The Subjectivity of Wealth, Or: Don’t Tell Me What’s Expensive

Wealth is largely subjective. Depending on where you’re sitting on the great Staircase of Financial Solvency, your perspective of who’s wealthy and what’s expensive is going to vary wildly.

Because of this disparity, the definition of “expensive” truly depends on an individual’s personal money situation. Someone who makes $300K a year and can easily afford their rent and insurance isn’t going to think twice about buying cage free eggs, organic milk, and grass-fed beef. Meanwhile, their neighbor who makes $30K a year is going to be buying the practically expired milk on sale. To them, the whole concept of buying organic, cruelty-free food seems absurdly out of reach… even while their wealthier neighbor finds it “inexpensive.”

Which is why it’s about as irritating as a Spotify Premium commercial to hear people speak authoritatively about what’s expensive and what’s not. Especially when their version of “expensive” is a diamond encrusted dog manicure and yours is a Whole Foods grapefruit.

Lemme ‘splain.

“It’s not THAT expensive…”

Bitch do you even know me? Do you have intimate knowledge of my bank accounts, debt levels, and net worth? No? Then how the fuck do you know how expensive something is from my point of view?

It can be really fucking frustrating to hear things like “[insert expensive thing] is not THAT expensive” from people richer than I am. It makes them look clueless and inconsiderate, and it makes me feel self-conscious and stressed about my financial circumstances. Not gonna lie, it has even soured more than a few friendships.

When I was in my early twenties, my landlord sold my house out from under me. My partner and I got barely two months’ notice to find somewhere else to rent. In the meantime we had realtors and potential buyers invading our personal space every day. A clueless friend with deeper pockets asked, “Why don’t you just buy the house so you don’t have to move?”

We didn’t have a down payment. Both of us still had massive student loan debt. No mortgage lender would take a risk on us. And we simply were not in a financial situation where buying a house was a reasonable chance to take.

He was baffled. His financial situation was so different from mine that to him, buying a house to avoid a temporary inconvenience was “not THAT expensive.” Once he got used to the idea that a 20% down payment was not something we had just lying around at the age of twenty-four—a fact he found horrifying—he suggested we simply borrow the money from The Bank of Mom & Dad.

And that’s when I strangled him with my bare hands, Your Honor.

Assuming someone else has the same access to financial safety nets you do is so ignorant it can get you elected to Congress. If you lack the imagination necessary to empathize with financial circumstances more dire than your own, perhaps you should retire from polite society and eat your avocado toast in silence.

Some people have more expensive lives… and not on purpose

We’ve talked before about the Pink Tax and how womanhood comes with extra expenses. But how about the disabled? Those whose parents are poor? People with financial obligations beyond their control, like elderly dependents or sick children? Ex-convicts, disproportionately excluded from public housing and employment opportunities?

Fortune does not smile equally upon us all. If you started your life healthy, debt-free, and unfettered by familial financial obligations, you should count yourself lucky. And yes, you can acknowledge that luck while still taking pride in your accomplishments. But the fact remains: Sometimes the only thing separating you from a poorer but equally talented, driven, and worthy person is an accident of birth.

There’s a word for this: privilege.

Dozens just zipped down to the comments to call me a “feminazi libtard SJW cuck.” (Joke’s on them—I embrace my feminazi libtard SJW cuckoldry with reckless abandon.) For those who remain, allow me to clarify. Privilege does not necessarily mean you have a blanket advantage over everyone else. It means you’re lacking a certain disadvantage someone else has. For example: It absolutely sucks to be poor and white. But at least a poor white person does not also have to deal with the racist bullshit a poor black person deals with. Get it?

So when we’re talking about economic privilege, it means that you lack the disadvantage of student loan debt. You lack the disadvantage of economically compromised parents. Or you lack a disability that prevents you from working. Or maybe you lack financial obligations that negatively affect your ability to get ahead financially.

I know this idea flies in the face of our sacred American bootstrapping narrative. So if you’re still attached to that comforting bedtime story, I invite you to wake the fuck up. Join the rest of us in our capitalist reality wherein 42% of bankruptcies in this country are due to medical bills and wage discrimination against people of color persists.

Above all, compassion

If you’re rich, I’m not telling you to feel bad about yourself. In fact, this isn’t even about you. It’s about having a modicum of compassion for those in different economic circumstances. Don’t go forth into the world, foot and silver spoon both firmly in your mouth, and make ignorant-ass comments to people who might be less fortunate than you.

What’s affordable to you might be completely out of reach for the man working three jobs to support his children and disabled wife. What’s pocket change to you might be a month’s wages to the child of blue collar workers who went $100k into debt to get a college degree. What you find “inexpensive” might be an unattainable luxury to the refugee taking night classes at community college.

And you might not even recognize these socioeconomic differences on sight. In fact, some of your friends and coworkers might be drowning in a sea of debt, battling an expensive chronic disease, or expected to financially support their extended family. They do not deserve to hear you dismiss their circumstances out of hand.

I remind myself of the subjectivity of wealth all the time. I think of it when I hear my friends panicking about their student loans because they started out with twice the amount that I did. And I think of it when my single mom friend asks me to babysit so she can pick up an extra shift. I am so fucking fortunate. And as much as I look at those above me on the Staircase of Financial Solvency with envy, I know there’s someone else looking up at me the same way.

Don’t downplay the subjectivity of wealth. It makes you look like an asshole. A dumb asshole.

42 thoughts to “The Subjectivity of Wealth, Or: Don’t Tell Me What’s Expensive”

  1. Brilliant! Thoroughly enjoyed reading this and it is a great reminder to remain mindful and compassionate when those conversations arise.

      1. It’s interesting to think about how different other people’s money habits can be from yours. Choosing not to make a purchase is very different than not being able to afford it. I find that people often judge the person who doesn’t do something because they don’t want to pay for it. I often decline invitations to things I don’t feel like spending the money on, even though I could.

  2. Love this shit. I get so sick of the perfect meritocracy narrative in the personal finance community: you have the ability to achieve your financial goals! Anyone can retire early, regardless of income. Anyone can invest! Anyone can get out of debt! Just follow these steps!

    (Subtext: if you aren’t achieving those goals, it’s your fault because you’re not trying hard enough.)

    1. Yuuuuup! How about we just trust people to understand their own financial hardships? That’s part of why we have so many articles here about starting from rock bottom or dealing with circumstances beyond your control.

  3. This article reminds me of when I was 21 and had a regular dental clean up where the hygienist suggested I get Invisalign to help straighten out some of my teeth. I told her it wasn’t in my budget right now as a struggling student and her response was: “Don’t you have a daddy?” Well yes… but my parents were not in a place to help me with the costs of university let alone a cosmetic procedure! Her comment only made me feel worse about my lot in life but really what was she expecting? Me to just jump up and be like “Oh! I shoulda thotta that! Let me call up my daddy and let him know he needs to wire me $5k for my teeth. While I’m at it I might as well ask for another few g’s for spring break.”

    Ugh. Some people.

  4. “And that’s when I strangled him with my bare hands, Your Honor.”
    Pfffft bawahahaha!! I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard on a post. Another insightful read Piggy. My husband is a the only guy I know that owns up to his privilege without hesitation or argument which sounds simple but darn hell of the men I’ve dated he’s the only one who didn’t get into a spackle with I said their parents paid their entire education so they got a head start.

    1. I keep a toe in heterosexuality because of rad men who can own up to their privileges without getting defensive about it.

    2. Ditto. My husband looks like a lumberjack and a linebacker had a baby and he spends his life helping young girls and low-income teenagers because he sees it as his feminist responsibility.

  5. It’s so easy for us to lose sight of what we have. Even if we don’t have much or don’t think we have much. I watched something unfold on Twitter over the weekend. There was an organization that was donating feminine hygiene products to homeless shelters and people were like “just give them menstrual cups”. Yes. So they can wash them where exactly and with what consistency? I’m 100% positive that I am guilty of this, too. Even when we mean well and are trying to help problem solve, we have to take a step back.

    1. VERY well said. Wish I’d witnessed that Twitter exchange. Kitty did an article a few months back called “Blood Money: Surviving Your Period While Poor” that addresses the inaccessibility of some forms of hygiene products. Not having privacy to clean out a cup is a big factor.

  6. I am so here for this. You’ve got yourselves a new fan, Bitches. I’m not sure if there’s a word for the “hasn’t been subject to the rampant injustices/racism/disenfranchisement of the US criminal justice system”-privilege, but it sure as hell isn’t talked about enough.

    ‘Scuse me while I go wander through your archives and see what other truth bombs you’re dropping. I’ll be listening!

    1. You can’t just say things like this to Piggy and I. Do you know what it does to our egos? Our text thread is gonna get smug as HELL.

  7. Ain’t that the truth! I just got back from a weekend trip to watch some baseball with five other guys. (yeah guys can read your blog, can’t we?) Anyway three of them were retired CEO’s of big companies, one was a surgeon and the other was an accountant born into a very rich family. I am just a retired engineer. I would guess that everyone of them has a net worth of at least eight or maybe nine digits worth of dollars. I am early retired and financially independent so compared to most people I’m almost wealthy but I’m nearly a homeless derelict compared to them. We are friends and they are very nice people who do not flaunt their extreme wealth intentionally but it was still funny to listen to them. One of them told me he drove his cars until they became unreliable, at 50,000 miles! I told him my cars had way more miles than that when I bought them. He gave me a funny look like, seriously, you mean they actually keep running for that long?

    1. 50,000 miles!! Hahahahahaha… I’m still driving the same Honda Civic I got in ***high school.*** I just took her in for an AC repair and the techs complimented her on how well she’s aged.

      I only know a handful of extremely wealthy people, but in my observation, it’s the self-made ones who are often penny pinchers. I go out to dinner with them and they review every item on the bill, or they take the back roads while driving to avoid the $1.25 toll. They know exactly how much work a dollar is worth. But those who inherited wealth? Not so much…

  8. OH so many times I heard ‘why don’t you just buy a house’? RAGE. I own one now but I would never ever say this to anybody else because that is the stupidest thing ever if you have even an inkling of the situation in this city/country.

  9. Hell to the yeah!

    Also real estate and rental agents are so annoying XD. In our last place before moving (by choice, THANK GOD — bye moldy studio basement! ), they constantly called hoping to setup day-of viewings. You know we followed our lease terms and insisted on 24 hours. Course, then we found a key to our apartment ABOVE OUR DOOR. Seriously, who does that??

    1. WHAT?! That’s insane. We stood our ground on the 24-hour notice clause too, and it still didn’t stop them from calling to be like “How about I show up in an hour? Oh you’re both at work and your territorial dog is loose in the house? No problem!”

      But that’s nothing to when my SIL’s landlord let himself into her apartment WHILE SHE WAS SLEEPING, opened the bedroom door and said “Don’t you think it’s time you got up, sweetheart?” and proceeded to show her apartment to someone. Yeah, renters rights get abused all the time.

  10. I love you. Been a single mom for 20+ years. Still paying student loans. And had to “borrow” the merger downpayment on my house from my sister! (Back when as first time home buyer in Canada all I needed was 5%) God bless her she’s bad at math (but a phenomenal nurse and mom!).

    But I am making my way and will maybe retire one day! But not going to kill myself trying to do it early! Life is too damn short to not live in the now!!

    1. And I love YOU! Thank you so much for commenting. And holy shit you have ladyballs of solid granite. Keep on fighting the good fight, Sherisse. You’ll get there!

  11. You are the best,

    I love the perspective you give on all of your posts. I can definitely be a bit short-sighted on this topic. I completely understand that being born a white male with middle class parents in the United States gave me a HUGE advantage in life out of the gate.

    When I was younger I would always become lazy when trying to completely understand the disadvantages of others. I would say I am sorry that it is harder for you and others are making it harder, but you just have to do a bit more and you can get anything you want. Boy was I a giant asshole, even with my heart in the right place.

    I have completely dialed back my rhetoric on what is expensive or not. I had a college friend call me out on this after talking about how the expensive beer I bought was better. I stopped talking about what was expensive or not, and instead enjoyed what I wanted. I was able to comprehend this ‘subjective expensive’ topic even after alcohol

    I am glad to have gained empathy as I get older. Wow, I feel like your posts are a short therapy session into me becoming a better person, thank you for not billing me, but keep the awesome posts coming!

    1. Wow. That has got to be one of the single sweetest things anyone has ever said about our blog. Thank you so, so much. That really means a lot. We started this blog with the goal of being realistic about economic circumstances, and it is incredibly encouraging to hear stories like yours. Thank you so much Cameron!!!

  12. A good reminder on perspective- we all lack it at times. I hope I’ve not unintentionally made anyone feel bad or frustrated about their own situation, but I probably have and that makes me cringe a bit. Thanks for the reminder, Piggy.

    1. And thank YOU for reading and for such a nice comment. We all do it: I cringe too when I remember some things I’ve said to friends in worse financial positions.

  13. I once asked a (shitty) boss for an incredibly reasonable and industry-standard title upgrade + salary bump. She declined and said “I really feel you on the money thing, I do… The company’s budgets are really tight this year. My husband and I are weighing whether we need to sell the lake house!”

    Like. Whut.

  14. I have worked in sales much of my life, and I always cringe when my employers try to tell me that my customers ” need” to spend x percentage of their monthly income on the garbage they are selling. Its so overgeneralized. Great post.

  15. Outstanding. Only comment I would make is that I think it would be a good thing for women (and men to…) to quit referring to themselves as bitches. Hope that does not come across too nasty or negative given the name of your blog, but think it would be a very positive evolution for all women and the way they are treated and perceived in our society. But agree whole heartedly with your discussion of money and privilege.

    1. Thanks for your input. We named the blog Bitches Get Riches because, to quote Tina Fey, “Bitches get stuff done.” We’re taking the word back, you see, which is a process designed to remove its negative power and thus, the ability for people to use it against us. But if that doesn’t sit well with your world view, you are welcome to read other blogs instead.

  16. YES! A colleague who works for a major, well-paying business in our field heard me complain about the inconvenience of sharing a bathroom with two other people and she told me to just get a 1 BR. I am starting my own business and still have significant student debt. Living alone would more than double my living expenses and I just can’t do that. I was so mad at her and her ridiculous assumptions. I don’t choose to live a life of less convenience. My financial situation chose that for me.

  17. I remember back when I was in high school I had taken an AP math course and had found out we needed to purchase a graphing calculator if we wanted to be able to do our homework, because we couldn’t use the school’s outside of school hours without a teacher and ours wasn’t willing to stick around. I remember asking my friends what they planned to do because I figured a calculator would only be twenty dollars at the most. Imagine my surprise when they start talking about spending over a hundred dollars on one. Naturally, coming from a household where my mum was the only source of income and my father had spending problems (read: ex-convict who thought spending money he didn’t earn would make all the issues my family had with him disappear) I was more than appalled. When I mentioned how ridiculous it was that we were required to buy something so expensive just to complete the work assigned to us they had gone on about how it was an investment and how it’ll make things easier in the longer run because if you go into math in university they’ll require you to buy a very specific one so at least you’d be able to get used to using it.

    They didn’t realize that for me it wasn’t an investment. It wasn’t something I could afford to shell out for. When my family would literally spend hours grocery shopping just to make sure we were buying the cheapest products and had set budgets for everything, spending a hundred dollars for us, it wasn’t possible.

  18. My thoughts on “expensive” have definitely evolved over the years as I went from disabled and unable to work to getting a full-time job I could do from home to getting raises at the full-time job. So yeah now some things don’t seem all that expensive to me and I have to stop and ask myself what lil ole “on disability” me would think of an expense before I pronounce something to be “not that expensive.” I try to only make that assertion if it’s in context, like when a friend announces a purchase she’s going to make. Then I can safely agree about whether that thing was “not too expensive” to buy. But generally it’s just best to avoid the phrase altogether.

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