CA Money vs Midwest Money, & “Relative Wealth” at U Michigan

A columnist at the University of Michigan student newspaper addressed a topic that’s come up here lately a lot: What makes a person “rich”? Is it all, or even mostly, about how rich that person feels? How much does context matter? And how do these issues come into play at an elite state school full of out-of-state students, where some undergrads pay much more than others?

My family’s household income is $250,000 a year, but I promise you I am middle class. I live in a $2 million dollar house, but I promise you I am still middle class. It has one story, doesn’t have a pool or its own movie theater. It is a modest three-bedroom, two-bath. …

even though I have money, I don’t relate to a lot of people here who do. California money is earned and spent in a very different way than a lot of the wealthy families in the Midwest or other parts of the country. It’s almost Gatsby-like. California money is new money, held by software nerds. They don’t dress in suits but in bad dad jeans and fanny packs. Money elsewhere in the country usually means suits and ties and generations of family holdings. …

Money is not used as a status symbol in the Bay Area, because just living in the Silicon Valley proves you can afford it. I never knew the brands of my friends’ clothes before I moved to Michigan. Before I came to Michigan, the only brand I knew of and also owned was The North Face. I didn’t care where they got their clothes or how much they spent and neither did they.

This didn’t go over terribly well. But it did start a conversation.

Then another columnist wrote a candid and widely read response about her own family’s finances, and what she believes is the main distinction between people who are wealthy and those who are struggling.

Before she got laid off, my mother was earning about $30,000 a year. She is currently making an inconsistent $900 a month, without benefits. I’m not saying this to incite pity, but to give a sense of where exactly I’m coming from. I consider myself extremely lucky, not only because I am attending this school, but also because I have been able to receive financial aid and scholarships to be here. Without this kind of money, I would not have the option of living close to campus (as opposed to commuting from home via bus). I would not have the option of taking the kind of classes I want to take. And I would not have the option of considering a computer science double major (not surprisingly, the tuition for an LSA computer science major is that of the Engineering school, about $1,500 more per semester than any other LSA major).

And that, I think, is my main point: how money gives people options. It sounds like such a cliché, but the thing to remember is that clichés originate from an experience that is true, regardless of how many times they are uttered.

Even if there are cultural differences between spending habits in California and Michigan, what remains true is that the wealthy in each state still have the option of buying whatever it is they want. …

The author concludes that she is using this opportunity to come out, in a way. She confesses that in the past she has sometimes felt “ashamed” about having come from a low-income background; she doesn’t want to be weighted down by that anymore.

Until I wrote this piece, I have very purposefully steered clear of discussing my low socioeconomic status. I have, since coming to Michigan, come to embrace my status as a woman, as a person of color, etc. But I have never felt that I could fit in with my peers because of my SES. It’s a part of me that makes me feel, in a strange way, ashamed. I will not forget the day my mother opened the mail and found an anonymous check of $200 to help us pay for the bills; she broke down in front of me in shame, and I felt completely worthless because there was nothing else we could do — we had no other option of paying for our utilities than to accept this generous donation.

So given that students like me don’t feel we have a proper place in this school, the most important thing we can do is help each other find a way we belong. We want to find each other; we want to reach out to each other; we want to know that our presence here is not a burden.

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