Tomorrow, after a divisive and contentious election, a new president will be sworn in. A thin-skinned, vengeful, inexperienced braggadocio and bully. That was just an undeniable assessment of the character of the man based solely on his conduct, actions, and words. This is not a political blog nor am I a very political person so I’m going to leave it at that.
Xenophobia and racism played a part in the outcome. Having an opponent who was strongly disliked with flaws of her own also played a role. Some just held their nose and voted for the least of two poor candidates. Others voted for a third-party candidate who had no chance of winning. However, there was a strong segment of the population who felt ignored by the political establishment, on both sides. Their economic concerns and values were not addressed and Mr. Trump was able to tap into that anger and turn it into a victory for himself. The forgotten man and woman are angry for being ignored, and rightfully so.
Sometimes I wonder if there is a segment of the population who feel like they are the forgotten when it comes to receiving personal finance information. In a Yahoo finance article listing various ways to spend less and save more, it offered the usual generic tips most personal finance bloggers often tout. One reader commented, “Each time I read about educational and personal finance tips here, I can’t avoid feeling that they were written by privileged folks with textbooks solutions to real life problems.” I’ve also read comments in similar articles where people seem to shake their head and say, “I already do this, but I am still struggling!”
The feeling that perhaps personal finance bloggers or gurus are perhaps out of touch with reality made me think of a Saturday Night Live skit where Kristen Wiig parodies Suze Orman. Josh Brolin plays Dick Dunkendirk, a caller to the Suze Orman show who is in dire economic straits. He tells Orman that he “took a sponge bath this morning in a TJ Maxx bathroom” and slept on “four opened pizza boxes lined with Pampers.” Orman responds by telling him to tap into his emergency savings account and to immediately put his money into a Roth IRA.
Helaine Olen, a journalist and writer, criticizes personal finance gurus for blaming financial victims for not getting ahead when it is a political and economic problem. She says that “there is this great myth out there that Americans went on a financial bender. The leading cause of bankruptcy is not buying lattes, it’s health care, followed by the usual fractured families, unemployment, sort of all of the plagues of the 21st century — economic plagues.” She continues by saying that it “depends on if you think this is a self-help problem or a political problem. I believe it is a political and economic problem.” She also says that those in the personal finance space are basically saying, “‘Yeah, the economy (is poor), but you’re in it on your own, and therefore you should be able to solve this on your own.’ Realistically, that’s just not true for most people.”
I think Mrs. Olen’s comments are troubling. She is correct that a lot of those financial struggles are a result of the economy and that a large part of it is a political problem. But by saying that personal finance advice is unrealistic and unhelpful is a disservice to her readers. Actually, not only is it a disservice, it is unproductive and perhaps dangerous. She is allowing the forgotten and ignored to abdicate responsibility and play the victim. Yes, for some of those struggling, they may be blameless and perhaps they may be unable to pull themselves out of poverty. But you can only control what you can control. Sure, it would be great if our politicians could offer a solution, but I’m not holding my breath on that happening. It is much more productive to try and find a solution on your own, rather than waiting for a savior. Nobody cares more about you and yourself. Your choices in life has a huge effect on your destiny. So rather than accept financial struggle as a foregone conclusion, take action to improve your lot in life. Even with all the issues we have in this country, I still think this is the land of opportunity.
If you are unemployed or underemployed, you’ve got to learn skills which will enable you to get a better paying job. If you live in a depressed area with no jobs, maybe you will have to move. I do not mean to make it seem like these solutions are easy. They are absolutely not easy. However, what choice do you have if you are stuck in that predicament. And while Mrs. Olen has done much more research and has more access to data than I do, my anecdotal experience is that while there are many struggling due to things beyond their control, many are also struggling because they lack financial literacy and live beyond their means. I see all too often that a family is living paycheck to paycheck, yet they have cable television, an expensive car, more house than they need, and the latest tech gadgets. However, I would also like to caution many who rush to judge others financial predicament without knowing the full story. Often times when I read an article about someone struggling financially and the comments will lay complete blame on that person for their actions. More empathy, compassion, and understanding can never hurt.
As I was writing about the forgotten people out there struggling financially, I read that Jay from Budgets are Sexy has created the Rockstar Community Fund where $20 gift cards are given out to better someone’s life. Another initiative is Debt Drop where $50 is given to someone struggling with debt to give them a little hope for the day and remind them that they are not alone. This initiative was inspired by Melanie Lockert of Dear Debt who was doing that on her own blog. Finally, a third initiative is a general fund, which has recently helped a fellow blogger who is struggling with health issues. Some may say that $20 or $50 is a drop in the bucket, but big things often have small beginnings!
I’d also like to mention that Brian from Debt Discipline has spoken at his local library about dealing with debt and about budgeting. He has also championed financial literacy education at his children’s high school.
I am inspired by my fellow bloggers who are taking action to address the needs of the forgotten. What else can we do? What else can those struggling financially do?