Spending, Priorities, and Class Divides

(This post originally appeared on this ain’t livin’.)

If there’s one thing I am pretty much guaranteed to see a lot of during a recession, it’s helpful news articles about financial planning, doing more with less, etc etc. Though these articles are ostensibly provided for the benefit of readers, one thing I note about them is the tendency to take a certain set of underlying assumptions unexamined. As a result, they are of questionable utility to the people they are supposedly aimed at. Sometimes they are just laughably wrong and at other times they seem to be more actively harmful.

One thing I note, over and over, is insistence that people need to save money and put a little by. Apparently unemployed folks are excused from this obligation, but no one else is. This ignores the fact that many people cannot, functionally, save money, because every paycheque is spent, down to the last penny. Not on those ‘frivolous’ purchases people are told to cut out of their budgets, like lattes at the corner coffeehouse in the morning, but on basic necessities like food and transportation to get to work (you know, the place where you earn the money you’re supposed to be saving?).

People are taken to task for profligate spending in a lot of these columns with the assumption that everyone spends money like the columnist. Even if people don’t want to admit it, they ‘splurge’ now and then on silly things or things that are not strictly necessary or things they could get more cheaply. These columnists assume that everyone’s budget has room for trimming, because theirs does. They assume that everyone should be clipping more coupons, because they aren’t always good about using coupons. They assume that everyone has some money left over at the end of the month, because they do.

People talk about long term financial planning and projected futures like these concepts are universal to everyone, and like no one ever feels just completely alienated by them. <em>Of course</em> everyone wants to save money to start a college fund, right? Naturally, everyone is planning on buying a house. And everybody is thinking about retirement. The idea of having not just long term finances in question, but short term survival under threat, is just not even considered or discussed in most of these financial advice columns.

Even though, for many people, this is the reality. Even people considered members of the cultural middle class, and marginal members of the economic one, may only be one paycheque between comfort and financial disaster. All it takes is one slipup to slide down the rabbit hole. For them, financial planning is not as simple as setting aside a set percentage of each month’s pay to get ready for the future, because they are too busy struggling to survive in the present. One mistake. That’s all it takes.

And not necessarily your mistake. What happens when the bank messes up processing your mortgage payment and it never goes through? You sent it in, it got cashed, you assume everything is under control, and you’re shocked when you get the doubled bill next month with late fees out the wazoo and your interest rate just got jacked up. The response here is probably ‘well just call the bank and fight them on it until the issue gets resolved’ but what if you do not have time to do that? What if you need to do a gazillion other things, so you just sigh and pay the big bill and the late fees, knowing that paying the mortgage will be increasingly hard because your safety cushion just disappeared and the monthly payments, carefully factored into your budget, are going up because of the higher interest, and pretty soon you’re between a rock and a hard place. Not by your own doing, but as a result of a bureaucratic error.

Financial planning seems like a quaint luxury to a lot of people because, functionally, it is. It should not be, but it is, and refusing to talk about this fact means that conversations about money, concentration of wealth, fighting your way to get ahead in this culture, end up fundamentally skirting over a pretty critical issue. If you start a financial planning discussion with the ground assumption that everyone has money to spare and can trim the budget to make more, you’re pretty much telling a big chunk of your readership to just not even bother.

And, of course, these discussions also usually revolve around spending a lot of time on financial matters. Not everyone is able to spend time on the phone asking for lower interest rates, not everyone has the ability to renegotiate rents, to ask for a change to the terms of a loan to make it easier to manage. Time is a commodity just like money and it is not accessible to all people, although it is often framed as such. When I read something directing me to invest time in something, my thoughts turn to <em>how</em> I am going to restructure my schedule to do that, when my time is very precisely measured out and efficiently used, and I know that the same holds true for many other people.

Not having enough money is treated like a personal failing, having the wrong priorities, not being organised enough, when in fact it’s about a lot more than that. It’s about social structures intended to maintain class divides and keep people poor, for example, it is about eating up time so that people cannot hope to get ahead. It’s about reminding poor folks from the start many goals and hopes and dreams like retiring, attending college, having money for emergencies, are just not attainable and they shouldn’t even bother.