Money Dysmorphia: Why I Can't Let Myself Have Nice Things
By Mona Chalabi
I worry that if I actually let myself accept that I have money now, it will be even more of a shock if poverty does come
My warped reality comes from fears about the future – one where I might be back in a dingy bedsit, unable to pay bills, or even worse, relying on a man. Illustration: Mona Chalabi
There is a $400 red silk jacket hanging in my wardrobe that makes me feel so uncomfortable that I have zipped it away in a blue $3 garment bag. It is something unaffordable that I have somehow afforded, and looking at it disgusts me.
I bought the jacket last year while I was back in London. I had a TV appearance the next day and wanted to wear something “nice” – an adjective too generous for anything in my suitcase. After my best friend Cassie and I combed through H&M and Topshop, she pulled me into a designer store. I stroked a row of clothes, and she saw my hand hesitate on the jacket sleeve. “Buy it,” she said.
Cassie has known me since I was three years old, which means she has seen my parents’ home when it still had the peeling wallpaper and ancient maroon carpets before getting swapped for shiny surfaces and a loft conversion.
Cassie has seen the cockroach infested, 100 sq ft London bedsit I lived in when I got my first job, and she’s visited the 600 sq ft Brooklyn rental unit I live in now. Cassie knows that I can afford the jacket, and also understands why I still don’t want to buy it.
See, a $400 jacket isn’t a jacket that costs $400. It’s a jacket that could have cost $30 and utilities for a month and a week’s worth of groceries. So when I wear the jacket, I feel that excess. It’s a bad decision hanging elegantly on my back.
You could call it money dysmorphia: I feel like I do not have money, even though I do. I know objectively that I can go out to lunch, order a $17 burger, and have plenty of money left over. But still, I’ll sit at the table stewing with anxiety over what I might need that money for someday.
My warped reality comes from fears about the future – one where I might be back in a dingy bedsit, unable to pay bills or, even worse, relying on a man. I live in worst case scenario mode to protect myself from the financial perils of naivety. I worry that if I actually let myself accept that I have money now, it will be even more of a shock if poverty does come.
It turns out I’m not alone. Researchers describe this as the objective-subjective wealth relationship (in other words, the link between your financial reality and financial practices) and have noted that anxiety is a key factor in explaining why the two might not correlate.
There’s also evidence that this behavior causes harm: a 2013 study of 12 European countries found that older people who consider themselves poor get sick 38% more often and suffer 48% more from health setbacks than those who do not.
I didn’t need the researcher to tell me that anxiety is the culprit (my sweaty palms told me that when I zipped away the jacket). But I still can’t let myself spend much. I have prioritized the accumulation of money over the comfort I would get from spending it. Not just occasionally, but every day, when I come home to an apartment that is smaller and more run down than I would like. And every year, when I don’t take time off work. I even cut my own hair, for God’s sake.
But I don’t play these mind tricks on anyone except myself. I am not a stingy person when it comes to other people. If I’m shopping for gifts, price is a distant consideration. I’ll pay for an acquaintance’s coffee or dinner.
And so I realize that the mental acrobatics I do around spending on myself aren’t just about needless fretting that my bank balance is precariously low – part of the reason I don’t want to buy a $400 jacket is that I just don’t think that I deserve a $400 jacket. “Nice” things don’t feel right on me.
Wearing expensive clothes feels like wealth drag, like I’m performing an economic class above my own. I’m afraid that dressing rich will make me look even poorer, that new things make me look new money.
It’s not just my imagination. When I walk into an expensive store whose clientele are various polished milky shades, I feel the clerks’ eyes on me. I notice my chipped fingernails, my scraggly hair.
These things aren’t as forgivable on brown skin. I know that many people who look at my skin will always see poverty and not wealth. I think about the time my mum bought a new couch with a credit card.
The clerk looked at the words on the plastic, “DR CHALABI”, and asked my mum if her husband knew she was using his card. My mum glowed, smiled widely and said: “It’s mine.” Because of instances like this I prefer the mass consumerism of fast-fashion chain stores, where I am invisible and therefore I belong.
My unwillingness to spend a little more on myself is bad for me. It meant that I went to the cheap therapist with no qualifications (she shrugged when I told her my worries and said “no idea”).
It meant that I chose the cheap dermatologist who left me with a rash. It meant that I worked four years without taking a vacation and ended up with exhaustion deep in my bones.
I don’t want to be rich; I want to earn enough to feel good. A friend once asked me to put a number on that, and I was left silenced. Even if I managed to shore up a million dollars, I would need a few thousand more to feel safe.
Cassie’s a good friend. She regularly reminds me that, sometimes, ** happens and every resource in the world can’t shield me from it. She also says that to not use my privilege is to deny it exists.
Telling myself that I have less than what is printed on my bank balance is disrespectful to people who really are taking home smaller paychecks each month. I need to reckon with my new financial situation, honestly in public and without fear of losing it in private.
So, I’m going to take that jacket out of the bag. If I get a compliment about (it’s a really nice jacket, you know), I’m going to brush off the pang of disgust. I’ll just say: “Thank you.” For now, though, there won’t be more expensive jackets in my closet, or cheap ones. My focus will be on the mirror that hangs there.
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