Privilege, entitlement and guilt


Today, I listened to a fascinating podcast about an artist who was being supported by her parents, and felt terribly guilty about it. “am I talented,” she asked, “or are my skills just a product of expensive classes, summer workshops and a lot of free time?”

When I wrote about buying a house at 21, I had a lot of people tell me that I wasn’t good with money, I was just privileged.
And it’s true: my parents paid for my college degree, I always had a financial safety net, and when I moved to Portland and was waiting for my house to close, I lived rent-free in my childhood bedroom.

I couldn’t agree more with those commenters: I’ve had a lot of opportunity, good fortune and privilege in my life.

But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t made certain choices which created certain outcomes. Living in a very unpopular neighborhood in order to pay less rent, for example. Or going to community college for two years. Refusing to purchase anything on credit that I couldn’t pay off immediately. Drinking cheap drinks. Only buying used furniture.

In college, I had a lot of friends who came from very poor families, and who were constantly struggling to make ends meet.

Whenever we would talk about money, I was told that I was rich, so I couldn’t possibly understand. But, these were the same friends that would rack up $50 bar tabs while I paid $5 for two beers. Or who would go to the mall and put $200 on their credit cards while I shopped at goodwill.

The differentiating factor that I saw, again and again, wasn’t the specifics of anyone’s childhood. It was behavior and choices.

What I love about money is that it’s so concrete. The amount you have is X. The amount you earn is X. If you spend $50 at the bar, you will have $50 less tomorrow.

I can always rely on the numbers to make sense, and I find that empowering. I love that we live in a country where almost anyone can educate themselves on money, on investing, on compound interest, on budgeting.

Sure, we have class restrictions that make it hard for a beggar to become a billionaire. I’m not arguing that. But, we’re not talking about beggars or billionaires here. We’re talking about American college students (i.e. already more privileged than most of the world), some with wealthier parents than others, using their financial backgrounds as justification for their financial mismanagement.

But isn’t financial education a factor of privilege? Yes, certainly. It can be. But we all know plenty of financially clueless or irresponsible people that grew up with a lot of money. And similarly, I’ve met a lot of people that grew up without any money, or with financially irresponsible parents, who have turned into very frugal, conscientious money managers.

So, back to our artist.

Is the product of her work (her art) partially due to the significant financial advantage she’s been given?

Yes, it could be.

Are there equally talented people out there who will never get those advantages, and maybe therefore never have the chance to be the artists they have the potential to be?

Yes, it could be.

Does that make her art less valid? less important? Are her achievements lessened by the “step-up” she’s been given?

No, of course not. She has had the good fortune to get some amazing opportunities and the best thing she can do for herself and the world is to turn that “step-up” into art that will inspire people. She could be out buying Prada and getting Botox. But instead, she’s devoting herself to art. She’s playing the hand she’s been dealt in the best possible way.

When people tell me that my accomplishments are a product of my privilege, I agree with them. I’ve been given so much opportunity. I’m grateful for it.  And I’m proud of what I’ve done with it.

thanks to the Kristina Alexanderson for the privileged stormtrooper picture

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  • I think their will always be some sort of privilege when money is the topic. In college I developed a dislike for those who had their parents pay for their college, i’m not sure if it was jealousy or a “chip on my shoulder” that I had developed to overcome the situation. I think in the end regardless of privilege it’s what we individually do in our situation that makes us who we are.

  • I have two (young) adult children who by way of a step grandmother ( and a great grandfather they have never known) have received “trust funds” to go through as many university educations ( not in the US) they wish until they are 26. They did not ask for it, never expected it and are definitely, definitely grateful to be so fortunate. Neither sit around living off the proceeds they both work hard in menial jobs and at school. My point is they received a break based on the way the cards of life have been dealt. We all get opportunities, some good and some challenging, in life whether it be luck, through hard work or through doing nothing. I used to feel kind of guilty and a little embarrassed that my kids get something many do not and then I asked myself “why not”. They are totally deserving of it and are not squandering it. We were always a working class/lower middle class family so they would have had to work their own way through university which is something I did ( twice) without help from any one. We can spend precious mental energy questioning why or we can be grateful and take advantage of life to the fullest.