Class, relationships and money: What happens when opposites attract?

couple holding hands

What happens when Hillbilly Elegy meets Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother?

(Oddly enough, JD Vance, author of the former, credits Amy Chua, author of the latter, as a key influence in his life and success – she was one of his professors at Yale).

There’s lots of talk about interracial relationships, but I’m just as interested – scratch that, I’m WAY more interested – in cross-class relationships. Ones in which partners hail from very different upbringings and class backgrounds. Class barriers are not as immediately visible as racial differences, but that doesn’t mean we should gloss over their power. We just have to work harder to identify and address them.

We’ve always had contrasting views on and approaches to money and career stuff. I’d always thought these stemmed from our wildly different personality types – and that is an important factor for sure – but I’ve come to believe that the biggest influence that shapes our approaches is our polar opposite upbringings.

Growing up white collar vs growing up blue collar

While Jessi Streib’s book The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages is hardly a definitive work on this topic (it’s based on interviews with a small group of white middle-class American couples, where one partner grew up blue-collar and the other white-collar), I personally found it hugely validating of my own experiences, and it even shed some light on things I hadn’t previously considered.

The main gist is that white-collar upbringings are associated with a more structured, managerial, proactive approach to not just money, but life in general. These partners tended to spend only after research and budgeting; save for the future; actively manage their careers; and plan and organise their time. Their blue-collar partners generally spent for today; bought without thinking; let weekends unfold at home and went with the flow.

In short, white-collar = planner, blue-collar = laissez faire. This was true of most, though not all cases in the book.

She makes the case that the class we’re born into leaves an imprint. Yet even after years together, the couples overlooked the ways class shaped their ideas and choices (rather perceiving these as stemming only from personality differences). Almost every couple interviewed were drawn to each other because of those differences, however many later felt that these became things they lived with but did not love. “The things that you’re drawn to sometimes become the things that drive you crazy,” one observed.

How class shapes attitudes and approaches to money

Money, unsurprisingly, was a key battleground. People like Aaron, who spent their childhoods imagining what they would spend once they had money. bought everything he wanted once he started earning. No longer bound by constraints, he used money to distance himself from his past. Despite leaving their original class behind, they retained the strategies they learned at home.

The strategies that worked for their parents, who typically had limited means, were spending when money was available and having faith it would work out. Worrying was pointless, since they would always have financial difficulties and no amount of planning or fretting would change that. Low savings weren’t a cause for concern, as they had always gotten by on a shoestring. And that was at complete odds with the views of their white-collar partners.

Of course, that’s not to say that this is a blanket, universal rule. Obviously, there are blue-collar families that are financially comfortable, and white-collar families that aren’t. And for some people, growing up without much can be a great incentive to build their own security.

I put a call out for thoughts from people in similar boats – cross-class partnerships – and was pleasantly surprised by how willing you guys were to engage on this subject. One thing is clear to me:  the PF blogging world is its own microcosm – who have mostly experienced quite the opposite of the dynamic Streib writes about!

Because he grew up with nothing, he’s arguably got more hustle than better-off peers.

If I dated a fellow silver spooner, I may not see as much drive and ambition in him and instead just complacency and entitlement.

We’ve also got quite a few hustlers who grew up with not much and paired off with more laissez faire, well-off partners.

(That said, there may well be a lot of overlap with typical immigrant values/mentality – because that’s another common thread among many of the people who replied.)

When class and cultural differences collide

Savvy Financial Latina and her husband grew up at different ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. Her family immigrated to the USA when she was 7 years old.

“On top of all the cultural differences (completely different discussion), my parents had money problems. They never spent more money than they ever had. Actually, they were always the ones with savings despite their low income. Family members and friends knew they could reach out to my parents for money. I learned quickly my parents were too nice and they have been burned (again another note). I would love to say even though my parents were poor, life was happy at home. In general, the lack of money combined with other life events, always, always caused a lot of stress in my family.

“I grew up knowing I didn’t want to be poor because when you are poor you have no options. I wished many times Superman would come rescue me and suddenly transport me to a new life. I had to work really hard to get to where I am today.

“On the other hand, my husband grew up in a fairly middle income class family. I say they were upper middle income class, but his family assures us they were lower middle income class. To this day, they don’t realize how blessed they are. As part of a “Jones” family, he always got what he wanted in life. Enough toys, vacations, etc.”

While coming from different backgrounds has definitely influenced their individual perceptions of money, she says they’ve slowly moved towards more of a happy medium after many years together.

“I’m definitely the more frugal person, always saving for tomorrow. I watch every penny, and although have loosened up to some extent, I still keep up with every penny. My main fear is not having enough money.

“I earn more money. I view work as a means to an end, but work hard to get the most out of it! My husband views life in a more relaxed way and thinks there should be more leisure. He doesn’t see the need to climb the ladder. I view more work, ultimately, as a blessing. He views more work hours as bad. I’m always thinking 5, 10, 15, 20 years ahead. My husband doesn’t think he’ll live past 45 LOL.

“I’m starting to loosen up a lot more. Especially when you compare me to 5-6 years ago. Now, I think the next couple of years will be finding a middle ground where we are saving enough for FI and enjoying life.”

A story of opposites

Here’s another story shared anonymously with me, where she and her husband are both savers and both make good incomes but essentially hail from different rungs of the ladder. While both of their families have always had blue collar jobs, her parents own a blue collar business that has enabled them to build wealth and given them many more glimpses of white collar life. His parents don’t talk about money period while hers do – all the time.

“My mom never grew out of her poverty mindset despite the wealth mine have built, which in turn left me with some poverty mindset for a while. It’s really bizarre to my husband to listen to my mom talk about how broke my parents are all the time when they aren’t really.

“My husband is only now starting to believe me that financial independence is a real thing…basically as we hit its early milestones. No one in his family has really ever retired, so it seems crazy to him as a possibility. If we wanted to spend MMM levels of money, we could quit working right now, both of us. But we don’t want to spend that little and my husband doesn’t want to retire before his parents. They already think it’s bizarre enough that just his income can support us – they have no concept of our household income and we mostly just avoid talking about money with them.”

His parents have no retirement savings – something she says she spends a lot of time worrying about, while her husband tries to avoid thinking about it.

Wedding planning has also highlighted the differences between their families.

“My husband’s extended family mostly don’t have passports so they likely won’t come, with that additional cost on top of flights. His parents and siblings are coming but they’ve definitely been telling us how expensive it is, while my parents are trying to save the $20/night hotel parking cost by parking at our place (that’s a firm no, parents!) during the event. My parents think we don’t have enough things on the registry, his parents should be paying for more things, etc. Weddings bring out so many class differences. My parents think we picked too expensive of a venue while his think the food sounds delicious. Honestly I have much less patience now for my parents trying to say they’re broke with his parents actually being broke.

“Vacation and travel planning is another difference. His parents and siblings all work blue collar jobs where they don’t know very far in advance if they can get the time off. So they pick dates before they book flights! This confuses the heck out of me because my parents would always adjust the dates to more reasonable prices so the dates were never final until they booked flights! My parents wanted to buy us a two week Christmas trip to somewhere warm this past year and it freaked the hell out of my husband. Their wedding gift being 10x his parents’ didn’t weird him out since that was a one off thing but he did not understand parents buying a trip for their grown children.

“I could probably go on about this stuff forever. I didn’t think our class differences were that severe but it turns out they’re more subtle than I realized.”

One thing is clear: it’s a journey but it does get easier – the beginning is the hardest. 

As one blogger put it:

Lots of trying to teach him long-term vision with money.

Progress is slow, but it’s getting better.

12 thoughts on “Class, relationships and money: What happens when opposites attract?

  • Reply Cath @ Get Money Wise August 1, 2017 at 23:26

    Loved reading this. Whilst coming from Australia I don’t think our class divides are that big and my husband and I came from similar backgrounds. But I can related to the white collar worker which is me being the planner and the blue collar worker which is my tradie husband being the more relaxed one just tending to go with the flow. It works for us.

  • Reply Erika (formerly Newlyweds on a budget) August 2, 2017 at 08:52

    I found this post fascinating, and was surprised that the book had mostly opposite experiences of the personal finance bloggers. I always assumed that growing up poor meant that people would manage money better as adults, whereas if you grew up wealthier, you wouldn’t know how to manage money as well because you never had to worry about money– and this was exactly the case for my husband and I. My husband’s family is definitely upper middle class, and my husband is pretty bad with money bc his parents always bailed him out, bought him his first car, etc. He just spent and figured money would come from somewhere. I saw my parents work hard and save, and we never went hungry, but they picked and chose what they spent their money on. We didn’t have annual vacations go glamorous places like my husband did, but we still had fun. Now I’m the money manager in our relationship and I’m constantly reigning in my husband’s spending. He’s gotten SO much better, but it’s still probably the number one thing we disagree about. It’s a delicate balance.

    • Reply eemusings August 2, 2017 at 09:19

      Yeah that’s interesting, I’d say in my experiences IRL at least, it’s more common that those who grew up without $$$ never learned how to manage it, so more in line with those quoted in the book. But obviously, the opposite can happen too – they can go to the other extreme because they never want to go back to where they were. There’s logic behind both!

  • Reply Sarah (Smile & Conquer) August 2, 2017 at 13:24

    Really interesting post, I loved all the different perspectives. My bf and I both grew up in similar socioeconomic situations but our parents deal with money differently. His are spenders and mine are savers, and you can see the impact that has had on both of us. There’s been some compromise along the way but we’ve made it work.

  • Reply Mao August 3, 2017 at 07:52

    This is a very interesting approach. For me, not only are my girlfriend and I interracial, we also had a very different upbringing. It’s interesting that my girlfriend never had much growing much, and yet she’s not the type that would do everything she can to make up what she didn’t have in her childhood. In fact, she complements me and teaches me that your value and family go way above anything money can bring. I shall write a post on this later. Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply Kate @ Making it Rain August 4, 2017 at 13:08

    What a great post! I, too, find cross-class relationships fascinating. Interesting how that plays out when you also throw a cross-cultural relationship into the mix. In my current relationship, I’d say we are from relatively similar social classes – middle to upper middle class – but my partner is Turkish. I have found that even the definitions of middle class and what types of privilege come along with that vary pretty significantly between North America and Turkey. As a for instance, he attended private school all of his life and this would be considered a very normal thing for any Turkish family making a good living to do. In Canada – pretty unimaginable. So despite coming from similar socioeconomic circles, our lived experiences and what money has afforded us are quite different. Fortunately, we have both landed in pretty similar spots now and are both responsible when it comes to money. Alleviates a lot of potential stressors and arguments in the relationship for sure. Thanks for a fun read!

  • Reply Link love | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) August 5, 2017 at 19:37

    […] Class, relationships, and money […]

  • Reply SP August 7, 2017 at 05:27

    I think one reason my husband I have a pretty easy time making money decisions together is that we had very similar socioeconomic upbringings. His parents definitely spent money differently than mine and had some different values, but we are generally coming from similar reference frames.

    And now, we both expect the same level of financial involvement/help from our parents (which is none).

  • Reply Ten Bucks a Week September 13, 2017 at 20:17

    Thanks for sharing. Selective sorting in marriage is a big cause for the increase in inequality these days so it is refreshing to see people marry outside their class.

  • Reply Femme September 17, 2017 at 15:49

    I relate more with the last blogger quote and the experiences shared in the book (though the differences were much greater in our case.) I think a lot of it has to do with how your own parents handled poverty or middle-classdom as to whether you’ll have drive or want to spend money when you have it, rather than simply being in those situations. The cultural norms are different for sure, but how we operate within those cultural norms depends so much on what we’ve had modeled for us.

    It will be interesting to see what the kids of these parents (including my own) grow up to do with their money since they’ll presumably have two different models–even if they’re working in conjunction with each other.

  • Reply Jing October 10, 2017 at 13:57

    This was SO interesting to read, I’m so glad I found this post! I grew up in a middle class immigrant family where my parents started out with nothing. Nevertheless, I personally believe my parents were great at managing money and I learned at a young age the tradeoffs I would have to make if I wanted to spend it. I didn’t always get what I wanted, but there were never any times I can remember where we were hurting for money.

    My current boyfriend is not terrible with money, but he had about $5k of credit card debt when we met. He generally doesn’t think twice about the consequences of spending money and will always assume there’s enough. I see that some higher spending amounts ($400+ travel) will stress him out, but other purchases in that range don’t. He grew up in an upper middle class family, and he said while he was unemployed, there were just things he had to have. He never really thought about spending money you didn’t have because that had never been an issue growing up, and the thought literally didn’t occur to him that he couldn’t afford it. I found that really interesting because he’s a perfectly reasonable person.

    On the flip side, my last boyfriend was terrible with money. Had tons of student debt, credit card debt, spent shamelessly on anything he wanted. He wasn’t splurging on every expensive item, but he wouldn’t think twice about dropping $40 on a meal. He grew up super poor and I definitely feel he had the “why worry about something I can’t control” mentality.

  • Reply Lyn October 11, 2017 at 19:00

    Very well written post. I want to be with someone that would have the same logic in personal finance as me but after reading this.. I’ll say “It’s impossible!” “And it didn’t matter, I’ll work the difference out”.

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