Poverty may not be easy, but having wealth comes with its own set of challenges. Consider some of the messaging you’ve heard since childhood. Certain religious strands portray the wealthy as particularly sinful. It seems like the villain in every fictional story is rich: Shakespeare’s Shylock, the miserly money lender; Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge; Lex Luthor. Then there was Robin Hood, who robbed from the rich to feed the poor. Wealth-shaming has become a favorite pastime of our society.
With the rise of the Internet and social media, the power of freedom of speech has risen to a new level. Ideas can be communicated more rapidly and to a larger breadth of people than ever before in human history. The downside is that we all now live in glass houses, which may not protect us from the elements – namely narcissism, voyeurism and bullying.
And no corner of society is left unscathed. It is pretty ridiculous to see the shaming that happens on social media to people who are giving. Yes, they are being shamed for giving.
Case in point: An author shared that he was inspired by his father-in-law’s creative way of spreading holiday cheer – by dropping $100 tips to every single worker at Waffle House on Christmas Eve – and that he was planning to do the same thing with his children and family.
Then he was criticized and shamed on social media. Repeatedly.
An attorney has also found several creative ways to give back. What does he receive for his good deeds? Criticism and shaming on LinkedIn. And lots of it.
Why would you shame someone for giving? It could stem from beliefs about what it means to be meek or humble, which are the same beliefs that can lead to wealth shaming.
Roots of Wealth Shame
Wealth shaming: Also called status shaming, class shaming or success shaming.
Every 10 years or so, America goes through a cyclical downturn and it’s always the rich to blame. This is because the Great Depression and recent 2007 financial crisis (aka “The Great Recession”) originated from bank failures whose root cause was, essentially, raw and unmitigated American greed. The Occupy Movement declared war on Corporate America and implicit within was the demonization of the rich. Our economic history has tarnished our culture and fostered a wrongful belief that the moral caliber of wealthy people is inherently flawed.
It seems like wealth shaming is something we’re taught from an early age. I can recall social-studies classes in seventh and eighth grade. One day we had a particularly lively debate when asked, “Should the rich pay more taxes than everyone else?” The majority response was, “Of course they should pay a higher rate than everyone else. It’s only fair.” Translation: Shame on the rich.
Even though my family had very modest means, and both of my parents grew up poor, I never bought into wealth shaming because I knew I wanted to be successful. I didn’t understand why everyone else in class didn’t want to see themselves the same way. I didn’t see success and wealth in a negative way, but a lot of my teachers and classmates did. These attitudes persisted when I went to a university. These early experiences and messages can shape how we see ourselves and the world.
But what if these messages are wrong?
Bullying, Beliefs and Behaviors
Wealth shaming is a form of socially acceptable bullying. It’s wrong to demonize a minority or someone who has health or cash-flow problems, yet the 1% are freely and regularly bashed by the world.
Affluent people are repeatedly made to believe they came into their wealth by luck and don’t really deserve it or that they are morally flawed individuals. These negative stigmas toward the wealthy manifest themselves in behaviors such as poor decision making, reluctance to speak openly with a spouse about money or the tendency to even downright lie to conceal the truth. I know of one client in which the wife grew up in a well-to-do family while the husband came from humble means. He’s very open about his finances while she avoids the subject at all costs.
At our initial meeting, another client, who has a net worth approaching $10 million, told me, “Nobody knows. If my sister knew, she’d fall out of her chair.” Many people, including her own family, would treat her differently if they knew.
Sometimes it’s as seemingly innocuous as needing more guidance but not wanting to ask for help for fear of letting your affluence be known. Just like the patient who is so afraid to hear the diagnosis, living in fear is not going to make the situation any better.
Wealth shaming creates tension, discord and most of all behaviors that just hold people back from what they really want. The worst: Silence. Financial struggles of the impecunious, health problems, sexuality, politics and religion can all be discussed openly, but nobody wants to hear about “rich-people problems.” The affluent are led to keep their wealth a secret, suffering from the demons of wealth shame alone.
If we don’t have money, we face stress, anxiety, guilt, shame, even depression. And if we do? Stress, anxiety, guilt, shame and even depression.
A Healthier Way
In my years as a financial advisor, I’ve worked with many clients who go about their wealth in a healthy and productive way. These are the folks who tend to their assets but don’t obsess about their wealth. People who focus on developing their own interests, identity and a sense of self that is defined outside of their net worth tend to have more success in managing wealth shame. I call this “healthy detachment.”
One of the best things about having wealth is that you have the means to nurture and give to others, to open doors for them or help relieve their suffering. Giving feels great! A client of mine looks forward to using her qualified charitable distribution from her IRA every year to help others. She excitedly makes her list of charitable beneficiaries for the year and exclaims, “I get to play Santa!”
Participating in acts of charity also helps you stay in touch with reality and empathize with others. People who are relatable are well received. It is a great way to repel the wealth shaming vibe.
Encouraging your family to get involved with philanthropy is a clever way to instill solid values into your children while combatting the “rich villain” stigma at the same time. I have found that helping my clients learn about charitable giving and philanthropy has done great things for their families. Their giving connects them more closely to their children and grandchildren and is a great experience for the entire family.
Shaming the Shamers
Are you afraid to talk about your money? Email me and we can discuss, but don’t worry – there’s no shaming here!
Karen Coyne, CFP®, is a strategic wealth advisor in Hagerstown, Maryland. With more than 15 years of experience, she helps doctors make smart financial decisions so they can focus on what they do best. This information has been obtained from sources considered to be reliable, but we do not guarantee that the foregoing material is accurate or complete. Any opinions are those of KAREN COYNE, CFP® and not necessarily those of RJFS or Raymond James.