Middle class money mistakes & high indicators you spend like you’re middle class (whether you are or not)
As a person who grew up poor, then worked to transition from being working class to middle class, I think a lot about “being middle class,” both from experiencing it and from an outsider perspective. I am so, SO grateful to be middle class.
Plus, I was punk in the 90s, so I have a healthy dose of skepticism of consumerism: globalization doesn’t fund itself, after all. After spending 20 years in punk, activist, and radical scenes, I’ve seen a lot of meanness thrown at middle class people — often BY middle class people. Ultimately, I think the judgements aren’t meant to be about particular people, but about the damage caused by people’s actions and inactions.
These actions can stem from values and mythologies that uphold the intensely individualist, colonialist, and consumerist foggy notion that is “middle class”. I’m sharing observations about some money-related actions that aspire to middle-class-ness, to cut to the chase of what’s not working about them.
Remember – you don’t have to be middle class to act middle class, and you don’t have to enact middle class values if you are. What even is “being middle class”? It’s a moving target, for sure. Whether you “are” middle class or not, there are some telltale money actions that are super middle class — and are only about making capitalism work better at our expense.
Here we go, ten major mistakes that come out of middle class values:
#1: Where does all the money go? No seriously where did all your money go!? Sometimes I look around from my class straddler glass house and think to myself: middle class people have so much money – where the f*** does it all go? Artisanal candles and local cocktails? Are you kidding me?! Seriously tho: spending money intentionally on your needs and goals is all good, but if you don’t know where the f your money is going, you may be acting from a place of bobblehead consumerism that props up middle class appearances and drains middle class bank accounts. Just remember: freedom from needing to know is a privilege. Mindfulness is a good thing.
For all the great work done to examine and bring presence to other aspects of our life (wellness, anyone?), unconscious money use somehow is supposed to be just part of modern life. If you ever just...dissociate and spend money? You can thank middle class shame & silence values for making the entire experience of having and using money so fraught that it’s easier to not be present to it.
Mindless spending is so middle class, which takes us to:
#2 “There’s always more…sure let’s buy it!” is not an abundance mindset — it’s a colonialist, flippant mindset (even when it’s true). There’s always more money, there’s always more gasoline, there’s always more water, there’s always more earth we can be on or space if we mess up earth, there’s always more people …
An abundance mindset is respectful and mindful and based in gratitude; a fuck-it-spend-it mindset is checked out and willfully ignores real limitations, be they of ones credit card balance or of the resources on our planet.
And if checked out consumerism is a harmful middle class value, how about:
#3 What is all that new stuff? If you are able to access a lot of new consumer goods you very well may be middle-class, or at least shopping like you’re middle class (file under where does all the money go). When people participate in Lots of New Stuff consumerism that’s a sign of being or at least trying to be middle class.
You don’t need me to tell you that you might not need that stuff, or might not need it new. Middle class values privilege clean, minimal, fancy and disparage used, secondhand and mended. Why? Both because we’re supposed to support the economy by buying things on and on 4ever and because new stuff is supposedly a sign of class ascendancy.
Which leads me to:
#4 Spending money to impress others or yourself, without adding any other value in the process. Conspicuous consumption (#instaworthy?) is mad middle class, and worse yet it’s a sad middle class attempt to look upper class, that doesn’t really work. Boo, we know you don’t live in that villa and you’re in the country club on a guest pass.
Buying value, for example nicer shoes that will actually keep your feet dryer is one thing … but buying an item that you know is pricier in the “nice store” but you just go there anyway since it’s “nice” and you “feel good” in the store, even though the exact same thing is $1 less one neighborhood away in a “less nice” store? You’re buying to impress yourself with ambiance. Trust me, people with less money who are equally overworked are taking the time to go to the “less nice” store to save the dollar.
It’s the fuck-its that come from a bummer combo of exhaustion (overworked?) + ability to spend the extra money + conditioned desire for “nice” things, which often means hip white people looking things. There is no doubt that racial inequality and white privilege, and economic inequality and class privilege are very different, and have deeply different impacts on people. They do, however, intersect — and the intersection of middle class values with ways capitalism supports white privilege is hella worth unpacking and understanding. #WhenWhitePeopleSayNiceThingsTheyMeanWhiteThings
Finally, spending to impress others adds up to make everyday middle class people piddle away a crap ton of wealth, which keeps the population working and in debt, which makes me think about:
#5 App spending! I have walked hundreds of people through reviewing every dollar they spend, and I know exactly what millennials spend their money on. Let me tell you: ride shares apps are the worst money pits — they’re designed so you don’t really know how much you spent! You just click-no-go n click again. You know those things exploit workers, right? Well, they also exploit your psychology.
Also any app that has a monthly fee brings me suspicion: if it truly helps you, fine, but if it’s loitering on your phone and racking up spending, does it bring you joy? What if you Marie Forleo-ed your apps?
#6 Saying you’re broke when really you just don’t have money at the moment is a middle-class move, because it’s simultaneously playing down overall resource access (getting paid in a few days? Can call a parent for money?), showing that you’re not aware of your cash flow (ignorance is bliss! a/k/a freedom from knowing is privilege!), and ignoring the difference between your right now and most of the globe’s permanent reality.
Narcissistic overdramatizing of temporary problems is a BAD middle class value that I’d love to never see again. Also, it misinforms you as well as the people around you. This is CRUCIAL because when you don’t have clarity on your money, your money ain’t got no clarity for you.
Speaking of clarity, I think it’s time for:
#7 Believing or leading others to believe you’re working class when you’re not. Money shame is so middle class, tied up in not-enoughness that’s supposed to be fix-able.
Look: Not having enough money this year does not mean you’re not middle class. Having student loans doesn’t make you not middle class. Not having savings doesn’t mean you’re not middle class. Not being able to buy things you want right away doesn’t mean you’re not middle class. Having consumer debt doesn’t mean you’re not middle class. Working for money doesn’t mean you’re not middle class.
All too often I see people identify themselves as working class only because they literally have to work for money — like 95% of the population. Or people identify themselves as working class because they’re working to pay off debt; debt which got them middle-class jobs and middle-class salaries with other middle class people.
That’s not how it works. Being working class has to do with either direct, historical, generational disenfranchisement from access to jobs and minimal or lacking family resources and/or is a direct effect of globalized capitalism which has dramatically reduced your ability to access resources from your family and for yourself via your hours-for-wages labor.
#8 Acting like money is something to be avoided, dirty, bad, or will otherwise sully your personage is directly a middle class attitude. Unless you’re the freaking Queen of England, you probably have to interact with money. And if you’ve never gone without, it might be possible to not appreciate the fact that money = access to needed things. But most of the poor and working class people I know are not trying to avoid money. Other fuckups, sure, but yo: the open hand gets filled.
#9 Not recognizing when your free thing is via someone else’s labor. Couch surfing for a few months? Someone probably works to pay rent for that house – can you help them? Cool art show? Artists barely make anything, buy their stuff if you can afford it or help promote if you can’t. Friend dinner was awesome? Do some dishes.
It’s called mutual aid, people. And one of the tragedies of middle class values is turning people or small families into singular units of support and resilience: I’m getting mine, you get yours. There’s so many other ways to be.
#10 Lastly: not recognizing when you’re middle fucking class — and therefore not leveraging and strategizing from the real position you’re in — is a HUGE MISTAKE. Trust me, people know, it’s no big secret, and it’s way more awkward to act like it’s not true — so own it.
Owning it looks like: being class privilege aware as well as aware of the money you have and spending it relevant to YOUR priorities, not some advertiser’s. If you want to simplify your spend and don’t know where to start, try making a spending plan — here’s a simple free one I share.
Other indicators that you’re relating to money in a middle class way include:
#11 Even if it doesn’t seem like you have a lot of money, you have all the things you need. Having all the things you need is a mark of being, or spending, in a middle class way. Having to hustle borrow scrimp defer delay or simply go without is really, really common for a lot of people with the things they need. I can’t believe how much LESS things I need cost now that I’m middle class, for example, because I have good health insurance.
#12 Grocery check: Buying whatever you want, need, feel would be healthy, or looks delicious at the grocery store is really, really middle class. Full disclosure: now that I’m middle class this is my greatest commonplace luxury. It is my greatest formerly-working-class edge play to buy organic….ugh so expensive…but…
#13 Not talking about money. This one should probably be up in the mistakes section, since it leads to so many hard feelings, missed opportunities, awkward silences, unnecessary questions, etc. BUT it’s also a value that goes all the way up the wealth train. It seems, the more money you have, the less you’re supposed to talk about it. Unless you’ve made a Foundation, at which point it’s no longer “your” money which makes it all ok again. Not talking about money is a sure sign that you HAVE money; because when we don’t have it, it’s a real point of interest.
As a reminder, these aren’t meant to be personal judgements on specific middle class people, so try to not take them personally if that’s where you ended up. These are just a few observations and I’d really love to have a conversation about them, since I’m still working out my thinking.
Consumerism, colonialism, racist economic inequities, hatred of poor people: all these things built the middle class on working people’s backs. It’s GOOD to examine and release them. How else are we going to start to acknowledge HOW we got to such a broken place?
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