Every time I make a new friend, I have an eventual, uncomfortable coming out moment. My friends are sometimes surprised, but often not. They’re usually prone to asking probing, personal questions. I’m not talking about my sexuality—my queerness is usually apparent the first time I meet someone—I’m talking about coming out as rich.
My family has always lived pretty comfortably, but when I was in middle school my mom was hired by AIG—the insurance giant dubbed “too big to fail”—right before the 2008 housing crisis. AIG was complicit in the crisis.
The shift was subtle—we weren’t suddenly living large, flying first class, and having lobster for dinner every night. But over time, I realized that my mom’s success came with money and new comforts. Five years later, we were living in one of the wealthiest counties in the country, in a brick house with a waterfront view.
Since I didn't grow up this way, I don't think I act the same as other “rich kids” I know, which might be why my friends are usually surprised to find out about my family's wealth. But there’s another reason. In my effort to hide the amount of money I have—and to get out of undesirable or expensive plans—the phrase “I’m so broke” rolls off my tongue with uncomfortable frequency, considering it’s a lie.
In college, being broke is strangely glamorized. Ramen noodles, cheap vodka, and thrift shopping are perceived as staples of the college experience. I’ve heard people refer to themselves as broke so many times, including myself, and I know it’s not true. Only 3.2 percent of Emerson students come from the lowest family income quintile, according to statistics published by the New York Times. That means that most of the people calling themselves broke have their parents paying some or all of their tuition, not to mention housing and living expenses. Just because we don’t always have disposable income doesn’t mean we are truly broke.
Glamorizing poverty isn’t beneficial to anyone and only makes it harder to have crucial conversations about class. And it’s not something we talk about enough—the wage gap increases when co-workers don’t discuss their salaries with each other. No one feels comfortable sharing the contents of their bank account with their friends.
On an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Bad with Money, the host, Gaby Dunn, asked strangers their favorite sexual position and how much money they had in their bank account. While just about everyone shared their favorite position, only one shared how much money she had in her bank account—less than $500. Dunn said she’d been there, too. They bonded over this shared experience.
In that same episode, Dunn talked to a financial psychologist who told her about the “tribe mentality” of money. Often, people from lower class backgrounds will spend money as soon as they make it. They don’t want to lose their tribe because they suddenly have more money. I’ve always been a somewhat spontaneous spender, despite working part-time jobs and budgeting. In part, I think, it was because I felt uncomfortable having money that my friends don’t have. If I don’t have money, I don’t have to confront my privilege or the fact that I have a safety net that others don’t.
I never shy away from telling people about my sexuality in the way I do with money. It’s something that connects me to other queer people because we experience the same oppression. But oppression, like privilege, is multi-faceted. When you’re white and upper-class, these commonalities don’t provide that same sense of camaraderie. These shared experiences don’t give you anything but advantages, so it’s easier to pretend they don’t exist so you can continue talking about privilege and oppression without holding yourself accountable.
“Broke” means different things to different people, and it’s an easy way to breeze past the discomfort of actually talking about money. It’s also insensitive to people who actually are struggling. It’s a quick excuse for why you don’t want to go to that place for dinner, or to avoid explaining how you overspent last week. But we need to push past the discomfort to that deeper conversation––what being broke actually looks like and how we can combat it.
Refusing to say “I’m broke” when you’re not is an easy place to start.