Why Rich Kids Don't Know They're Rich

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 8.442% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Why don’t you know the air is full of oxygen? You don’t think about it; that life-giving substance is just kind of there, surrounding you, to be taken at will. You’re told it’s scarce on other planets, but that seems abstract.
Take another breath.  There it is.  The elements of life, freely available, whenever you want them.
That’s what being rich is like.
If you’re poor, even as a kid you know right away because your life is defined by what you can’t have: an apartment without nosy landlords and loud neighbors, anything but ramen for dinner again, clothes that aren’t hand-me-downs. Whereas if you’re well off, you just sort of assume that a house and healthy food and the clothes shopping trip at the beginning of school is the default.
And why not?  It’s a saner world you’re envisioning, the one where everyone gets eggs if they want and can have a fun trip to Target to get all the sparkly notebooks.  You’re told that there are poor kids, ones who don’t get enough to eat, but that seems weirdly bizarre; why would you go hungry?  Candy bars are only a dollar, and dollars are everywhere. And houses, well, houses are pretty much the same, with bathrooms that all work and roofs that don’t leak and nicely mowed lawns.
You see other, rattier houses from afar, but you never go in them and they don’t stick in your mind.  They’re like set dressing.  They slip out because you can’t really imagine what it’s like to live there.  You buy cans for poor people at the supermarket, racked up in a nice cardboard box that gets gathered up and carried away periodically.
Your life is still defined by the lack of things, but it’s for things you don’t necessarily need: that X-Box 360, that drum kit you really wanted, the expensive dress for the prom.  You don’t get those things right away.  Those things, you have to wait for Christmas, or your birthday, and even then it’s not guaranteed that you’ll get it.  There was that one Christmas you didn’t.  But usually, you get this once-a-year get out of jail free card, where your deepest desire is presented to you in a nice, gift-wrapped box and you think that waiting eight months for this was an honest hardship.
You ask mom or dad if you’re rich.  They always say the same thing: “We’re doing okay.”  Because “rich” in America is a dual-toned word: if you say you’re rich, well, you’re a douche.  Rich people aren’t supposed to be proud of their money, they’re supposed to be proud of their achievements.   But if other people call you rich, that’s a compliment!  So when you ask your parents, they don’t want you walking around the playground, telling all the other kids, “We’re rich!” – especially when there are probably even richer kids who would put you down for the hubris of self-proclaiming.
So you’re not rich.  You’re doing all right.  Doing all right to the tune of being in the 10th percentile of American income, in many cases – but as a kid, you don’t understand that.  And you’re probably in a neighborhood where everyone’s about as rich as you are, so the word just doesn’t come up.
You think you’re middle class. Maybe even tickling the bottom of middle class, because at your school there’s a kid who’s really rich – like, his dad owns a helicopter rich – and when you go to his party, he’s got a live band and ice sculptures and a caterer, and all your party had was a clown and a rental of Chuck-E-Cheese for the day.  You can’t be terribly well off, because that wasn’t even a particularly good clown.
Some day, if you’re not particularly lucky, you wind up on your own and realize just how things actually are.  When you wind up out of work and eating the ramen noodles, you start to realize exactly how much of your childhood was a gimme.  You feel, exquisitely, every dollar poured into the fundaments of your life.  You start adding up the cost of hiring that clown and the Chuck-E-Cheese rental and realize that it’d be half a month’s rent now, and go, “Wow, we were doing more than okay.  We were pretty well off, as things go.”
Or maybe you don’t.  Maybe you just quietly keep floating along, bolstered by a good college and good connections and a taught trade that’s valued highly in America, and you continue to think that nobody lives like that.  Or if they do live like that, then they must have specifically rejected the basics of life, living a lifestyle so depraved that they actually shucked off the natural fine home and two dogs and well-kept lawn that are the birthright of every American to live in some stupid tenement.
But if you do find out, then you have an embarrassment.  It lasts for a while, realizing just how much your Mom and Dad did for you.  And how oblivious and, at times, ungrateful, you were.

4 Comments

  1. NovySan
    Aug 20, 2012

    And when you grow up poor, no matter how well you do later, the shadow never leaves you. You balance each day between being truly grateful for what you have now and the abject terror of knowing how quickly it can all be taken away.

  2. Mat
    Aug 20, 2012

    Well Said! Although I’m not sure about pouring money into fundaments… That seems, kinda dirty for this sort of column.

  3. heather
    Aug 20, 2012

    One saying comes to mind….you never know how good you have it till it’s gone!! My grandmother use to tell me that. When my kids ask if we are rich I start asking them questions. Do you have a house? Do you have your own bed? Do we have food? Do we have water? Do you have clean clothes? Do you get enough love? Are you sure I love you enough? When all answers are yes (which they always have been) I tell them than your rich beyond your wildest dreams!!!

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