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Broke with Privilege

Broke with Privilege

My mother grew up in poverty, raised by a single widowed mother in a non-English speaking household in New York City. Without the slightest hint of today’s buzzword – “privilege”- in her upbringing, she worked and earned herself a scholarship to Barnard College and later, Columbia Business School, paving the way for her unprecedented career successes.

I, on the other hand, grew up drowning in privilege. Every night my parents would sit down with me and review my homework. If I wasn’t doing well, I would be sent to tutoring after school. If I was struggling in a class, they’d help me with extra credit projects. I was signed up for so many extracurriculars it was like my parents were challenging colleges to reject me.

I had just about every resource at my disposal to develop my skill sets, learn to problem solve, and learn to learn. That privilege is what afforded me the opportunity to pursue something as impractical as theater and end up broke. It’s also the privilege that allowed me to apply my critical thinking and problem solving skills to eventually break free of broke.

When it comes to poverty, despite my financial expertise and very real experience of limited income, I still feel at a loss for giving advice. Knowing my privilege also makes me very cognizant of the fact that I have no idea what it means not to have privilege.

Not to have income is not the same as not having privilege.

I’ve been without income, but never for a moment have I lacked privilege. Never for a moment have I not been equipped every skill I needed to find appropriate information, resources, and connections to solve whatever challenge I was facing. Never for a moment have I had to face the risk of sleeping on the street or going hungry or having nowhere and no one to turn to. My network of support – not necessarily monetary, but human- is so vast and valuable that I can afford to take big risks – like pursuing theater, traveling the world, and starting my own business. If I fail miserably, I know there’ll always be a couch to crash on.

When I think about the value of my privilege, I find it comes down to learned skills and a network of support more than anything else. By redefining privilege in this way, I also start to understand how my mom became such a raging success.

Broke with Privilege

Yes, my mother grew up without the benefit of high- or even subsistence-level income, but she grew up with a remarkable model of work, my grandmother (though low earning, hard working), and high expectations of achievement. She also had a vast community network comprised of fellow immigrants that, despite severely limited resources, had an insatiable appetite for “something better”.

While she may have faced great hardships, my mother had extraordinary models of what was expected and what was possible in her life that made her very connected to the potential for opportunity and success. In fact, that entire community she grew up with “lifted itself” from poverty in one generation.

So what’s the barrier for those in poverty now to do the same?

Privilege.

It’s not a monetary construct, it’s an opportunity construct.

Models for success have segregated themselves from the people who need those models most. My mom doesn’t live in poverty anymore. She moved to Connecticut to send her kids to better public schools, an understandable decision for which I am grateful, but one that according to research by Robert Putnam, has lead to the growing opportunity gap between rich and poor.

Upper-middle-class families separate themselves into affluent suburbs with separate public schools, and as a result, poorer children don’t get the necessary access to the same amenities and exposure to the same models of achievement. The end result according to further research by Rebecca Diamond – an ever-growing income gap between high-skilled and low-skilled workers, which no doubt perpetuates privilege (and lack thereof) even further.

Lack of privilege is isolation from opportunity.

No matter how many times I cry broke or fear the threat of unemployment or dwindling bank account balances, I will always know my privilege.

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63 responses to “Broke with Privilege

  1. Love this Stefanie! One of the biggest things that has helped me in life has been my educated parents and their investment in my development. Also knowing that if I fell on my butt, I could probably scuttle my way back home.

  2. It’s not just privilege – it’s a safety net. You could take chances and make mistakes without fear of losing everything. I didn’t necessarily grow up privileged, but I always had a safety net and place I could move home to, if needed. Having that security makes it easier to rebound from mistakes.

  3. One of my college professors once explained it well: you aren’t truly broke or impoverished if you have some place to turn if you lose everything. In other words, a large majority of people have a family member they could turn to if they literally lost their home. But you bring up a good point about privilege. While kids can overcome a lot of difficulties in childhood and their teenage years, those who have a strong family backing also have the best chance of “succeeding.” They typically have many more opportunities than someone whose parents (or parent) is disengaged and is not focused on their growth and development. I know I saw that firsthand when I lived in a low-income neighborhood for a year in college. Pretty eye-opening, especially if you grew up in one of the most stereotypical suburban neighborhoods.

  4. Good points Stefanie and relate a lot to what Holly said – I always knew I had a safety net. Regardless of what happened, if I had need then I knew there was something there for me to fall back on with my parents. Going through my more formative years, I didn’t view it that way as my parents were divorced but realize now that even then I had privileges that others didn’t.

    1. I think it’s hard to recognize your privilege, particularly when income is low or circumstances are tough. But I think that acknowledgement can actually be really helpful in getting people out of their tough spots.

  5. I absolutely agree! I’ve never been wealthy, but I’ve had many privileges that a lot of people don’t have. Sure the debt of my student loan makes me made, especially since I’m under-employed to boot, but the life lessons, experiences, and people I’ve met along the way were well worth every penny 🙂

    1. Millennials are the poster children for debt loads and underemployment, they’re also the poster children for privilege. Hopefully we can use our privilege to break free of those temporary set backs.

  6. My hubby teaches in a private school that many privileged children attend and many of their parents lament that they are concerned about privilege preventing their kids from acquiring many of the skills that they had to make successes of themselves (many from next to nothing). It is a dilemma that many people don’t think about.

    1. Having grown up in one of the wealthiest areas of the country I understand that concern. My mom had to build everything from scratch, I had the privilege to do pretty much whatever I wanted (until I went broke on my own, hah).

      While I think it’s easy to not recognize privilege and totally blow things off, I find that so many of the kids in my high school maximized their privilege to do ground breaking things- launch start ups, volunteer around the world, etc. Of course it’s not everybody, but probably the kids who had their parents values of hard work (in spite of privilege) instilled in them.

  7. I’m in the same boat Stefanie. I have “felt” “broke” one more than one occasion, but know in reality I’ll never be sleeping in my car. My “worst case scenario” would be ending up back in Michigan living with my dad and stepmom for a few months while I got back on my feet. While cringe-worthy to me, it’s not fearing where my next meal would come from or losing hope about life.

  8. I find it interesting at how many people do not recognize the privilege of opportunity. I see people all around me complaining about not being able to get further in life, about what they do not have, and why they cannot achieve their goals – yet they are surrounded by opportunities to do exactly that.

  9. Wouldn’t privilege be lack of isolation from opportunity? or lack of privilege is isolation from opportunity? Either way, I agree. It’s a world of easier to chase your dreams when you know your worst case scenario would be crashing on couches and mooching off of friends or family to be fed for a while.

  10. I love this post! I get so mad sometimes at people my age when I see them whining about things that they have every opportunity to control and change for the better. They are privileged, but they waste it. Just think how someone who grew up without privilege would use the opportunities that they are wasting!

  11. My mom struggled and worked very hard to have the opportunities that I do now. Even though things aren’t perfect in my world, I know that I could live with my mom or my Grandma, sell my place, etc..Basically, I have a number of options that my education and my family’s hard work have created for me. Very thought provoking post.

  12. Great post, Stefanie! Your mother sounds like an amazing women, mother and a real inspiration. Privilege is something I think about a lot from what I see in the work I do with my clients and to my own daughters. Chris and I have worked very hard to create a very good life for our family. We enjoy a very privileged life but don’t feel entitled to it and don’t want the girls to feel entitled to it either. We want them to recognize that it wasn’t happenstance and know that we are grateful for the opportunities that have helped my husband and I be very successful beyond our strong work ethic. My daughters will have experiences and opportunities that other children don’t have and I want to make sure both appreciate what we have been able to provide for them and also take advantage of it too. I have spoken to kids in both low-income and affluent families and it always strikes me is how in both groups, most expect their circumstances to stay the same. Kids from families that struggle assume they will too (although there are always a few kids who want to break the cycle and do) and kids from affluent families assume they will get good jobs and earn good salaries. That thinking definitely influences the choices they make.

  13. It’s so refreshing when people remain aware of their privilege. I have the hindrance of a disability. But I have the benefit of an excellent education and a safety net. Which I had to fall back one while I was on social security. So many people don’t have that, and they fall through the cracks.

    You’re right about the migration too. My mom grew up in a poor area of New Jersey. Small town and, unfortunately, plenty of small minds. So as soon as she started doing even a little better, she got the hell outta Dodge.

    Granted, I’m also incredibly grateful she did that. My life would be completely different if I would have grown up there. Instead, I got an amazing education in Anchorage, which let me get into a good college.

  14. Stephanie, I thought this post was beautifully written. I’m an aspiring minimalist, and I try to live simply but I’m only too aware that this is a lifestyle choice. We choose not to spend much, but we have the freedom to make this decision. We have access to credit (if we needed it), we have great support networks, we have good educations that allow us to find good employment. We have savings. The difference priviledge can make to your life, and your choices, is huge.

  15. Great post! Absolutely loved this. My parents both came from little or nothing, especially my mother and I too was drowned in privilege growing up. My parents have always been there for me which I’m truly grateful for. When I divorced, they were non-judgemental, expressed happiness that I was getting out and changing my life for the better and ultimately welcomed me back home until I could get started again. I don’t know what I would have done if they weren’t there, I’m grateful to have the safety net.

  16. Thanks for sharing this amazing story! It is so true that education creates opportunity, and that opportunity compounds with each generation. Privilege truly is the freedom to pursue your dreams.

  17. My mom is from Russia, my father is Costa Rican and my step-dad was American (he died last year). Like you I had a lot of advantages growing up thanks to the hard work of my parents. I only remember a short period when my folks were struggling and that was when I was little, like 6 or 7. I don’t really take anything for granted. I’m very thankful for the opportunities I had growing up because I know not everyone could do the things we did.

  18. That privilege could also work against someone (although probably not you lol). How many people did you know growing up in the town you did would have a blog chronicling their struggle with finances? It is that attitude that one shouldn’t have to work a menial job or a *gasp* a second one.

    1. While I think some people have that aversion to work “beneath them” from being “overly privileged”, I think it’s a very small percentage. Like a “rich kids of instagram” percentage.

      Most of the upper middle class kids I know who graduated into the recession, took what they could while continuing to look for work, even if it was Starbucks and they had a college degree.

  19. You make such a good point about the vast network of people you could turn to in a crisis. I feel similarly and the fact that I’ve always had that safety net has endowed me with incredible privilege as well. I’m so very conscious of how fortunate Mr. FW and I are because I fully recognize that, for many people, the mere idea of financial independence is an impossibility. I think that acknowledging our privilege is an important, and honest, thing. Thank you for sharing this.

  20. Great post! I did NOT grow up in a wealthy (or well to-do in any way) family. That said, my parents supported most of my endeavors (music, sports, theatre) the best way that they could. If there was something that I wanted to do and was out of their budget, my mom would be the first person to sign up for each fundraiser to get the money to make it happen. I may not have had the money part of “privilege,” but I did get the privilege of seeing hard work pay off. I totally get the “broke with privilege” POV.

    Thanks for linking up with us this weekend!

  21. Yes! Thank you for recognizing this. You are so right, lack of income does NOT mean lack of privilege. I’ve been in a sore spot financially, but I too have always known my privilege. It can be hard to deal with, but recognizing it can make you more appreciative and also help you understand that the financial world and opportunity are different for everyone.

  22. I would reword your final thought to this “Lack of privilege is forced isolation from opportunity.” Your mother did have privileges growing up. She was Caucasian and straight. Would she have gotten that college scholarship if she were a different race? Maybe, maybe not.

    Many people try to seek out opportunities but are forced into isolation from them because they are the wrong gender, race, ethnicity, look, weight, or sexual orientation. It’s not that they don’t want these opportunities or can’t find them, but it’s more that systemically they are being pushed away.

    If you were the same exact person but grew up not in a wealthy family, you would still have more opportunities than most because you are White, straight, thin, and attractive (according to society’s standards of beauty). Privilege is tough because it can make us feel guilty for these things we don’t have control over. But we can control changing society so these factors won’t give unfair advantages in the future.

    1. Yes, there are definitely privileges that come along with race. Though I wonder if the “kind of caucasian you are” plays into that. For example, I am uber privileged- white born and bread American. My mother and her family are Eastern European immigrants. I’d say my “white privilege” is very different from hers.

  23. I had to laugh with recognition at the first part of your post. In his teens, my Grandpa immigrated to the USA from Vancouver with nothing in his pocket but a letter of recommendation from his priest. He found work on the docks in Seattle, worked hard and demonstrated he was smart, and eventually became a sales representative for a newsprint company, and was what usedto be called “well-to-do.” He took great pride in sending my sisters and me to a fine private school. Though I mostly refused to do anything anyone told meto do, such as homework, I somehow got into a ggood college (no loans or scholarships, ggrandpa paid for it all), where I majored in….LATIN. Don’t you just wish you could go back and knock some sense into your younger self? I mean, I love being able to read Horace in the original, but…how about minoring in Latin, and majoring in chemical engineering. Aaargh.

    1. I don’t regret majoring in theater, but yeah, I’m definitely glad I double majored- I was there anyway and it wasn’t exactly the hardest thing either.

  24. All very well said. And it’s certainly more than just money that offers privilege — especially here in the US. I also appreciated that you didn’t apologize for your privilege, but deeply understand how it works for you.

  25. Well said! Mr. Tre grew up in poverty, but his parents made sure he had the best education possible. We made the same commitment to our children. Tiny Tre goes to private school in a community where over 95% of the children live in poverty. It is the most amazing school community! People criticized me for sending him there because we could afford to send him somewhere in a better area. What they don’t understand is the community this school has created and the dedication to education.

  26. I can truly relate to this article in particular and your choice to remain true to your passion. My parents came from humble beginnings.As young parents, they sacrificed and worked very hard to put myself and my three younger brothers through an elite private school which helped us receive scholarships to elite private universities.

    In spite of all of my education and potential careers, I choose to work two part-time jobs in order to finance my real dream, playing beach volleyball professionally, until I can earn/be sponsored enough to support myself. Though I do feel guilty at times for living at home and putting off getting “a real job”, my parents have been more than supportive and proud. Ultimately we have to remember why our parents worked so hard for us to be privileged: so that we could have options and be able to do what we want and not follow the norm

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