“We’re doing okay” and other lies we tell others about money

A look at other people’s perceptions of our financial status

Recently, I had a conversation with my husband.

He had talked to his dad earlier that day. He gave me a brief rundown of their conversation, which involved them talking about his sister and what her family was doing.

His dad told him that one of his nieces had broken her wrist, and that the family didn’t have health insurance for her, so they were struggling to pay for all the costs up front.

Then his dad went onto say that this upcoming summer will be a tough one.

“Why?” my husband asked.

“Because they always spend summers with me,” he replied, which prompted my husband to ask why.

His dad told him that it’s because their parents couldn’t afford summer camps or any activities for the girls.

This is airing out too much dirty laundry, I know, but what was surprising about my husband’s conversation with his father was what he said after my husband asked him why don’t they have health insurance for their kids and why they don’t have money saved up for summer activities.

My father-in-law basically told his son that he’s a lot stronger than his sister is, which is his way of offering a compliment, we think. My husband told him that despite making less money than everyone else we know (a big shocker, I know) we’ve always been able to manage. So to hear someone say that they think we are stronger financially as a couple is a bit of a surprise to me.

Does he actually think that we’re okay? I thought.

You see, I’ve never given much thought about what others think of our financial situation. I know what I think of my mom’s financial situation. She’s what I would call a “tightwad,” or a “cheapskate” based on many interactions that I’ve had in the past with her about money.

Take, for example, last Christmas when I bought her a new kettle (something she needed) and she told me to return it because she already got one. Or the many, many times she told me to return something because it’s “too expensive” when in reality, I bought them at a discount store. This is the same woman who used to take items from her work, like plates and napkins home because she didn’t want to pay for it. She’s had the same blanket for twenty years and have no plans to replace it.

That’s my perception of her anyway — that my mom stocks away whatever cash she has because she’s low income. And she’s okay with that.

But I’ve never looked at the other side of the equation and pondered how she views herself with her money, or lack thereof. Perhaps she thinks that what she does is normal, while I think that what she does is not.

Perceptions are very deceiving. That’s why the term, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” has such relevant meaning. For if we were to all judge each other — that is, create thoughts in our minds about what the other party must be like — then we risk losing the opportunity to learn how great the other person might be.

As far as money is concerned, though, this is an area where it’s gray, because many of us feel a major discomfort in talking about money. We don’t go around exclaiming, “I’ve overdrawn my bank account!” or “I got 50k in student loan debt!” These kind of things are shameful, so we treat it in the same way that we do with sex — only talk about it behind closed doors.

On the other hand, if you’re one of those people who are doing well financially, you also don’t want to shout from the rooftops, “I’ve saved $5000 this month!” or “I just got a big ol’ bonus!” These kind of statements, while great in theory, can induce jealousy, rage and suspicion from our friends, family and coworkers. After all, it’s hard to be happy for someone who just got a raise or saved $5000 when your bank account is overdrawn or you’re on government assistance.

I think it’s time we rephrase how we think about money. Instead of focusing on what we think about our own money situation, perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves how we are projecting that image, and how others see us. As for my husband and I, we’ve always given off the air that we’re doing okay. We don’t typically ask to borrow money from family members (we have the bank for that). We don’t talk about our student loan debt. We also don’t talk about the fact that our incomes have been so low that we’ve qualified for tax credits as well as government assistance for years, that it’s only in the past year that I’ve managed to obtain a job that pays me well enough for us to be able to live comfortably.

Airing out our money laundry isn’t easy to do, but neither is hiding behind it.

Editor @ BooknBrunch. Writer who focuses on Asian American identity, language & culture; occasionally business and finance. More at hoangsamuelson.com

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