Jesse Klein: Relative wealth

By Jesse Klein, Columnist
Published February 16, 2015

My family’s household income is $250,000 a year, but I promise you I am middle class. I live in a $2 million dollar house, but I promise you I am still middle class. It has one story, doesn’t have a pool or its own movie theater. It is a modest three-bedroom, two-bath.

I understand how it sounds to dismiss $250,000. I do not discount that I am from a privileged family that can afford more than just the necessities. Many University students are also from well-off backgrounds. In Fall 2011, 63 percent of the class of 2015 reported a family income of $100,000 or more. But wealth is a relative measure in some respects. Because of the high cost of living in Palo Alto, I grew up middle class and I have found that my views on money sometimes differ drastically from those of in-state students.

The median value of a house in Ann Arbor is $274,400, and Ann Arbor is considered an expensive area of Michigan in which to live. On the few occasions I cross Main Street and enter “real Ann Arbor,” I am taken aback by the size of these houses. Most are two stories with a basement and attic and have large front and back yards. The average house price in Palo Alto is $2.3 million and none are two stories. If you want a two-story house, you better have another million to spend. To put it simply, my house in Ann Arbor is bigger than my house at home.

Housing prices aren’t the only discrepancy. A 64-ounce fishbowl at Good Time Charley’s costs about the same as an 8-ounce Long Island anywhere in the Bay Area.

So even though I have money, I don’t relate to a lot of people here who do. California money is earned and spent in a very different way than a lot of the wealthy families in the Midwest or other parts of the country. It’s almost Gatsby-like. California money is new money, held by software nerds. They don’t dress in suits but in bad dad jeans and fanny packs. Money elsewhere in the country usually means suits and ties and generations of family holdings.

There are, of course, the insanely wealthy in California. Los Altos Hills, an area neighboring Palo Alto, is an example. Average home prices are around $4 million. These are the houses with pools, movie theaters and multiple BMWs and Teslas in the garage. But even in Los Altos Hills, I notice a subtle difference in the way wealth is displayed.

Money is not used as a status symbol in the Bay Area, because just living in the Silicon Valley proves you can afford it. I never knew the brands of my friends’ clothes before I moved to Michigan. Before I came to Michigan, the only brand I knew of and also owned was The North Face. I didn’t care where they got their clothes or how much they spent and neither did they. We found clothes that fit our personal style everywhere from Nordstrom to Goodwill.

Once at Michigan I was accosted with the clothing I was supposed to know and be impressed by: Patagonia, Lululemon, Hunters, Tori Burch and much more. If I comment on someone’s outfit, they tell me who designed it. I wasn’t used to the pride people had in their clothes. My friends in Michigan have worked at minimum-wage jobs for months, saving up to buy that one special item. I respect that kind of delayed gratification, even if I do not fully understand the appeal of the specific reward.

Instead of expensive clothing, shoes and watches, the people I know from California spend money on travels and experiences. Music festivals and exotic destinations are at the top of their and my wish lists. My friend has a saying: “I would rather travel in rags than stay at home in Versace.”

Out-of-staters are known to have money — how else could we afford the $50,000 tuition costs? But middle class is a varied group of people. What is deemed important enough to save up for and what something is worth in dollars can be extremely diverse.

Jesse Klein can be reached at jekle@umich.edu.