Updated May 2021
I recently read this blog post by the Finance Twins, and to be honest, it made me cry.
The author talks about experiencing imposter syndrome while attending an Ivy League university. He went from living near the poverty line to being thrust into a world where fellow classmates had money to burn. His widowed mother never even visited the campus until his graduation day because she could never take off of work or afford that plane ticket.
Being a mother to three children, that part did it for me….that’s when the tears started rolling. I simply cannot imagine not dropping my child off at college. I am sure that she was incredibly proud of her son, and it must have pained her greatly to know that she could not be with him during such a momentous occasion.
Reading his story made me go back in time, during those formative college years. Not only was college a time of great academic growth, but even more importantly, it was a time of great personal growth.
And growth can be hard. It means that you’re constantly at the edge of your comfort zone.
A MIDDLE CLASS CHILDHOOD
My parents started out their married life together renting out a room in a trailer home.
They are both immigrants from Korea. Similar to many immigrant stories, they came to this country with close to nothing. Through education, hard work, and perseverance, we eventually enjoyed a solid, middle class lifestyle. There was no white picket fence, but we achieved the American Dream.
I look back at a happy childhood, filled with memories of having “enough.” My parents had a stable marriage, we never went hungry, we were able to take some no-frills vacations, we were in a decent public school system, and I had all the books I could read by visiting the library. Hours were spent outdoors, playing with the neighborhood kids. My bicycle was my main mode of transportation. There was a lot of optimism about my future- I felt like I could do and achieve anything if I just put my mind to it and worked hard.
The idea that we were middle class didn’t really hit home until we moved from Maryland to northern New Jersey (a part of the New York City metro area) while I was in high school. We had moved a fair amount during my childhood, but this was the first time that I noticed that our socioeconomic standing did not fit in with our new surroundings.
One of the first things I noticed were the cars. There were way more luxury cars on the road than I had seen in Maryland. I didn’t even know the MSRP for cars in general at that point, but this was when I started noticing cars as a status symbol. Our status symbol was our trusty Dodge Caravan.
The other thing I noticed was the high concentration of shopping opportunities. Malls, major retailers, and small businesses alike were (and continue to be) packed like sardines along the major thoroughfares in the area. Of course, this is in direct correlation with the high population density in this area of the state, but it was an adjustment, nonetheless. There was an exposure to name brands and luxury items that did not exist back in the suburbs of Baltimore.
However, we were still living modestly and maintained the same lifestyle. That was all we could afford at the time.
Even if we could have afforded more, I’m not convinced that our lifestyle would have changed drastically. My parents never put lifestyle, wealth, and prestige on a pedestal. Spending money and having more money was not equated with being happier. I am extremely grateful that I inherited this money mindset.
SOME QUICK STATS
To find out whether my upbringing was truly middle class, I looked up median household income by using this website.
Maryland town: ~$85,000
New Jersey town: ~$190,000
Of course, these are current numbers. I have not been able to find any resources that show historical data for median income by zip code (if you find something, leave a comment!). However, I believe that these numbers are a good representation of the gap that existed when I made that move well over 20 years ago. These are pretty well established areas that have not experienced major boom or bust economic cycles.
WELCOME TO COLLEGE!
Then it was off to college. I was elated to have been accepted to Cornell University. This was one “name brand” item that my parents were willing to go out of their way to afford (they did the same when I was in preschool- they paid more in preschool tuition monthly than they did for rent).
This emphasis on education is common among Korean immigrants. The Korean education system is highly competitive, so it’s not surprising that this mentality carried over when they immigrated to this country. Attaining a good education is synonymous with personal and financial stability. Trying to adapt to a new country is inherently unsettling, so education was seen as the best way to ensure that their children would find success in their new home.
I knew that paying for college was going to be a big stressor for my parents. I’m the oldest, and they still had two more children to raise at home. I remember helping my parents fill out the FAFSA form and wondering how on earth our family was going to pay for this.
Once I got to campus, I immediately looked for work-study jobs. I didn’t have a car, so I looked for jobs that were walking distance from my dorm. The search produced less than exciting results. I ended up going with a minimum wage job at the closest dining hall. It paid $4.25 an hour, and I was slated to work 10 hours a week.
That first semester freshman year was one to remember. Adjusting to college life and trying to balance my studies with a job, even at 10 hours a week, was difficult. I was a biology major, and weed-out classes abound as many biology majors are also pre-med. My academic schedule felt brutal.
I was able to get good grades in high school without feeling an insane amount of pressure. It was such a shock to realize that I would have to double down on my studies once I got to college. My public school education was good, but clearly, there were others that were far more academically prepared that first semester. I later learned that many of my classmates had attended prestigious boarding schools, private schools, or very competitive public high schools.
I distinctly remember being in danger of failing my chemistry lab and breaking down in front of my TA. It all felt so overwhelming.
As I was struggling, I couldn’t help but notice that most of the other freshmen didn’t have jobs. Some of them were able to afford living in a single, which seemed luxurious to someone that had a roommate. Some had cars, which I knew could be very pricey because you had to pay extra money to park your car on campus, not to mention all of the costs that go along with owning a car. There were these amazing study abroad programs and other extracurricular activities that required money; I participated in none of these.
There were a good number of international students, and I knew that these students did not qualify for any financial aid. I marveled at the fact that their parents could afford full tuition AND living expenses out of pocket; were there really people out there that could do this comfortably? What sort of world did I fall into?
In more ways than one, I felt like a complete imposter that first semester.
FEELING POOR VERSUS BEING POOR
Here’s the sad thing: I wasn’t actually poor. I was squarely in the middle class. What I realized was that being poor can be an absolute and a relative term. Anytime you’re surrounded by those who have more wealth than you, you are going to feel relatively poor. Even millionaires will feel poor compared to multi-millionaires and billionaires.
So what did I do while feeling relatively poor? I learned how to better organize and prioritize my time. I studied like mad, and my grades went up. I proved to myself that I could keep up academically with my peers. I continued my work-study jobs throughout the majority of my college years, skipping a few semesters when I felt like I had an especially heavy course load. I worked during the summers, using my bike to commute to my job as a veterinary assistant.
I do want to add that my description of wealthier students is not representative of everyone that I met in college. Cornell is unique in that it has both public and private colleges within the university system, the only Ivy League school with this distinction. Three out of the seven undergraduate colleges are state supported, which meant that there were plenty of students from not just the NYC area, but also from upstate New York, which has a completely different vibe from the city. I was exposed to a huge mix of students from all walks of life, representing all parts of the country and all corners of the globe.
GRADUATION AND BEYOND
Since my immediate and extended family lived within driving distance to campus, I had a whole cheering section on my graduation day. I was closing one chapter and about to embark on another journey; veterinary school was waiting for me later that fall.
My upbringing made a huge impact on how I think about and handle money as an adult. Those college years forced me to re-evaluate the concept of money and socioeconomic class. For those that think personal finance is just about the numbers, think again. Look back into your own past, and I’m sure you’ll find how your own experiences have shaped your current money mindset.
It took nearly a decade after graduation until I started thinking more deeply about socioeconomic status. It’s no coincidence that this started when I became a mother. I found myself revisiting how money had shaped my life in childhood, and then wondering how money will continue to shape the lives of my children.
I find myself much more sensitive to socioeconomic status, as my children are growing up in an upper middle class environment that is so different from my own childhood experience. How exactly is this upbringing going to affect them later on in life? That’s a huge question mark, and only time will tell.
One thing is for certain: I will be very thankful that I will have the means to drop my children off at college, no matter if it involves a plane ticket or not. I just wish that everyone else had that same opportunity.
Did anyone else have a similar eye-opening experience in college? Comment below!