The road from rats to riches

When most people I know think of being rich, they imagine things they’ve seen on television or the movies.  But is that what rich really looks like?

There are countless examples highlighting what we see and believe is nothing more than a smokescreen.  From the ESPN 30:30 documentary: Broke; which exposed the shocking-not-shocking stats on how quickly many professional athletes lose it all, to the revealing tweet storm Kanye West shared, it’s not uncommon to realize what’s really happening once you look closely and dig below the surface.

This illusion appears with us regular folk too.  It’s not uncommon to assume that your boss and your boss’ boss are raking in the dough because you’ve seen the car they drive, pictures of their house or a job description that shows their salary range.  In reality,  for many of these people, accompanying their big paychecks are really really big bills and enormously expensive lifestyles.  Once you boil it down to the details that really matter, you often find they are living check to check and are absolutely miserable because of it.

Knowing this, most people are still thinking that “I’d take THAT situation over my own”, but I can assure you, comparing your lifestyle to others is dangerous.  More often than not, you’re comparing yourself to a pipe dream and ignoring that

others are glamorizing you the way you’re drooling over others.

As a teenager, my mother moved us to Atlanta from Brooklyn, NY because she thought it would give us both a better life.  In Brooklyn, we lived in a small one bedroom apartment and I slept on a twin bed in the living room. Moving to Atlanta gave me something I’d only ever dreamed of;  my own room.  At first, I didn’t know what to do with all the space, the carpet and the air conditioning!

Similarly, my mother wanted nothing more than a house to call her own.   Like many people, she felt owning a home was a symbol of success and stability.  Little did I know, that my mother miscalculated how difficult it would be to make the transition. She struggled to find comparable work and for a period of time, we were using food stamps to get by.

One day after school, I learned that my jacket was stolen from my locker.  I dreaded telling my mother, but I knew I couldn’t hide it.  While on the bus ride home, I remember telling my friend [JD] that my jacket had been stolen and we both brushed it off as if to suggest “it happens”.   A common reaction for anyone that has lived in an urban environment.

To my surprise, when I got home my mother wasn’t upset and that very night, we went to Burlington Coat Factory to replace my jacket so that I wouldn’t be cold waiting for the bus in the morning.  The next day, when I saw JD, he noticed I had a new jacket and said…

“damn…you must be rich”!

At that moment, I remembered where I’d come from, the people I lived around and how fortunate I was.  I was able to put into perspective that while there were benefits to being where I was at this point, there was still struggle hidden in plain sight around me.  Could he have been joking?  Sure.  But it’s just as likely that a new jacket in under 24 hours was something he would not have expected if he were in my situation.

Looking back, while I didn’t have the perspective to fully wrap my head around the situation, it was an early lesson in poverty, income inequality and the impact it can have on your life as you get older.  It was also one of several pivotal lessons that  being rich was relative and that comparing what you have to others can lead to some destructive behaviors later in life.  I had my fair share of moments as I was surrounded by other [predominantly white] students who seemingly had it all.  Knowing what I know now, I’m confident that many of them faced their own form of struggle and hardship.

The upward climb to improve your socio-economic status is filled with moments like this; some more jarring than others.  But it’s these moments that set the tone for what you expect out of life going forward and can also catapult you into making some regretful financial decisions in the spirit of

I just want [my kids] to have what I didn’t have when I was younger“.

Bottom Line

There’s nothing wrong with aspiring for more and setting others as a benchmark.  But make sure your benchmark is real.  As Lily Tomlin once said “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat”.

Mr. r&r

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