Picture, if you will, my lawyer friend, Caitlin. She’s a mid-level finance associate at one of New York’s biggest lawyer factories. She’s been at the Big Law game long enough to be depressed on the good days and on the hunt for sturdy noose material on the bad days — which is to say most days. But, as luck would have it, after months of furtive interviews, she finally got an offer a couple of weeks ago to go in-house at a media company that most people I know, including me, would kill to work for.

So, when we went out to drinks last week to celebrate, I was expecting her to be ecstatic. I was expecting her to have quit the firm within five minutes of getting the offer. What I wasn’t expecting was three hours of listening to her waver, almost to the point of tears, about whether she should take the job.

I kept pressing her — what was it about this job offer that was making her so torn? The (awesome, non-billable) hours? The (cooler) people? The (less mind-numbing) work? Finally, after four Belvedere-tonics, she leaned across the table and lowered her voice.“It’s just… I’m just afraid…” She darted her eyes around and leaned in closer, lowering her eyes.

“I’m just afraid of what it’ll be like to feel…” she whispered, “…poor.”

The offered salary of the new in-house gig? $120,000 a year.

And now, a couple of weeks later, I’m still not sure what’s more disturbing: the fact that this friend — a worldly, educated, smart, able person — truly thinks that a single lawyer living in New York City on $120,000 could feel “poor” — or that fact that she’s absolutely right….

Now, if you’ve been spending much time in and around the legal interwebs lately, you’ve heard the controversial argument that earning $250K a year in this country makes you a lot of things — except “rich.” You either agree (greetings to you, JD/MBA types living in Manhattan, Los Angeles and San Francisco!) or you vehemently, vehemently disagree and think that Elie anyone who thinks otherwise is a naïve, classist prick (greetings to you… people living everywhere else).

But the Caitlin question — the $120,000 Question — has nothing to do with the plush, glittering bar that you have to hit on your W-2 to feel rich; it has to do with the scabby, feces-strewn line that you have to stumble across in your mind to feel poor. And, if you’re a young, professional type living in New York City today making $120,000 or less, you’ve probably got some scab residue on those scuffed shoes, my friend.

Think about it: What does feeling “poor” mean to you? No, really, before you lunge for my throat, just step back for a second and ask yourself: What would actually make you feel “poor”? Worrying about how you’re going to pay your rent? Living in a small, crappy apartment? Being a perpetual renter instead of a buyer? Feeling that you can’t afford to have kids? Not being able to eat the kind of food you want on a regular basis? Never taking vacations… at least not ones that involve planes? Or, to step back even further, would it just be feeling that you can’t keep pace with your friends and neighbors? Feeling that 90 percent of the people you come across on a daily basis, no matter what you may have in the bank, are way out of your financial league?

Well, if you’re a single lawyer living in New York City on $120,000 a year, there’s a good chance this describes you to a tee, for better or worse.

Now, fine, let’s clarify a couple of things: I’m not saying that a person making $120,000 a year in New York is living on the so-called poverty line, collecting food stamps and selling blood and semen to pay for heat. Living in poverty and feeling poor are not the same thing. I’m also not saying that if someone who’s now making, say, $12,000 a year, suddenly made ten times that, that they would consider themselves poor. I’m saying that feeling poor is on par with feeling, say, ugly or untalented: it’s relative. And egalitarian posturing be damned, the feeling can be justified even when you’re making six figures — especially when you’re living in New York City.

Not convinced? Let’s look at some actual numbers.

See hard numbers about the cost of the Manhattan Dream, at Sweet Hot Justice….


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