Buying Self Esteem
“It is pretty hard to tell what does bring happiness; poverty and wealth have both failed.” – Kin Hubbard
In an effort to provide a little more testosterone at Queercents, here’s a guest post from Rich Taylor. Rich is an executive at a global financial services firm, in charge of the corporation’s education division. He speaks frequently at conferences and institutes and has been featured in trade journals like Chief Learning Officer and Training Magazine. As you will learn below, Rich is all about budgeting, saving, and planning. These are his words…
I grew up in a family without much money. Many of our clothes we bought in thrift stores; a few times a month my parents would pick up a charity box of food in exchange for a couple hours volunteer work. We used food stamps to help pay for food (it wasn’t nearly enough to feed a family of four but it helped). Sometimes my parents were able to find jobs, my mom cleaning houses and my dad working as a security guard. Sometimes we relied on welfare to get by.
Throughout my childhood and even into early adulthood I was deeply ashamed of our circumstances, and I tried hard to hide it or work around it. As a teenager I worked as much as I could after school so I could afford new (non-thrift) clothes, fast food with friends, and other things that helped me fit in. But I still compared myself to middle class friends, and I felt very ashamed.
As the only person in my family to go to college, they perceived me as very fortunate and successful. But the downside of going to a private school was comparing myself to other students who had BMWs and trust funds. While one friend of mine took four exotic family trips a year (Thailand, the Amazon, etc.), I worked my freshman year in the cafeteria serving food to my co-students. I have to tell you, I absolutely burned with shame at that. It must have been pretty obvious, too, because on one of my first days, my supervisor looked hard at me and said, “You know, there’s no shame in earning your place through honest work.”
She was right, and I stayed at that job all year. But I sure found credit cards a lot easier to stomach! In retrospect I can now see that banks lend credit to students in quite a calculated way, gradually upping the credit limit and keeping minimum payments low. So the real situation, especially to naive young people, isn’t really clear. I had no financial smarts, but I had plenty of emotional baggage. And I just had to have the clothes from J.Crew!
By the time I finally left grad school I had student loans totaling nearly $50,000 and credit card debt nearly $40,000. The debt payments kept me up at night, and played a large role in my decision to abandon my Ph.D. program. My original career goal was to be a professor in my field of Buddhist Studies, but as I approached the age of 30 that had become pretty unrealistic. How could I ever afford to pay off this debt on a professor’s salary, while trying to buy a car? Let alone a house! There were other considerations – disenchantment with academia, a family emergency that resulted in me raising my niece as a single parent. But the debt sure played a huge part.
I was very, very fortunate in finding work soon after I left grad school that paid well, and since then I’ve been climbing the corporate ladder. I finally got a grip on my financial reality, and within a few years had totally paid off the credit cards. I’ve got a few thousand more to go on the student loans. But I really, really sacrificed to dig out of that hole, living well below what would have been my means.
In the process, I really had to drop the emotional head game of comparing myself to others, whether they were neighbors with the new Mercedes, or colleagues at work with the huge homes. I’m very proud of myself for having dug out of the debt I had created, and for recognizing the reasons why. But the habit of living below my means and saving has become deeply engrained (almost comically so, the subject for another post).
I honestly now take pride in who I am and what I do, not what I’m wearing or where I live. I drive a small car (a cool little hybrid gas-electric) and my vacations are mostly “staycations” where I stay home and do little home projects like paint my niece’s bedroom, rather than a fancy fling in Paris. And that’s all fine, except it’s swimming against the tide of our culture urging us to buy, splurge, and indulge, because “you deserve it.”
You know what? I don’t think I do deserve it. I don’t think I “deserve” anything. I’m lucky to have a job and a safe place to live and a healthy family of my own. Spoiling myself with material things because I imagine I deserve them? Nope. I’m done with buying self esteem.