I think I come from a moderately humble background. My parents are both college graduates, which is a statistical leg up by itself, but my father had to work two jobs until I was 15, and I’m the youngest of my siblings. Mom also started working part-time when I was about 10, and then full-time later on. Suffice it to say we were not showered with gifts, though I only remember one particularly depressing Christmas, when I got a fancy pair of socks from Santa.
It was only later that I learned Mom had something of an addiction to JCPenney, and they were saddled with a pretty huge credit card debt until they were into their fifties. (It wasn’t all household shopping, of course. I’m sure that’s how they paid for part of our college tuition, too.) So, we weren’t spoiled, but we did pretty well. Lower middle-class, I guess you’d say. And I grew up into the belief that if you possess something, it’s because you earned it.
I knew kids poorer than me, and I knew kids richer than me. I remember listening to a conversation a “rich” kid friend of mine had with her mother, and her mother was lamenting the fact that when my friend was younger, she got everything she wanted. Her mother felt it gave her an unfortunate sense of entitlement. I don’t have that, and I hope I never get it, but as I get older, I can foresee some ways in which it might happen.
Ways I’ve already “cheated”
My college education was paid for by my parents. I had no student loans and no scholarships of any kind. I’m not sure I was even aware of the need to apply for such things, and though I took a part-time job working for the Dean’s office, anything I earned basically went toward feasts at Taco Bell and the occasional computer game.
I sort of feel like I cheated, in that respect. But if I know anything about parents, I know they’re happy to give their children opportunities to succeed. And I thank them for it all the time. I feel like I’m paying them back a little when I receive recognition in my field, or a raise.
Do credit cards count?
Okay, so credit cards are my enemy. If there is a little devil over my shoulder, he’s wearing Visa and Mastercard logos (and why are the little devils always men, huh?). Sometimes I want something, usually electronic, and I convince myself I’ve earned it, even when I can’t pay for it yet. I get it anyway. It’s cheating.
Except these things do eventually get paid for, and the interest payments seem like punishment enough. I know people who’ve reduced their credit card debt by more than half just by ignoring them for years. Their credit scores suffer, too, of course, but that’s the decision they make. It’s hard to tell in the long term which method costs more.
Being born into it
But there are people who don’t have modest backgrounds, and whose parents can’t help but give them everything they want. The brain is a funny thing, and so these kids grow up into adults who have an enormous sense of entitlement. Without any other educational influences (and thankfully, these are plentiful), such people will become impossible to deal with. A person like that could rationalize away never giving to charity, or hiding money in an offshore account, just because they can.
That’s not really cheating, but I think it’s really pathetic. I feel bad for a person who’s never felt the uncertainty of knowing where they’ll get the rent money.
Easy come, easy go
Instant celebrity (or anything similar to winning the lottery) can mess a person up. Parties and drugs aside, all too often they seem to make terrible decisions with their finances. If you go from $40,000 a year to more than a million a year, how do you not have the presence of mind to save most of it? And yet, the apparently overwhelming temptation is to buy lavish possessions, a mini-mansion, and then throw parties for your friends until the money runs out.
We know that record companies will do everything they can to steal from their latest money-maker, all the while making the artist feel like they’re financially secure. Hopefully this knowledge has filtered its way into every aspiring star’s consciousness, and they’ll be prepared with a reliable attorney.
Of course, it’s not just musicians who find sudden wealth. Sometimes you just have to be the random, somewhat-telegenic person in the right place at the right time. Monica Lewinsky, for example. All she had to do was tell her story, and she’s set for life. She didn’t earn that.
I get an itch every time I hear a phrase like, “Blah Blah, who earns $750,000 a year…” No, he doesn’t. Nobody “earns” that much. If the world were a reasonable place, the highest salaries would go to emergency workers, really great teachers, investigative journalists and people who find and stop wasteful spending in government offices (that’s not a complete list, just off the top of my head). But as it is, we reward athletes (who we often find were cheating with steroids), and executives who don’t actually do much, aside from make plans, smile at clients, and otherwise increase shareholder value.
But that’s capitalism for you. We give the money to people who make us money, not necessarily to the people who earn it. I don’t want to be the recipient of that kind of money. But if it were offered, would I refuse it?
I struggle with the concept of “taking advantage of the system,” because it’s impossible to know if I’m benefitting at someone else’s expense. And for me, that’s a deal-breaker: wealth should never come through a method that deprives someone else who is just as deserving as me.
I have an entirely new group of decisions to make, since my wife and I are incorporating a business, and we’ll have to weigh the consequences, for example, of “do we take a tax deduction on the part of the mortgage we’re using for business?” I don’t want to be a cheater, and I hope I never lose that attitude.
Published or updated September 25, 2009.