When Did I Become Rich?

And why is that so hard to admit?

01.27.17
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“I need to keep this vacation as cheap as possible,” my friend told me after I sent her three listings for four-star hotels on a tropical island and she wrote back with an $80-a-night Airbnb listing that would leave one of us sleeping on a deck chair outside by a pool. I sat back in my chair and had a moment of truth with myself.

Nearly 15 years ago, my New York City was a very different place. I walk by the same buildings now that I walked by then. Some of the same restaurants. And a few of the same classic bars (the ones that haven’t been turned into banks yet). But my world is drastically different and the transition happened so slowly I almost didn’t notice. Back then, life was all about survival. Working two service-industry jobs while maintaining an unpaid internship. A brief period of living in a creepy hostel, time spent crashing on friends’ couches. Starbucks was never an option; coffee from the cart on the corner for a quarter or two was a luxury. Bars were selected by their drink specials as opposed to their coolness. Dining out meant having to decide between dumplings and dollar pizza. You get the drift.

This never bothered me. Instead, I thrived on it. It was an important part of my identity. I was working to survive and make it in a place that had spit out so many before me. Then came an existential realization, one that hit me hard over a series of moments this year.

When did I become rich?

After being faced with income guilt over the hotel on the island, there came a moment in a bar where I ordered a $7 dollar beer and handed the bartender my credit card. “The minimum charge is 10 dollars,” the bartender replied. I hardly even paused before saying, “Just charge it for 10 dollars, that’s fine.” As he turned to swipe my card, I thought, “…who am I?” Three dollars used to be breakfast and now they were expendable.

Despite having made six figures for over half a decade now, and not having had to worry about making rent for even longer, I rarely stopped to consider how much my life had really changed.

Then came the Chloé boots I bought on a luxury consignment website that didn’t quite fit. The return process, which didn’t include a label, would require a trip to the post office. I missed the deadline due to a hectic two weeks at work. “Well…maybe I’ll try to consign them sometime this winter. It’s only 150 bucks, not the end of the world. Someone will want them,” I said to myself, completely unstressed.

Two months later, the boots still sit in a box under my desk. I rest my feet on them as I answer emails in my high-level career that took me a decade to build. Every time I look at the box, I hate a part of myself that now feels disconnected from where I came from, who I was and the people in my life who are in very different positions than myself. I make no apologies for building a life in New York, for making money. But it’s impossible to avoid the inevitable fact that money does in fact change you. And acknowledging that is important.

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We live in a country that has a dangerously growing wealth gap, and the news is full of headline-grabbing stories about the wealthy being more disconnected from reality than the rest of us (remember the “affluenza” teen?). Psychologists like Paul Piff, who for years has researched wealth’s effect on the mind, have conducted studies that show time and time again that those with means tend to behave differently than those without. In 2010, The New York Times analyzed a paper published by psychologists Michael W. Kraus, Stéphane Côté and Dacher Keltner titled “Social Class, Contextualism, and Empathic Accuracy.” In the study, research subjects were given photos of people with varying expressions and asked to determine the emotions or feeling of those in the photos. Wealthier participants struggled more to identify feelings of others. The wealthy also found it challenging to “identify emotions of strangers during simulated job interviews.”

How depressing. If I continue to climb financially, is this inevitable? Maybe not. The wealthy aren’t cold-hearted by nature, Piff says. In a TED talk, he discusses another study where participants watched a short video on child poverty. “After watching this video, an hour later, rich people became just as generous of their own time to help out as someone who’s poor,” he explains.

I am far from a millionaire, but I make enough to feel the difference. And while I firmly believe that opportunities for upward mobility in this country aren’t even close to where they should be — and actively try to give my time and money to change that — I know that my day-to-day position sets me apart. It prevents me from fully understanding (or remembering, insofar as I experienced it) what that uphill battle feels like. I am proud of where I am in life, but it’s hard for me to admit that I want to make money and be comfortable when I know the cost may be further alienation from where I came. I hope that Piff is right. That staying more conscious of my position can keep me from losing touch with what matters to me.

Illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; follow her on Instagram @heysuperstar.

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