Ok, PF Bloggers: Constructive Criticism

I’ve seen a number of posts in my Twitter feed lately that follow similar patterns. In what I’m assuming is intended as benevolent helpfulness, they encourage readers to save. “Save for retirement, even if you only make three nickels!” is (my) exaggerated version. Today I saw some that suggested the only barrier to saving is self-discipline. These kinds of posts struck me as troubling, and I think PF (personal finance) bloggers need to take a deep breath and a step back to evaluate some.

Chiefly, my criticism is this: posts like that deny the very real problem of class in America and show little empathy for that problem. If I’m making, say, $30k a year, saving for retirement–and surely for early retirement–is nearly impossible. If I live in a less-expensive area, maybe my odds improve, but overall? $30k is very little in our country, and even less so if that person has a spouse or kids or even, hell, pets. $30k is barely enough to begin to save an emergency fund for some people. No amount of budgeting in the world will make much difference if expenses–food, rent, transit to work–are average. Telling people–as some have–to move for better-paying jobs ignores how costly moving is. First month, last month, security–these add up to thousands of dollars in many cases, and that’s not including something to haul one’s stuff. It’s also denying that people want more than just to save for retirement–living near family, for instance, might be worth far more than being isolated someplace in order to save money. A little empathy aforethought might change what this piece was up to entirely.

And while sometimes indeed what stops people from saving is willpower, just as often it’s likely a combination of events that leaves a person in the red or paycheck to paycheck. Class is a very real part of our world, and it’s compounded in America by other factors like gender, sex, and race, all of which lead to lower paychecks than white men receive. We know that 2/3 of Americans don’t have much of anything saved for an emergency, and it’s not always because of willpower: it’s because of a lack of funds to begin with. Significantly, a $1000 emergency–say, the refrigerator croaks–is 31 days’ worth of work for someone making $25000 a year (Pew Charitable Trust study, cited in link above–$25000 is just over the official poverty line for a family of four). Setting aside that money may be nigh on impossible for someone making $25000. Average income in America is a little over $56k, which means many people are making well below that amount (by some estimates, up to 14.5% are below the poverty line). Deepening one’s ability to understand where people are coming from–finding some financial empathy–will go a a long way to being a better advocate for people interested in personal finance issues, and better able to figure out what people actually need rather than what one thinks they need.

Relatedly, it’s time to chuck the “just pull yourself up from your bootstraps” narrative. It’s been a persistent part of American culture for decades, but it lacks awareness that everyone’s bootstraps start in different places. White, educated men in certain geographical markets and without prior roots in poverty have the easiest-to-pull bootstraps, as they’ve got the most overt privilege, systemic and otherwise. Everyone else starts lower. For many, the straps themselves barely exist. To assume otherwise–to say or imply, “I did it, why can’t you?” about any given topic without qualifiers–suggest that you either haven’t recognized that we don’t all have the same bootstrap pullability, or an unwillingless to recognize it.

So, take this as a piece of constructive criticism, PF bloggers. Before you offer, however well-intended, a suggestion that anyone if they tried hard enough could FIRE or hell, just retire someday, or save far more than they already do, think about the position of privilege you’re coming from. You’ve been blessed. No doubt you’ve worked hard, but sometimes hard work alone doesn’t cut it. Keep that in mind as you proffer advice for the rest of us. Work on developing empathy for what $30k means for some families and for the complicating factors in people’s lives. Empathy is as good as gold in terms of social currency.

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20 thoughts on “Ok, PF Bloggers: Constructive Criticism

  1. To paraphrase someone much smarter than me: if hard work corresponded to a high income, single mothers working in the service industry would be the richest people in America.

    You hit the nail on the head. This is something that gets brushed over too often on PF blogs. It’s part of why we started BGR, and it’s part of why we like your work. It’s not coddling or discouraging to admit to people that income inequality exists, that privilege exists, or that outside factors greatly affect a person’s financial position. Work hard, yes. But forgive yourself for the things you can’t possibly control. And tell anyone preaching the gospel of bootstraps to go fuck themselves.

    1. Amen, Piggy. I’m glad this clicked for you, too–it’s been driving me bananas, the more I see it. And as a historian by trade, the inability/unwillingness of some to see the more complex picture makes me extra bananas.

  2. I’ll take this very poignant feedback to heart. Many of us write from a point of view that the spoiled among us like to piss away their above average incomes chasing “bigger” and “more”. Having grown up in a shithole town with blue collar parents who worked shit jobs (literally -waste water treatment) I get it. I will say this though – PF bloggers are not a part of “the problem”. We tend to brush over real social issues, but we offer some damn good solutions without shaming anyone in poverty.

  3. I think that’s true for a number of PF bloggers, but truth be told, there are those who–intentionally or not–do engage in shaming. Perhaps your point of view (re: spoiled people) isn’t always clear, so what comes across is a general ethos of “your’e doing it wrong” (not saying this about your writing, specifically, but reflecting trends I’ve lately seen).

  4. This post is superb. I’ll be sharing widely and also keeping these words of keen perspective in mind myself.

    The lack of empathy (and heavy helping of judgement) that creeps into the personal finance advice isn’t helpful. It doesn’t acknowledge the larger societal issues at work. And, it turns many off from trying to learn about money.

    I could talk for hours on this topic – but for now, I’ll say thank you for this thoughtful post, and let’s keep the dialogue going.

    1. Thank you–this really means a lot to me. Also, your help with the initial draft was immense!

  5. I love this post, Jen! I always ask the people I work with where they learned about money, and the answers are so interesting. IF they learned, it was from family. And I am generally working with people who have more resources and choices–I think there’s a whole swath of people who assume I would not be able to help them, or who are too busy trying to pay the rent and put food on the table to even think about long term financial strategies. It’s helpful to have perspective about how much one has, rather than just comparing yourself to those who have more (and therefore thinking about what one does not have). thanks for this.

      1. oh, and also: our country values consumption, makes it a marker of well being, and then tells poor people: well, why do you need an iphone? you can’t afford it! I was talking to someone last week who works with a lot of low income families here and the way that tension–between american consumerism and living within your means when you don’t have much–is so much harder than we give them credit for.

  6. Agreed. To further compound matters, having something like a smartphone–which allows access to the internet–is becoming rather indispensable if, say, someone is looking for a job and has limited access to a library. And then people criticize–how dare you have a smart phone if you’re poor!–while also criticizing job-hunting presumptions. People can’t win.

  7. Yes. And no. I mean I agree early retirement isn’t gonna happen when you’re on a low salary. It doesn’t show much understanding to think that it will. But many people could be in a much better financial position (and consequently have much better emotional health) if they made different decisions. Getting a fair, balanced, useful message is something I find really difficult with posts because it helps me when I read something that makes me realise how ridiculous and unnecessary my spending is. And so, if it helps me, there must be others that it is helpful for, people who need that tough love. Which is why I don’t completely agree.

    But, there are people who do not have the means for that ever to be valuable advice. A lot of big bloggers sock more into investments than I earn but class themselves as earning an average income. No matter how good I get with money, I’m not gonna have a savings rate of over 100%, no sir-ee.

    I came up with my blog name, in part, to be happy, positive and welcoming. I want to help people. But I naturally have a mindset where I feel frustrated when I see people spending money on things I choose not to spend money on- multiple i pads, expensive tv packages, more cars than there are drivers in the house etc- and complaining that they have no money. I am one of those weirdos who likes saving. I cannot explain why, it just feels right. On the other hand, I am rubbish at exercising. It is a real challenge to keep with an exercise routine and prioritise it when life gets busy. There are people who keeping an exercise routine comes naturally to. So I try to keep in my mind that the way I feel about exercise is the way some people feel about money. They know they should save more (like I should exercise more) but they can’t always find their groove for it.

    Interestingly in the UK, studies that have been carried out on average savings found that those on lower incomes actually had higher savings than those with moderate incomes (not in every case, obviously), because having the low income meant being forced to have better money management skills.

      1. Hi Sarah! I totally see the points you are making–my only caveat is that we have caveats and watch our tone. My post here isn’t addressed at you–there were a couple of specific things that put me over the edge last week because they seemed to utterly lack self-awareness on this issue. I too find people who spend lots and whine irritating, but I don’t worry about them.
        Also, super interesting stat from the UK–somehow, I don’t find it shocking.

  8. Not sure how I missed this post originally, so thanks for bringing it up when Sarah (Smile & Conquer) put out the call for her year-end round-up!

    Yes to all of this. Fuck the pervasive “all it took was hard work”/bootstraps narratives I see all the time (and the defensive retorts when someone *gasp* DARES call people out on it). Sure, it took hard work for you to get where you are now. But that doesn’t take into account the fact that you were born on second or even third base. I’m not discounting your hard work. But please, for the love of all that is good in this world, stoop to at least acknowledge your privilege every now and then.

    Alright, rant over. Work’s been aggravating today, can you tell?

    1. I suspected as much 🙂

      I think what also gets lost in all of this is that for a lot of people who do work hard, awful shit can change the situation quickly. See 2008. And so people who carry on as though it’s the fault of the person in crisis makes me so very angry (see: Republicans and their tax bill).

  9. Thank you for this! It drives me up the wall to see how many of my colleagues in the personal finance blogosphere seem to ignore their own privilege or want to shame folks for their choices. (I’m looking at you, Mustachians).

    The lack of understanding of life’s vagaries seems almost intentionally obtuse, even for those folks who are so unaware of systemic economic forces. Highly-paid, well-educated folks could have a child with special needs who requires so much care that one of the two highly-paid, well-educated parents has to quit his or her (ahem, her) job to care for the child. That can happen to anyone, and it is not something you can fix by moving to a lower-cost of living area, by being more frugal, or by biking to work. I get that many white folks can’t see their own privilege, but I don’t get why the same folks don’t see how lucky they are in terms of their health, the health of their children, or other factors that are outside of their control and that indiscriminately affect people across the socio-economic and racial spectrum. Shit happens, but apparently not in some corners of the PF world where everything that occurs to you is a result of your choices.

    Okay, I’ll put the soapbox away now.

    1. You make solid points! I like the idea that anyone can just up and move and get a better job in a lower-cost area, even without special needs kids or what have you–SERIOUSLY? the costs of moving alone, from first month/last month to emotional ones like “damn, but I like to live near my family” aren’t worth saving more $. People are so blind sometimes by their own smugness.

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