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I’ve identified an alarming trend in the world of personal finance blogs: it’s not a new phenomenon, but apparently marginalizing people based upon the fact that they live paycheck-to-paycheck is gaining more traction in the context of the Great Recession. I think most people know intuitively that they’re not supposed to make generalizations about people simply for being poor, but perhaps it’s time to gently remind people that this doesn’t change just because it is your perception that someone has spent themselves into the poorhouse.
For example, there is this post, which enumerates the characteristics of the “not so well to do,” a group of people who live paycheck-to-paycheck and who may also be identified by the fact that they are “overweight,” do not “exercise,” as well as the fact that they do not “own a home.”
Among my other favorites are these characteristics of the “not so well to do”:
- They have “little or no college education”;
- They buy a “new computer every couple of years” and “go through computers like my two year old goes through diapers!” (?!);
- They are “quick to pick up tab and tip” because “it’s like they are trying to prove they have a lot so they become over generous”; and (of course)
- They have “no personal responsibility.”
But why stop there? There are more insights in the comments, such as:
- They lack “an overall purpose or vision to their life”;
- They “use payday loans”;
- They “can’t skip the daily Starbucks”;
- They “move further away from work and public transportation.”
At last check, this post had 31 votes on Tip’d, which is a kind of Digg-style rating site for personal finance blogs. People are just eating it up.
Here’s what I think has happened:
- A group of people decided to adopt an overly simplistic personal financial plan (or two) with rigorous standards for maintaining zero personal debt as its moral or quasi-religious philosophy;
- added into the mix an average income with little possibility of an increase;
- have become true believers in frugality as a cause, and have spent a year (or more) really going after debt with conviction, like getting rid of it is the greatest thing they could ever accomplish in life;
- a year or two of this debt repayment activity has passed, and the newness of the venture has worn off, so they have become frustrated; and
- They have started to notice people who have things that they want but have been refraining from buying.
Frugal people sometimes get frustrated. Particularly if they are more frugal by necessity than frugal by nature. There is little room in some financial programs to allow for the possibility that people buy things within their means. If somebody has a luxury item, then they must be living paycheck-to-paycheck. If they live paycheck-to-paycheck, then they must be moral degenerates.
Here’s a history lesson: there are many people who don’t have college educations because they cannot afford to go to college, and there are very real social, economic, and racial institutions that contribute to and propagate these realities. Similarly, I don’t believe that we can say there is a causal relationship between living paycheck to paycheck and being fat. Or not exercising. Or using payday loans. You know why they put payday loan businesses in poor neighborhoods? Because desperate people will use them so that they can eat. Maybe we should think about the integrity of the people running these businesses, rather than the people patronizing them.
Being frugal and thinking about your family’s future is a worthy goal. But there is not just one way to do it, and budgeting is about making choices, not about denying yourself. If you’ve forgotten that, it might be time to rework your budget so that you do get to make choices that enrich your day-to-day life. That’s what separates a money “diet” from a money lifestyle.