Welcome to Taking Stock, a space where we can take a deep breath and try to figure out what the COVID-19 economy really means for our finances. Every month, personal finance expert Paco de Leon will answer your most difficult, emotionally-charged questions about money. This year has forced many of us to reprioritise our finances, and there’s no clear road map for getting through the pandemic yet — but Taking Stock is here to help us figure it out together.
This week, we hear from a reader worried about how their judgmental family will bring up their financial situation and employment status when they meet during the upcoming festive season. The winter break can be especially stressful when those around you make you feel ashamed of your life, and this anxiety has become more heightened during the pandemic when many people are struggling with money and to find steady work.
I’m dreading the upcoming festive season. I know that I’m lucky to be able to spend it with any family at all this year, but gatherings are always hard because of how judgmental my family is about my career and how I handle my money. I haven’t really found my career footing yet, and when I’ve been unemployed in the past or working a temporary gig, my family has always made it clear that I’m not living up to my potential. I should be pursuing a cushier corporate job where I have a “future,” and it’s obvious they think getting unemployment money is kind of embarrassing.
This year, due to COVID-19, I’m unemployed once again and I’m already thinking about what kinds of passive-aggressive comments will come my way. I don’t understand why they’re so judgmental, but also why I care so much. It’s like a part of me agrees with them — it’s my fault I’m not further ahead in life.
I feel I can't talk about my life, because if they think I spent money on something not strictly necessary to survive, that just cements that I am irresponsible and lazy. Is there a way I can prove to them that I'm doing pretty much my best with the resources I have right now? Do I show them my bank account so they can see just how dicey things are? Are there any statistics or financial expertise I could quote at them to show that I'm not just being stupid about money?
How do I redirect this embarrassing, infuriating festive conversation in a way that doesn’t cause a big fight but also helps them realize how awful the financial condescension is?
Dear Unemployed and Infuriated,
Navigating a festive dinner is hard enough without a global pandemic and its economic consequences looming in the back — or more often, in the front — of our minds.
There are definitely some facts that can shed light on the dire economic straits many people find themselves in today. Here are some notable ones:
We’re experiencing higher levels of job insecurity relative to 30 years ago.
30 years ago, it was much more common for companies to directly hire their workers — from the janitorial staff to the administrative support to warehouse workers. Now, it’s much more common for companies to indirectly hire workers as contractors — oh, the joys of the gig economy. These informal workers often are paid less, don’t have access to benefits, and they don’t have traditional employers that are invested in their career growth. In general, gig workers lack long-term job security.
Wages haven’t grown significantly since the 1970s. According to the Economic Policy Institute, between 1979 and 2018, productivity has increased 6 times faster than wages. In other words, workers are now producing 69.3% more, but wages have only increased by 11.6%.
The cost to buy or rent a house has increased steadily over the years, especially when compared to real wage growth. According to a study by RENTCafé, the national average rent rose by 36% in the past decade. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that housing prices were 780.43% higher in 2020 compared to 1967, accounting for inflation.
The cost of university has skyrocketed, but more often than not, a university degree is required for a good-paying job. From 1969 to 2019, the average annual cost of a four-year public university soared by 3,009%.
And lastly, the increasing cost of healthcare and the lack of access to it — since it’s often tied to employment — means (in America at least) most people are just one medical emergency away from a financial disaster.
Those are the facts, and I’m sure you can find more to arm yourself with. But I’ll venture to guess that the conversation around the dinner table is mostly not a presentation of facts — it’s emotional, and it highlights the differences in values that you and your family have.
It’s normal for your family to be concerned and to feel worried about your ability to be financially independent. I think trying to see things from their perspective and trying to see their intentions, even if their execution is flawed, might help you feel better about these interactions. And since you ultimately may not be able to change anyone’s mind, a good way to manage your own expectations of others is to remind yourself that their perspective is out of your control. You can only try to understand them and hope that they have the decency to try to understand you too.
Everyone has their own stories and their own values, especially when it comes to money. Each of us has our own understanding of how we think money works in the world, and it comes from our life experiences and how we interpret those experiences. Society, family members, teachers, media, and daily interactions inform our worldview. Traumas about security or scarcity can be imprinted on us. And if your family members don’t take the time to examine how these stories came to exist within them, they turn into beliefs that get pushed on to you. I’m sure in their mind they’re helping you navigate your life, not being hurtful, condescending jerks. They see the world differently than you do, and that’s where this friction is coming from.
I think one of the best things you can do is to dedicate time and energy towards understanding and unearthing your own feelings and beliefs about money, value, and self-worth. A journal is a great tool for this. Here are some questions I encourage you to explore.
What is your core belief about yourself and money? Where did you learn these beliefs? Get specific. Find examples — literal stories in your life that support how you developed these core beliefs. Once you know where they come from, you can ask yourself if these beliefs are true or stories you’ve internalised and believed to be true. Now you can decide if you still want these beliefs to guide your life.
Go further and explore money experiences that have resulted in feeling shame or guilt. What do you believe about yourself in these instances? Are they true? Whose shame and guilt are you carrying? Is it yours? Is it the internalized puritanical values that our country was formed on?
Is it true that your family doesn’t think you’re living up to your potential because you don’t have a corporate cushy job? Or do they not think you’re living up to your potential for other reasons? Do you think you’re living up to your potential? Why is this something that is important for you to do?
I hope this process can help you begin to take control of your own feelings. Once you’re able to, you can also start taking responsibility for the position you’re in, regardless of how you got into that position. Taking responsibility doesn’t absolve other people’s condescension, and it doesn’t make capitalism any less oppressive — but once you realize you can decide how you feel, you realize you can also decide what actions to take. When you own your shit, you can start to feel a sense of control, in spite of your circumstances.
While it’s important to be practical and to earn a living that supports a safe life where you can foster your well-being, I hope you can realize something I believe to be true: Your value in society, and in your family, does not come from how well you play the game of capitalism. You are valuable because you’re a human being.
I don’t know what your family dynamic is like, and how open they would be to an earnest dialogue about how their good intentions are causing you pain, but I hope that you can find a way to communicate with them openly so that their experiences are perspectives you can draw from instead of adding to intergenerational trauma that you carry with you.
Your financial friend,
Are you worried about your financial circumstances or employment status coming up over the festive period this year? Tell us your experiences here, and check back next week for a follow-up story on how R29 readers’ are dealing with conversations with judgmental family members during COVID-19.
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