When I was in high school I was a “smart kid.” I got great grades and studied hard. I chose to make school a priority rather than going out partying every night. I got called a nerd, dork, or geek, as well as some other less flattering names. I learned to hide my intelligence and to “play dumb” around the kids that I knew would torment me. I learned to apologize for my intelligence and mastered phrases like, “I didn’t study all that hard,” or “I just got lucky and guessed those last five answers.” When people wanted to talk about my academic success, I would shrug, hide behind my hair, and mumble that I wasn’t that smart, really. While this strategy worked to avoid confrontation and keep me out of the cross hairs of my taunting classmates, it did nothing to teach me to be proud of myself and my accomplishments. It took me years to get over it and to value my intelligence.
Lately I’ve found high school playing out all over again, only this time it’s not my intelligence that’s getting me into trouble, it’s my fiscal success. With the economy in its current condition, I find myself in the crosshairs of people who are not doing so well. Let me state up front: I don’t brag about our finances and I don’t go around actively telling people how much I have or that we haven’t been affected by the recession (knock on wood). In fact, I try to keep as much private as possible. But in a close neighborhood, workplace, or family, people have a general idea of how you’re doing. They know when you take vacations. They know when you go out for lunch. They know when you show up with a new(er) car. They know and sometimes, when things aren’t so hot for them, they turn on you.
As a result of simply living my normal life, I have people coming up to me and saying things like, “Must be nice to be so rich,” or, “It’s coming for you [economic woe], just you wait. You won’t escape forever. And then you’ll have to suffer like the rest of us,” or, (said behind my back, but so that I could overhear) “They’re going on vacation again. I guess they think they’re something special.” This hurts, just like it did in high school. I’m not rich, and I’m not special. I’m merely well prepared and fiscally responsible. For a while I’ve tried to apologize for my comfort and downplay my success. I’ve told people that we’re, “Just lucky,” or that, “We dodged the bullet,” or that, “I’m sure we’re next.” I’ve tried to hide behind my hair again, shrug and say it doesn’t matter. Anything to get people to stop looking at me as though I’m some kind of freak or that I’m not normal just because I’m not suffering economically.
But not anymore.
The final straw came the other day when I was at a neighbor’s house. She was hosting one of those house party things where you are encouraged to buy some kitchen ware, Tupperware, or other stuff. I went to support her because it was her first party. She needed more people to fill the room, so I went. I was being neighborly. I thought if there was something I needed, I would buy it to help her out. When it came time to buy the kitchen stuff she was selling, I looked through the catalog but couldn’t find anything I needed or even wanted. So I said, “Sorry, I’ll have to pass this time.” (I thought it was a polite answer that got me around the fact that everything in the catalog seemed like unnecessary junk, to me.)
She said, “Oh, come on. You’ve got so much money, surely you can spare something to help me out.”
I hemmed and hawed and said that I didn’t have that much money. That we were feeling the pinch just like everyone else, and that I was trying to be careful with money these days. I mumbled something about my job not bringing in as much as last year, blah, blah, blah.
She huffed and walked away and later I overheard her in the kitchen talking to some of the other ladies.
“Please. She’s not hurting. She just got back from vacation, but she won’t help me out by buying one thing. I know she has the money. She’s got everything.”
After I let myself out, I stopped on the way back to my house and thought about it. Why did I feel like I had to apologize for my choices to this woman? Why couldn’t I just say, politely, “Sorry, no. There’s just not anything in that catalog that I need. But maybe next time or I’ll let you know if a need comes up.” Why did I have to hem and haw and act like I, too was suffering when I’m not?
The answer is, just like in high school, to avoid being different. Even if different is good, we don’t want to own up to being different. My financial success or intelligence does not make me superior to anyone, but it does make me different. And in our world, different is to be avoided. In high school it wasn’t cool to be smart. Now it’s not cool to be doing okay financially. So we try to dumb down our success and good fortune to make ourselves seem the same as everyone else. To blend in.
It took me many years to own my intelligence; to be able to confidently answer questions in class and to be proud of my good grades. Of course in hindsight I see that all that studying paid off. I got a great education and many opportunities have opened to me because of it. I wish that I had had the confidence in high school to make even more of myself. I’m not going to make that mistake again.
After I left the party, I vowed that I would no longer apologize for my financial well being. I’m not going to brag about it or even bring it up directly, but I’m not going to dumb it down anymore, either. I’m done trying to blend in. We got to this point in life through hard work, sacrifice, and making good choices. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s something to be proud of. While a lot of people we knew were spending and upgrading, we were saving and downsizing. After many years of hard work and planning, we’ve reached the point where not even an extended layoff or medical emergency would derail us for too long. And that’s something I’m very (and justly) proud of.
So the next time someone wants to make me feel badly for going on vacation or for showing up at work in a “new” used car, I’m just going to smile and either say nothing or say something simple like, “Yes. I worked hard for that.” I’m done trying to hide and feeling ashamed for doing well financially. I created my success and hiding it or dumbing it down only cheapens my efforts.
Do I feel badly for those who are not in the same good place? Yes, absolutely. I know what it’s like to suffer. I’ve done it. And I’m more than willing to help those who want to help themselves. If you come to me with an attitude that says, “I want to know how you afford to go on vacation so often. Teach me,” I will be more than happy to show you how I save money. But if you come at me with a snarky, sarcastic, attitude that says, “It must be nice to go on vacation every other day,” then I’m going to smile and say, “Thanks. It is.”