My Financial Privilege

Most of the early retirement blogs that I have read talk about their financial history and how much they had when they started their journey to financial independence. And so I thought that I would do the same.

I went to a government school (i.e. a school subsidized by the government) for Junior School (Grade 1 – 7 for those not familiar with the South African education system) and won a scholarship to a private school (i.e. not subsidized by the government and so very expensive) for High School (Grade 8 – 12). Even with the scholarship though my parents struggled to pay the other costs involved and so my Dad (because my Mom had died by then) only actually finished paying my school fees a few years after I had finished school.

I then went to University. My Dad tried to take care of things financially but it was clear after 6 months that it just wasn’t going to work. So I got a student loan for the remainder of my degree (2 and a half years) and my Honours (1 year). My Dad paid the interest THANK GOODNESS and so it meant that at the end of my Honours I only had to pay back the capital (still a significant amount though). The challenge was though that student loans in South Africa don’t work how they seem to in 1st world countries (very low interest and almost no time pressure to pay them back). My student loan had an interest rate in line with South Africa’s interest rate (i.e. high) and needed to be paid back in half the time over which I had borrowed it. In other words, I had the student loan for 3 and a half years and so I needed to pay it back in 1.75 years. On the bright side though, I didn’t gather any other debt while at University – no banks would give me a credit card anyway! I did work part time during the 2nd and 3rd year of my degree but this went to supplementing my social life – it never even occurred to me that I should (could!) be saving money.

After University, student loan debt in hand, I bundled myself off to South Korea to teach English. And with discipline and focus I paid off my student loan in 18 months. Writing that debt off was one of the best feelings I have ever had and, because my last payment happened to coincided with Halloween (we had a massive celebratory party in Seoul that night!), it’s a day that I still remember every year. With the last 6 months I had in Korea, and no student loan hanging over my head, I funneled as much money as I could back to South Africa. With that money I paid for a 2 month road trip of New Zealand, bought an old second-hand car cash and had enough money to support myself in South Africa until I found work. Still nothing was invested or saved for the long-term. It didn’t even cross my mind.

I then worked for 6 months (earning JUST enough to support Husband and I – Husband was studying at the time) and again saved nothing.

From there I went back to University and did my Masters. I got funding (based on my good academic record) for most of it but was still short. My Dad wasn’t in a position to financially help (he wasn’t even able to sign surety for a student loan) and so my dear, sweet Grandmother stepped in and lent me the money. My funding and my Gran’s money covered my expenses for the first year of Masters and during the second year I worked in an internship and was paid JUST ENOUGH to support myself and Husband (so no funding or student loan required). I did miraculously find a way to save money that year though as Husband and I got engaged at the beginning of my internship and so we squirrelled money away each month for our wedding (it’s ALL about the priorities!).

The next year we both started working (the first time since Korea where neither of us were studying and we were both working!), paid for our wedding ourselves (debt-free), bought out first car (on credit) and slowly started paying back my Grandmother. We worked for two years at those jobs, for the most part insisting that we couldn’t save anything but suddenly found a way when we wanted to go to Italy. (Again with the priorities).

We then returned to South Korea at the beginning of this year with the intention of saving as much as possible for a house deposit. In terms of savings we started this year with nothing except a few thousand Rands in a back account in South Africa (convert R1000 into your currency, dear Reader, you will see it isn’t a great deal). But we also started the year almost debt-free, which counts for something. And I am pleased to say that debt was obliterated within 2 months of being in South Korea J In fact, by the time we started The Brat Experiment we were totally debt-free.

Looking back on my financial history I do not consider it to be a wealthy one. In fact, I think it’s pretty average (no debt but also no stockpile either). However, comparing ourselves (Husband’s history is pretty similar to mine) to most of the world’s population we are actually wealthy.

We have always had a roof over our heads. We have always had food. We have always had running water, flushing toilets and electricity. We have always had access to good education and healthcare.

But why? Why are we among the few number of people in the world to have always had access to these things? The answer is two-fold: we were born in a specific time (the 1980s when all these luxuries had long been invented); and we were born in a specific place: South Africa. And I cannot talk about my financial history without acknowledging and giving voice to exactly what that means.

I am white. Born to white parents at the end of Apartheid.

This means that, even though I had barely started school when Apartheid ended, my parents and grandparents had certain opportunities and privileges that would not have been there if they had had any other colour skin pigment. And these opportunities and privileges were in-turn handed down to me. This does not mean that I, my parents or my grandparents did not work hard. It does not mean that any of us is racist. And it does not mean that anyone at the time thought it was right (or wrong) for us to have benefited. It simply means that we did. And the ONLY reason that we did benefit was because of our whiteness.

So I cannot and should not talk about my financial history without mentioning my whiteness. Or my parents’ and grandparents’ whiteness. In recognition of that I have made a list of things that were only allowed to happen because of whiteness. These things either directly or indirectly benefited my financial standing (there are many, many other things that benefitted me that have nothing to do with money but I’m trying to stay on topic here!):

  • My Oupa’s family owned a farm in an area that was vaguely farmable (blacks tended to be given the worst land, and not much of it, under the 1913 Land Act).
  • My Grandmother’s father owned land near a financially lucrative (read: white) town (non-whites needed permission to even go into towns and so owning land in a town was totally out of the question)
  • My Oupa and my Grandmother received good education AND in their home languages (my Oupa in Afrikaans and my Grandmother in English)
  • My Oupa and Grandmother both went to University (despite being so poor)
  • My Oupa qualified as a lawyer and was able to practice in a PRIME location in town. (My Grandmother wasn’t allowed to write her final exam to qualify because she was pregnant at the time and they wouldn’t allow a re-write. Apartheid and pre-Apartheid didn’t love women – even white women). This helped my Oupa to make a lot of money and so fund the best education for my Mom and her siblings. It also allowed him to fund my Mom going on a Contiki tour of Europe in the mid-70’s where she met my Dad (a New Zealander).
  • My parents were both very well educated (never had to do Bantu Education), which meant they were able to help and encourage my education (e.g. they were able to read to me, could help me with my homework etc) – all of which increased my chances of educational achievement (along with the fact that I received my education in my first language).
  • My Dad was allowed to immigrate to South Africa.
  • My parents were allowed to date, get married and have children (because they both had the same skin colour).
  • My parents were allowed to lease a farm (and therefore had the opportunity to make money). This in turn allowed my Dad to sign surety for my student loan – and so gave me access to a University education.

This list is not to say that it was impossible to do these things if you weren’t white. For example, we all know (I hope!) that it was possible to be black and become a lawyer (in case you don’t know, dear Reader, Nelson Mandela was a lawyer). However, Nelson Mandela’s path to becoming a lawyer would have been MUCH harder than my Oupa’s. According to Critical Legal Thinking, Nelson Mandela opened the FIRST black law firm in South Africa in 1952. 1952! The fact that no one else had been able to do that prior to this speaks volumes.

White privilege is the fact is that the whiteness of my grandparents and parents removed (financial) barriers that would have otherwise been there. And so their whiteness gave them opportunities and privileges that made their (financial) lives MUCH easier. And this, in-turn, has made my (financial) life so much easier.

In terms of my own wealth: I may think of myself as pretty average but I’m really not. I may not have a heap of money saved up but I have had opportunities that make the future easily full of possibilities. Specifically my access to education, and my parents’ and grandparents’ access to education, has meant that it is relatively easy for me to improve my financial standing. What a privilege.


Durban sunrise (South Africa, 2015)



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