Guess what normal is: household income edition
January 19, 2013 8:03 AM   Subscribe

Were you in a single-income doctor's family in the US during the 1990s? Help me reconstruct what lifestyle and education my siblings and I might have enjoyed if my mother hadn't been a pathologically miserly narcissist. Many, many details inside.

I've known for some years that my estranged mother is a severe narcissist under deep cover, but it wasn't until I read this post on the blue, and specifically this comment by a Mefite with a high-earning single mother about their lifestyle growing up, that I realized that anything other than strict financial necessity might have been at work in the environment of grudging, Spartan, sanctimonious frugality in which my siblings and I were raised.

The backstory:

While my older brother and sister and I were growing up, and particularly after my parents divorced in 1988 or so, my mother was extremely frugal -- pouring generic soap and shampoo into brand-name bottles and eking them out with water to make them go further; wearing two pairs of one-legged pantyhose rather than throwing away a pair with a run; driving the cheapest and most fuel-efficient cars on the market; vacationing only in campsites and youth hostels; obsessively monitoring the household's energy consumption; subscribing to endless personal finance magazines and newsletters like The Tightwad Gazette. As a family, we had almost none of the trappings of affluence: no fancy house, no fancy car, no satellite dish, no swimming pool, no boat, no summer home, no private lessons, no heaps of toys, no swanky clothes, no big-screen or cable TV, no stereo system. The only signs my mother wasn't, say, a Mennonite on a paralegal's salary was that we had a live-in housekeeper/nanny who functioned as her stay-at-home wife, and that she occasionally went on Caribbean cruises with me and/or the housekeeper for company.

None of these economies would have felt like deprivation if they had been undertaken for our sake or in an emotionally generous atmosphere, but my mother was also very good at claiming the moral high ground as sole breadwinner and making us children feel like selfish, greedy, materialistic, lazy, sponging, expensive and bothersome drains on her hard-earned finances. Even basics like new clothes or warm winter coats had to be groveled for as special favors -- throughout my teens and twenties I dressed almost exclusively in thrift-store clothing and shoes, and cut my own hair with sewing shears -- and we were shamed out of asking for things I realize in retrospect were fairly innocent and normal expectations in middle-class American kids: Barbie's Dream House, cars to drive in our teens, financial contributions to our weddings.

The most upsetting aspect of my mother's stinginess was that it extended to a staunch unwillingness to spend money on our education. I was "the family genius" with effortless straight As, blisteringly high test scores and a passion for learning; my brother had emotional and behavioral difficulties if not a learning disability; my sister was an average student. All three of us floundered, bored out of our minds or struggling without help, through mediocre public schools, and were then brainwashed and guilted into choosing colleges solely on the basis of their cheapness. I would have given a limb to go to an Ivy League, but my mother steered me firmly away from aspirations like these, depicting them as total pipe dreams, and I wound up applying to only one school, a SUNY. (When I found out in my late 20s about things like need-blind admissions programs, I cried and cried.) We were also expected to work throughout college in order to lighten the financial burden on her.

I grew up believing money was tight and feeling cripplingly guilty for always needing more of it. It wasn't until my mother took early retirement and started buying featherbeds and Persian rugs and taking her friends on cruises regularly that I began to realize what all those years of scrimping and saving might really have been for.

After reading the MeFi FPP, I did a little research on how much US anesthesiologists make. They make a lot. Then I looked at the salaries offered in job ads for specialists at the hospital where my mother worked. The anesthesiologist ads were salary on application, but an otolaryngologist position was advertised with a baseline salary of $440,000.

That's the point at which I started to feel sick. How could a fully employed anesthesiologist, even one with three kids to raise and $100k in ex-husband debts to pay off, really have been as hard-pressed to make ends meet as my mother made out? What could she really have afforded if she'd had our best interests at heart? How badly did we get scammed? What might my life and opportunities have been like if she hadn't been a narcissist?

TL;DR: Were you a doctor, or the child of a doctor, in a single-income household during the 1990s? What was your family's lifestyle and education like?
posted by stuck on an island to Human Relations (84 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Edit: My sister and brother graduated high school a year and a half after the divorce and were partially self-supporting throughout college, so for most of my mom's time as a single mother she had only one child at home.
posted by stuck on an island at 8:11 AM on January 19, 2013

How could a fully employed anesthesiologist, even one with three kids to raise and $100k in ex-husband debts to pay off, really have been as hard-pressed to make ends meet as my mother made out? What could she really have afforded if she'd had our best interests at heart? How badly did we get scammed? What might my life and opportunities have been like if she hadn't been a narcissist?

If this is genuinely what you are wondering, then you need to speak to a therapist, not other children of anesthesiologists. You are entitled to grief and rage when you are raised by a narcissistic parent, but this particular lens through which to target for your grief and rage seems displaced and problematic for your own well-being.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:17 AM on January 19, 2013 [77 favorites]

I'm really not following what the question is here.

Is your mother a doctor? If so, what was her specialty? Where did you grow up?

There is a lot of variability in incomes, both by profession and by geographic area.
posted by dfriedman at 8:17 AM on January 19, 2013

Sorry, I missed the part where you say that your mother is an anesthesiologist.

In any event, I'm still having trouble understanding what your question is. Maybe your mother is a narcissist, but so what. What are you going to do with your life now that you're independent of her? If this is causing you so much distress perhaps working with a therapist would help.
posted by dfriedman at 8:19 AM on January 19, 2013

I, too, had a mother who was a parsimonious narcissist but I don't think you're going to get anywhere with this. You know the answer. Your mother could have dealt with money differently and you could have had a different life. Some of this is because of frugal-but-maybe-sensible choices your mom made and some of this was probably because she was neglectful and disregarding her kids' desires in preference to her own. That sucks and I'm sorry, but it's also in the past and you have a chance to make better choices.

I grew up believing we were poor because my mom wouldn't let me put butter on popcorn because it was too expensive and we wore hand-me-downs from other kids until high school. I bought my own second hand cars. It wasn't until I went to college and it turned out that I didn't have to apply for financial aid ("What? There's money from (dad's parents) grandma and grandad? Why didn't anyone ever tell me?") that I realized that a lot of this was in my mom's head, and that my parents' "Never talk about money" attitude was actually problematic for a number of reasons. At the same time, that was normal for suddenly divorced women in past decades who had this "OMG the sky is falling" feeling about their marriages ending. I am not saying this makes it okay, I'm just saying that your story is more common than you may understand. And that one of the side effects to the narcissist issue is that for whatever reason your life becomes sort of limited to their world and you don't learn to seek outside data (did you have school counselors? friends who went to college? what about your dad?) and then your life gets focused on the narcissist as well.

The issue isn't the cash, I mean it sort of is, but it's the feeling of deprivation, that you-as-kids weren't worthy of having money be spent on you. And I am here to tell you that it's a trap. Even if you find out that your mom was making 300K, what then? Second guessing the choices she made when you already know that she was a bad self-involved parent isn't going to help you get anyplace better for you. Blaming your mom for whatever is going on in your life now isn't going to help make you happy and/or more comfortable.

Staying stuck in the morass where money = comfort/happiness/satisfaction is going to be a path that will not be helpful for you. Finding ways to process your upbringing and whatever happened without having it all be mom-focused is going to be a better way to address what you are feeling.

tl;dr you are maybe not asking the right questions here.
posted by jessamyn at 8:22 AM on January 19, 2013 [101 favorites]

The answer is : metric shitton of cash.

But you don't get to choose your parents. Unfortunately for most of us.

BTW you woud have paid full freight or near to it at an Ivy. Needs blind don't care how stingy your parent(s) are, just like honey badger.
posted by Yowser at 8:22 AM on January 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Folks, I have an excellent therapist and a life I love and am back in higher education and generally feel pretty optimistic and sorted out, so please, rather than counseling me about what my problems are and why I shouldn't be asking the question I'm asking, could you answer the question?

Narcissistic parents screw with your sense of what it is realistic and reasonable to need, want and expect. I am trying to get an idea of what might have been realistic and reasonable given the assets we actually had, rather than what my mother pretended we had.
posted by stuck on an island at 8:31 AM on January 19, 2013 [8 favorites]

even one with three kids to raise and $100k in ex-husband debts to pay off, really have been as hard-pressed to make ends meet as my mother made out?

Frankly, it sounds as if your mother had trauma shit to deal with. My mother was of the same generation, and I think there was still an expectation that their needs would be cared for by a husband and a lot of fear and desperation over survival a pretty common result of divorce--or, in my case, paternal death.

I get the resentment. I'm kind of screwed up about money because my mother was similar--though we were living below the poverty line for years. She's not now, but things remain strange. I mean, hell, my mom came to visit this weekend and I had to give her a check to pay her back because she bought me some underwear--never mind a wedding or a college education or a car. It's taken time for me to accept that she'll never be the safety net for me that other kids had and that she can be kind of grubby about money whether or not it's really necessary. I recognize it comes out of her own fear and neuroses, though. She's not being malicious even if she is sometimes cluelessly selfish. I can't say for certain that it's the same for your mom, but it might be.

But I've made peace with it, through time and therapy. I think you should too. Really, talk to someone about it. Counting the ways in which your childhood came up short (oh, how I would have killed for a vacation as a kid, much less a Caribbean one! But it is what it is. My summers at free community summer camp were fine) is not going to help. Working on taking care of yourself and (maybe, someday, if it's what you want) being the kind of mother you wanted for your children is a much better way to live.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:32 AM on January 19, 2013 [8 favorites]

I'm also going to suggest that perhaps you're asking the wrong question here -- or, at least, that the question you're asking isn't the one that will help you heal.

You're asking a what question. By asking about others' situations, you're trying to figure out what, exactly, your mother did to you. But you already know this: you know she mistreated you, you know she hurt you. Answers to your questions here won't give you new light on this situation. They may make the sting worse, but it won't help.

The subtext of your question, however, is the why. The way you go about describing your situation, I can feel the pain you're experiencing... And also the outrage, the confusion. I get the sense, from your question, that you feel lost. That you feel like you need your childhood to start making more sense. That you need to have some means of coming to terms with everything that happened to you.

We can't help you with those questions. But they are good questions to ask. Find a therapist and try to work through them. You deserve it.
posted by meese at 8:32 AM on January 19, 2013

it wasn't until I read this post on the blue, and specifically this comment by a Mefite with a high-earning single mother about their lifestyle growing up, that I realized that anything other than strict financial necessity might have been at work in the environment of grudging, Spartan, sanctimonious frugality in which my siblings and I were raised.

Physicians, even within specialties, have wide ranges of incomes. Some specialties make more than others, e.g., radiology tends to do well, family medicine tends not to, etc. But even within specialties, one can make choices which dramatically affect one's income. Working for a well-run private practice in a wealthy area? Some specialists make in excess of half a million, easy, but they also tend to work eighty-odd hours a week. Working for the VA, or the county hospital, or even a university hospital? You might not even make half as much, but you'll probably see your kids more than once a month.

And remember that medicine is a business. People act like it isn't, but it is, and it's susceptible to the same sorts of problems that other businesses do. Many medical practices operate as partnerships. Partnerships do not always operate with equity, and it's possible to get screwed. Partners may not share profits equally, and if a rainmaker leaves a practice, that can hurt the remaining partners a lot. It's also possible to manage one's practice so poorly that expenses eat into profits. Also, medical practices are frequently not solely engaged in the practice of medicine. They may also be landlords, i.e., owning the professional office complex in which they work. Real estate deals can go bad. Leverage can be a harsh mistress. Combine all of that with the fact that many if not most physicians have absolutely no business sense,* and the question becomes why any physicians are wealthy, not why some of them aren't.

Further, your mother would not have made as much money then as she might theoretically be able to earn now. She's twenty years further into her career than she was then, and like other disciplines, physicians with seniority command a salary premium. But inflation has also affect physician salaries, and salaries themselves have grown faster than inflation. So that $440,000 salary you saw advertised? Could easily have been advertised at $100,000 twenty years ago. And I guarantee you that you can find an anesthesiologist position today which is under $200k. Which is a decent amount of money, but it's still only an upper-middle class living. But the point is that we're talking about a fairly drastic range of possible incomes, so it's really difficult to make any kind of comparison.

Suffice it to say that none of us have enough information to answer your question. We can't actually tell you what kind of lifestyle your mother could have afforded because we don't know how much money she made, and neither do you.

*This is not intended as a slight on physicians, who are, on the whole, smart, dedicated people. But they're smart about medicine and dedicated to taking care of patients. If they'd wanted to futz around with managing a small business, they'd have gotten an MBA, not an MD.
posted by valkyryn at 8:39 AM on January 19, 2013 [20 favorites]

There is no "realistic and reasonable". Home lives growing up range from the extremes of miserliness like yours, to parents who take on massive amounts of debt to lavish worldly possessions on themselves and their families. Most people are somewhere in the middle, no matter what the family income is. And of course it depends on any number of things like exact location, outstanding debts, medical expenses...

Maybe you could expect that some of the outright hardships be minimized-- new clothes, haircuts, a few toys so that you're not bored silly. Beyond that, though, there is no "normal", which seems to be the crux of your question.

Either that, or, as others have pointed out, "What SPECIFICALLY should I resent my mother for not providing me with, rather than just a general sort of resentment?"
posted by supercres at 8:40 AM on January 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

Couple of things to think about:
What were the circumstances of your mother's childhood? Did she go to private schools and Ivy colleges? If she didn't, but nevertheless ended up a high-earning anesthesiologist, she may not believe in the value of taking on extra educational expenses.

Did she/does she find herself supporting her own parents in their old age? She may have been obsessively scrimping to save you and your siblings from having to worry about eventually having to support her.

As others have pointed out, casting about for things to be upset about now seems really counterproductive. You sound like you are on a good path now, just keep moving forward.
posted by apparently at 8:40 AM on January 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Wealth tends to end load so the scrimping that you feel hurt you may have been necessary to build the financial momentum required for your mother to have an enjoyable retirement.

Also expenses tend to drop dramatically once retirement roles around. Mortgages are paid off, kids are out of college, tax rates drop and so on.
posted by srboisvert at 8:41 AM on January 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

Yeah, it's hard to tell what kind of confirmation you're looking for here. I have to go back a few years to my childhood, but, my mother raised three kids on her own (because of death and not divorce). My father died when I was 6 months old, my sisters were 5 and 10 years old.

My mother eventually became what was, at the time, the equivalent of the Vice President of a bank.

We never went on a vacation further than 50 miles away, we all went to college, we all took out loans and worked along the way. The family was careful as to how money was spent. My mother made a lot of our clothes when we were young. She never had a new car until I was 18 years old. We never had a housekeeper, I came home to an empty house for years after my sisters went to college.

Take away the fact that it sounds like you didn't like your mother and she evidently abused you emotionally, it sounds like you had a pretty good life.
posted by HuronBob at 8:43 AM on January 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

Boy does your story sound familiar.

In a way, it might be helpful to re-imagine what your childhood might have been like. Maybe you could work on a meditation or day dream where you replace what actually happened with what could have happened? I did a lot of exercises like that back when I needed to.

The worst part is your relationship with money now, right?

Re-writing your past in vivid colors with a goal of healing in the here and now might help. Be mindful for the next few months of all the small and large ways you are weird about money, necessities, and luxuries. Keep a list, write it down!

Were I you, I would work feverishly hard on making my present independent of my past, especially where it comes to lifestyle and how I see myself.

Yes your mother made a crap ton until she retired. Her specialty is very highly compensated. She totally fucked you.

That's OK! Guess what? She has an inner life you shouldn't wish on your worst enemy. I promise you don't want or need any of what she's got going on.

Practice financial and emotional generosity towards yourself and others. That especially means you can be mindful to notice and "unthink" unkind thoughts about yourself or others whenever you have them.

Don't you continue this bullshit against yourself or others is all I am saying.

Lastly, I advocate total estrangement, at least for a while. Maybe you are stronger than me, but it is really difficult to hear or know about your parent's lavish lifestyle while you are in the midst of coming to grips within yourself.

Unplug from your mother and plug back into yourself.

Also. Don't give your mom the satisfaction of an audience who suffers over her pleasures. That's the biggest waste of your resources I can think of.

Be good to yourself, be gentle towards yourself.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 8:47 AM on January 19, 2013 [15 favorites]

Mod note: At this point, answers should address the OP's question about "what's normal" - specifically, what were some material benchmarks of a normal upper middle-class lifestyle for a US teenager in the 1990s. The larger points about narcissistic parents and therapy have been covered.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:54 AM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Agreed. With the earning power of an anesthesiologist, it doesn't take long to build up early retirement/featherbed/vacation money. It is very possible she didn't have "that kind of money" until 10 years ago, for example, and only then really started saving for the future.

The thing about anesthesia is that while it is well compensated, it is also high-cost. Malpractice insurance is huge for them- either she pays it out of her salary, or the employer pays for it and pays her less.

There may have been hidden expenses that you didn't know about. Maybe she had a judgement against her that was only recently satisfied? Maybe she was building a practice and had to dump most of the money into it? Maybe she had to pay alimony to your father? Maybe, and quite likely, she had a shit-ton of student loans to pay off?

A friend of mine is an oncologist. She makes a lot of money now. But a significant portion of it goes to fund the debt she had to incur to get there. Not just education costs, but the sunk costs kind of things like having to move to different areas of the country to land the high paying jobs. She lost tons of money buying and selling houses at inopportune times. Her big extravagance of late was buying a used Miata. And that's with her grossing something like $350k right now.

I'm not saying that it isn't possible for both to be true. She could have been not as poor as she made out to be, but also not as rich as you think she was.

I grew up middle-middle class. We only ever had one "new" car, and that was a result of chance more than earning power. We lived in tight quarters (four kids in one bedroom!) for a couple years. We had cheap clothes and shoes. I was astounded when my parents announced that I would be going to a private high school. Tuition was $2000! It wasn't easy for them, but they got it done. The tradeoff was that we never went on vacation, we rarely ate out (think birthdays, tax refund day and Christmas eve) and never had things like air conditioning. I think my birthday presents in 1989 were an alarm clock and a fan for my room.

Now, if I take that and extrapolate your situation onto it, I can see how having to pay for live-in help could easily double what my dad had to earn to make ends meet.
posted by gjc at 9:09 AM on January 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

normal expectations in middle-class American kids: Barbie's Dream House, cars to drive in our teens, financial contributions to our weddings.

I grew up in a middle class family. I did not get these things. Middle class does not mean "money to throw around on luxuries" -- it means "enough money for necessities and a little bit for the fun stuff." The only reason I, as a child, went to a good vacation spot is because we went with my grandparents (and they paid). My parents, middle/borderline upper middle class, could not afford it.

All three of us floundered, bored out of our minds or struggling without help, through mediocre public schools, and were then brainwashed and guilted into choosing colleges solely on the basis of their cheapness. I would have given a limb to go to an Ivy League, but my mother steered me firmly away from aspirations like these, depicting them as total pipe dreams, and I wound up applying to only one school, a SUNY. (When I found out in my late 20s about things like need-blind admissions programs, I cried and cried.) We were also expected to work throughout college in order to lighten the financial burden on her.

Now this sounds typically middle class.

It wasn't until my mother took early retirement

How was your mother raised? Was she poor growing up? It sounds to me like she was poor growing up and she was operating on her growing up values, and it was not until she reached a certain point in her retirement savings that she realized she actually had saved enough money for retirement.


And more directly on the "normal middle/upper middle class in the 90s:"

We had a TV. It was older than me.

I did end up getting a car to drive when I was 17 -- because my dad bought a new (used) car for himself. It was a 1984 Ford. I was born in 1985. My dad couldn't use it to commute to work anymore and wouldn't have gotten anything for trading it in.

I went to a local public school.

I went to the college that I got the most aid for [which was a private school, but I had a scholarship and a state-funded merit-based grant, I did not get any need-based aid].

I was given about 5% of the toys that I wanted.

We went to the $1 theater and my mom made and brought popcorn.

I got new clothes only for Christmas or my birthday (fortunately 6 months apart).

I had private piano lessons -- $10/week -- for 5 years. [My parents already had a piano they got for $0-$50 when neighbors moved away.]

Probably the biggest single expense that my parents paid for was my school trip to France when I was in high school. At that, it was a stretch for them.

To compare, my neighbors up the street had 5 kids. Their childhood sounds exactly like yours. If I'd had siblings, my parents would not have been able to afford the "luxuries" that I had, namely piano lessons, soccer cleats, whatnot.

So was your life really all that different from the "typical" teenager in the 90s? It sounds like there was some materialistic differences. But I think you're setting your expectations much higher than what an average teenager would have experienced. I mean, even the fact that you had a housekeeper and went on cruises -- those are 2 things I would never have dreamed of.

The big difference is that many parents will sacrifice for their children, whereas your mother made you sacrifice for her.
posted by DoubleLune at 9:10 AM on January 19, 2013 [34 favorites]

Jessamyn is correct in her assessment that "Staying stuck in the morass where money = comfort/happiness/satisfaction is going to be a path that will not be helpful for you", if that is what is going on.

But your question is simple, i don't see how the people above me don't understand what is is - what types of things did an average child with your family's income have/do in the 90's....not "what types of things can i do to help me reconcile how i feel about my youth". Just because she provides a detailed description doesn't mean she isn't already in therapy or hasn't dealt with it, that hasn't been specified either way. Maybe lets stay on topic?

While my mother was not a doctor, she was a single mom with two kids and an income pretty much the same as an anesthesiologist in the 90's which after a bit of research, i found to be averaging between 100k-200k, and we lived in one of the better off neighborhoods in the country (east coast suburb type). So maybe re-think the salary number in your head, but that's still a substantial amount of money. Here's my snapshot for you -

My mom definitely was very very smart about money, and looking back we saved where it was smart - she always did her research before shopping (coupons), insurance, utilities, vacations, etc. So we certainly were not spoiled, but we (my older bother and i, i am female) enjoyed the following that I've come to learn many people with lower incomes are NOT used to - more and less obvious things -

- We both attended private schools, pre-k through 12, had my brother and i chose, we could have gone to any school we could manage to get into, even if it was Harvard - my mom always made it clear that when it came it our schooling, money was not the thing to focus on, rather getting the best education possible - taking out loans/applying for grants would have been fine.

- We vacationed regularly - Mainly France and a few other European countries, as my mom is fluent in french and passed that to my brother and i (she's big into culture. we're not french in any way). We also went to Belize a few times, California and Florida a lot. I was expected to do a certain amount of educational activities during vacations, but again, my mom was huge about that stuff, luckily it was usually fun stuff like going to cool museums.

- While my brother and i did not get cars when we were teens, my mom always drove Mercedes or Jaguars. I miss those heated seats.

- We lived in a 5 bedroom, 3 story house with a very large yard. 2 living rooms, dining room, 3.5 baths, full basement, everyone had their own rooms (obviously), parents had a walk in closet. my room was about the size of a studio apartment, my brother's larger.

- We got new clothes as we needed them. Very rarely did my mom take me shopping "just to go shopping", but it did happen occasionally as a special treat

- I did have to do chores when i got old enough. I did not get allowance. This, I've come to learn, IS unusual for an average kid in my income bracket. If i needed/ wanted something, I earned it through chores/tasks/good grades. this was specific to the method my mom used to raise us, however.

- We went out to dinner quite a bit, to nice restaurants. that's a pretty huge part of my childhood, to the point where now i associate a certain comfort in eating at five star restaurants. Recently I've been in the depths of poverty, and that's honestly the thing i miss the most about having a decent income.

- As per the haircuts...we got our hair cut at a really nice salon. That i can say is normal, all my friends growing up did the same.

- Large TV, great stereo system, dishwasher, garbage disposal, washer and dryer, maid that came a few times a week, really nice, visually pleasing and comfortable furniture, i had a king size bed my whole childhood.

- We also went on regular outings to places like the zoo, the library, concerts, roller skating, etc.

- At home, we ate VERY well. Nearly always home cooked meals from scratch with food from the best possible source. How my mom had time to do this i have no idea.

- I had a wide array of toys, but i generally only got them at birthdays and Christmas. However, Birthdays were huge, always a party with all my friends from the time i was little, at Christmas the tree was always loaded with presents, plus stockings.

- This might be more attached to "social class" than wealth, but i did attend ballroom dance and etiquette(i.e how to set a fancy table) lessons

- Speaking of dance, activities were definitely encouraged. I took dance classes for years, and was a nationally competing swimmer, as was my brother (he turned down going to the Olympics, that scoundrel!!). Other activities encouraged (and obviously paid for) - Art classes, Crew team, Football, Gymnastics, Summer Camps (woodsy ones as well as nerdy ones where you take classes), I got to go on a canoe trip summer camp in France as a teen, as well as go to Vienna to perform with the choir i was in

- I took violin lessons from the time i was 3, my mom got my brother and i every size violin as we grew, 32nd size to full size. We were very lucky to get to take some lessons from Suzuki before he passed away, and i know my mom enabled that.

This is what i can think of off the top of my head. Feel free to memail me with any questions. I was lucky to have a mom that, while very controlling and intense, very much wanted the best for us and we knew it.

On preview, glad to see you put those sillies in their place, but expect to see people still try to give you emotional advice. I hope I actually addressed your specific question!
posted by assasinatdbeauty at 9:19 AM on January 19, 2013 [10 favorites]

Where you lived is going to make a big difference. Can you tell us where you grew up?

My parents divorced when i was in middle school in the late 80s. I'm sure they did not make $100,000 combined until I was out of the house. I have one brother. We lived in decent but not fancy houses in an expensive part of the country (suburban Boston). We did not have any kind of live in help, but we did have most of the accoutrements of middle-class living. Cable TV, Nintendo/Playstation, Apple IIc, plenty of clothes. The occasional sport or lesson ( but usually through the town or school, rather than private). We both drove crappy and/or hand-me-down cars when we got our licenses, but we didn't have to worry about the insurance. As an example, my first car was a 1976 Saab 900 I purchased with about $800 of saved birthday and Christmas money. Neither of us were asked to consider finances in our college decisions, and ended up going to expensive schools that were almost entirely paid for by our parents taking out loans, but we had to earn our own spending money through work study jobs or similar (though if I had it to do over again, I would have gone to a state school and had them give me more spending cash along the way).

I hope this helps.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:20 AM on January 19, 2013

My family had plenty of money in the 90s. We car camped for vacations, had home haircuts, never bought clothing that wasn't on sale or thrifted, and I quite clearly remember darning socks and holes in tights regularly. I had a hand-me-down ten-speed, and later on, a nice but clearanced roadbike. I took the bus through high school or rode my bike across town to see friends. I had terrific grades, but I went to an affordable state school. I worked part-time during school and full-time every summer. No one in my family ever went to the Caribbean. In short, I think so far as material things, I had less than you. I never dared ask for a Barbie dreamhouse.

And we LIKED it. I loved car camping! Still do. I loved my bicycle. My state school degree landed me great jobs in NYC. We kept thing simple and we always had everything we needed and some things we wanted.

It's possible your mother was truly abusive, but something about the way you wrote your question suggests that maybe you pined for all the things your friends had when you were a kid and she was trying, unsuccessfully, to dissuade you from growing up to be materialistic. Maybe she grew up poor and kept those habits, and thought that what she had when she was a kid should be good enough for you.

I don't ever recommend therapy, but, hey, therapy. Whether she was an anesthesiologist or lunch lady, as long as you had food and an education and a roof over her head, how your mother spent and spends her money was and is her choice.
posted by mochapickle at 9:20 AM on January 19, 2013 [15 favorites]

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has data on this profession (anesthesiologist). Here is a link to the current data -- it may take some hunting to find the historical data.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:20 AM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

My family was upper-middle class in middle America, with no $100,000 debt to pay off. I went to a (decent) public school, followed by a private college that gave generous scholarships (and I was definitely encouraged to favor a state school that would give me a full ride). We had no nanny/housekeeper, took a vacation once a year within driving distance, and had a fairly modest, though nice, 3-bedroom home. We didn't wear thrift store clothes or watch prices too much at the grocery. I didn't get a car until I bought my own after college. We definitely didn't have a boat, pool, or summer home, nor did any of my friends (several of whom had doctor parents). Other than the thrift store clothes and generics, your life sounds pretty normal for your peer group to me.
posted by mkuhnell at 9:23 AM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your mom put more shear effort into convincing you that you didn't deserve anything from her

I think this is the complicating factor in telling you what's reasonable. It seems totally reasonable to me (grew up middle class in a mostly single-income family) to buy generic products and drive fuel-efficient cars for as long as they'll last. My parents did those things. But. My parents didn't do those things while telling me I didn't deserve better and making me beg for necessities like a winter coat.

I knew a wealthy single-income family while I was growing up in the 90s, in which the dad was a doctor and the mom stayed home, and they had a pretty luxurious lifestyle (huge house, luxury cars, private schools and expensive colleges for the kids, everyone wore nice clothes and had expensive toys). I knew other similarly well-off single-income families (mostly with working dads and stay-at-home moms, but one working mom with a stay-at-home dad) who seemed to live with different levels of luxury and prioritized their finances differently.

I think that the biggest commonality was a sense of security--both that parents could provide basic necessities and also that kids would get a lot of what they wanted. Like, even if your parents put their foot down about not buying you a car, they'd let you borrow theirs. Or, even if your parents wouldn't pay $50,000 a year in cash for the private college you wanted to attend, they'd take you on campus visits to other schools and otherwise support your dreams.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:24 AM on January 19, 2013 [9 favorites]

I regret not going to an Ivy League school too. I also went to a SUNY school instead. But I've been pretty successful anyway. To me, Ivy League schools seemed like this holy grail of achievement, but I've met plenty of Ivy League grads who are at the same place in their careers and I've realized it's not really a ticket to anything, as impressive as it may sound. I don't think you can live with that sort of regret. And if you really want to, you can get an M.A. at Harvard. None of me and my siblings got help for college, even though I bet my dad could've afforded it. Instead, we will all be paying student loans well into our late 30s, which completely blows.

For what it's worth, I was raised in a home where the father was the breadwinner, mom didn't work, and he earned a comparable salary to what you described. We never had a swimming pool or a puppy growing up. We took vacations to places we could easily drive to, like Cooperstown NY - we weren't going to Europe or Disneyworld. My dad actually insisted we move to a nicer house, because I think he was never happy with what we had, and the neighborhood was full of mean, spoiled, snobby kids and was a miserable place to grow up in, quite frankly. The adults were just as bad. We eventually had to move out of the neighborhood, but only once our childhoods were wasted there. I would've rather stayed in our old neighborhood, even if the houses were smaller and older because we had friends there and people were neighborly. So, my point is, you don't know how things would've turned out if your mom decided to spend lavishly. You need to just let go of the regret of something that is a) hypothetical b) isn't your fault. As long as you weren't unhappy growing up, who cares if you had meager material possessions?

And if you suspect your mom was stingy on your childhoods so she could buy Persian rugs once you grew up, I think that sounds ridiculously far-fetched, but you could just ask her about it. Tell her how you feel if you think she was deliberately abusive. Although, I would really seek guidance for your therapist on that. Regardless, trying to figure out what you missed out on (and automatically assuming you did indeed miss out on something) really isn't constructive at all.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:26 AM on January 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

normal expectations in middle-class American kids: Barbie's Dream House, cars to drive in our teens, financial contributions to our weddings.

To second what's been said elsewhere: these are not normal expectations for middle-class kids. They are normal expectations for upper middle-class kids.

The point to my above answer is that the mere fact that your mother was an anesthesiologist does not mean that she could afford an upper-middle class lifestyle when you were kids.

Were you ever worried about where your next meal would come from? About whether you'd be able to make rent this month? Did you ever get notices that your utilities would be cut off if you didn't pay?

If the answer to those questions is "No," then you were middle-class, not poor. A depressingly large chunk of the country answers "Yes" to at least one of those questions.
posted by valkyryn at 9:32 AM on January 19, 2013 [40 favorites]

Given that your parents split in 1988, I think it's relevant to mention Black Monday, a stock market crash in 1987. That crash wiped out the college savings my grandparents started for me as a kid and which my dad managed. My sister graduated, pre-crash, in 1985 and went to an expensive (at the time) private college. I graduated from high school in 1991 and went to a state school that I loved, but the discussions in our family made it clear that, if the crash hadn't happened, my dad could have afforded a much more expensive college.

So I do wonder if the combination of divorce following that crash might have made you all more financially vulnerable than you realize.

Also, in my upper-middle class suburb, the rich kid I was friends with had a cook who made them dinner. This seemed incredibly fancy to my friends and me at the time. Live-in domestic help would have seemed exotic and like the provenance of only the wealthiest of elites.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:37 AM on January 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

I did not grow up economically privileged but I had friends whose parents were doctors, lawyers, college professors, etc. The only person I know who was flat out given a (used) car to her by her parents was the spoiled daughter of accountants who went bankrupt in a big way. (They had the largest, fanciest house of anyone I knew but had to downgrade to a very small apartment after the bankruptcy.) And this was in Los Angeles where everyone drives! All the other upper middle class kids I knew had to share a car with their family. (But the family would have a car for each of the parents, and then maybe a 3rd beater for the kids.) Or they used earnings from a job to pay for a beater. For me, in a family with substantially less means, I did not use my earnings for a car -- I saved it all for college. So perhaps that's a difference there - knowing you can use your high school job earnings for a "want" rather than a "need."

Another issue to keep in mind when trying to guesstimate your mother's true financial standing during those years is the debt load. It probably goes without saying that your mother had medical school debt. Hard to say how much, but it could be quite, quite high, especially if she and your father were living on borrowed money all the way through school. You say that she owed your father $100k after the divorce. Then, if she is part of a medical partnership, she had to pay money to buy her way into the partnership. (Plus all the business issues explained by valkryn above.) So she may have been servicing at least $300k in debt before you even get into a mortgage or a car. That is a lot of debt to cover before you get to something as basic as housing and means to get to one's job.

An accountant friend of mine once said that you never really know how much money people have. You just can't tell, sometimes not even from the inside. I know people who had much less who did way more for their kids - being an involved, caring, thoughtful parent counts for way more than a car. It's possible that even if your mother loosened the purse strings you still would not have gotten those extras - she might not have taken the time to get you enrolled in extra-curriculars, navigate you through the college admissions process, and so forth. And some of the richer kids I know, who had both the "extras" and the attentive, upper-middle-class parents, still graduated with sizeable student loans, so, you never know ...
posted by stowaway at 9:43 AM on January 19, 2013 [10 favorites]

I grew up in a single-parent household in the US. My father was a psychiatrist. Our income placed us in the upper middle class.

My father's car was a 1984 VW rabbit, which he kept until his death in 2001. Our clothes were mostly from Wal-Mart, occasionally Marshall's; when my siblings and I got older, we'd go shopping at Goodwill to score more interesting stuff to wear. I did not have a Barbie dream house. I had an active imagination; my siblings and peers and I would mostly play outdoors and with our friends, or with stuff we appropriated as toys. I went to a public school. I had friends with cool, expensive toys and gear that I'd play with while I was visiting them, but we had none of that at home. We did not have a TV, though this was by my father's choice: he thought it was bad for intellectual development. We didn't go out to eat often; we ate mostly boxed, processed stuff like Hamburger Helper or Kraft Mac-and-Cheese with bologna sandwiches until I learned to cook at about 11- 12, at which point we started eating much more interesting and healthy stuff, and more whole foods.

One of my siblings and I had piano lessons because one of my father's patients, a pianist, offered to pay for treatment by giving us lessons. I don't think my dad would've sprung for piano lessons otherwise, but I'm grateful. I still play. My first car was a $1000 beater that I bought with money I'd saved from my restaurant job. It was a horrible car. I drove it for 6 more years, all the way through college.

We kids always had access to our father's books, but we got our own books from the library. We were encouraged to read, write, and study hard, but we were expected to be financially responsible for our own higher education. As an undergraduate, I went to a small liberal arts school on a merit-based scholarship. I'd had my eye on an Ivy League school, and applied, but the financial aid I was offered was not enough to make it affordable for me. I had a great time at college, met amazing professors and peers, graduated with no significant student debt.

My dad was a first-generation American, the child of immigrants, and his culture and his parent's values were a big influence in his own financial priorities and habits.

Since Dad died of a terminal illness after long, expensive hospitalization, we never got to the point where were saw him spending money on featherbeds and cruises, but I don't really spend much time wondering what he (or we kids) would've done with all the money he'd saved had we not spent it on nursing care. Doesn't really change anything, doesn't lead me to anyplace good.

To reiterate what jbenben said upthread: There is no "normal." Live your life, learn from your experiences, make your choices based on what you value now.
posted by Spinneret at 9:47 AM on January 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

(When I found out in my late 20s about things like need-blind admissions programs, I cried and cried.)

Unless you'd gotten yourself declared an emancipated minor, the need-blind thing is a red herring, because your mother's income (and whatever your father could have contributed) would have been factored into what the school would charge. I was raised in a single-parent home; my mom was an administrative assistant, and the need-blind aspect came in really handy for us. But my friends in my public high school in a wealthy town - whose parents were doctors and lawyers and full profs at places like MIT and Harvard - paid way more in tuition because their family incomes made them ineligible for most need-blind policies.
posted by rtha at 9:48 AM on January 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

I was a lawyer's kid, not a doctor's, but I knew plenty of families matching that description, and lifestyles varied a lot depending on the personalities, priorities, and location.

My cousins shared bedrooms with siblings, went to public high schools and universities, and didn't have their own cars. But the family lived in an upscale suburb with excellent schools, built a nice addition onto the house, had a vacation home, and threw a huge downtown wedding for the oldest daughter. I think getting med school debt paid off made a difference. Other kids I went to school with lived in small midwestern towns, but went to boarding school and private colleges, with cars ranging from beaters to Lexuses. Most everyone wore clothes from regular mall stores; some got generous allowances and others were expected to work part-time jobs as soon as they were old enough.
posted by songs about trains at 9:57 AM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I come from a long line of tight-fisted rich people. I was a teenager in the 1990s. At the time I thought they were all nuts. Down the line I see that most rich people get that way BY being tight-fisted.

Here's one example that says it all. I hope it's the kind of anecdata you're looking for.

My first car was a white Jaguar XJ6. 1984. My mother bought it (new) after she made her first really big real estate deal. I remember the day, in first grade, she drove up in the line to pick me up from school. Looking back, it is I think the only new car she's bought to date. Before that, driving her late mother's station wagon, when I was a very little girl, she would tell me, "someday, skbw, we'll have a car with a TAPE DECK, which is a tape recorder, in the console." Mama, what's a console? Do they have a car with a record player?

By the time I was 16, 17, able to drive to school, she had bought another Jaguar (used; remember, these are tight rich people) for her and my stepfather to drive. The '84 was certainly not MY car (bears repeating: certainly not MY CAR), but as nutty as she was and is about many things, she understood that driving to school is a BIG DEAL and let me drive it.

Ever drive a 10-year-old Jaguar? Even well-maintained? It died ALL THE TIME. It died on the freeway going 70 mph. It died on side streets. It died on giant multilane boulevard-type 40 mph streets with no rules but with traffic lights. This problem could not be fixed. God, this was a beautiful car. James Bond type. It was an automatic, but I remember the noise it made as it prepared to shift.

Buying a new car was totally out of the question (obviously there was no money just to buy another car for no does not mean extra money). Driving my mother's much newer car was out of the question because she was using it running around making a living. (My dad would sometimes let me drive his company Chevy Astro van to the store...his advice: "If you wreck it, just head for Laredo, don't come home, I'll send you money.") I was of course free to have Mom herself drive me to school at a time convenient for her. But if I wanted to drive a car, the car that died was the option of record.

Mom's advice? Drive in the right lane.

She didn't support herself with no husband and no parents by declining to be a hardass. And it was her that made me the hardass I am today. (I grant you, a hardass with a sick fear of driving.)

My private schoolmates (I had a full merit scholarship, as it happens) were of 3 kinds.

The middle class did not have cars.

Plenty of people, way, way out of our household league, had really nice new cars as presents for their 16th birthday.

Families more or less like mine usually bought their kids a late-model used car (like a 5- to 10-year-old Honda Accord) to be shared among siblings. Now, listen, Mom certainly COULD have bought me a used Honda Accord, but that wasn't her way. We HAVE an extra car for you.

Regarding vacations, I say it with affection, don't make me laugh. As I have mentioned elsehwere here, my parents ran (continue to run) a store. There is no going away from a store. We went to New York once in the Reagan Eighties, when I was 5 and we thought it was something we would be able to do every couple of years. This was a pure pleasure trip. Then at 16 we went to Santa Fe (most of the trip could be legitimately written off for business). That's 2 in 18 years.

I had friends, usually the Honda Accord group above, who went skiing or to Disney World almost every year. My mother laughed at these people.
posted by skbw at 9:59 AM on January 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

I'll also add, after reading through your question a lot more closely, that I think you have inflated expectations of what doctors' kids have access to (I didn't have swank clothes or barbie's dreamhouse or a big screen TV or attend an Ivy League university, and I had an inherited used car as a teenager), as well as the amount of money your mother likely made (in my understanding anesthesiologists aren't specialists on the level of otolaryngologists).

I also definitely get your resentment of your mother's perceived freedom with money now that you're grown, but it doesn't sound like she's spending all that much more. You said she used to take you on cruises, now she takes friends. What was she supposed to do, just die after you aged out of family vacations? You mention things like persian rugs and featherbeds -- you realize these things aren't really all that expensive, right? I mean she's not buying sports cars or race horses.
posted by Sara C. at 10:02 AM on January 19, 2013 [24 favorites]

Here's a P.S.--and I hope my comment above makes clear that I have a pretty good idea of where you're coming from. As an adult, living on the East Coast, living among a different ethnic and cultural group than my family of origin, decades later, I see a lot of families where the kids' wants and (legitimate) emotional needs have an impact on family spending decisions. It sounds dumb, but a couch is a big purchase. I can't even IMAGINE my mother being swayed by my opinion on a new couch.

It was different at home. "Everything in this house is mine, you have my permission to use it, I worked, I bought it, I paid for it, when you grow up and work, you can buy what YOU want." In (let's say) 1990, I am sure that most "normal American families" took this attitude as an article of faith. Times have changed, at least on the surface, especially among progressive types, but my mom was FAR from the only parent with this attitude.

I actually shocked a kid I babysit for by telling him offhand, "no, that is NOT your chair, you're not allowed to turn it over, Daddy worked hard to get money to buy it, it belongs to him." And this is not a bad kid...just a different generation.
posted by skbw at 10:12 AM on January 19, 2013 [8 favorites]

A live-in nanny/housekeeper might make between $30-50k (and way, way more in certain areas). If your mother made closer to $100k than $200k (and don't forget taxes), then it's plausible that she could not afford three college educations. That doesn't defend her behavior (frugality does not preclude kindness) but might bring you a little peace.
posted by acidic at 10:18 AM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know your mom, but I know that $100k in debt in the late 80s was nothing to laugh off, especially if you were newly responsible for singlehandedly supporting 3 kids. It sounds to me like that first decade after the divorce would have been extremely hard on a single mom, financially, and after that she might have started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel on her debt.

I graduated high school in the late 80s and our family of 5 lived on something between 30 and 45 thousand per year -- not a lot -- but my parents sent all 3 of us to the local highly regarded private school, on scholarships, we had various beater cars to drive to school (the cars rotated out as they died and my dad got another one, so there was lots of variety to our crap cars, which was fun!), and we didn't have to beg for clothes, though often my mom made mine which led to teasing at school by the rich kids which wasn't easy but built character, really. I had summer jobs through most of high school and two summer jobs through most of college, plus work study jobs during the school year through high school and college, which were all good experience in realizing what life would be like if I got out of school with no differentiating skills. I did go to an ivy league school on the need blind admission policy, but we really were pretty poor, and even with the help I graduated with debt. We told occasional car trip vacations where we stayed at cheap hotels and ate at diners and got carsick, but they were pretty fun. We never had birthday parties and my mom could never send us to other kids' birthday parties because we couldn't afford to come with a gift.

So, we were alot poorer than you, but I got alot of things you did not, like the private school education. But our family unit was intact and didn't go through a divorce and giant debt-paying-off right before I went to college. And my parents did love us and encourage us and wanted to support us in succeeding, even if that meant alot of self-denial and sacrifice.

I do note that it does not sound like your mom was living high off the hog while you all were being denied clothes and toys -- it sounds like she was putting herself through the same deprivation diet that she had on the menu for you all. So maybe your money situation was tougher than you are imagining it was as you look back. I don't know though. I have read that in general the standard of living is much tougher financially for divorced women living with kids than for divorced men, for what it's worth. Anyway, good luck in getting over this.
posted by onlyconnect at 10:26 AM on January 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

(When I found out in my late 20s about things like need-blind admissions programs, I cried and cried.)

Need-blind doesn't mean "free" (or even, "meets 100% of need"). It means they make admissions decisions without regard to ability to pay (so they're theoretically not more likely to admit a rich kid than a poor kid).

In the mid 90s, I was accepted at all of my first-choice (private, $30k/yr) colleges, but I went to state school because they gave me a full merit scholarship. I was given no financial aid of any sort at any of the private schools due to my (divorced, legally-custodial but hadn't seen him in years) father's income. My father refused to pay for college, since he felt it was fine for me to go to the (well-regarded) state school*. If your mother made as much as my father did (somewhere between $100k and $200k at the time, best guess), it was entirely at her discretion whether she would help with the cost, and you might've been considered to have no need, as I was, which meant no financial aid. So there's not a lot of reason to think you could've done something differently at the time (without going down the 'independent student for the FAFSA' route, which is difficult).

*It was fine, life is fine, but I was *really* angry at the time, oh yes: 'why did I bother with the 9+ classes/year in high school and 4.0 GPA and 1580 SATs and 8 AP courses etc. etc. if I was just going to have to go to the state school with all the BAD students anyway'? It wasn't (completely) true, and I actually got a really good education (and had the good fortune to attend the women's college of The State University of My State, which really made a difference for me.) But name recognition-wise, my Ivy MA still opens a lot more doors than my state school BA, which is silly but true.
posted by lysimache at 10:32 AM on January 19, 2013

It's not that unusual for high income people to live way, way below their means in an effort to achieve financial independence. You might want to take a look at "the millionnaire next door". It goes into a lot of detail about this whole class of very wealthy people who choose to drive old used cars, shop at thrift stores, live in very modest houses, not buy their kids expensive toys, not go on vacations, etc.
posted by steinwald at 10:43 AM on January 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

For a long time, I didn't understand what my dad did. I was told he was a dentist but he worked at s school. I eventually understood that he was a professor at a dental school. My mom stayed at home. My dad seemed to work all the time, including travel to conferences and meetings. It's hard to know how much he actually traveled but I remember watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles and thinking that Steve Martin's character was like my dad.

We had a nice house, though with four bedrooms and four kids, I always shared a bedroom. We all went to Catholic school, which is not the same as private school. In the area where we grew up, it seemed like half of the kids went to Catholic school. It's not cheap but it's not very expensive - the Diocese subsidizes it and you get a break on tuition if you have siblings in the same school. We all went to SUNY schools.

Vacations were to Cape Cod, which I didn't realize was fancy until years ago. We weren't hanging out on yachts - more like, sharing bunk beds, sleeping bags and pull out couches with my cousins. We played Sorry and Uno, ate pizza and sandwiches and went to the beach every day. It was wonderful and we usually spent two weeks there every summer. We went to Disney World once when my father had a meeting in Orlando. He couldn't join us for any of the rides.

I had hand me downs but my mother loved shopping and trying to find deals on clothes. She loved TJ Maxx. My sisters played piano and sang. My brother and I did karate. We had bikes and Nintendo and books and toys. But we also did a lot of volunteering in Catholic school and constantly had canned food drives or toiletry drives for poor people nearby. Our classes sang holiday songs for people in nursing homes. We volunteered at a local soup kitchen and Head Start program.

I was jealous of my cousins because they got cars from their parents and their parents paid for them to go to private college. Seriously I think their parents help them with their mortgages. I'm not jealous anymore because I think my cousins will have a hard time when my aunt and uncle get sick. And of course, they're family and I love them to pieces. I was jealous of my best friend in high school because her family took exotic trips regularly.

I know you're not asking my opinion so I'll keep it short - I don't think it's healthy to determine what specifically you think you should be resentful for. There are always going to be people who got a better deal in life than you - and worse. Focusing on how your mother wronged you is not going to help you get where you want to go. My mom dropped dead when I was 24. She wasn't perfect but I miss her and I wish I had the opportunity to spend more time with her. If you don't want to have a relationship with your mother, I understand but someday, that door will be closed forever so you should think seriously about how you'll feel when that day comes.
posted by kat518 at 10:54 AM on January 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

To add, my dad always told us he would pay our tuition for SUNY undergrad. After that, we were on our own. I got my first job when I was 16 and worked in high school and college. I never had anything like a housekeeper or nanny. I don't know anyone I grew up with who did.
posted by kat518 at 11:03 AM on January 19, 2013

Well we can work backwards from inflation. Currently:
The typical two-parent middle-income family spent $12,290 to $14,320 in 2011 on each child, the study found. Households that make less spend less, USDA researchers said. A family earning less than $59,410 a year will probably spend $169,080 in 2011 dollars to rear a child, while parents earning more than $102,870 may pay $389,670, according to the study.
Children are fairly expensive, though particularly now.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 11:09 AM on January 19, 2013

My mom is an ER doctor and my dad is an architect,and they did pretty well in the 90s (when I was a teen) - my dad had his own architectural practice in the boom construction years under Clinton. We had a really nice house, a purebred dog, took a lot of trips, I could take whatever extracurricular class I wanted to at whatever cost. My parents wanted me to go to state school because we lived in a state with excellent state schools, but I got a merit based scholarship to a private school that had programs I was interested in, so that was a compromise.

We definitely weren't handed BMWs or anything, but that was mostly because they didn't want to spoil us and they don't spend money that way. The main thing I take away from it now is that it wouldn't be too much hardship for them to help me out if I were in a bad spot, and they are well taken care of for all their old age stuff. I never felt like there was anything I would ask for that they would turn down for lack of money, more because they were always frugal. They were immigrants to the US and are just not super materialistic. They prioritized spending on education and trips, because trips can be a form of education. They are always yelling at me to save.
posted by sweetkid at 11:12 AM on January 19, 2013

I grew up in an upper-middle-class to upper-class neighborhood, and my parents both worked until Dad got laid off when I was 13 or so. (He got other work, but it was sporadic and much lower-paying. Still is. Mom's a private-practice therapist, not as well-compensated as an anesthesiologist for sure, but she makes decent money.) We had a lot of the advantages of growing up in a really nice area - great public schools, lovely parks, fantastic class field trips - but I bought my own beater at 17 with only minor assistance from my parents (they paid my insurance.) We weren't super frugal, but we did not go on expensive vacations, ever, and didn't get Barbie Dream House-level toys or designer clothes or anything. My classmates all generally did, but I have since found out that much of that was classic 80s-era overspending, and a couple of the "rich kids" have seen their parents go bankrupt.

What was different was that there wasn't any panic about money. We had limits, and got told no, but my parents were prepared to take out loans or do whatever was necessary to put me through college, and there was never any food insecurity or worry about not having reasonable wardrobes or anything. It was a comfortable lifestyle, not a lavish one.

It definitely does sound like the problem with your upbringing was an emotional one more than a financial one, and that sucks. Getting perspective is probably not a bad idea.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:38 AM on January 19, 2013

I'm not a anaesthesiologist. But I am a single mom with a professional degree. Your mom might have taken on a position that paid a little less so that she wouldn't have had to be away as long or maybe because she couldn't handle those hours for other reasons. Maybe she had whopping student loans. She might have owed your dad $100k, but maybe she also had to buy him out of a house and pay alimony to him. Maybe they had other debt. She might have chosen to have an excellent nanny who cost (with inflation) $40k a year, once she paid overtime and benefits. Maybe your mom was paying $800-$1500 a month on therapy for her self. She might have had to pay for medical benefits. Malpractice insurance might have been a small fortune.

I'm making up numbers here. Let's say she was paying $1k to loans, $3k to dad, $3.5k to nanny, $1k to therapist, $800 to benefits and $2.5k to insurance/continuing ed/etc. That's almost $142k a year. Then maybe she was paying $2k for housing, $800 for transportation, $600 for groceries. And maybe she was trying to sock away $3k a month for retirement. That would more than wipe out a net income in the $250k range. (I'm using today's numbers.)

Now, that being said, some of those choices may still be ones of affluence. And it certainly sounds like your mom had some serious issues - some of the things you've shared sound like emotional abuse to me.

But it is possible that your mom really didn't have a lot of money left after she paid for all those things.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:38 AM on January 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

Did you get good medical and dental care?

All of these things are normal and not abusive:
pouring generic soap and shampoo into brand-name bottles and eking them out with water to make them go further; wearing two pairs of one-legged pantyhose rather than throwing away a pair with a run; driving the cheapest and most fuel-efficient cars on the market; vacationing only in campsites and youth hostels; obsessively monitoring the household's energy consumption; subscribing to endless personal finance magazines and newsletters like The Tightwad Gazette.
almost none of the trappings of affluence: no fancy house, no fancy car, no satellite dish, no swimming pool, no boat, no summer home, no private lessons, no heaps of toys, no swanky clothes, no big-screen or cable TV, no stereo system.
We were also expected to work throughout college in order to lighten the financial burden on her.

This is a luxury:
occasionally went on Caribbean cruises with me and/or the housekeeper
live-in housekeeper/nanny who functioned as her stay-at-home wife,

These things are unkind:
my mother was also very good at ... making us children feel like selfish, greedy, materialistic, lazy, sponging, expensive and bothersome drains on her hard-earned finances.
guilted into choosing colleges solely on the basis of their cheapness.
steered me firmly away from aspirations like [Ivy League]

There are things you may not know. Did she have to make a financial settlement to your Dad or pay off debt he incurred? Did she have to pay him alimony? Did *she* know about things like need-blind admissions programs? Did your Dad contribute to your financial well-being? Even if he had other kids, and wasn't a high-earner, he should have, and he could easily have understood that some nice clothes make a big difference in middle- and high- school, and have participated in your educational choices.

I grew up in a doctor's family when doctors made less and were taxed more. I wore hand-me-downs almost exclusively, and my Mom's frugalities were pretty similar. There were some luxuries, though I was definitely steered towards a less expense college. I consider that getting a college education with no debt is a heck of a gift. I got good medical and dental care.

I'm a single Mom, with a typical middle-class income, much lower when my son was young (thankfully, my Mom sent nice Christmas and birthday checks). His Dad paid no child support, and made minimal financial contributions. My son wore hand-me-downs in good years when they were contributed, thrift shop and sale clothes when not. We seldom went on vacations, lived in a nice apartment instead of a house, I drove a series of older used cars, and we ate frugally but well. Sometimes we didn't have health insurance. He always had a bike and a helmet, and I scrimped for him to be able to ski, because he loves it. I don't have any money for his college, and will make some contribution to his wedding. My son sometimes feels the way you do, that didn't get the lifestyle he should have. Now that he's on his own, he has a much better understanding of how expensive life can be, and how difficult single parenting can be.

She doesn't sound "pathologically miserly" to me; she sounds frugal and tight, but not pathologically so, and the narcissism isn't obvious from your description. She took you on vacations, even if they were affordable - that's an indication that she allocated her (expensive) time to you. I hope the housekeeper was caring. Your Mom doesn't sound affectionate or generous, and it sounds like you don't feel very loved. I think you will be happier if you look for good things in your childhood, recognize that you are still privileged by American standards and extremely privileged by global standards. Forgiving your Mom for not being generous may help you move forward.
posted by theora55 at 11:40 AM on January 19, 2013 [40 favorites]

My parents made six figures, had little debt (not even a mortgage) by the time I went to college. My childhood years were much, much leaner financially, but by the time I went to college, my folk had their careers and finances established.

My parents generously agreed to provide tuition to a state school because that's what they could pay for in cash. I could have gotten accepted anywhere, but they didn't want to take out loans for private school tuition. I went to a great state school and I've never regretted that. I worked at a McDonald's during school breaks to cover expenses. That worked great. I would work as a swing manager during the summer and holidays when other managers wanted vacation. Not a glamorous job, but it paid well enough and worked with my schedule.

I paid for my graduate and doctoral tuition without any help. My parents were clear that they would not pay for schooling past my undergraduate degree. That was the deal with both me and my sister. And it's far more than either of my parents recieved.

In terms of other expenses. My parents didn't buy me a car (though I did receive help from my grandparents to purchase my first car). My parents did carry me on their insurance as long as possible. They would have always helped if I asked for money, but I don't think I did that ever after I turned 18. If I would have had a medical or car problem, they definitely would have helped me.

Honestly, I wasn't entitled to my parents paying for a college degree no matter how much money they had. I'm grateful that they were able and willing to provide that for me and my sister. More than that, my parents taught me to manage my money well, live within my means and use credit wisely.

It all comes around in the end. My parents paid what they could afford to pay cash. They continued paying into their retirement investments the entire time my sister and I were in school. Now as retirees they are nicely set and don't depend on their children for financial assistance.
posted by 26.2 at 12:20 PM on January 19, 2013

Because you identify education as being the main area where you feel cheated, please just remember that it was never owed you in the first place. I have a similar academic history, a great record in school at a "mediocre" public schood, strong intelligence, and some unusual achievements, and could have been Ivy bound, but we simply didn't have that kind of income and in those days there weren't the programs there are today for low-income students to get free rides. You might have "deserved" it but a lot of kids "deserve" it, based on their own personal merits, and very few get access to it. Sometimes that's because the money isn't there, and sometimes it's because the relationships aren't there. I'm not sure how much it matters in the end - you "have a life you love," which is the ultimate outcome anyway, and are in a career you seem to like. It would have been great to have those opportunities - for me too - but our life circumstances didn't present us with those options. I'm just a little concerned for you in getting caught up in a narrative where you were unfairly deprived of something you "should" have. Opportunities like that aren't a given for anyone.

I consider that getting a college education with no debt is a heck of a gift.

Absoolutely. What an incredible value and help you did receive - something many people will never have access to, despite wishing and deserving.
posted by Miko at 12:23 PM on January 19, 2013 [12 favorites]

I don't understand why you think that your mom buying rugs, now that all her kids are out of the house, is somehow an indicator that she should have been spending more on luxuries when you were a kid. She no longer has three kids living at home plus live-in help. Her cash flow is very different now.

There is a ton of info you do not have about what your lifestyle was costing, including her debt, what that live in help cost, how her investments did, what the costs of her practice were. Without this information (and lots more that neither you nor I can guess) no salary estimation is going to be meaningful.

It sounds to me like the big problem is not that you didn't have a Barbie Dream House (which, by the way, data point: I was a doctor's daughter too, and there is no way they would ever have gotten me something like this -- especially during the years that I was little and would have wanted it, my dad was just starting out then, and there was nothing like a budget for this sort of thing.) It sounds to me like the problem was her attitude; like if she'd said to you "I'm sorry I can't buy you this because it's just not in our budget, I wish we could afford it" rather than making you feel like she didn't want to share her money with you, that you wouldn't be asking this question.

Anyway, I agree with the consensus view above that your ideas about what material things you should have had as a kid are... not in line with my experience as a middle class kid in the 80s and an upper middle class one in the 90s.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:45 PM on January 19, 2013 [17 favorites]

I had another thought - the relative cost of consumer goods is another thing to consider when we're comparing upper-middle lifestyles of today to those of 20 or 30 years ago. Although some costs have drastically risen -- housing and education -- other things are much cheaper. Kid toys and clothes are a prime example of this - the vast majority of what American kids get today has been manufactured for pennies in China. Televisions, stereos, and gaming systems are also much cheaper. We have cell phones and tablets available to buy. That sort of visible consumption is more apparent to children than other things like mortgage and insurance costs. It can be an apples/oranges comparison if you are bringing in some of your assumptions from what you see today's upper middle class kids enjoy. I know you're trying to compare the correct years but maybe some of your ideas are being formed by what you see from today.

That said, I feel your pain. After I left home, my mother remarried. I came back for a week long visit to discover that she cooked dinner for my stepfather every single night. She hadn't regularly cooked dinner for me or my siblings since ... sheesh, I don't know when ... but we were responsible for our own dinners from a very young age. (And not in a rotating schedule but at least there's a hot meal every night way, but in a I ate nothing but toast and ramen, by myself, for years on end way.) It was so painful to see her make that effort for a better type of life, where the family regularly eats dinner together, for her husband. Many years on, I can see that she was able to do it because her husband persuaded her to take her much-needed medication. (But still, why couldn't she have gotten better for us?)

Money doesn't mitigate family craziness. It's just another avenue for the crazy to travel down.
posted by stowaway at 12:51 PM on January 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm a doctor myself, and I also grew up in a household where my mother was a doctor and I was a teenager in the 1990s. I know a little bit about the history of anesthesiology as a career as well.

- In my household, we took lots of camping vacations, vacations where we stayed with friends, and mostly vacations to our grandparents' houses. I didn't go on any vacations where we stayed at anything much fancier than a Days' Inn until I was in high school and later. I did not have a Barbie Dream House - I had some basic toys but I think my parents saw those kinds of toys as a waste of money/plastic crap. My mom gave us a clothing allowance based on what additional clothing items we needed, and we generally shopped at the Goodwill and Salvation Army (I still shop at thrift and consignment stores mostly, even though I could certainly afford to pay more, it seems ridiculous to pay what most retail stores charge after being used to such great prices!). We frequented yard sales. Our parents encouraged us to get jobs as soon as we turned 16, and I did work from that point onwards, including thru college. My parents did encourage me to look at the cost when applying to college, and so I attended one of the best deal universities that gave me a merit based scholarship. I have no regrets about it - in fact, I feel great about saving that money. And I thank my parents for teaching me the value of a dollar and the value of hard work. I think it has served me well in my adult life and I'm glad they didn't 'make it easy on me' - I saw too many people who graduated college with zero financial knowledge or ability to manage money because their parents always gave them whatever they needed.

- You should know this about anesthesiology, back in those times about 20 years ago, there was a big scare about anesthesia. The salaries totally tanked and nobody wanted to go into the field. The reason was that there was a large increase in the number of nurse anesthetists and all the talk in the news and on the streets was that the nurse anesthetists were going to take over the physicians' jobs and that we would not really need anesthesiologists anymore. That certainly could have been part of what frightened your mother, especially as the breadwinner for your family, thinking that she was on the verge of losing her job because anesthesiologists were becoming irrelevant. As it turns out, all the doomsday talk was not true, and the value of having a physician anesthesiologist care for you during surgery was recognized, and the limits of what nurse anesthetists could safely do without close supervision were realized as well. But in the anesthesia department at my med school, there was literally a guy who was a dentist previously and they recruited him as an anesthesiologist at that time because they could not get anyone else to take anesthesia jobs, which people thought at the time were a dead end proposition.

- I also should mention that most personal finance experts advise never to prioritize your children's college tuition over your own retirement savings, because your children will be able to get things like loans and scholarships to finance college (not only that, but studies suggest that children whose parents contribute more to their childrens' college educations get worse grades in college), whereas you cannot get loans or scholarships for your retirement. I personally have the philosophy that no one should expect their parents to pay for their college education, and I would encourage my own children to attend public universities because I think that Ivy Leagues are all hype and you can get a great and much more reasonably priced education at many other schools. That's partially how my parents raised me ("get a good deal!") and partially based on my own observation, having been through med school and working at places which are both Ivy League "level" and other high quality schools.

- In short, I think it was more your mom's attitudes and treatment of you on an interpersonal level that caused the anger and resentment here, not the actual material purchases she made for you or the lifestyle you lived. But, you have a therapist, and that is just an opinion from a stranger on the internet.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 1:45 PM on January 19, 2013 [22 favorites]

While I agree with those who say there are other issues here than how much your mother made, it just so happens that I am am anesthesiologist and I finished residency in 1993, so I can give you some reasonably factual information. First off, was your mother still in residency training during part of your childhood? If so, her salary was probably in the $30,000-$50,000 range during that time. Certainly a livable salary but not one that affords a lot of extravagance. If she was in practice there would have been a lot of variation in her salary. For full-time work $100,000 would have been the lower end. Maybe less if she were in an academic center or if she had a job that was part-time or did not involve taking call or working on weekends. On the other extreme I know of one anesthesiologist about that time that wanted to earn some extra money so he got a job with a very busy private practice group and then volunteered to take call almost every other night for extra money and ended up earning nearly $800,000. That is an outlier, though; I would guess most anesthesiologists in the 1990s earned between $150,000 and $250,000, with a good bit of variation in either direction. Given that there is still a gender gap in physician pay, it seems possible that your mother could have been at the lower end of the scale. The live in housekeeper was certainly not cheap, but may have been necessary in order for her to meet the demands of her job; i.e. childcare on a moment's notice in the middle of the night if you are on call and that sort of thing. Student loans could also take a chunk out of her salary, as could an expensive divorce. If she was older when she started her career (or if she took time off for marriage and children) she may have wanted to save for retirement very aggressively in the limited time she would be earning a lot. I have seen physicians in all of these situations; sometimes more than one at the same time. The bottom line in terms of salary is that she may have been much better off than she let on, but on the other hand it is entirely possible that your lifestyle accurately reflected the cash flow coming into the house.
posted by TedW at 1:48 PM on January 19, 2013 [16 favorites]

Perhaps she was saving for her early retirement. If she's in her early 60s for instance, she will need to plan for at least 30 years of living expenses. Maybe she wanted to save enough money for her retirement so she doesn't have to rely on her kids when she becomes frail or needs home care.

Having money doesn't necessarily mean her life was easy. Maybe she didn't want to work as hard as she ended up working. Maybe she wanted to enjoy things outside of work, but couldn't because of the divorce. Maybe she sees early retirement as a way to enjoy her life more.

Guilt tripping you or groveling over buying you a winter coat is a bit over the top. She's only human though, working long hours, and trying to raise three kids would fray the nerves of lots of people. Almost everything else sounds reasonable (except the soap thing, which sounds bizarre). I wonder if you're equating having your mom spend money on you as showing you that she loves you? It's easy to confuse the two, but I they most definitely aren't the same.
posted by parakeetdog at 2:09 PM on January 19, 2013

address the OP's question about "what's normal" - specifically, what were some material benchmarks of a normal upper middle-class lifestyle for a US teenager in the 1990s.

I can answer this precise question, and I will answer it directly, without the sort of moralizing that we are seeing in this thread a lot. My parents didn't start out with a lot of money. They were both first generation college students, but my father had a high powered profession which had a very high salary, and once he made partner and his loans were paid off, we were quite comfortable.

I should mention at first that my parents are both very frugal. There were no luxury cars (dad drove Fords, mom drove Volvos. My dad's "big extravagance" was when he bought an Acura in his mid-40s which he put 30,000 miles/yr on). No one had expensive jewelry, watches, country club memberships, or designer clothes. If we were "nicely dressed", it was in terms of, "this is how you must dress appropriately for church or other events so you will look like a middle class person." "Used clothes" were not a thing because in my parents' essential middle class-ness, used clothes were considered a sign of poverty (when my father asked me about a nice overcoat I was wearing in grad school, and I said that I got it at a used clothing store, he looked concerned and asked, "Are you doing ok financially? Do you need money?").

There was a single family computer which would cost, in the early 90s, about $1000. We did not have a modern gaming system (we had an Atari 2600 in the 80s) because this was considered wasteful. Cable TV was considered a novelty by my practical-minded parents, but eventually they buckled and sprung for basic cable in the late 80s.

How it worked was that, "if money was needed for something, it was there." Maybe once a week or so we would go out to eat at a "family dining" restaurant. on special occasions, we would go out to a "nice restaurant." If my brother and I had February vacation for a week, my parents would take a vacation, load us into the car, and drive 5 hours to a ski vacation for a week, and they will pay for skiing lessons to make sure we don't kill ourselves. For the summer, we would pick a place either a short flight away or a long drive, rent a house for a week, and go. If there was a summer enrichment program at a boarding school, it was not considered an issue to write a check to pay the cost-- after all, it was "for the children's betterment." Similar with church affiliated camps or camps abroad for Americans like us of ethnic descent from that foreign country. The cost wasn't a factor-- it is not as though they would have said "price is no object", but certain services had a cost, and if it was reasonable, the money was there. My parents would use this leverage to drive harder bargains with the orthodontist for my sister's braces, offering to pay in cash if it could get her a 10%-20% discount.

If my mom had a business conference in an interesting city (domestic or European) that coincided with my school vacation, my parents would make a family vacation out of it. Buying a new car for their teenage child would have been considered extravagant, but finding a dependable used car for $4000 was something that could be done when needed. The money was "there", it was just a matter of when and where to spend it and whether it was an effective use of one's money. Not contributing towards a significant portion of their child's wedding would have been considered somewhat of an embarrassment.

College tuition was something my parents stressed over, but when the time came, it was just "there." "Need blind" admissions would have worked against you because your family had no "need" back in the 90s (tuition, room, and board being $25k/yr at an Ivy League school at that time). We were expected to go to a top tier school if we could get accepted, because that opened more doors to upper middle class professions and because you were expected to achieve at the highest level of your potential (eg, "why attend a school ranked #50 if you are accepted to a school ranked #5?"). I did not have any loans from undergrad. If I had wanted to go to med school or law school, they would have paid for it (though for med school, my parents would have pointed out the financial utility of attending a state school).

My father suspects he has a mediocre credit score because he is very busy and somewhat disorganized, meaning that bills have been known to get paid late rather regularly. He joked, "who cares what my credit score is? It's not like I am going to need a loan for anything"-- there is no mortgage on the house, and their $20k cars are paid for in cash.

This experience was pretty much in line with that of most of my peers in high school whose parents were of similar background-- parents who were doctors, lawyers, etc. In retrospect, how I realize it worked was that what most middle class families borrow money for (tuition, cars, houses, extensive dental work) our families all paid for in cash-- credit card debt was not a "thing", either.

There were some families in the same "class" who lived more luxurious lifestyles, but those tended to be financed with debt (VERY large mortgages, for example), which meant that things that in my family the money was "just there" for (tuition, cars, vacations), their families couldn't afford and/or were much more stressed out about.

I will say that in the northeast, things have shifted a bit because professionals in the financial industry make so much money now that it swamps the salaries of the workaday private practice lawyers and doctors. Private school tuition for high school, standard in the 90s among the "entry level upper middle class" set is considered something to be avoided, if possible. The real estate bubble didn't "pop" as dramatically in the northeast, if at all, so possibly that class is more heavily mortgaged now than they would have been 20 years ago. But what I described was my experience back then.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 4:21 PM on January 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think there is a big variation in how people spend money, at all income levels. My family was middle income, working class, but I did have a Barbie Dream House and never wore hand-me-down clothes. We never took a vacation that didn't involve long car rides, a tent trailer and one--and only one--night in a motel, but we ate out every Friday night. I went on an exchange programme when I was a teenager (and split the cost of my airfare with my parents) but I paid for my entire post-secondary education myself and graduated with $50K+ in student loans that took 15 years to pay off.

Since my parents retirement, they have been on a couple cruises, travelled to Europe three times (all in the past 10 years, I moved out 22 years ago), and recently re-did their kitchen and family room.

FWIW, I had a few friends with doctor/lawyer parents (this was in the latter half of the 80s) and every single one of them went to public school (in Canada) and public post-secondary, none of them had cars, and no one had a live-in nanny/maid/helper. One friend's family travelled fairly extensively, but that's partly because the dad was Australian. The kind of moneyed upper-class you are describing literally did not exist where I grew up.
posted by looli at 4:32 PM on January 19, 2013

(Unless people are using Barbie's dream house metaphorically? In which case, no, we lived in a 3 bedroom bungalow.)
posted by looli at 4:35 PM on January 19, 2013

I'm the child of 2 artists who were wonderful parents; my husband is the child of 2 doctors (also wonderful parents). We grew up in the 90s. Here's some data for you.

Me: definitely used cheapest possible soap and all other home products
Him: home products not "luxury" but always very nice, no skimping

Me: hand-me-down and 2nd hand clothes my entire childhood except for occasional special new outfits for holidays
Him: his parents bought him high-quality but unexciting clothing; he couldn't have cared less what he wore

Me: family of 4 had one car for many years, eventually 2, but they were old and very second-hand and had no extra features (not even electric locks or windows); I definitely did not have a car in high school or college
Him: family had 2 sensible cars (think Honda Civic) which they drove for 10+ years; he was allowed to use the oldest car during high school, sometimes

Me: family vacationed only by camping or a night in a B&B once every couple of years; vacations very infrequent but family time was plentiful (TONS of hikes/nature walks)
Him: family took relatively frequent vacations to beautiful natural locations and stayed in modest accommodations, but never went for the cheapest possible place

Me: family aware of energy consumption for financial and ecological reasons but no draconian monitoring
Him: family aware of energy consumption for ecological reasons, definitely no monitoring

Me: family somewhat tense about money issues due to actual lack, but open about learning to have a balance between frugality and "tightwadism"
Him: family generous and giving, no anxiety about money, ever. In my opinion this is the absolute #1 gift that having money gives: never worrying about money.

Me: very modest house, old cars, no satellite, no pool, no boat, no summer home, no swanky clothes (yard sale/thrift/hand-me-down only), no TV of any kind, no nanny or housekeeper, no heaps of toys.
Him: beautiful mid-sized home, custom built, not ostentatious but comfortable, basic cable TV, no pool, no boat, no summer home, no swanky clothes (think The Gap and LL Bean), and I think a housekeeper came once per week for a couple hours, no heaps of toys.

Me: private violin lessons from age 5-18, was given an expensive violin when I was 16, had various other extracurricular activities that cost modest sums. I went to an expensive summer music school, for which I received some financial aid.
Him: private violin lessons from age 5-18, also given an expensive violin when he was 16, various extracurricular activities. Went to same summer music school (no aid).

Me: no fancy toys. DEFINITELY no Barbie Dream House or anything similar - such materialism was actively and expressly discouraged with long discussions about what truly matters in life, etc. We had bikes, blocks, art supplies, tons of books, and costumes. That sort of thing.
Him: same story.

Me: my family did not contribute financially to our wedding.
Him: his family paid for it.

Me: my family saved carefully to help pay for my college education. I went to a top-5 school that paid most of my tuition for me thanks to need-based aid. My parents paid what they could. I was expected to work full-time during summers and part-time during the school year to pay for my own housing/food. After college my parents very crystal clear that I would receive absolutely no more financial support. They love to have us visit and treat us to a nice lunch and give small gifts, but don't have the resources to be lavish.
Him: his family paid for his college eduction. They were ready to pay for any amount of education he wanted, through medical school. Nevertheless, he was expected to work during high school and college anyway (saved the money). His parents love to give nice gifts and are remarkably good at not leaving any strings attached.

Me: public school through high school
Him: private elementary school, then public high school

Both of us grew up feeling loved and secure. If my family had had more money, we might have lived in a nicer house (maybe one with a guest room or more than 1 floor), and I'm certain my parents would have loved to send us to a private school. We probably would have been able to take regular vacations. They did not aspire to a fancy TV, a pool, fancier cars, "luxury" items, or any other trappings of affluence - they viewed those things as meaningless.
posted by Cygnet at 5:01 PM on January 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

As far as toys-- the issue was that our parents didn't want us to be spoiled. Certainly they could have afforded getting us the financial equivalent of Barbie's Dream House, but they likely wouldn't do it randomly. I'm sure if we asked for something like that for Christmas (looks like it costs $130, now. Not sure what it cost 20 years ago-- let's say the equivalent of a mass-market entry level model train set), they would have relented. Something like a model train set or a bicycle was a fairly standard Christmas gift.

The thing is that unless you make, say, $1 million/yr, everyone worries about money and needs to budget. It is why you see those whiny, "You don't understand how hard it is for a family of 4 living on $400k/yr to get by if our taxes go up!" Op Ed columns. Only the truly independently wealthy tycoons don't have to worry about how much stuff costs. For everyone else, money spent on expense X means less money to save or spend on Y.

I will second the suggestion of "The Millionaire Next Door" that steinwald mentioned, but for different reasons-- it captures how the "saver" upper middle class prioritizes their spending, and that will give you an idea about how they live. It is very much in line with what Cygnet describes her husband growing up in: "frugal" and practical -- neither extravagant nor making everyone suffer with their penny pinching.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 5:12 PM on January 19, 2013

In the article "Amber Waves of Green", Jon Ronson looks at families at different income levels, doubling each step, from $200/week to $625,000/week. It gives you an idea of what people's lifestyles are like for the given salary, from minimum wage worker to tycoon.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 5:40 PM on January 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Agree with mentioned above- it's difficult to estimate your mother's salary without knowing the type and location of the practice. Remember this was 20 years ago- I'd estimate it was probably between $100 and $300K per year, with debt payments and a full-time nanny salary coming out of this. Was your mother selfish and a tightwad? Yes. Nevertheless, your life sounds pretty typical for middle/upper middle class US in the 90s. My parents were a scientist and a college professor, and my siblings and I went to public school, worked part-time jobs all through high school and college, never had our own cars, or any luxury items or brand name anything. Luckily, they were very savvy and encouraging about college, so we went to good universities on a combination of grants, student loans, their own contribution, and our own money- so I can see why you feel like you were shafted in that area. However, the rest of your upbringing sounds typical upper-middle class to me. Or borderline upper class, since upper-middle class people in the 90s didn't have nannies or go on cruises.
posted by emd3737 at 6:52 PM on January 19, 2013

My parents earned about $100,000 combined during the 90s, but they had no accommodation expenses (the house came with the job, for free), no debt, and no live-in housekeeper, so I expect their expendable income was similar to your mother's, if not higher.

My mother was a spender, and my father was frugal, and my mother is kind of self-obsessed, perhaps narcissistic, so I guess they might not be a benchmark for "normal", if normal means "flawless".

But for what it's worth, here's what our lifestyle was like for my brother and me:

- we always had whatever clothes we wanted. My mother loves clothes shopping, and would try to persuade us to go out with her once a month or so and buy high-end designer label clothes. (I hated it, actually, and refused). Twice a year we had to go through all our clothes and get rid of anything that looked old, didn't fit right, or was falling out of fashion, and then shop for a whole new "summer wardrobe" or "winter wardrobe". My mother would have bought me whatever make up, handbags, shoes I wanted. Sadly for her I was a total tomboy.

- we had vacations every year, usually for a week or two weeks, often at the beach. But we stayed in motels rather than hotels, and we drove. We never travelled overseas.

- My parents funded one summer camp type thing for me once. Otherwise I paid for myself when I wanted to do that sort of thing. I had to save to go on a high school exchange, for example, with a part time weekend job for four years beforehand. But when I did manage to pay for it, they gave me $500 in spending money just before I left.

- Our house was always really nicely decorated. They'd buy new furniture every couple of years, replacing the lounge suite with something that better fitted in with the new wallpaper and curtains that they'd redecorate about that often. They would pay people to do painting/papering/making curtains, etc, rather than DIYing it.

- We always had at least one car, bought brand new, replaced every six or seven years. For most of the 90s we had two cars. I was allowed to drive one whenever I liked, but it was not "my" car. None of my stuff was considered "mine". I was not allowed to take furniture, paintings, or whatever from "my" room when I left home.

- We ate cheaply. Mainly because my Dad did the cooking and he was the frugal one. We ate out at restaurants maybe twice a year or so. We got takeaways about once a fortnight. My mother provided our school lunch food, which was pretty expensive stuff compared to what we ate the rest of the time, but what I'd consider junk food. Little single serve packets of cookies and chips, yoghurts, cheese dips with crackers, muesli bars, juice packs. There were always chocolate cookies, candy, chips and so on in the cupboard, but we were not allowed to eat it without asking permission. But we'd be given permission once a day or so. We were allowed to eat soda and juice whenever we liked. (But were only allowed the cheap white bread for snacks, and not allowed to drink a whole glass of milk, because brown bread and milk are expensive. WTF).

- We always had bicycles, bought new, and skateboards, and roller skates, and board games, footballs and kites and all that other sort of stuff. We'd get toys as gifts, but sometimes just because. If we went shopping with our parents, they'd usually get us a small toy or a treat like an ice cream.

- Doctors and dentist visits were regular, and there was never any quibbling about paying for them. I had braces when I needed them, and my parents took me to a few specialists for things that they probably could have let slide, like acne, or bad period pain. But they said health was more important than money. They paid privately for my tonsils to be taken out, so that we didn't have to wait the six months longer it would have taken in the state hospital system.

- We had pets: always dogs and cats, and no one ever complained about the cost of feeding them or vet bills. When I was really little I suddenly decided I wanted gold fish, and then as a teenager I wanted pet mice and later pet rats. We both wanted pet lambs when we were living in a rural community. Each time my parents agreed and paid for all the set up costs, e.g. for a good aquarium for the fish, for cages and tunnels and toys and things for the mice and rats.

- We had lessons. We were allowed to do one summer sport and one winter sport each, plus one other type of lesson, e.g. a musical instrument, dance, or art class. The music classes were private lessons; the others in a group. We weren't allowed to quit once we had chosen something, and we had to practice regularly. We got a lot of lectures about how expensive lessons were and how we had to make the most of them.

- We went to the ballet, the theatre or the opera once a year or so. We went to the circus when they came to town. We could go to the swimming pool or the movies whenever we liked, and were also given a bit of extra money for snacks. Whenever the ice cream van came past we would buy one.

- We went to state schools, but at age 13 we were asked if we wanted to transfer to a private school, even a boarding school. We chose not to.

- We got pocket money. In the 90s it was about $5 each per week. We weren't expected to use that for any necessities (or any of the above stuff like going to the movies, or on our pets). It wasn't dependent on doing chores.

- Whenever we went past a bookshop, we would go in and were usually allowed to choose a book or two. That meant we got new books a few times a month.

- My parents offered to pay for tuition costs for university, but in the end I got scholarships, so they didn't have to. My brother has had three unfinished degrees paid for him. For both of us, after the age of 18 we were expected to find a way to cover our own living expenses, though, so I worked 20 hours a week, and full time in the summers while I was at university. It never occurred to me that I could have applied to Ivy League type universities, or anything overseas.

- We got no financial support after age 18 at all - not even to pay for tickets to come home at Christmas. The first summer, I went back to my hometown to work, and my parents charged me a percentage of my earnings as rent. It worked out cheaper not to go back after that!
posted by lollusc at 7:09 PM on January 19, 2013

Another upper middle class nineties kid. Both of my parents worked full time at professional jobs, and my brother and I are close in age.

-We went to public school all the way through, K-12. No other option was ever presented, but I was never unhappy with that one.
-We both went to private colleges and were encouraged to choose the college of our choice, and our parents found a way to pay for it.
-We usually got new clothes once a year, at back to school time, frequently from factory outlets. Especially as younger kids, we wore hand-me-downs from cousins most of the time. As the youngest, I wore "boy" clothes from my brother and sometimes got teased for it, but it didn't really bother me to wear them.
-Our vacations were either to visit family or to a condo at the beach that belonged to extended family.
-My brother and I both participated in a lot of extra-curricular activities (music, scouting, and sports) and both did a couple of weeks of summer camp every year.
-We lived out in the country, a long way from anything, so once we turned 16 we each were each given in turn a 6+ year old used Ford Tempo for the purposes of getting ourselves to and from school and extra-curriculars. When we graduated from college, the (10 year old) car was our graduation gift. My parents both drove Fords that they had bought new.
-We had someone come clean the house for a few hours every other week.
-We didn't have cable television because we lived too far out in the boonies for it to reach us. Similarly, it was a drive to the movie theater, and so movies were a very occasional treat.
-My dad was into computers, as an electrical engineer, so we always had computers around the house and were allowed to use them for games and school work. We never had video game systems and such. We had dial-up CompuServe internet access when I was in high school.
-When in high school, we each got $20 a week to cover gas and school lunch. If we saved money on those, we could spend it on other things. Before that, we mostly relied on spending money we got as birthday or Christmas gifts, but we rarely had opportunities to spend it.
-Our house was old, but large and comfortable. My brother and I both had our own rooms and our own bathrooms.
-My mom cooked most of our meals. We sometimes went out to eat on Friday nights or Sunday lunch.
-My parents had an annual subscription to the symphony and would sometimes take us to concerts and plays. We were members of the local science museum and went fairly often. We were very involved in church activities and local charities and community activities.

I never felt deprived. I can remember very few things that I wanted that I didn't get, but I don't think my wants were ever very fancy, except that I always wanted to learn to ski and that was not a sport in our family budget (we lived a long way from snow, for one thing). But I recognize that 21st century standards of kid-raising seem to be very different from the standards of my parents, who in turn were raised by parents who survived the Great Depression.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:09 AM on January 20, 2013

I was not in the same economic class as your family and I am a Brit, however, most of the upper-middle-class people I have mixed with would unquestioningly send their children to fee-paying schools. The flip side of this is that one friend, who had two siblings, ended up stranded at university at the end of term with no food and no money to travel home, because her freelance journalist father and pink-collar mother simply did not have even £5 to send her for a bus ticket. This was when tertiary education in the UK was paid for by the state, and the most her parents would have had to pay for was the living costs she herself couldn't cover. Mind you, I never heard of any of my other upper-middle-class friends being in such a situation - ever.

Of course these were people who were at a top university, at a time when there was de facto no provision for special needs, and all of them were intellectually above average. I don't know how it is in the US, but over here, a state school must accommodate a kid at least in theory, but a private school is under no de facto obligation to accommodate a child's behavioural difficulties and can simply kick out any kid that causes them problems. Depending on how results-oriented the school is, they might have no interest in pupils of average intelligence either. That would mean that your mother's real choice would have been to send just you to private school while your brother and sister went to normal school, and so I'm not sure that part of your story would have turned out differently.
posted by tel3path at 4:17 AM on January 20, 2013

The most upsetting aspect of my mother's stinginess was that it extended to a staunch unwillingness to spend money on our education. I was "the family genius" with effortless straight As, blisteringly high test scores and a passion for learning; my brother had emotional and behavioral difficulties if not a learning disability; my sister was an average student. All three of us floundered, bored out of our minds or struggling without help, through mediocre public schools, and were then brainwashed and guilted into choosing colleges solely on the basis of their cheapness. I would have given a limb to go to an Ivy League, but my mother steered me firmly away from aspirations like these, depicting them as total pipe dreams, and I wound up applying to only one school, a SUNY. (When I found out in my late 20s about things like need-blind admissions programs, I cried and cried.) We were also expected to work throughout college in order to lighten the financial burden on her.

One thing I haven't seen emphasized enough: college had become mind-blowingly expensive right when you were going, with a big jump which would have been quite recent, and middle-class people were largely priced out of the private colleges. And divorced, with three kids to support, your mother almost certainly did feel priced out. A lot of people your age came from families where going to Wesleyan or something was an expectation, and are still paying off crippling debts they ran up with their parents' encouragement. A variation of this happened to my partner. He came from a blue-collar family, and went to a middling commuter college and still got stuck with a lot of debt. Worst of both worlds. I get kind of mad at his parents when I think about it, and at his school guidance counselors too. And he carries some bitterness over it too.

But the whole thing about college in the US is, it's a mess. I mean look at all the threads on this site about student debt and people asking how to make it through college. As an adult, I moved to a middle class suburb bordering on upper middle, with very fancy places across the way (million-dollar houses on two-acre lots). At first I was surprised at how many acquaintances from the upper-tier suburbs send their kids to the same type of commuter place my partner went to, or to the local community college. Or to one of the minor state universities; the flagship one only if you are very very lucky. But a lot of those people, although they appear well to do, would be too tapped-out to send their kids to Yale if they got in. It was already a stretch to move to that suburb for the schools; they tend to move out after the last one graduates.

So you, personally, probably came out of the nineties pretty well. That doesn't mean your mother wasn't weird about money. That's where a lot of people's neuroses and ambivalences about parenting come out. Maybe your mother felt abandoned and like she got a raw deal in her marriage and oh, yes, the medical profession was changing to the point where a doctor friend of mine who is about her age told his kids NOT to go into it because of all the business aspects and the cost of malpractice insurance and whatnot. I think it's quite possible that your mother had a lot of resentment about all the responsibilities she had to carry and you felt it, and that's awful for a kid.
posted by BibiRose at 7:56 AM on January 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Your mom likely made a lot of money. But that is only one half of the equation I cannot answer. What were her expenses? Both professional and personal. I have a friend who is a neurosurgeon whose malpractice insurance is higher than 98% of what most people make. Maybe she was trying to teach you some lesson about saving or being self sufficient or something.

Whatever the reasoning for what she did, good or bad, she was probably making a lot of jack. A lot of folks making that amount of money would probably have made different choices. You're right that she made decisions not consistent with what other similarly situated people would choose.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:43 AM on January 20, 2013

I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in the suburbs of NYC. My parents' combined income was approx $100k in the 1990s. I graduated high school in the early 90s and college in the late 1990s.

My parents prioritized education. My brother and I went to the local public high school, but we both did pricey extracurriculars (me: debate camp; bro: private music school) that my parents paid for. We both went to elite liberal arts schools and graduated with no debt. I worked starting in 9th grade and used my babysitting/retail money to buy clothes and CDs and whatnot. We didn't have fancy clothes, but I was very into grunge and wore a lot of thrift store clothes anyway.

We did not take elaborate vacations or have our own cars, although we both got our parents cast off cars in college.

At the time I felt a bit deprived because we didn't have cable, had one small TV, etc but now I think my parents did exactly what was appropriate. I'm sorry that your childhood was so miserable.
posted by alicetiara at 11:40 AM on January 20, 2013

None of the frugal things you mention seem bizarre or even unusual except for cutting your own hair. Because that usually looks like crap. A live in housekeeper sounds extravagent - even the 'rich' kids I went to school with didn't have those. Maybe a cruise for vacation.
posted by bq at 7:33 PM on January 20, 2013

I was a doctor's kid during that time and no way would we have had a lot of the things you might expect as normal. I went to public school, took the bus, my mom took us shopping at TJ Maxx or Marshall's a lot of the time, we had cheap bar soap and grocery store brand shampoo most of the time, our cars were non-fancy American sedans, we took roadtrips for vacations most of the time. I worked a part-time job in high school. We did have a nice custom-designed house in a good neighborhood with a weekly cleaning lady, and a modest cabin by a lake a few hours away until my parents divorced and everything got sold and from there, everyone lived much more modestly in apartments. Due to my parents' divorce (and probably the stock market crash as well), I worked my entire way through college and grad school. My parents contributed, but it was my job to budget and figure things out. Because of the timing of my parents' divorce proceedings freezing the family assets (which included the college money I had saved up), I lost out on going to the Ivy League school I got into and went to a state school for college, which I was angry about at the time, but have since realized that I wasn't held back in my career. Maybe where you and I part ways is that my parents never made me feel greedy when I needed a haircut or a winter coat. They took care of me, but they didn't spoil me.

This varies so much by the particular parent's values and community norms, it's hard to extract what is "normal" or "reasonable." My cousins, who grew up on Long Island with a doctor father, had more of what you are considering "normal," with the kids all driving fancy cars to school, live-in help, the ski vacations, fancy clothes, luxury toiletries, expensive toys, pool, stereo system, and cable television in every room. Because I was raised so differently, I have a hard time going to their $500K weddings. Even though they are nice people, I'm uncomfortable because it just seems so wasteful and foreign.
posted by *s at 8:09 PM on January 20, 2013

Here's another representative luxury item I forgot about above.

Yes, it is true that we did not take vacations. For about five years, though, we did have a house in the country for weekends. My mother, of course, called it a cottage. It was not a cottage by any means--it was a small 2BR house that a (real) middle-class family had lived in. This is the Texas Hill Vermont or the Berkshires, this would have cost a nice chunk of change, but down there, it was not a big deal for the used-Jaguar milieu we occupied.

After about 5 years, though, my mother said screw it, it's too expensive to maintain. She tried to sell it, couldn't, and then lost it in a bad business deal (lost a ton of money on the whole matter--money that might otherwise have gone to buying me a used Honda Accord, see above).

Naturally, my richer friends had new condos at the coast or lakehouses that could have been lived in year-round. Again, this was totally out of our league.

I also, as a telling side note, had a family of close friends who could barely make a living. We are talking subsistence hunting. Genuinely lower middle class or working poor. Small business owners whose business, unlike my parents', was not going well. THEY had free access to a lakehouse (too many windows for the winter), a well-maintained country house, and a hunting lease (I mean, they weren't leasing it--I mean undeveloped property for them to hunt on). The great-grandparents, the parents of people now above, then in their 70s, had bought all these properties for cheap in the 20s and 30s.

You just never know the details, is what I mean, especially not as a kid.
posted by skbw at 4:43 AM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is fascinating--reading the comment above I see I'm visiting my mom's own planet of euphemisms. It wasn't a "bad business deal" that caused her to lose the country house...she couldn't afford to pay the property taxes, or, more likely, wanted to use her money to do other things, so it was seized.

I, too, roll my eyes seeing her buy all her groceries at Whole Foods now when we never did that when I was at home. Cruises, no, she doesn't take, but she just doesn't understand, for example, why I don't eat a lot of meat.

Now. As other commenters have mentioned. It's good to see older parents who do not have to rely on adult children for support. In the galaxy of small business where I grew up, though, people work until they're too old to come into the store, can't add up the tickets right every time, drink too much and can't compensate like they used to, get liver cancer and their children drag them away, etc. So I expect that my parents will be working right up to that point. 401(k)? Ha. Every penny they have is invested in their business.

I'm not going to say "oh, you had it good," because I recognize some of the personality traits you mention. But there are worse things than the Tightwad Gazette (a rad publication).
posted by skbw at 5:02 AM on January 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

One (last, I promise) issue is college. Left up to my mom and stepfather, I would likely have gone to the expensive Ivy I actually did attend, but with a ton of loans.

College, on the other hand, was the responsibility of my actual father. He is the kind of rich that has a new summerhouse, new cars, etc.. He was able just to write checks for my college. He inherited his father's small local contracting company and made it into a very large international concern. (He considered the doctors in his "gated community" to be the rich people, but they may not actually have been, relative to him.)

He's not a warm, friendly guy, but he is my ol' daddy. Stalking him on Facebook the other week I was horrified (though not surprised) to see him with hearing aids. He's only 62. How did he get hearing aids? From 40 years in front of loud machines, so as to be able to buy his kids new cars and private colleges and all that.
posted by skbw at 5:21 AM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

You just never know the details, is what I mean, especially not as a kid.

Exactly! Another huge thing that makes comparison between families hard is, you don't know if people had college paid for and other help from family. There are people who, while not appearing to be rich, not only had college paid for, but a large down payment on a first house plus their kids' educational fund started by parents or grandparents. Many baby boomers also, at a certain point, started getting yearly gifts from older relatives who were trying to avoid taxes on their estates. People like that also usually have at least a mental safety net in the form of connections with money who would likely step in in the event of disaster, rather than needing help themselves, like other people's relatives. So two people with the exact same income, but one with no debt and help from family, will be in very different financial pictures. You also don't know how much people are using credit cards or not, or whether they have health problems that present a current or potential drain on income. Or what shape their retirement fund is in, which is extremely variable. You don't hear about this a lot, because money is still a taboo subject. Adults who get help from family often don't talk about it. Maybe they feel slightly ashamed or not fully adult because of it.

I can tell you that it is possible to be one of the financially fortunate, yet still receive the same messages you did about being a burden. My family was more in the fortunate category than otherwise, but my mother (whose money was inherited) was strangely mean, especially about medical and dental care, of all things. She would sit there dramatically writing out checks in front of us, and complaining. And not like, "Wow, these doctors charge a lot," but like, "Look at this, you broke and we had to pay to fix you." It was also shitty care we got-- which is my own personal thing to have to work on in adulthood, as far as bitterness and resentment. But that was probably more a question of ignorance. What really got to me was the constant complaining about how much we cost. (What seems like the constant complaining: I now suspect that, like a lot of things remembered from childhood, there were a few very vivid instances but mostly it was a general sense of how she felt.)

As for my father, he had a good and secure profession, but I was very much aware that he felt almost crushed by the pressure of working and taking care of a family. I talked to him about it a couple of times in adulthood, and ended up feeling a lot of compassion for him about this issue. But in childhood, I just sensed that he felt exploited, taken advantage of and not appreciated, just cause he had kids, and whose idea was that?

I don't think either of my parents was evil in this regard; they just had problems around work and money. And there were conflicts between the two of them, coming from very different backgrounds.

This is tangential, but I was looking through Geneen Roth's book, Lost and Found, about issues she discovered after getting Madoffed. She was very aware of being neurotic about food, but was totally unaware that she had similar issues about money-- also starting with her family. Most people would kill to have the "problems" Roth has, but it really rang a bell with me. Of course money becomes a focus for love and resentment and power in a family. We talk about sex and food in this connection. But we still really don't talk about money.
posted by BibiRose at 8:05 AM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

It sounds like your mom was in her forties when she got divorced in the nineties. And she walked away from that divorce with the ex-husband's debts of $100,000 and very few assets (not even a fancy house). Seeing that half her working life had resulted in nothing more than a mountain of debt with no guarantee it would improve (keep in mind, because of her education/training, she was more familiar than most with the frailties of the human body; how quickly and how wrong things can go and how financially devastating that would be - and she had no partner to be a safety net) would have been sobering. So yeah, I can see how your mom was stressing about money and responsibilities; having a hard time prioritising (she HAD to have help at home in order to work to pay the bills, she didn't NEED brand name shampoo). In addition to the ex-husband's debts she may have had insane legal bills (especially if either or both your parents are high-conflict/cluster b types). A few of my friends have spent well over $100,000 to get divorced from narcissistic partners, financed by credit cards charging 18%. Also, she may have had a significant portion of her income directed into mandatory retirement savings, insurance premiums, association dues or other necessary tax shelters. Her experience with the ex-husband's debt may have made her swear off credit/limited her credit availability (seriously, you have no idea how many people have over-leveraged themselves into their lifestyles), limiting her cash flow. The income coming in is really just a part of the puzzle you are looking for. So it really may have been that there was no excess money and she was bad at communicating that to you, or felt she shouldn't have to justify her financial priorities to her child.

I went to Catholic school in the early nineties with a broad socio-economic range (some of my friend's parents were on welfare, some were factory workers, some were doctors, and some owned multi-million dollar businesses) housekeepers were unknown, Caribbean vacations unheard of, and only a couple of friends got beat-up, passed-down family cars in their late teens. An affluent school I worked at in the late nineties also had a broad range but the affluent families DID have housekeepers, exotic vacations and $20/pair Ralph Lauren socks. Did you maybe live in an area where your family was at the bottom of the bell-curve and that has skewed your idea of "normal"?

What really stood out to me though was how all of this was your Mom's fault. If you wanted a Barbie dream house or a new winter coat why didn't your father automatically step up when he saw you were lacking or respond to your polite requests? Why did he choose to spend $100,000 on himself and not save it for his three kid's education? Why did you not know about alternative routes to the education you wanted - you were an adult, you could have researched yourself how to achieve your goals instead of expecting your mother to find and finance them (way less than half the people I know that went on to post-secondary had any parental support). My parents were immigrants without high school education so they were unable to direct me - I had to do the leg-work myself. Once you were 16 or so, why didn't you buy your own clothes/car with money your earnt?

It sucks having a narcissistic parent but refusing to take ownership of your problems in the past and in the present keeps you in that comfortable victim role. I think you are smarter than that; stop allowing her to occupy so much space in your head so many years later.
posted by saucysault at 10:15 PM on January 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

We were also expected to work throughout college in order to lighten the financial burden on her.

This is not unusual. I'm aware that college costs more in the US and there is no such thing as a fee cap, but 18 year olds are adults, and as such would not generally expect their parents to pay for things unless offered - my friends who didn't go to university and remained living at home typically paid board (rent) to their parents. The vast majority of students I knew, from a variety of backgrounds, got by on student loans plus part-time work, and if parents were able/willing to help out (as mine did, and I had a parent who was an odd combination of stingy and bad with money) then that was a bonus but certainly didn't cover the full cost. (And also - again, different country, but still - I knew precisely one person with a car, and this was at an Ivy equivalent school.) The bad part in what you say is not that she didn't pay full fare for you, but that she steered you away from what you really wanted.
posted by mippy at 7:17 AM on January 22, 2013

I should also give an "on the other hand" perspective, as well: around the age of 5 or 6, when my parents first started their "proper" jobs, we moved and bought a house, which took up all of my parents' savings. And they hadn't hit their stride professionally, so they weren't making boatloads of money, and my father still had loans to pay off. Meanwhile, our house was financed by a combination of high-interest rate exotic mortgages which was the only thing that the banks were willing to give us in the early 80s and relied entirely on the promise of my father making a lot more money 5-10 years in the future. My father got an auto loan and was making payments on the 1980s equivalent of the Ford Focus at the time, and I remember my mom constantly, constantly stressed about money. That made up my childhood between the ages of 6 through 11. If for some reason I were born sooner, and this went on in my life from the ages of 12 to 17 my life and my perception of my upbringing would have looked a lot different, especially in the formative years of adolescence... not to mention the additional time my parents needed to figure out "what children need" in terms of academic, professional, and economic guidance: by the 1990s they saw a lot more of other kids growing up and the challenges they faced in high school and college than they had in the early 1980s.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 5:03 AM on January 23, 2013

I'd also like to add something about the college issue. As others have said, "need-blind" only means that the uni doesn't care whether the student can afford the tuition when they make admission decisions; the admitted student still has to pay, and need-based financial aid would have been unavailable to you at your mother's income (even merit-based scholarships take financial need into account). And as others have also said, there is often a HUGE gulf between what scholarships consider "need" and what a given family may be able to afford. It sounds like your family might have fallen into this gap. Mine did, and this is how it played out....:

My parents were unfailingly supportive of my academic goals, and encouraged me to apply to the schools of my dreams. My best friend and I both were accepted in the early round of admissions to MIT, and we spent months fantasizing about our new geeky college life together until the reality became absolutely clear: she would get to have her dream; I wouldn't. My upper-middle class parents made enough so that need-based scholarships were not available to me, but not enough to be able to afford MIT tuition without huge loans. Nor would they allow me (not yet 18 then) to take on that debt myself.

It was absolutely crushing to me at the time. Going to MIT was something I felt I had earned and deserved, something that was rightfully mine; in my 17yo mind, I was holding up my end of the bargain -- I worked hard and got in -- so why weren't they holding up theirs?! And all those fantasies with Heather... gone, blown out of the water at a time when fantasies about college life are literally the biggest thing occupying one's imagination. There were so many tears!

Instead of MIT, I went to a SUNY. Just as you did. My experience was amazing: I got to do research as an undergrad that eventually led me to pursue a PhD at another state school. (I got to teach as an undergrad, too, since the math dept never had any shortage of hands.) I had some indredible and inspiring teachers and colleagues who are /still/ my friends and advisors today, 20 years later. I then did my postdoc and am now faculty at highly-ranked private universities that I myself would never have been able to afford, and from the inside I'm totally unconvinced that the experience of my students here is significantly better than the experience I had at the public unis I attended.

Would my life have been different if I'd had a better academic pedigree? Probably. Better? I'm not sure how. I have absolutely no regrets about my path, and with the benefit of hindsight I wouldn't have wanted anything else -- I wouldn't trade the relationships & experiences I had for the world, much less for MIT. I most certainly would NOT have ANY hesitation whatsoever in steering my own kids or the brightest of my students toward state schools of the caliber I attended ("public ivies"). In fact, I'd encourage them toward those schools quite heavily, because the vastness and diversity of large universities can be marvelous places for people who are smart and open and driven. (Driven is key, because it's all too easy to get lost in the vastness.)

But the one thing I do wish had been a little different is this: I wish my parents had been more realistic with me up-front. I wish they had done a little bit more to disabuse me of my fantasies rather than indulging them. I'm not at all bitter about it now, and I understand that it came from a loving desire to never clip the wings of their children, but it really was a cruel sort of false hope that I had been given for those few months when I was 17.

It sounds like you had a tough relationship with your mother, and I hope that as you work through that you find some comfort. I just wanted to toss out my story as a counterpoint -- maybe, just maybe, your mother's firm steering away from your Ivy League aspirations came from a desire not to mislead you.
posted by Westringia F. at 6:06 AM on January 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

The other thing about the Ivy fantasy is understanding that upper-middle-class, white (I'm assuming) kids with good grades from good schools who have professional parents are a dime a dozen, and most of them harbor an elite-school fantasy, but in reality only the tiniest fraction of those who apply are admitted. It's not only about grades and a good academic background and a few sports and clubs and voluntarism. Even if you'd been able to apply and gone to a private school, your fate might well have been exactly that of most kids from affluent families with good grades: the first tier rejects or waitlists you, and you go to a small liberal-arts or public college instead. Even in the 90s, acceptance rates were low - single-digit low.

Be careful about making the assumption that you would have gone to an Ivy if you'd had a better education. It was one possibility, but it's actually overwhelmingly likely that you'd have ended up going down another road anyway.
posted by Miko at 6:43 AM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I should also say that some families have different priorities than others. And this is a function of culture and those vagaries of "class" that go beyond merely what raw income you had. In my family and among my peer families (northeastern suburban professional families, many of them immigrants), it would have been considered humiliating not to pay for their kids' college or contribute to their wedding (this sort of falls into the same category as that ingrained "middle-class-ness" that eschewed used clothing stores that I alluded to above). But as Miko said above, for some people, the idea of parents doing what it takes to "make it happen" when it comes to college tuition is considered to be something that was "never owed you in the first place."

The people who went to a state university and became successful construction contractors make much more money than I ever will, and MeFi is full of people with degrees from Ivy League schools who openly discuss never having made more than $40,000/yr. Plenty of people talk about having "come into their own" at their state school while others felt cheated out of a good college experience who went to "ranked" universities. Westringia F. has apparently acquired the "Holy Grail" of academia and managed to get a tenure track faculty position at a high ranked university, while plenty of other Ph.D.s from other schools you've heard of are still adjuncting or are faculty at totally unknown colleges because that's the only place they could find tenure-track positions with both them and their spouses.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 7:05 AM on January 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Even in the 90s, acceptance rates were low - single-digit low.

That was not true in the 90s. The Ivy League schools and those of equivalent caliber had 15-25% admission rates. 1400s on your SATs and graduation from a good high school with high grades wouldn't get you admission to Harvard or Princeton, and you might well get rejected from Brown, but it would probably get you into Columbia. The "baby bust", which meant that there was a particularly small cohort of graduating high school seniors in the early 1990s, contributed to this. Now the situation is a lot different, where you have valedictorians not getting into anywhere other than the flagship state university.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 7:10 AM on January 23, 2013

That was not true in the 90s.

It depends on what part of the 90s we're talking about, and exactly how old the OP is. When I was in high school (99-03), there were running out of classroom space and admission rates to Ivies were low again. Going to the best area high school, my high school valedictorian still didn't get into an Ivy (though she did go to Stanford, which is ranked as highly).

And as someone who didn't get into my top choice school, but went to my safety, dropped out after a semester, worked for 6 years, went back to a local state school for a year and then transferred to an Ivy and just finished my 2nd semester here, I really can say that the biggest difference between schools is the people who are there. I hated my first school (a well-ranked private small liberal arts college) because it was so small that it was just like high school again. My state school was great, the people were fantastic, and I liked it a lot, but it had a decent amount of students who just didn't care. And I love my Ivy, but part of the reason I love it is because I love big schools, I found my major here and we have a small, wonderful department, and it's urban. The reasons I love it have nothing to do with it being an Ivy, and are something I could have gotten at any decent large school -- or not, it's kind of luck of the draw that I took a gen. ed. that I adored, and that that only happened at my current school. I liked my major at my state school but not the people, because the department was too big and generic -- but the same department at my Ivy is just as big and generic.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:22 AM on January 23, 2013

Mod note: Folks, stop the Ivy League derail please/
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:00 AM on January 23, 2013

it would have been considered humiliating not to pay for their kids' college

The subtle differences based on family history, even among the affluent, are a good point. And as a corollary to the idea that immigrants could often be seen as more supportive of education ('families hang together and exist to support one another'), there were also (perhaps largely WASPY?) ideas of "don't depend on the family. You need to make your own way and learn to support yourself, just like I/Grandpa/whomever did." Affluence alone was not a guarantee of investment in education.
posted by Miko at 9:41 AM on January 23, 2013

This isn't a precise comparison, but perhaps it will help. I apologize for the circumlocution, but I don't want to be more direct out of respect for the person whose life I'm going to roughly sketch out here.

I grew up in an affluent and privileged milieu but my social circle included kids who struggled to maintain their access to our school and definitely had a different lifestyle because of single parents or other difficult familial issues. Some of those parents were professionals in fields with prestige and socioeconomic status approaching that of an MD, and probably appeared wealthy on paper (as far as things like educational financial aid measure wealth), but were legitimately struggling to make ends meet in terms of cash flow and debt. At least one such friend felt some of the time that his/her parent was acting irresponsibly and narcissistically, causing them to have to self-support in a way that none of the rest of us had to do at that age--even those in other financially pressured households with parents in less normatively prestigious careers. But even so it was clear that it was not out of malice, scorn or conscious desire to ratfuck the kids. It was just how that parent was wired. And, similarly, a few decades later that parent (so far as I can tell) is now in better financial condition and will be able to live better in retirement than the family lived growing up. Again, without having planned it that way, and without any ill intent towards the kids. And my friend, with time, has managed to get past it and redevelop a positive relationship with that parent.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:22 PM on January 23, 2013

Houses are expensive. Retirement is expensive. Emergencies are expensive. And risk tolerance can vary quite a bit and is significant.

My standard of living was somewhat higher than yours, but it sounds like yours was largely within the normal range. I didn't have a car as a teenager, and we never had a boat. But I always had a warm winter coat, so there you go. Of course, I had one parent as the breadwinner but they remained married, so there was no shock or trauma from anything like that.

Look, I strongly doubt you're asking the right or a helpful question, but from what I can tell,it sounds like your mom could certainly have believed that she was balancing spending and saving reasonably in accord with her life circumstances.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:49 AM on January 24, 2013

Another thing to ponder is the reality check of what you are probably seeing as lost opportunities. My family in my generation has almost 100% Ivy coverage - nobody went to Columbia because we were all raised in Manhattan, but at least one sibling or cousin went to each of the other seven. Loads of us also went to a mix of other private and state universities. One went directly into the military. And in terms of how everyone's life is turning out, I just don't think it made any difference.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:10 AM on January 24, 2013

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