Ask a Fuck-Up

AAFU: I’m ashamed of being so broke

How can I stop comparing myself to my rich sisters?
Ask a Fuck-Up

AAFU: I’m ashamed of being so broke

How can I stop comparing myself to my rich sisters?

Brandy Jensen, The Outline’s associate editor, has made a lot of mistakes in her life. Has she learned from them and become a wiser person as a result? Hahaha oh gosh no. But it does leave her uniquely qualified to tell you what not to do — because she’s probably done it.

Dear Fuck-Up,

I am the middle of three sisters. We are all very smart, capable, and high achieving, and we have always been very close. Now that we're all in our late twenties and thirties, we've settled into career paths and relationships — which is great! My sisters work for big companies and make a lot of money. They're also both married to extremely wealthy people. I work in journalism, and so does my partner. Perhaps you can see where this is going.

My sisters are certifiably, ostentatiously rich. I live paycheck to paycheck. They travel the world, buy homes and brand-new cars, and are having babies. I live in a shitty rental that I can barely afford, have almost nothing saved for retirement. I exist in a state of constant panic that I could lose my job at any moment. I genuinely believe that I will never be able to own a home or start a family. I have side hustles for extra income and resent giving up my free time in order to make ends meet. I literally Googled "How to sell foot pics online" the other day.

I knew I was signing up for shit wages when I got into my chosen field. I honestly thought it wouldn't bother me. I hate to admit that it does! But I feel like a piece of human garbage whenever I'm with my family (and a lot of the time that I am not). I struggle to pay for things we do as a group, and I feel deeply ashamed when they offer to pay for me. I physically and financially can't host them in my home like they do for me in theirs. My younger sister just threw me an extravagant birthday party (which I did not ask her to do). It was such a nice gesture, but it made me want to die.

I realize that this dynamic is probably all in my head, but I still feel like a total failure. And it's starting to ruin my outlook on a career that I used to feel was worth the sacrifice because of its importance to society. I know I should feel lucky compared to many in the field — my beat is mostly interesting, I've won some awards, I have health insurance and my workload isn't as crushing as it used to be. But I haven't had a raise in three years, and there's no opportunity to advance at my current job. I've been applying to higher-level publications to no avail. Also, the national narrative of media hate is really bumming me out.

Should I stop complaining? Should I find a new career? Should I keep working and just accept my life and try to adjust my feelings accordingly? Do you know anyone who wants to buy pictures of my feet?

A financial mess

Dear Mess,

I’m answering your question from the comfort of my bed, the cracked frame of which announces its state of disrepair whenever I shift my weight. I cannot at the moment afford to buy a new one. That bed, of course, is situated in my apartment, which gets bad light and has a tiny kitchen and for which I currently owe two months back rent. I could go on — but suffice it to say I relate to your current situation.

A lot of people will relate to your question, because a lot of people spend approximately 70 percent of their emotional energy trying to figure out how to get the tiniest bit of financial breathing room. That Christmas check from your grandmother; a freelance gig that pays slightly better than average; discovering the earning potential of your well-manicured (or not?) toes — all pockets of air we’re so relieved to encounter it’s easy to forget that a just world would not have us gasping for them in the first place.

Try to remember that your financial and emotional anxiety is a necessary aspect of an economic system that excels at both producing and consuming it: more anxiety means more work for less money... which means more anxiety. It’s a beast that eats its own shit. The fact that you “knew what you were signing up for” by going into a sometimes-noble profession does not make any of this your fault, or in any way diminish your right to feel awful about it. There is no job that grants nobility to economic precarity — struggling does not build character, it serves no one save those who profit from our immiseration.

So, for the love of god please stop feeling bad about wanting to afford a vacation, or nice dinner out. These desires are not indulgent! You simply want a life.

I would encourage you to think hard about what a full and dignified life might look like for you. Not for your sisters or friends or anyone else to whom you might compare yourself. Do you really want a home? More importantly, do you actually want to start a family? If you do, seriously consider quitting your job and writing sponsored content or advertising copy instead. If you are moved by your current work, you can still do it in a freelance capacity. A lot of people in media are bizarrely fussy about what counts as “real” writing, or who counts as a real journalist. Those people have trust funds and their opinions do not count. Besides, it would be difficult but not-at-all impossible to come back to journalism in the future — you cannot go back and decide to have a baby. Some decisions are doors we close behind us; others are ones we lock. But there are ways to make things work to build a good life, even if you may not be getting everything you think you want.

But your life will never look like the ones your sisters lead, and that is fine. The truth is that you have no idea what hides behind their wealth: it could be a mountain of debt, or the creeping dread of realizing that the more they become accustomed to a certain lifestyle, the more they yoke themselves to their extremely wealthy partners. Maybe they secretly regret working for big businesses instead of for NGOs. Maybe they envy you.

Either way, if you continue to feel ashamed and anxious whenever they pick up the tab I guarantee it will curdle your relationships over time. There have been a few periods of relative financial stability in my own life and during those, one of my great joys was the ability to be generous with others. Your extravagant birthday party was a rounding error for someone truly wealthy — the equivalent of picking up a drink or two over happy hour. Learn to accept their gifts with grace, knowing they will love you all the more for letting them.

If that doesn’t work, simply remember that hoarding wealth in a world of unaccountable suffering is immoral and by accepting their generosity you are in fact granting them the favor of unburdening their souls. Let them pay for a pedicure should that Google search remain necessary.

A Fuck-Up

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