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Sometimes obvious truths smack you in the face. Maybe it’s something you’ve heard a thousand times. It might be a reality everyone else sees that you don’t. You might even be living it without realizing. Then, it suddenly becomes REAL. After almost two years of pursuing FI, it suddenly dawned on me what an incredible privilege it is to be pursuing frugality by choice.
Now, I’m not a complete idiot. I talk and write about how lucky I am. I know it. Others have also written well on this subject. But there is a difference between knowing and feeling a truth.
This weekend, TFI and I were taking our monthly FI walk. These are key to our financial independence partnership strategy. They allow us to check-in, challenge ourselves, and revise our plans.
On this walk, we were discussing how to accelerate our path to financial independence. It didn’t feel like we were pushing fast enough and should be able to squeeze out more. There are still ways to tighten up and save.
If you read our 2019 Goals post, you know that we plan to save/invest more than 50% of our income this year. We’re on track to do it. But we could do more? (Yes, quite a bit more actually.)
And that’s when it hit me.
How did I get to a place where I’m living a very comfortable life AND saving six figures? How is it possible that the discussion is how to balance saving and spending money?
My life wasn’t always this. There were times where just having enough money to eat was in doubt. Countless times things could have gone differently.
I’ve worked with thousands of families in my education career and seen all the ways it can go wrong despite one’s best efforts.
The fact that we’re aggressively cutting our expenses by choice is an incredible privilege. In our frantic pursuit of financial independence, losing sight of that is too easy. And dangerous.
So, today I’m going to ramble a little bit about the burst of reflections this moment caused. If that’s not your thing – no problem, I’ll have a new information-focused post soon.
Frugality by Choice is a Privilege
In the financial independence/personal finance community there are almost limitless examples of options for frugality. Posts about how to tighten up spending are published constantly. No spend days (or weeks.) Ways to cut meal expenses to $1/meal. Options to save dramatically on clothing and almost everything else.
These are valuable, helpful, and informative. This is NOT a criticism of intentional frugality.
It is, however, a call to remember that choosing to spend less is different than being required to live on less.
I am now incredibly privileged that one of our goals is to cut back on our food expenses. We have a LONG way to go. It feels good to challenge ourselves and frustrating that we haven’t made as much progress as we should. We still value convenience and neither of us likes to cook. This is not an ideal combination for food frugality!
Contrast this with a very distinct childhood memory:
I was 11, the oldest, and responsible for my younger brother and sister. My mom was on her third consecutive day of going to nursing school all day and working a long shift at the nursing home as a CNA. (My father had left us a few years before.)
The electricity in the house went off. I knew mom wouldn’t get paid until the next day. We had no food and no money. We kids agreed that we weren’t going to bother mom about it – she was tired and stressed already.
So, we spent the day tearing apart the house looking for any change. I sold a favorite possession to a neighborhood friend for $1. My sister went through the vending machines in the apartment laundry room to search for coins.
We managed to pull together a little less than $2. It was enough to buy my brother and sister some crappy food from the convenience store across the street. I ate the only thing we had left in our cabinets at that point – raw uncooked (hard) spaghetti noodles, just to have something in my stomach. My mom came home with her check the next day, dealt with the power company and restocked our food.
Frugal win! We spent less than $2 on food for three people for 24 hours worth of meals! $0.67 per person. We failed the no spend day though. Frugal fail?
So, yes. When I’m talking about how the two of us can CHOOSE to push our meal costs below $3/person now I feel incredibly privileged. And of course, we’re still way behind others making meals for $1/day.
If you are choosing to be frugal – I celebrate you! This is not a criticism of anyone.
It’s not the same as forced frugality, though.
Poverty Does Not Convey Superpowers
Occasionally I read something like “I grew up poor, so I know how to live on less.” Or, “He didn’t have much growing up, so material things never mattered.” Somehow, being poor led to natural frugality
Another: “I had nothing when I started, so I’m willing to risk it all.” or “If I lose here it won’t matter, I’ve had nothing before.” As if having nothing made one immune to the need for security.
Being poor as a kid isn’t like
It might work that way for some, but it certainly didn’t for me. Instead, it instilled a dread of not having money.
The Superpower of Frugality
In my teen years, I wanted to be Wall Street (the movie) rich. It took me a few years and awful moments to realize that I didn’t need or want that kind of stupid money. But, I certainly didn’t settle back down into a frugal lifestyle.
For most of my adult life, my financial drive was to make enough money that I didn’t have to think about what I spent. I even said the words sometimes: “We make enough money. I don’t want to have to worry about what we spend it on.”
It led me to aggresively use the educator career ladder to increase income, even though my real passion was teaching. And, I was successful. We’ve more than tripled our income in our twenty-year careers. I side hustled my way through many years that are a blur to always bring in more than my base salary.
But it didn’t matter until we started paying attention to our savings. And that didn’t happen until I realized what financial independence actually meant fifteen years late.
Now, we are choosing to be frugal. It feels great. But, it wasn’t automatically conferred to me by poverty. And I’m still not that good at it.
If you’ve ever experienced the moments of hopelessness that real poverty provides, it can make it much harder for you to take risks. One of the biggest, often unrecognized privileges, is having a safety net to fall back on.
A failure point of living with your parents is different than a failure point of living on the street.
There are opportunities I know I’ve let slip by because I was afraid to give up a sure dollar in favor of a potential three dollars. Only now can I look back and see those moments as a fear of a return to having nothing.
I also know that I’ll struggle actually feeling financial independence. Even when the math says we have enough, I worry that my childhood poverty will keep me from accepting it. Should I consider retiring early, I’m definitely in danger from the “one more year” mentality.
All that said – growing up with little means that I very much appreciate what I have now. I wouldn’t change my life, but I will continue to remember the privilege of frugality by choice.
It Takes More Than Bootstraps
The concept of pulling oneself up by “the bootstraps” or advancing economically through individual effort is part of the American ethos.
I’m an American. I love the potential and promise of our nation. I served in the military out of personal patriotism, so I don’t really care if you consider what I’m about to say un-American. (Though you can tell, I’m defensive about it.)
I absolutely believe that our country creates a unique opportunity to be successful. AND the bootstrap theory is a lie.
I worked my ass off to get to the point where I can choose frugality and achieve financial independence. I’m also intelligent, talented, and mostly avoided stupid personal choices. It would be easy for me to write my story as a journey of personal heroism.
That would be dishonest. I can point to dozens of moments where things could have gone the other way. My brother had a health crisis that pulled me out of school. What if it lasted longer and I’d been unable to go back? If I’d chosen a different university, I might never have met my partner who has been integral to my success. I almost chose a job that would have ended up with me arrested.
My list of personal landmine moments is long. I managed to avoid them mostly due to luck.
More importantly, I have friends who were just as talented and smart (or smarter), who worked at least as hard, and didn’t make it out. Family, drugs, the racism of low expectations, or just dumb luck, have kept them from achieving financial success.
And I work in schools where I have the privilege of seeing brilliant students doing remarkable things. Some make it through, some don’t. I refuse to put that solely on them. That too would be dishonest.
I can list dozens of societal reasons, systems failures, poor but inevitable choices, and personal relationships that shred the bootstrap theory. But that would be a whole other post.
All I ask is that you avoid thinking that anyone is wholly self-made. And pause for a moment before you assign individual blame to others who might be struggling.
It Also Takes More Than Luck
On the flip side, it’s a mistake to attribute success only to luck or privilege. There are a few exceptions – if you’re born wealthy or have a huge gambling win. A lottery winner is not self-made. Neither is someone who was born into a multi-million dollar fortune and managed to make more millions. It’s the proverbial born on third base thinking you hit a triple situation.
Otherwise, I firmly believe that hard work, talent, and persistence put you in the best position to seize opportunities. While it’s not wholly true that “we make our own luck” it is true that we can position ourselves to take advantage of it.
The person stranded on an island who spends her days lighting signal fires, carving “help” on the beach, and foraging food is much more likely to be rescued. She still needs a plane or boat to come by.
As with too many things these days, we paint ourselves into either/or situations in this argument. If you’ve made it, you deserve congratulations. Now, use that success to help someone else.
This can be the great side of the FI community – if you use your successes, struggles, and fortunate moments to help others.
Your Experience is YOUR Experience – But It Might Be Helpful to Others
I consider my childhood hard, but certainly not exceptionally so. I can whine about some moments, list the things I missed out on, and talk about where I might be otherwise. But, there are others who had far less money and security.
And, there are others who had more money and security than I did, but had it worse for other reasons. Abuse, addiction, health. There are countless things that can drag people down.
We often use the phrase “personal finance is personal.” It’s true just from a facts standpoint – you can’t just tell someone to make the same choice on debt paydown you did. You might have different interest rates, incomes, saving goals, and assumptions about investment returns. Simple numbers make each situation personal.
“Personal” should also acknowledge that each of us has our own relationship to money. We have our own history of missed opportunities, childhood moments, risk tolerances, and definitions of happiness.
We know this to be true, but do we feel it
I addressed the educaton value of so many different voices sharing their experiences in my Zone of Proximal Development post.
Stories matter because they can change people in ways numbers can’t.
My story is mine. I don’t find it that special. Even this post seems self-indulgent to me. Yet, I know I find value in reading about the experiences of others.
I’m so grateful for those willing to share their stories. And I love the Educator on FI/RE interviews.
Admitting These Things is Strength, Not Weakness
I see strong reactions to concepts of privilege and the importance of luck in success. I’ve even had those reactions myself at different points in my life.
In my experience, they come when a person’s ego is tangled deeply with the concept of self-made personal success. Or, the idea that a team is somehow less than an individual. It’s the financial equivalent of the little man who needs to fight to prove his toughness.
I’ve even seen it asserted that acknowledging one’s own privilege is some sort of failure or weakness.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It takes self-confidence to say “Others were part of my success.”
The most centered, well-adjusted people I’ve ever met have come to this realization and found peace and comfort in it. I want to be one of those people.
I recognize how lucky I am. I’m grateful for the breaks I’ve had, the support I’ve received, and that I was able to persevere. I want to use my fortune to help others.
When you find success, what will you do with it?