Our great American success story starts off like many others – one man, with a good job, who stocked away his earnings for a rainy day. In this case, it was my grandfather. He spent his life working for a local bank, living a quiet and unassuming lifestyle in middle class America. The day after he died, my grandmother sat my mother down and told her the good news. “Your father’s estate is worth $2 million.”
The book “Your Money or Your Life” came out around the same time. Its nine-step method to money management teaches that the best way to amass a fortune is to live a conservative life, staying well within your means. I don’t know if my parents read the book, but their approach was the same. My mother was a librarian, my father an insurance adjuster. We had a decent house in the good school district in a small town. My mother inherited a fortune and no one around us was the wiser, including me and my brother, Bill.
As we grew older, our lives changed in subtle ways. When we wanted to go to expensive universities, our parents came up with the cash. We each had a dream wedding and had help with our house down payments. If it seemed odd that our middle class parents could afford these things without struggling, neither Bill nor I thought too much about it.
Over a long walk this Christmas, Bill and I chatted about families. We’re both in our late thirties, married with children. Inevitably, the conversation rolled around to our finances. “How are you and Helen doing financially? With her at home with the kids, are you able to put anything away?” I asked.
“Yeah, we’re really frugal and put most everything into savings. We’ve got around $200K in there, I guess,” he reassured me, “What about you and John?”
“Well, we’re both working full time, so that helps. And we’ve been lucky with our investments. If you include what we have in the house, we’ve got close to half a million.” Then we talked about our kids, their schools, daycare costs, summer camps. “Do you think you’ll put them in private school now or wait until they get a bit older?” We laughed at our “middle class problems”, wondering whether it was more important to buy a new car or pay for a year of private school.
That night, after the supper dishes had been cleared away from the table, our mother shooed the grandkids off to play. “I want to talk to you two about our finances.” She laid the whole story out on the table, starting from my grandfather and on to her and my father. She told us how the two of them never viewed that money as their own. “Your grandfather saved it all so that he could pass it on to me. Your father and I did the same.” They cashed out a little here and there to invest in our futures, to pay for our college degrees, our weddings and our down payments. They left the rest of the principal there to grow over the intervening years. “Our estate is currently worth around $4 million.”
Bill and I stared at one another. Our jaws slack, our brains whirring. Suddenly it all added up. We felt lucky, euphoric, and also like the biggest assholes on the planet. We thought we had worked hard, but our whole lives, our parents had been there opening doors for us. Our well-paid jobs and fancy homes that we took for granted were as much the result of our parents’ savings as our own efforts. And now we were doing the same for our children, with a future filled with private school, cars for their 18th birthday, fully paid tuition, fancy holidays.
Bill and I still remember what it was like when we were young. Riding around in the Ford sedan, rolling quarters and dimes to pay for dinners out on vacation. Romping around the public school playground with our friends. Buying Girbaud jeans at Costco, spending our Friday nights wandering around the mall. Although we both now have incomes that fall in the top 5% of wage earners in America, we still feel middle class.
But what about our children? Their childhood memories will be filled with trips to Whole Foods and ski vacations and being invited to spend Christmas at their best friend’s French villa. Of course they’ll go to the best universities, of course they’ll get great jobs and of course they’ll earn lots of money. Our children will likely never spend a day of their lives worrying whether their paycheck will cover the mortgage.
That Christmas night, as I tossed and turned in my bed, I couldn’t help but envision the inevitable slide. My future grandchildren growing up in their million dollar homes, with silver spoons in their mouths and Prada sheets on their beds. They’ll be friends with people like Kim Kardashian and Ivanka Trump. They’ll take jobs as their assistants until they land their own reality shows.
Society loves stories about people who make it rich. We make videos about them and post them on Facebook. Each year, thousands of articles and books are written to teach people how to get rich quick. But no one teaches you what to do when you have that money. They don’t make reality shows about people who keep their old car and 3 bedroom home, who anonymously donate to the church and the school and put the rest away for the next generation to spend. In college and grad school, they don’t teach you how to appreciate what you’ve got. Society glorifies those that go out and spend.
Our “great American success story” is creating generations of entitled assholes. Bill and I are the first in our family. We won’t be the last. In a world that demonizes the working class and idolizes the rich, I don’t have a clue how to teach my children to be happy to sit somewhere in the middle.