I’ve had it all. I’ve lived in a multimillionaire dollar home with gardeners, a private car and driver, and a full-time nanny and housekeeper. I’ve experienced what it’s like to be the upper 1%. And I learned a lot about myself!
Growing Up Poor
I grew up in the beautiful countryside near Colorado’s La Plata mountains. There was no shortage of sunshine, freedom or time to play in my childhood. It was a simple life and I only realized after becoming an adult that we were poor. We had enough food, a home to live in and the bills were always paid. We had enough, but not really any more than just enough.
My parents were extremely frugal out of necessity. Our home was mostly heated in the winter with a wood-burning stove and there was no air conditioning in the summer. My clothes were hand-me-downs from my three older sisters, so you can imagine what they looked like by the time they got to me (not to mention, they were often purchased at thrift shops or handed down from others originally!).
Growing up, we lived by the rule:
Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”
We did go without a lot of things in fact despite using things up, wearing them out and making do with what we had.
When I was young I thought that success meant having all the nice things that I’d never had: the beautiful home, a brand new car, and brand name clothes and shoes. My picture of wealth included an abundance of material things. It really did seem as though people that were rich were happier in life. They certainly seemed to have lives of ease and comfort.
I wanted to be successful in life and have all of these things.
Taking the Path Well-Traveled
When I left home, I followed the path that society laid out for me in order to achieve success.
I graduated from college with my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting and during this time got married (check and check, although I got married way too young!).
We bought a “starter” house as soon as we could (the real estate market only goes up…well, unless you purchased in 2006 like us).
We then upgraded to a new car (because that’s what you do when you get a “real” job!).
Our first baby was born and we had to buy ALL the stuff (you know what I mean).
We decided that there wasn’t enough room in that little starter home and bought a bigger home with a garage that would fit more stuff.
Another baby came and we needed to buy a lot more stuff (it was a boy and we only had girl baby stuff!)
We continued to try to balance two careers, daycare, house payments, car payments and all the regular bills that life demanded. And we did this over and over and over without any real direction.
Getting Off the Path
And then, the path of our lives took a sudden turn. My husband was offered an international business assignment in Shanghai, China. We had never really talked to anyone that had actually been an expatriate (or had actually been to China for that matter), but it sounded like a great adventure to us at a time where our kids would adapt easily to a new environment.
It literally changed my life forever.
We sold our cars, rented out our home in the U.S. and the company provided our housing, utilities, and transportation while abroad. Essentially, not only did we have extra income, but no longer had to pay for some of our largest expenses like our mortgage and car payments. While we weren’t necessarily struggling to make ends meet before the assignment, we received a significant amount of additional income and benefits that negated any need to worry about money.
We were dropped nearly instantly into a lifestyle of wealth and abundance. All around us were Chinese migrant workers living on next to nothing, which made our lifestyle seem even more extreme.
We were living in a multi-million dollar home with marble floors and cherry staircases that wound around for four stories. The 2+ story great room had velvet curtains that went all the way up the ceiling-to-floor windows and real oil paintings adorned the walls. A gardener would come daily to tend to the yard and we had a full-time driver and ayi (nanny/housekeeper). I won’t say that it wasn’t difficult at times because it certainly was, but it was a dream life that I only could have imagined.
I had everything that I had ever thought as a child would make me rich, plus so much more:
We lived in a beautiful, spacious home, were driven around in an expensive car, and had the money to buy all the new clothes I could want.
I didn’t even have to wash my own dishes, clean my own floors or pick up after my kids.
If I didn’t feel like doing them, I could delegate grocery shopping, cooking and pretty much everything else.
I finally started exercising regularly and was able to pursue hobbies that I’d never had much time for previously because of my responsibilities as a working mom with two small children.
We traveled extensively throughout Asia, visiting places that I had never even dared to dream I would be able to visit. We went to Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal, and played on the beaches of Bali.
I had it all.
With our new lifestyle, I never tracked our expenses during the year we lived in Shanghai. Other than ensuring that I deposited enough money into our local Chinese bank account for our expenses, I didn’t pay much attention to our money at all. We didn’t spend a whole lot and were saving significantly more than we spent, so it didn’t seem necessary.
And while it all sounds amazing (and in some ways it was!), I learned a lot about myself during this time. I was able to realize valuable things about myself and about life that I simply wouldn’t have learned otherwise.
- Being “rich” doesn’t make you happy. Life is always what you make of it. All of these things that I had thought would make me feel successful and happy just didn’t matter all that much to me after all. I wasn’t any happier than I had been before. I’m not sure why this was shocking to me, but I realized that people that have the least but are grateful for the things that they have are often the happiest of all.
- Money can’t buy the most important things in life. While money can pay for the most advanced medical care, medicine and eating healthy to avoid health problems, you can’t purchase good health. Money can’t change the past or purchase more time. It can’t buy love or friendships. I wrote about how I believe that money can buy happiness, but once you get beyond having enough plus a few luxuries, your happiness is also shown to actually begin to decrease.
- For some people, it’s never enough. Because of my frugal upbringing, I’ve never completely succumbed to the lifestyle of needing to keep up with the Joneses. However, it’s prevalent everywhere both inside and outside of the U.S. So many people are dissatisfied because they are always chasing the next thing that someone else has and they want. Earning more and living in a wealthy neighborhood only intensifies this. Always pursuing the next greatest thing and never being content with what you have is the single most effective way to ensure that you are never happy.
- Having money might solve some problems, but it creates others. While it seems as though money can be a cure-all to life’s woes, it also means more stress with regards to managing it, paying more taxes, feeling like you need to keep up appearances and more. A bigger house means more issues that require your time, energy and even more money. An expensive new car may mean that you are always concerned about someone scratching it in the parking lot. Hiring drivers, nannies, and housekeepers present a whole separate set of issues related to privacy, trust, and independence.
- Having more money brings out your real priorities in life. The more money you have, the more choices you have. It’s like the common question, “if you had X amount of dollars (ten thousand, a million, a hundred million!), what would you spend it on?” Whatever it is that you truly would spend that money on shows the things that you truly value in your life. We spent a small fortune on travel and found that it was money well spent. The experiences we had traveling together as a family created priceless memories that far surpass the joy that we would have had by purchasing any material item. We were also able to give more to charity and support causes that we believe in. There were also some other things that we spent money on that ultimately were not as wise.
I wish that I could give everyone a short-term experience of “having it all” so they could gain this perspective for themselves. When we came back from our international assignments in Shanghai & Seoul, we chose to purchase a modest home, buy used cars and prioritize our spending on the things that are really important to us: savings for retirement and college, travel and pursuing our hobbies and dreams. We stopped chasing better and bigger and instead focused on the things that were important to us.
It turns out that I no longer hold onto my childhood dreams of being rich and successful and I’m not willing to let society tell me what that means anyway. I’m taking my own path and it’s so much better. I’ve discovered that money can buy security, peace of mind, freedom and once-in-a-lifetime experiences instead. What else could you ever truly want? What else will truly make you happy?
The assignment in Shanghai only lasted a year, but the lessons I learned will last me a lifetime. Who knew that living a life where I was “rich” would make me content with having less?
I’d love to know: Is there a time in your life that your perspective about money has drastically changed?
What a wonderful experience living in another country and living a completely different lifestyle – especially when it taught you all of those lessons.
I think a lot of people confuse “money can make life easier” with “money makes you happier”. Having more money can definitely make life easier (hired help, less stress on being able to afford payments, etc.) but it doesn’t magically solve all of life’s problems and that is VERY different from buying your happiness with extra $s.
Yes – you said it so well! At some point we have to really step back and gain some perspective.
I’m always trying to sharpen my perspective on various things. Right now, I view money as a tool to allow me to do different things.
To your first quote, I haven’t bought new clothes in at least a year, and have a phone whose backlight is messed up. Don’t want to get a new one though!! 🙂
Thanks for sharing – many people grow up with money and don’t realize how to use it to their benefit.
I completely know what you mean – when your mindset shifts, it’s hard to spend money on some things even when you might need them because there are so many other things that you can do with it instead!
Love the story – thanks for sharing! I’ve also been to Shanghai, but only as part of a trip for my MBA, not to live there. It’s definitely a very wealthy city. I’d say my experience with my husbands illness changed the way I viewed money. We were never huge spenders but we certainly made our share of mistakes (new car-check, home purchase in 2006-check, etc.). After his illness none of it mattered anymore, and I just wanted to live a simpler more secure life. So began our journey five years ago to get out of debt, and now pay off the mortgage/save aggressively for kids college so they can have a good future.
It seems like so often we have to have these huge events to really realize that we need to make some changes in our lives (financial and otherwise). I love following the journeys of other personal finance bloggers so I can gain from their wisdom and refine my own plans. Just like your post about emergency plans-it really resonated with me!
Thanks so much!
An excellent life story with incredible lessons learned. Kathryn, this could be the starting of an excellent book!
I think after I paid off my mortgage and I could spend my money however I wanted it was a super freeing feeling although I felt a little aimless for a little bit. Not having any goals probably made me spend a couple of extra dollars until I set some new goals but it was a fun month traveling around Europe without worrying too much about cost 🙂
Not worrying about money is the best feeling! 😉
We continued to try to balance two careers, daycare, house payments, car payments and all the regular bills that life demanded.
This sentence stuck out to me because it is where my husband and I are right now (but with rent, not a mortgage). Reading stories like yours and others is always eye-opening, even when you think you’ve read all there is to read on money/contentment/happiness.
Thank you for this post. I agree with Andy, sounds like a great book 🙂
Thanks for the kind words 🙂
I was helping someone I know to set up a budget/start a financial plan and Inwas SO excited seeing how much it’s going to change their life. Literally. There’s so much using money as a tool can do to increase happiness once you get the right mindset!
That’s great the experience made the impact it did on you. It’s interesting how different people react to the same experience. I’m sure some people in your circumstance might have had a completely different reaction and wanted to continue living the “rich” life. Growing up to immigrant parents, we were extremely frugal and their frugality has been ingrained in my head. I continue with my frugal habits, however, some peers who grew up in the same situation are spendthrifts now because they want to make up for being “deprived” when they were poor growing up.
That is SO true! I think I was on the path to wanting to be “rich” for quite a while. I was lucky that I had the epiphany that money can create freedom and choices. I’m glad that you were able to make the same choice to see the value in frugality!
Now I want to move to China. I am very glad for you, but I have to ask, why did it take a trip to China to realize you didn’t need to keep up with the Jones’? People have always found it peculiar that I have never wanted for anything. That is, I have never fawned over new cars, new homes (although we built one) new clothes, the latest and greatest, etc.
I feel very happy to have my basic needs met. Luckily we live a very posh lifestyle in spite of our frugality. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up middle class, or even have nice things, because I never had them growing up. My parents were frugal out of necessity, and still grossly mismanaged their finances. I vowed early I would never do this, and never have. I had debt at one point but never planned to do anything but pay it back, in spades, and that’s exactly what I did. Now I want to buy time, and join my wife in her early retirement (for some reason men who stay at home are called “retired” yet women are said to be staying at home???). 🙂
I guess I always thought that I would be happier once I had “everything.” It wasn’t necessarily keeping up with the Joneses as much as just reaching that vision in my mind of what I thought was successful (although that probably started out comparing to others).
I’ve been thinking about buying time with money while reviewing the book Your Money or Your Life.
It sounds like you’re wife is retired to me ;).
“We then upgraded to a new car (because that’s what you do when you get a “real” job!).”
Unfortunately for me, my first new car came and then a week later I got laid off from work because of low sales. I learned the value of money REAL QUICK! And then fortunately I was able to bounce back within a month after applying to job after job after job all day every day.
Yikes! There’s nothing quite like learning the hard way. Some of the most financially savvy people I know have similar money fail stories. It’s all about what you do to learn from them I suppose!
They say money is one of the leading reasons couples split up, and I can attest to that. My big epiphany came when I finally realised I had to set boundaries, because my own financial security was more important than staying in a relationship.
I heard the quote recently “when you agree on how you spend your money, you agree on how you spend your life”. Being on the same page financially is SO important. It’s about so much more than money, really. Thanks for sharing!
That is quite an experience. Having grown up in a family that pinched pennies until I was in high school, having a good job myself, and recently switching to lesser-paying job (but very flexible hours) to spend more time with the family, has shown me that money doesn’t always buy happiness as you said.
I do miss having a 50% savings rate when we didn’t have to balance our checkbook and could take an expensive vacation each year or have a fancy dinner and not blink. But, I always wanted more even though we already had everything we needed and then some.
Thanks for sharing that. I don’t any amount of money can make someone as rich as changing their mindset about money.
Just found your blog! My financial perspective changed drastically when I lived in the bush in Africa for three months. So also in another country. The people had nothing. A one room grass hut for a family of ten. The ‘wealthy’ families ate meat once or twice a year. These people were so happy. They celebrated every little thing going on with huge dances and celebrations. The children all ran around and played together. They gave my group several chickens in thanks for building a school, and of course much singing and dancing. It really left me feeling that we were making ourselves unhappy by not being a part of a tribe. Where everyone relied on one another, and money did not matter one iota.
That would be an AMAZING experience. I wish we could learn to combine our wealth in America with some of the attributes of other cultures, especially where people and not money are the focal point. Money is great…until it replaces people as our main priority in life.
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