Neal Gabler’s confession in the May Atlantic about his inability to gather $400 in an emergency is riveting reading. The article details the wreckage of one bad decision after another. The freelance existence—with brief moments of feast interspersed with long periods of famine—is not for the fainthearted. But it can be done without facing financial ruin of oneself or one’s parents.
While he brings the reader into his current situation, he doesn’t talk about his youth and childhood or his experiences as a young adult. He refrains from public consideration whether his background shaped his expectations about what money could and could not do. The reader has no choice but to imagine that his was a solidly middle-class upbringing, and that he had no knowledge of how to be poor and no experience with frugality. For the middle class, frugality is a frightful word that conjures up watered-down soup and patched clothing and certainly is something to be avoided. For the poor, frugality is a forced fact of life.
Middle-class people who have never been poor are generally very bad at having no money. This was brought to the surface in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Many middle-manager couples, earnest and hardworking, each with better-than-average earnings, often with children, faced doom when one or both of them were found without steady employment. Like Mr. Gabler, by appearances, they were doing well, but in reality they were living paycheck to paycheck because they could not restrain their desires. Nobody forced them to buy that mini-mansion, but there they were, with a mortgage and a BMW in the driveway. How does that happen without deliberate agency?
The comfortably middle class are used to shopping at particular retailers for food and clothing and vacationing at resorts where they can mingle with other members of the middle class. Their little bundles of joy, conceived with fertility treatments, cost a packet before they were born, and are hustled off to private schools and expensive extra-curricular activities.
Middle-class people are also very into “deserving” things. They can think of endless little trinkets and nights out and delicious things to eat that they should have because they “deserve” it. Poor people also work hard, but their reward scale is much more modest, say, an occasional can of cold beer.
The ability to be poor and to live within one’s means is learned by doing. If you are currently comfortable, and are facing a situation where you might not have much disposable income as you once did, here are some tips to help you familiarize you with the basic tenets of frugality:
- Write it down. Force yourself to record every purchase in a notebook. It is a nuisance to have to write it down, and you will find yourself not buying things because you don’t want to take the trouble to record your purchases.
- Pay attention to food prices. Food is for sale not only in grocery stores, but drug stores, ethnic grocers, and dollar stores. Just by paying attention, you can tell when you are getting a good deal on eggs, butter, or oatmeal (as in the real deal, not the sweetened packets). Some internet retailers offer excellent prices on flour, legumes, canned goods, and paper and household products. Pro tip: the big grocery stores are the most expensive place to buy branded herbs and spices; smaller specialty shops sometimes have private-label herbs and spices that are better priced.
- Ditch cable. Cable is expensive. If you need to be entertained, there are cheaper alternatives.
- Rethink clothing purchases. Most Americans have closets and dressers that are bulging with clothing. It is more than likely that you don’t need what you think you do. Don’t overlook second-hand stores. Shop sales, if you must.
- Cook. Cooking at home is cheaper than dining out. If you slavishly follow some recipes, you are going to need to talk to a loan officer. Freely switch out or omit expensive ingredients. Use dry rosemary for fresh, white vinegar for lemon juice, sunflower seed for pine nuts, and skip the parsley if it isn’t essential. For everyday cooking, improvisation is fine.
- Make coffee at home. There is no need to pay $5 for a cup of coffee from the high-priced coffee chain store on workdays. Let’s see, $5 a day, that’s $25 a week, which comes to $100 a month. Think of it, you could be spending $1200 a year on take-out coffee. If your co-mortgagee has the same habit, you are taking in on the chin to the tune of $2400 a year. If you must have it, make it an occasional treat, not an everyday staple. If that is not possible, wean yourself from the expensive stuff and stick to the cheaper house coffee ($40 a month/$480 a year).
- Take a walk, read a book, do some housework. No need to fritter away money at the bar, at the movies, or at a restaurant. Trade in the time that you use spending money for time where you spend nothing.
- Go to the dollar store. Many middle-class people are only vaguely aware of dollar stores, discount retailers, and flea markets. While they have heard of and possibly shopped at Walmart, they are largely ignorant of the existence of the plethora of bargain havens that the poor depend on.
- Don’t go on vacation. Unless you can afford it.
- Don;t use the credit card. Be careful with your debit card.
- Monitor your Amazon wishlist. If there is a book you would like to purchase, but you aren’t going to read right away, keep it on your list and order when you can get a used copy for a penny. Even by factoring in postage, you’ve saved at least three-quarters of the cover price.
- Teach your kids to be realistic. The kids are going to want to have things that you can’t afford, and you’re going to have to say no. You can say no and still love your kids and want what’s best for them. If they are teenagers, you can suggest that they get a job and pay for what they want themselves. Some parents scoff at the availability of such jobs, but kids can be pretty enterprising when they have to be.
While it is nice to have money, there are no guarantees that it will always be there when you need it. Be grateful and humble for what you do have, and when you can, like your grandparents admonished, save for the proverbial rainy day. One or two simple changes can help you salt away the magic $400 for the emergency fund; and a few more months of economy will bear even more rewards.
I used to do credit counseling and your listing is very good. Many people simply do not understand how money works.
A credit card is okay IF you pay it off each month. I use the points on my card to buy from my “wish list” on Amazon. Never is a balance carried over, no matter what. I simply refuse to do so.
My husband mentioned the “most people don’t have $400 for an emergency” the other day. Having learned to deal with money properly, he found this idea of not being able to come up with $400 kind of scary and depressing.
13. A local church likely offers Dave Ramsey’s financial peace class. If you lack self control, having a set of rules you can fall back on is a good idea. Remember: The borrower is slave to the lender.
While the author distinguishes the impoverished from the middle class on the basis, rightly enough, of income, my experience inclines me to think of it more in terms of mindset.
I grew up with ten other people squeezed into a small, one-bathroom house so crowded that my brother and I took to sleeping in the garage, even in winter. Canned soup was extended by adding two cans of water rather than one. Most clothes were hand-me-downs. I was embarrassed in my high school’s speech class when the topic for the impromptu speech session turned out to be “steak”; that subject fell outside my experience set.
So described, my childhood sounds as though I was raised in poverty. Yet in the ways that mattered we were solidly middle class: none of us kids went to public schools, before the sixth child arrived we moved from our coal-heated frame house to a brick ranch heated with gas (but, again, having only a single bathroom), I don’t remember actually missing even a single meal before I reached college, and seven of the nine kids finished college (on our own dimes, of course).
In fact, I was really rather sheltered until I got my driver’s license, when I started driving an ice-cream truck in what was recognized even then as poor areas. It was depressing.
But what depressed me was not how modest the dwellings were but how little ability to delay gratification I witnessed. Specifically, the ice cream I sold cost many times the amount it could easily have been obtained for at a local grocery store, yet when Friday evening came–i.e., when people had just gotten paid–people flocked to my truck. Between paychecks business wasn’t nearly so brisk.
It is always possible to conjure up conditions in which necessities legitimately overwhelm resources through no fault of one’s own, and those conditions actually do occur with some frequency. But when my mother was asked late in life how a teacher’s aide ended up so wealthy, she said it was simply a question of deciding to live within one’s means, and I think much, perhaps most, poverty results simply from not having resolved to do that.
Here is another suggestion: get off the coasts. If you can work remotely, you can buy a perfectly nice home in a small town in the Midwest for $50-125K and can easily close for $5K.
Absolutely. My one-bedroom condo in Boston sold for nearly twice what my summer and winter places together cost here in flyover country.
Coast Ranger – only if the 5k is at least 20% down. Rent cheaply first and save. Get roommates. Home ownership has a lot of maintenance that goes with it. Until folks get their money habits under control, owning a home is a recipe for disaster.
I suspect that financial counseling such as what Dave Ramsey does and possibly what Sheri did are far more effective as anti-poverty programs than what the government does. Those clergymen who crowd city-council meeting demanding more subsidized transit to aid the downtrodden would do a lot more for them by, as some church groups actually do, helping them manage their resources more wisely.
Well, there are a few things you forgot to mention…
1) Do not get sick or hurt. Avoid cancer, heart disease, and people hitting your car with their car. In America, if you’re going to become poor, getting sick or hurt is a great way to accomplish it.
2) Avoid having children, especially if you’re a woman.
3) Do not work in economic sectors that are dangerously unregulated or about to be shipped overseas. Not sure which these are? No problem, they pretty much all are one, the other, or both.
4) Do not be born to a poor family. Upward social mobility is low in America. If you’re going to be born poor, try being born in Europe where the mobility rates are higher.
5) Do not marry for love. Money can’t buy you love, but marrying someone wealthy can buy you money.
I largely agree on the home-ownership thing. And the causality direction in the association between stability and home ownership may not be what we think. Therefore, government policies directed at encouraging home ownership may not be justified.
JMJ: Totally wrong. People have cancer, car accidents, etc and get along just fine, IF they plan ahead and/or if they deal responsibly with the problem. (And don’t quote me stuff about “medical bankruptcy”. There is NO such thing.)
Children are expensive, but people have the right to spend their money on what they want. They do not have the right to take money from other people, funnel it through bureaucrats, then take it for themselves to pay for the kids they have.
People can and do find new jobs all the time. I assume you also mean don’t work in jobs the “loving” liberals are destroying, like oil, gas and coal—you know, the ones that pay the most. That leaves janitorial work, I think. Thank you caring liberal.
Born in a poor family has nothing to do with success. It has to do with attitude maybe—you have a bad attitude and expect people to support you.
Marrying for love works out just fine. I totally recommend it.
Do you mind if I try to split the baby between you and JMJ?
Catastrophic things do happen, almost none of us can truly insulate himself from the possibility of its striking, and we should want to help those whom calamity befalls. But the evil that attends government programs for doing so tends to exceed those programs’ benefits; the precipitous post-Depression decline in poverty largely ceased with the advent of the War on Poverty.
Aid to the poor organized and run locally by churches, fraternal organizations, etc. focuses the benefit on those who truly need it without converting poverty from a temporary state to an occupation.
Even if bureaucrats truly wanted to relieve poverty rather than preserve their fiefdoms, they inevitably suffer from what Friedrich Hayek referred to as “the knowledge problem.” Even the best bureaucrat In D.C. can’t know as well as those on the ground what best serves individual poor people’s real needs without encouraging them to stay unemployed.
Joe Born: I agree with you. I do understand that catastrophic things happen. JMJ’s listing was not realistic, however. People get cancer, have accidents, etc, all the time and get through it. When truly catastrophic things happen, there is a need for help and private agencies are often better than the government. However, as those agencies become larger and larger, they become the same as the government. I see that in food pantries and Christmas/Thanksgiving baskets. Smaller agencies used to choose recipients based on the need they knew people had, not on people signing up and proving income levels to the agency. How to fix it? The small agencies are a start. Getting people to stop holding out their hand or demanding government steal money and give it to them is a bigger challenge. Entitlement runs rampant. Those providing the services don’t want to stop, so they expand and add more entitlements. It’s a vicious circle.
When people complain that the current world is rigged against the middle class, I often think of the occasional story of the janitor who leaves a million dollars to some school. They earned this money through ownership of equities. If a person is the sort who complains to me about paltry growth of their earnings, I ask why they don’t try to earn some through equities. Earn money the way wealthier people do. Of course, they are likely to be just as bad at investing as they are managing money.
The best career advice for attaining wealth is to go into politics.
I buy a lot of clothes at second-hand stores and yard sales. The rest come from coupons, sales, or gift cards. I also regularly use coupons at the grocery store. Dollar store does have some good stuff too. I’m frugal – I have money – I just don’t like to use much if possible. Two months ago, we started cooking at home most of the time, saving a huge amount after we used to eat out at least one meal each day.
Sheri, you are satanic.
“Don’t go on vacation. Unless you can afford it.”
There are also cheaper ways to vacation. Instead of going on a cruise or to an all inclusive resort in Hawaii or the Caribbean, go camping in a near by state or national forest.
JMJ: I thought you weren’t a believer. You believe in Satan anyway—makes sense, you’re liberal. And apparently incapable of refuting my points, of course. (I am very impressed with liberal ability to pitch out insults. I’m even more impressed you’ve used a rare insult. Shows you have intiative.)
MattS: Good suggestion. One can also go on “vacation” by going as a sponsor or chaparone with a group. That’s how my mom finally got to see the places she wanted—she went as a sponsor with mentally challenged people. She worked in that area anyway, so it was a good fit.
“Sheri, you are satanic.
Well I for one am convinced. This brilliant argument has converted me from whatever I was before into a Marxist. I shall now vote for Bernie Sanders!
No, Taco, please don’t be so easily dissuaded from your educated and mature vote for Donald Trump.
Sheri, I was being literal. I mean that your visceral hatred of humanity runs right in line with the Biblical account of Satan.
If people make a living supporting poor people, there will always be poor people. Because you have to make a living.
Same thing is happening with all the NGO’s. There is now a whole support industry with for instance schools offering courses in how to run a non-profit org, how to make people give you money and so on.
I don’t eat out and I don’t go away on vacations but, I’m sorry, fresh parsley is always essential.
Of course there will always be poor people… if you define “poor” as those that are not materially privileged by ancestry or a proclivity for avarice.
By avarice I mean the desire for material excess and the self-justification of “if I want it and I can get it then it’s mine simply because I’ve got it” (by fair means or foul). (The most foul being theft by usury which includes most capitalist “investments”, I think).
The most poor are those who have nothing to boast but money and property. The really wealthy are those who regard material assets as something to be used for the propagation of good in themselves and in their children and in their society.
Avarice is penultimate God-hatingness. Usury is ultimate avarice.
Taco: Hillary will be disappointed but you do what you think is right.
JMJ: Thank you so much. I was going to put a comment somewhat off-topic and you just opened the door as wide as it will go.
First, Satan was the one handing out goodies to people. Apparently your knowledge of the Bible is lacking. He also wanted the people for his own. It doesn’t say he hates them, in fact he may actually believe he is doing the best thing for them. This is exactly what Liberals do—they care about nothing but owning the people and having power. Looks more like Satan than you’ll ever admit, I’m sure.
You think I hate people. I love people. I want them to succeed. You, on the other hand, care nothing for people. You want them dependent and broken so the government has to “fix” them. You want them to live in chaos and hate each other. You follow a divisive philosophy that says only the government can keep people going because they are stupid, helpless creatures. I believe people can succeed and should be helped to become all they can be as independent peoples.
Speaking of government, you have also proven your hatred for people by approving of the government laying off thousands from well-paying jobs and kicking them to the curb (Hillary promises even MORE loss of high paying jobs) while criticizing companies for doing this. You approve of destroying people’s lives by the government because you worship that government.
And you claim I hate people. Let’s take a vote and see how many people want to be considered helpless, stupid and needy versus how many would like to be considered winners and control their lives. Let’s see how many have no problem losing a $100,000/year job because the government kicks them out but would object if say Microsoft did the same thing. Lastly, let’s see how many think believing people are stupid and helpless and deserve to lose the jobs the government takes from them is “caring”. I’m betting caring will be out the window if that’s the definition.
Watch it, Sander, JMJ is headed for labelling you satanic now. Wear it with pride considering the source.
Oldavid: I assume you despise lottery winners, since they got their money most unfairly. And hard-working people who pay their taxes so the parasites can eat.
God does not hate rich people, though for some reason those who have nothing and do nothing seem to take solace in the mistaken belief. Perhaps it justifies lack of success or is a substitute for class envy that doesn’t seem as petty as the real thing. (Yes, God will reject rich people who put money before God or failed to believe in him, but poor people can do exactly the same thing, lusting after money their entire lives. The poor are not exempt from greed, far from it.)
No one has to be rich. You can be as rich or poor as you chose. However, as most liberal types, you demand everyone be poor so you won’t stand out. Petty, very petty.
Oo-er, Sheri, did I touch a nerve?
Of course I despise lottery winners much as I despise lottery buyers, card players, punters on horse races and all that.
I have no compunction whatsoever about paying a tax so that some needy “parasite” can eat… more particularly if that “parasite” has dependent “parasites” that need to eat so that they can proceed to their proper purpose, or end.
What I really object to is paying taxes to inflate the usurious “fortunes” of money-lenders and similar “investors”. A close second is paying taxes to support idiots and perverts to consume and destroy their host society.
Oldavid: My apologies. You are consistent in your contempt for those who become rich without work in any way.
Did you hit a nerve? Only if you’re inconsistent in your beliefs. Now that you’ve clarified, no.
So let’s make taxes voluntary and you can pay for the parasites all day long. It’s important to you, you can pay for it. I’m okay with that. Everyone should support what they believe in. Voluntary tax support should take care of corporate welfare, liberal colleges, public education and a lot of other problems. Many people are very pleased to use others money to support causes, rarely will they use their own. The causes are not really important to them, it seems. I’d be happy to sign on to voluntary tax support of programs. (I would probably still want mandatory taxes for roads, etc, but maybe not. If the roads get bad enough, people will either contribute or bounce around a lot.)
Paying a tax to support someone in need is not compassionate. Taking your time to assist someone in need, giving of yourself – that is the compassion. Allowing Caesar to take from all (including you) so you can feel good about the help Caesar is giving to others is evil.
Helping someone in need is never as simple as just giving them something. Love requires that we help in more than simply material goods – we must help the person grow in spirit (a term, while having religious connotations, is not specific to a given religion), so that they can learn to make decisions that will prevent the situation they find themselves in today from happening again.
There will be poor always, because there will always be the poor in spirit, who have no desire nor ability to practice economy, delay gratification, recognize that pain is a teacher, etc.
Here’s a great discussion about the right way to be compassionate for the poor.
There will be poor always
Especially if you define poor as being in the lowest income quantile. Few of today’s poor live in abject squalor and often have cell phones and wear designer shoes.
This is what the bible says:
1 Corinthians 13:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, it profits me nothing.
4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Fair enough, you fellas. I stand rebuked for not being specific enough.
That I “despise” lottery winners etc. was a bit of a provocative leg-pull. To have a little wager as an entertainment or as a back-your-opinion against another is no harm at all. However, the gaming “industry” of lotteries, casinos etc. is a grossly unjust deception… the idea that one can “earn”, “own”, or “deserve” a claim to material wealth by such means is a tacit admission that the goods of the Earth and the products of a society’s industry are “up for grabs” without any claim to ownership other than possession.
Poverty. Few people are poor just because of indolence or arrogance. Indeed, a large portion of humanity toil away quietly doing the best they can and consider themselves lucky if they get enough to eat.
My Dad observed once when I was a child; You don’t get rich by working. I know lots of people who worked hard all their lives just to make a living with nothing to spare. If you want to get rich you need to have a process where you can pocket some of other people’s share of the bountiful Earth.
Consider this. Some time ago census showed that the richest 1% in North America claimed more of the wealth than the bottom 40% combined. Can you tell me how one man can do more “work” than some millions of his fellows?
No, chaps, a crooked money system and a perverse ideology have colluded to pervert the true nature and purpose of the system of economy (the production, distribution, exchange and consumption of goods and services).
I was reared in a household of 10 children supported by a father on a farm labourer’s wages. I know what frugal means.
Oh, and by the way, I thoroughly agree that nearly all taxation is theft by extortion.
A government has no right to pillage its citizens as though they were the slave bounty of an unjust war of aggression; as though they were some acquired property.
If you want to get rich you need to have a process where you can pocket some of other people’s share of the bountiful Earth.
So, you’re one of those who think getting rich is somehow unjust because you are living off of the share of others. Bill Gates must be Satan incarnate. Pocketing the share of others sounds more like the definition of someone on the dole.
Actually, the rich are usually good at sales. Ever try it? It IS work though not manual labor. Not everyone can sell effectively. The reason good sellers are paid more is because their job is essential. Without them there would be no reason at all for the rest of the company.
Look at what happened to Tesla and others. Tesla was really good at inventing things but really bad at selling them. Maybe because it didn’t interest him. People like Westinghouse had the resources to fully develop the idea and the infrastructure needed to distribute it — a huge investment and effort. That Tesla didn’t profit from his ideas more was actually his own fault for ignoring the sales part.
People that run on about one-percenters really have no idea how things work in a non-socialist environment.
Oldavid: I disagree. Having done financial counseling, ignorance IS a major cause of poverty. As the Blonde Bombshell noted, people do not use money wisely. They spend as if there is not tomorrow and are horrified when tomorrow does come. People can be taught to live well at most income levels.
People have plenty of money for food. If not, there are thousands of food banks, backpacks for weekends, etc run by people making themselves feel important. They are not going to shut down the food bank and feel unimportant and people are not going to stop going in for free food. Why buy food when people will give it to you?
Your father was both right and wrong. You don’t get rich by working, you get rich by great financial planning. Taking money from others is theft, which it seems your father approved off. Perhaps you do too since you never volunteered to feed the parasites you believed to should be fed—you want everyone to pay so you don’t have to put your money where your mouth is. Theft by government is a wonderful way to appear charitable while actually being greedy and selfish. (I note that you don’t approve of pillaging citizens, but you apparently have a level of theft in mind that is not considered theft to you. Otherwise, you’d be a free-market capitalist, which you obviously are not.) DAV addresses this well.
It’s not more work, it’s smarter, more driven work. Many, many millionaires actually earned those millions working 80 hours a week. Class envy is truly ugly thing and it runs rampant—it’s also indicative of greed in the poor and lusting after money, both of which people seem to think only the rich can do.
No, chap, a sense of entitlement and viewing one’s self as a victim, pride in being a thieving parasite have led to extreme money envy by many, many people. The “poor” are indeed greedy.
Your father had ten kids and complained about being poor? Ignorance certainly caused that—they know what causes babies and it could have been prevented. Come on. You’re being ridiculous in your assertions.
Righto, go ahead, worship at the shrine of the capitalist/usurious golden bull. The comments section of the Briggs blog is hardly the place for me to try to explain the nature and purpose of Man, society, economy and money. Many others more knowledgeable and authoritative than me have already done an excellent job of it to no avail.
The vampire culture of the likes of the “Robberbard” and “Von Misery” “Austrian School” is purposely designed to rationalise, self-justify and excuse just that “economic” perversity.
Pope Leo XII had some pretty insightful observations about the purpose of society and economics… not a bad place to start for anyone interested.
This capitalism you deride is the best way we have found to lift more individuals out of poverty than ever in history, as measured via empirical results. The honest tradesman makes a living in serving others. Certainly some will have outsized rewards compared to their effort, often due to being in the right place at the right time. But life never was fair and never will be.
Good one, Nate.
You imply that rewards are commensurate with efforts.
Imagine a society of salesmen with nothing to sell.
You imply that rewards are commensurate with efforts.
No. They are commensurate with rarity of the skill set and the value of the skills. You apparently think a ditch digger (a task almost anyone can do with little to no training) should be paid as much as a doctor.
Sales require skills not easy to come by. Analogous to the human body they are the heart of the business pumping goods in one direction and money in the other. Individual workers are analogous to cells within the body. If one cell dies the body barely notices. If the heart stops the entire body dies. The human body allocates more resources to keeping the heart pumping and will sacrifice extremitues if needed. Companies do this as well.
Even the failed socialist USSR gave more perks to certain people. They tended to favor management. The higher the rank the more perks. Imagine that. Effective class in a “classless” society. Every one is equal but some are more equal than others, eh?
Socialist governments are doomed because they operate against human nature. Notice that China is rapidly becoming the most capitalistic society in the world today. If socialism is so great then why is that?
Yet uninformed fools continue to yearn for socialism.