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.
lots of fighting early into our marriage tho. I’ve learned to loosen up a bit b/c I’ve climbed up the socioeconomic ladder.
— nom de plume (@nomdeplume1983) March 10, 2017
— The Financial Tech (@thefinancialtec) March 6, 2017
(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.
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.