post. They are an amazing group. They are geared toward helping young people with access to wealth and/or privilege who want to work for social justice. They do it with an empowering, cross-class approach. Go to the website, email them, get the book (Classified), go to a conference.

      You could also check out class action, but RG is the place to start.

      • Emily

        Thank you!

  • Amber

    As someone that didn’t always have dinner or clothes without holes in it as a kid, where we couldn’t go to the doctor when we were sick, and I had to take care of my siblings while my mom worked 60+ hour weeks… it’s really hard to not get frustrated when people complain that having money is hard. I’m trying to be more open minded lately about it, so thank you for writing this thoughtful piece.
    Also, I really appreciate that you are making conscious efforts to do good with your money. There are a lot of people out there suffering hardships that actually threaten their lives and basic well-being. I think it’s the duty of our whole greater community to care for each other, and that means people with resources need to use them to help the people without.

    • anon

      I think I can understand your frustration, but perhaps you could be pushing yourself harder to be open minded. People at all income levels, including high net worth people, have hardships–including those that “actually threaten their their lives and well-being”. It’s obvious, right? (see: disease, depression, grief, loss, isolation…). I’m not trying to downplay the incredible privilege that comes with access to financial resources, but everyone has their own shit and turning it into a hierarchy doesn’t help.

      Never in her post does Liz complain about her partner having money or her increased access to money. She is merely sharing (and bravely) her complex situation. We will never achieve a more fair, just world until we stop focusing on our differences and instead focus on our shared humanity.

      • Amber

        I’m talking about hardships directly related to money. As for things like disease-like I said, we couldn’t go to the doctor. My mom was diagnosed with cervical cancer a few years ago, and if it hadn’t been for a medical trial happening in a town 3 hours away, she never would have been able to get treatment. We were very lucky that the nurse at the free clinic had heard about the trial, and that my mom being a test guinea pig ended well for us.
        She IS complaining, and like I said, as someone that grew up in severe poverty it’s hard to hear someone complaining about money. Studies have shown that poverty is worse on a child than being born addicted to crack. Do not down play poverty and compare the hardships of money to the hardships of poverty. That’s ignorant, and it may be time that you educate yourself on it.
        I recognize that every human has a hard time, and that’s exactly what I was saying: I’m trying to be open minded, and writings like this help. What doesn’t help is turning a blind eye to the hardships that people are facing that are worse, because children die every day. Because people don’t have health care, or education, or food, or a home. They aren’t worrying because they didn’t get to contribute to their house purchase, they’re worrying that they don’t have anywhere to sleep tonight and there’s snow in the forecast. It’s up to the have’s to recognize the humanity in the have-nots, and help them out.

        • Liz

          Hi Amber, your thoughts and feelings are totally valid and thanks for sharing them. Even without growing up in poverty, I had and continue have similar feelings when talking and thinking about money and class. It was tough and scary to write and share this piece precisely because part of me does feel like it’s ridiculous to complain about the challenges that seem very superficial in light of the very real and concrete challenges to their well being that so many people and families are facing. I often feel very conflicted about it internally. Thanks for trying to be open minded and maybe thinking about it from a different perspective, even when it’s frustrating.

          It felt important to me to share it because for a long time not owning my class privilege meant that I WASN’T doing anything responsible with it nor was I thinking of ways to support my community or issues I cared about. To get to the point where I could acknowledge it and do something about it, I had to get through a lot of the feelings I shared in this post, which, as much as I wish they weren’t there, totally were there and had to be addressed. And are still being addressed on the regular, because my feelings about it are wrapped up in issues of identity and culture and a lot of complex stuff that I frankly just wasn’t aware of. So I’m glad I can be aware of it now and leverage my privilege to create a world where no one has to go three hours to get medical treatment and people don’t have to worry about their basic needs being met.

        • anon

          Hi Amber,
          You may not read this but I did want to respond. Perhaps the medium of blog post comments is twisting or obscuring the intention or tone of my earlier post. Or yours: I must admit that I feel defensive when you write that was ignorant. I write from a place of respect and openness. I said that I ‘thought’ I understood your frustration because I know I cannot understand what it’s like to grow up in severe poverty. I am in that sense ignorant of the experience. But no amount of education will ever solve that.

          I took what you said to be about hardships writ large, not just those related to money. Since that isn’t what you meant, I misunderstood. In terms of hardships, there is no question in my mind that poverty cannot be compared to having wealth, so we agree.

          I would reiterate that I personally don’t see the benefit of creating a hierarchy of injustice that divides us instead of trying to bring us together. Because we can end up fighting about which is worse: classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, growing up in poverty, being victim of domestic or sexual abuse, metal illness, houselessness, etc, etc, etc, instead of working to make things better.

          It will take all sorts of people and all sorts of strategies to get to a better world. For me, that would be one where no one wants for food or healthcare and folks like Liz and her fiance don’t have so much more than they need. Idealistic, sure, but I don’t want to settle for any less.

          I think it’s up to everyone to recognize the humanity in each other. It is not only the haves who must do that. I still believe we must all respect each other, regardless of our differences. There are massive systems of capitalism, imperialism, racism, sexism, etc… at work to keep the haves and have nots separate. We must reach across these divisions and make connections instead of vilifying each other.

  • Megan

    Wow, I guess there are a lot of rich people that visit this site. Maybe A Practical Wedding could have a post from someone about being super poor, to have a well-rounded conversation? The comments section down here is a lot of rich people patting each other on the back for recognizing that they’re rich.

    • Liz

      Hi Megan. I would love to continue the discussion from all perspectives around class and privilege, and other kinds of privilege too, which I didn’t even touch on in writing this post but which are very, very real. I just want to say that it’s amazing sometimes how difficult it can be to recognize and acknowledge having wealth and privilege; as someone who grew up non-wealthy, I wouldn’t have guessed that, but from my personal experience now and that of friends, it can be a remarkably difficult thing to do, for a variety of reasons. I think having a place like APW where people on both sides can voice their feelings and opinions honestly and openly is really valuable, and one reason why I really wanted to share my experience here. I hope to continue to be a part of the conversation and finding new ways to challenge my beliefs around class, wealth, and privilege.