On Saturday evening I did something most out of character. I put my credit card in my pocket and went for a random stroll up Fifth Avenue. As my last season Coach sneakers pounded the pavement, I felt distinctly aware of how much my life had changed since leaving the protection of my parents’ home and wallets. Wearing generic jeans and a GAP sweater, I knew the gem adorning my neck and low-tier name brand shoes on my feet wouldn’t be enough for a sales clerk to pay me any mind. They felt more like relics from a past life than a connection to my present.
For those unfamiliar with New York City, Fifth Avenue is home to one of the most expensive stretches of shopping in the world. Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany, Louis Vuitton, Harry Winston and of course Bergdorf Goodman loom over the streets. Suited gentlemen with white gloved hands stand in front of the doors to deter thieves and the common folk.
Walking through so much extravagance can have an odd impact on a person. Some see a land of wastefulness. Watching people hand over their plastic to pay thousands of dollars for a dress is a disgusting display of weakness to them. Others feel at home. They hand over a black Amex card and needn’t worry how to pay off the bill. And some find it motivating to stroll through the land of wealth.
I fall entirely in the motivated category, but growing up surrounded by wealth tends to cultivate a mentality that you too can achieve the same level of success.
My parents are by no means extravagant spenders, but I did go to school with children of the one percent. Growing up in the expat community typically means going to expensive international schools. Usually, these schools charge on par with a private college education in the United States because companies will help subsidize the fee and only wealthy locals are able afford the cost.
For years I lived in a bubble of decadence without quite noticing. Steaks of Kobe beef were served up at parties, but I didn’t calculate the cost. Children could chat the pros and cons of most major international airlines and which airport had the best first class lounge. The bubble burst for me during a casual conversation about television. As a junior in high school and a new kid at my second international school, I had struck up a conversation with a gaggle of teenage girls in my grade. One casually asked what TV shows I enjoyed. As a 15-year-old in 2005, I said, “Umm, I guess One Tree Hill.” She crinkled up her nose and I knew I’d made a fatal error. “One Tree Hill?” she scoffed. “Isn’t that just The O.C. for poor people?” A kinder girl jumped in and changed the conversation before I had to defend myself for watching TV of the masses.
After the bubble burst, I started to take in my surroundings without the rose-colored glasses. I noticed the two-karat diamond hanging around the neck of a 15-year-old. I could spot the difference between a real Louis Vuitton and a fake. I quickly learned which name brands were true luxury and which were luxury for the 99 percent. I noticed all these things at school and went home to sit on a leather couch my parents had owned since before I was born.
Around my sixteenth birthday, I truly started to cultivate respect for how my parents handled their money. They were true savers and investors. They valued preparing for the future over ostentatious displays of wealth. But they weren’t minimalists. Christmases and birthdays resulted in glorious stack of wrapped presents. We stayed in beautiful hotels when we traveled. We had extra bedrooms in our home and I didn’t share a bathroom with anyone after the age of 10, when we moved overseas. My sister and I saw my parents donate to charities and financially help those close to us who needed assistance. We never once heard them argue about money. We never sensed stress in the house about paying bills, financing a vacation or sending us to college.
Eight years later and I’m financially self-sufficient in the most expensive city in the United States and modeling my parents behavior of saving and investing. I haven’t been immersed in the one-percent lifestyle since the age of 18 when I left my expat childhood behind to repatriate to the US for college. But I still find comfort, and motivation, walking along New York’s most expensive avenues. Whether it’s going to work on Park, grabbing a drink on Lexington or a taking random stroll up Fifth, I see the status symbols of the elite and know achieving entrance into the club of the one percent doesn’t mean the need to swipe your black Amex in every store on Fifth Avenue. It’s knowing you could.
[Bergdorf images taken from Flickr]