Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Empathy for the Rich

In addition to clipping the coupons I always enjoy reading the Sunday newspapers. This Sunday the following headline from the St Petersburg Times caught my eye:

No Longer King, Queen, of their Castle

This family made all their riches in the building trade when it was booming. The husband probably did a lot of the work on their staggering 7000 square-foot home with some help, but they still had a mortgage, RV, boat, pool table, golf cart, etc. They weren't keeping up with the Joneses. They were the Joneses. Anyone with half an an eye for furniture can see the pieces in the background of the video and know that money was no object when they were sprucing up their nest. Of course his business was bringing in three to five million in better times.

Now he gets to work every other week or so and they still own too much in property to qualify for food stamps. In order to try to keep their house, they retreated to just a few rooms, and rented as many rooms as they could. They still may not be able to keep their house.

They must have never heard the phrase, "Live simply so others may simply live." After all, she paid $14,000.00 for the front doors alone. Another $10,000.00 went towards curtains.

I can understand their pain. They are letting strangers live in their home just so they can afford food and electricity, for the work is gone. Their daughters have to share bedrooms for the first time. Coming down from a three million a year business to wanting public assistance must be quite a blow to them. However, the poor person in me is wondering how they could see such lavishness as a necessity. I also wonder how they plowed through their savings so quickly.

It's weird this brief glimpse into another way of life. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I could never see myself spending $20,000.00 on a piano, or needing all of the play toys that they had.

The economy is rough for everyone to some degree. From what I've read about the Depression the very poor were sometimes better off than the newly poor, because they already knew how to survive with a lack of money. It proves true with our recession to some extent too.

I know of people in my own poor neighborhood who once made their living in the building trade. Some collect unemployment, some keep afloat with odd jobs, and some have carved dinky apartments out of their already small homes to rent to others who are even worse off. One of these apartments I saw was no bigger than a walk-in closet, but the extra $50 a week was sorely needed by the out of work painter.

I hope this family learns some frugal skills, and pull through this trying time as better people. While I can find empathy for them as this is a real ordeal they are experiencing, I also see many ways in which they may have made poor decisions.

There are many news articles lately about the rich, or formerly rich, who feel impoverished. Some readers may become angry, while others understand. I want to bring these people into my home, serve them a dinner of salad, vegetable lasagna, or roasted chicken and homemade rolls. We can eat at my card table which serves as my formal dining room table in my dining room which is also my kitchen. After dinner I can share a few recipes from my cookbooks (bought used) from my bookcase (handmade, yet still serving the same purpose as their $3,700.00 bookcase.) We could talk of several subjects. I could try to convince them to give up a few cell phones. Are you sure every member of your family has to have one? Before they leave I can show them my budget and let them know that they can survive on less. Really, it's not as bad as you think.

What's your initial reaction to the story? Empathy, anger, astonishment, or something else entirely?


  1. I am impressed by your empathy. Not so easy to muster.

    Often, people like that say to me, "But you're USED to living that way (i.e. frugally)."

    I will aim to be as empathetic as you are.

  2. WP: Wow. What a story. Very mixed feelings but ultimately I feel like you do--come in and eat with us, let's talk. Yeah, that family made seriously self-absorbed dumb decisions that even in "rich times" I could never justify--but I think the mom and the older daughter (the one who said "I'm not going to lie--this sucks") especially have a sense of "life has changed and we need to get on with making it work." Good for them: I hope that carries them through. There are thousands of people in foreclosure--some with little tiny houses, not mansions--who thought "this will never happen to me"--and it is happening everywhere. It will get a lot worse for this family before it gets better; I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

  3. Wow, this was really a fascinating human interest story. Thanks for sharing.

    I have a lot of impressions: First, I feel bad for them. They are obviously very confused and don't seem to understand how this happened to them. And I feel bad that they are desperately hanging on to that monstrosity of a house. I hope they realize that their family is the most important thing. They seem like a close-knit, loving family and they have already grown accustomed to living conditons that are a lot smaller than 7000 sq. feet. I don't see why they don't just sell the house at any cost and get out from under it. I understand attachment---I am deeply in love with my 1000 square foot home, but I also recognize family as the heart of the home. We could be happy living anywhere if we were safe and had the basic necessities of life.

    Secondly, I am aghast at the thought of the exorbitant cost that was put into this home to begin with. Then again, I have no idea what it's like to earn $3 million a year, either. Are $14,000 doors a drop in the bucket at that income? I agree with you, IATWP, that I could never, ever see myself spending like that. I do feel fortunate that we've always had to be frugal out of necessity.

    So, in answer to your question, I feel astonishment and also empathy for this family. I don't like all the anger that came out in the comments to the story. People are human. We all make poor decisions at times. I do agree that the family shouldn't receive gov't help while they are living in their mansion. I realize a lot of people's anger came from this perceived expectation from the mom in the family.

    Again, thanks for sharing. Sorry my comment is so long!

  4. frugalscholar, it is an incredible story. It is hard to believe that they continued as long as possible with this lifestyle.

    April, call them curtains or call them drapes, you or I would never spend $10,000.00 on them. :)

    Carrie, I loved your sentence...
    "I do feel fortunate that we've always had to be frugal out of necessity." A smart and sunny perspective. Oh, and there are no limits. Your comments are welcome and may be as long as you wish.

  5. About 5 years ago I turned to my good friend Nancy and asked her how people could be living so much better then her and I when I knew they were making the same money. She replied "'Cause they're lying, they don't have the money to live like that."

    Even with making 3 million a year these people were lying to themselves because they were obviously spending way beyond their means. They were living like billionaires when they were only millionaires. Even when your pulling in a lot of money you MUST make sure you have a safety net which these guys obviously didn't.

    Do I feel sorry for them? In a way yes, but I am also irritated that they have a sense of entitlement and when they had money they just squandered it.

  6. Ingrid, the whole story fascinates me still. They started out building their dream home with leftover concrete blocks from other jobs, and then they bought a $14,000.00 front door? At one time they threw all frugal points out the window.

    I wonder what they thought the reaction would be after the interview. Did they have visions of public sympathy and a fund raiser in their honor? Did they do this as a warning to others to cut back on spending and save?

  7. I'm so intrigued that I went back to the re-read the story and more comments today. The mom in the family, Trese, has responded in about 6 comments. They really sound like down-to-earth people who just got caught up in having a great cash flow that only lasted a little while.

    Her one comment that rubbed me the wrong way was that they only wanted government help because they had "paid SO MUCH in taxes" and that people who had never paid A LOT OF MONEY IN TAXES would not understand. I say everyone who works pays a lot of money in taxes as everyone is taxed in proportion to their individual income!

    She emphasizes the hard work that they put into building the house from scratch themselves and admits that some of their expenses, like those outrageous doors, were very foolish.

    Whatever their motive for the story, I see it as a cautionary tale that I am taking to heart.

    Good discussion here!

  8. Carrie, I went back today and read those comments too. I just about lost any empathy I had for her when she made that comment. I realize she felt the need to lash out after reading so many rude comments, some about her daughters, but that was so uncalled for. Everyone pays taxes. She also has one advantage, there is no state income tax in Florida. Even if one is poor and gets earned income credit for children under 18, there is sales tax, vehicle tax, utilities taxes, property tax...Everyone pays.

    Maybe she can make a few party dresses out of those fancy curtains. Oops sorry, I had a Scarlett moment. :)

  9. Great link.

    Now to spin off a different point ... this is an example of how difficult it is these days to raise cash by selling property, collectibles or household items.

    I get a lot of questions on that topic, and I tell people what the second-hand market is really like. Peopleare shocked when I tell them of an estate this summer when we had to GIVE away most of the household contents because a sale would not bring in the money needed to pay a vendor.

  10. Monroe, this is so true, it is difficult to get rid of a lot of stuff at a yard sale now. People are being very careful with their spending.

  11. I feel for those folks in their current situation but also have to wonder at $10,000 necessities that were their front doors or whatever.

    I have become acquainted with a few women who were formerly rich and now divorced from their rich husbands. Very few of them knew how to manage on less money and are now mostly broke. Thrift may as well be a word in another language.

    If you're accustomed to having the income they had before, it's what they're used to.

    I think having a meal with them would be a nice gesture. After spending time with some formerly rich folks I personally wouldn't do it.

    I found spending time with these type of people exhausting as they "still" didn't understand that they had to cut their expenses to live on less money.

    My one broke and chronically unemployed gal acquaintance complained about being broke but had a telephone with the most expensive plan for data usage and was paying storage on some household items. And lawyer bills, and child support even though she had no job.

    You're better than me..

  12. I once was around the rich working for them, cleaning their mansions and office building. No empathy, no sympathy at all did they have for ones such as me; piled more and more work on me, $4 hr wage; refused to take tax out for it would entail them paying half of the FICA.

    Wasteful, extravagant - $300 pairs shoes, 6-10 pairs at a time, piles of new clothes weekly, cocaine I found in her discarded pantyhose, filthy personal hygiene habits! Crooks in their businesses. No, I feel no empathy, sympathy only delight that they are being brought to their knees today hopefully. They plotted the move out of state when construction (he) interior designer (her) began to slow apparently or bigger fish to catch otherwheres. How conveniently the house caught fire while the parents were away in Florida, caught in two far separate locations !!!. Started booth construction in Florida. Too many rich people typical of them so nothing from this corner for any of them. They sure have no empathy, sympathy or kind words for we the 99%; in fact, the rich despise we, the working poor and despise even worse those who have to get government assistance. Do you see any of out leaders ribs sticking out? MO brings in more money than her spouse. I haven't been able to buy a new garment, new pair of shoes in 30 years. Very hard struggle to buy bare necessities.