Measuring Privilege

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Meet the Frugalwoods

This weekend, I read Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence through Simple Living. I was hesitant to write a review of this book because I was afraid I would not find the words to explain my feelings from the book, or how it was presented.

The book is a first-person memoir-style accounting of the life of “Liz Frugalwoods”, as she is affectionately known online. Liz tells her tale which starts with the end of university, and entering into the real world as a young adult. Without telling any part of her story, she weaves you into this dreamlike state where you follow her as she becomes a married woman still seeking her own definition. You will want to cheer for her, you will want to nudge her in the right (or different) directions, and you will simply not be able to put the book down.

It’s been three days since I read the book, and I want more. I want to know what happened next, what new things they discovered as a family, etc. That’s the impression it made on me.

There are many reasons it moved me.

Liz is so resourceful and frugal! Listen to the lessons in the book. There were tons of choices that they made as a couple that the majority of us would likely have chosen different, like the apartment they stayed in. She made a comment in the book about how their friends had already inflated their lifestyles by renting or purchasing larger homes, and she and her husband were still in the basement apartment. They resist joining the race to have what the Jones’ have, they choose to use what they have, and they recognize that what they do have is enough.

Related: More about the Jones’

It’s enough.

I don’t know where you hail from. Maybe you are a low-income earner, fighting poverty. You could be someone who is newly single and looking to change your life. Or, you could be part of a family and want something different than your folks had. I don’t know your story, and it doesn’t matter because this story is for everyone.

Liz opens the book with a conversation about privilege. It’s important to understand privilege, and it’s been a very sore subject for me for some time, and I think I found out why. I was angry that I felt like I had to apologize for being privileged, like it was my choice or my fault I was born white, or heterosexual, or identifying with a female gender, or coming from two parents that are still together, or being raised with a roof over my head, and food on my table. However, by learning more and more about privilege, the reason why I was so angry was because I wasn’t.

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I wasn’t as privileged as I thought.

I thought I was. Yes, all those things I mentioned are all factors that contributed to my life. It’s much more than what some others have had, and I recognize that.

However, and my parents will deny much of this, we were raised in scarcity. There was never a guarantee of anything. We were always told how fortunate we were to have a bed, a room, a home, etc. I recognize now that those statements created guilt, not gratitude. We knew that we would be fed, but there was unstable employment throughout my childhood, which made my parents angry. They would tell us that we have cable – for now. We have food, but where’s the next meal coming from? It was truly confusing for a child, or at least for me. We had food stored in the basement that we put away when it was on sale, and yet I could not go into the fridge and have a sandwich without permission. It always felt like we were two steps away from not having anything, and the small bit that I thought I had as a child – my room, my belongings, my space – was never mine. It was always the parents’ space, and there was not respect for space. Yes, my parents would argue that I didn’t clean my room enough, or that I forgot lunches in my school bag, or that they found inappropriate notes between friends… and I would come home and my space, my sanctuary, had been thoroughly gone through, things were re-organized, furniture relocated around the room, and the nest was gone. It was not mine to be safe in, it was always theirs.

Post-secondary education was a necessary luxury. 

I did not have education paid for, and it was never discussed that it was my responsibility to find out that there were exorbitant fees associated with the prescribed post-secondary education that one is expected to obtain. There was no instruction about money, other than the lecture that I should put some of it away because my father said so, or how funds were always limited, and cherish every dollar you had. I remember going to the mall when I was a teenager, and my friend wanted to purchase a snack. I was looking for the cheapest alternative at that place, and bought a brownie. It was one of the cheaper options on the menu, yet I remember having enough money for a brownie, and probably more, but I was buying something non-essential, and without permission. I always felt guilty about spending money. 

When freedom cost nothing but dreams.

When I was 18, there was a situation that led me to move out on my own. I recall having $2,000.00 in the bank, and thinking it was so much. I had college starting in a few months, and I found work in a local call centre. They paid enough, and I recall sitting in my cubicle, calling people to talk about going to a free seminar, or signing up for this or that event, and having people get really angry with me just doing my job. (Side note: whoever thought blowing a whistle in the phone would stop the telemarketers, please stop. We are just doing our job, and now we are doing it with hearing damage.) 

My Crown Heights, Brooklyn

My first place was the second floor of a house in a “bad neighbourhood”. The upper street was lined with half-way houses for parolees, addicts and anything inbetween, and the hospital was down the block. I had a bedroom and a second room that was converted into a kitchen, and I shared the bathroom with the thirty-something-year-old man who lived across the hall in his mirror bedroom/kitchen suite. I had orange shag carpeting, and a cinderblock basement that flooded on one half when it rained. On the dry end, there was one washer and one dryer. Thankfully, the laundry machines were included, but we were told when we could use them and use was monitored, as was our comings, going and visitors.  

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It was my then-boyfriend who helped me get settled, and the rules of the house were no opposite-sex sleepovers. The older couple who lived below were used to having exchange students upstairs, so I was an anomaly for sure. During the first month or so, I didn’t speak to my parents, and six weeks into living on my own, the relationship with that boyfriend ended. He was my support system, and a friend for many years, and the loss of that relationship devastated me. Never had I felt so alone. 

The change in relationship status did not change my living arrangements. There was no happy homecoming, and the efforts required to obtain parental consent for student loans (which is how things were in the late nineties) were phenomenal. My parents had to remit forms that shared their income, and ability to assist me, and they were so secretive with the information that they mailed the application themselves. My student loans were half of what they should have been, but there was still no financial support, and very little emotional support. 

As time passed slowly, the relationship between my folks and I started to improve. We kept our distance, as there were a lot of hurt feelings and misunderstandings. Other relatives weighed in with their opinion of a half-concocted tale they felt was the truth.

The summer before college

I worked hard that summer, and learned what it was like to be independent. My mode of transportation was either bus, walk or bike. I had a bicycle that I would ride to work, and around town. Like many, I learned how to fetch groceries with a backpack and a bike ride, or taking the bus. It meant choosing what I purchased, not in the best price per unit, but how many bags could I actually carry. I adopted my first kitten, and found out how heavy kitty litter really was when carrying it from the store to the bus to the house. I walked other places, and started to learn the neighbourhood I was in, and pushed the limits as I was a naïve, bull-headed 18-year-old on a mission, going to college alone and not knowing enough about life to warn me about the years to come.

I was a naïve, bull-headed 18-year-old on a mission, going to college alone and not knowing enough about life to warn me about the years to come. Click To Tweet

That’s the digest version of the first 18 years of my life. No family vacations, no educational symphonies or operas throughout my childhood. No summer camps, no big school trips, no escape to Paris for a week. I’ve never been a girl guide, and never been skiing. The big family outing was driving an hour away to shop in a different mall once or twice a year.

It was enough. I was enough. 

I was privileged enough to have a bed to sleep in, friends who cared, family who fed me and loved me in the ways they knew how, and to be in a good school district. I acknowledge this. I also acknowledge that life could have gone very, very differently. My parents were high school graduates, and my father returned to school for a post-secondary education after a number of lay-offs. I worked hard because I knew there was no one else to count on if I didn’t.

Perhaps that’s my privilege.

Besides talking about goals, frugality, family, and alternate ways to make things happen, the book makes the reader think. It’s possible that anyone could strive for the same kinds of goals, and I know that it created a discussion or three with my partner. He was raised in a similar income bracket, but he had more measurable privilege than I did. The home was more stable, employment was stable, and above all, his mother taught them about having enough.

We have so much, and we forget to acknowledge that it’s enough. When we have the basics, we can look forward, and create goals and have dreams. The book encouraged me to ask my partner where he saw us living in the future. While I do not have a dream of owning a homestead or living in the woods, I dream of a small home on water, where the winters are held off and tropical trees have a chance to flourish. This magical place is likely in British Columbia. I am nervous to go there in case I do not come home.

We have enough.

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We have enough. We have each other, a roof, food in our cupboards, and jobs that pay us enough. It will never be a “banker’s” salary, and we will likely not see a high income, but together, we have as much as anyone could ask for, and that’s enough privilege for me. Thanks to the book, we have a goal that we will work towards together, for one day we will wake up and have coffee on our deck, overlooking the water and the mountains, and know that anything is possible, privileged or not.

Thank you, Elizabeth Willard Thames.

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