Achieving early retirement isn’t something everyone can do. I wish I could say that if everyone would just save a little more, and live a bit farther below their means, and avoid buying an SUV, they’d be able to quit their jobs and live the life they crave. But that’s not the reality. There’s structural privilege inherent in our ability to pursue financial independence at a young age.
Mr. Frugalwoods and I have made a lot of amazing financial choices, but the game is rigged. We were put in a position from birth to make these wise decisions and it’s not because we’re naturally brilliant people. Our financial advantages are the products of our socioeconomic status, our education levels, and most of all, the benefits we both had while growing up.
I don’t buy the argument that if people would just save more money, they wouldn’t be poor. I don’t think that everyone who’s poor is poor because they’ve made bad decisions. Just as Mr. FW and I aren’t successful only because we’ve made good decisions, people aren’t unsuccessful simply because they’ve made a few bad decisions.
Yes, I believe in personal responsibility. And I believe that everyone should take control of their own finances and not blame their parents, the government, or their employer for every problem they face. However, I can’t deny the privilege that’s intrinsic in charting the financial path Mr. FW and I have.
I write Frugalwoods fully cognizant of how incredibly fortunate Mr. FW and I are, and always have been. And yes, I do sometimes feel ill at ease about the fact that many folks will never be able to acquire the level of wealth that we currently have and don’t even need to spend.
Our privilege stems from so many different sources that I feel it’s appropriate, and honest, to acknowledge what those sources are.
Advantaged From Birth
Mr. FW and I were both raised by parents with college degrees. Both of our mothers are registered nurses and Mr. FW’s mom also has a teaching degree, my father has a PhD, and Mr. FW’s dad has an MA. Thus, we were reared in educated households with lots of books. We both heard upwards of the 30,000 words per day that experts have divined is a fairly accurate predictor of a child’s achievement in life.
Our parents taught us to read, write, think creatively, question, and pursue our passions. Sure, we both went to school, but we were already well ahead of the curve by the time we entered kindergarten. Never underestimate the power that parents have over the crucial early learning years.
We didn’t grow up in poverty. Neither of our families were wealthy, but they were solidly middle class. My family bought clothes from the thrift store, went camping for vacation, drank powdered milk, and had at-home birthday parties with frozen pizza and homemade cake. Mr. FW’s upbringing was remarkably similar to mine and his parents tell stories of pawning their TV after Mr. FW was born in order to pay bills.
But we never went hungry, we never missed gifts at Christmas, we were never teased or ridiculed for “being poor,” we never lacked health, dental or vision care, and we were able to participate in the hobbies that interested us (ballet, horseback riding, boy scouts, band, choir, speech and debate… and the list goes on). We certainly don’t have trust funds or inheritances, but we were lucky little kiddos.
We had (and still have) loving, intact families. Mr. FW’s parents have been married for 34 years and mine for 47. The solid foundation of love, trust, faith in God, and respect that both of our parents built for their three children (Mr. FW and I each have 2 siblings) has served us well. My sister and her husband have been married for 14 years, my brother and his wife for 13, and Mr. FW and I for 6.
Mr. FW’s siblings aren’t married yet (good thing too since the youngest is 18 😉 ), but I’m sure they’ll both choose lifelong partners when the time comes. There’s nothing wrong with divorce and sometimes it’s absolutely the best option for everyone involved. I merely want to share why I think the background of married parents set Mr. FW and I in the right direction.
We both grew up with superb examples of loving marriages. Our parents modeled that for us every single day and we in turn brought those lessons to bear in our own relationship. While I know that many people overcome horrendous backgrounds to accomplish great things, Mr. FW and I didn’t have to fight those battles.
We are white. Mr. Frugalwoods and I are what you might call racially vanilla. We’re both of European descent and we have a bland, English last name (it’s not actually Frugalwoods, although that would be freaking awesome), bland English first names too come to think of it, bland Caucasian faces and bland brown hair and blue/green eyes (yes, people have asked if we’re siblings).
I share this because I realize that, thanks to our race, we’ve never had to endure racism or prejudiced judgements about our ethnicity, our names, or our backgrounds. It’s not fair, it’s not right, and it doesn’t make me comfortable. But it’s the truth. We’ve never experienced discrimination first hand, but it’s a horrific thing many people do endure, often to the detriment of their employment and educational opportunities.
Smart Decisions We’ve Made Thanks To Our Privilege
Yes, we’ve made savvy decisions to put ourselves in the position to reach financial independence by age 33, but our elite backgrounds set us up to make those informed choices.
We’re smart and we went to college. Due to our parents, and very likely our genes, Mr. FW and I are smart cookies. We excelled in high school and college and never grappled with a learning disability or lack of access to resources, tutors, or stellar teachers. We both have BAs (from an inexpensive state school) and I have an MA. This fact alone launches us into a higher earning category than many other people in the world.
We married the right person. While this is a decision we made of our own free will, it was informed by our socioeconomic status and our parents’ fruitful marriages. In light of the educations we both received, we were able to select a partner of equal intellect and financial earning power. Plus, we chose each other in part because we have the same financial viewpoint and similar values and aspirations.
Marrying a partner who supports you, encourages you, challenges you, loves you, respects you–and is your equal in all things–gives you a stunningly powerful position in life. Also, none of this “leader of the family” nonsense. One of us doesn’t “lead” the other, we walk through life side by side and make respectful, joint decisions about our future. As a result, we’re both 100% on board with our financial plans, homestead goals, and general life philosophies.
We’ve never been in debt (other than our mortgage). Here again is a situation that’s a combination of luck, privilege, and judicious decision-making. While we both attended an inexpensive state school for undergrad, our parents were able to help us pay for it. I tell my parents to this day how deeply grateful I am that they enabled me to emerge from school debt-free, which set me far above my peers after graduation.
Mr. FW and I have subsequently made careful decisions to stay out of consumer debt and live well below our means. I was able to work full-time at the university where I earned my MA in order to receive free tuition. But, the origin of our debt-free lifestyle traces its roots to our stable, non-poverty ridden childhoods and our decision to marry the right person.
We have high-paying jobs. While this alone isn’t a predictor of financial health, or the ability to achieve financial independence at a young age, it sure does help. Yes, we’re extreme frugal weirdos and yes, we save 71% of our incomes every year and yes, minus our mortgage we spent $13,000 in all of 2014. But, we recognize how fortunate we are to be able to do this.
Lots of people work much harder, longer hours than we do for vastly less money. They might live just as frugally as we do–forgoing cable, restaurants, haircuts, and cars newer than 19 years old–but they won’t be able to save at the high rate we do. I never lose sight of the other side of the frugality equation: earnings. You’ve got to make something in order to save it. We don’t make investment banker salaries, but we don’t make peanuts either. And for this, we’re thankful.
We’re healthy. Mr. FW and I are healthy and darn happy about it. Neither of us has a chronic illness, nor do we take prescription medications on a regular basis. This yields rewards in two ways: it costs less to be healthy and, our health enables us to work hard both at our jobs and at home by insourcing just about everything.
We’re able to do our own home improvements, cook our own meals, shovel our own snow, clean our own home, bathe our own Frugal Hound, and more–all of which saves us money. I don’t take doing these things for granted because plenty of people struggle to complete the rudimentary tasks that comprise an independent life.
We started young. Since we married young (at 24), Mr. FW and I were able to grow up together and devise our financial approach as a team. We didn’t have to spend money on dating throughout our 20s in order to meet a partner and neither of us had the chance to make any major financial mistakes before we got married. We created a super frugal yet fun life, which at first simply sustained us and kept us out of debt, and then yielded ever-higher savings rates as our salaries increased.
We’ve waited to have children. Delaying parenthood has been a calculated financial choice for us. Children are amazing, and amazingly expensive. I fully recognize that not everyone in the world has the luxury to plan their families and many women are forced into motherhood before they’re fully adults themselves. And for some couples, a baby arrives as a surprise.
Since we live in a first world country with access to health education and preventative care, Mr. FW and I thoughtfully made the conscious and considered choice to delay kids until we were financially stable and emotionally mature. People can be excellent parents at any age, but I think I would’ve been a terrible mother at age 24. I wasn’t mature enough and our marriage was nascent and not yet the secure fortress it is now.
In addition to the financial benefits of waiting to procreate, we’re setting our future children up for the same trajectory of affluence our parents did. As older parents, we’ll be more educated, mature, patient, and giving (both financially and emotionally) to our children–or so I hope! There are many young parents who do these things beautifully, but I don’t think I would’ve been one of them.
But Can’t Everyone Control Their Own Life?
There’s a lot you can control about your finances. You can choose to live below your means, to exist simply and avoid the carousel of consumerism, to track your expenses, and make every purchase a conscious decision.
But there’s a lot you cannot control about your finances. You can’t always control having a dual or single income household, when or if you’ll have a health crisis, a catastrophic home repair, or an unexpected job loss. These are all reasons to have a well-stocked emergency fund. However, one of these crises could devastate a standard emergency fund whereas for us, it would likely be a mere blip in our cash flow.
Given the fundamentally unique nature of everyone’s personal financial journey, I don’t believe in judging people for their money missteps. Sure, I like to give advice when solicited (and sometimes when I’m not…) and yes, I think plenty of folks throw money away on a regular basis, but I’m not quick to judge them.
I don’t know their story and I don’t know why they’re struggling or spending above their means or in poverty or on food stamps. Who am I to say I know best? I’ve been incredibly advantaged and I know nothing of the grinding cycles of poverty that families get trapped in. I don’t make fun of people who are poor, I don’t judge them, and I don’t tell them to get a job.
For all I know, they already work three minimum wage jobs and can barely afford food and clothes for their kids. For all I know, they suffer from an untreated mental illness compounded by years of undernourishing food and the absence of a safe, warm place to sleep. For all I know, they didn’t have loving parents, encouraging teachers, and a supportive spouse to motivate them to stay in school or guide them in their pursuit of a more lucrative career.
Plus, judging people makes you bitter and pits you against the world. It’s a negative and demoralizing way to look at society. When you judge others, you’re only poisoning your own thoughts. They probably don’t even know you’re judging them–only you are internalizing the harmful vibes of your judgment.
Transcending Your Past
Acknowledging privilege isn’t a license to be defeatist. It’s not an excuse to simply give up and stop trying to improve your finances. Just because a person didn’t have an ideal childhood doesn’t mean they can’t become a better version of themselves. It’s not impossible to reach financial independence on a small and/or single income and it’s not impossible to transcend debt or a rough upbringing.
I think that through sheer determination, people can work their way into the life they want. But I also think it’s important to acknowledge how lucky we–and others like us–are on our journeys to financial independence and early retirement. It’s a luxury to have these goals and it’s a blessing to attain them.
Our lives are an amalgamation of our experiences and I think the elements of our past shape the people we become. I don’t know how Mr. Frugalwoods and I would’ve turned out had any one of the factors I listed been missing from our life stories. Perhaps we’d be just fine, but, I kind of doubt it. I’m not ashamed of the lives we’ve led and I’m not ashamed of our financial successes, but I am acutely aware of how uniquely fortunate we are.