I did not pull myself up by my bootstraps

by Government Worker FI | Last Updated: February 26, 2019

Every financial independence blog has a story arc; a blogger decides to chase FI, saves money, and then achieves FI.  Not everyone starts the story arc at the same place. There has been a lot of discussion on personal finance blogs recently about where the story arc starts (i.e. privilege).  I want to write a post explicitly stating that I did not pull myself up by my bootstraps. While I got a head start on the FI journey, I hope to convince you that my story arc is still worth following.

College- a microcosm of not pulling myself up by my bootstraps

I have a PhD in a STEM field.  While I worked hard for it, I also had an easier road than some of my classmates. When I was a 2nd year undergraduate, I was competing for a regional scholarship with several others in my department.  We all asked the same famous professor for a letter of recommendation. But when the professor asked me to meet with him, I declined the meeting. I told him that was too busy to meet with him that week.  I ended up winning the scholarship. Later, the professor told me I impressed him by blowing him off. As a result, he wrote great letter of recommendation for me.

After winning that regional scholarship, I won a prestigious national scholarship.  This national scholarship was a key factor in my application for a graduate school fellowship.  Winning those scholarships/fellowships allowed me to graduate debt free and rise through the corporate ladder faster.

James Clear writes about how a small, 1% difference can result in a huge difference in outcomes.  The scholarships I won were winner-takes-all contests. I only needed to be slightly better than the other students. I turned the 1% bump from a single letter of recommendation into a virtuous cycle of wins.

That’s why I feel this scholarship was such a great microcosm of privilege.  I did *win* the scholarships fairly. But I also got a random boost by not meeting with the professor.  This random boost early in college then gave me a much bigger boost later on in life.  Would things have been different if I had met with the professor? I will never know. But the fact is that I got a small advantage which lead to huge changes in my life.

Extremely tangible ways in which I did not pull myself up from my bootstraps

In addition to winning that scholarship, I had numerous other tangible advantages.  These advantages are small, monetarily, when compared to our net worth. Nonetheless, they are advantages that I was born into.

Less tangible ways in which I did not pull myself up from my bootstraps

In addition to the direct monetary gifts I received, I also received direct help that is more difficult to quantify.

Intangible ways in which I did not pull myself up from my bootstraps

Just as winning the first scholarship was a mixture of ability (grades) and luck (letter of recommendation), I have had many intangible advantages in my life.  While these cannot be quantified monetarily, they may have been the 1% difference that differentiated me from someone else.

Despite all of the advantages I described, I too could write a bootstrap narrative if I chose to.

Despite the previous paragraph, I could probably also write a bootstrap narrative if I wanted to.

I worked extremely hard in school and finished at the top of my high school and college classes.  During graduate school, I worked full time in addition to being a full time graduate student. While I was in school, my wife worked two “W2” jobs and multiple babysitting jobs. We built our net worth up from slightly negative (student loans) to more than $500,000 in the first 10 years of our marriage while raising 2 kids.

But that narrative isn’t the whole picture.  Neither is the narrative where I simply list all of the advantages I have had.  Who I am is a combination of circumstances and choices I’ve made.

This blog is not any worse because I did not pull myself up from my bootstraps

It’s impossible to be completely objective about your own narrative.  Just as Jonathan Swift reminds us that satire is a mirror in which we can see everyone but ourselves,  privilege is a lens that you can’t see yourself through. Despite the limitations of this analysis, I have tried to be objective about advantages I’ve had- some of which may have had an outsized effect on my finances.  

Even if I did not pull myself up from my bootstraps, I still have lots of interesting things to say about financial independence.  I love reducing my environmental footprint- I am planning on using my STEM background to actually collect real data about household energy usage and its environmental impacts.  My wife and I have been raising a frugal family for 11 years and have tons of tips on keeping a frugal house. And we have lots of thoughts about the unique challenges and opportunities that government workers face when pursuing financial independence.  All of these things don’t depend on my past.

So- if you want to read a financial independence blog written by someone who really has gone through a rags-to-riches transformation, there are plenty of other great blogs to choose from.  However, I don’t think our frugality journey is any less interesting because of the circumstances under which we started our journey.

I feel better letting you know I did not pull myself up from my bootstraps.  Hopefully you will still want to follow our journey to financial independence even if we had a head start.