By Keve Brockington
I was a 13-year-old seventh-grader in 1993 when Wu-Tang Clan released the album "Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers." The eighth track was called “Cash Rules Everything Around Me (C.R.E.A.M.)” and the chorus played over the airwaves for months:
Cash rules everything around me.
Get the money.
Dollar, dollar bill, y’all!
These lyrics created a blueprint for how my friends and I would view finances, but maybe not in the way that you would think. If you’ve never heard the song, you might think it’s about accumulating wealth out of greed or materialism, but to us, it was inspiration to fuel our future goals.
My friends and I took Wu-Tang’s message to mean that we should make money together and support each other to succeed. We talked about starting businesses, playing sports and becoming each other’s agents and attorneys. We saw our dreams as relatively large, but attainable. Admittedly, healthy competition was also a part of it. We wanted to outdo each other, while hoping for everyone’s success at the same time.
My group of 10 tight-knit friends came from backgrounds ranging from low to high income. When we were teenagers, our parents still supported us and only two of us had real jobs. I never experienced any significant issues regarding money. I had residual income from chores, birthdays and holidays to help me "keep up with the Joneses."
But in high school, the way you looked, what you drove, where you lived and your popularity spoke volumes. We saw our peers shamed and made fun of entirely based on their appearance. I did not make fun of other people, but it definitely occurred on a regular basis. Maybe because I have friends from all backgrounds, I have always had an understanding that not everyone can afford to have everything they desire. But we were teenagers, and that meant that we thought we had to have the latest material goods.
Shopping to Belong
Our group loved the mall. If one of us made a purchase, we all thought we had to buy something, even if it was just something small such as a CD. I would justify it by saying that I “needed” new music. Looking back, I see that this came from an egocentric place. I thought I had to buy new things to remain valid and relevant with my crew.
I thought I had to buy new things to remain valid and relevant with my crew.
In college, I was still influenced by my peers, although to a lesser degree. If my roommate bought a new hat, a pair of Timberlands or a Polo shirt, you can be sure that I would go out looking for a similar products. Unfortunately, I still tried to keep up, even as my money began to recede. I kept spending as long as my friends were doing the same.
Toward the end of college, my friends and I began talking about money and spending differently. I noticed that those who didn’t have much money growing up seemed especially motivated to establish themselves financially early on. They found ways to provide for themselves and they seemed to believe that going back to the “simple life” wouldn’t be enough. We all wanted every material and financial benefit that life had to offer. We wanted women to look at us because we dressed well and we thought we needed money to validate us.
Money in our Twenties
As we entered our mid-twenties, there was no longer a lifeline from our parents. The expectation that we would start growing up became a fact of life. Some of my friends got engaged, purchased homes and started families, while others bought expensive vehicles, traveled the world and lived a carefree lifestyle. I decided to stay in the small town where we had gone to college, even though I knew my opportunities there would not allow me to have all of the material things that I wanted. While my friends were moving on, I still lived in a townhome with three roommates. I felt that my friends were advancing while I was grounded.
Then Came All the Weddings
For the next few years it seemed like one of us got married every weekend. True to the extravagant dreams of our teenage years, my friends did not believe in local destinations for bachelor parties and weddings. One week there would be an invitation to Lake Tahoe and the next, Las Vegas. Trips to New York, San Francisco and Seattle were soon to come and I felt obligated to attend each of them. I was not making as much money as some of my friends, but I felt pressured to show that I still belonged and could hang with the pack.
I felt pressured to show that I still belonged and could hang with the pack.
It is hard to say no to an invitation when you want to say yes. Trying to make sense of my situation was even more difficult. I grew up with all of these people, so how was it that we were in such different places financially?
Fast-forward to my early 30s. I quit my job, moved to a bigger city and went back to school to pursue a career in journalism that I hope will satisfy my personal and professional goals. Recently, my friends planned a trip to the Dominican Republic. My wife, Megan, and I really wanted to go, but we felt that we just couldn’t afford it given our current budget.
I discussed our financial concerns with my longtime friend Jeff. I asked how he felt he could afford this trip when he and his wife had a mortgage, a car loan and baby on the way. Jeff said that they would put off certain payments until the following month because they wanted to “make sure we have enough money to spend in D.R.” This comment did not make any sense to me. I couldn’t see how they could make these types of financial choices work, but I also knew that Jeff and his wife had a plan that seemed to work for them. They went on the trip, but we did not.
I admit that missing out on the experience made me feel inadequate. But I also knew that no matter how much fun Megan and I would have had, we would have struggled financially when we returned. Even just keeping up with dinner and drink dates is tough sometimes, and when you really do not have the money, it is nearly impossible.
My friends motivate me to live a fulfilling life and I splurge when it is feasible. But as an adult, I have learned to be honest about where I am financially and to live within my means.
Over the years, my friends and I have maintained that feeling of competition that first developed when we were listening to Wu-Tang and going to the mall. But we have also held on to our mutual respect for one another. I know now that how I choose to save and spend my money is an independent decision. I have to do what is right for me and my family, based on my specific goals and values. I know now that it’s not the amount of money, but the amount of time that we spend together, and the experiences we share, that truly make our friendship valuable.
[Any reference to a specific company, commercial product, process or service does not constitute or imply an endorsement or recommendation by the National Endowment for Financial Education.]