September 21, 2013

In the personal finance world, we hardly ever talk about class and privilege. They are uncomfortable topics for most people, because people don’t want to admit they are in a lower class, or they don’t want to acknowledge that certain aspects of who they are have given them some privilege in this world.

We all still want to believe we worked for everything we have. But let’s face it. Women still make less money than men. People who are non-white make less money than their white counterparts.

In different points in our life, we have all been oppressed and privileged.

I have felt and seen extreme sexism because I am female. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some privileges being white. I’ve also been in situations where my class was made very apparent. In addition to my list of the strangest things I’ve done for money, I’ve also worked as a house-cleaner. In NYC, when I was getting desperate I answered an ad on Craigslist looking for someone to clean his apartment. This man was an unemployed ex-Wall street banker, who just sat at home and relaxed while I cleaned his house. It was fine at first, but then he started to get demanding and said I was missing crumbs on the table and I wasn’t “doing a very good job”.

Do you know how humiliating it is to be washing some unemployed man’s dirty skivvies and he’s ordering YOU around? It all seemed so backwards. I only lasted two days.  I cried and cried. I never felt so low from a job, and I couldn’t imagine that people do that everyday for a living. But people do. My grandma did it her whole life and supported six kids doing that work.

If class didn’t exist, who would pick up all the shit? Literally.  And class is related to income, because income can afford you opportunities to NOT do things, like clean up after yourself.

But what really got me started on this topic was a recent blog post I read about a personal finance retreat in Ecuador, a country affected by poverty. I wrote this comment and many others felt similarly.

 “…something about having a retreat about being rich and financially free in a third world country just doesn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t do it….I have some issues with retreats like this and certain blogs, because it all makes it so simple, like “you can do it too”. I do believe with education, hard work, hustling and cutting expenses people can become financially independent, but something that is often missing in this conversation is a global perspective. Saying all of those things is very American. Would we say to people in Ecuador, “Just work harder, cut your expenses” to get out of poverty? No. There are real barriers to financial success, and real privileges for many of us as well.”

That comment pretty much sums up how I feel. The one thing about the personal finance world that drives me nuts is that the global perspective is often lacking.  Sometimes it’s not as easy as just “working harder”. Saying that completely ignores the existence of racism, sexism, classism, ageism, homophobia and any other –ism you want to throw in there.  I’m passionate about personal finance and the idea of being debt-free and financially independent, but what I’m even more passionate about is social justice and equality.  I want to check my privilege whenever I’m being a whiny bitch. I want to respect, and acknowledge the work of others in the community and around the world that make our lives a better place. Most of all,  I never want to lose my sense of perspective and gratitude.


Melanie is a freelance writer currently living in Portland, Oregon. She is passionate about education, financial literacy, and empowering people to take control of their finances. She writes about breaking up with debt, freelancing, and side hustle adventures at

Currently she puts more than 50% of her income towards debt, while living a frugal, fun life. In addition to her love of personal finance, art and music, she is also a karaoke master. Follow the adventure @DearDebtBlog.

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17 responses to “Class and Privilege”

  1. I was thinking about this when I was with a group of people last night and everyone was complaining about the iphone upgrade. I mean you can’t help but laugh at what a first world problem that is. It’s always good to keep yourself in check. Great post!
    Budget and the Beach recently posted…Spend Time With Yourself (for free!)My Profile

  2. Isabella says:

    This is a great post and perspective on all those “isms.” Another thing we must be aware of is imposing our views of happiness and success on other parts of the world. A word for this I have heard is to “McDonaldize” the world. Sometimes in areas of the world we may consider backward, the inhabitants are generally quite happy with their lives. They have a sense of community and family that we don’t. Feelings of isolation are less, but we feel that if they don’t have our standard, they are unhappy.

    That said, I know that class related to income surely exists, and it’s not often pretty.

    • deardebt says:

      Wow, McDonaldize! Fascinating. It’s true that many other countries with less means are more happy than the lives we live. I do think class and privilege exist, but I don’t claim to make any comments on how those relate to happiness. I know money can buy happiness in some instances, but I think a sense of community, family and togetherness is priceless. A lot of our culture of wealth is isolationist and very removed from working together as a society.
      deardebt recently posted…Class and PrivilegeMy Profile

  3. Jane says:

    Interesting post. Did you continue to follow the comments on the GRS post? All of us dissenters got the wagging finger from J.D. and another attender. Oh, well. I do agree with your overall point that it is strange to host a retreat celebrating financial independence in an impoverished locale.

    • deardebt says:

      Yes, I have been following the comments. A very lively, vibrant discussion. The whole article didn’t really bother me much, it’s mostly just my gut reaction of feeling uncomfortable with the content of the retreat and the location of it. It seems to be lacking contextualization.
      deardebt recently posted…Class and PrivilegeMy Profile

  4. Michelle says:

    I hadn’t really thought about the Ecuador trip in terms of class. It’s hard because people are working hard so that they can be in the position to do special things like retreats overseas. There are moments when I catch myself in mid-complaint about snow quality (can’t go snowboarding), or I ant to go golfing more but it’s too expensive. Or, I only got to go to England and I’ve been there before. The point is I’m exposed to and able to experiences a number places, activities, etc because of where I live, my education, and because of the people around me.

    • deardebt says:

      It’s hard to consolidate my thoughts on all this. I agree that people should reward themselves and do deserve nice or good things. I work very hard and I love traveling. But I also know that for some people working hard will never be enough. Because working two minimum wage jobs can’t pay the bills, or there is never time. We don’t live in an equitable society where everyone can afford the same things. Even though my hard work has been resulted in certain choices, I still think of them as very privileged.

      I think you nailed it on the head– you are able to experience all these wonderful activities, education, etc because of your upbringing, hard work and many factors both within and outside of your control. I don’t want to downplay hard-work, and getting ahead and living a life of luxury. I simply want to acknowledge there are factors outside of everyone’s control that contributes to our success, failure or mediocrity.
      deardebt recently posted…Class and PrivilegeMy Profile

  5. Amen! Great post, love that comment!

  6. Sorry to hear about your cleaning job. Some people are just self centered ass hats.
    As for the Ecuador trip – at least they’re spending money there. The tourism money definitely help 3rd world countries. It’s tough.
    It makes me feel guilty to be so self centered all the time, but I gotta take care of my family first…. Good post.
    retirebyforty recently posted…Mrs. RB40’s Early Retirement Strategy RevealedMy Profile

  7. Patrick says:

    This is a great point. We’re living in a place and time where even the thought of such a large scale conversation is fairly amazing. I’ve stopped following some of the more self-righteous PF bloggers, who make it seem like financial independence is just a series of steps. There’s a lot more to it than that, and a general discussion of any major economic setback like a divorce, having kids, loss of a job, or developing a worthless skill is perceived as “complaining.”

    Nobody said a word to me about money growing up. It was something that just sort of occurred.

    We tend to stand on the shoulders of generations worth of economic activity then proclaim ourselves financially savvy once we “succeed.” You can be the most frugal and analytical person on the planet, but if you’re born in a shitbox – you’re not going anywhere. This is why people are leaving dozens of countries in droves and have done so for hundreds of years.

    BTW, just a shout out to all the people cleaning toilets — I was a janitor for three years before moving on to a lucrative career as a dishwasher for another 2. My grandma also cleaned houses for almost 40 years while my grandad was collecting trash. I think about this a lot sometimes because it seems like squandering the lift this generation gave us is sort of an insult. I often feel obligated to kick ass because I’m fairly certain they did all that shit work so that their kids and grandkids didn’t have to. We’re just lucky we live in a country where you can still start with humble beginnings and pull yourself off the shitpile.

    That’s why they crossed the ocean to get here and left their country and family behind — because they perceived a better life where people are free to make their own decision. The yoke of debt changed all that.

    I think these types of opportunities are going away. I think that the US is slowly converting into the lowest common denominator.

    Great post, and I also didn’t get all the way through the Ecuador shenanigans thing. It was totally irrelevant to me, and I don’t have time to waste.
    Patrick recently posted…Perceived Benefits and Perceived PriceMy Profile

  8. Being a social worker I’m very aware of the “isms” and “obias” that leave people behind and keep them in poverty. Yes, some people can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and make themselves a better life with hard work and education. But when you’re born to a crack addicted, mentally ill mother, who is in an out of your life until you’re placed in an abusive foster family, it’s pretty hard to even imagine that a better life could be possible. I’m not saying that’s the situation all of my clients are in, many are not, but it does remind me everyday how lucky I am to have grown up in a working class family with college educated parents who worked hard and valued education. I was told I could be anything and do anything I wanted (within reason) many kids these days don’t have anyone who believe in them.
    KK @ Student Debt Survivor recently posted…I Clean My House for My Dog WalkerMy Profile

  9. Karen says:

    When I think about my childhood upbringing, I should count my lucky stars. My parents immigrated to Canada (separately, they met in Canada) during a time when it was so easy to get work in your field. They had it rough for a few years, but worked to buy a decent sized house in a great neighbourhood.

    My sister and I were spoiled and were enrolled in dance lessons, piano lessons. We went on vacations to Disney World and Montreal. So I guess in a sense we were considered priviliged and classified as middle class.

    I never felt I was directly in a situation that I received less than my colleagues because they were Caucasian or because I was female. Although during the period when I was between jobs, even though we were in the middle of a recession, I often wondered if not being able to get a decent job during that time was because of my background.
    Karen recently posted…I Refuse To Be a Slave to TechnologyMy Profile

  10. Not that I don’t agree with this post, but I disagree slightly on the point of comparing the U.S. to Ecuador and considering it to be the same thing.

    There are a LOT MORE opportunities open to Americans who are citizens, than people who are citizens of Ecuador. Why do you think so many of them try so hard to leave their country, even to go to another where they do not speak the language?

    It’s because they have ZERO opportunities to find work, not to mention the corruption in government, the lack of basic amenities, SAFETY being a huge issue (on and on).

    It’s shameful for me that someone could even begin to compare their situation in the U.S. to someone living in Ecuador.

    At least in the U.S. you have a relatively safe country you can live in, and even though it sucks that you have to pick up jobs you don’t like (or rather that NO ONE likes), at least you don’t have to worry about getting shanked at 6 p.m. walking home.

    So please, don’t try and compare living in a country like Ecuador to the U.S. Pick another country like Canada or a place where it is comparable.
    save. spend. splurge. recently posted…Investing Series: What is an “MER” (Management Expense Ratio)?My Profile

    • deardebt says:

      I am not at all trying to compare living in the U.S. with living in Ecuador. I spoke of my experience with class and privilege as a background into a larger conversation around the topic. The initial inspiration was another blog post about personal finance bloggers going to a retreat about wealth in Ecuador, and it didn’t sit right with me. It didn’t sit right with me for the very reasons you are stating– we are very much privileged here in the U.S. and have tons of opportunities and safety– resources they may not have. I understand the circumstances are very different, which is why it felt weird to me to have a retreat there in the first place.

      I don’t think people in the U.S. could begin to understand what it’s like to live in Ecuador, and I wouldn’t want to try! I am sorry if you perceived my post as doing that, as that wasn’t my intention.
      deardebt recently posted…Dear Debt letter from Bee Debt FreeMy Profile

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