When I finally asked my Dad what his income was

When I was in High School, I volunteered in the tutoring room of the local Boys and Girls Club. This wasn’t as altruistic as it sounds; I had to clock a certain number of volunteer hours a semester to stay in my school’s honor society. Regardless, a couple of times a month I would find myself in a room with elementary school students.

One of those times, and I’m not sure if this was a new thing or if I’d just never noticed it before, one of the kids pulled out a cell phone to show off to her friend. It wasn’t anything special, just some flip phone covered in stickers and what not, and I don’t even remember her friend being that impressed, but I was kind of taken aback.

You see, at that time (2008ish), my family of four only had two cell phones. One was my Dad’s and he used it mostly for work. The other one we bought for a foreign exchange student when she insisted she needed to chat with her friends and for her weekend trips to the mall. When she left, the phone was passed to my Mom, although she would loan it out to me or my sister if we had an event and would need to call home to be picked up.

The thing that struck me about this kid’s cell phone was that, even though she was younger than me and, I was sure at the time, was from a family with a lower economic status, she had a luxury that I didn’t. I was sure that my Dad made a lot of money as an engineer, but for the first time I was curious enough to ask for a number when I got home.

Well, I got my number. And even though I had no clue about how it stacked up with the world, I still realized it was pretty darn high. It was difficult, at the time, to reconcile that large income with 10+ year old cars and only two cell phones for the family. My parents helpfully pointed out that we went on at least one expensive vacation a year, but even that didn’t seem to add up.

It took me a while to realize that the difference between my family and the little girl’s wasn’t really in income, it was in spending. My family had it’s spending areas: vacations and health food, mostly, and the girl’s family had theirs: cell phones, for one. With my Dad’s salary, we could certainly afford to get a cell phone for everyone, but he didn’t see the need.

This was the first time that I realized that income and spending habits could be completely disconnected. At the time, I soothed my wounded pride by thinking that her family might be going into debt with luxuries like cell phones. I hadn’t thought of that before, that not everyone actually spent below their means. That those people in their shiny cars might be drowning in debt, or that the person in the ratty sweater might just be a doctor who liked to dress down on their off days. (The best example of this is the classic book The Millionaire Next Door. It’s a good read, if a little dry.)

This can be both a really damning revelation or a freeing one. It means that how much you spend, or save, is up to you, and you can’t just blame your financial situation on your lack of income. I’m coming to realize how important this is now that I am actually earning money. My coworkers are getting large apartments to themselves because they “can afford it”. But then again, I also bought my car new instead of used. Mostly, however, I choose to put money in my 401(k) instead of going out to bars.

And, yes, I did eventually get my own cell phone. It was a high school graduation present.

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