how do I not feel jealous of my wealthier coworkers?

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I grew up in deep poverty with an extremely dysfunctional and abusive set of parents. It was not the “money and food were tight sometimes, but we always had love” kind of poverty. I ultimately aged out of the system when I was 18 and managed to accumulate a massive amount of student debt and graduate right into the recession. I have little contact with my family.

However, I currently work at a wealthy university. Most of the students and my colleagues are way more privileged than I can ever hope to be. Most have very little, if any, student debt, and supportive families. I am often the only person like this that they know. I am never sure how to handle situations where people are discussing things that are so far out of my league, like buying houses, traveling, kids and families, etc.. People aren’t doing it maliciously or to rub it in my face, but just part of the everyday conversation. I don’t want to be a martyr and say that their experience is nothing compared to mine because I understand that everyone has their own personal issues and trauma and it is all valid. But at the same time, I get tired of the pity and the false “proudness” that people give me when I explain my background. Sometimes I wanna scream when people talk about how they got this house for a steal at $250,000 or how they had to alter their yearly European vacation when I am over here proud I have a checking and savings account with actual money in it. How do I handle these situations and not feel jealous all the time?

Readers, what’s your advice?

{ 546 comments… read them below }

  1. CT*

    I struggle with this a lot too. We live in an extremely affluent community, and my husband grew up on food stamps. We both left college with massive amounts of debt that really inhibited us starting our lives the way many of our neighbors got to.

    I try to frame it that way for myself, and accept that we began our adult lives at a debt disadvantage. I work to find pride in my own accomplishments (my new car, for example, or the house we were able to buy later in life as opposed to in our 20s), rather than focusing on the financial ease I perceive in other’s lives.

    I also tend to try to gently educate my neighbors and friends on the wealth gap, and how it affects others. I advocate for affordable housing in our community to diversify our neighborhood. Perhaps you could do this for candidates in new roles in your organization!

    Anyway, this is just how I deal with it. I’m not perfect, and some days are harder than others.

    1. The Rural Juror*

      I have been very vocal about only being able to afford my condo (new homeowner this year, yay!) because I took advantage of an affordable housing program in my city. I *barely* qualified, so unfortunately my friends who make a little more than I do wouldn’t be able to use the program. But I want anyone else around to know they should look into programs and see what help they could get, even for down payment assistance.

      Some days it is definitely hard. A lot of people congratulating me when they heard I bought would say something like, “Oh! Nice! Now you’ll be able to sell it a couple of years and make so much money!” Yeah…no, that’s not the way that program works. It is specifically set up for people like me to keep our cost of living low in a city that is only getting more and more expensive (and has a huge housing shortage, like much of the good ol’ U.S.ofA.). I can’t turn around and just sell it for a profit. I NEED to live there because it’s what I can afford.

      Yes, I’ve been able to accomplish something huge like purchasing a home. But I didn’t do it without help. I think what I’ve been more proud of was doing all the research and navigating a system that wasn’t easy to understand.

      1. Alana*

        Commenting to say two things:

        1) I love your 30 Rock reference in your username.
        2) I completely agree with what you said. Being proud of your accomplishments because they are YOUR goals and not some other “goal” someone set for you (like selling your condo in a couple years) is huge. I feel like in the era of social media we’re in right now, it’s commonplace to flaunt wealth like no other. It makes us feel inferior, when in reality, everyone’s life trajectory is different. I’m in my mid-20s and no where near ready to purchase a house or a fancy car – in my mind, those come second to traveling and potentially living/going to grad school abroad. That’s MY goal – and I’ve had to learn that other people’s life trajectories do not and should not affect mine.

      2. Seven If You Count Bad John*

        I’ve never quite understood the “You can sell it in a couple years” people, unless they are literally flipping houses or buying houses specifically as second rentals, (in which case we are very much not in the same financial class anyway) because no, the point of buying a house is **never having to move again**

        1. ThatGirl*

          This is true for some people, but it actually can be a good way to build wealth – I detest moving with the fiery passion of a thousand suns, but we’ve been in our current house ten years, so we have a decent amount of equity in it and we could sell it for more than we paid for it and have a decent down payment for a nicer house.

          1. NotAnotherManager!*

            Same. We’re in our second house – buying the first one was financially challenging and took a while, but, once we built some equity in that one, it more than covered the downpayment on our current home and made our monthly payments much less than renting a similar house would cost us. I loathe moving, but I also like our current home a lot more – much more useful layout.

            This is also not my forever house – I’m not staying in DC a moment longer than I have to, so we’re leaving in the next 5-10 years, depending on if we decide to leave after the kids’ HS or college years.

              1. ursula*

                Yeah as someone who also struggles with this, and whose biggest trigger for feeling unsafe/insecure/upset is the fact that I will literally never be able to buy property in the city that is my home, it’s very LOL that the first comment thread on this page turns into a side conversation about owning homes. (To be clear, I don’t begrudge anybody here their accomplishments and/or good luck – it’s just that this often seems to be how these conversations go!)

                1. ThatGirl*

                  Ack, certainly not my intention, sorry. I live in the Midwest; houses are not *cheap* in Chicagoland but they’re not stupid expensive either. There are definitely cities where we’d be priced out of the market.

                2. Seven If You Count Bad John*

                  Something I notice about these threads is that everyone seems to have a “We were FINALLY able to afford” story, but the period of time before “FINALLY” comes around has a range from a few years to several decades. The person who graduated into the 2008 recession and is now nearly 30 and “finally” buying their own home, has not (yet, cross fingers, bless them) had the same kind of bad luck as the person who graduated into the dot com bust of the 90’s, went through the post-9/11 crash, survived the 2008 recession and is now nearly 50 “finally” able to buy their first home. But the mood is the same!

                3. CmdrShepard*

                  @seven Maybe this is nitpicky is so I apologize, but someone that graduated college into the 2008 recession would likely be 35 (assuming age 22 at graduation and in four years) to 37 (assuming age 24 at graduation and needed 6 years) I would call that nearly 40.

                  But your overall point still stands.

                  I get how in can be frustrating to hear about people who are in a better financial situation, but I think it can also be helpful.

                  While I did not grow up poor (always had food and roof over our heads) my family was not in the best financial situation. Certain things like stocks, mutual funds, or other investments are not things my parents really had a concept of. My dad was fortunate that a wealthy person he worked for (in a service position) talked to him about mutual funds and investing.

                  I would say I am more familiar than my parents with stocks, mutual funds etc… part of that is because I was able to take business classes in school but also because I was around people teachers, friends parents etc… that talked about it.

                  The house can be a good example. If you grew up poor and all you know is renting, you might not know about concepts such as starter homes, down-payment assistance, low or no down-payment programs building initial equity with starter homes to buy your forever home.

                  I am not saying everyone can do this and they just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I acknowledge the very real systemic issues that makes being poor cost more versus having money and that most people can’t save any money. But for some people maybe even OP building wealth can start with checking/savings account and grow from there.

        2. ErinWV*

          Not sure what program(s) The Rural Juror went through, but when my husband and I bought/mortgaged our home in 2016 we used an FHA loan for first-time home buyers, which was specifically closed to people buying a second home or home to be used as a rental property.

          1. The Rural Juror*

            I tried that route first, but every place my realtor and I looked into wouldn’t accept an FHA loan. Condos (which is all I could afford in my city) have to file paperwork with HUD in order to accept that type of loan, and most of them won’t keep up with it to make it current (unless they were brand new and required to file, but they were too expensive for me). My options with FHA were pretty much non-existent. That won’t be the case for every city, though.

            1. Fred*

              Just to finish out this topic, please contact your bank and city and county agencies when looking to buy a first home. They will know all the non profits that assist with this in their area and often offer financial and homeowner classes and financial aid.

              1. All the words*

                Coming just to echo this. Or do a search for “first time homebuyer (state)” or homebuyer assistance (state). The city/county programs can be used in conjunction with the state programs. Some have income limits but most don’t, and FHA financing isn’t required. Almost all states have these programs. Too many lenders don’t just offer up this information to prospective borrowers (they’re a little more work for them).

                As to how to get past feeling sometimes envious/resentful around the wealth inequality I wish I had an answer. I’m in the same boat (The SS Precariat). It can be brutal to one’s mental health.

        3. FreakInTheExcelSheets*

          Same but there are weird people out there who don’t mind moving lol. So not me – when I bought my house I said I wasn’t moving for at least 10 years unless I had a full service move through work or something similar. Someone brought up “what if you get married” and I said my theoretical husband could either move into my house or pay for the full service move. This of course then brought up calling it my vs our house and I’m always astonished at the number of women who think I should give up my only real financial asset (my car isn’t worth much at this point and my 401k is doing pretty well but I basically pretend that account doesn’t exist since I can’t touch it for 30+ years without penalty). Nope – I saved up for the down payment and I’ve been paying the mortgage and maintenance so there is no way anyone else’s name is going on the deed.

          1. Caroline Bowman*

            This completely.

            Through incredible good luck and the generosity of my beloved granny, I was able, at a very young age, to purchase a modest flat (to live in!!) in a very pricey city in England, where I was living at that stage, working very much entry-level jobs, certainly not able to do anything like this off my own sad earnings, but as seems to be standard, once you have a mortgage, the monthly payments are quite often significantly lower than rent, so that down payment was a huge blessing in many ways. Anyway, there I lived, with very little disposable income, but gradually making small improvements, with housemates, for a few years and then I met my now-husband. Eventually he moved in with me (STILL MY FLAT!!) and then we got married (STILL MY FLAT), had a baby… you get the picture.

            Time went by and we wanted to move back to our home country, but try and retain the flat. It had gone from being my precious, beloved owned-by-me home to a possible investment… for *both* of us. Basically, things change as time goes on. If our now-nearly-20-years-and-3-kids-marriage were to end in divorce, I’d get back the original down payment plus the payments made over the years before we were married, but it’s worth a very large amount more now, and my husband has put a considerable amount of money and time and all that stuff into it, so… he’d be reasonable to expect getting something out, right? So yes. It is mine, no question, but over the decades, it’s really ”ours”.

        4. Koala dreams*

          No, the point of a house is to live there, even if you might need to move in the future. Many people can’t afford to live in the same house their entire life, because of a myriad of reasons. (Finances, job market, health issues, family issues…)

          1. Krabby*

            I so agree with this. I really wish that we would, on a global scale, stop treating property as a commodity/investment and start treating it like the necessity and human right that it should be.

          2. Anastasia*

            There’s also the fact that moving is so, so expensive. Even for people who aren’t low-income. Perhaps I’m jaded from multiple international moves (early-career academic), but the main thing I’m looking forward to about my family’s *next* move is that it will be our *last* move (tenure-track job offer!) and we’ll *finally* be able to afford a house.
            And as both myself and my spouse grew up rural and… not wealthy… we are also both frequently frustrated by academic colleagues’ assumption of wealth as a given; I was angry for *weeks* after a meeting in which a really intensive outreach program to local high schools was being discussed. The longstanding arrangement is that they only do this program with the local private schools; several wanted to include public high schools; and a couple people scoffed and said “I really don’t think the public school kids will be able to keep up.” The reactions, and comment itself, made it so *painfully* obvious that I was the only one in the room that had attended public school…

        5. Eukomos*

          It would be nice if you could do that, but it’s not always practical. A friend of mine just made a lot of money on a house sale but he didn’t move in order to cash in, he had another child and they realized they wanted more space. Life happens, things change, most people will move again at some point, even if they own their house.

          1. Seven If You Count Bad John*

            Yes of course, but in the meantime, your friend has been *living* in their house. I’m not saying it’s wrong to ever move or that plans never change! That happens all the time (I have a friend right now in the opposite situation–they’re downsizing and moving to be closer to the kid’s recently widowed grandmother.)

            I was reacting to “In a couple of years you can sell it for a profit” to which my response would be “but why would I want to do that?” because the implication to me, is that the *primary concern* should be the resale value and not, say, having stable housing whose price doesn’t fluctuate. I mean, YES, if I have to move for some *other* reason, selling it for a profit is definitely preferable to taking a loss, but that’s not the reason we bought the house.

            *We moved a LOT when I was a kid and as an adult, stability is A Thing for me. Finally being able to buy a place removed the annual stressor of receiving the new rental rate and wondering if this is the year we’re going to have to move again in a hurry or can we afford to stay put for a few more months. It’s definitely a Sam Vimes Boots situation.

            1. The Rural Juror*

              Exactly. People immediately going to the “make money on the sale” idea seemed to gloss over the fact that I purchased the home through a program for people with LOWER INCOME. The resale of the home is not my primary concern. Stability and being able to afford to live in my city are my primary concerns! I don’t want to move every time I get priced out a neighborhood (and moving costs, even when you’re using your own vehicle and friends’ muscles).

          2. PT*

            We bought our house with that in mind. We want to stay in our house!, but we are aware that it’s not always possible. So we chose our neighborhood and house carefully, to make sure that our house would appreciate and in the event we had to move, we’d have plenty of options.

            1. Caroline Bowman*

              This totally. Our family home was carefully chosen to be A/ in an affordable neighbourhood generally (for us), but as ”nice” as we could manage, in a very solid school district, carefully assessing likely trajectory over years, because yes, people do sell and of course in that event, wanting to sell for a profit is… not a crime, surely?

              I don’t think building wealth carefully and organically over a life is the Root of Capitalist Evil. It’s okay to do that.

        6. iglwif*

          I don’t get it either. My spouse and I live in a 2-bedroom condo we bought in 2006, and unless the building literally crumbles around us I can’t imagine ever needing to move. When we bought this place, our kid was 4; now she’s in her second year of uni. She may end up coming back to live here for a while, anything’s possible and that would be fine with us, but … it’s not like we need *more* space now than we did when we were a young and potentially growing family!

          And yet people are always asking us when we’re going to get a bigger place…

        7. PollyQ*

          Not being forced to move because a landlord doesn’t renew your lease is A plus to owning your own home, but it’s not the THE only point. My parents have owned 5 different homes in their lives, precisely because they did move, and they were fortunate that the finances of it worked out for them. Renting for all those years just because they weren’t sure they’d be in the same location forever would’ve been a silly choice. Personally, I hate to move but can’t afford to buy a home where I live, so I’ve been in my rental for almost 17 years now.

          1. WulfInTheForest*

            But for a lot of people that IS the only point. I don’t want a house because of how it looks, or because of how the finances work out, or even because I can paint the walls whatever color I like. I want a house because I don’t want to ever face being evicted and homeless again. Housing insecurity has ruled my entire life, and the sole reason I want to stop renting is so that I can provide my child with the kind of stability I never had when my parents rented.

            1. PollyQ*

              And that’s fine, and it’s a perfectly reasonable preference on your part and for the many people who agree with you. But it’s not a universal truth that all homebuyers inevitably share, which is the statement I was responding to.

            2. Alex*

              I think this is the kind of sentiment the LW also has. Although I didn’t have the same experiences as you, stability is why I am trying to save up too. For some people a house is a financial instrument but for so many of us it’s a dream of stability.

              1. Caroline Bowman*

                For some of us, it’s both. I had an incredibly stable, happy childhood. My dad came from very little (but loving, stable etcetera), my mum came from solid middle-class. I despise moving, dislike large-scale change generally and have no wish to hop through homes, it’s just an exhausting concept, regardless of any other concerns. I think there is nothing wrong with viewing one’s home as a possible future financial tool AND a safe place to live that fulfils one’s needs. Why should it not be both, why must it be either-or? I mean, people move for all kinds of reasons, should they apologise for their house increasing in value? I understand that the kernel of the problem is uber-wealthy people buying up swathes of what should be accommodation, then holding absolute sway over others, pricing them out of homes etcetera, but there is a continuum, and a couple of rental flats as a retirement plan is not evil. There is A LOT of work that goes into maintaining those kinds of investments, more than I would want in my retirement years, but it’s not wrong per se, in my opinion.

        8. Spicy Nonprofit Iconoclast*

          I mean, I bought a 750ft2 1BR condo because: 1) I could afford it, 2) because I didn’t want to spend more on that 2BR that would tempt me into having roommates because I’m frugal and would have a financial panic one week and be stuck with a roommate for a ywar; and 3) I wanted predictability in my living situation. However, 1BR condo is great for a single person in their 30s, and not great for a partner that moves in afterward. I always intended to live in my condo for 4-5 years, then sell it. The market where I live is such that I will make a little bit of money with this system.

          Despite common belief, condos aren’t just vacation homes or luxury pads in urban centers. They are also an important part of the housing stock for lower income people, for individuals or small families, for older people, and for other groups who want to buy but don’t want a house. In fact, they allow for more efficient homeownership. Without the popularity of the condo or the co-op, I would either never be able to own OR I would eventually have bought a single family home, where I would have lived alone. With our current housing crisis, we should be more cognizant of how many bedrooms we take up in the housing market. When a couple without children buys a 5BR house or a Boomer chooses not to downsize, that means there are far fewer bedrooms occupied than could be.

          Owning an apartment (essentially what condos, townhomes, and co-ops are) wouldn’t be such a good financial decision if the housing crash had not exponentially increased the cost of rent. Now, my condo costs the same as a low-quality market rate 1BR rental, but I get equity and a much higher quality place.

          1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

            I will give a pass to boomers who hang onto the house they raised their families in – at least definitely in my area. We are being priced out of neighborhoods left and right by folks coming in from about five different states. What happens is you can easily sell for a decent to very good price – but there is absolutely NO guarantee that you will be able to find anything else smaller that is reasonable. I have no intentions on moving out of the house I now own at any point in the foreseeable future – because I couldn’t afford to replace what I’ve sold.

            1. Sleeping Late Every Day*

              That’s my situation to some degree. My husband and I bought our small affordable house twenty years ago. Prices have gone crazy in the meantime, and if we ever want to move, we’d get a lot for our house – but we’d never be able to afford to buy something else, because they’d cost even more.

            2. mmppgh*

              Exactly. This is playing out all over the country. Housing is insane.

              If you own a house free and clear (as many Boomers do) why sell it and go through the hassle of finding another house, renting, or moving?

        9. Amber Parker*

          Sometimes if a program is used to help purchase a home, if you resell it, there is a mechanism to recapture funds out of your profit. Usually you need to live there 10 years before you can sell at full market price and keep all the profit.

        10. Koalafied*

          People may or may not sell and move after buying a house. But it’s a sign of how out of whack the economy is when housing is considered an investment, as opposed to a depreciable asset. Houses themselves deteriorate over time and if that was the only thing determining price, houses would always lose money over time, the way same cars do. The reason they don’t is because the land that they’re on keeps rising in value. In a lot of cities this is linked to exclusionary zoning and housing shortages – they just aren’t building enough housing in the places where people want to live and that competition for location grows as the population grows, driving the prices up, up, up.

          And for my 2c, it does something ugly to a lot of people when their entire net worth is tied up in the value of their home. When their capacity to send their kids to college is dependent on their home maintaining or increasing its value. You will hear some of the most regressive ideas dressed up in progressive language espoused by wealthy liberals in high COL areas who very much want to think they’re still progressives, but who find a lot of regressive ideas appealing once their $150,000 home appreciated to $850,000 in ten years. Ideas that their younger selves would have seriously side-eyed when it was just an abstract idea, but suddenly looked different when it became about their own tangible financial security.

        11. TeaCoziesRUs*

          We’re a military family… so we have to keep the short-term in mind. We’ve had a house that we couldn’t make a profit from at the time we moved, so it turned into a rental. We are just now getting ready to sell it, a decade later. Yes, it was nice that we were in a high turnover area because there were only a few months in the past decade where we didn’t have tenants. But it’s still been a worry. And now we’re at the point in his career where we’ll be moving approximately every 2 years. Unless we luck out, like we did in Colorado, we’re probably renting for the next decade. (And yes, I realize this doesn’t address LW’s concerns. But I’m trying to give grace to SOME of the “every two years” people. Not all of us are flippers. :) )

        12. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          The point of buying a house is to be able to do what you want with it – live in it or rent it out, do it up this way or that without having to ask the landlord for permission. Then if your life takes you this way or that, you can sell or rent it out. People who buy do tend to stay put more, mostly because you buy the best possible place and can’t imagine finding anything better, and because you do need a certain amount of stability in your life in order to buy (unless you’re filthy rich of course).

      3. Been There*

        Yes, I was only able to buy in my city through a similar program (and a lot of help from family), and it’s one of the reasons I’m quite open about my finances.

      4. L'étrangere*

        Rural Juror, may I interject a small note of caution? No matter what your intentions of moving or not may be, I hope you are not explaining to co-workers that you are pretty much obligated to stay put geographically. It can definitely bite you when your employer is aware that for some personal reason you are not at liberty to move away for a better job. I’ll spare you the long sad story..

    2. Chauncy Gardener*

      My husband and I joke that we married each other for our debt. lol!! We both came to the marriage with nothing BUT debt. We managed to buy a total fixer upper and did all the work ourselves when we could afford it. It’s still not perfect (almost 30 years later), but it’s ours. It is hard to see everyone else’s perfect house and yard sometimes, but I tell myself that we don’t have two sets of parents helping us physically and financially and with childcare (God forbid THAT) and we’ve done it all ourselves. We don’t owe anyone anything!
      There are a lot more of us out there than you think, too
      And GOOD FOR YOU for everything you’ve been able to accomplish!!

    3. Not So NewReader*

      I am a fan of becoming an advocate for others. I am vocal about grant opportunities that can help individuals and organizations. Yeah, maybe some karma idea going on there, too, as in what we toss out there to the world eventually comes back our way. My suggestion here is to make it part of your identity that you are very interested in helping others to succeed. If nothing else, it’s a feel good thing when we are able to help someone. I remember a friend with tears in their eyes saying, “…. and because of the grant I can KEEP my house. I won’t lose my house.” oh my, I almost started tearing up also.

      I am also a fan of keeping charts for longer term goals. I have the amortization schedule for my mortgage on the fridge. Each month I cross off a payment. With money being tight, I have to make myself remember this is what success looks like. You might find satisfaction in building your own financial plan, if you have not already. If that sounds daunting, just plan the next 5 years, do that much and see where it puts you. It’s nice to affirm that you have your own goals and you are successfully working on them, even if you cannot always share these goals with others.

      Just my opinion, but I found a lot of satisfaction in living modestly and keeping my needs modest. Life is simpler and more enjoyable. And there are days where pangs hit that I missed out on this or that. I think learning to accept some of those pangs as part of life is a supportive thing to do for one’s self. In a stupid example, when family member talks about their boat, it’s not a problem because at my core I have very little interest in boating. I can see that even if I had money I would not be spending it on boats. Sometimes you can let stuff go using this method of realizing who you are at your core.

      I don’t think it’s realistic to expect all pangs to go away. But I think a good goal is to look for ways to lessen their impact. Please know that time will be kind and this will not always be as hard as it is right now. You still have your mind and your hands, you can use your mind and your hands to get yourself to a different space. I told myself this for many years.

      1. Despachito*

        “I found a lot of satisfaction in living modestly and keeping my needs modest. Life is simpler and more enjoyable. ”

        I very much second this!

        ” In a stupid example, when family member talks about their boat, it’s not a problem because at my core I have very little interest in boating. I can see that even if I had money I would not be spending it on boats. ”

        I actually consider this is a great example. If someone is buying something I do not really fancy, there is no need for me to feel frustrated about it.

      2. Sylvia*

        Totally! I have experienced this satisfaction too. While I completely hated the life phase of not having enough money to cover basic necessities like food and rent, the phase that came after, having-enough-money-to-live-frugally has been mostly enjoyable. I love simple living, thrifting, refinishing and repainting furniture, DIY, eating from the garden, cooking at home, cheap wine, and camping–I would do those things even if I was a millionaire.

        I used to be jealous of people who travelled overseas until I realized most of them were going there to 1) stay in an expensive resort with other Americans, or 2) ride around on a tour bus with other Americans taking pictures. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not something I would enjoy (I like interacting with the locals), so the jealousy disappeared.

    4. Rara Avis*

      My daughter attends the expensive private school where I teach (at a huge discount). Her science class did a climate footprint exercise where they had to use the square footage of their house. Our (rented) house that we can barely afford in this HCOL area? 1300 square feet. Her lab partner’s? 10,000. I just have to reframe it in my mind — the wealth of the customer keeps me employed.

      (And I don’t think our tuition is unreasonable — the single biggest factor in the tuition is salary and benefits — to attempt to pay us enough to live in this area and to keep class size maxed at 22, the tuition has to be what it is.)

    5. CrazyBroke*

      I grew up with loving, but drug addicted and alcoholic parents and very often our home would be without electricity or dinner.
      I often assumed my neighbours were rich and spoilt as they always seemed to have fresh clothing on the clothesline or sit down together for at least three meals a day. In a misguided attempt to make me feel better, my parents would tell me pyjamas and school uniforms were for spoilt idiots. (Yeah in our family each child only had 2 sets of clothes).
      Now mind you I grew up in a working class area, and most of the people working had similar incomes.
      Growing up I was brewing with resentment as to why the neighbours kids seemed to have everything, whilst in our family, butter was a luxury.

      It was only when I grew up that I began to realise that I would have had a decent childhood if my parents had their priorities sorted and looked after us properly in the first place.
      It also finally dawned on me that my family was the only one on the block with 7 children while everyone else had up to 3.

      I grew up struggling not to envy or resent my peers and colleagues. I knew deep down in my heart that they had nothing to do with my lacklustre upbringing. But I often need to remind myself to stop misdirecting my anger at others and focus on my own achievements.

      1. Mannequin*

        Thanks for mentioning the value of perspective. We just had someone recently move out of our house who had a similar attitude about my husband (blue collar labor) and I (disabled) who struggle with financial & food insecurity and do NOT come from backgrounds of wealth. In fact, they are in college and moved out because they transferred from community college to a prestigious university in a different city (and more power to them!), when my husband only graduated HS because of independent study & I dropped out of college <1 year because of undiagnosed executive function disorder & learning disabilities.

        It just floored me to have (ie) belongings like kitchen goods/cookware treated completely carelessly as if we had all kinds of extra money to replace items that get lost or broken when it hasn’t been that long ago that I was washing & reusing ziploc bags because I couldn’t afford to throw them away after a single use.

  2. Morticia*

    It sounds like you’ve been through a lot, and I think it could be more than just the poverty of your childhood that’s colouring your reactions. Do you have an EAP? Maybe some counselling would give you more perspective and some coping strategies.

    1. GRA*

      I agree – therapy is a wonderful thing, and I would definitely recommend it to the OP. If you have a health plan through your employer, you also may be able to find a therapist who takes your insurance.

    2. npoqueen*

      I agree here. I also worked at a wealthy university early in my career and many of my coworkers were wives to high-salary husbands. I was the least paid and the only single person on the team, so I was definitely not able to relate to some of the conversations. One thing to do is perhaps redirect the conversation to something that everyone can participate in, maybe like TV shows or a sports ball game. Do they have hobbies that you share, like cooking or knitting or long walks around the city? Pets or volunteer activities? But also, EAP might be able to direct you to some counseling services; I’m not sure what your company offers, but I believe most universities have a program that allows up to five free counseling sessions and the offer to find low- or no-cost options when those sessions run out. It’s hard not to feel jealous when you hear about the great things others are doing! Many people, even some of those same coworkers, feel that way. You can’t change your past, but you can try to change your reactions to this type of information sharing.

    3. The Cosmic Avenger*

      Yes, IME that kind of upbringing trains us to have a fight-or-flight response more quickly than people who grew up mainly safe, secure, and happy. In the meantime, OP, recognize your anger, then try to set it aside and consider that the people who are clueless really have no idea what it’s like to live like that, and if you could rewrite your life that’s probably what you would want for yourself (with challenges, maybe, but not the trauma and abuse), so it’s not a bad thing that these people didn’t go through that kind of trauma and abuse and deprivation.

      As for what they have that you don’t, not only is that a direct path to unhappiness, but the path is right there for these people, too! Many of them probably compare themselves unfavorably to those richer than them — in fact, they’re probably more likely to do so, since they don’t know what it’s like to not have the basics.

    4. A Genuine Scientician*

      Strong recommend.

      You were dealt and are still dealing with a terribly unfair set of circumstances.

      You recognize that that’s not your colleagues’ / students’ fault, but knowing that and feeling it are different things.

      Universities rarely give the most competitive pay, but they *do* often have very good benefits you can take advantage of us. Look into an EAP. If your school offers any of the programs that lead to counseling, you can often get deeply discounted rates through that, where you have a fully licensed person overseeing, but someone along the way getting some training.

      There’s nothing wrong with needing some help to getting to a healthier place.

      1. Higher Ed Nerd*

        The university where I work also has financial counseling available through our benefits office as one of our perks. I wracked up quite a bit of credit card debt as a young adult with a low paying job and friends with much higher paying jobs. I was lucky to get a pretty big raise when I started this position and finally took advantage of the financial counseling to get it under control. They helped walk me through ways to consolidate my debt and now I’m well on my way to paying everything off. They also help walk you through all the different options you have for saving for retirement in addition to our pension plan. Finances are so hard if you don’t grow up with parents who can share things like how to invest wisely, etc. I am glad my university offers services like that to help you make the most out of our decidedly mediocre paychecks!

    5. Dust Bunny*

      I recently–finally–talked my mom into going to therapy. She’s the second-to-last person I *ever* thought would agree to it (after my dad . . . ).

      Just think of it as calling in an expert. It’s not reasonable to expect us to be experts at everything in life, so we ask for help. I don’t do wiring because I’m not trained in it and I’d like to not get killed/burn the house down: I call an electrician. An electrician has training and certification and won’t set the place on fire. A therapist has training and certification in helping people untangle and then manage ideas and feelings.

      1. Betty*

        I also think it’s helpful to think of it as a space where you’re allowed to let out all the thoughts and feelings that you feel the need to contain in other places– the stuff you think you “shouldn’t” feel, the stuff that you want to shout at your coworkers but don’t, whatever. Sometimes it’s just helpful to get to say stuff out loud and be reminded that those feelings are valid. (And yes, then also get some help figuring out what patterns aren’t serving you, etc.)

      2. Anon for this one*

        Yeah, I’m hoping my partner will eventually be persuaded by my gentle, occasional prods on the subject. His position is not quite the same as the OP, but related: he grew up in a very poor immigrant household with a lot of trauma, and despite the fact that we both have good salaries and financial stability now, he feels tremendous pressure to keep making more money. It’s like a demon chasing him, reminding him that that suffering is always waiting just around the corner. I think therapy could really help adjust some of that internal narrative so he can relax and not keeping taking progressively more miserable jobs.

        Anyway, I digress, but in support of therapy as a great tool for reframing our responses to things that cause us pain. It’s helped me tremendously in dealing with a constant sense of failure from a childhood/early adulthood shaped by untreated ADHD. It won’t change who you are, it’ll make it so much easier to be you in the world. Good luck OP!!!

    6. Not A Manager*

      I don’t disagree with this comment. It does sound like the OP has been through a lot and deserves to have some good support as an adult.

      But I also want to just emphasize that this isn’t because her current response is wrong or unreasonable or needs to be examined away. People can be shockingly unaware of how things that seem “normal” within their community can sound to other people. And sometimes that naivete itself hurts the most. Not so much that other people *have* those advantages, but that they can’t even really imagine that other people don’t have them.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        This can go both ways, though. I have a lot of relatives who live in lower COL parts of the US who would be horrified at a $250k house, but where I live, $250k is, in fact, a good price even for a bare lot. If the LW is in a high COL area, even though her rent is probably high, etc., it can be hard to get over the mindset that things are outrageously expensive when, for the area, they are mid-range costs.

        1. Liz*

          I find the same thing with friends and family who live in MUCH lower COL areas, and are horrified that their mortgage for a small, modest 3 BR house is about the same or less, than what I pay for a 1BR rental apartment. they just think its bananas! But they also don’t take into consideration the fact that I make much more than they do, because I live in a higher COL area. So if I make 60K, the same or similar job where they are may only pay $40-45k.

        2. NotAnotherManager!*

          We’ve experienced this a lot. My SIL, who lives in a rural area, made a catty comment when she visited our last house that we should have bought the new build across the street rather than the 50-year-old brick ranch we lived in (the type that is being torn down to build houses we can’t afford). She refused to believe that the house across the street cost $1.5M until I showed her the listing – we could not afford even half of that, so we lived in the small, old house. Our families think that we just don’t know how to negotiate.

      2. Timmy*

        Agree with this point completely. I studied abroad when I was 18 and remember clearly that a few of us where traveling home for spring break. A friend of mine (A), whose family was less well off than others, had bought her own plane ticket home. Another girl (B) told her that B couldn’t believe that A had spent her own money on the flight – that was As parents responsibility. A (and I) were in shock at the incredible lack of awareness about the world. (And it’s not like As family had no resources – she was studying abroad!)

        1. Never Boring*

          Studying abroad may not actually cost more than staying at home; it didn’t for me, because my (need-based) full-tuition grants covered my university’s study abroad program, and the semester abroad was actually less expensive than the cost of a semester in my high-COL university city, I actually came out ahead on the deal.

      3. anon teacher*

        Seconding this – therapy can be a great resource, but IME it doesn’t so much teach us to feel different things as it teaches us to interact with those feelings in a different way. Right now, you’re feeling sad and angry when people talk in a way that ignores your lived reality…and that’s a really valid feeling! I’m willing to bet that most people would feel the same! It’s all about finding a way to have that feeling without it taking over your entire day. (Full disclosure, I am still only about 65% successful at doing that, but, you know. It’s a process, apparently.)

        1. fposte*

          It sounds like some of it is ignoring her lived reality indeed, but some of it is other people talking about their own lived realities. That latter is where I think counseling might be particularly useful.

          1. Divergent*

            One thing that has helped me, and counseling can help with this, is learning to communicate honestly and kindly about my own reality to folks whose realities are very, very different. Being able to communicate my own situation and both my overlap and difference and then redirect to overlap (yes, a new house is exciting! no, I’m not able to sell down the road, what was the first thing you did to customize your own home when you moved in?) helps me feel seen and included in those conversations without feeling like I need to lie or fake my experience to be included.

            Counseling can be very useful for that kind of communication, and therefore to reduce that poisonous sense of exclusion and complete differentness that used to fester for me.

      4. April*

        I work in a retirement community for very wealthy people.

        Some of them just…cannot fathom living differently than they always have. I once had to explain to a resident that I could afford rent OR a car but not both, and I’m still not sure she understood me.

        1. April*

          Or then there was the time I was talking to a resident who’d been a well-known professor of some kind of literature, and he found out I didn’t have a degree.

          Him: “You could always go back, you know. Education is so important!”
          Me: “I’m not going back to school unless it’s for something that leads to a specific career, because otherwise I’ll never pay back the student loans.”

          He looked *shocked*. I literally don’t think that had occurred to him.

          1. Divergent*

            Oh yes! “I’m here in school to get a certification to get a job so I can buy a house where I’ll have housing stability” and they still expected me to stay for a Masters, or aim for highest-possible grades instead of comfortably passing. It did not sink in for them.

    7. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      Agreed, and along with that, take advantage of every benefit or opportunity that you have available to you. Apply to assistance programs (grants, debt forgiveness, counseling, career development, etc.) even if you don’t think you qualify. Working for a university IME has a lot of advantages that corporate jobs often don’t — although pay is usually not one of them…

      As for how to cope on the day-to-day. I know that you probably feel compelled to tell people your story so they understand you and you feel heard and seen; but then it also opens you up to a rejection when they still don’t or don’t want to. It can be more of a burden to “represent the other side” than it’s worth to YOU. You don’t need to educate or explain yourself.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        When I faced my hardest health issues I repeatedly told myself that it does not matter if people understand or don’t understand. What truly matters is that *I* understand and *I* take action accordingly.

        I even went one more step- the precious time and energy spent explaining to people could be better used in bailing my own self out of my problems. I learned a LOT… an absolute ton of stuff. And not just about health but about other things also.

        OP, definitely grieve The Childhood Lost. Put the time in acknowledging and respecting that huge flood of emotions. And remind yourself that things are different and maybe some things are even better now than they ever have been. Also remind yourself that improvements are likely to continue.

    8. Paging Dr. Freund*

      I agree with Morticia. And not because your reactions are wrong, but because you seem to know that they’re affecting your life and you wish to be rid of whatever hold they have upon you.

      For many years, I was in counseling over a family situation that made me very jealous of friends from families so very unlike mine. For a long time I suffered from jealousy and not a little bit of anger over this situation and didn’t realize I was turning that anger on others in a way that damaged my relationships. Therapy really helped free from that jealousy and anger, and helped me not to take them out on others, especially my partner. I tell you this not because your situation is any way like mine, but to endorse counseling as a way to free yourself from the hold that unproductive emotions may have on you.

      You have survived and thrived despite significant obstacles and I wish you all the best as you move forward.

      1. The Cosmic Avenger*

        One technique I’ve used to break the reaction cycle is to think to myself that, when I react without thinking, I am letting myself be manipulated, intentional or not. I do not want others to control my reactions, so I try to recognize the reaction and intentionally control it myself. Part of what helps with that is to imagine scenarios; can I explain to them calmly why something bothers me? If I get frustrated, how do I stay consistent with my goal to try to get them to understand? Usually the answer is to change the subject and try again later, when I am more calm/rested/relaxed/comfortable/awake/etc.

    9. DrSalty*

      This is great advice. If you don’t have an EAP or health insurance coverage, there are other low cost therapy options you can explore. The first place I ever got therapy was at a clinic run by the graduate counseling program at my university. Kind of like getting your hair cut at the beauty school. The fees were on a sliding scale and my grad student stipend qualified me for $15 sessions.

    10. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

      Therapy NOT because you are broken — you’re not, you’re a damn SURVIVOR. But because the mere act of surviving taught you patterns that aren’t serving you well now that you’re in a more stable place, and because you have access now to support and help that other people had all their lives.

    11. Gerry Keay*

      I gotta say, I really balk at this. LW is reacting to experiencing very real and tangible economic oppression that has a material impact on their ability to live happily and healthily in the world. Therapy isn’t going to make it easier to pay bills, therapy isn’t going to make capitalism less exploitative. The idea that poor folks just need some “perspective” to be happy is gross and weird. Therapy is great, I love therapy, but please let’s not gaslight people who are facing economic oppression that just changing their point of view is somehow going to make the world less cruel.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

        No, but it can give her tools and support in managing her jealousy and painful reactions.

        1. Blackcat*

          Yeah, I have found therapy most helpful when coping with stuff I cannot control. Grief counseling does not bring back the dead, but it makes it easier to move on.

      2. Message in a Bottle*

        I agree. There is a time and a place for therapy. But knowing you don’t have the same amount of money or opportunities others isn’t just about your own mind.

        I think it helps when people just acknowledge the disparities. Funny, when you are surrounded with working class we talk about struggle and it’s not all trauma but support and solidarity which helps so much. And about making systemic changes. I know the OP can only control herself. But I also think people with privilege never ask themselves what they can do about this system that is crushing others.

        So sure, therapy, if OP has a need for it. But if you are reading this and are wealthy person, you could do a lot to meet situations and not assume others have what you have. And I’m not trying to guilt or shame anyone. Just a little bit of humility goes a long way.

      3. LabTechNoMore*

        Also need to emphasize here that therapy is expensive! Having come from a similar (albeit more privileged) upbringing, a lot of people who have access to mental health support don’t understand that the restrictive costs means it’s simply not available to large swaths of the population.

        1. gracack*

          I mean, it’s possibly expensive. If LW has insurance, it could be very affordable. A lot of people rule out therapy with the assumption that it will be expensive, not realizing they would be paying a $10 copay every time.

          Look into before ruling it out as too expensive to try.

      4. Divergent*

        Therapy can give you tools to survive emotionally in the world as it is. It won’t make the world less cruel, but it can make the world more livable for an individual while we work on shifting these really big systems.

        Therapy has not improved my financial status or the other things that leave me on the fringes (which include also being hella poor for a long time, being poorer than all my friends throughout my entire life, and a childhood full of abuse, unfortunately), but it’s sure helped me navigate my life through these issues in ways that feel better to me. If the OP has access to it through work, I join in the chorus recommending it.

        I’d also add something that I had to learn out of my own weird money/power dynamics background: OP, when you hire a counselor, you are choosing a person to be a good fit, like if you were interviewing someone for a job or choosing a babysitter. You get to ask questions and choose only the person who makes you comfortable and who you want to work with. Not everyone who is a professional therapist is going to be a good fit even if they charge a lot of money and that’s super ok. If you have an EAP or a set of counselors available through the school, you can talk to many of them and choose the best for you.

      5. gracack*

        Therapy isn’t about changing your view…it’s about gaining coping mechanisms to deal with the situation you’re in.

        In the LW’s case, this might be learning to push back a little bit on the privileged talk. It may be limiting their interaction with these people. It might be seeking out others who have had similar childhoods.

        That’s not changing perspective, and just gaining a zen attitude about an awful thing. It’s actually meeting LW where they are and helping them cope better.

  3. ThatGirl*

    You’ve overcome things most of these folks have no clue about. I don’t really believe in “bootstrapping”, but you struggled twice as hard to get to financially stable, and they were basically born that way. It sounds cliched, I know, but think of how far you’ve come and try to be proud of it.

    I do think counseling might help though just in general, because there definitely seems to be some trauma there.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      This. My situation growing up was more financially secure than OP’s, it sounds like, but otherwise fairly similar. I now work with the upper middle class and the wealthy, and I simply do not have the same problems or experiences, which can feel very isolating (especially when dealing with the ones who see their wealth and advantage as a marker of superiority, moral or otherwise). My spouse is from a loving family but was raised in an area with a lot of poverty – they never went hungry but also didn’t have much in the way of extras and worked very hard on the family farm. Neither of us relate to routine European travel, elite/private education, luxury vehicles, or the never-ending redecorating and home renovation projects that many of our coworkers and neighbors experience.

      The way we’ve ended up looking at it is in more of a “growing up, we could never have dreamed that we’d have this” sort of way. What’s an accomplishment for us IS a given for other people, but, well, we’re not other people.
      We are so lucky to have had these opportunities (and proud to have worked hard and taken advantage of them) and are better off than our families or origin and a most of our childhood friends. We have great kids, a very modest-by-DC-standards but well-kept house in a friendly neighborhood, and can afford to let our kids play recreational sports, go on scout camping trips, etc. – things we didn’t have ourselves.

      I’m not really jealous of my coworkers/neighbors, though – what I’ve gotten to see is that they aren’t really that different than me (certainly not “better”), they were just born, by luck, into well-off families. I’m not dumber than my Ivy-educated peers, I just didn’t come from a place where that sort of education was encouraged or affordable. Some are very nice, some are horrible snobs, some are just okay – exactly like the people we grew up with in a lower socioeconomic bracket.

    2. Mental Lentil*

      I am going to second/third this. LW has experienced trauma, and a very large quantity and at a very young age, which we know can have repercussions throughout their life. Therapy and/or counseling is what is needed here.

      1. OP*

        I know I need therapy, desperately. However, I am not at a point in which I can afford it, even with all the benefits from my employer.

        1. Mental Lentil*

          Are there any support groups, either in person or online, that you can join? At least you would not be so alone that way.

        2. Daisy-dog*

          It may still be too expensive (and I know not everyone likes the service), but Better Help does provide discounts to people who are low income. And this may be the case with local places as well.

          1. littledoctor*

            BetterHelp is basically a scam. I’d not recommend it to anyone. A self help book will do better for you than BetterHelp.

        3. Lolo9090*

          This may seem like a strange and dumb suggestion, and it’s not at all a substitute for therapy, but until you can afford it, I really recommend watching therapist reaction videos on YouTube. My fave by far is Psychology in Seattle – if you aren’t familiar, Dr. Honda is a clinical psychology who deals in family and relationships and has done a series of reaction videos to trashy reality TV since the start of the pandemic (he also has had a psychology podcast for like 13 yrs).

          He reacts to a lot of wild behaviors from shows like 90 day fiance that you probably wouldn’t assume would have any impact on your life at all but occasionally you might notice some behaviors from the characters that you can relate with and his analysis may come in handy. That said, it might also be incredibly triggering, so please take care of yourself if you do check it out!

          1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

            In a similar vein, I recommend Cinema Therapy, where a therapist and his best friend who is a filmmaker talk about movies and talk about a therapy theme in relation to each movie (the most recent episode looks at How To Train Your Dragon through the lens of parent-child relationships).

        4. ThatGirl*

          There may be low-cost or free options available to you, but either way, I hope you get to the point where you can afford it/it’s available to you soon.

        5. Anon for this one*

          Here’s hoping you can get the support you need in the future! For now, do know that you’re not stuck with this feeling forever. That’s a nasty little lie that negative feelings like to sneak in there.

          You may or may not be up for taking on some work around this, but I know a number of people who’ve really found cognitive-behavioral therapy workbooks helpful for adjusting patterns of thought/response to things that were distressing them or weighing them down. I’ve had some luck lately (dealing with a ton of anxiety and anger around work) acknowledging the thoughts I don’t want and then visually imagining them moving away from me. Sounds cheesy, but it helps most of the time with some practice. Meditation helps too – I’m a fan of Insight Timer. It’s free and has a ton of guided meditations as well. As someone w/ADHD, I like the short ones. :)

        6. Backcountry Scientist*

          One option that I found when I was broke, in a large amount of debt and in desperate need of therapy is see if your university or one in the area has a Masters/PhD Psychology/Therapy program. The students provide therapy as part of their training for usually a sliding scale of cost. I didn’t have health insurance, and the cost for me was around $15 a session, which was in the middle of the sliding scale. I found a lot of help from them, it’s not perfect, but provided the help I needed when I needed it!

        7. Macaroni Penguin*

          That sounds really tough OP!
          If you’re looking for low cost or free therapy, try calling your city or provincial (state?) information line. In my area of the world, mental health support costs can be scaled based on income. Some therapy options are free if a person can’t pay for it.
          In any case, I offer you empathy and a cookie. Nothing you’re going through is easy.

        8. Lurker*

          Not sure where you’re located, but if you are really in a pinch you could try NYC Well. (You can find the website by Googling.) It’s run by the City of New York; it’s free and available 24/7. Perhaps there is something similar in your city?

        9. Little Red Jen*

          How about journaling? I write long letters to people (not for sending). Get all my feelings out. Sometimes it’s helpful to read back and see what I’ve overcome, even if it’s just getting past being upset with someone. It helps put things in perspective.

          I know it’s hard to get away from your coworkers, but are there other people with less affluent existences there? I find it easier on my mental health to surround myself with like-minded people. People who don’t grow up that way never (rarely?) understand. That said, some people are open to recognizing their “first world problems”. I once made a bit of a snippy comment to a beloved, older, much wealthier colleague once (he was whining about the upgrade price of free overseas airline tickets, and my husband was unemployed), and ever since, he does acknowledge when he complains that he has “first world problems” and it helps me not want to kill him.

          Also… there’s a lot of people out there quietly existing from your same world. When you find them, even if you don’t become friends, their existence is a balm. Once when I was struggling, a colleague took me for coffee just to offer a shoulder to cry on, and it came out that her husband came from a similar background as me and was going through the same thing as I was, and it was just nice to know there’s other people out there that are living like me simply because life is unfair.

        10. BJP*

          OP, I hear you. Here are some ideas, maybe some can work for you.

          — Look to see what free resources exist on your campus. There are usually counseling centers that are staffed by counselors and people in training. They can offer free services.
          — Try Googling “city name sliding scale therapy” to see if there are places that offer income-based therapy. This generally operates outside of insurance and is copay-only (I paid $20 per session when I used this in grad school.)
          — There’s a virtual service called Talkspace currently offering $100 off. You might give that a try?
          — With health insurance you will only pay the co-pay after meeting your deductible. Is the issue the deductible, the copay (probably $25), or both?

        11. Gipsy Danger*

          I deal with very similar feelings to the OP, for different reasons (chronic mental and physical illness have made my ability to work very tenuous, and as a result my financial situation is also tenuous. I’m 42 and will likely never be able to buy a house or even afford a vacation).

          What really helped me with the feelings of envy but also the unfairness of it all was Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I recommend the book “Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life” by Steven C. Hayes. ACT is all about the idea that things are the way they are, and lots of times they can’t be changed, so how do we learn to accept that and have a good life anyway? I found this therapy very helpful, and I was fortunate enough to be able to learn it in a group setting, but the book is very good (and there are many other options book-wise).

          1. littledoctor*

            This is a side issue, but you know that your username is a racial slur? I’m Romani and it’s painful to see that word. I get that it’s a Pacific Rim reference, but still.

  4. Be Kind*

    Envy can be a huge thief of joy. At the same time, it must be frustrating to hear about people’s happy lives when you struggled so much. When I struggle with negative thoughts about other people, I have to make an effort to think something kind about them. For instance, I had a client that was horrible to me and I was angry for years and every time I would feel anger or resentment creeping in I would say out loud: “I really hope so and so has a great day today.” It’s not perfect but honestly it helped. You may also be projecting your anger at your parents on to these people and that is something that should be unpacked in therapy. If you don’t deal with childhood trauma, it will deal with you. I hope you are able to find some peace over what happened and are able to move into financial security.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      That last part.

      I broke up with a guy when I was in college for . . . a lot of reasons, but in retrospect I suspect a lot of his seething anger was because so many of our classmates, on the surface at least, came from functional and reasonably supportive families, while his family was pretty chaotic. Not as chaotic as it sounds like the LW’s was, but BF’s parents tended to ignore problems for too long and then make last-ditch rescue decisions instead of ever planning anything, so they were always, say, paying too much for the first car that they could get instead of leaving time to shop for a better car for a bit less money, because they put off car repairs until their current vehicle completely imploded. Their lives were one long series of everyday disasters, and his parents blew off steam by venting to him.

      So, yes, a lot of our classmates did have it better than he did, but a lot of his resentment could have been avoided if his parents had dealt with their own stressors more responsibly. That part wasn’t our classmates’ fault.

    2. Smithy*

      If you don’t deal with the trauma it will deal with you…..truer words….

      I did not grow up in the same situation as the OP, but in one where there was a lot of gaslighting around money. Essentially over the years my mom would make a lot of financial promises (i.e. Do X and we’ll pay for Y), some of which happened and some that didn’t. And for the ones that didn’t, it was always coupled with a combination of “that promise was never made” and/or “why on earth would you believe that would ever happen, don’t you know how expensive that is???” It wasn’t until well into my adult years and after my father passed away that I learned that basically my mom, who did grow up with very little, had zero insight into the family finances but never wanted to deprive her kids of what she didn’t have. So she’d make promises and then later find out from my father whether or not they were possible. And that level of possibility was determined by my father’s assessment of the finances…which…was entirely his opinion. Certainly some of the pulled items were more costly, but there was hardly a financial consistency across what did and did not go through.

      I didn’t know any of that, so my lived reality was a mother who was wildly unreliable with promises around money and left me with a number of adult issues about money. I share this to say, that the trauma that can be coupled with money and privilege can go very deep and come out in different ways. And needing help to process that may feel like just one more thing that’s unfair, but really is in service to your own peace of mind and heart.

    3. Katie*

      “Envy can be a huge thief of joy”

      This. 100x this.

      I felt OP’s post in my bones. I’m not US based so we don’t have the same debt structures, but I did grow up in a family that was entirely reliant on welfare. My first job as an office admin didn’t pay hugely over minimum wage but I felt like I had won the lottery. I had literally doubled my household income overnight, but I also felt like a complete fish out of water as the company was small, and a good proportion of people there did very well for themselves, and/or came from wealthy backgrounds. Within a month of me starting the entire company was taken out to lunch and I ended up sitting beside a board member who told me of his “funny weekend” story that he had rented a Ferrari, and while it was fun it was so uncomfortable that he was delighted to get back into his Porche at the end of it… The comparison between his life and mine was so absurd I just thought, ‘do you know what, their world is not my world. They are never going to see life through my lens and I’m not going to see it through theirs.’ Though I also second the point on therapy. Therapy was a major help to me in my early career years and getting over a lot of resentment I had built up without even realising it.

      Also, it might sound trite, but what helped me was instead of comparing your situation to others, compare your situation to your own the previous year. That might be “last year I had X debt and now I have Y” or it might be “last year I couldn’t afford to buy coffee out and now I can have it daily”. Now I’m probably lucky in that my career trajectory has meant that I’ve always earned a little more each year, and sometimes a lot more, but turning that into tangibles that mean something in my life – “I have health insurance now” or “I have an emergency fund” – ended up meaning way more than looking at my coworkers and thinking that they’re so much better off.

      1. Mannequin*

        “ Also, it might sound trite, but what helped me was instead of comparing your situation to others, compare your situation to your own the previous year.”

        Absolutely this. I measured success by my own metrics (could I pay rent & eat? I was golden!) not how my life compared to others. I was very poor for many years as an adult, and if I’d found myself jealous of everyone that had more than me, I would have had very few friends.

      2. Ellie*

        This is exactly my experience. When I got my first job I felt like I was swimming in money… I went from having to budget carefully so that I wouldn’t be short of bus tickets to buying clothes and furniture just because they took my fancy. I went wild for a couple of months and then pulled myself in, started saving hard for a car, then a house, as I realised those things were actually within my reach. That was 20 years ago and it does get easier. I used to feel white hot rage when overhearing kids at work whinging about how their parents made them pay for their own dinner on the family ski trip. Now I just shake my head dismissively – they’re stupid and ignorant, but its not really their fault.

        Try to run your own race OP – if you’re earning a good salary now, maybe you can start to budget for those things you’ve always wanted? Student debt can be crippling but it will eventually end. Eventually your situation will improve, and you’ll start to feel better about everything you’ve achieved.

  5. Witch*

    So I’m working for a wealthy guy as an EA who owns the business his dad built. He’s got inherited wealth vibes for sure. In the scheme of things, he’s not insurmountably loaded, but I’m helping him schedule appointments with an architect so he can build his second house on a lakeshore property.

    To his credit, I think he realizes sometimes there’s a disconnect to how he lives his life versus how the people who work for him live. He understands he can get a little ridiculous, which definitely helps me understand him better. He can’t help how he was raised; and he has this money, why not spend it on nice things for himself? I’d do the same. (Also it’s not like he doesn’t give to charity. And he’s an understanding boss about people taking sick leave/PTO/getting raises)

    For me I’ve kinda just learned to laugh a little at it with my roommates. Tell them crazy rich people stories, like how he has me planning his 40th birthday party and he’s hiring a drag queen to MC the event. (This is also tangentially a work promotion due to the business we’re in, so it’s fair of him to ask me to do this too.)

    1. The Rural Juror*

      I’ve worked for many years for the people like your boss who hire architects to design stupidly expensive homes (I’m in high-end residential construction). They’re not always completely selfish or inconsiderate people like you might expect someone spending millions on a home might be, but it is interesting to observe from the viewpoint of someone who is never going to be able to afford any of that.

      My crazy rich people stories include purchasing a $13k chandelier for my clients or hearing about them arguing with the new neighbor next door who doesn’t appreciate their new tall home blocking all their morning sunlight. You just kind of learn to laugh about the absurdity of it and how they’re so nonchalantly spending the price of a modest car on things like an antique marble sink for their powder bath. Must be nice!

      1. The Dogman*

        That part about the absurdity rings some bells.

        When I was a Dog-teen-man I worked for one of the Old Money families in the UK as a dog and horse handler.

        They were a bit odd, but not extravagant, mostly old tweeds and a beat up Landrover types, but some of the friends of the early 20’s daughter were crazy with spending. I remember hearing about £25,000 champagne bills on several occasions, and theses were not considered excessive birthday party type parties, just normal weekenders!

        The maddest one I heard about was a Lady (literally, she will be the Duchess of somewhere-or-other by now I imagine) who had her room repainted over 20 times because she was not happy with the colour pink. She was not stroppy or angry, and paid top prices each time to the same high end decorators and I think it was over half a million pounds in the end. And her daddy was happy to pay it, not even a rounding error to him I think.

        I always though they were just nuts to be that fussy.

        1. armchairexpert*

          I know this isn’t the point of this anecdote but did it cost 25,000 pounds every time she had a single bedroom repainted???

      2. FreakInTheExcelSheets*

        My dad is an architect who had a career designing hotels and resorts and now that he’s retired does custom designs for people (I joke that if I can ever afford a custom build I want him to design it and to include plenty of secret passageways). My jaw dropped through the floor when I found out what he was charging and they were happily paying just for the design of the house, never mind what the actual construction and furnishing (plus a place to stay if it was a rebuild of an existing home) would cost.

        1. Daydreamer*

          Heck yeah secret passageways! I definitely think if I suddenly became crazy wealthy, besides holidays, clearing debt and helping people, I’d love to have a custom built home with secret passages, a secret library through a bookcase, etc. I don’t know how much I would have to come into to fund all of these, but gosh a gal can daydream!

    2. MK*

      During the recession, many people who did have disposable income in my country refrained from unnecessary spending out of, I don’t know, shame? A misplaced sense of solidarity? It actually slowed the recovery of the economy and drove many businesses to close. Frankly, in the system we all have to live in, one of the ways wealthy people can help is spending their money thoughtfully. Is it ridiculous that I can afford artisansal teas when many people are unemployed? Yes. But the one-person-business tea shop has hired two new people in the last years, while if I bought the cheapest tea I could find in Lidl, the main one benefiting would be a multinational. And absolutely no one would be better if I stopped drinking tea.

      As for the OP, I think she should cut herself some slack. Feeling jealous, and negative feelings in general, in this situation is normal. Don’t feel you absolutely need to snap out of them asap. But don’t let them poison your life.

      1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

        Yeah, that’s supposed to be the trickle down effect. Rich people spending silly money on luxury items that help create jobs and boost the economy for all. I’m not sure it really works. I think the middle class spending middle class money on necessities and quality of life things really is the driver of an economy — I’m not even remotely wealthy and I was mindful to try to give as much business as I could to the places that I’ve always used, but still…I haven’t needed to go to the dry cleaner and he ultimately closed down, I haven’t gotten my hair or nails done…and they closed down. I’ve given as much business to the little coffee/sandwich shop as I could, but they are just barely hanging on so far.

        1. MK*

          Middle class people spending middle class money is what I was talking about. I don’t think there is much of a trickle down effect from the ultra rich spending on crazy luxuries, since the purveyors of these luxuries rarely are of the community.

        2. braindump*

          “I’m not sure it really works.”

          It would work more if wealthy people stopped hoarding it and evading taxes. But that’s why stimulus checks are called that – lower/middle class people are more likely to go out and spend it.

        3. The Dogman*

          “I’m not sure it really works. I think the middle class spending middle class money on necessities and quality of life things really is the driver of an economy ”

          That is a perfect assessment of the reality of the world economy.

          Poor people drive a basic amount of economic activity with the food and energy they need.

          The middle class drive much more with the excess wealth they have to spend.

          The rich and super rich drive very little in food (not many of them, even if they pay more for the food they buy) and drive even less in excess wealth purchasing. Much of that money stays in the hands of other super rich people who own the yacht building companies etc. The vast majority of their wealth will be stored in some fashion usually.

          1. banoffee pie*

            Yeah that’s why it’s bad for the economy overall when the middle class is hollowed out. And the trend towards salaries stagnating since the last recession (especially public sector here in the UK) has not been good. Teachers’ salaries were frozen for I don’t know how many years. I mean there’s only so much Lewis Hamilton etc can buy no matter how rich they are. A lot of their money has to be sitting in the bank somewhere

        4. RadManCF*

          From my US perspective, I’d say the issue is that tax cuts are justified with the trickle down effect, and the advocates of these tax cuts just cross their fingers and hope the trickle down happens. Also, I’d tend to suspect that, absent attempts to make the trickle down happen, the effect would be greater from cuts to the corporate income tax, since a corporation doesn’t gain much by hoarding cash beyond a certain point. I think we saw this with the Trump tax cuts (granted, I’d say the apparent positive effect was negated by Trump’s backward trade policy).

        5. Blackcat*

          “Rich people spending silly money on luxury items that help create jobs and boost the economy for all.”
          The only thing my (rich) father does that likely helps the economy overall is that he tips like $100-200 when eating out, regardless of the price of the meal.
          Buying a nice suit doesn’t really help the local economy beyond the single shop. The suppliers are largely foreign, so it’s really only that one store. Tipping the UberEats driver $150 likely results in the UberEats driver spending that money locally.
          The most efficient way to prop up the economy is to give money to people who live paycheck to paycheck. They will spend the majority of what is given to them, injecting it back into the economy. Rich people’s spending habits don’t really fluctuate in the same way.

    1. ecnaseener*

      There’s still plenty of travel chatter, just more along the lines of “I can’t believe it’s been TWO YEARS since our last trip!” — if anything it highlights that some people can afford to take expensive vacations all the time.

    2. Nikki*

      Only if you’re dealing with people who are taking Covid seriously! I know plenty of people who have been traveling more than usual recently because flights and hotels are so cheap and they can work from anywhere, so might as well take advantage!

    3. LabTechNoMore*

      I sympathize with OP a lot here. Having lived in a wealthy city while unemployed, and it’s pretty grating hearing everyone talk about their international travels, then complain about not being able to travel, and occasionally even looking down on those of us who don’t travel. Ostensibly for being less worldly, but actually for the class marker world travel symbolizes.

  6. hellohello*

    If you’re able, speaking with a therapist about the effects of your upbringing would hopefully give you both more peace of mind and some good coping strategies for situations like this. Beyond that I think it’s both eminently fair and would be helpful for you personally to deflect or change the subject when things like expensive vacations/house/etc. come up. Not by saying “some people can’t afford these things so maybe don’t talk about them all the time” which is true but would also draw more, probably unwanted attention, on yourself. Rather a “oh that’s too bad about your vacation, so how about this weather/a movie that just came out/our upcoming meeting” etc. Hopefully if you come up with some defacto topics to change the subject to you can avoid some of these uncomfortable/annoying conversations without putting more attention on yourself.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Yes. This is very much like social media FOMO.

      I also grew up in poverty and am lucky enough that I married into a family with a little money and have gotten a job where I am comfortable, and I get what OP is saying about the scars lingering and still feeling ten steps behind everyone else. But the longer I’ve been around people with money – money does not fix everything. Not to say it doesn’t fix a lot, but even people who have money now have backgrounds like mine and their vacations and houses are things they have really earned and are proud of! Or not, and they still have incredibly difficult problems to deal with.

      Honestly therapy helps with anything emotional like this…but remembering you’re only seeing the highlight reel is also big.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Highlight reel indeed.
        I remember watching a person who STRUGGLED with trying to buy a vacuum cleaner. I mean it was a very hard problem to tackle. And this problem went on for decades. It was painful to watch this process. In that same time period I had bought and wore out THREE modest vacs.

        The sad thing in this story is that my Person had enough money to buy three vacuum cleaners a year and never miss the money. Yeah, Person was comfy. OTOH, Person could have hired a housekeeper.

        The vac could not be purchased because of indecision. The housekeeper could not be hired because of lack of trust. There are things money cannot buy such as the ability to make decisions with some confidence and the willingness to try to trust others. These two problems have a way of leaching into every aspect of life and become a quality of life issue that all the money in the world will not fix. The vac and the housekeeper question was a symptom of a much larger problem.

    2. KHB*

      I love this, and it’s great advice for anyone. We all see our own lives, “warts and all,” but only what others want us to see of theirs.

      1. Laure*

        Those are all wonderful and helpful answer… Maybe, also, try volunteering to help children or teenagers who are in situations comparable to what you lived through when you were a kid.
        First, you’ll be a huge help to them, but also, your life and your struggles will suddenly change from “I did ok, but it’s not good enough” to “this extremely helpful tool that put me in this position to help others and show them that there is a way out of moral and financial misery.”
        In short, the narrative of your life will change. You will not be someone with a mediocre life compared to all those rich people, you’ll be someone with this wonderful success (in comparison to those kids,) and someone who is lucky enough to be able to help.

      1. Perstephanie*

        yes, the problem may come when comparing your life to someone else’s low-point reel leaves you hurting.

      2. Eldritch Office Worker*

        To you, that doesn’t mean it’s not helpful to someone. And it’s not flippant, it’s framing.

        1. Lily of the meadow*

          I also find that response pretty flippant. Telling someone who is struggling with something that is hurting them tremendously to just “not struggle” does not help much. I honestly believe if the LW could stop comparing, they would. It seems to me, from the letter, that what they are asking is HOW do they stop comparing.

          1. KHB*

            And the answer that Becky’s implying, pretty clearly, is to remind yourself that what you’re comparing yourself to is just the highlight reel – that the colleagues’ lives may look privileged and perfect from the outside, but they also have problems that you’re not seeing, because they don’t want you to see them.

            1. Lurker*

              I agree. You never truly know what goes on in people’s lives behind closed doors, or what struggles they have. Those people talking about buying houses, or traveling, etc. may be maxed out on their credit cards, behind on their bills, etc. (Or they may not be…but we don’t know.) Try to focus on yourself and how far you’ve come.

            2. Sylvan*

              I agree.

              I actually didn’t see a comment saying “don’t struggle.” Just remember you’re seeing your own life from the inside and theirs from the outside, so there are bound to be things you don’t know.

        2. kitty*

          I agree. I don’t see the advice as “stop comparing” but more as a reminder that people tend to share (either via social media or in work chatter) the “fun stuff” and sometime sit’s hard to remember, especially in the moment, that the everyday stuff doesn’t get shared. I think it’s something all of us could be reminded of sometime since it’s so easy to get caught up in our own minds.

          1. PT*

            I grew up in an upper-middle class neighborhood. I was the (comparatively) poor kid (though really, just regular middle class.) I knew SEVERAL kids who grew up in homes that were what most of us would consider privileged and affluent that were also hair-curlingly abusive.

            Affluent child abusers are very good at “playing the game” of keeping up appearances so when their kid discloses, the guidance counselors feel bad for the parents, “such nice people, stuck with a mentally ill child who makes up lies about their parents.”

            Do not assume rich kids aren’t abused.

            1. Saraquill*

              I had a classmate who hated me in part because my mom married up and we lived in a huge house. Didn’t matter that I was being abused at school and home, I was a horrible human being because Classmate wanted visible trappings of wealth.

      3. Xavier Desmond*

        I don’t think it was flippant. It’s probably easier advice to give than the recipient to internalize but it’s still valid

      4. Colette*

        To put it another way, would you exchange your life with someone else’s without even knowing what they’re dealing with? Would you take the money if you also got the chronic illnesses? The abusive spouse? The terminally ill child? The siblings addicted to drugs?

      5. Roscoe*

        I dont think its flippant, I think its practical.

        OP is hearing about all the good/positive things about their coworkers. Which is normal. Most of us don’t tell our coworkers about our relationship troubles, or that our brother went to jail last week, or stuff like that. He is hearing one side of their story and being upset. But its totally valid to basically reframe it as you don’t know the entirety of their existance.

        By your logic, any response would be flippant.

        1. Distracted Librarian*

          All of this. And really, you can’t control how your coworkers behave. You can only control how you respond, and reframing is a great way to manage that response.

    3. mreasy*

      Easier said than done when it’s the culture where you are. Is it possible for you to gently remove yourself from those conversations? Once the European vacation talk starts, say you have to get back to work? I don’t think you can stop yourself from having feelings about this, but if you can reduce your exposure, it could help. I did not grow up in poverty, but we were lower middle class, and while I am incredibly fortunate, I’ll likely never buy a home and an international vacation would be a multi-year saving commitment. I have colleagues who casually refer to their expensive lifestyles, and I usually just nod along and don’t engage much.

    4. Mynona*

      That is exactly the kind of advice that OP’s clueless privileged co-workers would give her. Her perception isn’t the problem. Inequality is real and she’s living with the reality of it every day in ways that you obviously don’t.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        These aren’t mutually exclusive things – inequality is absolutely real but reframing one’s thinking about it is necessary to get through the day and live a more satisfying life. One can acknowledge and work against inequality without stewing in it to the point it affects their mental health and happiness.

        I get it – I’m surrounded by born-on-third-base-think-they-hit-a-homerun types, but the only person who’s hurt by my fixating on how unfair life has been to me is me. Living amongst the privileged when you didn’t come from there is a very jarring experience because that inequity smacks you in the face every day. Comparison is the thief of joy, and I’m not letting the Brent Norwalks of the world steal mine.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          ” Living amongst the privileged when you didn’t come from there is a very jarring experience because that inequity smacks you in the face every day.”

          Ya know- this struck a cord with me. At one time I had a really nice job in a really nice place. I was told to beef up my look. Others were upset for me that I had been told to beef up my look, but I really did not care that much. I spent bucks on beefing up my look and my boss was satisfied with my response.

          I couldn’t do the job. And the reason was I just could not serve the customers in the manner that they wanted. I don’t read minds. I did not grow up learning the ins and outs of such a business. I had no real way of learning whatever it was that I should learn. My family was middle class supposedly but money was always tight. The business catered to wealthy people. Every day I was so very aware that I was in *their* world.

          I think the owner privately felt like he was out of his league also. I saw him raise a hand to strike an employee. I said to myself, “That’s ONE.” A few months later he raised his hand to me and I said, “That’s TWO. I am done here.” People who are in over their heads resort to yelling and fists. I understand that but I had to get me out of there as no good would come from this setting. I walked out on the spot.

          OP, you CAN consider using your education at a different place. You do not HAVE TO work at this place.
          There is a college near me that is way different than the college that I finished my degree at. This first college was staffed with people who were working people- they had one heck of a work ethic. They were kind and they were very smart. I am not sure I can say all those things about the second college I went to.

          Get out and get around, OP, you may hear scuttlebutt about better places to work. I know this goes on in library systems where some libraries around here are known for how toxic they are.

          I don’t miss that prestigious, “classy” job in the least, OP. All I feel is relief to be out of there. At that job, I ended up really liking the people I was supposed to manage and it seemed like they were warming up to me. It was the owner and the customers that were sticking points and that was enough.

          Don’t allow yourself to feel trapped now, you have come too far and done too much to better your quality of life. Assume there is something better out there for you, and go look for it.

        2. Distracted Librarian*

          “The only person who’s hurt by my fixating on how unfair life has been to me is me.” Exactly this. Life isn’t fair, and those of us who are able should do our best to undo systemic inequities and build a fairer world. But at the same time, learning to live with unfairness (which will never completely go away) is an important life skill if you want to be happy. Someone will always have more than you, and if you fixate on that, you’ll be miserable, no matter how much you have.

      2. Duc Anonymous*

        Thank you! I, too, thought it came off as flippant, even if it wasn’t intentional. I do think therapy would be helpful, as well. Not to “reframe” OP’s feelings, but too help her deal with the very real feelings she is having.

      3. KHB*

        OK, but the commenting rules here ask us to give fellow commenters the benefit of the doubt, and “don’t aggressively shoot down suggestions just because they might not work in one particular circumstance.”

    5. Person from the Resume*

      That’s a great response to someone who’s comparing their life to someone else’s social media, but ut’s not helpful here.

      – That is not a great response to someone who can barely afford rent when someone else is talking about buying a house valued at at least $250K.
      – That is not a great response to someone who can’t afford to travel when someone else is talking about their European vacation.

      My point is this is not a highlight reel situation. This is the LW’s coworker’s lives. They aren’t sharing their lowest internal struggle, but they aren’t only showing the highest, best moments. Their day to day lives are simply much wealthier than the LW’s.

      1. Mannequin*

        Where I live, $250k wouldn’t buy you an empty lot, so poor as I am with zero chance of ever owning property, if someone talked to me about buying a house for that price, I’d congratulate them.

    6. Cora*

      Do you have any advice on how to accomplish that? It’s not that simple, or everyone would already be doing it. So – strategies/techniques/approaches that have worked for you in doing this, please?

      1. Not A Manager*

        For myself, I do find that it helps to remember that I really don’t know the details of someone else’s unseen experience. Not in the sense of looking for little clues about how they’re really miserable inside, but just in the sense of “people are complicated and people’s lives are complicated, and I’m not hearing the whole story.” Just as other people are not hearing my whole story.

      2. Distracted Librarian*

        I try to focus on my own accomplishments and remind myself of how far I’ve come and what I’ve done that I’m proud of. I focus on my own values and how I’m living up to them (or not). I can’t control other people, and my co-workers aren’t responsible for my wealth or happiness. The more I keep my eyes on my own paper, so to speak, the happier I am.

      3. Mannequin*

        Practice gratitude for what you *do* have. How does that saying go? I cursed my lack of shoes til I saw a man with no feet.

      1. Mannequin*

        Resenting everyone that has more than them isn’t going to fix economic oppression, it will just make OPs life suck more.

  7. mcfizzle*

    It might be helpful to have a goal in mind. Do you want to have the goal of trying to open people’s eyes (tactfully, with patience) or is the goal to internally roll your eyes and move on with your day? Or something else? What you want to avoid is getting so resentful that one day you snap and verbally unload on someone.
    I too grew up extremely poor (mother was a drug addict, constant evictions, foster care, just a mess) and went to a really wealthy college. While that wasn’t the same as working there, it was much of the same gulf. I would make strategic, pointed comments when I thought something was fairly egregious / naive, but I didn’t have employment on the line.

  8. Lily of the meadow*

    Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. That’s what the LW is asking; how do they go about not comparing themselves and how do they stop feeling so angry about it? LW, I am afraid I do not have great advice, either, as I struggle with similar jealousy issues myself. All I have found I can do is to try to be ultra aware of it happening, and remind myself of all that I do have. Also, sometimes limiting my exposure helps. I know that is not always possible, and I know this is not great advice, and I am sorry I do not have better.

    1. It Me*

      This is similar to my advice. I grew up in a very small, very old (like 1600s old) money town with a small school that reflected those values and for the sake of brevity, I will just say that I and my single parent were considered trailer trash and pretty roundly ostracized in both subtle and explicit ways. As an adult, I definitely have hostile feelings towards people born into wealth and ease, and a knee-jerk anti-authority stance when it comes to education. I am raising my child in reasonably diverse neighborhood in a major city far away from that homogenous small town, but I have to wrestle with these feelings every time I get an email from my kid’s school (it doesn’t matter what it is – my initial response is always “Oh, go f— yourself”) or I find out that a classmate parents’ drive luxury cars or own lake houses.

      I just try to recognize that those feelings are coming from inside the house, as it were, and try not to be a total jerk. My kid loves her school, which is honestly pretty chill and accepting, so I remind myself that my experience happened long ago in a place far, far away. I will probably never get over my innate distrust of privileged people (not naming names but if you have no kids and live in a densely populated neighborhood in a large city, you don’t need any car at all much less two luxury SUVs ugh) but honestly I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.

      1. Anonym*

        “The feelings are coming from inside the house” is a really helpful little mantra! Hope it’s of use to the OP, but I for darn sure am writing it down…

    2. Zebra*

      Limiting exposure is legit. I don’t have a poverty story but nearly everyone else in my company is much wealthier, own their home in a HCOL area etc – including my peers and the younger team I manage.

      When the conversation turns to real estate and people are sharing anecdotes of how their home appreciated by 6 figures over the last year – craazy, huh! – it can be hard to deal with. I tune it out or change the topic, or walk away, or just adopt the 1000 yard stare and zone out.

    3. Quinalla*

      I grew up poor as a kid – we were in the had barely enough to eat/pay rent/etc., but by the time I was in high school, my parents were solid middle class and now are upper middle class and my husband and I both have very well paying jobs and are also upper middle class. It has been a weird transition and I definitely had moments when I was living poor where I felt jealousy or just lonely and like I didn’t belong with the kids around me who were solid middle class to upper middle class to a few who were “rich” in my mind anyway – they had a big house with a pool and tennis court and so on. Now that I’m “the other side” I try to be mindful of that privledge I have, it is weird to be honest.

      What helped me to not feel so jealous/lonely/left out was to acknowledge those feelings, but also acknowledge what in my life I was grateful for. Gratitude is something that is talked about a lot right now, but for good reason. A gratitude practice can be super helpful to keeping your feelings in perspective. Some folks journal, some just sit and think, etc. but the important thing is to regularly (I’d say minimum 1x a week and daily is best) to think/write/etc. about 2-3 specific things you are grateful for. Not just something generic like: I’m grateful to be alive! but more like: I’m grateful that I got to play an online game with my two brothers for an hour yesterday, being close to my brothers is awesome! It’s something I’ve always done, one of the good things I got out of my church-going upbringing, but it is all the rage nowadays :)

  9. valprehension*

    This is rough, and I relate a bit! I find myself surrounded peers (making the same amount of money as me, or sometimes more) who are proud that they “don’t need” their job because their spouses make “twice as much” or whatever, while I’m over here as the sole earner for a family of 3 (and supplementing my income with a side hustle to make ends meet.)

    I just have to remember that I really like my life, that I have the things that I want (for the most part – owning a home sounds nice…), and that’s what really matters.

  10. TallTeapot*

    I mean this in the kindest way possible, but this is the sort of work that you need to work through with a therapist/ mental health pro. An advice column isn’t going to be able to give you the answer—you need to work through your drama and get to a more secure place emotionally. If you’re at a decent U, they will likely cover it through your insurance. Be kind to yourself—you’ve done an amazing thing.

    1. Parakeet*

      It might also be worth checking whether staff have access to the counseling center at your university (if it has one), either for free or at insurance-covered prices much cheaper than a private market-rate therapist would be. I agree with everyone’s suggestions about therapy, but I know from experience that affording therapy can be difficult and that for a lot of private therapists there will be only one or two insurances they take (around here, it’s almost always the same insurance that they take, which is unfortunately not the insurance company my employer uses). And I don’t want OP to end up in yet another situation where they can’t do the thing people are talking about because it’s not affordable.

      For private market-rate therapists, PsychologyToday’s therapist search will let you filter results by what insurance a therapist accepts. And more therapists are doing telehealth these days (though often only within their own state, for licensing reasons), so location is less of a barrier than it used to be. You may also be able to find sliding-scale programs in your area.

      1. OP*

        I mentioned above, I know therapy is the overall answer. Even with all the benefits from my employer, I am not at a position to be able to afford it. Like Parakeet said, it is one more thing that people talk about doing that I am unable to do. Maybe one day I can.

        1. Mental Lentil*

          I mentioned support groups above, but I just remembered that you may qualify for public mental health services if they are available in your area. I’m not sure where you are, but you may want to look into it.

        2. Parakeet*

          OP, I am not a mental health professional (though I am a trauma survivor with severe PTSD which is where I’m coming from here) so please take this with the appropriate grain of salt. But DBT, which is a type of therapy that is often done with (among others) survivors of chronic childhood trauma, is very skills-based and involves worksheets that you can download for free. I’ve known a number of people who cannot access the therapy, or any therapy, for whatever reason, but who still get something useful out of working with the worksheets.

        3. Banana Pancakes*

          On the whole reddit is a cesspool, but the sub r/cptsd is a bright spot and I would recommend checking it out for peer support and some links to free resources.

          I’m sorry you’re in this position and that so many of the comments you’ve gotten reflect the lack of understanding people have about what it means to grow up like you and I did. I just want you to know that I see you and your pain is real and it’s okay to be sad and angry about the good things you’ve missed out on because of it even if other people don’t get it.

        4. Lurker*

          I posted this elsewhere, but sharing again:

          Not sure where you’re located, but if you are really in a pinch you could try NYC Well. (You can find the website by Googling.) It’s run by the City of New York; it’s free and available 24/7. Perhaps there is something similar in your city?

        5. Kat*

          A free resource to try is your library. I have completely different concerns to yours, but by trial and error I found some relatable and useful books on mental health, recovery, and working through trauma. I don’t have any specific book recommendations, but you might find something that helps you identify a path through life that will bring you peace. Sending you best of luck!

          1. Distracted Librarian*

            Excellent recommendation (says the librarian). Therapy is great, but it isn’t the only option. There are tons of great resources to help with reframing situations and processing your experiences. Good luck!

      2. ThatGirl*

        Most college/university counseling centers are for students, not staff – my husband works at one. That said, I do hope OP can find someone she can afford.

        1. fposte*

          We are fortunate to have one for faculty and staff, too, and it’s pretty good. But, as you say, not all schools can offer that.

      3. Jean (just Jean)*

        Sometimes local government or nonprofit groups (human services, advocacy, especially advocacy related to kids/adults with learning differences or learning disabilities) can help to identify affordable mental health care. It’s not guaranteed, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. If they don’t offer therapy themselves, they might keep a list of organizations that do. You might also try a sympathetic reference librarian. Some public libraries have the option of asking questions online or via email, which means more privacy than standing at the reference desk fully audible and visible to anyone else who happens to be nearby.

  11. Nora*

    This is so frustrating and I’m so sorry you have to deal with it! I’ve been in a situation where one coworker was much richer than the rest of us and was very oblivious about it, but I’m not sure my advice (gently pointing it out every time she said something tactless) would apply when the rich people are the norm and you are the outlier.

    1. Nora*

      Actually, I just thought of something else…if there is someone in your office who does seem more sensitive to your situation and feelings, could you ask them for help deflecting and navigating these kind of conversations? Not only would you get some help but also you might feel less alone.

  12. Patty S*

    Two bits of advice.
    1) A FB group called “Blue Collar Scholar”. It was formed for folks who are experiencing what you are in terms of income differences.

    2). Look into Public Service Loan Forgivess..look up the FB support group to help you get your debt forgiven in 120 payments. I’m guessing your employer will qualify.

    1. WellRed*

      I seriously doubt the employer will qualify and I thought this program was difficult to get approved even when working for some impoverished public service nonprofit. Yes

      1. OP*

        My employer does qualify actually! So I am working on that, but the payment in combination with my spouse’s student loans take a huge amount of our monthly budget. Enough that all the “normal” stuff that people do is unattainable.

        I will look into the FB group. I read the book, Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams that was recommended on AAM. It was helpful a bit.

        1. Jamie Starr*

          I don’t know how old you are, but give yourself time — you’ll get to the “normal” stuff being attainable for you. I had a certain amount of privilege growing up (my parents paid for part of my undergrad) but after college I worked at a non profit while my friends all had fancy corporate jobs. Even getting a $20 manicure was too much for me — I would go with them, but just watch because it wasn’t in my budget. I got my hair cuts at the student salon. I took public transportation instead of cabs. That was 20+ years ago. I’ve since put myself through an expensive grad school (and am almost finished with my 120 PSLF payments!), have an emergency fund to cover over a year of living expenses, and a bit saved for retirement. AND I can afford regular mani/pedis. I live in a very high COL city so home ownership isn’t attainable for me right now but I’m not giving up.

          1. Extroverted Bean Counter*

            I reckon OP is my age – 35ish. “Graduated right into the recession” means finishing college in 2008-2010ish.

            I’m finally on my feet just within the last couple years (house! car! retirement accounts! kids even!) but even then, finally launching into Stable Adult Life at 32 years old was borne out of a lot of advantages – specifically both my spouse and I having paid off our minimal student loans a decade before.

            The weight off my shoulders that I’ve finally arrived and am living the type of life I imagined as a kid is immeasurable. I know the idea of “give it time” is true, but being in that state of arrested development, having no idea when or even if you won’t be riding the struggle bus, is exhausting. I got there a lot sooner than I thought I would, honestly. But the journey there was a lead weight in my stomach for a very long time.

            1. Jamie Starr*

              I get it. I was never poor and my family would have helped me out should I have found myself in dire straights, but once I permanently moved out after college, I was financially independent. It’s only been in the last 5 – 7 years where I’ve felt like I don’t have to micro-manage every penny I spend. Being able to think to myself, “I would like a new coat” (because I want one, not because I need one); and then just buy one – and pay full price if I want (instead of going to TJ Maxx and wearing the same one for 10 years) feels great. I can’t wait until I can put in my application for my student loan forgiveness — it’s been 16 years since I finished grad school. (I didn’t know about the program until I wasted 5 years struggling to pay even the minimum while being an underpaid non profit worker). To be 100% debt free is going to feel so liberating!

        2. Mr. Tyzik*

          I grew up in similar circumstances with poverty and trauma and work in an industry where my colleagues made bank while I was struggling to get by. I feel you, OP. You’re getting great advice about therapy and other strategies. I have two suggestions that helped me, and I hope you might find valuable:

          1) Cultivate a gratitude practice. Each day, think of something you’re grateful about in your life. Keep a journal if you like – I don’t – yet think of one thing, which might beget other things.

          2) See a financial planner. Growing up without money, I didn’t know how to set goals. Most first consultations are free. It might help with setting goals to do some of these things someday and stem the jealousy.

          1. anonymous 5*

            Piggybacking a bit on point #2: the companies that administer my college’s retirement account options often send representatives to campus for (free!) one-on-one meetings with account holders. Your university benefits folks might have information about that and/or related offerings. I’ve taken advantage of this before, and it was amazing to me how much less panic-y I felt after spending ~20min with an expert.

          2. fposte*

            But only go to a financial planner you can pay by the hour; don’t sign up for anything longterm or percentage-based.

          3. NotAnotherManager!*

            I will third #2 (or at least recommend finding a practical personal finance course online, through the university student programming or the employer’s retirement plan holder if that’s available to you, or a book). My spouse, who is very, very smart, struggled with money skills as a young adult because (and this is a direct quote), “When you have no money, there’s no point having a plan for it.” His parents live on inherited property (have never had a mortgage) and don’t have retirement funds (live in a rural area where Social Security covers their needs), so they aren’t familiar with those things either.

            It was a bit of a struggle when we first got married, but he now has paid off his student loans/credit card debt, has a retirement account, is co-signer on the mortgage, and is doing fine. It took a little time, but there are good resources for people like him and me who didn’t get a financial education growing up.

          4. Gipsy Danger*

            I will also second the gratitude practice. I mentioned above that I have similar issues to the OP but for different reasons, and gratitude was recommended to me for years. I always resisted because it seemed a bit twee and “woo” to me, but when I finally started it made a huge difference in how I felt. Even if the things I’m grateful for are small (my dog, that the place I rent has a yard, I have a job, etc), it does help put me in the mindset of “I have enough, even if I don’t have the things others have or everything I would wish.”

        3. Former FinAid*

          Have you also looked into Income Based Repayment (IBR)? If you had federal loans (aka not private), your servicer should offer this. Basically, you provide your tax information every year and they calculate your monthly payment based on that. Could lower it for you. And you can do PSLF and IBR at the same time.

          1. ErinWV*

            OP mentioned that they were married, and I would also recommend – if going for an IBR – that they file taxes separately from their spouse. After I married my husband, my monthly student loan payment went up 5x. Our combined income was definitely not 5x what I was making as a single person, and he had debt to repay too. I was able to negotiate them down to like 3.5x my original payment, and we have filed separately ever since that first year.

            But student loan debt is just a killer.

            1. Former FinAid*

              Thank you for adding that! As the name suggests, I’ve been out of the game a few years and that possibility didn’t even cross my mind.

      2. generic_username*

        Universities qualify. The first set of applicants weren’t properly told how to apply so they were doing things like making the wrong kinds of payments (you have to be on a particular payment plan) or not getting the right certifications on time (I’m not sure if payments count before you file the application). I work for a private university (nonprofit still) and they have a department that is meant to help us apply for that. Most qualifying nonprofits are offering a lot of assistance with this now so employees can take advantage of it, and LW should check her EAP to see if they do too.

      3. mcl*

        Many types of employer qualify! I work at a public university and I am participating in PSLF. You do need to have particular kinds of federal student aid loans and you need to be on a particular type of repayment plan and get your employment certified annually. I am hoping to get my remaining loans forgiven next year. So I guess it’s not a done deal (especially since FedLoan is pulling out this year – perhaps more chaos is coming?), but I am hopeful!

      4. neeko*

        “I thought this program was difficult to get approved even when working for some impoverished public service nonprofit.” Nope. Both my library and moderately sized nonprofit have qualified. It’s easy to get denied for small things wrong on the application but you just have to apply again.

    2. Big 4 Denizen*

      Yes to number 2. Do it right now. Don’t wait; each month you put it off is a month that doesn’t count. And even the months where your payments are deferred due to COVID count.

  13. Colette*

    I’d say one thing you can do is stop explaining your background (unless you really want to do so.) That should circumvent some of the pity. For example “You should buy a house, the market is great” can be answered with “Not for me, at least not right now” – which doesn’t mention money or your background. “Italy was great, have you been?” can be answered with “Maybe someday! But other things take priority right now!”

    And having bank accounts with money in them is a great accomplishment! There’s a cartoon I saw once of a panhandler on the street asking for change, and all of the well-dressed people had bubbles over their head with their net worth (car loan -$20,000; mortgage -$200,000; credit card debt $-15,000). The only one with a positive number was the panhandler. You don’t know who among your colleagues is living on credit, or who has money but their marriage is breaking up or who is going to Europe this year because someone they love is sick and this might be their last chance to vacation together.

    Take pride in what you have accomplished, and remind yourself that you’ve done well.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      This was going to be my advice.

      Find ways to deflect the conversation without getting into your background or situation.

      “We’re so excited to buy a house” – “Oh, that’s nice, I’m not ready to make that kind of commitment”
      “We’re jetting off to Europe” – “Sounds like fun. Travel isn’t a priority for me right now”
      “Look at this designer purse I got” – “It’s cute. I’m too clumsy to buy myself things like that. I’d spill on it.”

      1. Caramel & Cheddar*

        I think unless the person saying these things is directly asking about LW’s own experience with these things, most of these don’t even need an additional explanation, e.g. “We’re jetting off to Europe!” “Sounds like fun” is a perfectly fine response on its own.

        1. Valancy Snaith*

          Yes, this. None of those comments need comparative responses. “Went shopping this past weekend!” “Oh, how fun!” or “we’re planning our annual trip to Cuba” “exciting! What dates are you thinking you’ll be out of the office?” all work perfectly fine.

          1. londonedit*

            I agree – it doesn’t solve the problem of the OP’s jealousy, but I don’t think they need to bring up their own situation all the time. I can’t afford a house or a fancy holiday, but if one of my friends is complaining that their solicitor is being ridiculously slow, I can say ‘Oh, what a nightmare – why is buying a house always so complicated?’ or if someone’s jetting off to France I can say ‘Ooh, lovely – I bet the weather will be nice at this time of year!’. I don’t need to say ‘Well, that’s lovely but I couldn’t even afford to buy a parking space, let alone a house’.

          2. Not So NewReader*

            Definitely stop the comparative responses.

            The sad part here is that they will never notice. But you will have some relief in not explaining what you ARE doing. I have done this myself- and trust me, they do not notice.

      2. Timtams*

        This, but without the self criticism! You are probably ready for commitment, love to travel and not at all clumsy.. and still not able to afford nice things like that.

    2. Caramel & Cheddar*

      I think your first paragraph is spot on since LW mentioned most of this is just stuff that pops up through routine casual conversation with colleagues. I think Alison has talked before about how people are not living their lives “at” you when they talk about this stuff, they’re just living their lives; LW understands this too, which is a really important first step! Having tools to deflect or re-route the topic is key; it may not take the sting out of not having the things you may envy, but not having to explain your situation every single time might also relieve a bit of that burden.

    3. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      Small talk is just that. Like Alison says, “good morning = I acknowledge you fellow human” so it goes with small talk. Always remember that when someone starts talking about things they are doing, what they want to do or what they did, THAT is what they want to talk about.
      They are asking you because they want to be polite and to hear what you think about what they are doing, are going to do, and did.
      And if someone DOES start prying because they are more interested what you are doing, want to do or did, you don’t have to answer fully.

    4. Teapot Repair Technician*

      This is what I was thinking. How “mandatory” are these workplace conversations?

      When my coworkers start discussing things that I have no interest in (or that I find distasteful), that’s my cue to go back to my desk, put my headphones on, and get back to work. Fortunately I can usually do that without repercussion.

    5. Keyboard Jockey*

      This was going to be my advice. I grew up in an area with a lot of families like OP’s, and while mine was more stable than the local average, it was still rocky at times. I spent some time working at a fancy university and the students in particular really drove me up a wall with how sheltered they were. I stopped talking about my background real fast (and changed jobs soon after).

      I will say, though, that even at fancy universities, you find more students than you’d expect who are there on scholarships from much poorer backgrounds than the university average. Connecting with those students always brought me a lot of joy, because they were always happy to know that someone like them had “broken out” and it gave them a chance to talk freely without being judged by their peers, too. Maybe OP has the opportunity to build some of those mentor-esque relationships?

    6. AY*

      I think this is great advice! I think we’ve all had coworkers who don’t volunteer very much information about themselves, avoid certain topics, or give vague replies on various issues. Polite and decent people aren’t going to pry or belabor the issue.

      As one example, I had a former coworker who I suspect had some serious health issues. She did not volunteer information about it, I did not ask, and we never discussed the issue. I was available to cover our cases when she was out, and that was that. But we had a good working relationship and enjoyed talking about things like our kitties, books, etc. You can have good relationships with people even while keeping some things close to the vest.

    7. It Me*

      You don’t even have to offer that much explanation. I would bet most of these people are less interested in whether you’ve been to Italy and more interested in telling you about their trip. Not even in a self-absorbed rich way, just in a “that’s people for you” way. “Italy was great. Have you been?” “No, I haven’t.” “Oh well blahblahblah my trip blahblah.”

      The house stuff is easier for me because I live in an urban environment where renting is common and single family homes, at least in this neighborhood, are basically non-existent but if anybody starts suggesting I look into buying a condo, I just say something like, “I’m really happy renting.” No “for now” or hint that I’ll get on that property ownership train in the future because unsolicited real estate advice is second only to unsolicited diet advice on the list of things I absolutely do not want to hear out of a professional colleague. If you open the door to the possibility that homeownership is a goal, I guarantee this person will be sending you real estate listings and preaching about how renting is throwing money away every month.

    8. calonkat*

      Colette’s answer is great!

      Try to find some humor in the differences :) People used to watch a tv show called “lifestyles of the rich and famous”, you get to watch a live version as it were!

      You are doing AWESOME!!! I spent a lot of my life juggling bills and (back in the old days before electronic transfers) hoping that I got paid on time to get the cash in the bank before checks I’d written were cashed. I’m still thrilled to look at a bank account with a positive balance and know that I have a SAVINGS account as well!!!

    9. matcha123*

      I come from a low income background and was raised in a high income city. My peers and the people I work with are from financially stable backgrounds.
      I’ve tried deflecting inquiries into my background, but it makes me look secretive and stand-offish. That then affects how I am perceived by my coworkers. When I have opened up a bit, after a certain amount of time, I’ve gotten snarky comments about purchases. Buy a nice bag from the GAP for $10, discounted from $60? “If you don’t have money, why are you buying things?”
      People try to relate to others with stories about family. If your family isn’t “normal” or if you are evasive with answers, people act weird and offended.

    1. Caramel & Cheddar*

      It may not buy long term happiness, but it can certainly buy a level of stability and comfort that LW feels is outside their capacity, so I’m not sure this really changes their question or helps their situation.

      1. JoleneCarlDean*

        My point was not to downplay the challenges that OP has faced.
        My point was that, to the extent it helps OP to know this, OP probably doesn’t have as much reason to envy these people as OP thinks. With rare exceptions, I’ve found rich people are horrible, miserable, vacuous people with no perspective, who are perpetually unhappy bc they want more more more, and also their kids are horrible.

        1. Ferret*

          Yeah but you are a divorce lawyer, that’s kind of the nature of the job and has nothing to do with your client’s net worth – do you think that lawyers who deal with poor clients are faced with a constant line people who are relaxed and satisfied with their relationships and choices?

          A billionaire might not be much happier than a millionaire but they are both going to be happier than someone who can’t afford healthcare and is getting evicted

          1. JoleneCarlDean*

            I really don’t understand the reaction to my comment. I say, essentially, “the grass isn’t always as green as it looks on the other side.” And everyone jumps all over me?
            Did everyone want me to say, “gosh, OP, you’re right. Everyone else is happier than you, and you are exactly right that everyone else is living a better life than you. You should know that your life is miserable and will never get better and there is nothing you can do bc society is unfair.”
            How would that be helpful, exactly? Also, it’s not true.

        2. This Old House*

          It’s possible that that describes the rich people who end up needing the services of a divorce lawyer more than it describes rich people in general.

        3. Teapot Repair Technician*

          If OP’s coworkers are paying $250,000 for their house, they’re probably not rich enough to be counted among the “horrible, miserable, vacuous people” you have in mind.

    2. ThatGirl*

      Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it sure makes it a lot easier to achieve. It’s hard to be happy if you don’t have stable housing, health insurance, a savings account, etc.

        1. ThatGirl*

          Yep. Someone below said money turns problems into inconveniences, and I think that’s a great way to put it – we’ve personally gone from “one major financial blow could crush us” to car repairs, medical bills etc being now big deal and it’s definitely easier to be content in life when you have no major money worries.

        2. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

          Yep. And money provides a really nice cushion against all the things that can take unhappiness to misery. Being in a bad marriage and in an ugly divorce sucks, but it sure sucks more if you need to worry about being able to afford food, shelter, a good (or any) divorce lawyer, therapy, etc.. Personally, if I had to experience something hard/tragic, I’d rather go into it with a solid bank balance than not

          1. Guacamole Bob*

            Seriously. We had a medical situation in the family last week, and handing over my credit card for some pretty hefty prescription copays without really looking at the total dollar figure was a huge source of potential worry that we just don’t have. Plus we got a cell phone for my kid to use as a medical monitoring device, and I just… went and bought one. It all would have sucked way more if I’d been worried about paying for all of it.

        3. RC Rascal*

          When I was broke I had a lot of people trot out the old “ Money doesn’t buy happiness.”

          My response was always, “ Anyone who believes that has never tried living without it.”

        4. Despachito*

          One of my coworkers said (jokingly of course) that money helps to better cope with poverty.

          It was so deliciously absurd it makes me smile always when I think about it.

          1. Guacamole Bob*

            It’s like the fact that social science research and philanthropy have been coming to the conclusion that one of the best ways to lift people out of poverty is… giving them money.

            They end up calling it “direct cash transfers” and “direct giving” and such, and running trials compared to other types of assistance programs and publishing peer-reviewed research about it, but it amounts to the fact that giving people money is pretty effective at making them less poor.

        5. Sylvan*

          Yeah. It takes the edge off of unhappiness, too. You get sick, you go to a doctor. You have a car problem, you get it fixed. That sure beats being sick without a doctor or having car problems indefinitely.

          Back in school, around 2012, I read that happiness increases with income — but only to a certain point that was, surprisingly, under 100K. A person who makes 500K is not significantly happier than a person who makes 250K. It has changed how I thought about this kind of privilege. An extremely wealthy person is powerful and has access to luxuries that most of us don’t, but they don’t feel that much better. They’re still just a person with flaws and difficulties.

          1. A*

            Yes! I remember reading that, and it really helped me re-frame my thinking. I also graduated into the Recession and due to Reasons ended up graduating as a financial orphan at a time when everyone was moving back in with family rent free. It took me ~6 years to work my way above the poverty line, and a total of ten years to reach the salary that many of my peers had right out of the gate. I dealt with a large amount of resentment, and still do to a certain extent, but this helped me through part of those dark days.

          2. banoffee pie*

            Am I allowed to say that the ‘paying for the doctor’ situation sucks, or does that count as me being a clueless, patronising European? :) There was some discussion of that a few days ago lol. I mean it sympathetically, honestly

        6. To Thine Own Self Be True*

          Hi OP
          There is a study on line that found that once people earn above $70k or so their happiness does not increase with more money. They found that divorce went down, home ownership went up, contentment went up for people/couples once they reached this amount. It may be changing now, not sure how many years ago the study was done, but focus on reaching a milestone for yourself. This could be reaching 70K or a paying down debt. Invest in your future by contributing to retirement accounts so you can retire when you want to. Dave Ramsey is wonderful in regards to getting started and getting out of debt.

          You may need to consider leaving this job but I know that may not be possible for awhile and you could end up being in the same position again. I tend to be harder on myself for my mistakes than jealous of others for their success. I have made financial mistakes and I struggle with the guilt because we should be in a better position now than what we currently are in and yet this is our lives and our journey. I cannot change yesterday but I can and will change tomorrow.

    3. Wants Green Things*

      Buys an awful lot of security though! It’s weird how it’s easier to be happy when you have a roof over your head, food to eat, and you’re not worried about how you’ll pay the bills this month.

    4. Teapot Repair Technician*

      I heard about a (possibly apocryphal) study which showed that increasing income improves happiness up until you have $X amount, after which additional income does not make you happier.

      Depending on what $X means to you, the conclusion is “So money does buy happiness” or “See, money doesn’t buy happiness.”

      1. Mental Lentil*

        That’s not apocryphal, because I remember that. Yes, there is an $X amount that can make you very happy once you reach that, and not so much after.

        1. Guacamole Bob*

          The top Google results show that amount as $75,000 household income. What that buys you varies a lot around the country, but I think of that amount as in the range of “covers all basic needs, a few wants, and smallish unexpected expenses aren’t a crisis” for most people.

          1. Teapot Repair Technician*

            $75k sounds about right. Where I live, that’s enough to live in a 3-bedroom home, keep a car in good repair, be on track to retire, and have enough savings to cover most unexpected expenses.

            It’s also $10k more than the median household income here, so I think it’s fair to say that most of my neighbors suffer some amount of unhappiness for lack of money.

            1. Liz*

              I have to agree; I’m finally at a point in life where, due to a promotion, decent merit increases, and an adjustment because my salary was below market value when evaluations were done, I can say that. It’s nice not worrying that a dinner out won’t drain my bank account and i can hand over my debit card without worry. Or I can buy a new car BEFORE mine dies a slow and painful death, just because. Although because I live in a higher COL area, I rent, as a 3BR house is pretty much out of my budget. But I understand what you mean.

            2. Gumby*

              Snort. Where I live it’s just on the verge of being enough to rent your own 1 bedroom apartment. Many require income to be 3 x rent, rent on a 1 bedroom runs $1900 – $2300/month. (Well some places charge more – I have seen $3300/month advertised – but those places are clearly out of their minds so…)

              1. Teapot Repair Technician*

                Yes. Presumably that number needs to be adjusted for various factors like regional cost of living.

                Seems like it should also be adjusted for family size. If I didn’t have kids, I could be reasonably happy surviving on $75k in the Bay Area. But with kids, that would be rough.

                1. Guacamole Bob*

                  It definitely seems like it would vary with cost of living and family size. But it makes intuitive sense that the marginal gains to happiness would be quite large going from “don’t know where the money will come from to buy groceries next week” to “basic expenses and minor financial emergencies don’t keep me up at night.”

                  It seems like the research is a little conflicted about whether having enough money to take fancy European vacations every year leads to more happiness than having enough to go camping at parks within driving distance, but certainly that incremental increase in money is less important to overall happiness.

              2. A*

                Yes, it does vary. I was in very similar circumstances as OP up until a few years ago when I became so disillusioned with the rat race in the metropolitan high COL area I was in, that I decided to seek out & accept a specialized position in a rural low COL area ~2 hours away.

                If I was still in the high COL area, I would still be renting and struggling – but in my new area I now own a home and have the financial stability that has allowed me to finally seek out happiness in other areas of my life versus having to prioritize money above all else.

                Obviously this isn’t an option for everyone depending on their location preferences and job opportunities, but I do think it’s important to acknowledge that we do have some level of choice in where we decide to live. I turned down the first few offers I got because they wouldn’t cover relocation assistance and moving is EXPENSIVE, but I eventually was able to find an opportunity that covered that as well.

      2. ThatGirl*

        Yeah, there have been a few studies on that, I think. And I think the point is that financial stability can indeed help you be happier because, again, it’s so much easier to deal with life, the universe and everything if you’re not constantly worried about money. But once you’ve reached that point, extra money isn’t necessarily going to improve your quality of life dramatically.

    5. BugHuntress*

      Money lets you solve problems.

      When I made 7.25 an hour, I had to make my lunch. If I forgot it, or it went bad in my backpack, that was that. Oh, you felt like a nice sandwich? Too bad. Oh, you’re nauseous from not eating? Keep trail mix in your bag from now on.

      Money lets you make mistakes.

      I had to take the bus to my work. If I missed the bus for oversleeping, they could fire me for being late; if I got fired, that would be catastrophic. You can’t make one mistake, because there is no buffer. You can’t call a cab. You can’t take six weeks and find a new job. You have to be perfect. You cannot slip up.

      Money gives you time to heal.

      From an accident. From a traumatic event. From falling off your bike. From getting chased home by someone. From getting sick. Guess what happens when you’re sick and try to take the day off from shift work? They find other people to take your shifts. I got scheduled on a 4pm-midnight, then a 6am-4pm the next day, and got teary from lack of sleep the next day. Oops. Looks like my shifts got cut in half.

      Money lets you turn your life around.

      I’m not trying to be mean. Money doesn’t buy happiness. But it does buy safety.

      1. BugHuntress*

        …I guess I have more to say…

        I remember the kind of blithe, clueless comments made by people I met in white collar jobs when we were all in our early twenties. “Why don’t you just do something else?” Doing something else sounded good. I wanted that. I was smart, right? My autonomic nervous system would give out on me, though. I’d make it to the interview, then want it too badly, and they could tell. Fear, anxiety, sickness, sadness.

        I think it’s easier to make changes if you are sleeping regularly. If you don’t have untreated health problems. If you don’t have a pit of fear in your stomach. Then it’s easier to seem confident. You can heal what’s hurting in you. You can talk to a therapist, process your pain, think about what you want, let go of the fear. You can take your time.

        Being poor makes you sick. Being sick makes you poor. Both make you stressed. The stress makes you sicker. You don’t have health insurance. These things compound and build on each other. And one day you make a mistake, a mistake that someone with money could fix. But you can’t fix it, and your life gets a little worse. And you just try to keep from slipping more.

        I’m a software engineer now, but I remember.

        1. Jean (just Jean)*

          Yes to all your comments. Poverty has horrible compounding effects. I hope I didn’t sound too clueless by arguing that wealthy folks can still have incurable heartache.

          1. banoffee pie*

            You actually got me quite emotional reading that. I hope you’re ok now. The health insurance thing makes my blood boil btw

    6. Ace in the Hole*

      Money doesn’t buy happiness, but poverty does buy sorrow.

      Having enough money won’t magically make you happy but it clears away a lot of the obstacles and sources of stress that can interfere with happiness. It’s certainly easier for me to be happy when I don’t have to stress every month about how to pay rent, worry about losing my job because I can’t afford reliable transportation, be unable to afford basic necessities, take a calculator to the grocery store to make sure I won’t run out of money, sleep on a moldy floor because I can’t afford a mattress, put up with stressful/unhealthy/dangerous living situations because I can’t afford better housing, take an extra 3 hours a day on transportation because I have to walk everywhere….

      Even a moderate amount of money solves an awful lot of stressful problems.

    7. Guacamole Bob*

      Isn’t there research that it’s money *above a certain level* that doesn’t buy happiness? Having a basic level of financial stability is correlated with higher levels of happiness than poverty. Once you’re above that, being wealthy isn’t more likely to lead to happiness than being upper middle class.

      The google results indicate that the study shows the threshold at $75,000 household income as of a few years ago.

    8. Kimmy Schmidt*

      Money buys security, safety, housing, healthy food, gas, vehicle repairs, dental visits, healthcare, vacations, and the ability to have options. Money is not the only thing necessary to have happiness, but it’s a key perquisite.

    9. Oxford Comma*

      Not having money can mean that you’re living on the bleeding age and it takes very, very little to push you over. You get in a car accident even if it’s not your fault? That $500 deductible might be more than you can afford. You need dental work? Your insurance doesn’t cover it? You’re out of luck. Back when I was struggling, my root canal cost me $3k I did not have. You have a medical emergency that puts you in the hospital? The fee for the ambulance, the stuff that’s patient responsible? That’s prohibitive to pay off. And that’s if you have health insurance.

      In an office context, it might mean that you have to say no to lunches at places you cannot afford and sometimes that starts to look bad. At best, you’re missing out on networking opportunities. At worst, it might mean people think you’re unfriendly. My job reimburses me to a limited extent for professional conferences, but I had to beg family members to float me the money for plane tickets and hotel deposits until I could get reimbursed. There are lots of other things that happen.

      You can be perfectly happy without money, but it makes life very very hard.

    10. Batgirl*

      I wonder if it’s even all about money. The OP also seems to imply an envy of happily poor families too. It’s not necessarily the level of support, but the possibility of support. It’s a very wise thing for OP to place a value upon. The support of loved ones is literally priceless. My partner does without any from his family, and he is an incredibly capable and independent person as a result, but he’s not wrong or misguided in his appraisal that he’s missing something valuable.

    11. Gipsy Danger*

      Except that money does demonstrably buy happiness, there have been many studies to this effect. Basically, money does improve happiness up to about $80,000, and after that, it can still improve well-being.

      I am so tired of this argument. It’s wrong, and is frankly so dismissive, and is always made by people who have money, to people who don’t have money.

  14. Stephany*

    Your strength and resilience are worth so much more than their money. Walk with confidence knowing you absolutely deserve to be where you are. That said, do you really want to work in this particular environment? Maybe look for a job where you can model your survival skills for those who need them most.

  15. Totalanon*

    I would stop disclosing your background/financial situation. It doesn’t sound like it’s serving you in terms of 1) adjusting their conversation topics, or 2) adjusting their worldview to consider that not everyone around them has had the same privilege. You don’t like their response (i.e., it sounds like it doesn’t lead to you feeling more seen or feeling more comfortable), so why keep sharing? When they talk about buying a house, can you just nod along with a fake smile? And if people ask about your real estate purchasing plans, you can just cheerfully (and aloofly) say: “I’m happy renting for now. It works for my budget and long term plans. When do you close?” (Or otherwise turn the subject back to them). It just sounds like these are not people you can have open relationships with and it’s causing you more pain to try.

    Sorry about everything you’ve gone through, and congratulations on getting to the place you have.

    1. mreasy*

      I truly don’t think even this much engagement is necessary and could come off as defensive. People just want to talk about themselves. “Are you looking into real estate while the market is hot too?” “Im not, but tell me more about your new place!” “Can’t wait for our trip to Paris, have you been?” “I haven’t, what are you most looking forward to?” Or a friendly but one syllable answer and “I’ve got to get back to work” or “sorry, gotta run, sounds fun!” There is no reason to lay bare your financial situation at work.

  16. Jill*

    I agree, the OP has been through a LOT – and it might be good to talk with someone about it on a regular basis to get perspective and tools. Perhaps even a peer group looking at similar issues/feelings… Wishing them best of luck. I know what it’s like to feel way behind others in financial matters, when my bank account was only sprouting when others had much more — definitely something to be proud of.

  17. lee*

    There are times that you’re just gonna feel jealous or envious or sad that you didn’t get to have the advantages that many others take for granted. What you DO have is resilience, and it will serve you well over the course of your life. If possible, I’d suggest just letting the conversations in which others complain about, or brag about, their situations, simply wash over you. You don’t have to participate.
    As an analogy, I have a lot of friends who talk about food a lot. Either their allergies, or likes/dislikes, or need for it to all be organic, or new recipes, or what they ate last night….and this stuff utterly bores me so I tune out most of the time. Luckily, food isn’t the basis of our friendships. People talk about what’s on their minds.
    I’m sad for you that you are feeling triggered, and I get it. I hope for you that in a future chapter of your life you will experience an abundance that helps you to heal.

  18. F.M.*

    First: therapy. I know it’s a cliche to suggest it, but if you can find a good therapist who meshes well with you, it can help a lot with untangling these sorts of understandable emotional reactions to what’s basically a constant reminder of your childhood trauma.

    Second: let yourself have some of the feelings! Some of the jealousy may be stemming from having a lot of traumatic background stuff–from childhood but also later–that you’re trying to reason your way out of, but those feelings have to go somewhere. Let yourself have some time in your own head to go “Wow, yeah, it IS really unfair that I suffered the way I did. I wish I had gotten this kind of support. It hurts.”

    And then… maybe it’ll be a little easier to detach some of the “what happened to me was bad and I am still hurt about it” from the people who are reminding you of that. Just like how people who lost a child can be really hurt by reminders of other people having healthy living children, without it being the ‘fault’ of the other parents or children, you can acknowledge for yourself that what you didn’t have HURTS, and the reminder of that HURTS, without attaching those feelings to the people who remind you of it just by existing in their different status near you.

    Third: I don’t actually think it’s helpful to try to do the “Oh, but they probably have their own difficulties!” reminders. It’s way too easy for that turn into trying to find some clue for what the other person is suffering from, or being further frustrated when you get proof that someone actually is just… happy and fine and more privileged. It’s way too much focus on the other people. Focus on yourself and your needs here. (Again: therapy can help with this, for giving you actual strategies for redirecting your reactions to these moments.)

    But overall? Give yourself permission to have those negative feelings about your past. To acknowledge it was unfair. You don’t have to hit some blissful “God never gives us more than we can handle” or “Everyone struggles in their own way” sense of equality towards all people. What you mostly need is to find a way to separate a true negative fact–everything that happened to you–from a neutral second fact–other people not having that happen to them. The more you can detach your own feelings about your past from other people’s different circumstances, the more you’ll be able to deal with those feelings productively.

    Even if it means having a good cry, or writing angry letters to bad people and then setting them (the letters, not the people) on fire, or buying that EZ-Bake Oven you never got as a kid and making a tiny awkward lightbulb-cooked cake for yourself at last. But the feelings are real! They come from real sources! You don’t have to pretend the feelings themselves are bad, wrong, unfair, or something to be guilty over. Just gotta separate them from the people who aren’t being lucky AT you, so that you can deal with your trauma in your own time.

    1. Keyboard Jockey*

      >buying that EZ-Bake Oven you never got as a kid

      This is all good advice, but this stood out because I’ve done it. (Although in my case, it was buying the Caboodle I never got to have.) It’s… ridiculously therapeutic?! It makes the little kid part of me feel like I’ve finally made it, even though my adult brain knows that “being able to have a Caboodle” doesn’t actually translate to anything.

      1. OP*

        How did you know I always wanted an EZ-Bake oven? I never got it, but I made sure I got it for a kid on one of those Christmas tree things.

        1. HR Professional*

          I feel you. I took myself to Disney World as an adult because I never got a chance as a kid who grew up in poverty. It was magical! I know someone who bought herself a BB gun for the same reason…she always wanted one as a kid, but her family was too poor to afford it. It really does help you reclaim some of your childhood back.

    2. sub rosa for this*

      OK, this is the best answer I’ve seen in here so far.

      I grew up in… fairly similar circumstances… and I used to get just FURIOUS at my co-workers who could casually talk about going out to dinner every night (EVERY NIGHT?!) and how their mom (the boss) was so excited about the don’t-ask-don’t-tell deal she’d gotten on some old-growth redwood timber for her summer home (AAAGHH!!)

      …and it’s hard to just exist in your own life when people are paying you a pittance and screwing you financially while they drive Porsches.

      But. In the end the only person suffering from your frustration is you. And I got some perspective once I got out of that job and got away from the super-toxic environment.

      And I don’t have any great words of wisdom, other than my education and my patience did finally pay off and, while I will never own my own home, at least I am no longer juggling one bill to pay another and no longer dealing with food insecurity or panicking every time I see/hear a tow truck.

      Be kind to yourself. Get help if you need it. Allow yourself to feel what you feel. And, next time you go into the drugstore, remember that that box of 64 crayons with the built-in sharpener is actually only $6. (It was $3 when I did that, and it was sooo worth it. I still have it, NONE of the crayons are broken or missing, and it is MINE.)

      1. watching the detectives*

        The built-in sharpener is key.
        I’m so glad you understand this.
        My spouse and I have been talking about the built-in sharpener for the past week. (Due to my childhood stuff, I have to discuss all major purchases at great length before actually making them; and yes, $6 on a non-necessity still feels major even though I make six figures now.)

        1. fposte*

          Hopefully you can convert that pre-discussion to being part of the pleasure, like knowing a present is coming.

        2. Lurker*

          OMG, I coveted the 64 box when I was a kid. My parents got me whatever was on the school supply list – 24? There was a girl who had the 64 box and I was so envious. I bought myself a 64 box as an adult, too!

          1. Never Boring*

            I literally had that conversation with my dad some years ago, about how I had always wanted the 64 box with the sharpener but Mom didn’t have the money to buy it for me (long story, acrimoniously divorced parents with VERY unequal resources). Dad gave it to me for my next birthday. I think I was in my 30s at the time. That was probably close to 20 years ago, and I still have it. I think that was the only time he ever paid any attention to my response when he asked me what I wanted for my birthday.

  19. 3DogNight*

    I know EXACTLY how you feel! It’s awful, and really makes you feel like a failure. I remember being in line to buy some essentials with literally the last little bit of money I had, and the person in front of me was buying candy with food stamps (the card that they have now). Between the two I felt awful. I sacrificed and did everything I could to reduce and pay off my debt. It was not easy and it took forever.
    The only real advice I have is to be conscious when you have those feelings, and redirect them to something else. Those feelings actually made my situation worse, because I’d go and spend money I didn’t actually have to feel more “the same” as everyone else. The biggest thing that will help you is digging deep and focusing on the pay down. I wish you all the best luck in the world, and hope you get amazing advice here!

    1. Mannequin*

      I used to be on food stamps, and I really dislike the idea that *another poor person* would be judging me for spending them on something that made me happy.

  20. JohannaCabal*

    I grew up less well off than most of my peers and with a mentally ill parent to boot, though, it certainly does not compare to what you endured (one of my high school friends was shocked I was not going to her pricey private all-female college and even told me I didn’t have to worry because I could get a $1,000 scholarship…keep in mind tuition alone per semester was in the five digits).

    I now live in a major city where a lot of well-off people live. Generally, I won’t reveal too much about my background at work because that tends to open me up to too many intrusive questions (and I’m not telling my co-workers about how when my school offered to help pay for me to go on a foreign exchange trip that my mentally ill parent refused on account it was charity plus they thought I was going to die in a plane crash).

    Instead, I try to make small talk around things I do have in common, such as area sports teams, recent news of interest, TV shows, movies, etc. As far as things like travel, it’s helped that I made a point of socking some money away for a few years after college for a foreign trip that I ultimately took three years after I graduated (I probably could’ve planned it better but I swung it, had some fun, got to experience my first plane trip, and learned I could do that on my own).

  21. Me*

    Be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Take what you can from the inevitable conversations about money. For example: someday you may be in a position to buy a house and I’m going to assume you didn’t learn much in the way of buying a house from your parents. Tuck away the info. Some of them aren’t as rich as the wealthiest and they’ll have to earn and invest. Tucking a few bucks away in whatever version of a 401k you have – literally $5 a month- will help you in the long run.

    If you want kids in the future, I’m guessing you don’t want to raise them in the way you were raised. Understanding the language of money can be useful. I can’t begin to stress how helpful it is to know how to navigate in a society where abject poverty isn’t the norm.

    The jealousy should go away. Folks have issues no matter how much money they have- the money doesn’t make them better, just richer. Embrace what you’ve done so far, which has truly enriched your life.

  22. Monty & Millie's Mom*

    Ugh, this sounds kinda low-key awful! I’m sorry! Through no fault of your own, you’re dealing with people who are (probably) just ignorant, but that doesn’t make it easier for you. It’s really hard for anyone to truly know, or sometimes even imagine, a life that’s not their own – that is to say, we only know what we’ve lived, and that’s true of anyone. You SHOULD be proud of yourself and how far you’ve come, LW! Pursuing an education to better yourself and your prospects, but accruing a bunch of debt to do so is nothing to be ashamed of! But I know that doesn’t make it easier when you look around, or listen, and see/hear reminders of how easy others had/have it – I’m pretty sure I’d feel resentful of that as well, if I’m honest. And even if I straight up KNEW that it was all for show and people were really in debt and didn’t have any idea of how to actually handle their money, that wouldn’t help me.

    Having said that, one thing you might consider is working with a financial consultant to learn how to optimize your money. This could be a way for you to leverage yourself even more up the ladder to put you on par with your peers/coworkers/friends.

    But as for managing your feelings – that will depend a whole host of factors I have no idea about. Will therapy help you? What about reminding yourself every day of how far you’ve come? Can you figure out a way for it to be enough for you to know that you’ve got enough to cover your needs? Will it help to remember that life’s not fair and it totally just sucks sometimes, but that that’s true for EVERYONE (to varying degrees, of course!)? Are you the type of person who can figure out how to focus on the positives – start each day with 3 things you’re thankful for, or something like that? I don’t know if any of this resonates or will be helpful, but I hope you’re able to make your peace with this! Best wishes!

    1. Person from the Resume*

      I don’t know that you can even say these people are ignorant. These people may be unaware of their privileges or they may be aware and just talking about their life. They aren’t being privileged at the LW. They went on a vacation to Europe. They bought a house. They visited their parents with their children.

      The LW can certainly feel things about that. And I think working through this in therapy is best for the LW.

      1. Duc Anonymous*

        I think you can say that they are ignorant, as most coworkers (who are just coworkers) are about others’ lives. I agree that they aren’t necessarily doing it at OP, but privilege often misses out on awareness because the problems aren’t on your radar.

        1. fposte*

          I wouldn’t single them out, though. I’d just say we’re all likely to be ignorant about the realities of others’ lives. It doesn’t mean talking about our own is automatically out of line.

          It’s true that we tend to compare ourselves upwardly and overlook the downward comparisons (the OP may work with people struggling even more than she is without realizing it, for instance), and being aware that stratification goes both ways is a good thing. But that still doesn’t preclude people talking about where they went on vacation or having kids.

        2. Mme. Briet’s Antelope*

          I see a lot of people on here talking about how the coworkers must be ignorant of how privileged they are, and I am genuinely baffled by how anyone’s meant to signal that they KNOW they’re privileged when they’re just casually talking about their lives. Should they not talk about their lives at all? Bookend every conversation with disclaimers about how of course they’re so privileged and they recognize that? I feel like there has to be a distinction between assuming everyone else has the same lives experience they do, which would be ignorant, and just… talking about themselves, especially since they’re talking with people who are largely in a similar socioeconomic bracket (and thus aren’t failing to read the room or anything).

          1. Person from the Resume*

            I agree. Also consider that nearly every response is focused on the money, but the LW also mentions “supportive families” as something his colleagues have that he does not. Are we not supposed to mention our parents and visiting our parents because it’s a privilege to have living and supportive families and not be estranged from them?

            It’s ridiculous. The LW even says “People aren’t doing it maliciously or to rub it in my face, but just part of the everyday conversation.”

              1. fposte*

                I think we’re always more aware of the absences than the presences, same as we regret losing $5 more than we rejoice in finding $5.

          2. Distracted Librarian*

            Thanks for this. Yes, we should be aware of our privilege and not talk about our latest vacation with someone experiencing homelessness. But people at work make small talk. They ask each other about their lives and vacations and families. They talk about those things. And that should be just fine.

            I experience a twinge when I hear people talk about how great their dads are/were, because mine wasn’t, but I can still be happy for them and take an interest in their families. That’s a lot healthier than stewing in a sea of bitterness because they dared mention having something I didn’t.

            1. banoffee pie*

              Yeah I’m aware how little money some people have and am not clueless about it, but you mightn’t know it in a casual conversation with me. Because you can’t say every 5 mins, ‘oh I bought a new T-shirt yesterday. Now I know everyone can’t afford that!’ Or ‘I’m going to Belfast tomorrow. Now I know everybody can’t afford the petrol money.’ But I have heard of poverty and sympathise, just don’t know what to say. (I’m not rich like these rich college people as you can probably tell from my exciting examples!)

  23. Hills to Die on*

    Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. You have so much more than so many people. Focus on that and on moving yourself forward. That’s what helps me.
    Look at what you do have that they may not. There’s always something.

    1. TiffIf*

      Just a note, this may not help everybody. It can certainly help some people but not all, and LW if you find this helpful and it works for you, more power to you! But if this doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you, it just means you haven’t found the right strategy yet.

      (When I am in a depressive cycle, focusing on gratitude actually makes me spiral worse–my brain starts going “you have so much more than so many people, you don’t deserve to feel this way” and then it makes everything worse.)

      1. Hills to Die on*

        I don’t expect that every solution works for everybody. The question was to ask for advice on worked for me, and that’s what works for me.

        1. TiffIf*

          I know! Sorry, I apologize if it seemed like I was dismissing your suggestion. It really does work for a lot of people. I just wanted to let the LW know that if it doesn’t work for them, then that that’s okay, it just means try another strategy. For a long time nobody told me that and I thought there was something wrong with me until I found other people who were like me.

  24. Anon for this one, rawr*

    No tips because that’s exactly where I’m at, too. Similar background plus multiply disabled (but all invisible disabilities). I’m not even jealous as much as feeling isolated/like a freak because I don’t have a lot to add to small-talk conversations.

    Solidarity, OP. And don’t let comparison steal your pride about your accomplishments!! Those are real achievements and you should feel proud. Hugs if you want them.

    1. Web Crawler*

      Hey there, Anon! I just wrote the next top-level comment about the same thing. Hugs if you want them, for you too

    2. OP*

      Yes! It does make me feel like I am an outsider. I am very matter of fact about my childhood, but rarely reveal any details. But it feels awful when everyone is talking about their Christmas memories or traveling aboard in college and I just can’t contribute without making everyone feel terrible.

      I once had a boss ask me what my holiday plans were and they mentioned that I don’t speak about my family much. I stated that I wasn’t close to them due to being in foster care. They physically recoiled with a look of horror on their face. That is always ingrained in my mind.

      1. Anon for this one, rawr*

        I struggle with that too. I can’t add anything except a big ole bummer that makes everyone feel awkward, including me. And it’s hard not to feel sad sometimes when people talk about their families. Obviously that’s on me to deal with, but I sometimes wish the office was less friendly so I could avoid dropping a bummer bomb on them when they ask me about family/holiday plans and whatnot.

        I’ve gotten the same reaction from therapists at the intake appointment more than once. It sucks! And it changes how you feel about a person, even if you try to not let it get to you. I hope you’re able to give yourself a lot of grace. Take care!

      2. Ace in the Hole*

        What a horrible response from that boss!

        Obviously it would be great if everyone could have awesome healthy positive relationships with their family of origin. But plenty of people don’t (for ALL KINDS of reasons), it shouldn’t be treated like some kind of shocking horror. I’ve gotten a similar response sometimes when I tell people I don’t talk to my dad… it’s alienating, self-centered, and just plain rude. Especially when they were fishing for information. Your boss asked you! What were they expecting you to say? “I don’t talk about my family much because we are so close we commune telepathically?” “I can’t talk about my family much because they’re spies so all our childhood vacations are classified top-secret?” For goodness sakes!

        Try not to feel bad for making people like this “feel terrible” by talking about your childhood. You’re not going into graphic inappropriate detail… you’re sharing normal parts of your experiences. If simply saying you were in foster care or can’t afford XYZ makes them feel terrible, that’s a problem with THEM not with you. Easier said than done though.

      3. mf*

        You shouldn’t feel like you *have* to be that forthright about your childhood (unless you want to be!). I’m estranged from my sister, who is my only sibling. When people ask about sibling stuff, I usually say, “Oh, Sister and I won’t see each other this Christmas. She lives far away and is super busy. Maybe next year!”

        However, I do think it’s pretty cool that you speak about your childhood trauma in a very matter-of-fact way. It’s a reminder to those around you that you can’t always judge a book by its cover. If people recoil when you’re honest, then that’s *their* problem, not yours. They need to learn to deal with their own discomfort.

      4. sub rosa for this*

        Oh, no. *hugs*

        That sort of horrified recoil just… scars you. I’m sorry this happened to you. I hope that it will hurt less and be less deep someday.

        (I confess I’m still in stealth mode with my physical issues that cause similar responses. Yes, it may be miserably hot out; I’m wearing long pants so someone doesn’t freak out looking at my bad leg and ruin my day, thanks. Wish I had some better advice on how to handle it, but I feel ya.)

      5. knitcrazybooknut*

        Please don’t feel like an outsider because the people you are around can’t immediately relate to your life experience. I had an emotionally abusive childhood, all the while looking like everything was FINE. (This is fine!) I’ve learned that the more matter-of-fact you are about your situation, the less people will take it as odd. Of course your surrounding make that harder. But you may find later that more people relate than you might think. I’ve had surprising reactions, including people I would not have expected sharing that they had issues with their family as well. I wish you all the best!

      6. ribbit*

        It’s awful to feel put on the spot like that. (We’ve certainly all read the letters Alison gets about coworkers who, innocently or not, manage to ask questions about exactly the most painful thing in the letter writer’s life!) One tool to keep in your pocket is answering as though they’d asked a slightly different question. Carolyn Hax recommends this for nosey parkers and people who will Just. Not. Let. A. Topic. Go., but it’s true in general that you don’t owe anyone the whole truth about your personal life if you don’t want to share, especially when it’s just small talk. For example–
        Coworker: “What are your holiday plans? I never hear you talk about your family.”
        You: “Oh, well husband and I have this tradition where we bake cookies first thing Christmas morning and then have cookies for breakfast. What are some of your family’s traditions?”
        Coworker, if they’re rude enough to keep probing: “But aren’t you going to see your family? You never talk about them!”
        You: Oh, same old same old, you know! I’m really excited about spending the day in my pajamas with husband/at the movies, are you looking forward to Oscar Bait II?/volunteering at my local soup kitchen, it feels really meaningful to me.
        Coworker: We just got back from this amazing trip to Spain, have you ever been?
        You: As a matter of fact, I’ve been thinking I’d love to learn how to cook Spanish food, what were your favorite dishes? [“No I haven’t, what was your favorite part?” is also completely fine, but the point is that if there’s something you feel uncomfortable about, feel free to pivot.]
        This will probably not feel natural at first because we’re (mostly) hard-wired to answer truthfully, but I think it’s helpful to at least remember it’s an option and maybe to have a few diversion-type responses ready to go for the topics/questions that are the most painful.

      7. Squid*

        I don’t know that this helps, but that recoil may have been more about them than about you. In that situation, I would be horrified by the possibility that I’d upset a coworker by asking an insensitive question without thinking, and there have definitely been times when I’ve compounded the problem by recoiling with mortification after putting my foot in my mouth. :/ It’s a terrible response for all the reasons you experienced, but it takes practice and self-awareness to stay calm and give a low-key apology, and not everyone is good at that.

      8. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

        I bet that boss is much more careful about asking people things now. I hope it was a lesson to them.

        As a child of privilege, I’ve had to have some awkward moments (and probably will have more) in order to really understand just how good I had things, and how much support I had that others didn’t.

        Inequality is a poison.

      9. Batgirl*

        OP, what advice would you give to help people like your boss avoid this sort of foot in mouth situation? I usually let people volunteer their own life details without sending out probes, but there must be more to it than that? Like “don’t recoil in horror at people’s factual back story”?

      10. Distracted Librarian*

        I felt this comment in my soul. You had it worse than I did–I wasn’t in foster care, and we had enough for bare necessities–but I have lots of unhappy holiday memories (father with untreated mental illness and addiction), and we definitely couldn’t afford luxuries like expensive trips or gifts. Yet I still find myself in this kind of awkward position when people bring up these topics, and I’ve learned the hard way that no one appreciates a Debbie Downer. My favorite technique is to ask them about their experiences. People *love* to talk about themselves, so they’ll think you’re a great conversationalist :-) I also usually learn something interesting about my co-workers or the cool places they visit. If I know someone well enough, I’ll share a little about my past–and I’m often surprised to learn they had rough childhood experiences too. Most people are wounded in some way, even if they’re good at hiding it.

        1. banoffee pie*

          great point, some people just haven’t told you yet where their sore points are, it doesn’t mean they don’t have any!

  25. Web Crawler*

    This isn’t my exact experience, but I often feel envious of coworkers complaining about their minor health woes when I’ve just gone through a major surgery and have chronic health problems.

    One of the things I’ve found that helps is having a community that understands me. I don’t spend a lot of time there, but when I’m overwhelmed by how healthy the world seems, I know I can drop into my community just to say “ugh, I’ve had a migraine every day this week” and get responses that aren’t misinformed health advice, shocked, or pitying.

    1. quill*

      Finding people with similar experiences is a very helpful addition to therapy. Most therapists, no matter how well trained, well meaning, or sympathetic, will not be the person who can say “Oh yeah, I did that too, it was in retrospect pretty a pretty fucked up situation.”

    2. quill*

      Gaining people with similar experiences is a great supplement to therapy. No matter how well trained, well meaning, or sympathetic a therapist is, there’s a certain relief to talking to someone who has also been there. Especially when you have an outlet for “I know it’s incredibly petty of me, but…” and “Actually we’re right that X behavior is ridiculously out of touch.”

  26. The Smiling Pug*

    I’m going to agree with something that’s being echoed here. LW, please consider some counseling, as angry thoughts like this will bleed into and color not only your thinking about colleagues, but about friends and romantic partners as well. If left unchecked, this could sabotage finding joy, not just now, but long-term too.

  27. Dana Lynne*

    For a while I worked for a successful family-owned business with lots of employees. The owning family was incredibly wealthy. Not Bill Gates wealthy, but yachts and multiple homes wealthy. One of the founder’s adult children had an important hands-on management role and the other two of the founders’ adult children were given positions that IMHO they really weren’t qualified for, but they were treated like rock stars anyway.

    I had to work closely with one of those two, and he was really clueless, had bad judgment and was quite incompetent. We all knew this would never change.

    What helped me snap out of my resentment and envy of him was an offhand comment by a colleague that made me laugh and gave me some perspective. She said, “It’s really a good thing that Son of Founder was born into so much money, because there is no way he would have been able to cope with life without it. Poor guy.”

    Wishing you peace of mind however you arrive at it.

  28. hola my peeps*

    I came from a family with nothing. I’m older now (50s) and have done so much better and have so much more than I ever dreamed. Keep working, growing, and see what happens. Your past shapes your perceptions but can also drive your success.

    That said, when people are talking about their homes or vacations, a quick, “Maybe someday after these student loans stop strangling me!” will suffice. You don’t have to share anything about your past to make it known that your present doesn’t include a lot of things.

  29. Alex*

    A therapist can really help you to alter your thinking patterns about this. A lot of your letter seems to have this ring of “I can never hope to have anything good,” but…that’s not really true? A therapist can help you unpack what is making you feel this way. Abusive parents can do a real number on your thought patterns and brain chemistry (ask me how I know!) and a professional can help you with this. If you work at a wealthy university, my guess is you have some sort of access to mental health care through your benefits system. I’m not trying to diminish the struggles of student debt and no family support, but these are not insurmountable obstacles, and while there’s no magic want to make that all go away, a professional can help you cope with your situation.

  30. Manchmal*

    I really think therapy can help. On one hand, there will always be people who have it better, and people who have it worse. The OP is in a situation where most people have it better, and I can definitely understand how that would be grating. I grew up comfortably and have a very comfortable life. But I also sometimes find myself in situations with people several magnitudes of wealth greater than me, and there’s a real dissonance to hear them talk about certain things like their private planes, African safaris, etc. You can also imagine that much of the world’s population still doesn’t have clean water, reliable electricity, etc. A poor person in the US is still far wealthier than your average person in a developing country. So it may help to put things in perspective to spend some time with people who have it worse (whether by volunteering, watching documentaries, doing advocacy work, etc.)

    But I’m also concerned to hear that the OP believes that marriage and children are beyond reach. No matter how much debt you have, you can still do those things. Poor people get married and have children! I think the therapy would come in handy here because it may be that the OP’s worldview is skewed by their upbringing, or anxiety around their debt. Living modestly and being in debt doesn’t doom you to a life of solitude.

  31. Calyx Teren*

    People are giving good advice but I just wanted to log and say that I’d probably feel just like you. That is a tough background to overcome. It’s very much to your credit that you did overcome it, but I can see spending some time feeling a little bitter. As you’re noting, over time that’ll only hurt you but it’s totally understandable.

    Some additional thoughts:

    Compound interest is amazing, and small things that you do now in your ‘20s (I assume) will start paying massive dividends in your 40s and later. Some of your well off colleagues will have been spending everything they make and you may have more security than them at that point.
    -Max out your 401K as soon as you possibly can, and always prioritize orgs that match
    -Start putting a little money—even $25/month—into a mutual fund or some such at an org like Vanguard or Schwab
    -Advance as quickly as you can in business; look for good mentors and sponsors—you don’t just get a bigger pay check, there are all sorts of things you get when you’re director level and up at a successful public company
    -Study in your spare time to really understand economics and finance; this is an underrated but massive life hack

    1. Sparkly Librarian*

      I’m not picking on you, and I do agree that starting to save when possible makes a big difference down the line. But it was exactly advice like “max out your 401k” that made me feel incredibly poor compared to my coworkers. At the time I heard it a few years ago, I think the contribution limit was $17,500/year. That was more than I paid in rent, even when I was able to get an apartment without roommates. For OP and anyone else who is feeling the day-to-day struggle, smaller steps like “$25 a month” or “$5 per paycheck” would be more reasonable. Can afford more than that? Great, go for it! Can you increase your savings one percentage point (of your paycheck) each year? Or the next time you get a raise, can you put that much into savings and live on the old amount? I’ve done both of those by now, and am actually somewhat close to maxing out my retirement savings next year. But there’s no way I could have started there, or even think it was possible.

      1. Loredena Frisealach*

        Yes! When I was working as a consultant with some recent graduates, it was still pretty common not to be eligible for the 401K until you’d been employed a year. My coworkers became eligible for quarterly bonuses at the same time as they received their annual pay increases and could start contributing so I encouraged them to either direct the same percentage as their raise, or their bonus (we could put all of the bonus and none of our regular pay if we wanted) on the grounds that it was a lot easier to contribute money you’d never had and continue living on the same income than it was to take an apparent cut in pay. But even something as small as $25 a month adds up so much over time!

    2. Another perspective*

      Just chiming in to say that not everyone’s goal in life is to “advance as quickly as you can in business,” and that’s perfectly OK. The fact that someone has overcome poverty or other obstacles doesn’t automatically mean they should prioritize running as far in the opposite direction as possible–unless they want to. Plenty of people are happy with middle-class incomes doing work they find interesting and wouldn’t find the tradeoffs of management/director-level positions to be worth the extra income and other perks they might come with.

      1. Ellie*

        For me, getting my finances in order went a long way towards removing the resentment I felt for people who’s parents were funding their lifestyle (because the stuff I cared about having I could afford now, and the silly things didn’t matter to me so much). Also, having a good safety net fixes my anxiety… if you’ve grown up poor, there’s a part of you that never forgets, and its scary how easily you could end up back down there again. And of course it will be harder this time, because you’re not used to it anymore. Not that I was mistreated at all, I was raised by my single mum who shielded me as much as she could, but we had no money. We knew a dozen ways to turn mince and beans into a meal, and still my mum would skip dinner more than once in a typical week.

        I’d echo the one about putting a little money away, even if it doesn’t seem like much. It will add up, and it will make you feel more secure. And who knows? One day, you might have the opportunity to get a unit, or something else you love.

  32. Kerry*

    I had a similar upbringing (am currently in grad school, so not out in the workforce yet). I get really frustrated to see/hear other grad students who make similar amounts of money be supported by their parents- living in places I know we can’t afford based on our salary, buying new cars just because, going on vacations almost every weekend… some people’s parents even bought them actual houses and pay all the expenses. Meanwhile, my car has been on its last legs for years and I can’t afford to update my glasses prescription so I need to sit in the first row of lectures to even see.

    I know I can’t change other people’s circumstances and they shouldn’t affect me, but it can be really demoralizing. I have started being truthful when people ask why I haven’t done (insert some expensive thing) and say I cannot afford it with our grad student salary instead of making excuses, which mentally for me has helped let some of the resentment go. I also remind both the undergraduates I teach and my fellow grad students that Not Everyone’s Daddy Has Money, which I think helps a lot of the cutting comments we all hear about manifestations of poverty (ie. why don’t you just buy a new car/laptop/coat/shoes/season tickets to the football game/house etc).

    1. old biddy*

      I had a similar experience in grad school and in my first industry job. I’m in my 50’s and am doing well now, and with time the feelings lessened although they did not go away entirely.
      I agree 100% that it’s ok to remind people that we’re not all in the same boat financially even if we’re being paid roughly the same. Maybe that’s due to no parental help, maybe it’s student loans, maybe it’s being single or not having a well-paid spouse. At the very least, a gentle reminder may help people be more considerate in their conversations in the future. Some of my neighbors definitely didn’t get this lesson and it shows.
      It’s entirely possible to mediate one’s conversations without dramatically changing the content – the easiest way to do this is not to give dollar amounts. I don’t think this is curbing anyone’s conversations too much. For instance, my boss complained about the budget for his new office furniture, and I realized that I had spent less than half that amount on furniture for my house in my entire life and I got a bit annoyed. If he’d just said that his office furniture budget was lower than he’d like, I don’t think I would’ve given the conversation a second thought.

  33. learnedthehardway*

    When I was starting out, I worked with people who would drop the amount of my annual salary on a vacation. Good people, but very privileged.

    It’s very hard to deal with until you are comfortable with who you are and what you have achieved. You need to get to a place where you realize that your value as a human being does not relate to your material wealth, your family connections, or your title. This takes time and self-reflection, and a certain level of maturity that takes time to develop.

    It also entails realizing that wealth and privilege are very much the products of generations of advantages – Most successful and wealthy people (even those who believe they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps) have benefited from advantages that the average person doesn’t have. It doesn’t make them better that other people.

    What makes a person great is what they DO with the hand they are dealt in life, not the hand they were dealt.

    1. londonedit*

      This is exactly what I was going to say. I come from a comfortable middle-class family but I chose a comparatively poorly paid career for myself and I live in London, so I don’t have a lot of money to throw around. I certainly can’t afford to buy a house, and I can’t afford to travel much. Maybe I’m helped by the fact that I’ve never wanted to get married and have children, but I’ve reached the point where I’m quite happy with what I’ve chosen for my life. Would it be nice to own a house? Yes, maybe it would, but I’d never be able to afford to buy in the area I love living in even if I earned twice the salary I currently do, and renting means I don’t have to pay to fix the boiler or unblock the drains, so to me that’s a reasonable trade-off. Other people have other priorities – plenty of my friends have moved out of London in order to buy a house, or buy a bigger house. Of course sometimes I think ‘Wow, I couldn’t even afford to buy a parking space and they’re spending half a million’ but their situation is not my situation. It’s easy to get sucked into the ‘You must have a degree and a good job and a nice car and a house and 2.4 children by the age of 35 or you’ve failed’ narrative, but there are so many other ways to live a happy and fulfilled life. The OP should feel proud to have saved money and built a life for themselves.

  34. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    Honestly, therapy.
    You are a successful, functioning adult and you deserve to enjoy that and celebrate that. A therapist can help you stop feeling like the kid standing outside the ice cream store watching people going in and out and knowing it will never be you.
    Because you aren’t that kid anymore.
    Additionally, a therapist can help you realize that everyone feels jealous, insecure, mad about things from childhood. It’s wild and liberating to realize that in most ways you ARE just like everybody else.
    Whatever you do, good luck and best wishes.

  35. LKW*

    Three things to always keep in mind:

    1. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it does turn problems into inconveniences. People who have never had to scrounge for bus money don’t have the experience or perspective on what poverty can mean. It’s not your problem to solve. You don’t need to educate them. But you will always have perspective and experience that your colleagues don’t. That’s not a bad thing.

    2. You don’t know what people are actually earning/spending. There are many people who spend almost everything they earn (and even more who spend more than they earn). Some people who seem to be doing really well are actually putting up a facade. I’ve seen it up close and when it gets exposed, it’s very ugly.

    3. The phrase “That’s nice.” is your friend in these circumstances for two reasons. If the person is worthy of your kindness, then saying “That’s nice” to their financial accomplishments is kind in return. If you come across the occasional jerk who wants to brag and play the one up game – saying “That’s nice” gives them nowhere to go with the brag. Adding a little dismissiveness (just a bit) will frustrate the crap out of the braggarts.

  36. anony*

    I have empathy more than I have advice, OP.

    Here is one thing I know: money f*cks people up, no matter how much they have or don’t. When I’m in a situation where I’m feeling jealous or financially inadequate, sometimes it helps me to remember that. Sometimes.

    I went to a wealthy university myself. Was privileged enough to come out debt-free due to my parents’ long-term choices, while peers whose parents earned more graduated with student loans. But what I remember all these years later was the friend and classmate who came from really hard circumstances – financially and personally. I learned so much from exposure to that friend, and found myself jealous of them after we graduated for many years because of the resilience and scrappiness and coping skills they had developed, which meant they were miles ahead of me and our other peers who didn’t graduate directly into high-paying careers, even though we were all struggling to get by.

  37. mot juste*

    OP, I feel you on this. Hard. I too come from poverty and have found myself surrounded by privilege throughout my university years & working life. It’s hard to stomach sometimes, and I often berate myself for that tiresome poor-kid chip I still have on my shoulder.

    I think a lot of folks don’t realize that even when a person with these roots reaches the financial stability we’ve struggled for all our lives, the effects of those early years linger. The anxiety over slipping back into poverty. The years spent digging out of debt. The loneliness and dread we feel when the topic of retirement savings crops up.

    Please know you’re not alone.

    One suggestion: Seek out ways to support first-generation college students at your university who may be struggling. I went straight from my parents’ trailer to a wealthy university surrounded by rich kids because I was lucky enough to get a scholarship, and I spent the first six months a) terrified that a mistake had been made and someone would show up any minute to tell me I had to leave, and b) out of my element among all the wealthy kids who had their own cars and didn’t need to have jobs on top of their school work. If there’s some way you could reach out to them and support them, it might feel great and make it easier to let go of those situations that are hurting you now.

    Good luck.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      “… the effects of those early years linger.”
      Holy cow, yes. I’m finally in a good financial place and I don’t know how to take a vacation. I can’t let myself buy fun things without fretting about it for weeks. Can I really afford that $20 PS game? Of course I can! But maybe I should wait until next month to be sure I really need it.

      1. fposte*

        I read a financial forum that helped me tremendously in handling my money and planning for retirement, and quite frequently there will be posts from people, often people who are high net worth, asking how to let themselves spend some of what they’ve saved.

    2. Bex*

      I second your suggestion (came here to make the same one, actually – glad I looked to see if it had already been said).

      I don’t know if that’s a fit for your position at the university, LW, but I think your experience could be so valuable to a lot of students, and probably to the university in terms of improving how they attract, support, and retain students from diverse backgrounds. Contributing in that way might make you feel more positive about what you’ve achieved so far. At least, I think that has worked well for my husband, who comes from a background like yours and is now a high school teacher in an affluent suburban district.

    3. Damn it, Hardison!*

      I love this suggestion. I was the first in my family to attend college, and went to a small, wealthy college. At freshman orientation, we were all asked to talk about what we did over the summer. Of the twenty or so student in my group, only two of us had jobs (we immediately became friends.) That’s when I realized I was out of my element. It would have been great to know some adults with a similar life path at the college. There really wasn’t any support for low income students.

      1. Distracted Librarian*

        Same, and I too would have loved to have this kind of support. As it was, those of us at the rich kids’ school on scholarship managed to find each other and support each other, which really helped me find friends and not become bitter.

  38. AndersonDarling*

    I associate with this so much! For the first 15 years of my career, I had to listen to my co-workers talk about their casual $200 dinners while I was holding back tears at the grocery store because I didn’t have the money to buy the nice frozen pizza and it was crushingly unfair. I work darn hard, why can’t I even afford the $9 frozen pizza?
    I came from a lower class family and I could only manage to go to a 2 year college. I worked harder and managed more work than my directors, and yet interns were earning more than me. I had a promotion taken away because the CEO discovered I didn’t have a 4 year degree.
    I could gripe for hours on all the slights, heartache, and unfairness. But I am now in a great financial place. I used my company’s education assistance to get a 4 year degree, and then I got my Masters. I juggled my time and finances and I started job searching hard. I made 3 job changes and I am earning more than I ever thought would be possible.
    The only thing I could control was my own circumstances. I used every resource available and I kept focusing on the future I wanted.
    Yes, some people grow up having no idea that people struggle. But there are likely people I know who are struggling in hidden ways that I know nothing about. It’s okay to be envious about European vacations, but I can’t be mad at those lucky people. The more you focus on those differences, the more you will see them and the more they will bring you down. If you focus on the things you can control, the things that bring you happiness in your life, then you will be more positive and there will be more opportunities. An optimistic outlook will open doors.

      1. AndersonDarling*

        Aww, thank you! I want to go back in time and buy myself a pizza, too.
        Now I can buy the biggest deep dish with all the veggies I want.
        A part of me is grateful that I experienced that stress and sadness so I can understand what others are experiencing, and buy them pizzas.

    1. Insert clever name here*

      Good for you for actually using company benefits. So many people don’t and I’m a big proponent of milking every experience for what it’s worth.

      1. AndersonDarling*

        For the longest time, I thought that education reimbursement was for “other” people, like I would be laughed at if I tried to use the benefit because I wasn’t a manager getting an MBA. But I saw regular people using the benefit and it prompted me to do the same. I only had about $4K per year to use, but I selected an Online university where I could space out my terms. I took month long breaks in between each term so each session ended in a different calendar year. I got 3 years of reimbursement for 3 terms and I had my degree! It only cost me $38 out of pocket!

    2. Distracted Librarian*

      “The only thing I could control was my own circumstances. I used every resource available and I kept focusing on the future I wanted.” This is excellent advice.

  39. Anono*

    I wish I could give you a hug. I grew up in a very abusive family, so when people talk about getting together with their families, or childhood traditions and memories I feel *things*. Sometimes it is anger, sometimes it is sadness, sometimes it is loneliness, and sometimes it is resentment at them at my sh*tty parents and childhood. With lots and lots of therapy I am now able to (usually) stop those thoughts and feelings and focus on the other person. It isn’t about me.
    I was broke for many many years after leaving home at 16. But after finishing university and starting my career I was finally able to breathe. You will get there too. I wish I could give you magic words to make you be able to see things differently or to reset that trauma brain, but it doesn’t work that way. I wish you all the very best and encourage you to seek therapy.

  40. What the What*

    Just one thought for you, OP, with the caveat that this is just my experience and your mileage may vary: You ask how you can handle these situations and not feel jealous all the time. And I just want to suggest that maybe feeling jealous isn’t the worst thing. Maybe you will feel jealous when people say those things. For me, sometimes when I have negative emotions it can help me to 1) name them in the moment, 2) identify their severity in the moment, and 3) accept them for what they are: feelings (not facts or truths or judgments). They don’t have to mean more than that (signs that you are a bad person, an indication of a failing on your part, an overarching negativity that will creep into everything you do, a black cloud hanging over your life, etc). They can just be a feeling you’re having at that time. This doesn’t always work but sometimes it has helped me. And in the long run, sometimes it makes the feeling get less oversized in my life.

    1. Insert clever name here*

      I agree with this. Your feelings are valid but you don’t have to claim them or take ownership over them. It’s just an emotional response to stimuli and it’s completely fine to just let it come and pass. You can unpack them if you want and if you think it would be beneficial, but you can also just wait out the feeling until it passes and choose not to give it too much attention. It won’t solve the overall challenge, but it may help you get through the day to day bouts of jealously.

  41. Chairman of the Bored*

    I find it helpful to remember that income and privilege is very relative in a global sense.

    If you are living at the poverty line in the US, your buying power is still in roughly the top 30% of all people in the world.

    I try to frame things in the overall context of humanity and human history. By that standard, even as a random not-rich person with access to food and shelter in an industrialized country I’m doing much better than most people alive and most people who have ever lived.

    1. Dino*

      For me at least, this isn’t helpful because all it does is remind me that in an instant I could be back to not being able to afford rent, medicine, etc. Since so many people in the world are in that situation and we as societies have decided that it’s acceptable.

    2. gmg22*

      Ehh. This feels a little too close to victim-blaming to me — “You think you had it rough? Imagine if you’d grown up in Bangladesh!”

      Growing up in poverty in the United States feels very precarious for the people who live it (not to mention that the OP has clarified that the hurdles they had to overcome didn’t just involve poverty, but also family dysfunction). Let’s not diminish their experiences with apples-to-oranges comparisons.

    3. Miss Chanadler Bing*

      I think probably the thing that you have to realize is that these people are showing the best part of their lives. They’re not showing you the sucky parts, or maybe where they’ve struggled in the past with finances. For instance, I grew up in a house where I had well off parents, and I was able to buy a new car at 22 on my own because I had no student loans and excellent credit. I got hit with thyroid cancer at age 23. It drained my savings and as a result, I’m still with my parents at age 26 because I can’t afford an apartment on my own, so I’m saving up for a condo or a house. So everything might appear like, “Oh, that girl travels a lot” well yeah, but she also lives with her parents and can’t afford the housing in this economy, and she takes nine pills in the morning, but there’s no way my workmates would know that. Of course, it doesn’t compare to your situation OP, but know that everyone has their own struggles.

      I agree with others that therapy would probably help, but so would financial counseling. You could check in with your local library, many have financial management courses. Part of the reason I have good financial skills is because I had good teachers in my parents, and my dad had a good teacher in his father, so it becomes generational. Unfortunately, you didn’t have that.

    4. Hills to Die on*

      I commented upthread about gratitude and it was not super well-received. But this does work for me. The Dr Suess book about realizing for lucky you are helped me even as a kid.
      Yes, just because someone has a broken back doesn’t mean your broken arm doesn’t hurt. I get it. But sometimes it helps to look at the sunny side because there IS sun. Just my experience!

      1. Distracted Librarian*

        Focusing on gratitude helps me, too. I try to focus on the things in my life that are good, though without comparing myself to others that are worse off. Just focus on the good in and of itself, because it’s good regardless of what others do/don’t have.

    5. JohannaCabal*

      LW also had to deal with childhood abuse and neglect, so it’s not just growing poor. Our culture is oriented around family and I’ve experienced individuals who’ve had only mostly positive family experiences not understanding that toxic families exist. And this is something that can’t really be dealt with by re-framing.

      For example, I rarely saw the doctor once I was over the age of eight. Some of it was due to crappy insurance but a lot of it was because of a mentally ill parent wrapped up in their own challenges. Said parent also had a lot of negative medical experiences growing up that created a fear of doctors (they died in their late 60s having never received any of the recommended tests most get starting in their 40s). People are often shocked I didn’t see the doctor or dentist that much as a child and cannot imagine a parent not taking a child to the doctor despite having years of bad cramps or other issues. In their minds, it’s just unfathomable.

    6. Anony in Silicon Valley*

      I see the feedback from those that this doesn’t work or too close to victim blaming, but it works for me.

      Mind you, my family cannot be considered poor. I have never known hunger, had my own room as a kid and all the necessities growing up, albeit not the nicest things. I now live in the SF Bay Area and and make than my parents did (adjusted for inflation) but so much wealth here! I do get jealous – all these folks who can afford Teslas! Who have multi million dollar homes! Who were part of Google’s IPO! Etc etc. It helps me to think of how fortunate I am.

  42. Fancypants*

    I’ve been in a similar situation, and the tough realization is that the only one who can make you content/happy is you. If you’re bitter about the circumstances that you grew up in (whether it was about the lack of love, safety or housing) it will only make -you- unhappy. With that being said, it takes time and healing to be able to arrive at that headspace. And when you get there, it still takes effort to see things differently! You write that you know that everyone has some trauma (it’s true!) but you also have something people who’s lived easier lives don’t have. My mom was abused her parents which led to two burnouts, for a total of 10 years. She’s a lot better now and works full time, and sometimes tells me about her colleagues who are looking a lot more stressed than usual. Because she has been there, she can offer them advice, empathy and support (when appropriate) when others in their lives can’t. She calls it her superpower. This kind of thinking doesn’t work for everybody, but my point is: you have seen a world that is miles from theirs. Sometimes it hurts us, but it can also be a useful tool.

    Also, find people who you can connect with, and share a laugh about the rich-people shenanigans. It helps a lot!

  43. FormerProducer*

    I mean, this is a shitty situation and it makes sense to be frustrated and jealous! It sounds like you’re trying to not only deal with having the good fortune of clueless people rubbed in your face, you’re also trying to make yourself not feel about it. And like… it sucks! Your reaction makes a lot of sense to me.

    This is petty as hell, but maybe it will help. What I used to do when I had an extremely awful, frustrating manager was keep a tally. Every ignorant comment, every insult, every irrational decision got a tally mark. And at a certain point it became a funny game – I could say to my roommates “the insults hit double digits day, can you believe?” or “she edited 14 typos into my work, please pour me a drink”. The sheer scale of it turned it from frustrating into hilarious.

    Observing your coworkers like a wildlife documentary filmmaker might make it easier to see them as silly but harmless products of an environment that they’re not even able to recognize.

    Also yeah, therapy for sure, if it’s accessible and something you’re interested in. I know my suggestion was silly but this is heavy shit and you deserve someone to talk to about it and grieve in the way you need to.

    1. Colette*

      The OP specifically says they’re not rubbing it in her face. They’re just living their lives, which they are allowed to do.

      1. FormerProducer*

        Yup, you’re right! But when you’re in that mental place, it feels like your nose is being rubbed in the thing you don’t have, whether or not people intend to do it. I was thinking more about about the LWs own reaction, not the intention of the people they’re surrounded by.

        1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

          I think that OP could spin your idea. If something really strikes him/her add it to a list. After a period of time, look at the list. Is it all about vacation or travel? About houses? What is the biggest thing that hits you, OP?
          and then figure out why.
          And also, it’ll be easier to ignore stuff that really doesn’t interest/affect you so much, because you will realize there are a lot things you are successfully processing and throwing out of your head.

  44. BmoreGirl*

    This is tough. While I did not experience that type of poverty, I have some experience with class anxiety and “imposter syndrome.” I grew up in a low-income area and now live in an affluent area. I also work in organizations with affluent people who have experiences that you outlined (buying expensive homes, traveling lots, having oodles of life experiences). It can be hard to navigate, but as many people suggested on here, therapy can be helpful. I have worked with a therapist to address some of these challenges. Another suggestion I have is to try and seek out others who have similar backgrounds, and are experiencing similar challenges. Also, remember that there are probably other folks who work where you do who might not have the same exact situation as you, but can relate in similar ways. This has been helpful for me. I have a friend from high school who I keep in touch with who has similar experiences in her work and her living situation. It is really helpful for us to call each other up and discuss these frustrations and challenges, and sometimes laugh a bit at how clueless others can be.

  45. Insert clever name here*

    This isn’t really advice, just sort of a stream of thoughts

    1. I think it’s helpful to try to remove your peers as a frame of reference if that makes sense. Their life circumstances are so different than yours that comparing yourself to their habits and achievements isn’t particularly helpful. You’re not falling behind, you just has a different starting point.

    2. Despite all the disadvantages you had, you still ended up in the same environment as your more privileged peers, and that’s kind of a flex, isn’t it?

    3. Yes, I know 1 and 2 are kind of counter intuitive. Just try to celebrate your wins and keep everything else is perspective.

    1. joss*

      So much this on the different starting point. For inspiration please look up a video of the 800m final race in the Munich Olympic games (youtube). OP can be the Dave Wottle of her/his own life.
      Some therapy to deal with the hurt of the past will be very helpful as well. If the university has an EAP program they may find help through that as money is tight at this time

  46. Dasein9*

    What has worked for me is to really craft the home I want. Not expensive stuff, just well-curated. I rent a one-bedroom and arrange it in a way I find both useful and beautiful. It’s a calmly ongoing project that brings a lot of joy. Yard sales and thrift stores play a large role. When people talk about the stuff that excites them, I think of my own beautiful space and don’t envy them so much.

    1. Laure*

      Yes! That is wonderful advice, at least it worked for me.
      My problem is not similar’s to OP, but I remember finding myself with my life in shambles after a divorce…and in a difficult financial situation.

      What worked for me was thinking, ok, now I begin building my life back. What do I like? What do I love? Ok, so, I need new friends (my friends were all mostly my husband’s,) I need free or cheap activities I love, I need a cozy little apartment with warm colors. An online community and cool video-games. An artistic hobby. Friends close by so we can have coffee together all the time. And I slowly made all of this happen.

      Yes, it’s not exactly the same issue, but slowly creating a wonderful “nest” and a wonderful life with people and activities you enjoy will make you very happy, and you won’t envy the (perceived) happiness of others anymore.

  47. Ann O'Nemity*

    I’m still trying to figure this out, too. I’ll tell you some things that have worked for me.

    Sometimes it helps to find birds of a feather to spend some time with – other people like you who have pulled themselves out of poverty and cycles of abuse. That way you’re not spending ALL your time with people who are so fundamentally different from you.

    Sometimes it helps to examine your relationship with money. What really bothers you, what are some goals you can work on? (For me, I realized that it caused me a lot of anxiety to live paycheck to paycheck and I absolutely needed to have some sort of nest egg, even if I had to make uncomfortable spending cuts in order to save. I also realized that their are some topics that I can’t really engage in without getting angry and it’s better to avoid.)

    Sometimes it’s easier to just smile and nod along with wealthy coworker’s plans and conversations, and not feel like you need to be the token poster child of poverty and abuse. You don’t owe them explanations. Other times, it can feel good to (gently) call your coworkers out on their privilege, too. Be kind and respectful, but do what feels right and healthy to you.

    And finally, one thing that often makes my envy dry up is to think about the blessings I do have – health and physically ability. Everyone is going through life with struggles – everyone! – and we don’t always see or hear about the hardships. Focusing on what you do have really can help.

    1. Ann O'Nemity*

      It also helps me sometimes to think of life like climbing K9. Sometimes people have to start at the bottom and climb up all by themselves. Some people can afford to hire guides. Some people fly in on helicopters to various base camps and get a head start; some even get dropped at the summit and don’t have a climb at all. Thinking about it this way, is it really such an accomplishment to get to the top when everyone started at different places?

      1. Despachito*


        It always rubs me the wrong way when people boast of having climbed K9 as if they were Hillary and Tenzing themselves, while in their case, it was helicopters and a lot of sherpas helping… not saying it is NOT an accomplishment but there definitely IS a huge difference and it should be acknowledged.

  48. Lou*

    One thing to think about is whether these people are bragging, but also making terrible financial decisions themselves. There is so much one-upmanship in our culture, that they may be doing these things but going into massive debt that they’re not talking about in order to do them. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating to hear about.

  49. Spearmint*

    One thing you can try when these topics come up is, in the moment, trying to focus on how this is good for your coworkers more than the differences between you and your coworkers. When Jane mentions her European vacation, try to focus on how you’re happy for her that she’s going to have this cool experience rather than how you aren’t in a position to do the same. I’m not saying this is a magic cure-all, or that you should never feel any envy or make any comparisons, but it may help make relationships with these coworkers easier and more positive.

    Of course, this only works if you generally like your coworkers and want them to have good lives. If they’re bad people or otherwise unlikable, then of course you won’t be able to feel happy for them when they buy a house.

    I’ve dealt with lots of envy/jealousy in my life, although mostly on non-financial topics, and this is one of my go-to strategies.

  50. Hopeful supporter*

    I do understand, OP. However, I can only reiterate what others here have said:
    1. Gratitude: You have come through a lot and are rich in many ways (just perhaps not in money). Your life has given you skills, talents, and gifts that you could not have received in other ways.
    2. Develop relationships and interests outside of work so you have something else to focus on rather than how good your colleagues have it. Life is not just the workplace. Heck, maybe volunteer (if you have time/opportunity to do so) and “pay it forward” and help those who are less fortunate than you are. Often, the people who have been there are the most generous.
    3. In case jealousy is rearing its ugly head, “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone is going through some sort of battle.” No one gets through life unscathed. Just because they have money, doesn’t mean they aren’t battling illness, family issues, mental health woes etc.
    I admire you for having gotten through all that you have endured. I wish you peace, hope, and joy.

  51. Wonderer*

    This is definitely a tough problem to solve. On one hand, the world is kind of like this. No matter how well you are doing, there are always people doing better. I find it very helpful to also look at the other side of this: No matter how bad things are, there are lots of people doing worse!
    You’ve accomplished a lot and I think it’s important to remind yourself of this. Overcoming envy at others’ success is really a long-term process of working on yourself. The only other alternative is to try hiding from it by surrounding yourself with people who are worse-off than you are. I think you probably don’t want to live in that environment, though?
    I don’t believe there’s any way to quickly fix this problem, but maybe it will help if you can develop a clear vision of where you want to get to yourself and then make a plan of how to get there? Make a 20-year or 30-year plan of how you can get free of debt/buy a property/whatever. When you are feeling bad about your current position, try to compare to whether you are on-track with your plan.

    1. Colette*

      I think it’s also important to remember that money is a poor way of keeping score. Someone will always be doing better, and somehow we never notice those who are doing worse.

      I’d suggest the OP do some volunteering if she’s interested in that – it can give you a sense of accomplishment. Sort food at the food bank, become a Brownie leader, build houses, do a litter chase at the park, help your neighbour pick up groceries – find something you like to do that makes the world a better place. I’d also suggest she make an effort to find a group of people who are supportive, like her, and who she likes.

      1. gmg22*

        Agree on the volunteering. I deliver Meals on Wheels, and I definitely feel like the experience grounds me in the real world — there are all kinds of reasons why people might need a meal delivered (age, disability, poverty, addiction) but the common denominator is, everybody gets lunch and I help make that happen.

  52. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

    Respect to you for building a good life out of an unpromising start. Please know that your feelings do not make you a bad person, nor does your background make you more or less worthy as a human being. Inequality — painful, crushing economic inequality — is to blame. Never feel like you have to disclose anything you don’t want to disclose, but if you feel comfortable doing so, reminding the children of privilege that not every kid got piano lessons or a pony is good for them.

  53. nerdmal*

    I wonder if there is an affinity group/student group for first-gen scholars on your campus? As someone who was first-gen at a pretty wealthy private university, I found it helpful to be able to connect with other people that were having similar experiences. I bet a lot of students could really benefit from your mentorship as someone that’s been in their shoes and would have practical/tactical advice to navigate the privileged world of academia. For me, being able to mentor younger folks to get to where I am means that (ideally) I won’t be the “only one” and helps channel my energy away from being jealous of others into something that I can see results with.

    1. Hatshepsut*

      I was just about to jump on and comment this same thing! I’m was a first-gen, low income student at an “elite” private university, and now I work there after finishing three(!) degrees there (including a PhD). I’ve been involved in our First Generation, Low Income, and Immigrant Network as a mentor, and it’s been really amazing to work with college kids who came from backgrounds like mine. I’ve found it helps deal with some of the envy in a productive way. Ours also provides a lot of resources and workshops that have given me some useful strategies for coping with my experience being so different than my peers. Also, therapy! Therapy helps.

  54. Ground Control*

    When I share details about my health issues I tell people that I’m sharing so that they’ll have a better understanding of what it’s like for people in my situation, not to elicit pity, advice, or anything else for me personally. That could work here? A chipper “Thank you for your concern/pity/whatever, but I just wanted to share my experience to give you another perspective. I’m outspoken/fine with talking about my background but others in similar situations might not be, so I just wanted to bring it up as something to maybe keep in mind going forward.”

  55. Cookies*

    I know exactly what you are referring to, and no disrespect to the previous poster, but this situation is not merely a comparison to someone else’s “highlight reel.” I came out of (fought out of) a similar childhood of poverty and it took every ounce of my being to survive independently on my own. I found therapy to be extremely helpful. I’ve been in and out over a series of years and have learned a lot. I remind myself that we all started out life on different baselines with no justification or explanation for that. Life can be very unfair at times. Limiting my exposure is very helpful. I avoid interacting with a lot of popular culture, focused on the next big shiny thing or exotic vacation. I limit my time on social media and pay attention and time to hobbies and interests that speak to my heart. My sense of fulfillment and self content overrides a lot of negative emotions. I do not share my background with a lot of people – I’ve discovered the same as you, pity rises up and there’s very little “return” in the emotional investment of sharing it. Keep focused on your journey, your success, your accomplishments. You’ve done great in making life better than it was – don’t let anything derail you from it.

    1. AnonForThis*

      This fits with my experience. Generational poverty and depression hamstrung me for too long in my life, such that when colleagues start talking about early retirement I know instead that I’m still working to clear debt but at least managed to beat the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle.

      Find comfort in things that speak to your heart and enrich your life.

  56. S*

    I was the scholarship kid at a prestigious college. It flummoxed me that people just *ordered pizza whenever they felt like it* while I was carefully rationing… well, just about everything! I agree with what a lot of people have said here, but I also have an unconventional suggestion: educate yourself about money and finance. Hit the personal finance section of the library. *Your Money or Your Life* is a classic. My family didn’t teach me any of that, and I’m so glad that I did.

  57. blink14*

    I think something to remember is that everyone has their own struggles. While you see that your colleagues and the students have wealth, you don’t know what is going in their personal life, and the personal situations they may be dealing with. Money does sometimes buy happiness, but it doesn’t eliminate or negate the struggles that everyone even if their relative to their situation it doesn’t seem at the same level as those you have experienced.

    I work at a large private university as a staff member, and I am in no way wealthy, nor are any of my colleagues. We have excellent benefits which is hugely important to me, but like most higher ed jobs, the majority of staff aren’t paid at an unusually high level.

    I was fortunate that my parents (and my own family situation has it’s strife and stress) were able to provide for my education, but I’m not rolling in the dough. I live in one of the most expensive cities in the country, can’t afford to not have roommates, and I am considering moving elsewhere now that my job is 100% remote for the forseeable future.

    Remember that what you see and hear on the surface is a lot like social media – it’s what people put out into the world, and most people are going to prefer to put out positives vs negatives.

  58. hmbalison*

    I feel a lot of empathy for you OP. I’ve had times in my life where I was jealous of people, and I agree that therapy may help you a lot. What I also did is consciously seek out friends/support network/mentors, actively connecting to people who struggled with similar issues and were making a good life for themselves. My support network/mentors/friends helped me normalize my circumstances, where I wasn’t seen as the “brave person navigating a situation no one else would touch with a 10 foot pole.”

  59. LizB*

    I really feel you on the family-related part of this. I have VERY dysfunctional parents who I am extremely low-contact with, and there are few things I hate more than when someone who comes from a functional family goes all flabbergasted at me like “I could never live so far away from my family!!” or “What do you mean you haven’t talked to your parents in months?! My mom is my best friend, we talk every day!”. I’ve had to resign myself to the fact that people who had good parents just fundamentally Do Not Get what it’s like to not have that. No matter how well we try to explain it, it really just won’t compute that no, we’re not talking about a recurring fight, or an ongoing conflict, but underneath it all there was still love there. There is no magic word that will make our parents suddenly be trustworthy or supportive, no misunderstanding that can be cleared up with a little hugging it out. The phrase “but she’s your MOM!” means literally nothing when your mom has never been and will never be the type of positive factor in your life that the person saying that associates with that word.

    Obviously this isn’t something you want to get into at work, though, so I agree with other people about just being as vague about your background as possible, and finding other people in your life who went through the same thing who actually can understand. I have a couple friends who also have capital-b Bad families and they are the only ones I trust to really understand me about parent stuff.

  60. IndependentPeople*

    I too aged out of the system, but at 16. I worked through high school and college and barely made it through both. I had a job before I graduated and couldn’t show up for it because, well there was no family to join me and I had to work. I struggle with all the issues you write about, OP and so much more. What has helped me tremendously: trauma therapy, early developmental trauma is no joke and it could be what you have as well if you grew up in poverty and an abusive household/ the system. it doesn’t define us unless we let it, so don’t let it. Creating values that are clear and realistic helped me, I know that sounds cliche. I use them to fall back on if ever in doubt around decisions since I don’t have a family. My values help me remind myself why I’m proud and happy with where I am in life and stay grounded so I compare myself less with others and focus more on staying in the present and moving forward towards attainable goals tied to those values. I also picked up two fantastic mentors along the way, both of whom know varying degrees about my past but mostly have supported me professionally. I am now 35 and I don’t have many things professionally or personally that other people do who come from wealth and stable families, but I am so proud of what I do have and what I’m working towards. You’re not alone! We are out there. Keeping our heads steady and feet grounded, one day at a time.

  61. Anon for this Discussion*

    Know that you’re not alone to start – I grew up in a home that was too proud for food stamps, but too poor to buy enough food. I got married right out of high school, and we barely made rent many months. We scraped together a couple thousand in savings over time, only to have to blow it all and then some on a move to escape a bad situation. 3 years ago, my spouse and I were several thousand in debt, no assets, and no stability. We lived like we were broke, even when our income increased, and using down payment assistance, we were even able to purchase a home. We are now financially stable. I can’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy when my co-workers talk about their “toys” that cost them tens of thousands of dollars, but I make myself feel better by considering my financially stable position now in comparison to where I was three years ago.

  62. Stitch*

    “But at the same time, I get tired of the pity and the false “proudness” that people give me when I explain my background.”

    This stuck out to me. It sounds like your coworkers are being supportive when you discuss your background. I’m not really sure what you expect them to say but it can be hard to know what the best way is be to be supportive.

    I also want to note just because they have money now doesn’t mean they haven’t experienced poverty. My mom has a PhD now and a nice house but she grew up painfully poor. Like no shampoo, no dentist, told me stories about crying because she lost a pencil and couldn’t afford another one poor. She still suffers from the consequences of some of that poverty (trouble with her teeth, a broken hand that didn’t heal properly). But she’s not going to trot this information out with just anyone because it is painful.

    I think if possible (and I realize this is expensive) you should consider talking with a therapist. You may qualify for the University services.

  63. Sleet Feet*

    Hi OP. Fellow childhood poverty with strained family relations who works with very privelaged peers here.

    The answer is you need therapy.

    A therapist will help you unpack the why’s of your feelings, help you identify your triggers, and give you coping strategies.

    I wish you the best of luck moving forward in your life.

  64. Chilipepper Attitude*

    I did not grow up the way you did but my mom basically did. She never went to therapy for it and I think it showed in her own feelings of value (or lack of), in her parenting, and in her practical advice to her kids. I’m in the “get therapy” group because I can see that handling this yourself is just one more weight to bear and that, for everyone involved, therapy is a good option.

    If it helps, I have a friend who bought a house/mansion in a very exclusive gated community in town. When I went there, IDK what I was expecting but I clearly was expecting to find evidence that they lived differently from other people in some way. It was just a big house. More rooms, bigger rooms, more appliances, and fancier finishes; but just a house. I mean, they did live differently in that each kid had their own room, there were rooms reserved for specific things, but they were just people in a big house. It was a light-bulb moment for me. I hope you have such a moment as it was very freeing!

    1. Momma Bear*

      Good thing to point out. My friend’s house is fancier but at the end of the day it’s still just a large 4 bedroom house. More to clean. I will take my smaller home with no HOA over their gated community with rules about paint color.

  65. Lunch Ghost*

    A lot of it is luck. I think that’s the biggest reason I don’t get down about other people having more money than me. I remind myself what parents you get and who you meet in life is mostly luck. (People with high *incomes* is harder, because I feel like there are choices I could have made or things I could have done to have a higher income. But high net worth because parents paid for college tuition and give them thousand dollar gifts regularly? Luck.)
    And me, I’m where I am financially because I have parents who could cover enough of my college tuition that I didn’t have to take private loans, and one of them worked for a company that took interns so they could encourage me to apply, and I ended up with a partner who could cover a greater portion of our shared expenses than me. The only part of any of that that was anything but luck was I did well in a professor’s class so he recommended me for a different class where I met my partner (but even the fact that my partner was in that class, which wasn’t required for his major? LUCK.)

  66. Name Goes Here*

    So, since I see a lot of recommendations for therapy, I’ll throw this out there. In my experience, therapy doesn’t work for everyone / every problem. No matter how honestly and openly you approach it, no matter how ready to work on yourself you are, therapy can only do so much, especially for systemic and social problems. Talking about stuff is not going to change the reality of vastly inequitable wealth distribution (assuming LW is in the US).

    I don’t say this to be discouraging but because when I went to therapy for the first time, I wish somebody had been more realistic with me about what it could and could not accomplish, rather than making me feel like I was “bad at therapy” because the problems didn’t go away. This isn’t to say that therapy isn’t a good idea (I’m glad I went), just that it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of solutions to this.

    Other solutions: Is it possible to just bow out of these conversations? Use a pair of headphones as you walk around the office to avoid conversations about people’s third house or winter getaway to the beach or whatever? Or perhaps you can come up with a series of stock phrases to politely turn the conversation away from wealth and hobbies towards work. E.g. “Wow, how cool about your new handbag! Now about those TP reports.” Maybe see if you can connect, in person or virtually, with people who are in similar situations as you, so that you have a place to vent / people who understand your circumstances / people who can offer more targeted advice?

    1. different seudonym*

      appreciate the mention of systemic forces. There is a real limit to what one human can handle or manage individually, and when we act like self-transformation is a panacea, we’re actually subtly arguing that collective solutions are impossible.

    2. Mental Lentil*

      I’ll add that not all therapists are the same. If you’re not getting anything out of your experiences with one, it’s find to drop them and find somebody else. You’re not stuck with the first therapist you talk to.

      It’s okay not to be satisfied with the therapy you are receiving and go elsewhere.

    3. Totalanon*

      I love this. There’s a place for therapy, but OP might also benefit from organizing to help other first-gen college students, working toward debt forgiveness, etc.

    4. Not A Manager*

      As someone who has had a lot of therapy, I completely agree with this comment. I do think OP deserves support to help her process her childhood trauma and how it affects her current experience. But it won’t magically make her environment less alienating, or provide her with more disposable income, or make her less vulnerable to the realities of living with a lot of debt.

      Also, therapists are humans with their own backgrounds and biases. We’ve seen a lot of examples on AAM of therapists giving *spectacularly* bad workplace advice, mostly because they don’t operate in those kinds of workplaces. I’m not sure that Sigmund Freud, say, would be the best person to help OP with her issues. (And yes, that is tongue-in-cheek. We all know the harm Freud did with his biases.)

      I would suggest that if the OP looks into getting some support, that she carefully vet the therapist to be sure that they are qualified to understand her background and not to pathologize her real-world current challenges.

  67. EngineerMom*

    I’m not sure I have real advice, but I do have some stories.

    I went to college with a pair of twins who had grown up on food stamps with their single-parent father, after their mother kidnapped them as young children during a parental visit (she took them and started driving west for 2 weeks). While their dad was awesome, their other sibling(s) made their home life still not great.

    They didn’t talk about this while we were in school – I didn’t find out about most of their experiences prior to college until well after we all graduated, and only then because one of them really likes writing and started keeping a blog.

    I also went to college with another pair of twins whose dad was a high-powered lawyer who had argued cases before the Supreme Court. They didn’t really like talking about their childhoods all that much, either – it wasn’t a happy experience, for numerous reasons, one being that their birth (they’re the youngest kids in the family) caused their mother to have a stroke that debilitated her for the rest of her life, and their dad was notoriously unfaithful.

    I lived in married graduate student housing as a kid, and later in a 3,000+ sqft old Victorian after both my parents finished their advanced degrees. I spent high school living in a regular 1990s-era 2400-sqft house in a mid-range suburb in Ohio, but with parents who were still paying of the $30,000 in credit card debt they’d accumulated while in grad school, so while I was going to school with people whose parents could easily drop $500-$600 on a marching band trip or something, that was out of reach for us. I found out later that one of my high school friends was living so close to the line that she definitely couldn’t afford something like senior photos, and had to work to pay for anything out-of-pocket related to school expenses like activity fees. As an adult, she now owns her own successful business, but has also been homeless following a divorce.

    But most people don’t talk about this kind of thing – most people don’t talk about the times in their lives when they struggle, or when their home life totally sucked balls. Most people only talk about the things they’re proud of, or that they think will get the envy of others, especially when you’re at an elite university setting like you’re describing.

    There are always people with more money, more and bigger vacations, fancier and bigger or better-located houses, kids going to more expensive schools. You can’t create an environment where every single person has the exact same money and opportunities as everyone else.

    What you CAN do is to work on yourself, on recognizing your inherent worth as a human being, on recognizing yourself how far you’ve come, and on not being ashamed of your past, of the story that has built you into the person you are today.

    You can also work on trying to level the playing field for folks who come from backgrounds like yours. How that looks for you will be very individual – maybe volunteering with an organization, speaking up when clueless wealthy people act like everyone has the same opportunities they have, writing your own story in a journal to help you process everything, working on changing some aspect of your own story (like saving towards a specific goal, or working towards professional opportunities, or building the kinds of relationships you want).

    There’s a strong tendency in the US to measure a person’s inherent worth solely by the amount of money they earn or can produce for an employer. Unlearning that behavior can go a long way towards cultivating a life worth living.

    1. BadApple*

      This is well written. Realizing that life is messy and taking pride in the fact that we still land on our feet is the way to go.

  68. Laure*

    Those are all wonderful and helpful answer… Maybe, also, try volunteering to help children or teenagers who are in situations comparable to what you lived through when you were a kid.
    First, you’ll be a huge help to them, but also, your life and your struggles will suddenly change from “I did ok, but it’s not good enough” to “this extremely helpful tool that put me in this position to help others and show them that there is a way out of moral and financial misery.”
    In short, the narrative of your life will change. You will not be someone with a mediocre life compared to all those rich people, you’ll be someone with this wonderful success (in comparison to those kids,) and someone who is lucky enough to be able to help.

  69. H. Regalis*

    Make sure you have people around you who Get It, so you’re not having to play Wealthy Person Educator all the time. Sometimes you just need to talk to people who have been through the same things you have.

    Also, as people above have said, talk to a therapist. It’s okay to roll your eyes at your rich coworkers’ stuff, but if you are seething with angry and frustration from everyday interactions with them, that will consume you. Talking it through with a pro can help you learn some healthy coping mechanisms so you can roll with things better.

    But seriously, seek out people in-person or online who have gone through the same stuff you have. It’s invaluable to have people you can vent to who you don’t have to play Poverty Ambassador for.

  70. Anon here*

    Honestly? For me it was time and therapy. My situation wasn’t exactly like yours, but I was the kid with no money surrounded by moneyed folks; and the kid with –problematic– parents while everyone else’s dad was calling them “princess” and such.

    I’ve gotten to a point now where I’m really proud of what I have in spite of what I was taught/shown, and I’m working on ridding myself of the shame my upbringing/childhood gave me. The first step really is recognizing that their actions have no bearing on yours—if they don’t buy that house, you won’t suddenly be able to buy one, you know? I realize that’s easier said than done (truly) which is why I needed therapy to get to that point.

    I also find it helpful to do local work with groups working to help inequality, but being able to do that is a privilege all its own that I haven’t always had. Good luck!

  71. Tdog*

    I had the same childhood experience as you. I and my sister were the first ones to go to college (or graduate from high school!), and we did it mostly on our own. I was lucky and got a scholarship so I didn’t have much student debt, plus it was the 90’s, and college wasn’t as unaffordable as it is now. I got married and pregnant right out of college so I didn’t even have time to build a safety net. Like you, I went to work at an Ivy League university where everyone had money and privilege. It was hard, but it gave me ambition. 20+ years later, I have built my career where I now own a house, have financial stability, and can take those fancy vacations I used to dream about. Therapy has also been a huge part of my life. It helps undo some of those ingrained responses we think we can’t control. I still struggle with a massive imposter syndrome, but I bring that into therapy. There will always be people with more money, good looks, whatever it is. Learning to let that go is hard, but it will be so worth it.

  72. Nanani*

    Sadly, I think you need different friends. At the very least, more self-aware people, and people with lives that don’t revolve around buying houses and going on vacations.
    It is entirely possible to have friends with big financial privilege disparity, but the upper end of that disparity has to be contentious. You can’t fix that from the other end. Especially not if you’re the only odd one out.

    So, my concrete advice is to make new friends. Seek people you have real interests in common with, not just a life stage or class together, and different life circumstances will automatically come up much less often cause you’ll be busy talking about your interest instead of your houses.

  73. different seudonym*

    Ooh, feeling this one. I went to school with much, MUCH wealthier people. In my experience, it’s definitely not as simple as deflecting the conversation–their bubble is so seamless that these people don’t even experience spending money as…spending money. Like they have no idea there is such a thing as finite resources. I once responded to a direct question about visiting France with “oh, I’ve never been to Europe” and got a shocked “why not?!?!” as if I’d admitted to not using toilet paper or something.

    Here are two, linked thoughts:

    1) Some of the most shame-inducing parts of my experience–domestic abuse, untreated mental illness, addiction–are at least as common among the ultra-wealthy as elsewhere. I’m very certain of this, via decades’ worth of personal connection. (Contemplate, for a moment, how many drugs a person with no limit to their budget can do. Then think about what it’s like to be their partner or child.) They just don’t ever have the cops at their doors because of it.

    2) For me, recognizing (1) as a fact means that I can see the whole thing as more systemic and less personal. My bad feelings and rough background are relatively easily exposed. For well-off, rich, and 1% people, it’s private. That’s an element of their privilege as a class, and a reason to, you know, support radical political solutions. It’s not something that I can feel reasonably is a personal responsibility. It still makes me ****ing angry, but in a more useful sort of “the world needs to change” way.

  74. Mainah*

    I grew up in a highly dysfunctional household and without much money, and I spent years in academia. I can relate. Therapy helped me change my inner narrative and focus on my strengths.

    One thing I learned was to share less with others and spend more time observing. I also learned how to define myself without comparing myself to others.

    For what it’s worth I’m not rich now, but I am comfortable and I’ve got no debt. I’ve been able to travel the world. And I honestly believe that I enjoy more of what life has to offer than many wealthy friends who take it for granted.

  75. CM*

    I grew up in a stable home with enough money that I never had to worry about whether my needs were met. It took me a long time to understand how privileged I was. And I’m sure I alienated some people who might have been my friends in college by assuming their parents must be financially helping them like mine were.

    So I guess I’m writing this to just acknowledge that the people around you have some level of ignorance and privilege that is understandably causing you pain. In similar situations, I’ve found it really helpful to seek out other people who share my experiences — it’s so nice to have someone else there who’s also privately shocked that your coworkers talk so casually about their wealth. Makes you feel less crazy.

  76. bumbleblue*

    My family isn’t well off, but several of my dad’s childhood friends were incredibly successful in business or married into extremely wealthy families. I’m not sure how I originally found out because my Dad doesn’t talk about money (his or other people’s), but it just seemed like common knowledge. One of them was my Sunday school teacher, and what I knew about him was “cool guy, good sense of humor, billionaire.”

    Until recently, I had a manager who was very wealthy and had very bougie tastes. His idea of retail therapy was buying Hermes scarves; I buy most of my clothes at Goodwill. He owns several houses and condos, I will most likely never be able to buy a house. Maybe it didn’t bother me because of previous exposure to wealthy people. He didn’t rub his money in anyone’s face or brag about it, but I know his personal preferences bothered other coworkers who did not work closely with him. He was honest about his preferences and what he liked, and I think other people interpreted that as ‘if he likes X, he must think poorly of Y.’ One of my friends started working in our Customer Care department; my friend grew up in poverty and really disliked my manager because of his wealth. I want to point out that except for me, my manager never talked about his plans or money to anyone who wasn’t in the same paygrade or higher. My friend was annoyed due to things he overheard, not because it came up in a direct conversation.

    Due to financial struggles over the last few years, I barely have any money in savings and I don’t foresee that I can travel anywhere for vacation for several years. Definitely not to Europe. Reminders of this are difficult, and it can feel like a slap in the face when I remember ‘oh. I can’t have what they have.’

    Honestly, it IS really weird to know just how much someone else is worth and have that be the primary thing you know about them. My manager and I had a fantastic working relationship, and he became a very good friend now that I no longer directly report to him. Because I know so many other things about him, I forget about his money except to occasionally tease him about his bougie tastes. He knew I wasn’t in the same bracket, and I think he was sensitive about that. Since I knew that, his money didn’t bother me – but since my friend did not know this about him, it bothered my friend.

  77. CanRelate*

    There’s a ton of great comments in the mix, I just want to toss in support. I have relatively well off parents who decided, once I got out of school with a huge amount of debt that I was completely on my own. So I went from a supported childhood to ruined credit, minimum wage jobs, and zero healthcare for years and years.

    I managed to do alright for myself, not in small part because I still had a material boost from childhood and my education. No one can truly understand your personal struggles and grief over what feels like lost time. I knew I was in a pretty good situation compared to many, I could eat even if it took extreme budgeting and ignoring calls about my loans because one payment was more than the entirety of my bank account. But the lagging behind my peers that could still live in their parents houses, or extra condo that was loaned to them, or even just kids without debt, really messed me up for a long time.

    I’ve now repaired my credit, and have had some lucky breaks in my professional life (AAM has really helped there!), I’m making moves in my 30s that started to seem like they were totally out of reach to me, and would seem modest to some of my friends. Therapy (once I could afford it), budgeting, and allowing myself my hobbies despite my finances is what pulled me through the worst of times.

  78. Ocean Diva*

    I have similar issues w/ my grand-boss who both grew up wealthy and makes easily double what I currently do. I get really tired of hearing her real estate woes (me and my husband own so many different condos and houses and it’s so hard to buy/sell them, my family has so many houses and we have to renovate, our friends have multiple houses that we get to stay in for free for vacations) when I had to work two jobs for most of my time at this organization to make rent and am always looking for ways to save $20 here and there. Not sure how to bring it up – I don’t feel jealous as much as, you should pay me more and be sensitive to your wealth and privilege.

    1. Meep*

      Ugh. I have a coworker who likes to complain about how underpaid and in debt she is while in the same breath talks about how she bought this $1000 charm for her designer purse. She also works like /maybe/ 4 hours a day if I am being generous. She is 60-years-old, never went to college (which is fine by itself), makes $90k+/year + plus commissions, but complains how spoiled and overpaid the engineers working 10+ hours/day and make far less are ignoring the debt and the other financial obligations. We are also being severely underpaid (40% less) by industry standards, but of course, we should all be grateful for the occasional table scraps she gives us in form of a tiny overpriced $40 cake to share once every few months.

  79. Zip*

    You are in good company–I think that happens to all of us from time to time! When it happens to me, I try to remember that those thoughts are not serving me, and I refocus on my plan to build my own personal and family wealth. I know you’re not asking for financial advice, but I have found great success with Dave Ramsey/Ramsey Solutions advice. He offers several free financial tools/calculators, and concrete steps to move from paycheck-to-paycheck to financial freedom. It’s a great place to start if you’re looking for a financial plan. All the best to you–you are already doing a great job.

  80. Teatime*

    This is going to sound bad (and hopefully it is a temporary fix), but Find a Common Enemy. I also work for a university (as staff), and essentially everyone employed about fifteen years ago was able to buy a house in the city, but everyone after that point will be renting forever due to housing going through the roof. I am really struggling with the idea that I will not be able to afford a home (which I am working through with a therapist), but in the meantime I am able to deal with Wakeen’s discussion of gardening in his yard and Joaquin’s discussion of remodeling his bathroom because we are all in this together against the mad, egotistical whims of the faculty, who are the Real Villains here.

    1. OP*

      The struggle between faculty and staff is real! As a fellow staff person, I fully agree that faculty are the Real Villians.

  81. Temperance*

    I can relate, although I’m a bit older than you and am secure now. I’m a lawyer in a fancy firm, and a first-gen college student. My mother doesn’t even have a diploma. My parents worked low-level factory jobs throughout my whole life, and we were often on food assistance and living in poverty. I had no idea how to work in an office, didn’t know how to get internships, etc. I just couldn’t depend on my parents and family, so I tried.

    I have a same-age colleague who went to a HIGH SCHOOL that costs $40k/year. We also graduated from the same college, Penn State, but under vastly different circumstances. Most other people I work with on my level have family wealth, whereas I’m solidly middle class.

    I honestly just let myself be jealous for a bit, and then the feeling passes. And I also try to remind myself that I really did earn everything that I have now, because I didn’t have any family support whatsoever.

  82. Chc34*

    I have absolutely no idea if this would be helpful for you, but here’s something that worked for me when I was in a kind of similar situation. I grew up solidly middle-class, but my ex’s family was wealthy (he once tried to tell me they were middle-class and my response was “they own land on a Carribean island”). I sat through casual conversations about their $30,000 kitchen remodel (that was not a big number to them: that was run-of-the-mill, said in the same tone as I would say “I bought a gallon of milk today.”). I kind of just . . . imagined them as sitcom characters? Like, Lucille Bluth “it’s just a banana, what could it cost?” characters. It let me laugh a little to myself and felt like it created some distance between myself and the situation mentally.

  83. Lunar Caustic*

    I sympathize, OP. European vacations, mortgages, and children are the three most popular topics at every department get-together I’ve ever been to, and I have to sit in the corner biting my tongue to keep from saying, “You know, the university doesn’t pay us staff members enough to have any of those things, maybe don’t keep emphasizing how you are valuable enough to have the American Dream and I’m not even though you would fall apart in three days without my help?”
    I think that it is normal and healthy to grieve the life you didn’t get to have because of other people’s choices and circumstances that you could not control, and it won’t be helpful to deny the feelings that are stirred up when other people’s lives bring up what-might-have-beens for you. Does your university have a mentoring program for first-generation college students or services for students on scholarship that you could channel your experiences into? That might be a good way to put those feelings to work and find others to build solidarity with. I guarantee you there are students on your campus who would love to find a listening ear that genuinely understands what it’s like to go to college without family support.

      1. Lunar Caustic*

        It’s so typical of universities to be laser-focused on faculty and treat staff like an afterthought, isn’t it? Obviously you will be the best judge of whether trying to open up that closed focus is worth your time and energy, but perhaps the program organizers would be amenable to the benefits of having more people available for it if it was opened up to staff.

  84. Harried HR*

    I had a f*cked up childhood involving serious abandonment issues but we were wealthy. I dealt with that by emigrating and creating a new narrative for my life. I found a job that had international offices and transferred because I didn’t want my family to use money as leverage. I’m in a better place and realize that my family may never be the family I need and that’s ok

    1. Squeakrad*

      I have a somewhat different take on this. I am an adjunct professor and certainly not in the financial state as the students at the University I work at that is private and very expensive. I am much closer to the students I teach at the State University who are often first generation college students with disadvantage backgrounds.

      I will say I much prefer working at the state university as I feel not only can I relate better to the students, but there isn’t a sense of entitlement that I see in my students at the private university. So while the folks are talking about may just be living their lives, you have to Decide for yourself if you want to surround yourself with people who have no understanding about your past or current situations. For me it’s not the fact that they have much more money — some of my students linked in profiles show them standing next to a Maserati, or they go home to Asia or Europe for weekends- It’s the sense of entitlement and narcissistic behaviors that make it unpleasant to work there. So as soon as I am able I’m going to leave there and keep working only at the state university. So you might want to ask yourself why you were in the job you were in at the place you were in — do the rewards balance out your feelings?

    2. Anon for this*

      I’m in similar circumstances, though for me it’s less abandonment and more wealthy parents who think every decision I could possibly make for myself is inferior to what they would do in my position and therefore I am hopelessly lazy and worthless and need them to buy things for me because I’d never do anything for myself if they didn’t. Etc. Etc. Etc.

      The trick to getting through any feelings of inadequacy when confronted with coworkers who have their lives more on track in the ways you desperately wish your life could be on track is to focus on your successes. Maybe you don’t have the disposable income to go on a nice vacation yet, but a few years ago the thought of having actual money was a dream. Now you have that, and it can only go up from here.

  85. Anon for This*

    I’m not sure if this is said above, but there are probably students out there who are experiencing the exact things you did at their age. You might think about starting/sponsoring a student group for first generation college students or something similar. Paying your experiences forward and discussing the ways that helped you through university might quiet those jealous feelings. Instead of focusing on your relative deprivation in relation to your colleagues, you can focus on your successes with your students. Because it sounds like you succeeded in an environment that made it almost impossible to do so and that knowledge could be precious to students.

    1. Mainah*

      I did exactly that in my academic role, and it was very rewarding. This is also a high demand skill in higher ed. Great advice!

  86. Pink Geek*

    I struggle with comparing myself to others as well. One thing that helped me out to remember that no one is doing everything I am hearing about. Facebook used to make me feel like I was a failure because I wasn’t cycling across the country with my three kids to pick out marble counter tops for our cabin reno and give the closing keynote at a leading industry conference. Then I realized the person with the kids never travels, the person who goes on cycling trips has no family, the person who speaks has no free time, and the person with the cabin spends all their time patching the roof. And that’s 4 different people! I shouldn’t compare myself to all of them at once. And in fact (this party was much harder to achieve) I should not compare myself at all since I don’t want half of those things. My goal was to speak at conferences and eventually I did! What are the things you value? Be proud of your progress towards those.

    1. ErinWV*

      This is kind of something I think about – the trade-offs that people make in life. When I was just out of grad school and really barely scraping by, the commute to my job took me through this really wealthy neighborhood, beautiful mansions. And I used to angrily covet them, until one day I thought, “the people who live in these homes are lawyers and CEOs and finance people, and they work 80 hour weeks. Their maids spend more time in these houses than the owners do.” And that just broke the spell. I emphatically do not want to be a workaholic to finance luxury, nor to have the kind of life that is too big for me to manage myself. So I don’t envy anyone in that situation.

  87. Hiring Mgr*

    I don’t know what would be helpful in this situation but if comparing yourself to others is what’s getting you down, does it help to think that there are millions/billions of people who would think the same way about you, just by the fact that you have a professional job?

    1. OP*

      In my rational mind, I understand that I’ve accomplished everything I dreamed about as a kid. I have a place to live and food. When I compare to my siblings, I know that I’ve come a long way. I am the wealthiest person they know. My nieces and nephews were amazed I had a bank account and credit card.

      It’s also not just the money, but the family. So even if someone I know grew up poor, they still have a familiy that cares. I get these intense feelings of inadequacy and jealousy. Of course, I never express that to them or shame them. I mostly try to exit the conversation as soon as possible.

  88. Certified Scorpion Trainer*

    I’m going through similar, along with all the other traits of a toxic work environment.

    One of my hardest working and most respected colleagues had tons of work projects dumped on them and when they asked for a raise (they were being paid slightly over poverty wage), they were denied. They resigned, and management hired a friend for more than double what previous coworker was being paid, but with a quarter of the work.

    They ended up hiring five (FIVE!!!) staff to take over the work my colleague did. All are friends with upper management, and they’re all getting paid extremely well.

    It’s frustrating when i have to budget heavily and still barely have enough money to pay for gas to get me to work for the next week, meanwhile middle and upper management is bragging about their vacations to Switzerland and wearing Gucci belts that cost more than i make in a month.

  89. Ann Nonymous*

    I’m not sure if this is helpful to you, but it’s been helpful to me. I was married to a man who made very good money but was quite stingy towards me and our kids, controlling and generally kind of a dick. When I left him, I really lost everything and started from the bottom on welfare and food stamps. I moved back in with my parents and was able to put my son in one of the top public schools in my state where his classmates were wealthy. I never let myself (or him) feel apologetic or less-than. I knew that we both had a lot to contribute and we did so. I am involved in a number of community organizations and am now the president of one. I don’t have money to give, but I have my time and talent and I am valued for that. My now-husband is a garbage truck driver and he is completely accepted by the high-earning professional men in our circles because he’s a pleasant conversationalist and does not let himself feel intimidated. In fact, they are fascinated when he tells them about his job because it is so foreign to them (and kinda masculine compared to working on a computer all day). We do a lot of activities when I can get highly discounted discounted tickets online so we feel part of the greater community and are equal conversational footing. I guess what I’m trying to say is that to value yourself for what you bring to the table, don’t feel intimidated by those that have more of one thing (money) and fully participate in your local life knowing that you bring a lot to the table. It’s not what happens to you in life, but how you respond to it.

  90. Temi*

    First, identify your anthem. For example, this is mine today:
    I felt alone, still feel afraid
    I stumble through it anyway
    I wish someone would have told me that this life is ours to choose
    No one’s handing you the keys or a book with all the rules
    The little that I know I’ll tell to you
    When they dress you up in lies and you’re left naked with the truth
    You throw your head back, and you spit in the wind
    Let the walls crack, ’cause it lets the light in
    Let ’em drag you through hell
    They can’t tell you to change who you are
    That’s all I know so far
    And when the storm’s out, you run in the rain
    Put your sword down, dive right into the pain
    Stay unfiltered and loud, you’ll be proud of that skin full of scars
    That’s all I know so far
    So you might give yourself away
    And pay full price for each mistake
    But when the candy-coating hides the razor blade
    You can cut yourself loose and use that rage
    I wish someone would have told me that this darkness comes and goes
    People will pretend but baby girl, nobody knows
    And even I can’t teach you how to fly
    But I can show you how to live like your life is on the line
    You throw your head back, and you spit in the wind
    Let the walls crack, ’cause it lets the light in
    Let ’em drag you through hell
    They can’t tell you to change who you are
    That’s all I know so far
    And when the storm’s out, you run in the rain
    Put your sword down, dive right into the pain
    Stay unfiltered and loud, you’ll be proud of that skin full of scars
    That’s all I know so far
    2) While your anthem plays in the background, write in a journal. Tell the story of your life so far, accept your experience for what it is. You basically raised yourself, supported yourself through school, found a good job in academia and surrounded yourself with people who inspire you and value you. You haven’t earned our pity, you’ve earned our respect and awe.
    3) Take who you know so far and draw a map of your future. You are the architect of your life, design something right for you. Do you want to travel? Own a home? Have a family? All of these things may not seem easy to attain or appear to come easily to others but these goals are accessible to you. Its already begun with the stability and skills acquired through work and education, these tools can take you anywhere. What do you want? Where do you want to go? Your past informed your values – home ownership and world travel may not be something you want for yourself right now, don’t expect people with different experiences to understand. Maybe you want to build a home for yourself and find and cultivate a new family. These are the things you need to figure out. You created a brilliant foundation, but you aren’t finished yet. Its not fair to compare yourself to a forest when you are still a sapling in an open field.
    3) Understand that most people speak superficially; what they do, what they bought, who they know. These are Facebook Friends. Work colleagues. Aren’t you interested in having more meaningful exchanges with deeper connections? Ask questions that invite revelations. “Congratulations on buying a fixer-upper! Did it come with any ghosts?” You’ve distilled the people around you by what they have and what they’ve done, let them know you want to know about who they are. That starts with sharing a little of yourself. And knowing that your experience and contributions are just as valuable and not something to be pitied. This knowledge comes with self-compassion and self-confidence.
    4) And after all that, you do realize that someone you see every day envies you, don’t you? Your office job, your cool handbag, your degree, the way you wear your hair, your balanced checkbook; your empty garden, your blank journal, the roots growing under you, your bright future, all the possibilities to come, with all its uncertainties and thrills and potential for wonderful. It only looks easy from the outside.

  91. L*

    Wealthy people are exhausting. Just remember they are probably in heaps of debt and if you notice their materialism and humble brags about their wealth other people do too, and its not the kind of vapid life you want to lead.

    1. Meep*

      As someone who grew up around wealthy people – 100% this. Keeping up with the Joneses is a saying for a reason.

  92. MelD*

    I agree with people who have said therapy. But, also, perhaps finding a community of people with similar backgrounds on campus would help. I don’t know what your role is at the University, but perhaps there is a group you could get involved with. Some private colleges have started summer programs or student groups specifically for first-generation college students. It might be worth it to look into that and get involved as a faculty or staff member.

  93. Despachito*

    Hi LW,

    I feel for you.

    My situation was better than yours because my family was a loving one, but as a teenager, I lost both my parents – my mother first, my father three years later, and during those three years we were quite struggling financially. We did not starve or become homeless but had to give up many of the seemingly little things which usually sweeten our lives, like going on trips, it was unthinkable to go to a restaurant, on a proper vacation, and I recall a situation when we were deciding whether to buy a winter coat for me or new shoes for my dad (those he had were several years old and were about to fall apart). While my schoolmates had nice clothes, fun vacations, you name it

    So I think I can associate pretty well with the financial scarcity part you are describing.

    I agree with the commentariat that therapy would help. However, here is what has worked for me (and I acknowledge that if I had a therapist, they would probably disapprove of a part of it, but anyway):

    – I have always felt a bit superior because I had to struggle for something others received on a silver plate (this is the part a therapist would probably frown upon), and my reasoning was: if I was able to get myself about the same thing that you received for free with no effort, it makes me much worthier of acknowledgement (of course I never say that aloud, I just feel a light contempt)
    – when I was able later in life to afford more things like traveling or going to restaurants, I am finding out that this is not as much fun as I imagined when I could not even dream of it. I mean, it IS quite fun, but during the last year and a half when either was impossible, it was easy for me to do without it, and I realized I do not really need much of that to be happy
    – it makes me happy to have what you mentioned – an account with money on it guaranteeing that if MY shoes break it will be no problem to buy a new pair
    – I have friends who are more or less at the same level as us, and I can see some of them are struggling financially more than us despite the fact they received/inherited homes from their families (this is not out of schadenfreude, just makes me realize that to receive something is not always such a jackpot it might appear from the outside)

    I think it is more practical to count one’s blessings than to concentrate on the injustices. If you compare the situation you were in as a child and that you are in now – isn’t it a giant leap forward? Perhaps it could help to view it from this perspective – the relative progress of you and your coworkers (which would probably be much bigger in your case)?

    I have no idea HOW to reach that, which seems the core of what you are asking. I think therapy might be the right answer. To remove yourself from a situation when most people are “better off” financially might help a bit too but I am afraid that it would be just a band-aid and not a cure.

  94. sub rosa for this*

    One more thing:

    Create a family-of-choice. I’m not talking about partners or kids; I mean a group of friends that, over time and life experiences, becomes the “family” you spend holidays with. It takes a long time and you will make some grievous errors (Lord knows I did) but now, finally, I look forward to the holidays because I will spend them, or parts of them, with people who give a crap about me.

    Sorry; I seem to be commenting a lot, but… I’ve been there, and I just wish you the best happiness and healthiness and a bright future.

    1. Retired(but not really)*

      I definitely agree with finding your “family of choice”. These people are ones that for whatever reason are each of them “one of your people”. You may discover them in unlikely places – the grocery store check out line, a back fence neighbor, the doctor’s receptionist… These people can become closer than any family members someone else has.
      I am blessed with one “sister” that we adopted each other because neither of us had a sister. We’ve now been close friends/sisters for well over thirty years. Thanksgiving family reunions with them several years, our girls being best friends as well, being family for her when her husband died this past year. We are no longer in the same town but that doesn’t matter.
      I hope you can find this sort of relationship with someone(s) who can understand your background and each of you can be the family member that you wish you could have.

  95. Nate*

    I know you’re staff, but… does your institution have any sort of a FirstGen/Low Income Student center? It could be valuable for you to get involved (maybe as a staff volunteer?) and be in a position where you’re supporting students like you.

    Another option would be making contact with someone in the diversity office (or making a connection with your department/division’s diversity officer) and ask whether there’s a consideration of low income status in staff inclusivity trainings. I would also recommend talking to your university ombudsperson–they often are responsible for trainings and can raise this as a broad need.

  96. Meep*

    I am on the other side of this. I grew up in an affluent neighborhood in an affluent town (if anyone knows Scottsdale, Arizona, they will understand). I never had the fear of going hungry or worrying about major debt, but I also had to watch the kids I grew up with get the newest iPhone every 6 months or the newest game console. I paid for my Gameboy and laptop on my own with the money I made or saved up. In comparison, I thought my parents were “poor(er)” because everyone else’s parents were leasing fancy new sports cars once a year. But my parents were never that. We went on European trips. I left college with no debt. Heck, I left it $90k richer because of all the college funds that were set up for me and the fact all the money I saved from my jobs/internships was well… saved. A 22-year-old with $100k is downright scary, to be honest. (I still haven’t touched any of it 4.5 years later that is how scary it is.)

    With that said, I learned pretty quickly those who flaunt their wealth often don’t actually have it. They are trying to compensate for something. Back in 2008, many of my classmates’ parents (and an aunt and uncle) filed for bankruptcy because they spent more above their means. If you think that taught them anything, it didn’t. I still see them posting lavished trips and (now) grand weddings. And now they are turning out like their parents – divorced, miserable, and in massive amounts of debt to give the appearance that they are living their best lives.

    I am not saying money does not help a lot. It does! But money really does not bring happiness. It only brings security if you do not abuse it. Point is, as someone who is “on the other side”, focus on the good things you have in your life. That is all that really matters.

    1. CM*

      True that money doesn’t buy happiness, but it sure helps! I think the issue here is a much larger one, which makes it harder to address. It’s not the OP’s personal failing that they’re resentful that other people can have “luxuries” such as children, mortgages, and vacations. It’s that everyone should be able to have these things! The OP isn’t someone who has a rowboat but wants a yacht. They have had to struggle for every penny and still feel like things that their coworkers treat as basic necessities are out of reach for them, which is fundamentally unfair. OP’s problem isn’t really jealousy, it’s coping with inequality.

      1. Despachito*

        “money doesn’t buy happiness but it helps” – this is so very much true.

        It personally helps me to distinguish two situations though:

        1. to have enough money that enables you not to fret if your washing machine suddenly breaks/ you need new shoes/you end up somewhere you need to take a cab from. I have been in a situation when this would be a problem so I appreciate very much that it is not the case anymore. This is where the money truly helps.

        2. a situation when you have the above BUT do not have enough money to buy certain luxuries which other people have. In this case I’d think twice whether this is worth worrying about, because although it is true that we can have very different opinions about what a “luxury” is, it is also true that most of us will never be able to get EVERYTHING we would like to/others around us have, and it would therefore be not worth it building our happiness on that.

        This said, I wonder about that “never having a spouse or kids” LW mentioned, as I think this is – or at least shouldn’t be based on wealth. I can imagine not feeling like it when you are homeless or barely scraping by, but LW seems to have a decent job…so why deprive themselves of even the prospect?

  97. overeasy*

    I’m sorry there are so many “get over it” and “get therapy” replies here because I think your question is a perfectly valid one and a job-related one! I have big issues around class and wealth and I am very uncomfortable being around people who flaunt their wealth or are oblivious to it. I disagree with their choices and unfortunately in a work environment you don’t have the ability to say anything without putting your job in jeopardy.

    So my advice would be to make sure your next job puts you in a different situation. I don’t think you need to change this about yourself! I think your attitude is 100% valid and also correct, and that your childhood makes it particularly painful in a way that therapy may help you cope with better, but that will never go away. Just like you’ll be thinking about what kind of schedule, what kind of boss, what kind of hours, also think about what kind of people you’ll be around as coworkers and clients in your future positions and use this to screen as you would use anything else.

    1. Gloucesterina*

      Yes! Learning individual coping strategies doesn’t get at the problem that a lot of (not apparently mission-critical??) talk in your (OP’s) workplace are revolving around having and using money.

      I’m a 1st -gen graduate and university staff member; my slice of the university space is focused on learning and sharing inclusive practices. Of course, that doesn’t automatically mean my personal workplace small talk will be inclusive, but that has fortunately been my experience thus far. I feel like the comfort level I experience is not by chance and related to how and who we hire. If you have the interest,, I’d encourage you to do some informational interviewing to get the lay of the land elsewhere at your uni or at other orgs.

      I know you mentioned being in a loan forgiveness program above so I don’t know what that means for your ability or appetite to explore alternative positions and offices.

  98. Anansi*

    I think this problem is more common than people assume! I grew up in a similar background and ended up working for Congress. I was routinely the only person in the room who had not grown up well off (especially since government jobs pay extremely badly so many Congressional staff are still being subsidized by their parents). I really struggled with resentment when my coworkers were talking about their parents buying them million dollar condos in the city, and I also had a huge amount of imposter syndrome because they’d grown up with experiences and opportunities that were just never a possibility for me. I remember being in a meeting once on the costs of higher education, and my coworkers were stunned to discover that even “poor” people whose families make less than $100K a year don’t get full financial aid to college! The worst part is that these are the people who are helping to shape U.S. policy and most of them can’t even comprehend what life is like for the population they’re trying to impact.

    One way to approach this is sharing your experience and perspective, to the extent you’re willing and comfortable doing so. I used to be very quiet and just try to hide my background, but over time I’ve gotten more outspoken and will (politely) call people out for their assumptions. It’s definitely not something you should have to do, but I do think it helps and has value.

    1. Momma Bear*

      Just as an aside, thank you for speaking to your colleagues. It is frustrating that people who make policies are often not the ones most negatively impacted by them. We need more of YOU in Congress and other places of leadership.

  99. berto*

    I’m your “wealthier” coworker but you would never know it. Because I drive a basic car and don’t brag about money or cars or vacations. I don’t work because I need to, I work because I enjoy it, I’m good at it, and I’m rewarded for it. Your coworkers are rude and have no class. Ignore them! Another good reason to avoid too much social interaction with your coworkers.

    1. Colette*

      There’s nothing rude about the coworkers talking about their lives. If they were pressuring the OP or looking down on her because she can’t afford the same things, that would be different, but there’s no indication that’s happening.

      1. Despachito*

        True… to a certain extent.

        It would be certainly too much to ask that nobody ever talked about their vacation in a fancy place at work for fear that there could be someone much worse off among their coworkers, but on the other hand, if I KNOW someone is in that situation (ie friends who are burdened with a debt which is eating all their extra money) , I’d very much tone down what I say about my fancy vacation around them. I think it is common courtesy.

      2. matcha123*

        You’ve made similar comments throughout this thread. I don’t think you truly understand how mentally taxing it is to be surrounded by people who have more money and talk about it. They can save those conversations for after work when they are with their friends.
        People who talk about their families and lives notice when someone isn’t. Is it really all that hard to say, “I am visiting family for Thanksgiving” instead of, “The family and I are going to Portugal for Thanksgiving, it’s just so cold this time of year, we want to go somewhere warm, you know?”

        Why is it all on the OP? The coworkers should be aware of basic things like not everyone has a similar background. I can tell you from personal experience and from my current job, when you don’t chime in to conversations about family and vacations, your coworkers start saying that you must hate them or that you must be hiding something because you don’t talk about your own travel plans. If you try to deflect and say that it’s not in your budget or something similar, they hit you with, “Oh, well you never travel so you must have a lot saved.” If you aren’t eating out or haven’t tried certain foods, they assume that you are some kind of ignorant hick that only eats fast food and they judge you negatively. They don’t have to say it, their faces and body language do the talking.

        1. Despachito*

          Wow, the comments of the coworkers you are describing are really nasty and cruel. Shame on them.

          I’d bet they have some big problem somewhere, and they are using the things they can afford as a feeble “protection”. I do not think that a person who is happy with their life would insult someone over something so trivial as a certain type of food. It must be very annoying to work with such people and I do not think it helps much but I think their lives must suck.

  100. Jealous no more*

    In my 20s I found myself being really jealous of my cousins life circumstances. I had gotten divorced already, had student loans, rented. She was married with a baby and a house and a better paying job than me with no degree.

    I went to therapy. We worked through the jealousy and it helped me then, and continues to help now.

    I still struggle sometimes, but I remember what I learned about myself and how to let go of being jealous.
    I cannot recommend finding a good therapist enough.

  101. tangential*

    I agree with all those who suggested therapy for the long term. But I have a suggestion that is small and tangential but perhaps more immediate.
    I, too, work in a University though mine is a public university with a fair amount of socioeconomic diversity and I’ve been here for decades. What always strikes me in various conversational groups are the people who DON’T talk. No matter what the conversation is, there is someone who just doesn’t agree or for whom the trend of topic is unappealing. I would consider trying to notice who is NOT participating in these small-talk conversations about all those life events that imply privilege/resources. There are lots of reasons someone might not be engaging in the conversation and they won’t all be compatible with yours, but they might represent a group of people who are not as focused on the current cultural trend to discuss/display all-things-fabulous-with-my-life and some of them will likely feel the same way you do about it and for the same reasons. Make them the focus of some of the divert-the-conversation tactics mentioned above. I guess I’m just trying to suggest that there are likely hidden allies around you that you’re unaware of because they, too, don’t engage when the talk turns in that direction.

  102. bunniferous*

    One thing I would do is acknowledge your incredible accomplishment in just surviving your childhood and being able to graduate college! It is perfectly ok not to relate to the people around you that do not understand how much of a head start they had-but you have had to develop strengths that only adversity can provide. You deserve to be proud of what you have done! Honestly most regular folks would have a hard time relating to many of your coworkers-but obviously you more so. I think the suggestions of therapy are valid but only because I know your struggle has to have left some scars. My husband survived a very dysfunctional childhood so I understand. But I guarantee that when difficult things come down the pike you are going to survive and even thrive in situations your co workers would drown in.

  103. Old Med Tech*

    People who are well off now may have grand parents who were in your situation. Wealth take a few generations to acquire, and can be easily lost by the 3rd or 4th generation. You have come far from your beginnings. Be proud of that and keep going. Do not lose hope. Everyone is poorer and also richer than someone else.

    1. Despachito*

      I was thinking about this – someone has to be the “father founder”, and – although I know that it is tough – those quite often become a legend in the family and an example for further generations.

  104. FreakInTheExcelSheets*

    I completely agree with all of the people saying to take advantage of your employer’s EAP – most immediately they can connect you with someone to talk through your feelings (around this specific situation and money in general) and assist with figuring out what will help you, whether it’s some in-the-moment coping mechanisms or a script to use when these situations come up. This could be reframing their responses that you label as “false proudness” – you should be proud of what you’ve achieved! Of course that doesn’t help much when someone sounds condescending, so a therapist can help you there. Another option might be to get ahead of it, either yourself or with the help of a trusted colleague. A quiet mention to the worst offenders of how they sound and to check their privilege may help (though this is completely dependent on knowing your audience).

    The EAP may also be able to help with financial matters. I don’t necessarily mean assistance here, but most people think of financial advisors as catering to high bank balances; while this is true for a lot, there are also those out there who advise people who are breaking the poverty cycle. It sounds like you’re doing well by yourself, but advice (especially free/discounted through work!) is always good. For example, with many people working/learning from home, internet service is as much a necessity as electricity and water so there are more options out there for discounted service. Maybe you’re not looking to “keep up” with these coworkers/students, but I imagine some extra financial peace of mind will go a long way, whether it’s actually more money in the bank due to guided investment/budgeting or just the knowledge that you’re doing things the right way for you and your budget right now. Another commenter mentioned qualifying for housing programs and I know from experience that the income cap for purchasing a house is probably higher than you think it is (depending on your location, just keep in mind it also normally translates to higher interest rates and it’s a sellers’ market right now) so that’s an option to keep in your back pocket.

  105. New Mom*

    I struggle with this in a slightly different way. I grew up with a single mom and an addicted dad, and neither of them were very good with money. We got by but I always was aware that money was tight and it caused me a lot of anxiety at a young age, I kind of had to grow up a bit quickly in that regard. Life was tough for a while but I ended up having a few things that worked out for me, which resulted in me having a good family, a good paying job, and not having to worry about money. Not rich by any means but not having to go to sleep and wake up concerned about how I’ll cover costs, the way that my mom did.
    The people I work with tend to be a mixed bag of incomes and back stories, but in the last few years quite a few of us have bought homes. It’s been nice to talk about with coworkers because it’s a stressful process. I have been careful to only talk about these processes with people that I know have gone through it, but sometimes those same coworkers will bring it up in front of others who I’m guessing are not in a financial space to buy a home (based on things they have shared). I always feel really awkward in those moments because I don’t want it to seem like I’m trying to conceal things but I also don’t want to rub fortune in people’s faces. I still remember being a scholarship kid at a private school and my classmates would go on European summer vacations and it felt really unfair.

  106. Judge Crater*

    I’ve lived with somewhat related circumstances during my career (I’m nearing retirement). I have supported myself since I was 18 and never got a a college degree. Focusing on my own goals, given my particular circumstances, has been the key. My sequential goals were 1) Not be destitute, 2) Have an income in the top 50% of earnings, and 3) Do better than that monetarily while having jobs that I could stand to be in long-term.

    My career leveraged some circumstances that have changed in the meantime. I’ve primarily done business software development in a way I don’t think you could get into without a college degree now. And I didn’t have the horrible burden of student debt that is so common today. On the other hand you have a degree (congratulations!) and a career path.

    So I think the principle of measuring yourself on your own goals, and being aware there are people worse off and better off than you, is something that can help keep you sane.

  107. RC Rascal*

    I declared bankrupcy in 2010, 6 years out of a top private MBA program. At the time my relationship with my parents was rocky due to their alcoholism, and I had started a business that failed during the recession. After the bankrupcy I had nearly $100k in student debt, my only assets were roughly $30k in IRA money saved during pre graduate school jobs, and I owned a 9 year old Ford outright. I was working part time; there were no jobs in my area during the recession and it took me 3 years to find full time work. It was sheer hell. Things were so bad that I one point, I tore a disc in my lower back and had to skip the pain medicine because I couldn’t afford it.

    While this isn’t the same situation, I experienced many of the same emotions as the OP. My friends were well off, and European vacations, expensive weddings, kids, and fancy new cars were their topics of conversations. One friend was super wealthy and bragged to me about her new $1 million dollar home, while I sat there watching my couch fall apart, too poor to replace it or reupholster it.

    1–Stay off social media. Limit your exposure if you can’t leave. Even Pinterest was hard for me–all I saw was stuff I couldn’t afford.

    2–Limit sharing details of your situation, but it’s OK to share that you have financial goals that preclude you from spending as you wish. For example, if a co-worker wants to arrange a spendy lunch, politely decline and say you are working on paying down your student debt. (Lots of people have it and tend to admire this statement. They will tend to respond with a “Gosh, I admire you and I should do that too”).

    3–Seek out free social events in your community (i.e. concert in a park) and see who might want to join you. What I found was that people who enjoyed free events either didn’t have money, or were naturally frugal. Both were better choices of friends and I used this to help remake my friend group during that period. (None of my affluent friends would go to a free event).

    4–Look for another job in an industry where people are less driven by money. It may be that right now it isn’t good for your to deal with wealthier people and conspicuous consumption every day. Focus on industries that are not glamorous and have good profit margins–think things like industrials, logistics companies, etc.

    Therapy could be helpful and has been frequently recommended but IMO there are limits. I would focus more on keeping more frugal company, living in as modest a community as you can, and working at an employer with more working class values.

    Today, things are very different for me. I finally got a job at a good company and and was quickly promoted, but kept really frugal habits because I needed too. I am confident my net worth is greater than a lot of those old friends (none of whom I see anymore) even though my life is simpler and I am driving a 9 year old car. I’ve since paid off half my student loans and was able to make a down payment on a condominium.

    1. fposte*

      I really like these suggestions. Even though the OP didn’t name social media it could play a big role in a cumulative effect, and it’s clever that you thought of that.

    2. Boof*

      These sound great and really practical for the OP. I guess #4 is the only one I’m not sure about because it depends on whether those industries pay well and in that case, if OP can work 1-3 maybe they can really save up if they can maintain frugality while others around them live like there’s no tomorrow :P

      1. RC Rascal*

        Speaking from professional experience lots of non glamorous industries pay well & the people in them are conservative & frugal. IMO the posher and more prestigious the job the less they will pay you. OP should definitely get out of Higher Ed if her skills are at all transferable.

        1. Boof*

          I was thinking wallstreet and certain law companies that are supposedly high stress/high pay but some people spend all they get vs others sock it away and retire early. Agree glam industries try to get away with paying “in prestige” (rather than, you know, actual money) and if there are better paying or less stressful jobs elsewhere yes make the jump!

  108. Gracely*

    I think it might be helpful to break some of these things up into separate parts.

    –Jealousy associated with not growing up with a loving family with family traditions/etc.
    –Jealousy associated with not growing up with a non-abusive family (it’s not the same as the first).
    –Jealousy associated with not having to go through the system
    –Jealousy associated with not being stuck with student loans or some other school-related debt
    –Jealousy associated with not having the same financial security as the people you work with

    That’s a lot to be jealous/envious of, honestly, and I don’t blame you one bit for feeling it. But if you break it down into those smaller parts, it might be easier to see that it’s unlikely all of these people have all of those things. A few of them probably do! They are crazy lucky, and you know what? Fuck them if they take it for granted. But it’s really unlikely none of them have abusive family, or that they all grew up with a loving family, or that every single one of them didn’t have to deal with student loans/debt of some kind. If nothing else, I’d bet at least some of that money came with massive strings attached.

    It’s also super normal to not have the same financial security as the people you work with (especially especially if you’re in your late 20s-late 30s and graduated into the clusterfuck that was our economy in 2008-2012ish). It’s worth reminding yourself that the people you’re working with are Not Normal in regards to their financial security. Most people don’t have a security net woven out of gold to catch them. Don’t use their normal as your benchmark for how well you’re doing. You’re paying your bills, paying off debt, and have actual money in your checking account–that is good! That is better than so many people are able to do, especially in the current pandemic.

  109. anonymous73*

    Life is not competition. Everyone deals with good and bad, some more than others. But when you compare your situation to others, it diminishes your own accomplishments. And think of your conversations with colleagues like a social media feed. Most people aren’t going to share their hardships with everyone…you’re only going to hear about the good stuff. So you’re getting a very small glimpse into their lives. You don’t know what’s happening behind closed doors.

  110. Generic Name*

    My situation is different from yours, but I have quite a bit of debt because of a protracted custody/child support battle with my son’s dad. I am not receiving any child support, and I am paying thousands in lawyers fees. I am in debt, and I am living in a house that is a bit too expensive, but for various reasons, my options to change that at the moment are limited. I do feel resentful, and yes, jealous of people who don’t have debt and don’t have to pay money they don’t have to fight stupid legal battles. To combat those feelings, I try to focus on the good in my life, and to remember that money is not the most important thing in my life. If making as much money as possible were super important to me, I would have made much different choices in my career path and who to marry after my divorce. I focus on my love for my amazing husband (who is not rich), and how much better my life is with him in it. If my focus was on getting rich, I wouldn’t have him. I think this is kind of a trite saying, but as they say, money isn’t everything. Beyond having the basics, money really doesn’t buy happiness. I’m in a crappier financial position than when I was married the first time around, but I am SO MUCH happier now, and having a fancy house and European vacations is nice I suppose, but they’re not what brings me true happiness.

  111. Momma Bear*

    I think one of the things the LW can do for themselves is to consider therapy to deal with the trauma of growing up without and having those reminders be in their face all the time re: the conversations at work. It might also help LW keep perspective. There’s a lot more to unpack than money.

    It doesn’t feel great to be the odd man out but LW also says no one is malicious. It’s just the topic of conversation. I have a coworker whose idea of money is clearly different than mine and I kind of just gloss over it when they not so humble brag about private school tuition, housing, cars, etc. I try to steer the conversation to something else or back to work. Or say, “I really don’t have anything to say about x.”

    The saying is about social media, but I think it applies here – don’t compare your reality to someone else’s highlight reel. You may only have a fraction of their wealth, but you earned it yourself. You may have things they do not, like a spouse or a child or your health. I grew up without a lot of money as well and sometimes have to stop and think about how far I’ve come and how hard I worked to get here. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished. A lot of things are easier with a leg up. LW, you did this on your own.

  112. Boof*

    I imagine the main way to not be jealous of others is to be content with yourself – I know that’s hard and especially if professional therapy seems out of reach. I do hope some services become available to you, but perhaps spending an hour once a week doing some kind of own self help (try a free support group, review online resources, whatever)?? And figure out what in your life is CURRENTLY bothering/stressing you (can’t change the past) and figure out a plan to deal with it that you look forward to (or at least are ok with). (making a budget to pay off your debt in 5 years? Figuring out your retirement plan and knowing you should be secure for life? saving up for some dream vacation in a few years…?) Maybe you’ve already done this last bit but IDK!

  113. theletter*

    It might be worth watching Contrapoints video essay on Envy:

    Sometimes digging into philosphocial subjects can be therapeutic.

    It might also be helpful to try and pull some ‘rich dad advice’ from your network, or take some tips from Suze Orman. Some families has figured out tips and tricks (take the matching 401k! Free money!! #RetirementYachtsAreNotImpossible) or have chosen to be frugal in certain ways that made a huge difference. I have one friend who always says ‘have experiences! not things!’ whenever she’s shopping or planning. I’ve taken this philosphy to heart and I think it will save me some $$$ in the long run.

  114. CorgisAndCats*

    As a psychologist I so desperately wish I could offer more than advice but here are my two cents. Of course, another recommendation for therapy however I definitely understand your comments about not being able to afford it. You mention working at a university, does it have a graduate counseling program? Most masters/doctoral programs offer a sliding scale counseling clinic where you work with a student in training (who is supervised by licensed mental health workers) for a nominal fee. If your university doesn’t offer it and you live in an area with other universities/colleges look for it at those.
    I would also examine your feelings of jealousy more closely. When someone talks about buying a house what about that experience are you jealous of? Do you wish you had a permanent place? Being able to choose where you live? Having a cozy, homey environment? What about when they talk about travel? Are you wanting to explore new places? See something particular? You can’t immediately control your ability to buy a home or hop on a flight to Europe but you can control some smaller stakes things like cooking meals at home to make it feel more like your place, traveling to a few towns over and exploring, checking out a nearby museum etc. In my experience it does no good to try to make feelings disappear but you can observe them, label them, and then explore ways to meet those needs.

  115. school of hard knowcs*

    I know the stats on children emancipated out the system. You have done amazing things.
    Background. I once played most dis-functional family at work, because I was tired of listening to a coworker complain about how horrible her life was. I had more headlines. Yeah me. My extended family were foster parents for years. I wouldn’t begin to compare me to what they went through. People (including me) are oblivious to others lives and background. So, when someone complains about their 250K house, it maybe they are talking about it instead of what really hurts, or they have money anxiety, or their value as a person is based on their $$ or something else. If you can reframe it as this causes this person anxiety/pain/?? and be empathetic, maybe?

    So use this as a way to talk to anybody about anything. Listen, ask questions, you may want to buy a big house or go to Europe on a vacation. When they ask about you, then have a default conversation ready about a hobby, or your bucket list. You have already accomplished so much, just think of this as a new skill.

  116. cheeky*

    Therapy, with the goal of not internalizing these comments and reframing your feelings about your path in life relative to those of the people around you.

  117. anonamama*

    I come from a pretty solidly middle-class background and while not to the same extent, have also had experiences like this.

    I clearly remember working on the more “posh” side of the Bay Area with a boss who went to college at Ivy and Ivy adjacent schools and one day said something to the effect of “Why do people even bother going to state schools?” and I just looked at him and reminded him that I had both my BA and MA from a CA State school and he had hired me… that seemed to check him a bit. He also used to make references to towns across the bay, near where I grew up as if they were war-torn slums. They weren’t. And I reminded him that I was from there and they were just regular ol’ suburbs.

    The point is that there will always be people ignorant of their privilege who have no idea that they are in “higher” positions and what things are like for people in “lower” for lack of better terms, situations. Calling them out in the moment, albeit politely but firmly, usually works to at the very least make them realize they sound pretty jerky.

  118. College worker*

    I’m not sure how old/far OP is into their career, but I’d caution against presuming the backgrounds of all the students and your colleagues. Wealthy colleges and universities have more financial aid, and so can often offer a debt free (or near debt free) experience for their students. OP may want to see if work has a first gen/low income org for them that is looking for mentors – it can be a comfort to see staff who share experiences with you at a school like that.
    And as for coworkers: I grew up bouncing between working class and poor – so not quite like OP, but had a huge amount of college debt and a credit score of 580 in my early twenties that made even renting an apartment extremely difficult. I also experienced some intense culture shock in wealthier spaces, and work at a super wealthy university now, but because of a mixture of luck, more luck, and actually making enough to live on (I’d emphasize that it’s not a lot, but it enough), I was able to buy a house with my partner, start a family, travel for the first time, etc. Those things might be more available for OP in the future than they think.

  119. Anita Brake*

    OP, there are a lot of people who needlessly buy things (homes, cars, even clothing and accessories at times) in order to make it appear that they are wealthier than they are. This for some reason seems to make them feel successful, and I’m not here to judge. I’m just saying it is possible you don’t know the whole story. On the other hand, you seem to have met some really financially responsible goals…you survived what sounds like a scary childhood, you have money in your checking and savings accounts! Many people (myself included) do not have a savings account. So I think what you’ve done is great…you have a little cushion that is not a credit card. Start saving up, even just a little bit, every month for the next goal(s) you want to reach. Let your coworkers be where they are, and you run the race only against yourself. You be you, wherever you are!

  120. M. from P.*

    Solidarity! I grew up in Central Europe in the 80s. It was not BAD, per se, as we were never hungry, but I never had clothes bought at a store until I was about 18. We wore hand-me-downs or things from a thrift shop. I was sent on a sort of charity vacation at 14 and I still remember the kids laughing at me as I didn’t have the money to buy ice-cream.
    I still feel out of place among rich folks, even though I can now afford ice-cream and new clothes.
    Do you know any people at your uni who come from similar backgrounds? Would it be helpful to engage in a mentorship program, either as a mentee or as a mentor yourself?

  121. A*

    It sucks being an invisible minority in situations where there is little economic diversity. I try and:

    1. Broaden the narrative, when appropriate. I don’t need to share my story all the time, but parts are helpful sometimes to note that there is a diversity of experiences.
    2. Advocate, where you can, for a broader net in hiring and advancement. I know that many jobs in these milieus are advertised by word of mouth or that only a certain “type” is eventually hired. Bring those assumptions out where you can. Ask how your institution can look more like society as a whole.

  122. susan b*

    On the financial side of things, my experience is that a lot of this went away as I progressed in my career and made more money. I also had a side hustle that basically covered my college and medical debt. At one point I switched industries to one that was more stable. Think about how you can put yourself in a good position to advance your career and make more money as time goes on. A friend told me something once – don’t think about what your next job is, think about what the job AFTER your next job is, and set yourself up for how to get there.

    This doesn’t help with the emotional stuff but like you said, its a lot easier to be happy when you’re not stressed about finances.

  123. Rita O*

    Since therapy isn’t an option right now, I definitely think finding a support group or forum with people of a similar upbringing would be a good idea. A lot of commenters are focusing on the “oblivious rich coworkers” part of your question, but the jealousy about people having families is something that I think is more important to figure out how to cope with. Even if you leave this workplace, you’ll likely encounter coworkers talking about their kids, parents, etc. Knowing you have a place where you can discuss your feelings with people who fully can understand and relate might help you feel less crappy when your coworkers talk about these things.

    Best of luck to you.

  124. Sylvia*

    I’ve been in a somewhat similar situation for much of my adult life. OP sounds like they’re handling it a lot better than I did–I just kept my life a secret, which in retrospect, wasn’t healthy.

    This might sound strange, but what helped me with the jealousy was to narrow down the type of life I wanted to have. I realized that some of the things I was jealous of weren’t actually priorities for me, so I could let go of the jealousy (not all, but enough to make a difference). Also, having poor or normal-income friends helped to keep life in perspective. They often know about things that helped me live a more comfortable life–student loan programs, home buying assistance, living and traveling cheaply, doing more with less, side hustles, etc.

    And I know the OP didn’t ask about this, but I would talk to a financial counselor and take a homebuyer’s workshop through a bank or credit union. One thing I was surprised to learn was that I was not expected to put my life on hold until I had paid my student loans back (which is good, because I’ll probably have them until I die from old age). If OP is in the U.S., there are programs that might help them purchase a home in the form of a down payment or government guarantor, if owning a home is a priority.

    1. Mannequin*

      Yes, this. Most of what people consider milestones or life priorities are things that I have no desire for, so the idea that I’m not a ‘success’ because I don’t have/do thing ms that I don’t actually WANT to have/do is absurd.

  125. 1st time poster*

    I would suggest that OP listen to conversations and take things with a grain of salt. People ALWAYS spread good news – but that new house they are buying may also be a big stretch of the budget, they could be looking at huge credit card debt, etc. How successful/affluent they look may be a mirage. If you have managed to get an education. (I didn’t – dropped out of college because I couldn’t afford it and chose not to take out more loans) and have a good job you are doing well! Who knows what your future may hold, you may achieve some of the things you never dreamed of! And to help you on the way, you may want to look at one of the excellent money management programs such as Financial Peace that can help you manage your debt and plan for a brighter future.

  126. Quickbeam*

    OP (if you get this far)…I am someone who lost both parents to cancer by 15. I washed dishes and worked as a nursing assitant to get through college. I lived in a 300 sq foot garden shed for the first ten years of my professional life because it was all I could afford. I’m now in my 60’s.

    I want you to be proud of all you have done. Not in comparison to wealthy people but because you swam out of the swamp. You have skills in managing money and resources your well off colleagues may never have. In terms of adulting, you win. It took me a really long time to get to that point and I hope you do so sooner than I did.

  127. Ziggy*

    I didn’t read through all the comments, so this might be a repeat.
    But I want to take time and acknowledge that you have every right to feel angry. You had a dysfunctional childhood, and you had to grow up with experiences that are not fair. You are allowed to be angry about that. Being angry at how people in your past failed you, or about horrible situations you were put in as a child is an important part of processing and healing. And just because you are angry at your own upbringing doesn’t mean that you are angry at your coworkers. So when you start to feel angry when listening to your coworker’s conversations, ask yourself “am I angry at Jane or am I angry for my inner child?” Being angry AT Jane might be problematic, but being angry for your inner child is normal.
    I agree with some of the other suggestions of getting some therapy workbooks from the library or amazon until you can go to therapy. You need a safe space to process and heal, and I hope you find that soon. In the meantime, if the conversations are too much for you- feel free to exit the conversation. If somebody insists on pulling you in, I think an abbreviated honesty will be the most useful to you. “I grew up in foster care, so I can’t relate to that” and then moving on. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing that much information, just keep it to “That sounds tough, but I can’t really relate.” or if it is good news they are sharing and trying to rope you in “I’m glad you are so excited but I can’t really relate to that.” If these coworkers seem to be empathetic and you are on pretty friendly terms and you want to share more information, I also think that is appropriate, just to give them some context. But that is going to be up to you and your own comfort level.
    Sending you hugs and hoping for the best for you.

  128. Ms. Ann Thropy*

    I have found that one way to deal with feelings of jealousy and envy is to add pleasurable but free experiences to your life. While you may not be able to take a European vacation, you might be able to join a local walking or hiking group. Maybe join a book club, or a hobby group. Perhaps volunteer at a local nonprofit. Being around people who share a common interest feels good. Plus, you will be able to shift the conversation at work to your interest and away from the more materialistic topics.

  129. Trombone*

    Is there something about yourself that you can feel superior about? For example, I’m super-duper smart and went to amazing colleges. So if I’m around someone higher on the food chain, or with more money – well, at least I know I’m likely smarter than them, and had a better education. Maybe your grit? Accomplishing what you did is really impressive – can you imagine your coworkers being able to get to where you are, if they were given your circumstances?

    Also, can’t emphasize enough the tune-out. I have a coworker who hunts, and I’m an ethical vegetarian. I pretty much totally tune him out and think/work on something else if he’s talking about that. Doesn’t even touch me. I work remotely so that helps a lot, though.

    1. Despachito*

      “can you imagine your coworkers being able to get to where you are, if they were given your circumstances?”

      Exactly this!

      The mental image of those who were “born on the third base” vs someone who had to do all the running themselves – isn’t that quite a powerful comparison allowing to appreciate all the extra work?

      I think you already achieved a lot, and I am convinced you are going to achieve even more, and reach financial stability. I am keeping my fingers crossed for you.

  130. Chickaletta*

    As an EA who sits near and has meetings with executives who I know for a fact make 10x my salary or more, I get it. I just overheard a conversation this morning about the trials and tribulations of overseas travel, I park my 23-year-old car next to the Porches and BMWs, and I hear bits and pieces all the time about what their beautiful houses are like.

    But, it rarely bothers me. I don’t know, sure I’m jealous from time to time and wish I had an extra 50K to throw at a trip or house renovations or a new car. But I think it doesn’t bother me much because I also like these people, I really do. They are honest and hard-working and funny. We talk about our families and food and events going on around town and current events in the news and stuff going on at work. I think it does make a difference if you’re working with people you like, and differences in wealth (or religion or politics) matter a little less when you have other connections that are stronger.

  131. Gerry Keay*

    I’ve let my anger radicalize me into fighting for a better future where such economic disparity doesn’t happen. I don’t let go of comments, I don’t learn not to care. I feel the rage of injustice deep in my gut every time an ignorant rich person says or does something that ignorant rich people get to say and do, and it’s the fire that fuels my politics.

  132. Jean (just Jean)*

    Fighting for a better future (or present) is great. I just want to add that even seemingly ignorant wealthy people can be clobbered by long-lasting heartache. A big bank balance doesn’t protect people against losing little children to inoperable cancer, or adult children to incurable substance addiction. Car crashes, eating disorders, suicidal impulses, MS or ALS or Parkinson’s Disease or brittle bone disease or being sensitive-to-the-point-of-pain to environmental stimuli … these don’t care about your income. Lacking financial security makes everything worse, but having the basics (food, shelter, medical care, transportation, self-confidence, and a few kindred souls to talk to) doesn’t always make everything better.

    1. Jean (just Jean)*

      Nesting fail–this was a reply to Gerry Keay. Seems that my tech skills decided to take the day off.

    2. Gerry Keay*

      Having the basics actually does make things better. Clinical psychological studies have proven that money DOES buy happiness, up to a point (~$75k/year is where the happiness boost trails off, aka once you have enough for basics and then some). Yes, rich people deal with trauma too, but to deny that there’s a hierarchy of needs is just inaccurate. Please consider how hard it is to treat an eating disorder when you don’t have the money to afford a dietician.

      Someone who currently can’t afford to treat their eating disorder

      1. Despachito*

        Yes, you are absolutely right.

        Having to worry about basics IS a problem solvable only with more money.

        Worrying about people being better off than me while I have my basics covered is rather solvable with therapy/change of narrative.

        OP, I do not know where exactly you stand on this scale. But you mentioned you cannot afford a therapist despite you feeling an urgent need to do so, so I assume that it is much closer to the worrying-about-basics end.

        It makes me think that if this is the case, perhaps it might be worth considering a better paid job? I of course do not know whether this is an option for you, but for me, it was a HUGE difference when I was able to land a an above-average paying job, and I must say that it substantially shifted my perspective of a girl from a poor background, and it did wonders with my self-confidence as well. (Although I never got rid of the nightmare of becoming poor again, and perhaps never will, but I consider it a “gift of fear” which makes me wary of overspending). I am not rich, and never will be, but I feel a relative financial stability is sufficient.

    3. LabTechNoMore*

      Lacking financial security makes everything worse, but having the basics (food, shelter, medical care, transportation, self-confidence, and a few kindred souls to talk to) doesn’t always make everything better.

      Sure, but not having financial security while also dealing with these things is invariably worse. Poor folks still get all of the diseases and tragedies you’ve listed, but can’t afford the medical care needed for it.

  133. Anne Hedonia*

    I’d recommend finding some community where you feel understood, if possible. Many universities have organizations to support first generation college students. Join or mentor or support them! If not, maybe a socialist organization or other group where people have similar lived experience. It’s amazing what a difference a couple of people can make. Often, inequities and general nonsense will hit less hard when you feel “seen” by some corner of the community.

  134. HS Teacher*

    My background is very similar to OP’s, and somehow I ended up in high finance. When I was having my house built, I was extremely proud. No one in my family had owned a home, much less been able to have one built. My colleagues would ask me about the build and then used what they learned to try and steal my joy.

    My house wasn’t a custom built home, it was pre-fab, which is apparently crap. Then they found out I wasn’t putting in a pool, and a coworker snootily told me she couldn’t imagine not having a pool. Not only did I not want a pool; I actively avoided buying (or building) a house with one because it would be a money pit for someone like me who’d never use it.

    The final straw was a colleague declaring they’d never be able to live in less than 2,000 sq ft, which is a little bigger than what my house is. Needless to say, this was not my tribe. I never felt jealous of them; I felt pity for them. They didn’t have the character that comes from working hard to achieve things. Most were in miserable marriages (which they complained about constantly) and were trying to buy themselves some happiness. I was strong, independent, and not beholden to anyone. I was living a better life than I’d ever envisioned for me.

    Anyway, I changed careers for many reasons, but chief among them was that I had NOTHING in common with my colleagues. They were all a different ethnic and socioeconomic background from me. Hell, we weren’t even the same sexual orientation. I left for public education and never looked back. Now I work with people I can relate to who share my passions and social justice concerns. Even the ones who grew up privileged are okay to work with because they at least get it. Our student body is mostly poor, and you develop a little empathy working with the underprivileged.

    I say all that to say that maybe you just need a change of scenery; find a job working with people with whom you have more in common. When you meet people who are your tribe and get to work with them, it won’t even feel like work most of the time. Good luck.

  135. Anon for this*

    OP, I empathize. I don’t know how to get over the resentment, because there’s always going to be a small, but significant, portion of people who look down on you for not having a more privileged upbringing. It’s rough.

    As far as navigating it on a day-to-day level, I’ve been using the following to not cause conversations to come to a screeching halt: 1) Come up with creative euphemisms for higher class topics that come up often, and 2) Lie. Lie like your pants are on fire.

    In other words, if people ask about my family (which they always do), I describe them as though they’re still in my life. They’ll ask about my parents professions, and I’ll tell them what my mom does, and the last job my dad held as though he still holds it (and silently omit the part where he was homeless and chronically unemployed). I describe my siblings professions and talk about their personalities, and omit the part where I haven’t spoken to any of my family in a decade because of abuse, meticulously changing everything I’m about to say about them in my head from past tense to present tense. And I also realize having a family is a very privileged place to be, so sorry if this isn’t applicable to you.

    If people talk about travel, I go with “I’m more of a homebody type” who loves to explore our city, or describe any time I spent in any other state as though it were a travel vacation. If they ask about holiday plans, I might lie and say I’m going home for the holidays, because it rouses the fewest number followup questions. (“Where’s home?” “Oh, in $State.” “Nice, I’ve never been before.” And now you can turn the conversation into things you liked doing in your home city.) Or I’ll claim there’s some important reason for having a quiet holiday this year (“Getting settled in to my new place [apartment],” or even “I need some time to relax.”)

    Also learn to calibrate your small talk based on the reception of what you say. You mentioned you had a boss react in horror to you mentioning the foster system. To be clear, that’s’ pretty crappy of them. But it’s also useful information, that people at your college may feel uncomfortable about that facet of your background. Don’t lie about something as major as that (especially if you don’t feel comfortable doing so!), but pay attention to other people’s reactions to see if playing around with the word choice and delivery makes others reactions less visceral.

    Keep in mind, none of this will make you feel like you belong, but it will at least reduce the friction on a day to day level. Wish I had better advice for you, but I still struggle with these issues a lot myself.

  136. Ann*

    That’s not my background but I was homeless for many years and all my friends were too. It has been a huge challenge to learn to communicate w and really respect the struggles of people who went their whole lives conventionally housed. But honestly, what helped me was falling into an industry where I am rarely the only one in management from some sort of similar background. If you love your workplace, you love your workplace, but there are other places where not everyone takes European vacations. It’s nice to feel understood by people you spend every day with.

  137. Anon for this*

    This is close to triggering for me. The cost of living is very high where I am and housing prices are outrageous. Eg- a small apartment near, not even in, the central part of the city will put someone earning the median income in debt for an average of twenty years. I got a bad start in my career and have spent my whole life watching former classmates, friends and co-workers move into beautiful houses, drive nice cars, dine out at good restaurants, casually take overseas vacations. Meanwhile I’m crammed into a little cubicle in the corner of my parents’ home eating cheap clearance groceries. It’s very very hard some days, especially when friends invite me over to their nice places and there’s no way I can ever host them in return.

    So, I don’t engage on these things at all. I got selectively deaf. When they talk about houses and cars and vacations I think of it as none of my business. If they ask me directly I just shrug and go “Dunno” or “Haven’t thought about it”. I absolutely don’t ever talk about my background or personal circumstances any more. Some people have tried to pity me or sneer at me. They’re not in my social circle any more.

    If I feel the need to compare, I compare with my past self. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have been able to afford this pair of actually-nice shoes unless they were on clearance. Fifteen years ago I’d have had to walk half the distance to that place because I couldn’t afford the full fare on public transport. Little advances in life.

  138. Higher Edwina*

    Speaking as a former university staffer, I think that a wealthy institution can feel especially isolating in this way. There’s a constantly renewing set of young people who are working on achieving their dreams. There’s a strict hierarchy that separates staff and faculty. It can feel like there are certain “promising” people and then… the rest of us. I had some of the privileges you are describing and I still felt adrift.

    The good thing about wealthy universities is educational benefits for staff. Is it worth thinking about investing in yourself and getting a degree that will open up some options? (I’m admittedly biased because I did that!) Maybe you can carve out a niche somewhere on campus where you can be fully yourself–a department or program where the people really get you. Or maybe you can just skill up and take yourself elsewhere!

    Finally, can I just say that the people you’re describing sound really, really irritating? They’re unthinkingly hitting a really sore spot for you but they sound completely tiresome and I don’t think that’s a you-problem. Have you landed in a cluster of them that you can escape with a lateral move or by climbing the career ladder on campus? Just a thought! I don’t mean to insult the people around you that you DO like!

  139. Gentle Reader #2875*

    Perhaps my point regarding being “put there” was misunderstood. It was a reference to finding one’s self in a position of employment where one could educate others. God doesn’t “give” children abusive parents; humans in a fallen world are abusive parents. Without entering into a deeply theological discussion, the seemingly ideal situation with a history of abuse and heartache is to say, “That was wrong; I was wronged; and I resolve to help others avoid the suffering that I endured.” Educating people who are more fortunate with parents and means takes that pain and can turn it around to good. In no way was I implying that God orchestrated abuse and neglect as a “gift” to a child.

    In my professional world, I often have situations where someone says, “I grew up in a really bad environment, but have managed to be successful. I want to give back and help others in order to alleviate the type of suffering I endured.” It must be very satisfying for someone in that position and provide a type of healing for them. That seems more common in my world than a wealthy person bestowing their generational riches on a pet project or interest. It certainly makes my work more rewarding.

  140. Beth*

    Agreed with many others here that therapy is probably a good idea (though I know how inaccessible it can be, so…very legit if it’s not an option right now).

    I also feel like it would help to find another person or two who’s dealing with the same shit and can empathize. I know for myself, as a gay woman working in a fairly heteronormative and surface-enlightened-but-still-pretty-patriarchal-if-you-actually-look institution, that having queer work friends is huge for my mental health–they’re the difference between stewing every time these things come up at work, versus sharing an eye-roll to acknowledge the BS and then being able to go about my day. Even if everyone in your department or office is well off, I’m betting there are others in your broader institution who are also frustrated by this culture and would be open to creating space to blow off steam about it.

    I also think that it’s not actually a bad thing to remind people around you how privileged their behavior is. Yes, you don’t want to be the killjoy who’s turning every vacation announcement or life milestone into an extended “Be grateful, so many people can’t have that” lecture. But at the same time, if someone is complaining to you about having to alter their fancy international trip, I think it’s fair game to say “Honestly, I can’t really relate, any Europe trip sounds like a dream to me.” (You don’t have to go into your whole background to do this, either, especially given that your colleagues have shown themselves to be awkward and uncomfortable about it.)

  141. Them Boots*

    OP, I hear you!! Anyway, when my wealthier colleagues get to chatting, I remind myself what I have earned FOR myself/the effort *I* put into what *I* have and what it took to get there, congratulate them on whatever and go on a walk to meditate and re center myself. It may help if going forward you don’t give your coworkers so much information on your background because their reactions are odd. Pity/false pride seems like an unpleasant experience so maybe just…don’t? Just say whatever you need to in order to keep the conversation flowing and if necessary just say that your financial background has had it’s ups & downs and right now you are not in a position to BigVacation/BuyAnotherHouse/EatAtHell’sKitchen/etc. Good Luck!!

  142. Jelly Belly 2*

    To the writer,

    I had the same issues some years ago! Although I did not grow up in as dire of a situation as you did, I definitely did not grow up in the most loving of homes, or in any sort of financial security. I remember a few years ago, my mother made a passing remark about how when we were kids, my parents often worried that they wouldn’t be able to afford our school lunches. The public school lunch cost was not even $2.00 at the time (I’m a millennial FYI).

    I think I felt this jealousy most acutely when I was living in the Bay Area of US (around San Francisco for those that do not know!). I worked in customer support making $50k (which qualified me for low income housing) despite working about 60hrs weekly; meanwhile, many of my colleagues were in technical roles and did not have any of the financial worries I was facing. They would go on vacations, buy really nice gadgets, be able to pay rent on an apartment that didn’t need to be shared by roommates- things that was absolutely out of my reach. I remember feeling not just jealousy, but also rage at a system that allows two coworkers at the same company to have such a vast difference in their ability to survive. To add salt in the wound, many of the coworkers who had far higher pay worked a normal 8hr day while I often faced 12hr workdays.

    I’m not sure if there is any way to ‘cure’ jealousy. The truth is that you were dealt a really rough hand that many people will never even come close to understanding. I do know that there were some things that helped me soothe some of the sting, and maybe it may help you too:
    – Friends who are in the same shoes. If they’re at the same organization as you, it’s even better because being able to gripe together is intensely therapeutic
    – Give yourself your own love and your own affirmations. This I think is especially important when we don’t have family who are supportive or can provide love and kindness. Even the act of buying lotion that’s not the cheapest drugstore brand, but something that is a few bucks more and smells nicer, that I then use every night to show my physical self that I am loved and cared for brought me a lot of joy.
    – Allow yourself to grieve. I think I am still in the process of grieving, but giving myself space and time to do this, to feel hurt and angry, also gave me space to construct my narrative on my accomplishments. This solidified timeline of who I was, and who I became really gave me a lot of strength and confidence.

    You sound like you’re really driven and smart, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you were doing all this already. If so, I’m sorry I couldn’t provide any other help!

  143. Delta*

    It sounds like a lot of people have given you great advice about seeking counseling, but I wanted to talk about conversations specifically.

    People are conditioned by society to apologise for differences and perceived slights. And this can often come across as pity – the easiest way to avoid pity is to not provide a statement which warrants that response. In conversation, vagueness is your friend. Try to keep an upbeat tone as well. If you sound sullen or upset, people are more likely to respond to that. If someone asks about your housing, you can try saying “I’m renting at the moment, but I’d love to own one day”. Or if they’re discussing holidays – “I haven’t decided what I’m doing for Thanksgiving/Christmas/Summer. I might just keep it low key this year”.

  144. R*

    I sympathise a lot OP. I grew up on welfare and in a really dysfunctional family. The trauma I experienced while growing up had a ripple effect that meant I was in my 30s before I obtained what many people have by their early to mid 20s – a degree and a career-track job. It happens to be in a field that attracts a lot of people from very well off backgrounds.

    Many of the people I have worked with, and who are now my friends, had homes either partially or wholly purchased for them by their parents and stand to inherit very significant sums of money that will allow them to retire in late middle age. They generally went to elite private schools, and I am regularly the only person with a really disadvantaged background they have known. I am unlikely to ever own a home due to the very high cost of housing in my city and my late start means I’ll likely need to keep working later than most to save enough to retire.

    It’s really really hard. It helps me to remind myself of how much better I have it than many others. Although I may not be as ridiculously privileged as many others, I know I am better off than most in the world and have succeeded beyond many others who’ve faced similar difficulties. I am so fortunate and I’m sure in some contexts, I would make others feel the same sort of jealousy that I sometimes do towards my wealthy friends and colleagues. Essentially, I work to feel grateful for what I have.

    It also helps me to remind myself that this is my only shot at life. I don’t want it to be poisoned. I try to be present in the moment, and do my best to rise above the negativity and enjoy what I have made for myself.

    I also very rarely talk about my background. My colleagues and friends are intelligent, empathetic, wonderful people but I have come to the conclusion that they just can’t understand some parts of what I have lived through and what that means for me today and in the future. It’s better for me to just avoid any kind of pity or terribly misguided advice that people have provided before.

  145. MeepMeep*

    I had this sort of thing in high school – I was an immigrant who came to the US with nothing, and I’d somehow lucked into a full scholarship at a fancy ritzy private school. I was the only scholarship kid. Suffice it to say, there was a disconnect between me and my classmates.

    The thing that helped me the most was to develop a possibly unhealthy feeling of superiority. My classmates had had everything handed to them on a silver platter. I had to work hard to get to the same place, and I was proud of my accomplishments.

    One thing that OP may focus on is that the kind of upbringing that they survived would have broken most of the folks at that privileged, wealthy university. It’s not wrong to feel proud of that.

    1. Despachito*

      “The thing that helped me the most was to develop a possibly unhealthy feeling of superiority. My classmates had had everything handed to them on a silver platter. I had to work hard to get to the same place, and I was proud of my accomplishments.”

      This is exactly the same I have. I fully realize the “unhealthy” part of it (it is nobody’s fault that they didn’t experience hardship, and it is natural to enjoy whatever you have received on a silver platter; it is , of course, a horrible thing to be deliberately mean to the less fortunate, but not everyone does this and sometimes there is just an unintentional gap) but it still feels much better than self-pity, however justified that might be.

      I must confess I have it a bit also towards innocent people (i.e. those who are never mean to others but just have easy access to something I don’t), but I am cautious not to let it bleed in my behaviour and rather quietly enjoy my perceived superiority.

      I don’t like the vibe of “oh, you’re going to XX fancy place. Must be nice, I will never be able to afford it”. It sounds passive-aggressive and it is very awkward to be both on the imparting and on the receiving end. And although it may be true, pity is not the feeling I would like people have towards me.

      I also think there is some merit in “birds of a feather”- if I am surrounded by peers who are more or less in a similar situation, there is less space for comparison and envy (however understandable).

  146. BadApple*

    Sometimes I feel like this regarding health. It seems like everyone is doing all these fun activities, and I’m trying to figure out when I can drive with a vision disability (to and from work and to the grocery, known routes, during the day). My home doesn’t have adequate public transportation for its size, and I feel like an after-thought. I see my friends pursue all these cool jobs, when I had to turn one down because of the driving component and have generally had a lot to juggle on that front. I almost started a PhD and then had a medical issue pop up with my eyes, so I pulled out to deal with that.

    Anyways, I mention this because it’s similar in some ways… it frustrates me as someone who is independent and who has a record of working hard… but there are some things that others do that I dream about being carefree enough to do. But I honestly rarely feel jealous. I feel like I am collecting my own life experiences and pursing my own values, and I am grateful for the friends I have in my life. I remind myself that I’m not on a timer… and as is often the case with disability, people are always dealing with things that you do not see. It’s valid when you get frustrated over this trauma, I’ve also dealt with serious exclusion and marginalization (have you ever had people grab your face or eyes randomly?!), but I’m doing fine, I understand people a lot better than I would otherwise because of my life, and I will continue finding lots of beautiful things in this world to do and to learn about. And you can too! :-) (Journaling helped a lot thou… it helped me process a lot of the isolation related to growing up with a physical disability.)

  147. UShoe*

    I had a rough year emotionally in 2020 (for pandemic and non-pandemic reasons) and one thing that really helped me when I had some thought spiralling in my head was to write down something I was grateful for, or made me happy. Things like, “I have a partner that makes me feel loved and safe,” “my cuddly cat will give me snuggles all evening,” or “I can make and eat delicious homemade pasta whenever I like.” I taught myself to make little origami stars from strips of paper and I write down something positive on a strip, fold it up and put it in a jar on my desk. That way, even if I can’t think of something to write in the moment I’m spiralling I can pick up a rapidly-filling jar that represents how full my life is of happy and joyful things. And because it’s pretty I can keep it with me on my desk as an anchor to the good things in life.

    I think you can also give yourself permission not to be in conversations that you struggle with. You can try to pivot them elsewhere, like for the Christmas memories conversation you could say something like “I don’t like to dwell on the past much, this year my partner and I are trying XX to build some new memories and traditions. Are you doing anything new this year?” Or you can just say “it was great catching up, but I need the restroom before I get back to work,” and walk away.

  148. Voice calling in the wilderness*

    I grew up dirt poor too, so I can understand your feelings. I suggest that you try to feel great pride in what you’ve accomplished up to now, and focused on your plans for the future. My wife and I lived modestly and saved as much as we could. It turns out that my wife’s relatives, who always lived extravagantly, didn’t save for their pension at all. So, now they are worried, while my wife and I are proud of what we’ve been able to do together.
    Please focus on yourself. Measure yourself against yourself. If you compare yourself to others, you can drive yourself crazy. No matter how rich someone is, there is always someone richer that they are comparing themselves with.

    Good luck.

  149. Anon for this*

    Background: child of a workaholic single mom. Latchkey kid. Second in my entire family to graduate college (and second only because my cousin went straight in while I did a tour in the Navy to get the GI Bill).

    I interact with a large number of very well to do people, both contemporary and older. So much “oh, the boat” and “which European vacation was that? 2016 or 2017?” and “we couldn’t decide between flipping and keeping it as a rental.” And frankly, I feel compassion for them. Some folks hold these things up as some sort of markers of success and I just see this hedonic treadmill of more, more, more.

    I have an amazing partner. I have a decent job – not amazing and not horrible. We own a house (see also VA home loan) that I have already told her, that I am leaving “feet first.” I find contentment with what -I- have and what I’ve done, not judging against what others are doing and saying. Because it’s that act of letting the other people under your skin that starts the treadmill running.

    You’ve done a lot. Celebrate that.

  150. Academicanonymous*

    I had a similar experience working at a Wealthy University. The tone deafness around privelege was one of the reasons I left. I was not “out” about my background there. It was additionally painful hearing others not only talk about themselves, but the white savior complex that permeated the culture, like “look at all this great stuff we’re doing for poor underrepresented grop x without asking them what they really need so we can pat ourselves on the back!”

    While I was there, I coped through humor and learning to keep a straight face during outrageous comments at work.

    I call it “privilege fatigue.” When I felt it getting worse, that was a signal that it was time to take a day off or just step away if I could, go for a walk, etc.

    Some comments I could laugh about to myself later at how tone deaf they were, not ideal, but it worked for me. I’m kinda wishing I’d made privilege bingo cards now that’s another possible idea if snarky humor is helpful for you.

    Sending you good thoughts and solidarity!

  151. Maxy*

    I’ve seen some rather trite advice here (stop comparing yourself to others, be proud of yourself for where you are)…which, for someone from a very similar background to you OP, feels a little tone deaf as to the lasting effects of deep poverty and abuse. So if no one else has said it yet (I had to stop reading the comments) I just want to say that if some of that stuff seems like it’s missing the mark for you, you’re not alone. (Not to say it’s all bad or terrible advice! Just that as someone recovering from a similar situation, it’s not what I need to hear.)

    I recently started working for a wealthy private school in a big city and the amount of wealth is absolutely staggering. It was not something I really anticipated stirring up a lot of things for me before I started, and a part of me definitely misses working for a mission based nonprofit where that kind of wealth is more rare. So part of my advice is, whenever you’re ready to leave, to take that into account when applying to your next job. Even if your coworkers are all middle class and you’re paycheck to paycheck it’s a much different environment than being surrounded by mega-wealthy people.

    My other advice is to try to find community outside of work where you can bring your whole self and be around people with similar backgrounds. It can really make the 40 hours you need to be at work each week more bearable if you have supportive community.

    And I saw that you don’t currently have the resources to afford therapy, which I also understand. I’ve never used my employer’s EAP so I don’t really know if it costs money but maybe that’s an option? Or maybe utilizing an FSA/HSA? There’s also the Open Path Collective, which offers affordable therapy options. And if you’re in or near a large city it can be easier to find someone who has a sliding scale. If you have a PCP you like they might be able to point you to some local resources! And if you are able to find someone, something that is working really well for me to process my childhood stuff is EMDR. It’s tough work but it’s making a difference.

    Good luck OP! (and it may be trite but you really should be proud of yourself!) :)

  152. Divergent*

    I’m in a similar situation! One thing that sometimes helps me is– all my friends, all my life, have been richer than me. When I was fishing the last 2.35 out of my bank account by buying two loaves of bread on debit at the grocery store they were eating out; when they all got help from their parents to buy houses near the city or in the next biggest city over I moved 500 miles away to basically isolation, to the only place I could afford anything because properties were dirt cheap and wages were high because no one wanted to live two hours away from the nearest doctor.

    Because I’ve had friends with more money, I’ve noticed that folks who are helped with housing often seem to live in what is to me a bewildering set of uncomfortable family obligations. My parents couldn’t/didn’t help me buy a home and I don’t like I owe them because of that; my friends whose parents helped them out feel obliged to let their parents stay in their home, to engage emotionally with their parents when the parents are awful, to listen to their parents saying terrible things about them, even in some cases to let their parents shape their lives or careers or their homes. Some took a long time to think outside the box enough to realize they didn’t want that career their parent could give them, or they didn’t want those two kids they could afford, and now they feel stuck. Sometimes it feels like that might be a small price to pay to set down the financial struggle for a little bit but in the end my life is completely my own in ways that neither they nor I will ever completely understand.

    I’m not trying to say everyone who comes from a higher socioeconomic status has a terrible life. But with what you’ve been through you know how dysfunctional humans can be to each other, and maybe you feel a little bit of my same horror at the idea of being tied to them that I do?

    Along, of course, with the occasional bitterness. I wish for you that it will subside over time as you feel safe and secure in your new home (new home! Also congratulations on that!!!)

    1. R*

      Many of the wealthy people I know come from really loving and happy families. Being wealthy, and being from a stable background, has given them significantly more freedom and choice. Not less. There are many people in the world who get on very well with their parents and enjoy being close to them.

      I know a few too, whose parents are frustratingly controlling. But, even with them, they’ve managed to find ways through it (eg friend whose parents wanted them to be a doctor used their extremely expensive and impressive sounding elite education to fulfil their own, chosen career path outside of medicine).

      1. Divergent*

        I’m very happy for your friends! I suspect that folks from similar backgrounds may tend to end up in social groups together so we’ll have a very different set of anecdotes.

        My friends’ families strings mostly involve getting financial help with a house or getting kept in a will in exchange for certain minimum amounts of suffering pretty serious verbal abuse and denigration (from an hour a day in one case to two weeks of in-person time per year at the other extreme) where any resistance, minimization of time together, or attempt to refute some pretty terrible statements comes with explicit costs to financial support. I know maybe half a dozen folks with families like this, where the financial incentives are in the one-to-a-couple-million.

    2. Despachito*

      Yes, this is a very good point.

      R below is right that there are also many giving and wonderful families, but what you are saying is very much true as well – gifts CAN and often DO come with attached strings, and it can help a bit to take this into account.

  153. Lotus*

    Would it feel better to know you really earned everything you have and it wasn’t just handed to you? Affluent people are unaware of how much they have just out of dumb luck and due to generational wealth.

    But I have to say, I agree with people suggesting you seek therapy if you can afford it. A lot of your resentment is a result of trauma that you need a professional to work through. Internet strangers can only do so much.

  154. lily*

    Hey OP, just joining the chorus of people commenting to say you are not alone. I grew up in an abusive home on food stamps, but we lived in section 8 in a very affluent area. I obviously didn’t fit in with my peers whose parents were taking them on beautiful vacations (and, ya know, buying them food and not beating them). Then I went to college (thanks to loans, scholarships and working full time during undergrad) and again felt isolated from the other students around me whose parents helped with tuition and wanted them to come home for holidays. Entering the corporate world was a strange experience. On the one hand, I’m making a great living and it feels like I’m finally somewhat on the same level as my peers. The differences are not as stark. On the other hand, I had horrible imposter syndrome for awhile. It’s a strange experience to “class pass” and have people assume I come from a normal family/affluent background because of where I grew up.

    In 99% of situations, I let them, but there have been a few times where I’ve shared a bit more detail about my life with coworkers I became closer with, and I was shocked to hear they had gone through something similar. I can think of two other successful, nice women I met through work who were estranged from their parents. Another guy who was ridiculously successful who grew up in the foster care system. I think it helps to remember there are a LOT more successful people out there with rough upbringings than we would ever guess, because we don’t talk about that stuff at work. But the people with boats and vacation homes feel comfortable blabbing about it so we hear all about it.

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