The primary concern of families the world over, is this: will my (grand)child survive out in the wild (financially speaking)? Consequently, nowhere other than in the family sphere does the topic of money open such a large can of worms. Among friends, your salary doesn’t matter; friends are happy for you when you’re earning enough money to do nice things and they help you out when you’re struggling. But that’s as far as it goes. Among family, the money topic is sensitive yet equally everyone’s business.
No doubt this concern is totally justified. But when you’re the lowest earning sibling, you can have a hard time not feeling hopeless and defective as a result. In my situation, I am the lower earner of two siblings. My brother took the science route and earns more than double what I earn having been an arts and humanities student.
Every family occasion has become a difficult affair to navigate. Being asked the seemingly innocent question “How’s your job going?” by any member of your family requires a carefully crafted response. The question doesn’t actually mean “How’s your job going?”; it really means “Are you making money, supporting yourself and being responsible?” And on top of that, having a higher earning brother skews my family’s understanding of what a typical salary is for someone my age; I come up short against their expectations of what it means to be a successful millennial.
If you’re a bit like me and don’t want to live one conversation away from gaining a reputation as the lower earner, here are some tips on how to handle your family correspondences.
Don’t rise to competition
Last time I went home, my parents didn’t nag me about earning more and getting a stable job; instead, they spoke about the wonderful life my brother is having, about the Italian delis where he’s getting his bread and the pension plan he’s on. It felt like they were rubbing it in, but as I later realised they were simply trying to advertise being rich to me.
Lead the conversation on any family decision that involves you spending
Choosing a restaurant for mum’s birthday? Easy. You just have to make sure you put forward an expensive option first, before later rescinding and following up with a cheaper alternative. The decision will be equally split between you and your siblings and won’t reflect on just you.
If your financial situation comes up, talk about it the right way
This point should be obvious. But if you don’t want to be seen as the poorer sibling, never reveal your salary. Instead, be concise without seeming like information is being withheld; use metaphors or similes (this gives the illusion of detail), and for bonus points, frame all conversations with family members within the context of your previous conversation with other family members for added validity. “As I was telling nan, things are going better than expected - she doesn’t need to worry so much.”
Watch how you react when your sibling reveals wealth
“What! You’re going where? Japan?! WOW!” Game over. Every decision your sibling has made is an option that you have already considered but have chosen to approach differently. Instead, explain your reasoning. “Summer in Japan is rather hot. Personally, I’d have said it’s better to go in the spring—you’d also have gotten to see the cherry blossoms. But that’s just me. Have a great time!”
Be careful of direct repeat statements or questions
In a particularly moving scene in the film Good Will Hunting, psychotherapist Sean Maguire (played by Robin Williams) repeatedly tells the young genius, who has a troubled childhood, Will Hunting (Matt Damon), “It’s not your fault”. After several sessions in which Sean gradually gains more and more of Will’s trust, Sean uses this probably-not-by-the-book psychotherapist technique on Will. Will finally breaks down his defences and cries into Sean’s arms. Don’t let any member of your family try this shit on you with repeated questions like “Are you supporting yourself financially?”.
Remember, financial success is not the same as overall success
It can make you feel pretty low when your sibling is taking paid holiday from his stable job and using it to explore the world and save money for a deposit when you can barely afford a round trip to Slough. But it’s crucial not to let being the lower-earning sibling get you down because your goals are less well financially compensated in today’s world. Just because your sibling has likely had a very similar starting point, it doesn’t mean that you’re a fuck up. Some of the most meaningful success stories cannot be assigned to monetary value.