You Need More Than Money To Join the Upper Class

upper class

I used to think that social class was directly tied to wealth — if you were rich, you were upper class; if you were poor, you were lower class. If you were neither rich nor poor, you were middle class. Of course, even then I had a sense that because “rich” and “poor” are such relative terms — a rich person has more money than I do, a poor person has less — that most of us think of ourselves as middle class even if we’re not.

My parents own a home in a retirement community in Florida. The people there dress down, get involved in all kinds of activities — everything from a kitchen band (whose members play utensils like instruments) to a rowing crew — and are generally pretty friendly. Most would be considered middle class, but many have accumulated more wealth than the average American, and they maintain two homes — one in Florida and one up north.

Once when we visited my parents, my husband and I drove to a nearby community (also inhabited mostly by retirees) for dinner. The entire atmosphere there was different — everything about the neighborhood shouted, “Upper class!” The buildings were fancier, the clothes dressier, the people not as friendly. My parents’ neighborhood has several athletic courts, a community building, and boat docks; the other community boasts several blocks of restaurants and boutique shops. As we strolled down the streets, where I felt a bit uncomfortable in my middle-class clothes, it struck me that many of the people who lived there could have a lower net worth than my parents and their neighbors do. They might be upper class, but they are not necessarily wealthy — in fact, they could be deep in debt.

I finally realized that social class is not just about how much money you have, but also about how you spend your money and how you present yourself. Earning a high salary is not enough to break the bonds of social class, nor is winning the lottery. Those who are born to the upper class have the advantages of being taught from infancy upper-class social skills and vocabulary and of being surrounded by the things (clothes, furnishings, etc.) that signify good taste. Anyone who wants to be a part of the upper class, but is born in a lower class, must be a sharp observer who can understand and imitate the social graces of the upper classes. (Incidentally, those of us in the middle and lower classes are also taught the social skills, vocabulary, and tastes of our respective classes, but few people try to imitate us.)

Class and wealth are closely related, and it’s unlikely that someone in the upper class is broke or that someone in the lower class is a millionaire. If you knew that Bill had $10 million net worth and Bob had $10 net worth, you could probably guess which class each belonged to. However, Bill might wear his hair in a mullet, decorate his home with velvet Elvises, and invite all his friends over for NASCAR parties, while Bob makes a high salary but spends it immediately to pay the mortgages on three homes, vacation in Europe, and buy new Dolce & Gabbana suits.

A reader commented that looking poor may prevent you from socializing with wealthy people, who can help you increase your own wealth. This argument has some merit — appearances and actions do mark us as members of a particular social class and, in some sense, actually make us part of one class or another. However, not all wealthy people are part of the upper class, and not all upper-class wealthy people will refuse to socialize with you just because you are not wealthy or upper-class, as well.

Many middle-class people and even some lower-class people have accumulated a great deal of wealth. Socializing with wealthy people of the class in which you feel comfortable can be of more benefit to you than trying to fit in with a group of people who not only make more, but also spend more, than you do. Middle-class wealthy people have contacts who can help you find a better job; they also know how to save and invest the money they do earn. Advice from them could be even more valuable than advice from someone whose income is quickly spent on all the trappings of the upper class.

I often wonder why so many people think upward mobility is a goal worth the effort. To fit in with the upper class, not only would I have to learn how to act differently from the way I was raised, but I would also have to spend a lot of money on the right clothes, the right car, the right home and the right education. And even if I do learn to fit in with members of the upper class and benefit from their wealth-gaining insight, I still might not be able to increase my income enough to cover the extra expenses.

Juliet B. Schor, in her book The Overspent American, argues that we spend more money on socially visible goods, largely because we fear “falling down” to a lower class. Ironically, overspending almost guarantees that we will fall if we lose our source of income — if we already spent all our money to buy prestige, we would have nothing left to buy necessities. I wonder why we don’t fear climbing up the social ladder instead. After all, it costs a lot to live like someone in the upper class. Plus, moving into a new social class requires a new way of presenting ourselves — and when that happens, there’s no guarantee that we will still feel comfortable with our old friends in the social class where we used to be at home.

I’m not arguing for a caste system — I certainly believe we should be free to move from one social class to another, and I enjoy interacting with people from all social classes. I also have nothing against anyone whose goal is to be part of the upper class. But I, for one, am happy in the middle class. I’d rather maintain my position here, where I already feel comfortable being myself, and maybe one day I will have enough money to retire to a nice, middle-class retirement community in Florida.

Image courtesy of caribb

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31 Responses to You Need More Than Money To Join the Upper Class

  1. Lisa says:

    In my sociology class in college they address this very issue. There are actually 9 classes and 3 each belong to lower, middle and upper class. Each has it own social skills and expectations. A person can move up comfortably only 2 levels. Money has little to do with it. Thats why the terms “genteel poverty” and “nouveau riche” came about to describe those who jump up or down 2 levels.

  2. Lisa says:

    Sorry, jump up or down more than 2 levels.

  3. I think this whole social class thing is something overrated…why can’t we all just be friends?

  4. pjmama says:

    This is quite (unfortunate and) true. I come from a very middle class family… one that jumped from the lower class when I was still very young. I dated a guy that I would consider to be in the “upper class” spectrum. His ideas about money and spending were very different from mine, and he changed my tastes considerably. But I found myself really uncomfortable around his family (though I loved his immediate family like they were my own) because I never felt like I measured up. My clothes were never nice enough, I didn’t drive an expensive car (I didn’t even own a car!). I’m happy to say I’m back to my middle-class self, with my middle class boyfriend, and I feel right at home πŸ™‚

  5. Courtney says:

    I don’t understand this “jumping two levels” thing. Especially when it comes to marriage and generational differences.

    My father was born to poor immigrants, a one-income manual labor family. They started out lower-class and worked their way to owning a small home (I suppose they could then be considered lower-middle or middle-lower class).

    When he grew up he made some wise career choices and is now in the top 1% of earners in the US. However he doesn’t “act” like it (for example, doesn’t purchase things he thinks are wasteful, like individual servings). He married my mom, a woman who grew up with a family with a large inheritance, but since her parents grew up in the Depression they were even more frugal (not throwing away string, never buying anything at full price, etc). We never guessed they were millionaires until my grandfather passed away and we executed his will.

    I moved out from my parent’s home and have almost nothing. Though they would support me if I needed it, they prefer not to use money that way. So I jumped from an upper class household to a lower-middle class one by moving out.

    Then, I married a man who grew up in a lower-class immigrant household and was even homeless for a time, and his class jumped up a notch by marrying me.

    He is going through school, so right now we have one income, and when he is done we will be in at least a middle-upper income bracket.

    And, of course, once we get there, if a medical emergency occurs or nursing home care is needed, we could so easily fall back down to lower class.

    My point here is that I think many people jump up and down levels of money many times throughout their lives. Education and initiative are the key to this mobility. In my neighborhood, I see generations of poverty and single-parent, uneducated families – and the simple fact is that the parents don’t know or don’t care about the education and social mobility of their children.

  6. Alexandria says:

    I agree with Courtney.

    Likewise, as I read this, I Was kind of thinking the author has been watching too much MTV. Hehe. No offense, but I have hob nobbed with some very wealthy. I admit the Real HouseWives of New York (& other upper class people portrayed on TV) would probably not give me the time of day. But that is quite a stereotype. I have plenty of upper class friends and acquaintances.

    Upper class people aren’t as nice? What the hell does that mean?

    My own family is quite a hodge podge of poor, middle and upper class.

    Reminds me, my SIL married a man who comes from an extremely wealthy family (Top 1%, indeed). My MIL is very obsessed with class and has always felt very uncomfortable around them. Anyway, my spouse’s family goes to Hawaii just about every other year. We were at a family gathering and my BIL’s most wealthy mother was there. Someone mentioned Hawaii and she sighed she had never been there. She turned to a young child in the family and asked if she had been to Hawaii. She said, “Yes, about 5 times!” Ms. Upper Class found this very impressive. I was just giggling to myself that my MIL did not hear this conversation. She is always comparing herself and worried they don’t quite fit. Ms. Rich over here is jealous how often they have been to Hawaii.

    She doesn’t bite either. πŸ˜‰

  7. ben says:

    If you have to worry about what class you are part of, you don’t know much about personal finances. it should be a non issue and if it is an issue, you probably live a pretty insecure life.

  8. Hilary says:

    Courtney, I think you missed the point of the article. The point was that class does not necessarily relate to wealth level, and your story fits in nicely. Your father and grandparents never “acted” like upper class people even though they could have. That’s precisely the point, not a counter-argument.

    Jumping up and down notches of wealth has little to do with class, but rather how you conduct yourself and how you spend your money. Yes, everyone’s wealth level changes throughout life (that’s why we save!), but that doesn’t mean your class changes.

    As for the article, I must say I am uncomfortable with all the stereotyping and negativity. It sort of seems like the author is bitter she didn’t fit in with the upper-crust crowd.

  9. wealthman says:

    I don’t buy it. If you make enough money, you can belong to any class you want. Old money and new money is still the same money. The only people that will try and keep you out of the upper class are the old money people who have lost their edge. Their attempt will always fail because in the end, money is money.

  10. America is still the land of opportunity, and regardless of the truths discussed, we root for the underdog bettering their lives.

  11. vsjhoc says:

    “Class and wealth are closely related, and it

  12. bRobert says:

    I have my own class. If you want to socialize with me, you have to be a decent and unassuming person. Do justly, love mercy, and be humble. All happy, easy going, and friendly people are welcome.

  13. Shannon Christman says:

    Alexandra, a clarification —

    I did not say that upper-class people are not nice, but simply that the people in that particular neighborhood were not as friendly as those in my parents’ neighborhood.

    “Friendly” is not quite the same as “nice.” I did NOT mean that upper-class people are more rude, snobby, mocking, unkind, or otherwise mean-spirited than people of other classes. In fact, I have met both nice and mean people from all classes. Rather, I meant that people of classes other than my own (both upper and lower) are often less friendly — i.e. less likely to greet or strike up a conversation with me, a stranger.

    Though I have no studies to cite to back up my opinion, I believe that most of us (including me) are less likely to chat with strangers whose class appears to be different from our own. That doesn’t mean we can’t get along with people of different classes, just that we tend to be introduced to those people more formally — through mutual friends or through work — than by striking up conversations on the street.

    I apologize if I was unclear on my meaning — I thought a longer explanation in the article would have gotten too far off track.

  14. Sally says:

    This upper class community wouldn’t happen to be The Villages, Florida, would it?

  15. Shannon Christman says:

    Sally —

    Yes! We always liked to eat at the Italian restaurant/brewery at the corner in the old square, but this year when we visited it was gone.

  16. It seems to me the tricky thing, when mixing with other groups, is knowing what to talk about for social chit-chat.

    We’re following different sports, different celebrities, watching different TV programs.

    It would be useful, if you frequently do run into people who are out of your social circle, to stay informed on current events in a variety of topics. (Easy enough to do these days with the help of the Internet)

  17. Heidi says:

    A good example of this is Britney Spears. Despite the fact she has earned more money than all of us reading this blog will earn in our lifetimes combined, she is still ‘white trash’ /lower class… with stereotypical issues associated with them… child support disputes, lost visitation with her children, estranged husband and mother, pregnant teenage sister, etc.

    I also have a relation who graduated Summa Cum Laude from college and is still on public assistance. It is very difficult to get off…once on it. It seems easier to keep income low to qualify for the government checks, low income housing and free healthcare through Medicaid…rather than work a decent job to bring oneself into the often struggling middle class.

    It is not easy to move up in class. I agree.

  18. Kris says:

    Anyone who enjoys this article and wishes to learn more about the differences between “upper” and “lower” class should read “The Millionaire Next Door.” The book was written about a decade ago, but I think the principles illustrated still apply.

  19. Lola says:

    When you boil it right down, there are only two classes, those who work and those who don’t have to.

    I’m not poor, but I really don’t enjoy socializing with moneyed, privileged people.

    Been there, done that. Its BORING.

    I don’t give a crap what kind of wine you like, what art shows you attended or that you can afford a watch that costs $80k.

    People who are born in the lap of luxury have NO CLUE about what ordinary people have to go through to survive. And they DON’T CARE.
    They ALL want a discount even though they can easily afford to pay their own way.

    I’d rather eat a PB&J with a poor family who SHARES what little they have with a stranger, than waste 5 minutes with the other side.

    The bible says it is harder for a rich man to get into heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Boy God wasn’t kidding.

  20. Ian says:

    I agree that class dose not have to do with money and I also agree that sometimes it is harder to deal with higher class people (not insulting higher class but you will understand in a second). I think that class is unimportant I dont care who you are I will still be glad to help you out. I am a middle class person.(well I assume so anyway) But I am dating a girl whos mother considers herself upper class. The girl was raised as a member of the upper class but she prefers to be around people of more middle class ways. But because I act and dress like I am middle class her mom dose not like me dating her And oddly i dont mind being around or hanging out with anyone from andy class and its frequently the same the other way around. But I am curious if i could sort of “fake” the apperence of upper class for her mother and still be middle class with out a problem.

  21. Jason says:

    When an upper class dame would only
    marry down if He were good looking.

    You have to be accepted into the upper
    class, otherwise you stay upper middle

    Yacht, Jet, Spago, West Edmonton Mall.

  22. RJ says:

    Heavens! I’ll assume that your dealings with them didn’t go so well. Yes, I might agree that many upper class people are like that but you’re generalizing. Tell me, do you know all the “people who are born in the lap of luxury”? And regarding you’re comment about “kind of wine, art shows, watches”. Is there really something wrong about that? If I dispute over what kind of beer I like or what genre of literature or whatever, is it wrong? You automatically assume that these people are being indifferent just because they talk about these. These are mainly their interests and if they seem snobbish we can just surmise that these were influenced by their class. Lastly, rich people are NOT indifferent to other classes. Many of them give and are philanthropists.

  23. Ivona says:

    That is because you associate class purely with wealth – typical for lower classes

  24. ΓƒΕ“ber me says:

    People like your relative make me sick. Anything to milk the system, i.e. taxpayers that work hard like I do. If they can get an education that we pay for, they should be required to work and be denied any sort of welfare.

  25. Lizbeth says:

    I have seen and met people on all levels of society. I find the only difference in any of them is the “price of their toys”. We all know one “celebrity/royal” that was considered one of the finest, kindest, most humanitarian beings to have lived and her name was Diana. We also have all known of middle and low class people who are snobbish and even look down on their own socio-economic group. What matters isn’t the money, it’s often in the attitude with which you were raised. The poorest beggar who shows concern for his fellow man and many rich who are extremely philanthropic are all equal in worth and value. The middle class snob and the rich tight-wad are all equally obnoxious. The key to it all is attitude and appreciation and I have seen both the good and bad in all segments. Those who look down on the rich because of what they have are no better than those who look down on the poor because of what they don’t have. I agree that the best place to be is where you are comfortable with at any given time and for most of us, that’s where we grow up.

  26. Bruce Colev says:

    Lower Class = Present or past oriented. Focuses on the here and now and the “good ol’ days.”

    Middle Class = Future oriented. Focuses on creating a better life. For themselves and their children.

    Upper Class = Ummm … not sure.

    Income simply changes the level of hierarchy in each group.

  27. mytbean says:

    I believe you might be taking for granted the built-in comfort of a fall-back cushion of family wealth. While they don’t encourage you to consider it an option and you’ve been raised with the character not to feel entitled to it, on a level you do know it is there in the worst case scenario. And you may also know that, in the long run, there is inheritance in your future. These are things that make you more apt to take risks and make decisions that will have an impact on your financial future (like marrying someone poor and even considering college a wise pursuit).

  28. Uber Reply says:


    As someone with advanced degrees, and worked so many hours (basically 3 jobs worth of hours at one time for several years)of which my health caved, your response is hostile.

    I payed taxes for years and paid into the system so to receive classes from the state.

    Too poor to go to school, taking care of the folks, the state kindly offered to pay for some classes so that I could return to work and resume paying double and quadruple taxes on a 80,000 to 100,000 dollar salary, upon which others can also benefit.

    Obviously not YOU.

  29. A very interesting article, and accurate on many points. First, let’s define the upper class as those who can live on investments, whether they work or not, and who have had exposure to quality education, literature, culture, and travel. They do have different tastes than the middle class, as the middle class has different tastes than the lower class. But don’t think that you’ll have to spend more money on clothes–or anything else–in order to socialize with them. Many in the upper class–who’ve had wealth and privilege for three generations or more–buy simple, traditional, quality clothes and wear them forever. They hate paying retail for liquor, i.e. at a bar. They drive old cars. They’ve inherited their furniture and rugs. They’re not consumers. The result is a better quality of life, as opposed to a perceived standard of living.

  30. PeopleRPeople2 says:

    My mother was born into a wealthy family and my father was born into a blue collar family. I have experience and perspective from both. Of course-there is a difference between social class and wealth. As the writer points out–there are wealthy people who live very blue collar lifestyles and there are poor people who drive BMWs and wear $200 jeans. Wealth deals directly with your net worth while social class deals with the way in which you use that net worth. I grew up in the middle–my dad worked 10 hours a day at a middle-income producing job and my mom blew her annual trust-fund dividend check away on nonsense within a month of receiving it. My experience with social class comes from family on both sides. Here is what I’ve experienced for myself:
    1) Don’t buy anything on impulse. While their purchases may be expensive and sometimes outlandish–they’ll take days, weeks, or months to decide if they really want it. You rarely hear a wealthy/upper-class person say: “I just saw this and had to have it.” You’ll hear: “I saw this great XXXX and I’m going to go back next week and buy it!”
    2) Network with powerful people in social settings. Powerful is a loosely defined term. Perhaps it means politicians or perhaps it means the local restaurant owner or HOA president. Networking with people that hold some form of power and knowing those people on a personal level helps wealthy/upper-class people expand their resources. My uncle joined a local historical society because the board there had power people on it. He went to all of the social functions and befriended celebrities and politicians. This gave him more exposure and he was easily recognized by more people which gave him credibility. It helped him join other, more public, groups which has expanded his network even further.
    3) Wealthy/Upper-class people NEVER discuss their money in front of others. I remember being a kid and going to the store and my dad making comments like “put that back, we don’t have the money for that” or “I guess we’ll have to save and maybe get that one day.” Wealthy people don’t buy things right now because they aren’t convinced they need it right now or because they don’t see the value in it. They’ll say: “you don’t need a remote control car right now” or “there is a better remote control car that I’m going to get you instead.”
    4) Upper-class “taste” is fine because they understand luxury value. I don’t mean value in the way most of us think–where we buy a pineapple from Wal-Mart for a dollar less than we would at a grocery store. That kind of value is obvious–I mean the value of the experience. For example, a nice restaurant might cost $80 a plate for dinner compared to Outback’s $15 a plate. While the food might not be worth the extra $65–the experience is. There is value in that experience. I great example is beer. There are people who buy the cheapest beer because they care only about drinking–they don’t value the beer itself–only the price they are paying. On the other hand, there are people who will pay twice as much for craft beer because they want the taste and experience that the $10 a case beer doesn’t provide. Those people understand the value inherit in experience and are willing to pay for that.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with being part of any social class or whether you are poor or wealthy. I do think that sometimes we train our brains to think we can’t escape our current situation. I’ve dated girls who use the “can’t afford it” mentality. I really think that is a bad way to look at your life. Changing that mindset might help people liberate themselves from the trap of the burden of money. Perhaps change your thinking to: “This doesn’t make sense for me to spend my money on right now.” That’s a wealthy way of thinking–and regardless of how much you’re worth–attitude is everything.

  31. Nick says:

    Watch the movie “The Great Gatsby”, and you will know rich does not mean high-class. “Blood” is the point.

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