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When You’re Rich But You Identify As Poor

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

The best measure of our wealth is our net worth, the sum of all of our assets less the sum of all of our debts. In other words, it’s what we own minus what we owe.

According to the US Federal Reserve, the average family net worth increases from the time you are in your early thirties until you approach the end of your seventies. By 34, the average net worth comes in at $76,300 and increases to $436,200 by 44, $833,200 by 54, $1,175,900 by 64 and $1,217,700 by age 74.

Whenever I see these kinds of numbers I have to grapple with something – I have a higher net worth than the average American in my age group. Even saying that gives me a sense of discomfort. It kicks off all kinds of thoughts and feelings like “I shouldn’t be talking about how much I’m worth” and “I feel guilty about what I have when others have less” and also, “I am proud of what I have built”.

Most of all, recognizing my financial position as it relates to others creates a sense of near disbelief and confusion. It is as if my brain can’t quite reconcile the reality of the situation.

I didn’t start out with money. Far from it. "Rich" in the context of my upbringing was still relatively modest in the grand scheme of things. And while I didn’t spend a lot of time as a kid consciously thinking about money, I did have insecurities about what I wore, where I lived, and what I could afford compared to my peers.

That time of my life happened to be the period when, like many of us, I was figuring out who I was in the world. I was finding my identity, a process that naturally calls us to notice what makes us the same or different from others. To understand our own identity, and the groups to which we belong, we must distinguish how we compare to the people around us.

Back then, when I thought about people with money, I certainly wasn’t thinking about myself. They were the others. My inner dialogue sounded something like “Them, those people out there, they are the ones with money. Not me.” And for much of my life that was true.

Fast forward to today, and as you already know, that dialogue would no longer stand up against the reality of my financial situation. Despite what the average net worth tells me, I still feel the same as I did all those years ago when I placed myself in the group without money. Over time my circumstances have changed and I am now a member of a financial group with which I have never identified. That causes me some cognitive dissonance, or mental distress. As Chris Rock said in his recent Netflix comedy special “I’m rich but I identify as poor. My pronoun is broke.”

If the only consequence of a shift in identity was a little confusion or disbelief, it wouldn’t be much of a problem. The challenge is that our identity informs our behaviors and our beliefs about ourselves and others. Sometimes the old beliefs and behaviors we developed as part of our original identity no longer serve us as we change.

Consider that identity often involves notions of superiority and inferiority. As an example, one group might describe themselves as scrappy, frugal, and self-made and label another as lucky, entitled, or selfish. We define people, and thereby ourselves, based on the personal experiences that shaped us and sometimes those judgments are harsh.

Chris Rock talked about this in his routine. He started off by (jokingly) saying that he doesn’t like his daughters because they are rich and spoiled. He talked about how he grew up poor, going to Disney World as part of a church trip where they stayed in a run-down motel. He contrasted that with the lavish, all-access, behind-the-scenes trip to Disney that his daughters took growing up. He went on to joke about his daughter attending kindergarten and when the teacher said they were going to learn about the four seasons, she exclaimed “That’s my favorite hotel!”

Seeing his daughters grow up with every opportunity and convenience made him see them as part of a group he didn't particularly like, even though it was a group to which he now belonged. While they all shared the same wealth, they shared very few formative experiences, and thus have very different financial identities.

While I don’t think he was really airing out serious grievances in his relationship with his daughters, it does give us a sense of how our identities don’t always change along with our circumstances. Our lingering identities can lead to judgments and barriers in our relationships with others, and our relationship with ourselves.

Of course, the way we see ourselves also affects our behavior. For me, continuing to resist the idea that I have means affects my willingness to spend and take risks. It shows up in decisions large and small, from how big an Easter basket to buy my nieces and nephews, to how much I give to charity, to whether I hire someone in my business, to how much I save for retirement. I struggle at times to do things that I associate with being wealthier than I feel. Allowing those beliefs to go uncontested means I might make unnecessary sacrifices or miss out on opportunities to do something good for myself or others.

The times when I have pushed myself to take a risk or spend a little more generously have often brought me joy and success, even if they initially caused me some stress and anxiety. Having a better understanding of my identity and its associated beliefs and behaviors gives me an opportunity to catch them when they come up. From there, I can reflect on whether I want to indulge my default reaction or if I might need to do some more reflecting and consider a different choice.

The point isn’t to abandon our original identity. There are many things that I do naturally that serve me well and that I wouldn’t want to change. The idea is that we might need to reexamine some of the beliefs that developed as we formed our identities. As financial identity expert and developer of the Financial Identity Quiz, Keisha Blair says “The most successful, wealthiest, happiest and most productive people aren’t those from a particular financial identity, but rather those who have figured out how to harness the strengths of their financial identity, counteract the weaknesses and build holistically wealthy lives.”

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