The Golden Safety-Net Kids

You know that friend of yours who works in publishing … but owns her own two-bedroom apartment? That teacher who shops at Barneys … months before the warehouse sale? That colleague who never moans about overdue expense-reimbursement checks and lives alone because she "just can’t deal with roommates"?

Meet the Secret Rich of Manhattan: a confounding, infuriating and ubiquitous pecies of artist/writer/ do-gooder that somehow manages to afford a little bit more than everyone else, without letting on just how they do it.

Not necessarily rich according to the traditional definition, à la Biddle or Trump, the Secret Rich nonetheless enjoy considerable assistance and countless advantages—from shopping stipends, to help with rent, to full-blown trust funds—that buoy their lifestyles in Manhattan, all the while acting like they’re flat broke. Unlike the unapologetic rich, who take pride in their mansions and yachts, the Secret Rich carefully maintain an appearance of living hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck. They’ll talk about not being able to afford things; about cabs being really expensive (a dead giveaway— real struggling artists can’t afford cabs). Yet somehow you’ll notice they never have college loans to repay, nor threadbare coats, nor stinging embarrassments at the A.T.M.

While the unapologetic rich live in mansions or classic sixes on Park or Fifth, the Secret Rich prefer to congregate in neighborhoods that still have a tinge of bohemianism: snuggling in West Village warrens or yukking it up in Soho, where a group of them could be found last Thursday night at an opening party for the new Links of London jewelry store on West Broadway. John Grant, 28, was sipping free top-drawer whisky and plucking billowy macaroons off silver platters. A paralegal, he said he lives on East Sixth street in a studio that costs $1,425 per month. "I shouldn’t be living in my apartment," he said. "I mean, it’s not like it’s some $2,000 trust-fund studio or some shit. If I was going to be smart, and try to save money in my life, I would live in, like, a Bushwick loft for like $700 and commute."

But he doesn’t, and therein lies the unbreachable gulf between the truly strapped and the Secret Rich. Mr. Grant admitted he was still using his parents’ credit card until last year, after a friend noticed. "I’m like, ‘Douchebag, what are you doing bringing that up for?’ He called me out, man. I was like, Oh-oh! But he was right."

Standing nearby was his friend Leah Jackson, 27, a dark-haired veterinarian with milky white skin, multiple piercings … and generous parents. Dr. Jackson lives on the Upper East Side in a $1,600 one-bedroom but has been considering upgrading to the East Village. "The places I like are all $2,000," Dr. Jackson said. "My parents are like, ‘Do it! We want you to live in a nice place.’ If I found a place, I will need their help, because I want a nice, new, big place." She paused. "It makes you feel bad about your value system sometimes, when you’re around people who don’t have that," Dr. Jackson said. "All of my friends that graduated from Penn—an Ivy League college—are living in Brooklyn. They have no money, they ride their bikes everywhere, they’re making half of what I make and they’re living on it. And I actually couldn’t do it. Theoretically, I should have been able to live on my salary last year and I couldn’t do it because I’m so used to a certain lifestyle, and that’s why I feel bad. I wasn’t willing to give it up."

Like many Secret Rich, Dr. Jackson prides herself on her thrift and Manhattan savvy. If she’s "nice shopping," she said, "I’ll only go to sample sales. I buy something when I need it. How could you just buy new clothes whenever you feel like it?"

"It’s expensive living in the city," said a shy 23-year-old with straight brown hair. The woman, an assistant buyer at a department store, covers her everyday recurring expenses, including rent on an apartment near Union Square, but breaks out her parents’ plastic for clothes. "Definitely a lot of people I know, it’s an unspoken secret that you know that they’re doing everything that you see them doing and affording it on their own," she said. "I don’t hide it, but I also don’t talk about it. I don’t like talking about money in general."

"It’s fascinating because there all these people in New York who try to pretend that they have more than they do," said a 34-year-old financial adviser. "But then there are these people who are trying to pretend like they have less. But not that successfully."

"I really could make do with less," said Dr. Jackson, the vet who gets help from her folks. "But I’ve never had to. And I don’t have to now. So why should I?"

‘I’m Not a Trust-Fund Person’

Call a Secret Rich person just that, and they’ll inevitably point to someone who has more, gets more—something which, of course, is always possible in New York City. Manhattan is so expensive now, perhaps everyone is Secretly Rich to some extent—it is just a matter of degree. There are infinite gradations. Someone who doesn’t pay rent has it easier than someone who only has permission to charge clothes on her parents’ credit card, who has it easier than those people who know they can ask for emergency money.

A favorite whipping boy of the Secret Rich is the trust-fund recipient, whose large bank account pays out healthy sums of interest quarterly. People with trust funds are somehow a shared rallying point for the Secret Rich and the not-at-all rich. Evoking that sort of Wall Street –era archetype makes a lot of the Secret Rich feel better, as if the only way to be truly spoiled is to have a car and driver.

"I’m not a trust-fund person," said Andrea, a 26-year-old Web-site editor whose grandparents covered her rent for nearly four years after college. "This is not because my resources are limitless. I don’t ask my parents for help on anything except that they pay for my tickets when I go visit them in Michigan." "Though in no way is that also to make it sound like I’m a have-not," she added. "I know how incredibly lucky I am."

A well-coifed 30-year-old who works in fashion has a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment on 73rd and Park that was purchased for her by her aunt and uncle, a pharmaceutical executive. "I have a hard time when people ask me where do I live?" she said. "Sometimes I’ll just say, ‘On the Upper East Side, on 73rd,’ like I don’t like to say, ‘73rd and Park’, and if I do, they’re like, ‘Ooh! Nice neighborhood!’"

Though this fashionista charges anywhere between $1,000 and $3,000 a month in household items and clothes to her generous relatives, a situation she refers to as her "golden handcuffs," she somehow manages to draw a line between herself and those with a "bankroll." "There’s someone on the other end checking the bill," she said defensively over lunch the other day, wearing a mint Jimmy Choo bag and Technicolor Matthew Williamson blazer.

One hallmark of the Secret Rich is the convoluted explanations of their circumstances, like the one that followed: "My cousin does the finances for the family, and so he’ll call me up and be like, ‘What’s this and this and this?’ I have to justify my spending. He goes, ‘Who’s Agnes b.?’"

It’s this sort of equivocation that is profoundly infuriating to New Yorkers who don’t have backup, a cushion, a "deal"—those for whom losing a job would be an actual financial disaster rather than a mere emotional disturbance. "They make me want to throw up!" said Janelle Best, a 27-year-old waitress at Fanelli’s Cafe, found recently walking down Bleecker Street (the Madison Avenue for the Secret Rich) after an acting class. "They’re all trust-fund babies, and they’re all rich," she said.

Ms. Best lives in South Williamsburg. Of her neighbors on the northern side, another hotbed of the Secret Rich, she fumed: "They have these holey jeans and these amazing lofts that their parents bought for them. And they’re like ‘artists.’ It’s really irritating actually."

Old Money Talks

What do the unapologetic rich think of this emerging, cringing subclass? Speaking from North Stonington, Conn., Nelson Aldrich Jr., author of Old Money and a member of the Rockefeller family, likened reticence of the Secret Rich to an age-old WASP-y work ethic. "The short answer is that dependency of any kind is considered a grave breech of manners—because the prevailing hero of American culture is a self-made man, or woman," he said. "Although I bet if you did some research, you’d find that women are much more willing to concede that they’re getting help from their family." (In fact, The Observer ’s research suggested that for the Secret Rich, being dependent on your parents is somehow considered less of a weakness then being beholden to a husband. It’s almost as if the same crowd that looks down at women who are kept by their husbands, who talk about wanting to pursue their careers, have become the crowd that’s kept by their parents.)

"When I was growing up, the people one went to school with—everybody knew that everybody was getting some sort of help from one’s parents or grandparents," Mr. Aldrich continued. "Now there’s been some sort of ‘scatteration,’ and everybody is supposed to be middle class. There’s been a huge democratization of wealth."

Band-Aid heir Jamie Johnson, 24, who sketched the lives of the fabulously wealthy in his documentary Born Rich, had nothing but sympathy for the new breed. "I think our culture today values people who are self-made," Mr. Johnson said, "and I think that we respect and revere those who are financially successful on their own merit. So it’s not surprising that wealthy individuals want others to think they’ve made their money rather than inherited it."

On Elizabeth Street in the Secret Rich nexus of Nolita, Monica Tran is about to open a store called Trust Fund Baby. Unlike her prospective customers, she said, she is out and proud about her wealth. "I would be on welfare if it weren’t for my parents," she said. Her father, now retired, once owned the largest shipping company in Vietnam. "They paid for my apartment and gave me money to live on. I’ve never traveled coach class in my life."

Ms. Tran decried the aw-shucks affectations of the Secret Rich. "There’s nothing wrong or shameful about having money!" she said. "It’s fine if you don’t want to wear an Armani suit everyday—but don’t look like you didn’t shower for two days. I know a few people like that and they bug the hell out of me." The Golden Safety-Net Kids