I’m bouncing off of Kashana Cauley’s mini-rant in GQ about Suze Orman and the personal finance “industry” in general. The key paragraph here:
This past weekend, CNBC reminded us of Orman’s distaste for coffee: “If you waste money on coffee, it’s like ‘peeing one million down the drain.’” Man, personal finance experts do love shaming people for buying coffee. And avocado toast. If only we’d just stop paying for haircuts—as USA Today recently recommended—the dollars we’d save would also destroy our crushing student debt and sink the effects of years of wage stagnation, income inequality, and de-unionization with it, allowing us to buy those houses we’re too broke to buy right now five minutes before we kick the bucket. And we’d also end up with completely professional, hacked-off-ourselves hair.
GQ leans a bit left so I will ignore the unionization comment. But these are legitimate points.
Personal finance experts often like to preach austerity. It is a little disingenuous for a rich person to preach austerity—even if that person legitimately got rich through austerity. Cutting back on coffee, food, and haircuts is ludicrous.
And it is also true that the economy has changed. Stuff costs more (even if it doesn’t show up in the inflation statistics) and wages have pretty much stayed put. The student loan problem is intractable, and health care expenses can easily bankrupt you.
But asking people to give up coffee is dumb.
I have some answers.
Not Everyone Can Be Rich
The popular finance literature seems to imply that everyone can be a millionaire if you’re enough of a saver.
This approach makes people have an unhealthy relationship with money. Under this framework, money is to be hoarded, and not shared or enjoyed. Not good.
A better goal is to be free from financial stress. That will involve some austerity, for sure, but you don’t need to give up coffee.
I’m not saying you can have it all—because you can’t. There are tradeoffs. You can have coffee, toast, and haircuts, but with a slightly smaller retirement. And if that’s what makes you happy, then great.
There is a lot of focus on becoming a millionaire. Being a millionaire will not solve all your problems. It didn’t solve mine. Some people become millionaires and still aren’t happy. So the goal isn’t to be a millionaire—the goal is to be happy.
Are You Happy?
Take a quiz.
Let’s do a quick 10-question quiz to see if you are happy with your financial situation and whether you have a healthy relationship with money.
- Do I have enough cash on hand to cover any emergencies?
- Do I have enough for a reasonable standard of living in retirement?
- Can I easily afford small luxuries?
- Can I give 2% of my income to charity (excluding church) without trepidation?
- Is my marriage free from fights over money?
- Do my friends think I am a generous person?
- Do I wear clothes I want to wear?
- Do I derive pleasure from using the money I earn to buy material things?
- Am I debt-free, or close to it?
- Do I invest in tax-advantaged retirement accounts to the best of my ability?
I could actually go on, but you get the picture. If you can answer “yes” to most or all of these questions, then money is your friend. It works for you—you don’t work for money.
This is a much better yardstick of success than being a millionaire.
The correlation between money and happiness is weaker than you might assume. More money generally makes people happy.
The research shows that for most people, happiness tapers off once people start making “enough” money. I have known some unhappy rich people. I have known some deliriously happy poor people.
I can tell you what makes people miserable…
And this is where the personal finance experts like me come into play. When people get themselves in trouble, it is always with debt.
Walking into a car dealership is one of the most dangerous things you can do. Unless you understand how debt works, and are assertive enough to say no, you are going to walk out of there with more car than you need, and lots and lots of crippling debt.
Car salesmen are responsible for spreading a lot of misery in this world.
The bank does it, too—even after the financial crisis. If you go to a bank to get pre-approved for a loan, they calculate the size of the loan based on the payment being 40% of your income. And then you go house-shopping from there, for the biggest house you can afford.
THIS is the key to personal finance. Not skipping coffee and toast, but smaller houses and cheaper cars.
People have a tough time giving up small luxuries, but can easily give up big luxuries. Not really sure why that is, but it’s human nature.
Instead of talking about the million dollars you’ll save by not drinking coffee, let’s talk about the million dollars you’ll save by getting a $10,000 car instead of a $40,000 car, and a $200,000 house instead of a $300,000 house. Those interest payments add up.
At least if you are drinking coffee, you are enjoying it. Nobody derives any enjoyment out of paying interest. It is completely unproductive.
Yes, the personal finance industry is a scam. Because it misunderstands human nature. Sure, money makes people happy—but mostly because it eliminates stress. All people want is not to worry about it. THAT is something personal finance folks can help with.
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