I’ve missed out on a lot of things due to lack of money. As bad as that sounds, I often forget about it. But there are times I am reminded. This will be about those moments I am reminded, not in a melancholy sort of way, not a boo-hoo story about being the pauper of the town, but instead as an account of how I curiously grew into a frugal lifestyle; how I couldn’t afford things, and how that resulted in me not wanting them.
As I sit here, trying to think of someone to join me for a meal in the dining hall, I realize that eating club membership is another experience missing from my life, certainly not the first caused by insufficient funds. Eating clubs have just been the most recent thing out of reach, extending a bit further out than my (or my parents’) paper trail can follow. When I didn’t bicker or sign-in last year, my friends disappointedly questioned why I had not joined them. Though there were many reasons (I was honest when I mentioned my moderate indifference to the whole selective social system), it was more rare for me to mention that I simply couldn’t or wouldn’t decide to put that financial burden on my parents. The way that Princeton’s financial aid works for me, the cost of eating club membership would be several times the amount my family paid for my tuition.
I am lucky, and very grateful that my Princeton education has not been one of those unaffordable life opportunities. Instead, the school’s financial aid has let me enjoy literally the best education in the nation, for a fraction of the normal cost. Yet, while Princeton’s efforts help construct the façade that students here are equally valued and worthy, I am occasionally thrust back into capitalistic reality. A voice in my mind reminds me that finances gave me struggles before college, and it would be stupid to pretend that they wouldn’t continue to do so while attending (or even after) my time at this university. Just because I’m surrounded by wealth doesn’t mean that I can claim it.
Last year I received an email invitation to a dinner at Prospect House, for a special event which lacked much explanation. Excited for the opportunity to dine at the famed Prospect House, I showed up well-dressed and curious as to what the occasion could be. The large group of arriving students was filtered into several dining rooms, and I found my seat and awkwardly fidgeted with my nametag. Most of the other kids were strangers to me. I glanced around trying to determine what our similarities could be, but we were all such diverse individuals, with no obvious trends in race, style, or even mannerisms. After the moderator began speaking, however, I gathered what was going on. Turns out, we were all there because we were poor. Or, at least relatively so. The intention of the event was for us join the moderator in a dinner discussion about our experiences adjusting to Princeton, coming from generally underprivileged backgrounds. Though the evening was definitely interesting, walking out I wasn’t sure how to feel about being invited there, and I wasn’t sure how to feel when the programmers handed us $20 as compensation for our time. It all seemed slightly offensive, yet slightly appropriate, and I felt the voice begin to creep back into my mind.
These doubts of financial standing are nothing new. In fact, there’s always been this strange line that I walk on, where I’ve been unable to determine if my family was actually poor, or if my parents were just purposefully raising me in a very frugal environment. It was more than just numbers on a page; for some reason, I lived like I was poor.
I think I try to make up for it now at Princeton. I’ve gone abroad twice (third time coming up next semester), always use up my ‘Passport for the Arts’ tickets at McCarter, and generally try to take advantage of all free things around campus. To me it seemed obvious that if Princeton is willing to help fund your experiences, the least you can do is take them up on it. But I still can’t compete with most Princeton students; coming in, I was so much less experienced. I never knew the hierarchy of clothing brands, or what quiche looked like (let alone tasted like). I never went on a cruise or a ski trip, or even to Panera or Starbucks. The first time I went to Panera Bread, it was for my Princeton alumni interview, and I never ordered anything.
When I was little, I wasn’t raised as much of a consumer. Whether it be video games (the first console we owned was the original Playstation, which my parents finally agreed to purchase after the Playstation 2 had already been released) or fancy clothes (a serious strain on my preteen psyche was the elusive nature of Nikes shoes), I often went without the things other kids enjoyed. We even skimped on the annual school pictures (I began to believe my mom when she asked, why does she need pictures of me every year when she sees me every day?). My brothers and I found ourselves missing out on things like school trips and memorabilia, but always being placated by my parents’ valid-sounding justifications.
For example, I never got a class ring in high school, which felt like a big deal at the time. Although I would sit at the kitchen table and browse the different designs in the brochures, my mentality towards material things had changed so much by that point (late high school) that I probably hadn’t even given my best effort to convince my parents to buy me one.
But if I were to trace back to one of my earliest memories of a creeping sense of ‘being poor,’ one of the original dominoes that initiated a tumbling of my material needs, it would probably be fourth grade, when I was a part of the school play (something about the adventures of Wilbur and Orville Wright). The production must have been good, because the teachers decided that we would all take a trip down to Kittyhawk, North Carolina, for a performance. Because of the cost of the trip, I was one of the only students who couldn’t travel with the act, and instead had a girl (a girl!) replace my small role as commentating seagull. I remember the bitter taste and writhing envy when the kids returned from the trip, laughing and retelling stories of great times with the one who had taken my place.
Later, midway through high school there was a trip to Europe for my school’s dozen or so Governor’s school students, a group of academically-advanced students of which I was a member. By this point, I was already accustomed to have doubt in my mind when I heard of such expensive-sounding activities. Before even mentioning the idea to my parents, I’d casually approached the teacher’s desk and told him that I probably couldn’t go. In a few days I confirmed that I definitely couldn’t.
By the time I graduated high school, scenarios like this began to occur more often, and I eventually got to the point where I wasn’t sure if I genuinely didn’t want something, or if I didn’t want it because of the subconscious awareness that my parents couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for it. I carried the idea of poverty around like some family secret, the kind that supersedes all personal decisions. On the surface, I was just like all my friends, but in certain instances I would feel internal hesitation, hindered by consideration for my family. And my own personality evolved from this. Even in my own finances, I came to cut back on things that felt superficial, not wanting to waste money where it was unnecessary to do so (ask any of my friends now, and they’ll tell you how ‘cheap’ I am).
Writing about it now, this sounds absurdly depressing; I essentially grew complacent with being a window shopper of life. I convinced myself that I never needed these things. Even my parents found it strange and almost offensive when I began turning down their sporadic allowance boosts or offers for large purchases. But I also think that being considerate for my family’s finances led me to know empathy and courtesy in general. Whether it was poverty or frugality, it’s humbling, and it’s also grounding, leading me to approach issues much more realistically and not grasp at superficial things.
Yet the weirdest part is that we never seemed poor. Comparatively, our house was one of the nicest in our area (though it wasn’t the nicest of areas). My father built and collected classic cars, and my mother enjoyed her fair share of jewelry and furniture. My brothers and I never really went in want of anything we actually needed. In fact, my parents never openly expressed any hint of financial strain, until us kids asked for expensive things. We were not in poverty; we were somehow just too poor to afford the things in my life that bordered on unnecessary.
I realize that it was only comparison with others that created a strange sense of wealth, or lack thereof. As long as being poor remains a relative concept, however, you’re all good. When poverty is never apparent, never impeding on your ability to live, there’s no real crisis. Everything else was just routine. The landlord was always a jerk. The fridge was never supposed to be full. The amount of presents under the tree always hovered around the same average, and you’d be startled if one Christmas morning that amount had drastically changed, in either direction. The same concept of relativity applies to the wealthy, and undermines the stigma around rich kids; my affluent friends probably never knew they were well-off until they compared themselves with other children and families.
Naturally, you never notice being poor— or being rich— if you’re raised in it. It just seems normal, a default setting. That’s what my dad and I agreed on, at least, when we finally found ourselves talking about the topic earlier this year. We were taking the long road back to a ridiculously expensive school where I would be starting my junior year, and as the sunset glared on the windshield, we somehow touched on the topic directly. My father began to speak on looking back and realizing the way his mother had worked, and struggled, to provide him and his sister with the things they wanted and needed. But when he was little, he never conceived of not getting all the things he wanted as being poor. Nor did he recognize the labors or extents of his mother in providing the things she could provide.
And this is where the disconnect occurred between his generation and mine. He and I, as children, never questioned where the steady influx of cheddar cheese bricks and juice cartons came from, or what our mothers meant by “government food.” We never cared for the reasoning behind getting free or reduced lunch in school. For us, the presents under the Christmas tree had been that amount for as long as we could remember. And, through it all, we never really complained to our parents about not being able to afford things. As far as we knew, this was how childhood was supposed to be. As far as my parents knew, this was how children were to be raised. How could I complain to the parents who had shared the same window-shopper existence as I had? To them, to us, this was normality.
And I won’t complain. All of the things I needed, and a lot of the things I wanted, were all given to me eventually. Besides, I never struggled through life. Avoiding comparison, I lived a comfortable existence, not missing those things I’d never had a chance to experience, and taking advantage of every opportunity within my reach. And so “poor” perhaps isn’t the best word. I wasn’t poor, no matter what staffers at Prospect House said or no matter what deductions came from Princeton’s financial aid. I just happened to be raised this way. I was raised frugal.