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.