By Dr. Joy Eberhardt De Master, WCI Columnist
I missed the first day of anatomy class, because my car wouldn’t start. I called my cousin for help and checked under the hood. The battery’s connections had corroded. Somehow, someway, I made it to a car shop—maybe with a tow truck. I don’t remember. But with a new battery secured, I raced off to med school—late, late, late.
One could say, “Girl, get your car serviced!” A reliable form of transportation is essential for work and for school and for everything.
What if I told you I cared for my car as best I could? What if I told you I didn’t have money for someone to fix it? So, I fixed it myself with help from my family. (I changed my own flat tire on the same car one cold wintery Chicago day stuck in the muck of gray snow.)
Car issues were nothing new to me. Growing up, I drove my siblings to school, and routinely, the car stalled on the carretera (“highway” in Spanish). I knew how to get it going again without causing a crash.
In reality, having a car was a privilege for me. In college, I had no car and worked federal work-study, aka the government gives colleges money to pay students anywhere from 50%-100% of their wages.
In 1998, I was years away from becoming a pediatrician, and the federal minimum wage was only $5.15 per hour.
It frankly didn’t seem like a good deal, and I didn’t understand why it existed. I could make $20 an hour tutoring math. I had doubts about the “benefits” the program had to me as a student. (Federal work-study is for those from financially disadvantaged backgrounds and is “awarded” to students. Interestingly, student income is only 4% of the college financial picture.) I had to work four times as hard in work-study as in my other job. And I remember being obligated to do it. (Fun fact I learned for this column: Schools could lose their federally awarded money if they didn’t use enough of it.) For me to work at my college, the school paid somewhere between nothing and $1.29 an hour. (I went to a not-for-profit school that was obligated to pay, at most, 75% of my wage. For-profits are obligated to pay up to 50%.)
Side note: The minimum wage in Illinois is $12 per hour as of 2022. It didn’t increase from $5.15 per hour until 2004 and didn't increase from $8.25 per hour until 2020. (Yes, only two years ago!) The CPI Inflation calculator shows $1 in 1998 is now valued at $1.74 in 2022. The same dollar was valued at $1.60 in 2020. A simple ratio of 8.25/5.15 equals 1.60—the rate of inflation in 2020. Federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. That same ratio 7.25/5.15 equals 1.40. The federal minimum wage is less now in 2022 than in 1998. I would have been making $3.68 per hour back in 1998.
So, why all this mumbo-jumbo about hourly wage? Because I used to determine my purchases based on how many hours I’d have to work. I’d go out to dinner and look at the menu. Some meals were two hours of work. Others were only one hour of work. I wouldn’t get a drink because it increased my hourly work. (I remember the shock in medical school when people spent more on drinks than I did on meals.)
Now, many years later, I don’t think of my “hourly work” when I go out to eat. I don’t blink an eye as my car is serviced. I have stepped into the world of privilege—a world of “reliable transportation” and the ease of others doing it for me, even going out of their way to make it easy for me.
Today, I had a mobile no-contact car service come to my work as I stayed inside warm and dry. They did “free extras”—checking tire pressure and topping off fluids and even arranged to have my leaking tire changed the same day. With a few taps of my finger, I approved the job and kept working.
But how do I remember that girl—the 22-year-old braving the cold with a dead battery and missing the first day of anatomy class? I remember my privilege. I know my power. I practice kindness.
Financially stable now, here's how I think about it these days.
Remember Your Privilege
We don’t talk about privilege enough. It is the reason some people have money and others don’t. It is the reason some of us fly around the world and others are scared to leave their “home.”
Privilege, simply put, makes life easier. Privilege often is money. But it can also be opportunity and knowledge. The “hidden ladder,” some call it.
If you are reading this, you are privileged. You read. That is a privilege. You understand the English language, another privilege most of us take for granted in a world dominated by this language.
What are my privileges? I have documentation to stay in the country where I live. I am light-skinned. I speak English. I have good health. I am also quick-witted, decent-looking, and educated. (Education can not be overstated. Having four years for university, then four years for medical school, then the three-plus years of residency/fellowship is a privilege many people don’t have.)
Because of my privileges, I am licensed as a physician in two states, and I'm a high-income earner. The world caters to me, and that makes me feel, strangely, uncomfortable.
The friendly greetings as I enter a Natural Grocers. I may be there to only use the bathroom, but no one pauses when they give me the bathroom code even though I have not purchased anything. (If you don’t look privileged, you have to buy something first to get the code on the receipt.) The lower lighting, good smells, kind words, and smiles rain down on me. It is a far cry from bagging my groceries during medical school with boxes and then shuffling out to fill my car with engine coolant before driving home to a cold apartment.
I wonder if the workers' friendliness is sincere. Or is it just because I can pay for what I need with no worries?
Know Your Power
Having money, opportunity, and knowledge are not bad. It does create different worlds and can lead to barriers among friends and family. We need to acknowledge this. We need to be aware.
The first time I flew back to Chicago after residency, my family asked me if I enjoyed flying first class. With my infant in tow, I was confused. Then, I realized that being the only MD in all of my extended family created the misperception I had “made it” financially and that I only flew first class.
The reality was I had strapped toys on my baby’s overalls (to not lose them and to have them close at hand) while the two of us shared an economy seat—the only way I could afford the flight after family leave and childcare costs. I sat amid my baby’s boogers and babbling.
Just because you have money doesn’t make you better, smarter, or more anything, really. It simply gives you power and more choice. You need to be aware of this power.
I also remind myself that money doesn’t mean I pay for everything for family and friends. I need to give space for others. I need to respect others—even if they make $7.25 per hour. It may mean I talk with friends about where we go out to eat or even if we do at all. Maybe we go to the cheaper donut place instead of the spot that serves Cointreau Crème Brûlée and Passionfruit Cocoa Nib donuts.
In Spanish, there is a phrase “tiene palanca”—to have pull (aka influence). Often, money gives you pull. How will you use it?
In 2021, I sold my rental. I wrote about it in a prior column and got many questions about what I did with the money. The need for certainty among the audience was palpable. I needed to list out steps A, B, and C to show how to be financially successful.
The reality is my focus was on having enough for myself and extending kindness. We are living in a pandemic. Some people are barely getting by. How do we make lasting change for ourselves and others? This is what I did.
Part of the proceeds went to support my extended family. That is a story for another time. And yet, it is a common story for first-generation professionals.
Another part went to help a close family friend complete college. First-generation college students with parents who have no prior college experience have a 20% rate of graduating. That means four in five of these students don’t graduate. It is even worse for Latinx—the graduation rate is 15%. That means almost six in seven students don’t graduate. No graduation means lower incomes and less wealth.
Even if you make it as a first-generation college graduate, your wealth accumulation is substantially less than a second-generation college graduate. You tend to earn a lower income, to have higher educational debt, and to get no inheritance.
A medical school classmate stated her dad paid off her medical school loans as a graduation gift. I was stunned. I had picked my medical school based on scholarships and living expenses. (Northwestern University was out of the question for me because housing costs were $1,000 per month and the scholarship was only available for two of my four years.)
So, how else am I kind? I have chosen kindness to my body and started personal training. I am learning to move in new ways. I am learning to relax.
My family is my priority. I have chosen kindness to my family. My family has invisible disabilities. The cost of disability is not acknowledged. Whether the cost is from income not earned or income spent due to the disability, we need to acknowledge it.
I have invested in my business—my new clinical practice. Capital investments are done. (Has anyone ever told you to never order furniture in a pandemic? OK, I will. Don’t do it. It may never arrive!)
What about you? Are you willing to live with a little bit of uncertainty and to examine how you accumulated your wealth? Have you thought about your privilege? How do you use your power? Are you kind?
To my 22-year-old self who was stuck in the cold with a dead car battery, I'd tell her to breathe and to know that “you are not alone.” I say to you, my reader, the same. Know that you should breathe and know that you are not alone.
As a white coat investor, do you ever think about your privilege and power? Does it affect your daily decisions? Do you practice kindness to yourself and others? Comment below!
[Editor's Note: We know you visit The White Coat Investor to learn about investment strategies and planning, and we’ve always strived to teach financial literacy to physicians, high earners, and anybody else who finds their way here. But the COVID pandemic has also shined a light on physician burnout and its dangers. That’s why we feel compelled to run articles and columns like the one you just read—to make sure white coat investors stay mentally healthy. We know mental wellness is what leads to a long, fruitful financial life, and we’ll continue to run pieces like this because combatting burnout has become such an important part of everybody’s financial journey.]