Tuesday, November 14, 2006

On Privilege

Today, I came upon this amazing post by TiredButHappy. In my recent reading of personal finance blogs, I've met so many people who've built their own financial lives from scratch. Almost everyone has student loan payments to factor into their monthly budgets, even the ones free from credit-card debt payments (often on debt incurred on college expenses). This is true of many of my friends, as well, but it's not true for me. My parents paid for all four years of my private education (and private elementary school before I got into a fancy public high school). They didn't qualify for financial aid, and they didn't just pay my tuition and fees--they paid for rent, groceries, books, even the odd beer here and there. When I worked in college, I pocketed the entire paycheck, free and clear. I didn't live high, or anything--my rent was cheap and I shopped at Safeway, not Whole Foods, and at secondhand clothing stores--but I was still going to the movies sometimes, buying clothes, buying cocktails and occasional concert tickets and late-night sodas and all the rest. I often felt guilty as I watched my roommate argue with herself over asking her dad for rent money or a friend put a car repair on her credit card. I knew I had it easy. And at graduation, my generous aunt sent a check for $2,000 that covered the broker's fee and security deposits on my new apartment--not a penny of that money came out of my own pocket. My great-aunt's savings bonds and my parents' gift of money from the sale of assets in my name let me live through the summer while job-hunting in a leisurely way that let me find the job I really wanted, as opposed to the first one I could get. In short, this September was really the beginning of my adult financial life. So many people have had to begin so much younger, responsible for their own living costs, or responsible for enormous educational debts--I have had the luxury of not thinking about any of that.

I have had it easy. The first time I realized the extent to which my privilege provides a substantive financial advantage was when I decided to buy a 1-year CD with the money I'd saved from my paychecks in school. A friend with whom I discussed it brought up lack of liquidity as a concern, and I realized with a start that that's not really a concern for me. If I had, say, a medical emergency while my money was tied up in a CD, my parents would cover the cost. They might not even want me to pay them back when my money was freed up, but they certainly wouldn't charge interest. My money could earn a higher interest rate without any significant drawbacks. That's a real advantage, a quantifiable one, one as tangible as the fact that I can save the money that I would otherwise have to put towards student loan payments--or I can spend it. There's more flex in my budget and in my life.

I guess what I want to say is that I am grateful for the gifts given me, the opportunities and advantages, and I am positively in awe of the people who've done it for themselves, from scratch. Single Ma just blows me away--she's fought singlehandedly (no pun intended!) for every one of her financial and personal achievements, all the while retaining her principles and priorities. Her daughter is mighty lucky--I can't imagine getting a greater gift from a parent than that kind of determined love and dedication.

I'll never be able to give myself all the credit for any financial success I achieve, and I guess in some ways I'm grateful I don't have to. That's why my parents worked hard all their lives (especially my dad, who's a second-generation immigrant who grew up in a Brooklyn tenement)--so I wouldn't have to think about the cost of my dream college or worry about student loan payments, or take a job I didn't like. It's why self-made personal finance bloggers work and save and strive--to better their own lives and the lives of their children. The children who have been given these gifts should not regret them. I don't mean that we shouldn't consider the impact of our privilege on our lives, and on our culture. But the gifts given us were meant--the gifts given me were meant, and lovingly. I can't turn them down--I couldn't even if I wanted to, and I don't. I can, however, be grateful for the help I've received, and be responsible morally as well as financially in the ways I use my money. I can give my parents a daughter they can be proud of, and I can try to give something back to my society, and, if I have children, I can give them the very best of all the important things--books, and experience, and education, and principles.


Tiredbuthappy said...

EM, Thanks for the link, and welcome to the blogosphere. As you know, I struggle with some of the same feelings about the privilege I've enjoyed.

You said:
"If I have children, I can give them the very best of all the important things--books, and experience, and education, and principles."

Oddly, I feel like I want to try to make sure my son does NOT grow up as privileged as I did. Even if I have the money to pay for his entire education, I intend to make him work for some of it. I wasted a lot of time in college because I didn't understand how much it was costing. I want him to think about whether that basket-weaving class is really worth $1500 in tuition. I think he'll understand that better if he's had to work and save before college, and if he's going to have to work and save during the summers while he's in school.

I also want to live in economically diverse neighborhoods and go to public schools. I grew up in a wealthy, white area, and I didn't learn until I was well out of college just how different my life was from most of the people in this country. I want to make sure he has lots of friends who come from different backgrounds. I suspect this is what you were getting at when you said you wanted to give your kids not only books and education, but also experience and principles.

To me, this will serve my son better than giving him the best education money can buy.

Keep up the good writing! I look forward to watching your progress.

Single Ma said...

Hi EM!

Thank you so much for the very kind words. My daughter is my reason for living so she makes the struggle and sacrifice worth it. I just hope I can provide her with a head start in life so she won't have to work as hard.

Thanks for reading my blog. :-)

S/100/30 said...

I think it comes down to an issue of empathy. I see a lot of bloggers who received lots of money from their parents, even as post-college adults, say things like, "Yes, I know I was very fortunate and I appreciate their generosity but..." and go on to talk about how irresponsible people are for getting into credit card debt, not starting retirement accounts right out of school, etc.

As long as you give more then lip service to your privilege, it's hard as a reader to have a problem with it.

English Major said...

Tiredbuthappy, I don't think it's odd that you want your son's upbringing to be different than your own. I've felt that way myself, more than once. There are definitely things I'd do differently with a kid of my own than my parents did with me, even if I have the means to do whatever-it-is their way. In some ways, I think this comes with growing up with money. My father grew up very much "without," and for him, giving his children relatively luxurious lives was something that he did for himself as much as he did it for us. Because of that relatively luxurious life, I may not have the same drive to provide elaborately for my children.

I do disagree about college, though--I benefited a great deal from the privilege to wander around figuring what I wanted to do, and that's something I definitely want my theoretical children to be able to do, too. Education will be absolutely my first priority with my children. As my parents begin to think about their "testamentary dispositions," my (younger) sister and I both plan to discuss with them the idea of establishing an educational trust instead of leaving us money.

Money can buy that privilege, but there are tons of educational things that money can't buy. I went to a racially and economically diverse public magnet school, and if I were to have children, it's absolutely where I'd want to send them. My sister got a wonderful education from her small, private high school, but there are things I learned in high school that she didn't, simply because I met the people I met, from all over the city and all walks of life, and she met the people she met (mostly uptown white rich kids--I remember one girl who'd never been on the subway).

I think we basically agree that we wouldn't want to spoil a child, wouldn't want to raise a child out of touch with the world and the people who struggle in it. If I were to have a child, it would be very much my goal to provide for him or her such that she could contribute to the general good.

Anonymous said...

I think you have a very balanced attitude. Many don't realize how privlieged they are or have very negative feelings about it... And even less privileged Americans are often very privileged from a global perspective.

Grad School Girl said...

Thank you so much for this post. I know I'm reading far back in your blog, but I just discovered your blog and like to start from the beginning of blogs I think I might particularly enjoy.

Yours and my financial situations sound very similar and I'm very happy to find someone who wants to be financially independent while having very supportive parents and no debt.

I have just started my blog recently, but feel free to look at it and enjoy!

--Grad School Girl