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- For Love & Money is a biweekly column from Insider answering your relationship and money questions.
- This week, a reader asks what to say when their family reacts poorly to their high income — or whether they should just not go home.
- Our columnist says to keep showing up, even if they have to lay down boundaries to do it.
- Got a question for our columnist? Write to For Love & Money using this Google form.
Dear For Love & Money,
I come from a low-income family (most of my immediate family and their siblings make less than $40,000 a year). I put myself through college and have done reasonably well for myself (six figures), moved out of the farming town where the entirety of my family lives, etc. I’ve prioritized different things than the people I grew up with.
Heading home for the holidays often becomes awkward and unpleasant to some degree. My family isn’t shy about referencing our perceived income gaps and often makes snarky remarks about how I choose to spend my money. The income gap almost always turns into a political jab, and things inevitably spiral into darkness. I help my family out if someone is in a bind, and I don’t think I’ve done anything, at least intentionally, to be shamed for. I never discuss what I make with my family, and I try to avoid money matters in general.
I’m beginning to lose interest in using my time off to be in a somewhat hostile environment during a time that should be bringing families together, and my trips home have gotten shorter and shorter as a result. I’m not sure if it’s worth addressing with my parents and siblings or if I should just cut the trips “home” from my calendar altogether.
Goblin Mode for Christmas
The holidays are difficult for so many, and family often plays a starring role in the seasonal stress. Perhaps it’s because our relations typically feel no need to filter themselves with family, so they treat us in ways our friends, colleagues, and acquaintances wouldn’t dare. Or perhaps it’s the history — or, let’s call it what it is — the baggage we share with family that makes seeing them for all the major holidays, a few of which are only weeks apart, painful. But perhaps the most stressful part of fitting family into our holiday plans is that we feel obligated to do it.
And yet that very obligation is what makes the concept of family so beautiful. They show up. Maybe because they feel obligated to do so, but whether it’s a wedding or a funeral, a graduation, a hard diagnosis, or Christmas, the expectation of family is that it’s our birthright not to move through life alone. This is why the loss of family, either by abandonment or death, is always a tragedy.
Robert Frost once wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” I’ve always loved this quote because we all deserve that place. We all deserve family.
This brings me to your dilemma.
While I recognize I am only hearing your perspective, I feel confident in saying this is not your problem. It’s your family’s. This isn’t to say that your family is intentionally being unkind, but it seems they have some assumptions, expectations, and insecurities underlying their scorn for your success. These are their issues to work through, and there is little you can do to help them with this.
You said you’ve never done anything to provoke jealousy and judgment, which means you can do nothing to eliminate those feelings beyond giving up the parts of your life that seem to aggravate them — something you should never do for anyone. This is the life you’ve chosen, and it seems it’s one that brings you great satisfaction. I am happy for you, and they should be, too.
But I understand why they may be struggling. If we’re honest with ourselves, we all have felt similarly when the people in our lives make choices different than our own. Because when their results aren’t worse than ours, and they might even be results we envy, it causes us to question our own choices.
I’ve always wanted to be a mom, but when a friend decided they didn’t want kids and then had the audacity to be happy with their choice, I felt resentment. And just underneath my resentment sat doubt — what if not having kids was the better choice, and it was too late to change my mind? My immediate impulse was to pressure them to change their mind – to admit they regretted their choice so I would no longer have to worry that I would come to regret my choice.
It wasn’t until I learned that one choice could be right for me, while a different choice was right for my friend, that I found the peace to enjoy my life while celebrating my friend’s very different one.
This is where your family will hopefully land someday. A place where your choice to go off to college no longer feels like a threat to their choice to stay in your hometown, a place where your six-figure income no longer feels like an indictment on their smaller paychecks.
But that’s not your question. Your question is: “What do I do while I wait for them to get there?”
And my answer to this is simple — you keep showing up. You may need to show up for even shorter periods, lay down boundaries by telling them what conversations and remarks you will tolerate and which ones you won’t, and you may need to assert yourself to a point where they tremble at the thought of making a dig about your income and facing your wrath.
I wouldn’t say this to everyone; for some people, home isn’t a place worth being, and distancing yourself from family is the right call. But from what you’ve written alone, these people may be a family worth keeping. And perhaps more importantly, you are their family. We show up for one another out of love, shared history (aka baggage), and because we hope family are the ones, who, when we need them, will always be on the way.
For Love & Money