TOWARD THE END of high school, I landed in some predictably adolescent legal trouble: I purchased alcohol underage and had to shamefully explain what happened to my parents. As I dejectedly declared that I would pay the fine and admit guilt, my parents—concerned about potential career implications—instead insisted that I hire a lawyer with my own money. I had to work for more than a year as a busboy and caterer to reimburse my parents for the cost, but my permanent record was eventually completely cleared.
I used to tell this story to prove I was a reckless kid who didn’t always follow the rules. But as I reflect on the episode today, I’m struck by two thoughts.
First, my own privilege—and my relative unawareness of it—was startling. If I hadn’t had access to a lawyer who I’m sure discounted his rate (my parents were close friends with partners at the firm), or the money to pay him (loaned to me by my parents) or the knowledge that I should contest the charges (under pressure from my parents), I would’ve had a criminal record before my freshman year of college.
Everything was lined up for me, simply because of who my parents were and, let’s be honest, the color of my skin. It wasn’t until I recently replayed this experience that it crystallized into a comprehensive microcosm of what it means to be privileged and how my own privilege benefitted me.
Second, when faced with a choice, either personal or financial, the best long-term decision is often disregarded, because it conflicts with immediate needs. I wanted the quick, easy solution—pay the fine, admit guilt, walk away—without considering the potential long-term impact that my parents immediately grasped. It’s the same impulse that can lead 20-somethings to forgo health insurance because they’re “healthy,” not realizing the cost of one emergency room visit could quickly land them in six-digit debt. Similarly, many recent graduates make a shortsighted decision to postpone saving for retirement, even though basic investing principles and the power of compounding suggest the opposite approach.
To be sure, true financial hardship can prevent people from buying health insurance, contributing to a 401(k) or paying for needed legal advice. But there are also situations where we, as millennials, decide something more tangible and immediate is a better use of our time and money. We make the quick, easy choice—but we also risk making a major mistake.
Looking back, I realize that my own privileged upbringing—captured in that crucial moment of parental good advice and financial help—has much to do with my own personal and financial success. I’ve grown increasingly aware of my instinct to go for the quick fix—and that awareness has ultimately saved me money, as I’ve become less impulsive about financial and other life decisions, and more thoughtful about the consequences.
Zach Blattner’s previous articles include Growing Up (II), Seller’s Remorse and Too Trusting. Zach lives in Cambridge, MA, and is a former teacher and school leader who now teaches English teachers as a faculty member at Relay GSE. He is a self-taught finance nerd who dispenses advice to his wife, friends, family and anyone else willing to listen.