Wealth guilt is a relatively new term but not a new experience. Some might compare it to or find similarities to survivor’s guilt. It can be a vague and difficult feeling to describe, but it’s a reaction to socioeconomic inequality.
I grew up in the Bronx. New York City’s poorest borough. My dad worked as a chef and my mom left the workforce for over 10 years to raise five kids. Yep, I come from a large family. We didn’t have a lot, but we had everything we needed and sometimes extra. I always got a new pair of shoes at the start of the school year and another in the spring. We would get at least one item from our Christmas wish list. One year I asked for a dictionary, another year I got the Casio keyboard I wanted, and let’s not forget the Furby and Giga Pet I received!
Recently, two of my girlfriends and I went out for dinner and we talked about growing up in the Bronx. We have been friends since junior high school. We exchanged memories of teachers and classmates. One tradition we had was to go to McDonald’s across the street from our school about one Friday a month while we were in middle school. As we talked about this, one friend reminded me she couldn’t believe that I got a $20 allowance. It was not weekly, but once a month, maybe twice, my dad would give me $20. I knew that it was unique amongst our group of friends but didn’t realize how extravagant it seemed to them at the time.
Birthdays were special in our family. For our birthdays we could choose anything from the menu. I remember one year, one of my sisters ordered a lobster for her 8th or 9th birthday! Would you consider this middle class? It didn’t feel like the middle class but when I look at it now, I guess we were. It didn’t feel like middle class as a teenager when I didn’t have the same brand name clothes as everyone else. We had a roof over our heads, both of my parents had cars, albeit older cars, in a city where public transportation was readily available, and we never went hungry. Looking back now, we were very fortunate.
When my parents separated, financially things were difficult. Life changed. We didn’t celebrate birthdays in the same way we once did. The past-due notices piled up on the kitchen counter and we stop getting things like new clothes for the start of the school year. Cereal and milk became frequent meals and we moved from home to home. We spent a couple of months with one family that took in my mother and her five kids and another set of months with another family. But we had a roof over our heads and there was always something to eat.
I first experienced wealth guilt when I received a pay raise a few years ago. I was expecting a raise, but it wasn’t until I received the official notice that my pay had increased and that I would cross over into that six-figure mark this feeling of dread came over me. What should have been a happy, exciting, and grateful moment was instead filled with guilt.
Unlike many people I know working a 9 to 5, I really enjoyed my job. I enjoy going to work and I enjoy the work I do. My job was difficult in the best of ways.
My job was emotionally challenging yet rewarding. I worked long hours, traveled more than I had ever imagined, and missed out on last-minute meetups with friends. The job was hard. Despite the challenging work, I couldn’t get over the feeling I didn’t deserve this new pay increase.
This approximately 7% change in pay was wrecking me. What was the difference between getting paid $94,000 and $100,000? Was the combination of enjoying my job and getting paid well the cause of my guilt?
When I was 24, I started a job that more than doubled my salary. I was earning about $31k a year and accepted a job earning about $72,000 a year. After working in the new position for just a month, I could understand why the more challenging demands equated a higher salary. It was exhausting! But I loved every minute of it. I didn’t feel guilty about this salary increase.
It was inexplicable why that initial jump in salary didn’t affect me the same way crossing into the six-figure mark did. There was something about that six-figure number I couldn’t shake. It was wealth guilt.
As my income increased, I analyzed my spending habits. It was during this overdue financial analysis that wealth guilt kicked in. After calculating expenses and savings I had a lot of money left over. (A lot is relative.) . I believed the lie that I was undeserving of a high income as a single woman with no children.
Perhaps it was because during that season, there was a lot of talk about the 1% and I now was petrified I would be a one-percenter, was I? I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I talked to my roommate about it and of course, I couldn’t really explain to her why it felt wrong.
Perhaps it was that I knew the financial struggles of my very own relatives. Their daily struggle to pay the bills, keep the lights on and get out of debt. Yet I had money to live, save and spend quite comfortably. Possibly it was the internal struggle to not just be an ally for the poor, mistreated, underprivileged and disadvantaged, but to be a part of them. What if the change in my financial circumstance would just magically turn me into someone who just “didn’t understand?”
I wanted nothing to do with this “new” money. I just donated it all away. But even that didn’t feel good. I’m not being overly dramatic as I try to explain the discomfort and guilt I felt with just the thought of receiving the next paycheck. The amount of wealth guilt was high. It really didn’t make sense.
There were some underlying lies I was believing including that I didn’t deserve wealth, that wealthy people were bad and greedy, and people like me couldn’t be wealthy.
Sam, over at Financial Samurai, wrote an article that put this term, wealth guilt, on my radar. He writes about his struggle with wealth guilt and how growing up surrounded by poverty has shaped his relationship with money.
This increase in pay didn’t make me wealthy. However, it created another steppingstone to the journey of financial wellness. I kept my living expenses low by having two roommates even though I didn’t need them to cover my living expenses. I invested over 15% of my income in retirement accounts. My charitable giving was about 12% each year. My emergency fund and regular saving accounts grew. I helped relatives and friends who needed assistance. Even when I was making minimum wage, I made giving a part of my budget. Generosity and gratitude were key components to overcoming the wealth guilt.
It took me a few journal entries, conversations with close friends, and prayer to get over the feeling of wealth guilt, and shame. I shouldn’t feel bad about having money. I should be thankful. Grateful. A paradigm shift and redefining what wealth looked like helped me overcome wealth guilt. Believing that I was worthy of wealth and most importantly, financial security was something I needed to believe.
I am not wealthy, but I am building my wealth slowly. And you know what, I am okay with that.
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Steveark | 31st Aug 19
I grew up middle-upper middle class. But even though I become a high earner I never felt any guilt, just gratitude. I know it is a real thing, but I don’t understand why anyone would feel anything but thrilled about making high wages.
Mrs Miller | 31st Aug 19
I know, it was so bizarre. I never thought I would experience it until I did. I think it was a “why me and not them” mentality. So many hard-working people who don’t make enough for a living wage. There were also some lies that I was believing about not being worthy. Today I am grateful and shame-free!
Rachel | 14th Sep 19
I think everyone’s childhood gives them a certain money mindset and then as we grow into adults we have to deal with and adjust that mindset. I read a book called “Crossing the Tracks for Love: What to Do If You and Your Partner Grew Up in Different Worlds” and it was fascinating to learn about how different “classes” think about money. I was raised in middle class as well but my parents are retiring at a normal age and now I feel bad when they pay for things because I make more and will retire before them (age wise). I think they came from a lower middle class family, created a slightly higher than average middle class lifestyle for themselves, and now both of their children will probably be part of the upper class or top 10%. However, when I feel guilty I try to think about how I can save now and plan to take care of them when and if they need it in the future. Planning to retire early means if they get sick I can help take care of them. I try to be grateful for the opportunity money does and will give me to give back and it helps me deal with any money guilt I have.
Mrs Miller | 26th Sep 19
So very true. Financial independence is a way to “buy” free time. Using that time to be there for relatives is so important to me too.
LeftoverDollars | 19th Oct 19
Thanks for this.I grew up super poor and I have survivor’s guilt from the poverty and because I made it really far out of that, and so many didn’t. I still struggle with how much I can “afford” in the way of helping to support others and causes I’m supportive of….like, I have so much more money than others do, but also have student loan debt…so can I “afford” anything? It’s a never ending ethical dilemma for me. (Oh, and this is your somewhat anonymous buddy from FinCon and the meetup group;)
Mrs Miller | 19th Oct 19
Hi 🙂 Thanks for stopping by! I am glad you connected with this post. It’s something I think about often. I am incredibly fortunate to have come out of that situation but there is a real balancing act between being generous and setting boundaries. As they say on the airplane, you must put your oxygen mask on first, then and only then, can you assist the person next to you.
Dan | 6th Nov 19
I grew up in an upper middle-class household. According to statistics, I’m now a 4percenter (as opposed to a 1percenter). I’ve never felt guilty a day in my life about my wealth or my family’s wealth. I acknowledge I am fortunate. I feel lucky for my upbringing, education and current situation. I practice stealth wealth because that’s how my parent’s lived and taught me.
I cannot relate to your feelings. My parents grew up poor & I recall them telling me there was shame in being poor. Back in the day, poor people were embarrassed of being poor. I suspect that is still the case but it doesn’t get any press. My parents said everything in life is better if you have enough money to not have to worry about money. They lived both sides so I believed them. They certainly never acted ashamed or guilty of being well off. They never told me that they had a sense of guilt over their good fortune. They felt they earned it through hard work and modest living.
Do you feel guilty when you are feeling happy because there are people that are unhappy? Do you feel guilty when you are in a relationship because there are people who are single? Do you feel guilty when you walk past a homeless person because you have a place to sleep?
My advice is to only feel guilty for things that cause other people pain. If you have to take a tortured or circuitous route to link your income & wealth to other’s pain then that is not something you need to feel guilty about. If your direct action can be easily shown to cause another person’s pain, then feel guilty. Also don’t feel guilty about societal issues. They existed before you were born, they will exist after you die.
Here’s my gotcha question: If you felt so guilty about your pay raise, why didn’t you turn it down or seek out a job that paid less?
Mrs Miller | 6th Nov 19
Thank you Dan for your comment. You pose some interesting questions. I’ll start with what you call your “gotcha” question. When I learned of my pay raise I didn’t expect to feel the way I did. I felt something but it was excitement or thrill. I didn’t realize it was guilt but I knew that it just didn’t feel right. I was grateful but I felt undeserving. It wasn’t until later, much later that I could understand that in some ways I felt guilty. I felt guilty that I had “made” it and so many hard-working people were struggling. I grew up in a low-income household but I didn’t feel shame because I wasn’t the only one who didn’t have enough. I knew there were people who had much more but I also knew there were families surviving on much less. I know you and others may not understand what I felt and that’s okay. Today I know that I am building a new story for my family. I’ve learned how to give in more fulfilling ways both monetarily and in other ways. Today I don’t feel guilty. I feel fortunate, grateful and blessed.
Cat | 19th Apr 20
Thank you so much for this! I came across this looking for some clarity on wealth guilt. Personally, I don’t think any of us “decide” what to feel. I don’t even think we “decide” what to think most of the time. For me, feelings are like an excavation where something starts poking out of nowhere and I have to keep digging to try and figure out what is going on.
I’ve been triggered by the recent pandemic. I have neighbors who are out of work and businesses all over the country are hanging on by a thread, meanwhile my situation is (so far) relatively less affected, although that could change. But I am still generally on track for my FI date. Here I am like a giant counting my gold coins while there is so much devastation around me which every cent I have could not put even the tiniest dent into fixing.
And that I think is the deeper truth. I feel heartache for the human suffering that is happening and that is exacerbating all the regular human suffering that was going on previously. I wish I could fix it, but I can only help in tiny ways that will be invisible in the tidal wave of what is happening. And it’s heartbreaking. And just being with that heartbreak rather than denying it or beating myself up on its behalf is probably the healthiest thing to do at this point but also the hardest.
Mrs Miller | 23rd Apr 20
I am glad this post resonated with you. I love your point that we don’t “decide” to feel a particular way. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It was a reminder to me that there are things that we simply cannot control.
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Bob | 30th Nov 20
Felow Bronxite here. Grew up in the Tremont section (South Bronx) so you know I wasn’t middle upper or above. Probably lower middle. Worked hard for 45 years in same industry after obtaining 2 degrees. Put 3 kids through Ivy League and grad schools, house paid, ready to retire.
No guilt; do the best you can for your family, donate to your religious institution, live a moral life. Do all this and you have fulfilled your obligations and can hold your head high.
Mrs Miller | 30th Nov 20
Feeling guilt about success stems from a host of lies that I began to believe. Perhaps I believed them all along. Thank you for sharing your story. I think more stories need to be told so that we don’t feel guilty. It’s still something I struggle with from time to time. But I think the more I share where I come from and how I got here the easier it is to share.
gofi | 30th Nov 20
Good to come across your blog. We’re a few years older. I looked at your ‘about’ page and you are already ahead where we were at your age. So if we’ve made good progress, you certainly will. Good luck.
Guilty | 16th Dec 20
I have been feeling a lot of wealth guilt recently. I came from a poor background and have a twin sister. By chance I found and fell in love with a guy who started making pretty good money a few years into our relationship. Since he’s older and graduated college years ago, he doesn’t mind taking care of the rent etc while I finish school and cover smaller costs and my student debt. My twin sister is figuring things out on her own and more independently. I see her struggle and I feel like all the hard work I’m doing at school and starting my own business isn’t deserved. Why did I happen to get a lucky draw of cards? Will any of my success in the future even count since I’ve had “a boost?” 🙁 I hate feeling that survivors guilt , now better named, wealth guilt
Becci Lloyd | 12th Feb 21
Hi, I love your post. i can definitely relate to growing up without money. I had a severely depressed single mother who wasn’t able to work. I was never given money, all clothes were hand me downs and it was a struggle to keep food on the table as I had two older brothers. I’m the only one of my siblings that has worked my way up the career ladder and is doing well with money, despite now being a single mother myself. But now I earn well I have so much guilt that I have spare money, but I am too scared to spend it in case I end up back in that situation with my own daughter. I feel like I’m constantly in the heightened state of fight or flight through fear of my daughter going without.. I’m not sure how to get out of this mindset.
Mrs. Toader | 12th Feb 21
I felt all of this. Thanks for this post. I wasn’t sure what to call this feeling.
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