Wednesday, July 31, 2013

That Rich American Lady

“She’s that rich American lady.”

While I’ve never been referred to as “rich” in America, I have no doubt that it has been said about me here in Kenya.  Hawkers move their prices upward and distant acquaintances ask for loans based on that assumption.  Strangers approach me asking for employment. 

Of course I’m wealthy.  We are making American salaries in a country where the cost of living is a fraction of what it is back home.  I have a laptop. I drive a car.  I take trips around the country – for fun.  I have house help.  Hell, I have electricity and indoor plumbing. I buy indulgences like cheese and chocolate, each costing the equivalent of a local day’s wage. 

At the same time, we have tens of thousands of dollars of debt in student loans. Things like saving for our children’s education and retirement weigh heavy on our shoulders.  We budget ourselves and say "no" to things we want. Unlike some of our expat friends, we don’t have a washing machine, a generator, or a compound kept green by sprinklers.  Unlike our friends back in the US, we don’t own a home.  All of our permanent possessions fill a the corner of my parent's basement.  I think of what it means to be “rich” in America and laugh at the prospect that I might be included in that group.

But I know I’m rich here.   

It’s an uncomfortable tension, feeling simultaneously rich and lacking.  

Obviously how you feel about what you have depends a lot on what your neighbors have.  So, it all depends on who you consider your neighbors.  Here our neighbors span the global extremes.

A new study just came out that showed that over 70% of Americans with over $1 million in investable assets (people clearly in the top 1% of one of the wealthiest countries in the world) do not consider themselves “wealthy.” Why?  They can’t do everything they want with the money they have. And “everything they want” we can assume is defined by what they see others doing with their money.

Still, there’s something irrational here.  Sure, some of these millionaires might be on the lower part of the economic ladder in their very expensive neighborhood. They didn’t get to take the same luxury cruise that the Jones’s did.  But the law of averages tells us it wouldn’t be 70%.  So, the rich, and probably most of us, are actively choosing to look upward and focusing on what we don’t have instead of looking around and appreciating what we do.

Is this human nature?  Maybe.  Some would argue it – that drive for more wealth – is what keeps us growing, innovating and developing. Maybe. But it might also be what’s keeping us running in increasing numbers to the therapist's couch.  It might be what keeps us from ever feeling satisfied.  

But, in a lot of ways feeling rich or poor is a choice. I have two extremely different comparison groups to choose from.  

The problem is when I look at my relative wealth, I feel fortunate but also incredibly uneasy about it. Even though I've worked hard for what I have, I know that most of it is attributable to the geographic accident of my birth. I'm surrounded by smart and hard-working people who, despite their gifts and efforts, will never achieve this wealth. In that way I don't necessarily "deserve" what I have. Maybe none of us do. 

When I look at those who have more than me I have to admit feel a longing, and maybe a very subtle sense of relative failure.  Even though I don't care about a whit about things like luxury items or brand names and have a slightly communistic bent, those feelings still sometimes creep through.  

Neither direction is all that satisfying. 

So, I'll settle on this: I'll look at what I have and feel... thankful, lucky.  I won't stop feeling guilty, but I'll try and use that feeling to inspire generosity and compassion instead of defensiveness.  I'll spend what we need to be comfortable and try and comfortable with basic things.  I'll look at those who have more than me and and then shrug and look away.

In which direction do you look when you think about your wealth?  How do you cope with what you see?



  1. $1 million isn't that much. If you are like us (you and me) late 30's ish, and you are saving for retirement that you hope will come before you are 70, and you are saving to put 2 kids through college (and who knows if they want to go to law school or med school too), then you may well have close to $1 mill in investable assets by the time you are in your mid 40's. of course, you may also have a mortgage of $300,000 or $500,000 or more. And when you hit your 50's you will spend a good chunk of that million on your kids' college, and when you retire in your 60's you'll start spending the rest. Obviously we are better off than many, but investable assets does not equal disposable income. I have to save for retirement and kids' college just as much as i have to pay my mortgage and electricity bill.

    1. I knew someone would bring this up! : ) Yup, a millionaire today is not what it once was - you are not dripping with jewels and hiring servants. But compared to most Americans who live in debt and make on average $50,000/year, $1 million is nothing to sneeze at. Yes, expenses are rising - especially in big cities and if you want a nice retirement cushion and to pay for your kids university education and beyond, in the US, you need loads of money. Still, if you have it you are in the top top tier. And I still find it a bit irrational (even as I understand the reason) that people with that kind of dough don't recognize their good fortune.

    2. you can recognize your good fortune without feeling "rich" or "wealthy."

  2. Clearly, you were not raised by my dad, but you were raised by my tribe. A great number of our tribe went from rags to riches in the blink of an eye, and that always creates anxiety. Am I worthy? Is this a joke? When is the other shoe going to drop? When is the next pogrom? If I fail to appear well-to-do, will the old stereotypes of dirtiness and stinginess come back? If I fail to produce doctors and lawyers, will my offspring be guaranteed the same respect my generation was (arguably) granted? It's deeper than a rich vs. poor/privileged vs. underprivileged/white vs. people of color/developed vs. developing nations series of issues. It's a cultural/heritage issue as well. One I'm not in a hurry to get rid of, either. By not living in America, you're identifiable as "white," not as "Jewish." When you live in an area like mine, "Jewish" all but negates white skin, and you realize that blink-of-an-eye rise to power could very well be a very temporary blip. I don't discourage working harder or smarter to amass more wealth, as long as you remember your tzedakah. I fear someday we might really need it.

    1. Good point, but very bleak view! I suppose my subtle but deeply rooted unease with feeling like my peers have .... I guess acquired more than me might come from that cultural heritage, where we needed to prove ourselves in order to be treated on par with others. THere might be something there. But I hope that the world has moved beyond what you fear.

  3. So recognizable! It's one of the great benefits (in my eyes) to live in a developing country and relevate the needs you have or think you have. It's a balancing act to take care of your own and of those that are less fortunate.
    It does not take away though that people here in Kenya look at wazungu as the ones that have it all.

    1. Yes they do and I suppose they should given our relative wealth. But like you mention, it's a balancing act! Not easy!

  4. Love this post Kim - it is a balancing act. When I visit the States I'm the poor relation but compared to my neighbors I have it all. I like to think that living in between the extremes keeps me humble and appreciative. For the most part I feel thankful and lucky for what I do have but when I start thinking about college educations and retirement I have to admit I get a little panicked.