Wealth is relative

I have told many people the story of the company I called to do work on my house last year. On his arrival, the gentleman sent to survey the job took one look at me and my house, and said, “We don’t take jobs smaller than £6K. You wouldn’t be able to afford that, would you?”

His assumptions were not necessarily unwarranted. What sort of person would choose to live in such a house, on such a street, in an area like that? For context, their company was based in Beaconsfield, a very affluent locality. Ours is a commuter belt town, last stop on the Metropolitan Line into London. Relative to surrounding areas, it could be said to be much less wealthy, but to say impoverished: that would be a stretch too far. It’s not Salford or Bolton.

To me, it comes back to the question of what wealth is. I have heard people with a household income of over £100K complaining that life is impossible. Indeed, conversations with friends can be quite confusing at times. One will complain that life is tough, but will then turn up in a luxury SUV. Another, known to own multiple properties, laments working long contracts away from home in order to make ends meet. Others, earning hundreds of thousands, seem to be living on the edge, after eye-watering mortgage repayments and school fees.

The remote working phenomenon of the past two years, in which weekly meetings are convened via Teams, has given us an insight into how we each live. Prior to adoption of blurry and amusing backgrounds, we’d be given to house-envy, surveying the innards of the new-build townhouses of our teammates. I let my colleagues laugh about the shed in which I sometimes work, because it feeds into my curated persona of the unworldly bumbling fool. The reality: they too would probably be rather surprised that we live in the house we do, on a street like this. It’s anathema to our social standing.

Yes, well that’s one way of looking at it. But there’s another way. My wife and I were living in London when we first considered buying a house of our own. We were both working, bringing home a modest income. The average London house price at the time was £300K, but we were completely priced out of our own area. Ultimately we would start looking further afield, considering areas outside the capital, within commuting distance of central London, which we could afford. Those two criteria were key.

So to our detractors — tradesmen, colleagues, family, friends — who believe we live in a house and area which reveals us, here is a different perspective on wealth. We settled upon the first house we could afford. It was pretty rundown when we bought it. It had no central heating or double-glazing, and required a lot of work. We put heating in when we moved in, but had to save up a few years to do the windows, shivering through the winters. And for those early years, we lived on one salary, while the other one went straight into paying off our loan. We blitzed it, living on the edge for a few years, but we now live in a house without a mortgage.

Although I now earn a decent salary, we continue to live a frugal lifestyle. My wife gave up work when the children arrived. I’m not overly concerned that she return to work now that they’re in secondary school; it’s up to her. I’d be more content that we live on one salary, than her bringing home the stresses caused by workplace bullying, racism and prejudice, which took a serious toll on her health previously. We share a car, a sensible family crossover, bought outright, second-hand. The essential smartphones we must now all own: ageing budget handsets, on minimal sim-only contracts.

The best wealth, our wise sages tell us, is contentment in a little. I can’t claim that what we have is a little. In fact, we have much that others would be envious of. A humble abode here, and another over there. We’re not poor or deprived by any measure — we’re just living within our means, grateful for these blessings.

Wealth is all relative. It depends what your aspirations are.

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