It used to be, if you were wealthy, it was easy for everyone to tell. You drove an expensive car, you wore a designer watch, and your wardrobe was always up-to-the-minute, never from the sale rack. The wealthy used to literally wear their money like a badge of honor.
Not so anymore. Of course, there are still those who display their wealth in ostentatious ways, but a growing segment of the upper-class now largely forgoes in-your-face materialism, instead opting to quietly spend their money on goods and services like organic food, yoga classes, nannies, lawn care, housekeepers, tutors for their kids, health care. Invisible things that make for an easier, less hectic existence. They are engaging in something called “inconspicuous consumption.”
If this lifestyle sounds at all familiar to you, you might be part of an emerging social class recently discussed on NPR’s Hidden Brain. Guest Elizabeth Currid-Halkett calls this class the “aspirational class.” She talks about how the lifestyle of this new social elite differs from the upper class of the previous few decades with their flashy, big-spending behavior. The aspirational class “is highly educated. Its members breast-feed their children. They spend money on things like organic produce and expensive Pilates classes.”
The interesting thing, though, is that, because this new wealthy elite doesn’t always accumulate the material goods to go along with their quietly lavish lifestyle, these folks sometimes don’t realize how good they have it. The sense is almost that this way of living is minimalist. And not just minimalist, but obvious, as in, an obvious way to live. If you’re in this group, it feels like you’re just switching where you choose to spend your money. It feels like you’re simply buying experiences instead of things. It doesn’t actually feel like you have more than most or that life is easier for you.
I know because I was one of these people. My home was remarkably clutter-free. Our closets were half empty and our garage easily accommodated two cars. Our dressers had empty drawers and our laundry room cabinets had room to spare. I am not a materialist person. I don’t enjoy shopping just for the thrill of finding an insane deal or some must-have décor item to add to my home. I don’t understand the rabid, frothing-at-the mouth mania over Target. I mean, Target is awesome, no doubt about it, but I go there for stuff I need, not for retail therapy.
So I had convinced myself that I wasn’t a big spender, that I was frugal, even. Until we experienced a major change and I had to sit down and do a financial analysis of my family’s bills.
I may not have been buying a lot of material goods, but we were going out to eat several times a week, easily spending $1,000 per month on just that one expense. We had top-of-the-line high-speed Internet and a pest control service that came every month. A housekeeper. A home security system. Multiple streaming packages to use with our smart TV.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I was a wealthy person who thought I was just really good with money. Well, it’s easy to be good with money, isn’t it, when you have money to be good with?
Not that there was anything inherently wrong with my lifestyle. There is nothing wrong with outsourcing the maintenance of one’s home, childcare, yardwork, laundry. It’s great to have a platinum healthcare plan. But, for some of us, or, for me at least, it was too easy to look at my lifestyle that appeared to be so minimalist and think that my way of doing things must be the norm. I needed to recognize that the relative simplicity of my life was a product of having the resources that allowed me to simplify. I needed to check my privilege.
I can relate to what Elizabeth Currid-Halkett said in her talk on Hidden Brain: “…everyone was just doing this, and we didn’t even question it. I mean, everyone went to Mommy and Me classes and read to their kids from, you know, day one of life. And it pushed me to think about, well, does everyone do this? And when you look at the data, you realize what a bubble you’re in.”
The things that felt obvious and “normal” to me aren’t accessible to everyone else. Because being able to outsource the upkeep and maintenance of my life in so many ways allowed me the extra wiggle room necessary for self-care, eco-consciousness, the occasional weekend getaway.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with being part of the aspirational class. Everyone is free to structure their life in a way that feels right to them as long as they’re not hurting anyone else. Just don’t assume your way is the norm or that you’re simply better with money. And definitely don’t judge others who have a messy home, an unkempt yard, or can’t afford a nanny—because there are millions of incredibly hardworking folks who can’t access these things. The system isn’t equitable.
So if you’re part of this new wealthy elite with your overpriced lattes and hot yoga classes and weekly cleaning person and a freshly Marie Kondo’ed house that is living proof of your “minimalist lifestyle,” you might need to take a few moments and acknowledge your privilege. I know I sure did.