Layer 10: Social Class – Example 1
I was almost born to a single mother, and ended up growing up with one. This has had a significant influence on my financial status and my financial state of mind. At some point in my 20’s, I found out that my Dad left my mom while she was pregnant with me, but he came back before I was born. My parents followed a semi-typical model of folks born in the 40’s they grew up, went to college, got married, had kids, got divorced, remarried. The “usual” for a Gen X kid.
My parents had very different experiences and came from different social classes, yet I think, somewhat similar financial situations. Mom grew up in Montgomery, AL and graduated high school in 1963. I mention the year because she left school and entered the “world” in the heart of, and at the height of, the Civil Rights movement. She was the daughter of a government worker and a mechanic/ac repair/race car mechanic. She spent weekends at their family’s lake cabin and they had a housekeeper, or maid, really, named Elvira. Mom was one of three kids. I would describe her family as blue collar upper middle class.
Dad grew up in Cleveland, OH – where I was eventually born, to a stay at home mom and engineer dad who worked for US Steel. He lived in Shaker Heights, which, in the 40’s-70’s was an affluent neighborhood. Dad was one of four kids. I would describe my Dad’s family as white collar upper middle class.
My parents chose traditional middle class careers. Dad was in the Army and Mom was an Art Teacher. I remember living in a trailer in Fayetteville, NC on a little “compound” with our neighbors, the Nations and the Lloyd’s. The husbands were all Army officers together and the wives all stayed at home with their kids. I have no idea why we lived in a trailer, my guess is it was a little less expensive than living on base? Who knows! I have some vague memories of the time, probably from stories I’ve heard over the years. We lived there while Dad was in Ranger school. My younger sister was born in Fayetteville when I was 18 months old. At this point, we were a very typical nuclear family, mom, dad and two kids. No dog or white picket fence though.
From our trailer in Fayetteville, we moved to a house in Lawrence, Kansas while Dad earned his Master’s at University of Kansas. We moved to Monterrey where Dad attended a military language immerision program. I started Kindergarten there finished kindergarten in Heidelberg, Germany. I think it’s funny that I finished kindergarten in Germany. Haha! We lived on base in an apartment – standard Army issue. Six months later, I finished Kindergarten, my parents separated and my Mom, sister and I moved back to the States and Dad stayed in Germany.
We moved to Columbus, Ga and Mom earned her Master’s degree in Counseling from Georgia State University. I started first grade and my sister started kindergarten in public school. Mom heard that the private Catholic school was much better and enrolled us there the next year. We wore uniforms and went to Mass once a week. It was a very odd experience for a Methodist, yet probably laid the groundwork for my interest in a variety of different faiths. I don’t think Mom worked during this time and we lived in a brick house with an ugly brown carpet, and a brown fence around the backyard. I was going to private school but don’t recall ever “knowing” that a private school education cost money. I do remember the uniforms were expensive.
After Mom graduated, she accepted a position as a Guidance Counselor at a public high school in Seminole, FL. We moved into a condo development that looked like patio homes. They were mostly one story, with three or four units connected to each other. There was a neighborhood pool for the condos and they were surrounded by (what I thought at the time) were really nice homes. Lake Seminole Village was nice and safe. It was close to my Mom’s high school, my future middle school and our elementary school. We lived in three different condos, two we rented and the third Mom bought. It was a two bedroom house – my sister and I always shared a room growing up. Money was always a thing. It seemed like there was never enough, but I also never wanted (really wanted!) for anything. We got to order pizza on Friday nights (I later learned those were paydays), I got a couple of new outfits for school every August, always got to go on fieldtrips, and had the newest TrapperKeeper. My Dad sent me a $2 bill every week for my allowance…until I turned 12. He thought I should get a job delivering newspapers to start earning my own spending money. He was a little out of touch with reality, in 1988, newspapers were delivered by people driving cars. I did take a course at the American Red Cross to become a certified baby sitter and started baby-sitting kids in the neighborhood. I made $4 an hour!!
It was probably in middle school that I started to realize and notice things about life, class and money. I started to have friends whose parents made a lot, from my perspective, of money. They had fancier cars, the kids had cooler clothes, a bunch of them had boats and they traveled. I started to notice class differences, even with friends who had more money. As much as Mom wanted to leave the deep South and so much of what it represented, she never left the manners and expectations of how you did things. She grew up wearing gloves to church, saying yes ma’am and no sir, wearing dresses and behaving like a proper southern girl. Most of that was instilled in me and my sister.
I started to notice when people didn’t have good table manners, or good manners. I noticed, and still do, if the table wasn’t set properly. How you ask for the salt and pepper and pass dishes at dinner. I realized that manners and class have nothing to do with money or where you live. A key note here is that I was always told that the child support my Dad paid was minimal, the bare minimum required by the courts. My perspective of our financial situation was that it was hard to make ends meet. At the same time, Mom owned our home, we had a car and never truly wanted for anything.
Our life seemed pretty normal. Not easy, but not hard. I also started not feeling like I fit in with the other kids. After my parents separated, my sister and I began traveling back and forth between the US and Germany to visit my Dad. Every other Christmas and Thanksgiving, a month every summer and every Easter we were on a plane to Europe. This is not the typical way kids from a single-parent household on a school teacher salary spend their holidays. It made me weird. Coming back from summer break, all my friends talked about the pool parties (this was Florida, it seemed everybody had a pool or access to one), going the park, bicycling, playing…whatever. I had missed all of it. And on top of it, when kids asked what I had done over the summer, my answer was “oh, we went to Italy for a couple of weeks” or “we toured castles in Germany all summer” and I was stared at. They didn’t know what to say or ask and when you’re a kid, it makes you different and different is not fitting in. It wasn’t long before my answer just changed to “visited my dad.” They didn’t know what to do with my stories and I didn’t either.
All of a sudden, I was living this really incongruous life. I was a, financially, lower middle class kid who spent summers in Europe, took piano and horseback riding lessons and was raised with Southern manners. I felt poor but did a lot of fancy things.
When I got to high school, I applied (with no prompting from my mom) to a magnet program for the International Baccalaureate program. There were some amazing things about this program – fantastic teachers, great classes, challenges and all that. It was also chock full of nerds. Geeks. Smart kids. And these smart kids had a couple of things in common. Their parents were either doctors, lawyers, corporate executives, business owners or teachers. A lot of the kids were first generation Americans. They had been overseas! They were also “different” and “different” became normal. I had Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Greek, Methodist, agnostic, atheist friends. I had Indian, black, white, Greek, English, and Hispanic friends.
I started my first job in high school, at 14. I set dinner tables, served and cleaned up for the elderly residents of Casa Celeste. I believe I made $4.25 an hour. Way better than baby sitting! When I turned 16, I got a job working in the Publix bakery after school. I worked for spending money, I never had to chip in for family expenses.
I went to college at the best public university in the country (or top 5, depending on the year), UNC-CH. The summer before my freshman year, I held seven different part-time jobs trying to earn as much money as I could to buy all the things you need for your dorm room and save up some money. I lived on campus for the first two years and then moved off campus junior year. I worked part time jobs during the school year – after school child care, waitressing, designing graphics for University Directories (phone books for college towns) and as a banquet server at the Carolina Inn. I probably worked 20 hours a week during the school year and as many as I could get during the summers. I lost so much.
About a year after graduation, I got my first position in Commercial Real Estate. I was a marketing assistant and made peanuts. I shared an apartment with one of my best friends. It was not the nicest apartment and not in the greatest neighborhood. I learned to visit an apartment complex at night before renting. We moved after a year to a sister property in a nicer neighborhood. Over the next 18 years, I worked in the commercial real estate field. I was surrounded by rich, white, men. My focus became earning the most money I could and I moved from marketing to property management and ultimately to brokerage. Everyone thinks commercial real estate brokers make a lot of money…and the successful ones do. I had a few really good years.
I had just returned from a weekend in New York City with one of my best friends from high school. I had bought an expensive new purse (it was $800!!), a new laptop and spent a day at my favorite spa a few feet off 5th & 57th. And then it was January 8, 2008.
Fast forward 10 years and I have earned a master’s degree (finally, I was the only one left without one in my immediate family) and am living in luxury apartment in Atlanta, GA, working in a brand new career. I’m housing a few field workers for Stacy Abrams gubernatorial campaign. My house guest, Marian were talking about our lives and how we lived. She pointed out that I have middle class values, but she disagreed with considering myself middle class. I was truly uncomfortable in that moment. Looking around, things look good. What she couldn’t see was my experience during the 2008 recession and many, many years after. Leading up to that day, I had done most things “right.” I had a good job, that I was good at, I had six months of living expenses in my savings account, no credit card debt, a mortgage I could comfortably afford, “healthy” debt – car, student loans, etc. And I got laid off. I worked for four years with a partner and stayed in commercial real estate. I, like so many others, lost so much. My home, my retirement savings, my credit…I didn’t lose my car, my friends or my family. Some of them took me in while I got back on my feet. I’m still paying back federal taxes. I’ve never felt financially stable and still cannot picture feeling that way. It’s been 10 years and I don’t know what financial status would make me feel stable.
Based on my income, and being single with no children, I earn in the top 5% of people in the country. I am back on track and working to build my cushion back up for the next recession or crash. I am also keenly aware of how lucky I’ve been – I have an education, friends, faith and the ability to figure it out without suffering. I’m still figuring out how to make sense of it all.
There is something comforting about considering myself middle class. I feel like it gives me the ability to move between layers of society, the ability to “pass” with people who have more than I do, the folks who have country club memberships, not the uber rich. I still haven’t figured this out because I have feelings of guilt around people who have less than I do – typical white, liberal, middle class woman!
Leftover…not sure what to do with it but I like it.
A few years ago, I was traveling in Northern California. I had a meeting scheduled with a woman and during that meeting, she asked where I was from. We had arranged our meeting by phone and I did not have a local area code. I mentioned that I was traveling from Charlotte, NC. She responded and said something along the lines of “you sound like you’re from here.” I laughed, and said, I don’t really have a southern accent. I also take great pride in not having a southern accent. I’ve long associated a southern accent with traits I view as negative – the long history of devaluing humans based on the color of their skin and being perceived as “slow” are tops on my list. These are not behaviors I want to be associated with. It has been a conscious thought not to have an accent – I remember wanting to sound like a news anchor – “generic American.” There are “southern” words and phrases I use, albeit, infrequently. I don’t hear an accent when my Dad speaks, being from Ohio, he sounds like a Midwesterner, or more like that “generic American.” My mom, who grew up in the deep south, did not have an accent when I grew up – unless she raised her voice when I did something wrong. Then, boy oh boy, did that accent come out! She relocated to Georgia about 16 years ago and has picked an accent back up. It’s much more pronounced and my sister and I tease her about it. My sister relocated to Georgia about 3 years ago and has since picked up an accent. I moved to Georgia five months ago and am actively guarding against it!