The Huge Financial Privilege No One Talks About

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When we think of the haves vs. the have-nots, we assume that the “haves” hold all the financial advantages. Obviously tons of money is a huge financial privilege, but having money is no guarantee for proper management. There is no amount of money that is so large that it cannot be lost. See, e.g. pro athletes, lottery winners, MC Hammer.

People who succeed in careers often have good mentors; people who succeed in finance often have good role models. So while I did not grow up with a trust fund, I did have a huge financial privilege that set me up for financial success:

I had the privilege of being raised by financially responsible parents.
My parents didn’t have a lot of money when they came to this country but I grew up in a middle class family.  In the years between when my parents emigrated and when they had children, they saved every penny to give their children a more comfortable life, and they continued to model this behavior as we grew up.

What did this mean for me?

Lifestyle inflation is a foreign concept.

Before going car-free two years ago, I drove an 18-year old Honda Accord. I also used a 7-year old laptop. This was a few years after I had started working as an attorney with a six-figure salary and after I had paid off my law school debt. Someone asked me once why I didn’t upgrade and I honestly thought, you CAN’T buy something new until the old thing falls apart.

When you’re raised by immigrants, you never let things go to waste. My parents kept the same threadbare artificial Christmas tree for 20 years. My nephews sleep in the bunk bed that I slept in until I was 22. I still sleep with the same comforter I received when I was 8.  This idea of upgrading for upgrading’s sake is new to me and it honestly seems like too much work.

In fact, lifestyle inflation makes even less sense when you have judge-y immigrant parents. People talk a lot about peer pressure to spend. In my family, it was peer pressure to save. My parents routinely criticize me for spending on some pretty “normal” things, but they never encouraged me to buy more than I need to. Thrift is next to godliness.

They taught me that money is not love.

My parents never gave us gifts for Christmas or birthdays. While it would have been nice to have some new gadgets and gizmos, I never felt less loved. And my parents weren’t stressed about buying my love through gifts.

There’s obviously nothing wrong with gifts but I think some families really do get caught up in buying gifts, thinking that without spending $X on their kids, then they would have failed. But what’s more detrimental to children is being raised by stressed parents and learning that bigger gifts mean bigger love.

Money is an important tool but it’s not a cure-all.  Money is money and love is love. Confusing the two can only lead to disasters for your financial accounts and your heart.

They taught me that money isn’t shame.

My parents, they weren’t perfect (let me tell you!). But they never used money as a bargaining chip. They’d always ask if I needed money when I went out in high school (In fact, they still ask. They know I don’t carry cash). And they’d just give it to me. There was no “what are you going to use it for” or “didn’t you already get a new sweater?”

As a kid, if I needed money, they just gave it to me, no questions asked. I mean, they’re lucky I wasn’t into drugs or big shopping sprees, but maybe I wasn’t into those things because I didn’t grow up ashamed of needing money or of having needs.

I know some other people are raised to think that earning a lot of money is shameful. I obviously wasn’t raised that way and, well, obviously earning a lot of money is a lot easier than getting by on very little. It’s also easier to save when you aren’t ashamed of having money. I would argue that shame is the biggest obstacle to proper money management. (Maybe in a later post.)

They make me optimistic about my future.

Everyday there are countless articles/tweets/memes written by Americans throwing America under the bus. And yes, I know there are a ton of problems in this country. I don’t want to get all patriotic on you (but I’m not afraid to) but I love America. I was raised to love America.

Were my parents lucky? Sure. There’s an element of luck. Did they also make a lifetime of hard choices that had a high probability of success? Yes.

My dad served in the Navy and then studied accounting, a very stable career. My mother worked at the supermarket and various fast food restaurants to pay for her degree in math. They took English classes at night. We moved when they got better jobs. They commuted an hour each way to get to work. They drove their cars to the ground. They packed their lunches. We rarely went out to eat, and when we did, we went to a Chinese restaurant, which is not as expensive as many other kinds of restaurant. We would vacation wherever we could drive to (which explains why I’ve been to so many U.S. states). When my mom got fired (she was probably the fourth Asian person in a row to get fired), she picked herself up and refashioned herself as a computer programmer in her 50s.

And though my parents’ life hasn’t been that easy, and they get frustrated with certain things, they are incredibly proud of the life they have made for themselves. America is their home and they wouldn’t have been able to have this life where they once lived. They never speak ill of America and neither do I.

I know the “privilege” police would disagree, but I honestly think my life is the easiest life anyone could live. The hardest things in my life were minor medical problems, doing well in school and paying off my law school debt. And whenever I’ve thought even for a second “woe is me,” I just look at my parents’ life and think, this will work out. I’ll just work harder. So what if I eat ramen a few nights? My mom used to eat rice and soy sauce. (I also flippin’ love ramen and rice and soy sauce.) If my parents could be optimistic for so long, then what excuse do I have not to be? If my parents can make it, I can and will too.

Were you raised by financially responsible parents?

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15 thoughts on “The Huge Financial Privilege No One Talks About”

  • Enjoyed the post. When I recently went to the Museum of the Chinese in America, they had a mock up of a laundry that had a floor that was worn down into a small pit from the person standing in the same spot for years. The small metal flat iron was about 10 pounds. It was quite moving. Being the youngest of 8, I always say that my parents could have easily opted for a new car instead of having me, but I’m glad they didn’t. One time, I got a peek at my Mom’s household budget book, and noticed the number $600 circle in a large box. I remember thinking WOW, it takes that much money, just in food!. They also used to keep a change cup if we needed some money or lunch, etc. My sister used to swipe all the quarters, and my Dad would ask, “Who’s taking all the quarters?”. They knew. Maybe that’s why I pretty much know my net worth down to the change in my pocket. Good examples are invaluable.

    • That’s a very moving example about the laundry pit. It’s really amazing to see the extent of human endurance. Youngest of 8! Your mom must have had some intense budgeting skills. Thanks for sharing.

  • Wonderfully written post. One I wholeheartedly agree about. I also had frugal parents which transferred to me but my dad taught me something else that I think gave me a huge advantage in the business world. My father liked and valued everyone he ever met. I cannot ever remember him saying anything bad about another human. We lived in the deep south but he never told a racial joke or used a racial slur and he showed people of color the same respect as he showed everyone else. His best friend was Jewish and he had nothing but praise for him. He fought against the Japanese Empire on a small carrier in the Pacific and was injured losing several fingers yet he never showed any disrespect to Asians or referred to the Japanese people in a disrespectful way. He treated women as equals and with great respect and our family was run as a a joint partnership between him and my mom for the 63 years they were married. Growing up and even now it never occured to me to judge anyone as less than me based on their race, gender or economic means because I had a consistent example of loving your neighbor demonstrated daily for me. What a gift, to just naturally like and appreciate others and to naturally look for the good in them! Certainly it had nothing to do with me being better or more deserving, it was just a very undeserved gift I have tried to pass down to my three kids.

    • That’s great that your dad had that attitude. It’s definitely a business advantage and a great lesson to pass down. And y’know, it’s just nice when people are nice. Thanks for reading!

  • A lovely post, you had cool parents. I love how mine were frugal as well.

    I didn’t know there now a privilege police we had to look out for…I’m already hiding from the high income FIRE bloggers police.

    • Nah my parents were certainly not “cool.” =D Not in the traditional sense.

      I still haven’t seen the high income FIRE police. I don’t think any privilege police will tell me I wasn’t privileged though – I think it’s usually telling people that they’re neglecting to mention their privilege.

  • Nice post. My parents weren’t necessarily financially savvy or responsible, but they were good parents who taught me the overall values in life that get you ahead. If we had that across the board I’m convinced we could eliminate poverty.

    • That’s an interesting thought. At first I started wondering what are the key values to teach but then again, having parents that are there care for their kids and interested in passing on their wisdom, would probably also eliminate a lot of poverty.

  • Thanks for this post, this is why I don’t think we need gazillion dollars to retire. My parents raised my brother and me while supporting their extended families in Vietnam on a combined income of less than 40k. Mine were never as frugal as yours though because they believed in celebrating their children’s birthdays since they never had that growing up. In Vietnam, I was able to eat chicken twice a year, on Lunar New Year and my birthday. Birthdays always bring back fond memories. I was poor but had a comfortable childhood. Also, I still have my bed from when I was 12. My husband hates it though 🙂

    • That’s an amazing story about your family. And glad to know this “save the bed forever” thing isn’t just our family. We celebrated each others’ birthdays – my parents just didn’t understand why we needed gifts because we had all we needed. It was very Tiger Mom of them. Thanks for sharing.

  • I love this post. So helpful to get a different perspective and appreciate the gifts that frugal parents pass on, and to appreciate the struggles that immigrant families face and overcome. Half of my family are immigrants, and I definitely relate to not replacing things until they fall apart! Your parents did a great job on helping you not fall into the loser game of keeping up with the Joneses. As a fellow law grad, early retired, I can tell you are on the right track.

  • I love that you appreciate the financial opportunity that America offers, but your immigrant background guards you from getting caught up in all the trappings of the American Dream, including lifestyle inflation and relationships built on possessions. A healthy view of money and the true purpose that it serves is a great privilege. Awesome post and a great perspective!

    • I hope that America still has financial opportunity – it seems scarce, but I still believe in it. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Mom tried to be but she was always battling against Dad’s profligacy and it was always a losing battle. I should be glad that I inherited Mom’s tendencies rather than Dad’s or I would have been genetically predisposed to carry on his mistakes.

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