If you attended high school in the United States, you probably read a story called “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant. It’s a story about a poor woman who borrows a necklace from a friend and loses it. She then panics because she believed the necklace was worth a great deal of money. She decides to replace it and never comes clean about the mistake. I remember when I read it — I was a freshman in high school living in a bloodthirsty little town before the anti-bullying crusade began. I knew from experience through elementary and middle school that there were many things I could hide, but being poor was not one of them. Poverty was in my lunchbox, on my clothes, on my no-name brand shoes.
I read “The Necklace” knowing that I’d never make the mistake of borrowing a diamond necklace from a friend — but also that I could just as easily end up a slave to a simple mistake and to my pride. The woman in the story could have just told her friend what happened. I could just tell my friends that my mom had lost her job and that we had to move in with friends of hers. Instead, the woman in the story works 10 years in menial labor to save her pride, and I came up with implausible lies about not wearing my nice clothes to school or doing a science experiment on how fast sneakers fall apart. Pride is the great barrier.
There are many instances in which pride is the correct response. When you’ve accomplished something, when you have learned who you are or when you have overcome an obstacle, you should be proud. When your pride keeps you from texting your exes when you’re lonely or from selling out a friend when you might have profited in doing so, pride is a companion to integrity and self-respect. When pride is a companion to poverty, however, the two can get you into trouble. I can’t count the number of times I’ve laid down my debit card at a restaurant or a bar and said “I’ve got it” when I didn’t have it. Or the times I’ve agreed to go out in the first place when I knew that going out was not in the budget — and that once I was out, I would have to spend money to save face. I’ve had to learn to get over my pride as I’ve gotten older and tell my friends to come hang out at my place, pick somewhere cheaper or go on without me. My pride has often been too large to swallow, but I’m learning.
Part of the trouble is that here in America, we assign no nobility to the poor. We often treat it like a choice that people make not to be ambitious or industrious, forgetting that most people who were born poor will stay poor, because we never catch up. We forget that there are times in life when almost everyone is broke — like in college — and that it’s a temporary state we get through that is not something to be ashamed of. We forget that our friends will understand that we aren’t made of money.
When I finally get up the courage to tell a friend that I can’t afford to go, I’ve always been met with understanding — and sometimes relief. Honesty engenders honesty, and if you fess up to being broke, you might be surprised at who says, “Me, too.” Americans are trained to consume from birth, so saying no and admitting you don’t have the money isn’t easy, but it gets easier as you go. Once I got over the initial peak of my pride and admitted to a friend that I couldn’t always buy concert tickets or sushi, it all seemed to get better from there. I was not rejected because I wasn’t rich.
Economic cycles can sometimes help us out. In times of booming markets, it may be harder to tell people you’re not in a position to spend money for fun — because it’s what everybody does. However, the recent cycle of recession changed what people expected from adulthood almost completely. Most of us no longer expect to be married by 25 and own a house filled with kids by 30. College graduates move back home at an incredible rate these days, and scaled-back entertainments like game night, TV-watching parties and dining in have become trendy and even expected. It’s almost like being broke is cool.
“The Necklace” ends with a tearful confession, and the owner of the lost jewelry tells her friend it was a fake; the necklace was not worth much after all. What has been lost is 10 years during which the main character’s pride deprived her of time, freedom and friendship. Her pride kept her from admitting her poverty, and she suffered in ways that her poverty alone never would have caused. Being broke in Berkeley can be tough, and admitting it can be embarrassing. But refusing to admit it can be much more costly.
Meg Elison writes the Monday column on financial issues affecting UC Berkeley students.Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].