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]
21 responses to “A Random Stroll Up Fifth Avenue”
Nice read! Very authentic!
Thanks! Glad you enjoyed my story.
Right there with you 😉 and I can still spot a good fake!
PS – I watched One Tree Hill too until the main characters were too far removed (so when we were in college). Now I am trying to think of who said it 😛
Haha, I can tell you later who said it and I watched OTH UNTIL THE END!
The privileged upbringing you had along side your parents’ values has availed you great insight. Stay grounded in those values, continue to leverage all you’ve learned about the 1%, and you will go far.
Thank you so much. I truly hope so and appreciate your kind words.
Great stuff here Erin. I’m of the opinion that our financial goals shouldn’t involve spending as little money as possible. Rather we should strive to find the things that truly matter to us and give us happiness and work hard to be able to afford them. That will mean many different things to many different people. Using your money on things you love is one of the great joys in life.
Very well said, Matt. I’m not a fan of the ultimate minimalist tactics to reach my financial goals, mostly because it isn’t in my nature.
Great post Erin. I think you wrote this one perfectly. Also, I often went to see OTH being filmed because it was near where my brother lived. I just liked to see how they did it. Never liked the show, but filming was a cool process.
Thanks, Grayson! I’m quite jealous you got to see them film live! Living in NYC I get to stumble across movie and TV sets from time-to-time but I have yet to catch one I care about. Planning to hunt down the Michael J. Fox show soon.
Love this, Erin. I’ve said it before but your parents did a fabulous job raising you right! Whether you are wealthy or poor or somewhere in-between, you can still live a rich life if you focus on what truly matters to you and work hard to obtain it. If someone wants to save their money for what others might consider to be frivolous – I say so what. Save your money for what makes you happy.
That last line is certainly a great takeaway. What I see value in certainly won’t be the same as friends, family, significant others or co-workers and vice versa. Thank you, Shannon!
Well Erin, you definitely have great insight. I am glad that you have that mindset and are much more in control than some of the counterparts that have grown up in the same atmosphere.
Kudos to your parents for donating money and using it wisely. It’s interesting to learn about how different life experiences have shaped who we are.
I did not grow up in the elite and for most of my life money was a struggle with my family. Fortunately for me, I have learned from my mother’s mistakes and am trying to be more financially responsible. I cannot wait for the day where I’ll be making more than poverty level. I tell you, living as an AmeriCorps member sure teaches you how to live. You live within your means. And I don’t think I could feel comfortable walking down the streets of NYC. I’d feel like I couldn’t walk into the stores for fear of breaking something. Hehehe.
Thanks, Michelle and you have such a great head on your shoulders I have no doubt you’ll achieve great success.
Really great post. There’s power in knowing you have the money to shop on fifth avenue and just chose not to. Your parents are probably really proud and grateful that you didn’t turn into one of the snobby, overprivileged girls you grew up with.
If I had, they probably would’ve disowned me. The first time I told my mom I wanted to grow up to be rich she looked horrified. It came out sounding like a spoiled child, but I backed tracked to explain that to me money meant being able to make meaningful change and help others like I had seen them do over the years. She was much happier with that answer.
I feel weird walking into stores like Bergdorf’s as I feel like I don’t belong because I am not rich enough. But I’m sure there are plenty of folks in stores like that who really can’t afford everything either. Like you said, it’s more important that you know you can afford to shop there, not just that you actually do.
Great post. I love hearing your thoughts on finances and how you are “making it” in New York. I haven’t been to New York but I can only imagine that there is pressure to spend money like there’s no tomorrow. Still can’t get over the housing costs there. Anyway, it’s also cool to see how your parent’s handling of finances influenced your own – I know mine had a profound impact on the way I view money today.
Memory Lane…Had a Bergdorf’s card and I could use it at Bendel’s shopped the Notions Dept. (Lobby) for Christmas Gifts most unique items Great Clearance dept saw Jane Pauley in Dressing Room (I bought clearance not Jane)
It’s nice to see you could live amongst that world without it letting it get to your head. I like the idea of HAVING that kind of money IF I wanted to spend it, but luckily I’ve never been into “fancy stuff” so I think I’d use it for experiences instead. But, I can’t fault rich people for buying what they like. 🙂
That’s the best line for me at the end:
“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.”
That’s how I feel. I go into a store and know I COULD technically drop a lot of money without feeling angst and not go into debt, perhaps dent my net worth by 5% if I dropped $10,000 without blinking… but I don’t.
Instead, I kind of mull and hem and haw over purchases and then decide whether I want them or not.
More often than not, I end up returning items.