3 Thoughts I’ve Been Having About Money, In No Particular Order

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1. Sometimes it’s hard to feel like money will ever be a popular topic, except to people who already love it. As a value-neutral prism through which to talk about things — sort of the way sex and dating are to Cosmo, for example — it should be extremely compelling. And I like to think that the success of TFD indicates that this is, to some degree, the case. But the truth that we come up against almost every day, both here and on our YouTube channel, is that there is no value-neutral way to talk about money. The reason the topics of finance (both personal and macro) tend to be the domain of people who are already rather good at it, in a game-like sense, is because you need substantial chips to play. For us to make almost any implication about what is “normal” or “accessible” to our audience almost automatically excludes and disqualifies so many people.

We do everything in our power to extend our money conversation to those who are below the middle class, but even the most basic tenants of so much of our normalcy, even having a computer, smartphone, or constant internet access, aren’t “normal” to many people. Our fundamental concepts of education, of debt, of what a skipped paycheck means or a car repair implies, are inherently, radically different. In order to feel vigorously excited about money, you need to have a bit of it. And while our goal with TFD is always to give a more broad group of women a more sane, accessible vision of a better life, you can’t ignore that almost every topic, from retirement savings to buying a lasting pair of shoes, implies class. So money as a prism becomes exclusive, and the money world’s continued framing of it as something everyone can participate in remains dishonest. The personal finance community, even at its most radically inclusive, can only speak to so many people.

2. I’ve been thinking a lot about why I feel so fundamentally uncomfortable with much of the “personal finance community” to begin with, and I think the previous point is a lot of that reason. The truth is that many, many PF people come from a financial background by necessity, with educations and stable job histories and a fundamental view of money that is based on the individual. Most financial industries and markets are predicated on an idea of each individual person making a series of choices that either make or break their futures. I have heard endless speeches and symposiums and presentations about how we can “empower” ourselves to make better decisions, and free ourselves. And this is, of course, true to a large extent. Even in the most economically-just and community-based societies, there are still individual choices each person can make to impact their incomes, savings, and qualities of life. There are still rich people in Nordic countries. But our view of money is so emphatically based on the individual, and our personal finance communities — from the radically-minimalist FIRE sector to the most moderate, balanced budget bloggers — are all predicated on an idea that you are responsible for every outcome, and the system’s inherent injustices are not ever truly a part of the conversation.

We praise the woman who paid off six figures of debt in five years, and rabidly share her story for inspiration and motivation, but never ask the follow-up question: why the fuck is a woman in as prosperous a country as America six figures in debt for a Bachelor’s degree in the first place? And what can we do, politically and personally, to ensure that more people do not end up in the same situation, rather than simply explaining the best and most efficient ways to crawl out of it? Yes, personal responsibility and choice will always be a huge factor in how we live our lives and to what degree money impacts it, but none of us can entirely opt out of personal finance: what about the people who cannot participate, or hack the system, or radically change their lifestyles? What about the person who falls ill, or has to care for a family member, or can’t find sustainably-paying work where they live, or cannot afford the basic necessities required to start more long-term savings? Not every answer can be a life-hack or a minor personal change: sometimes there has to be a floor. There has to be dignity and health and a future for people who cannot afford it.

3. I believe that there is a balance to still be had, and even if TFD will never truly be able to help more than middle-class women, it is still worth trying, in my view. And the idea of helping women of moderate income and (often substantial) debt live better, happier, and more balanced lives still feels very worthy. Not every answer is radical, and sometimes things like simply saving more intelligently, cooking for oneself, buying longer-lasting products, and working out at home can make huge changes to one’s future. If most of us are being honest with ourselves, we know that there are things we could be doing that we haven’t done yet which would profoundly improve our quality of life and reduce our need for fleeting consumerist fulfillment. Money is still in many ways the tool that will help us structure the lives we want, but only thinking in terms of ourselves and our immediate financial health is not enough. We can work towards early retirement or home ownership while still working for our neighbor who cannot go to the doctor unless it is in an emergency room.

I believe that there will always be value in the personal finance of the individual, and the commitment to shaping your future on your own terms. There is no reason that we cannot make the most of what we have, and aspire to greater things than what we grew up with, regardless of how we define that. But we cannot think of money as simply one choice among many that we make, like the lipstick we put on or the car we drive. The terms we all must live on, financially, are ultimately something that will happen in the collective, and one person’s ability to navigate the system well and become a millionaire by 30 means nothing for the person who cannot do that, and it doesn’t mean that the person who chose not to does not deserve to retire. You can aspire to more, and still ethically believe that the difference between someone who “did everything right” and someone who fucked up repeatedly shouldn’t be life or death. The individual is powerful, but we all must live together.

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  • BrooklynBread

    Reminds me of that SNL Suze Orman skit where she is telling poor, homeless people who are asking her for money advice to cash out their 401K’s. In these dark days, I am looking at which organizations I want to offer my support to, and I think that the issue of financial literacy and where it is really needed is a compelling one.

  • Em

    Thank you for writing this. I have been an avid reader of this site since it began and I respect you so much for grappling with these issues and not being afraid to discuss the shortcomings of the personal finance community.

    • Meredith

      Yes, Chelsea, the fact that you and the TFD team are aware of these issues gives all of your readers a greater respect for what you do. Your work is important and meaningful and appreciated by many.

  • Even if TFD never reaches that elusive “appeal to everyone” status, the continual discussion of money and finance and debt helps to normalize the discussion for everyone. Even when I read something that isn’t directly applicable to my own life, I am still exposed to the fears/goals/achievements of others, subconsciously giving me permission to discuss my own experience with money. For an increasingly-less-taboo topic like this, exposure goes such a long way.

    • Allie Ray

      100% agree with all of this!

  • Emma Blue

    Long time reader here. I’m really grateful that Chelsea articulated the major thing about the personal finance industry that makes me twitchy. There is this assumption that you’re lazy and weak if you aren’t able to follow the advice it offers. I wonder if TFD could do more call-outs for stories about the experiences of people who have navigated poverty. I’ve seen many people share stories here about what it’s like for them to be financially stable now that they’re no longer living in poverty, but I wonder a lot about their financial management strategies. (Since the PF community tends to act as if they don’t have any.) Friends of mine who are still struggling financially are incredibly good at sourcing from their networks and making sure to minimize waste. I’d love to see that ingenuity and skillset celebrated more often. (I realize asking for these stories can be tricky to do without seeming exploitative so it’s a tough ask, but it’s something I’ve wanted to read for a long while.)

    • Meredith

      Agreed, I would love to hear more about the skill set acquired/required of being poor. I’d also like to hear more from people who are still living in poverty and how expensive it can be to be poor. I agree asking people to share their stories can seem like exploitation, so it is a fine line to walk. However, people who managed to beat the cycle of poverty, especially generational poverty, are the exception. And while their stories can be inspirational and motivational, there is more to be told from those who did not move out of poverty.

  • I have to say, I was never really interested about money until TFD (and I found the site through youtube when Hank Green mentioned the channel and i found it slightly interesting, now you are my favorite blog!). I grew up (and still live in one) of those Nordic countries, and yes we have rich people and poor people (sure being poor with free health care and free universities is a major privilege which i certainly am aware of) and i definitely grew up poor. and not just poor but with parents who had significant problems with money. my dad had a mild gambling problem, and my mother tried to keep our household afloat. i grew up in a family where money was always a source of fear, anxiety, unstability. i became extremely careful with money, but i never liked to think about it cause it made me so anxious. the more money i had, the more afraid of it i was.

    to be honest, before TFD it never even occured to me that saving money was something i was supposed to aim for, or that i should have an emergengy fund (sure, partly this is because of social benefits available in my country, but i’d say more cause of my upbringing)! your blog has completely changed my relationship to money. i am still a student so saving is hard, but i’m making steady financial plans and i do have some savings that i hope to increaso during my last 1,5 years at university so i won’t graduate with an empty bank account and ton of debt (yes, we still acquire debt even with free education. cause you still need money to live on, and that’s what loans are for. especially for us who are from a lower class family). and most importantly, i don’t fear money in the same sense anymore. i’m not sure if i can ever completely get away from the anxiety i have always associated with money, but i’m learning to not let that make me ignore my finances. so i guess the point of my long comment is, that even if you feel you are mostly reaching middle-class women, and maybe that is true, but at least i really find articles on TFD very helpful, even if some of the things are unreachable to me. just to have a space to discuss money with people helps, and the site has definitely taught me things i never got from my home. so thank you for that!

    (and this is completely besides the point but after opening up about my parents huge financial troubles, i have to say they were otherwise loving and wonderful and did the best job they knew how to do.)

  • Christine

    I love this article. Framing personal financial decisions within a structural context that constrains those choices is a clearer-eyed view of the way the world (and privilege) works.