It’s not about being privileged or not, it’s about taking the opportunity

When we were in Denmark, we stayed at Mrs. T’s grandma’s summer house for a week. It was situated about an hour northwest of Copenhagen. While there, we spent a lot of time just relaxing, having hygge, eating ice cream, and walking on the beach.

Ice cream…YUM!

One day walking along on the beach, I noticed a giant tree growing on the sea cliff very close to the ocean. There were no other trees nearby. The tree was not straight. It was bendy because it was forced to grow under harsh conditions. But the tree was big and had luscious green leaves. Once we walked up from the beach, and onto the flat ground, about 10 meters or so away from the cliffs, there was a group of trees growing nicely, all very straight, all much taller than the single bendy tree growing on the cliff.

The tree on the cliff face very harsh conditions, yet it managed to grow big and flourished.

The other trees on the flat ground had good conditions and they grew big and flourished as well.

Comparing the two groups of trees, I began to wonder, if I had to rate one group over the other, would I say one is better off than the other one?

I wouldn’t and I couldn’t.

All I could do is applaud at the trees for their determinations to grow big and tall and flourish.

Seeing these trees growing under different conditions made me wonder about being privileged.

Is financial independence retire early (FIRE) only possible if you come from a privileged background or are privileged?

Some people in the general public seemed to think so.

Baby T1.0 & Baby T2.0 walking along the beach

Whenever a major media outlet publishes stories on FIRE bloggers, almost always people leave harsh and unfriendly comments. Hiding behind a computer screen, these people criticize that financial independence retire early is only possible, because the person is privileged. Their family is wealthy, they graduated from college without any debt, they had high paying jobs, they didn’t have a mortgage, and so on and so on.

FIRE bloggers like Liz and Nate from Frugalwoods, Tanja and Mark from Our Next Life, Justin and Kaisorn from Root of Good, Sam from Financial Samurai, Steve and Courtney from Think Save Retire, even Pete & his wife from Mr. Money Mustache all have faced such criticisms of being privileged. In these commenters’ eyes, these FIRE bloggers are privileges, so it was simple and easy to be financially independent and retire early.

But is this true?

I think it is completely false and a general misconception.

While being privileged does give you a good financial start, if you don’t take the opportunity, it doesn’t mean anything.

For example, although Johnny Depp earns millions of dollars for each movie he makes, he has been spending way more than his pay cheques. He is in big financial trouble because he is living large. Most people would think that Johnny Depp is privileged, but FIRE is not something that will be achievable for him.

Professional athletes are privileged, too. They have super high income while playing for professional teams, excellent health coverages, get per diem when they are on the road, some even get sponsorship & endorsement opportunities. Although they earn high income during their playing careers, many professional athletes end up going bankrupt post-retirement. Because they didn’t manage their money properly and had no plans. There are professional athletes that are frugal and good with their money, but they are the minority. Given the high income and easy access to great resources, you would think that it is easy for professional athletes to reach FIRE. But 99% of the time, that’s not the case.

And most of us have probably heard or read studies that showed wealth usually ends by the second or third generations.

Being privileged does not automatically mean and lead you to financial independence retire early.

If you look at the FIRE community, there are also folks that are successful financially that came from a harsh upbringing. Looks at Jason from Mr. Free at 33. His mom died from drug addiction and he worked as a car dealership service advisor, certainly not very privileged at all. Jeremy and Winnie from Go Curry Cracker grew up poor but managed to retire in their 30’s. Kristy at Millennial Revolution came to Canada with her family from China, had very little money growing up, but still managed to retire in her 30’s with her husband Bryce.

Although they didn’t come from a privileged background, these people managed to flourish financially, reached financial independence and retired much earlier than your typical retirement age of 65.

Therefore, it’s not about whether you are privileged or not. It’s about whether you are taking the actions to make yourself and your family better financially. It’s about whether you are taking the opportunity or not.

It’s easy to come from a privileged background, take everything for granted, and do absolutely nothing to improve your financial life.

It’s also easy to be privileged by earning a high income, spending more than you earn, and can’t ever get ahead financially.

Take me as an example. I am privileged. My parents paid for my university tuition and living expenses, so I graduated without any debt. For that, I am forever grateful, but I didn’t take that for granted. After graduating from university and started working, I was saving a large amount of money each month. I was also monitoring my net worth.

I am also privileged because my dad retired at 43. Through him, I was able to see first hand what early retirement meant and how to structure a meaningful post-retirement life. I also learned how from my parents why stealth wealth is so important and why spending money on things that you value is more important than trying to impress people by having expensive things.

I could have easily make excuses, not take any actions to improve my financial life, ask for financial support from my parents, and take my privileged background for granted.

But I didn’t.

When I first started working, my dad gave me $5,000 as a gift to help me get started financially. Rather than spend it all on some expensive toys, like many young people would have done, I put all that money in my TFSA and invested in stocks. Over time, that money grew.

Being privileged is fine and dandy and all, but it doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t take this advantage to allow yourself to be better financially.

Similarly, if you came from a non-privileged background, don’t fret. Work hard and take small incremental steps to allow yourself to be better financially.

I truly believe that financially independent and retire early is possible to a large percentage of the population. It is up to you to take actions, pursuit it, and make it possible. You can read tons of personal finance books and articles about FIRE, but if you don’t take any actions, nothing will happen.

I’ll be blunt here, stop wasting time making excuses and stop finger pointing other people. Start looking from within and start looking at things you can do to improve your financial life.

I mean, do you really want to live pay cheque to pay cheque forever?

So start your FIRE journey today. It’s worth it.


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14 thoughts on “It’s not about being privileged or not, it’s about taking the opportunity”

  1. I’m all about Norm’s comment there. I think it’s important to see privilege so we can use ours to help those among us who would never have a chance.

    But I do disagree that there aren’t a lot of failure stories out there, we just don’t hear them because they are failure stories. My own family has dozens of them but I’ve only shared maybe two or three of them. SOME of those stories that I didn’t cover would likely have become success stories with a bit of help or a little less institutional racism and obstacles. It’s not just about lifting up people who are willing to climb, it’s about identifying those who are trying their damnedest and are still fighting barriers in society that aren’t breakable without allies. Our successes should be wielded as strength for those who most need our help, so that they can build a success story of their own. Because like the trees, there are dozens of seeds that you didn’t see because they didn’t grow and thrive. But unlike the trees, we humans with potential are already living here and taking up space, so it’s not a matter of not taking up space and being unseen if we fail, it’s also a matter of not being able to contribute back to the world either. And what a loss that is!

  2. Hell yeah to this post Bob!
    I came from a single parent home where I had to have part time jobs to pay for anything extra I wanted in high school. I then paid for my own college, my first house and the list goes one. Along that path I kept making financial mistakes buying all those big ticket items and falling into consumerism. I finally clued in as I neared 40 and buckled down to be able to become a somewhat early retiring in the FIRE path. ( I say somewhat because I do freelance photo/writing now)
    No where along that path was I privileged other than working hard at increasing my income and then eventually increasing my savings. As you said, money isn’t what makes it happen, it is the choice to save and retire early that does.

    • Thank you Chris. 🙂

      You are another good example of that it is possible to be financially independent without a privileged background. It’s all about taking actions.

  3. I agree. Almost anyone can become financial independent. You just have to work at it and don’t give up. It’ll be harder for some than others, but life is not fair. You just have to deal with adversity.
    Sure, some people are more privileged. My advice is – just worry about yourself. Work on your own finance and don’t pay too much attention to the privileged folks. There are plenty of examples from people with humble beginnings, Retire by 40 for example. 😉

    • It’s really easy to become FI but it’s not easy. Everyone’s starting point will be different and the path will be different and that’s just the reality of life.

      Good advice. I’ve learned a long time ago to stop worrying about what other people think about you. You can’t change and control what others think about you.

  4. I feel similarly. I worked with many people who earned equal or higher salary but they spent it all on clothes, cars, vacations, alcohol and restaurants. They had lots of opportunity to save and invest but didn’t take it. They were earning great salaries in 2009, 2010, and 2011 etc but didn’t have a penny to invest. They missed out on some of the biggest years of the economic recovery and yet I bet many of them didn’t even realize the opportunity they had.

  5. Came from a divorced household, small apartment, parents in huge debts, parents always too busy working to afford bills to really pass down much information, and no inheritance. Now so far ahead of my peers that it’s almost comical. I don’t mean to brag – I just share that information to further prove that your prior situation can only effect you to the level that you allow it. Excuses make long sentences but won’t warm your nest egg.

  6. Hi Bob, that’s fascinating your dad retired at age 43! Was that basically an inspiration to you? Or, could it have made you think differently? I wonder as a father now how to continue motivating my boy to do his best. Just trying to think about some positives and negative’s of not going into an office every day. Thx Sam

    • Hi Sam,

      Another cousin of mine retired in his early 40’s and another cousin of mine became FI in her 40’s but decided to continue working. They all have been an inspiration to me. Having these family members that reached FIRE and the fact I can talk to them about FIRE and money meant I learned many money related lessons when I was younger. It has also motivated me to wanting to reach FIRE with my own power, rather than taking things for granted. I think being able to discuss about money openly and set good examples can continue to motivate your boy to do his best. And be open.

  7. I wouldn’t be too worried about the privileged. Whether they can retire early or not shouldn’t be anyone’s concern. If they screw up, then yes, that’s their fault. What about the people who don’t have an advantage? Socioeconomic mobility has all but evaporated in the United States due to many entrenched forces, and if you have a few of those working against you from the start (poor parents/rural area/bad teachers) your chances of moving up the ladder are extremely slim. It’s great to take advantage of the opportunity, but what about the kids who don’t even *get* the opportunity? Once you’ve lost that ground early, it’s an almost insurmountable climb up. You’ll never hear their stories, because we only hear about the ones who succeed. Sure, there are feel-good stories about people who break free (they have blogs so they can tell you all about it) but don’t mistake that the problem has never been more real.

    • Exactly, I think there aren’t as many failure stories out there. But the reality is, if you don’t take action and do something for yourself financially, nothing will happen automatically for you.


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