We Need To Talk About Privilege in Personal Finance

There are two ways to look at personal finance: one of them is dismissive of the power of privilege, and one of them isn’t.

It stems from a simple cognitive bias: We tend to attribute our own great money moves to internal factors, like personal choice, and focus on how others’ bad ones, like not saving, are also the result of personal choice. 

It’s easy for the wild world of money bloggers to look at our personal choices—especially unconventional ones, like saving a high percent of our income, or opting out of home ownership, or aiming for early retirement—and think wow, I did this all because of personal choice, and I want to tell other people they can do it too, no matter what! After all, it was just my personal choice

Personal choices do impact your money

That kind of personal finance advice has a place in the community. I’m not saying it doesn’t. 

It’s inspiring to focus on what’s in your control. It’s also deeply helpful to read a variety of personal experiences, because there’s no One Money Expert or a single way to manage your money “properly.” 

Personal finance blogs that push an aggressive personal-responsibility narrative—even, sadly, ones that outright dismiss privilege as an April Fool’s joke—were a part of the inspiration for me starting to save and writing about it on this blog five years ago.

But.

I would be a terrible Internet friend if I didn’t temper my stories about what has gone right for me, like being able to save up to pay for our kitchen in cash, with the acknowledgement that it is not just sheer elbow grease and hard work that helps me save up for major purchases like that.

Privilege also impacts your money

I’ve got privilege coming out of my freaking eyeballs over here. 

I’m a cisgender white-passing woman in a heterosexual relationship. I grew up in Canada in a house with internet access, clean water, excellent public schools, plenty of books, and an educated (and awesome) parent. I am in great health, which affords me the time and energy to invest in both growing my career and side income streams. I graduated from school debt-free thanks to immense support from my community and my family. I could go on.

I’m not saying that if those things aren’t true for you, that you can’t achieve your personal finance goals, or that you shouldn’t set goals for yourself. You should, and I am over here with pep talks and advice and money stories anytime you need them. 

Personal choice is real, and it will have an impact on your money situation. It can help you conquer a lot. 

But to give personal choice credit for 100% of your success is bullshit. In fact, as Melanie Lockert so eloquently put it, a much-closer-to-reality take is that “Personal finance is 1% money, 5% behavior and 94% systemic inequality.”

Privilege can expand your choices

Consider this the entire world of financial “good choices.” Every dot represents a piece of financial advice, whether it’s “save 10% of your income” or “get a side hustle.” 

Not every choice is available to every person. We live our entire lives in systems that were set up to unfairly advantage some groups above others, and there are real limits to the amount of these choices that are available to different people—based on factors outside of their control.

You might only have access to the two choices in the yellow square, and someone else might be able to make all the choices in the blue square. It doesn’t mean the choices aren’t important, or hard to implement—just that some people have access to more of them than others because of factors that are out of their control.

Pretending that those limits—ahem, privileges—do not exist is basically like saying to entire groups of people, “You’re the problem.” And worse, “You don’t belong here.” That is actively damaging, especially since money and finance is already a space that in many ways has been set up to keep people uninformed about their options, and feeling like they don’t have the skills to do it.

You belong here

Let me be perfectly clear on what has always underpinned my writing here, and what I have been so late in saying explicitly.

I see you. I know that your experience with money, and the set of choices available to you, is different than mine. My financial life is inextricably tied to the privileges I have, and my goal here is to share what I know so you can take what works for you and leave the rest. That is more than enough. You are good great at money.

Do not ever feel bad if your financial picture does not look like someone else’s. 

I’m not going to sell you on a bootstrap story that I don’t believe in. I say “I’m so lucky” multiple times a day, and I am grateful for all of these things I did not earn.

And if that phrase—did not earn—makes you do a double take, let’s just recap: No one earns being white (and being favoured by generations of systems and legislation), being able-bodied, being born in a developed, democratic nation, being raised in a safe city by an educated parent, being in a heterosexual relationship, being cisgender, and on and on and on. 

Privilege is real. It does impact your finances. And it’s important you learn how, and how to maximize the choices that are available to you.