Privilege vs. Blessing

I do not want to be a nit-picker. Naturally, this is what one would say when she is about to nit pick. So be it. I am going to write about my frustration with a book I read because I think there is an important point to make, even though what upset me is not the main focus of the book.

While nowhere near as enjoyable as meandering around the stacks in a fantastic used book store or a well-stocked library (both disappearing entities) I do scroll online through my library system’s ‘what’s available to download now’ section. The other day, a title caught my eye, as did the blurb describing the book. To my delight, Meet the Frugalwoods was a fun read as well as thought-provoking. While I have been unaware of her until now, author Elizabeth Willard Thames has been writing a blog for a number of years. Initially, it documented the path that she and her husband took to financial independence, but that has now morphed into the 2018 book I spotted as well as a financial planning business.

Referring to herself as Mrs. Frugalwood, Elizabeth charts how she and her husband (naturally, Mr. Frugalwood) took finances seriously from when they were still single and magnified that frugality after their marriage. Both attended the same relatively low-tuition college in Kansas which, along with some family help, scholarships, and working while studying, let them graduate without debt. Elizabeth’s first post-college apartment was in a less than desirable neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, her furniture was built from cardboard boxes, and her diet included lots of beans, peanut butter, and canned tuna, partially paid for with a food stamp allowance that was a perk of her not very satisfying job with a non-profit organization.

So the story continues. After marriage, as both worked their way up the corporate ladder and could afford to live more expansively, they found themselves dissatisfied. After a few years, they realized that they wanted to live in nature and to quit what had become, for them, a rat race. Doing so meant seriously upping their savings strategies. Scrounging second-hand clothes, cutting each other’s hair, and mopping floors at a yoga studio in exchange for free sessions are some of the many severe steps they imposed upon themselves. Shortly after the birth of their first daughter, they purchased and moved onto a 66 acre homestead in Vermont.

If my description intrigues you, you might want to read the book. However, I am writing about it here because of my frustration with what I see as a misplaced apology that both opens and closes the book. Hence, my nit-picking.

Mrs. Frugalwood explains that she understands that not everyone can do what she and her husband did, because not everyone has the same privilege as they do. They come from intact families with all the healthy upbringing and support that suggests and, in not such direct words, she mentions that they are white, etc., etc. Here are a couple who work hard, overcome the habit of short-term gratification, practice self-sacrifice, and yet she feels that she needs to apologize for achieving her definition of success.

That is not only wrong, it is destructive. What if instead of talking about privilege, the author had spent more time phrasing it as acknowledging her blessings? (She does do that somewhat but with far less emphasis than she devotes to her privilege.) What is the difference between a privilege and a blessing? Privilege has become a toxic word, one that encourages us to resent each other. (I have written previously about the dangers of the changing definition of the word privilege.

Blessing encourages us to be grateful. To give an example, one of the privileges the Frugalwoods acknowledge is each coming from a two-parent home. If that is a privilege, and if privilege is something for which I must apologize and that suggests that what I have penalizes someone else, then why would I want to pass that privilege on? Yet, the Frugalwoods are doing exactly that with their two children. Because, it is not a privilege, it is a blessing. Of course I want to pass blessings on to my children and to others. Even if I did not have that blessing myself, I want to spread it.

Pretty much every person reading or listening to the Frugalwood book or blog has the blessing of a functioning mind, eyes that work, and ears that hear. Continually recognizing those blessings leads one on a positive path; calling them a privilege suggests that individuals need to feel guilty when meeting someone who may be developmentally challenged, or blind, or deaf. It also insults the latter individuals, suggesting that they should be pitied and not expected to achieve. That is no less true for the blessings the Frugalwoods have. Was having two married parents who are supportive a blessing? Yes. Recognizing it as a blessing encourages others to grant the same advantage to their children. Calling it a privilege encourages envy and unhappiness from those not so blessed, two attributes that often lead people to make bad life choices, setting in place a vicious cycle where they deprive their own children from that step up in life.

Few individuals will follow the path of the Frugalwoods. This is not because they are not privileged, it is because they have different goals and prioritizations, because they don’t want to work as hard, or for a myriad of other reasons. The word privilege in this book slapped me in the face. The Frugalwoods have no need to apologize for their choices and lifestyle. If anyone reading their story envies this couple while excusing his or her own poor financial status because of lack of similar ‘privilege,’ he or she will have missed entirely the valuable lessons found in this book. How much better it would have been to express more gratitude rather than begging pardon.

This Musing is dedicated in memory of Aviya Genut, age 22. She was murdered by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023, while attending the Supernova music festival. Described by her aunt as a ‘ray of sunshine,’ Aviya’s death leaves a hole in the life of many, including her parents, siblings, and grandparents.

And with prayers for the safe release of the hostages who are still alive, and among them hopes for Yagev Buchshtav, age 34, who was abducted with his wife from Kibbutz Nirim on October 7, 2023. His wife was released earlier.

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