I was born lucky. Even before I exited my mother’s womb, it was predetermined for me that I would be a middle class Canadian growing up. Going to school was never going to be an issue, neither was having food on the table, a roof over my head, or a loving family.
I am so damn lucky. Much of my success outside of any personal drive and work ethic is based on where I was raised and who my parents were. The Kardashian fetuses never made the choice to be Kardashians. They just were.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are babies born every day into the cycle of poverty, a cycle they may never escape. Sadly, they are powerless to stop it.
My father always tells me: “I came to Canada with nothing but a suitcase and $500 in my pocket. And now we have all this,” pointing to his house and all its contents, “You were born in this country with more than I ever had, so you should be able to accomplish more than I ever did.”
I’ll admit, whenever he tells me this I get hit hard with the weight of that expectation. My dad became a Ph.D in medicinal chemistry, established a pretty good career in pharmaceuticals, and fathered three children with my mother, all of which were granted one degree from university debt-free with his and hers support. So when he says I should be able to accomplish more, how can I argue with that, right?
Gift #1: A Stable Home
Despite the many disagreements and spats within my family, I had a relatively stable household. This was aided by the fact that when my two sisters and I were growing up, it made sense to have my mother raise us full-time and not pay for childcare.
When we were kids, she was masterful at managing the house. On occasion, she still shows me her reams of notebooks where she tracked our family’s expenses every month in pencil to make sure all the basic necessities would be covered as a one-income family.
She also gave us a lot of things that she never got as a kid – quality time and support. She took us to the library every weekend so we could be read to every night, made sure there was money so that we could go on school field trips, and chauffeured us pretty much everywhere. Finally, a key household rule that was strictly enforced was dinner at the table together every night as a family. This gave my parents the opportunity to grill us ask us how things were going at school.
After years of being a mother, she resumed her working life and got a job at Wal-Mart as a clerk for the next 17 years of her career. They paid her just above minimum wage and I think she hated it, but she did it for us. Talk about sacrifice.
Gift #2: Life Essentials
Food on the table. A roof over our head. Heating and air conditioning. Despite my childhood angst of never being allowed to have “fun” (camp, extra-curriculars, birthday parties, and Christmas gifts after age 12 were not a thing growing up), I could never argue with my parents when they would point at all the lifestyle essentials that were being given to me.
Providing the life essentials for our family was always a point of pride for my parents, since it was something neither of them had consistently growing up. My dad once told me of his morning routine back home where he’d line up, bucket in hand, with all his neighbours at the one faucet in his entire apartment complex so he could get water for his parents and five sisters. I can certainly see why he remains proud of his house here: there’s not just one faucet, but twelve available at any given time.
Gift #3: A University Degree
“You get one degree’s worth of tuition from us. That’s it. Make it count.”
That was a line my father gave each of us as we entered the later years of high school. My two sisters, who were much more academically inclined than I was, went to a prestigious Canadian business school. To much of my parents’ dismay, I went to theatre school. I even ditched admission to law school after my undergrad for a one-year contract job in theatre making $10.00 an hour in a “developmental” role (for reference, minimum wage at the time was already $11.00). Despite it being perceived by them as a poor choice, I still credit my foray into theatre for giving me my creativity and for teaching me the concept of frugality.
But let’s be serious: the only way I was able to complete the degree and work in that vastly underpaid role was because I carried no debt upon graduation. My parents sacrificed a lot to put us through school: few vacations, very little eating out, and the grind of work. Their investment of $24,000 for my first degree (university tuition is regulated here in Canada) put me on the fast track towards financial independence and the freedom to follow my passion. It’s a commitment from them that I will never forget.
Be grateful and don’t take privilege for granted.
Every day I am grateful for everything my parents did for me growing up and I work hard to never take any of it for granted. I remember in first year university starting a job in retail much to my father’s scorn: “I pay for your school – why do you need to work and add stress to your life? Your sisters never worked in retail!”
What he didn’t seem to understand was that my desire to work part-time was simply taking his advice. After all, he had $500 in his pocket when he came to Canada, while I had way more just by being born here. So why not take advantage of the opportunity he and my mother worked so hard to give me?
I worked anywhere from 6-15 hours a week for the next 4 years in retail, studied hard, and finished university with $9,000 in scholarships. With full-time summer jobs along the way (I somehow scored a $29/hour job talking in a fake British accent one year from April-September), I finished my undergraduate degree with a positive net worth.
It might have been easy to simply take the free ride into university, but where would that have gotten me? What work ethic would that have instilled?
Leave the nest.
Since starting my first degree, I slowly weeded myself off of my parents’ finances. I started paying my own phone bill, I hunted for the best bargains on textbooks to put on my own credit card, and started to build as much of my own wealth as possible.
Weeding myself off of my parents taught me the value of money. Seeing a movie? That’s an hour of retail work. Dinner with friends? That’s three hours of retail work. If it was anybody else’s money but mine, I would have had no desire to hold myself accountable. It just would’ve been me generously throwing cash at experiences without knowing the effort that came before it.
To this day I am shocked when I hear of people my age who are living “independently” on their own, enjoying Instagram-worthy experiences but are still relying on mom and pop to cover basic bills like cell phone, rent, utilities, and internet. In my opinion, if you’ve already moved out, you should fully leave the nest by living and surviving on your own financially. Need a place to start? Pick the smallest bill and go from there. Don’t think you can? This is going to sound harsh but trim your lifestyle and make more money.
Make your own luck.
Whether or not you were born in good or dire economic circumstances, drive and work ethic are precursors to generating your own luck. Canada is full of immigrants who came here in the same circumstances as my father.
What rose many of them to the top was their determination. I was born lucky not because of some higher power, but because my parents happened to procreate and then put in their blood, sweat and tears to give me a middle class life.
There are always going to be people more fortunate than you are. You can sulk about it or you can be grateful for everything you have and use it to make your own luck.
Don’t waste an ounce of your privilege.