You stare at the signup sheet for the potluck at work, and notice that most people have signed up for more than one item. Do you do as instructed and sign up for a single item, or do you feel like others will probably think badly of you if you don’t sign up for multiple items as well?

These kinds of things happen all the time. There are so many opportunities to feel judged: How much we contribute to cards passed around the office or money collected for charity, what we order or don’t order in restaurants (Do people know that we order water because we like it, or do they think we can’t afford a soft drink? and why does it matter?), whether or not we use coupons (Is it a “real” treat if you use a buy-one-get-one-free coupon to take someone else to lunch? Do the people in line behind us in the grocery store think we can’t make ends meet without coupons?), where we live (What will people think when they come over?), what we drive, etc.

For me, it’s easier to do what I really want to do when I have the money to do otherwise. I’m less concerned about what others think. If I want to drive an old car because I like it, I don’t care so much if others think I should buy something else. Or at least, I get irritated at them if they don’t respect my choice.

But when I really had very little money coming in (there were a few years not that long ago when I made $4,000 or less per year) I was more concerned about what people thought. Should I see about getting reduced lunches for my son? (Yes, I should have. Did I? No.) I got water and free crackers along with my $1 lunch at a fastfood restaurant because that was all I could afford. And even though water & crackers are things that I like, I felt that people thought less of me for getting them. (Especially when I used my debit card to buy the $1 lunch. I would say “debit” loudly when asked if that was debit or credit, because I wanted strangers to know that I did indeed have at least a dollar in my bank account.) I suspect that people without much money are actually less likely to use visible money saving devices.

So I wonder, what does the fear of looking poor (or worse, cheap) cost us? Both emotionally and monetarily?