On judging how poor people spend their money

DH has some extended family whose spending choices compared to their lack of income drives me nuts.  They’re always spending money on luxuries when they have the money (often on luxuries for other people) and then have no money when a small emergency strikes or their taxes were higher than expected or another debt comes due or what have you.  At Christmas we always feel like we have to send money to help out with the latest emergency, though we resist during the rest of the year when there isn’t a good excuse to give.

And it’s really easy for us to judge.  Back when we made little money, back when we had debt, we were frugal to the bone.  We got out of debt by spending money on no luxuries and sending every penny to the debt.  Then we built an emergency fund.  Then we started saving for retirement.  Only then did we loosen up and spend on things we didn’t need.  (Though to be honest, we started eating meat again after the debt was gone.)  I wanted us to be secure before we bought anything we’d wish we hadn’t in an emergency.

But honestly, these days, who are we to judge?  We spend a ton of money on luxuries, just different ones.  We have different priorities.

I think nothing of spending $200 on our annual umbrella insurance, who am I to judge a $200 game console purchase?  How can we judge a $1K granite-topped bar (relatives bought after a windfall) when DH has a $1K ergonomic chair (that he saved his allowance to get)?

The thing is, with us, our money is ours to keep and shelter.  We have no family to impress with conspicuous consumption.  They know we’re doing just fine and they live far away.  We have no childhood of deprivation to try to make up for (though neither of us had much stuff because our parents were often low income, we always had security, we never felt deprived).  We don’t have relatives telling us that we need to give any savings to even more impoverished family.  We’re not caught in the trap of having to spend the money now or give it away.

Possibly most importantly, even when we were living on low incomes with high basic expenses, we knew that situation was only temporary.  We could always and can always tell ourselves that we will have things in the future, when we are out of school and have real jobs, and it’s true and we’ll believe it.  It’s harder to think that way and stay deprived when you haven’t graduated high school and keep failing the GED.  Or when you’re a grandfather in your 30s.  If you don’t buy that  luxury now, you may never get it.  You may never have happiness or an item to show off.

Why can’t people just set up automated savings accounts that put the money away so relatives don’t know about it and people don’t feel the need to spend it?  Because when you’re low income, savings accounts can be dangerous.  Even the most basic bank accounts are expensive when you hit an overdraft fee that you can’t cover or bounce a check or make a mathematical error.  And sometimes you need to draw on that money and everything is empty and instead of just having no money, you have fees and more debt.

And yes, we think we would be perfect and save our way out of poverty, but it’s hard to say what we would really do in those kinds of situations.  We don’t have the pressure.  It’s easy for us to say we’d never be in that situation or we’d get ourselves out as soon as possible, but what would we really do?  People behave remarkably similarly when they’re deprived in experimental settings.  I’m not sure that my willpower is enough to dig out of that big a hole, especially if I didn’t have hope to go with it.

Is yours?

41 Responses to “On judging how poor people spend their money”

  1. eemusings Says:

    I think here it’s basically impossible to save your way out of poverty, at least here if you are on the benefit.

    I see employment as really the only way T’s family will break out, but don’t see much hope on that front either.

    Attitudes and discipline are probably just a small part of it.

    (And man, I know I haven’t been any kind of model at all these last few months being down to one income.)

  2. femmefrugality Says:

    Agree with everything here. It’s really easy to say “just work your way out of it!” but the reality for some people is that even if they try…they just can’t. It’s hard to not judge those purchases for sure, but I think you really hit the nail on the head…it doesn’t sound like a temporary situation to endure. It sounds like the way it is.

  3. Kemi Says:

    I have to disagree , I am the daughter of an immigrant to the UK and we were spectacularly poor when we arrived in London. Today we are not and I can spend on luxuries with no guilt etc. This is because of my mother’s ferocious discipline when it comes to money management. A skill that she taught me. She was never a high earner but she managed to accumulate an amount of savings and retirement income which puts people on a higher income to shame. Given the fact that inequality is rising in most developed countries and our politicians are not keen to change the situation. I can see no other option than for people to try to save their way out of poverty.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      First Gen (below) and I are also First Gen, and we also had similarly disciplined parents. But there is something different about the immigrant experience. Maybe it is hope. Or something else she’s listed.

      It is true that the US has relatively low social mobility compared to other developed countries, despite the American Dream rhetoric.

      • Katherine Says:

        I think there is something about the *upwardly mobile* immigrant experience. In college (at an ivy), I was part of a close group of friends who were mostly first generation. Several of us (including me) are from upwardly mobile immigrant families. Our parents were all raised on the farm or in small rural villages, and they ingrained in us similar values about finances, family, and education. Another friend in this group was born in a refugee camp. I found living with her infuriating, because I felt like she was mooching all the time (from me and our other roommates, and also from people in her refugee community). Looking back on it, I think it is more likely that her values prioritized everyone sharing what they had when they had it as opposed to planning for the future and being self-reliant.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        “everyone sharing what they had when they had it as opposed to planning for the future” is quite, quite adaptive in a refugee camp or if your family is otherwise desperately poor with no end in sight.

      • First Gen American Says:

        The magic of immigrants who save their way out of poverty is perspective. My mother thought she was “rich” the moment she got a job here. She moved from a home with no electricity or plumbing to an apartment with both. Only rich people had that stuff in her home country. Although she lived in a crappy neighborhood and was earning minimum wage, she felt rich, not poor. Just having a job was awesome when none were to be had in her home country and not only could she work, but there was overtime pay!!!!

        Many immigrants also work crazy hours for years and years and they see it as a blessing to be allowed to work so much. This is how they get ahead. They work all the time, pack themselves in a hovel of an apartment like sardines so that living expenses are low and save, save, save. Most American born people living in poverty feel poor, not rich and have some certain minimum standards that keep their expenses higher than the typical immigrant. When expenses equal or exceed income it’s really hard to get ahead. Living on minimum wage today is Much harder than it used to be but having 5 minimum wage earners working 2 jobs under one roof and the money goes a lot further.

  4. Practical Parsimony Says:

    I don’t think you can save your way out of poverty, but it you must spend the money, there could be better ways to spend it. I have very little money, but I have my extravagances. When I received my first large disability check, I bought a nine-tray Excalibur Dehydrator that was almost $300, rather than spend the money on eating out or just frittering it away. I had already caught up bills and paid back loans from a friend. The dehydrator helps me save money. I just dehydrated four heads of celery that cost $0.69/head. If you notice the price of celery, that price is about half what it normally is. Sometimes celery is $1.98 and sometimes $1.29. Besides saving on the purchase price right now, I will have celery in the future, ready to use. I won’t waste any celery. I was telling some people this last week. One person who had much more money thought it was clever. The pharmacy tech said she could not be bothered. The really poorer people just turned away, saying they had dehydrated before and it was too much trouble.(How much trouble is it to hold onto some of their money?) They had the $39 dehydrators carried at Walmart, but I did not tell them what mine cost. But, I won’t be paying full price for celery for the next year. I plan to go back and buy more celery. Some people just don’t get it.

    I wish I could get to this person who fails the GED. My students never failed…okay, maybe once, twice, three times. But, there are strategies to pass that have nothing to do with intelligence! I can imagine how discouraged the person is now. Is this the grandfather in his 30s? By the way, rarely do people fail all the sections. They don’t have to retake that portion.

    Only because of my age do I not pay fees on my checking account or have to buy checks. Only because I worked for the school system do I have a safe deposit box at half price, a good place to stash cash that is readily available but safe.

    I really think you can judge or discern the difference between the purchases you mentioned. A 1K granite countertop?! $200 game console?! And, you still help them? You are a better person than I am.

    Just after I divorced, a female friend lived with me for a year. When she would cry because she was broke, I would tell her I knew what to do. She had bought pretty cardboard boxes to hold possessions under the bed. I suggested she take those back and all the other things she had bought that were just foolishness. She did. I taught her to hold onto her money. I am the person who got her into school. Years later, I am the one who nicely nagged her to go back to school. She now has a doctorate. Yes, I am pushy. But, I am a soft pusher. Okay, I will shut up.

  5. omdg Says:

    A friend of a friend used to brag about how he could survive on $14000 per year. About how frugal (and thus superior) he was because of that, and how most people spent money on frivolous things. The thing is a) this was post-tax money so in fact it was a lot more than 14K, and (more importantly) b) he had a TRUST FUND to fall back on in case his little experiment didn’t work. He had no idea what it was like to be poor. The people I’ve met who really have dug themselves out of poverty have been a combination of a) extremely lucky, b) extremely smart, c) extremely hardworking, and d) extremely socially adept (because you can kiss that opportunity goodbye if you piss off the wrong person). Practically nobody gets to have all of those things.

  6. First Gen American Says:

    Yeah there is a lot in play. First, not everyone is as smart as you. Not everyone can see the consequences of bad choices. Plus, the escapism of the action is needed so badly, that they are blinded to the consequences. For example. Sex is a way to be loved. Forcing contraception may lead to rejection. Avoid rejection by not using contraception. Hey presto, life changing babyo.

    The difference between us and the perpetually poor is that 1) we had frugal role models, 2) we didn’t buy that expensive item til we actually had the cash to buy it and plenty to spare for emergencies. 3) we don’t measure our self worth based on the stuff we have. 4) we had the hope and knowledge that better days were coming, so it was okay to skimp now because we were confident better days were ahead. 5) probably self esteem/self worth is in here somewhere too.

    Lack of hope and the idea that a better life is possible is one of the big reasons there is a live for today mentality…because tomorrow may be even worse. Plus, I see entitlement issues all over the place. “I deserve this because my life is so hard.”…ugh maybe your life is so hard because of your dumb, entitled choices. See..judging again. Hard not to.

  7. Kemi Says:

    To practical parsimony,thinking further about the question I believe in willpower and my ability to handle a drastic reduction in income because I have witnessed it and I have done it before. But I was once reminded by an American friend that there are systems and safety nets in the UK and Europe that means that even with immense poverty, poor people can access healthcare and education free or at relatively low costs. This is very different in other parts of the world including America. No matter how bad things got for my family we had access to whatever form of healthcare that we needed and there was no cost to us. This alone probably allowed my family not to fall whenever we hit a health crisis. Even though i believe in having to resort to one’s willpower to climb out of poverty,I am not blind to the fact that in some societies and economies it can be well nigh impossible.

  8. Holly@CLubThrifty Says:

    I tend to believe that low income people who waste their extra money on frivolous purchases do so because they have no hope to get out of their financial hole. If they’ve never had savings before then they likely don’t see a path towards any improvement in their financial situation. So why not just get that game console or whatever?

    That’s what I’ve seen with people I know at least. It could be different for everyone.

    But I still find it frustrating. I know several people who are always in a terrible financial spot due to their own poor decisions. I hate watching people struggle when the answers are right there in front of them!

  9. delagar Says:

    As someone who has been in poverty — medical debt to the tune of over $200,000 after having uninsured cancer in my 20s — I don’t think you understand the effect this sort of debt has on everyday life. Even now that we’ve declared bankruptcy, almost five years later, we’re not recovered. Ten years of living in that debt, trying to pay it off, destroyed our ability to plan financially. How to you save for emergencies, when there is never anything left over to save? When you are literally always living down to the last penny? When every time the car runs out of oil, or the kid needs new shoes, it’s an emergency?

    You say luxuries. That makes me weep. We couldn’t afford to buy our child shoes. I had to call my mother up and beg her to buy my kid shoes.

    You think people in poverty would be better off if they planned ahead. But there is no planning ahead when there is no money to plan ahead with.

    People in poverty would be better off if they had more money. My life has improved over the last five years because (1) we declared bankruptcy and I stopped trying to pay off an impossible debt (2) I have received two large raises and (3) thank Jesus Dr. Skull finally got another job.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Did you buy an $1000 granite-topped bar when you got an $1000 insurance settlement? And then brag about it to all your relatives? That’s a luxury. That’s not shoes for your kids.

      You probably also don’t strongly hint that you need money to buy food for your kids and then turn around and spend that $200 check (that we could have used at the time but thought they needed more than we did) on a game system.

      Yes, people in poverty would be better off if they had more money. People in poverty would be much better off if they had more security.

  10. delagar Says:

    That said, no, I don’t think you have any obligation to help your relatives who are buying granite counter tops with their spare money.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Cross-posted.

      We send money at Christmas and are funding college anyway. We have no obligation to help anybody. But a $200 game system or even a $1000 unnecessary piece of furniture isn’t that big in the grand scheme of things. Though an $1000 emergency fund sure would have stopped a lot of bank fees and high interest debt, it probably would have just ended up being redistributed to other relatives when they had emergencies.

      In terms of people who make more than 100K/year (which is more than either of our families have made most of our lives, both childhood and adult, even adjusting for inflation) and are still in debt and cry poverty because they have nicer stuff and travel more than we do and never pay extra on their debt unless they’re completely out of credit because more money means more stuff, we don’t actually have any sympathy for them. None at all. (In fact, they’ve been leechblocked completely.) They’re not poor. They’re not in poverty. They just refuse to stop spending money they don’t have and don’t pay down their debt. One doesn’t get to both brag about one’s high income and cry about poverty. There are people who are actually low income and actually poor. And those folks don’t bring in 6 figure incomes.

      • delagar Says:

        Well, yes. People who can’t live on $100,000, or $250,000, or whatever. That’s irksome. (Especially to me, when I’ve been trying to live on less than $50,000 for my entire working life, and for most of it on *far* less than that.)

        But you can’t know what people have to deal with. Student loans eat up big percentages of income, as do other forms of debt. When I was making $40 and Dr. Skull was making $50, and THEREFORE we ought to have been doing okay, we had that $200,000 debt that was literally eating us alive. Not to mention his student loans. Not to mention all our collective medical issues.

        Then he lost his job in the dot.com crash, and we were well and truly fucked.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Well, with the 100K+/year blogger I’m thinking of, she’s got posts and comments on other blogs explaining how some of her debt is graduate school debt, but most of it is from buying stuff she couldn’t afford and paying interest. And even if she makes more, she’s pretty sure she’ll just spend more. In her own words. And based on her posts, that’s what she does, whenever they get a little extra money, they spend it instead of paying down debt or putting it in an emergency fund. So they never get ahead. (Pretty sure they tried bankruptcy but are doing the kind where they’re on a payment plan rather than getting their debt forgiven, because their income is too high. They adhere to the plan rather than doing more. But that’s speculation and reading between the lines.)

        That’s not poverty. That’s not medical debt. It’s not even all student loans or moving expenses (though that is some of it). They bought a house they couldn’t afford without an emergency fund. They go on trips they can’t afford. They buy things they can’t afford that we put off buying because we thought we couldn’t afford them when we had less debt and more savings. And then they complain about poverty and the system. I can’t stand reading about it.

        Families of 4 making >100K/year aren’t poor, even in expensive areas (they’re still middle class in Manhattan! and corn country isn’t Manhattan). And the system isn’t against people who make >100K/year. It is, however, against true low earners.

        It actually makes me kind of mad to see high earners complaining about being poor because of their own bad choices, when there are people who are truly poor and fixing their mistakes isn’t actually going to make that big a dent in their overall well-being, as easy as it is to judge them.

  11. ricodilello Says:

    Give a man a fish and he eats for one day, teach a man how to fish and he feeds himself everyday. Saving out of poverty isn’t a option for most people who are uneducated. Saving money to spend on improving your skill level and earning power has a better percentage chance of success.

  12. bogart Says:

    I’m pretty much of the haven’t-walked-a-mile-in-your-shoes, won’t-judge-what-I-would-do-in-them school of thought on this (and a number of other) topics, though I am also about setting limits with family (etc.) who would leech (not: I will never help you limits. Just when I will/when I won’t). And I emphatically do not kid myself: deprivations I have known have been minor and self-imposed and have always been undertaken in the context of having a deep and broad (family) safety net into which to fall if needed.

    Something that is missing from your description but that I think is also often a factor (no idea if it applies in your DH’s family’s case or not) is geographic region and mobility. It is easy to tell people to move to where they can get a good education or a good job (or both), there are clear arguments in favor of doing so, and lots of us (those blogging/commenting) have done it to good effect. But there are also often good counter-arguments (or perspectives), often related to proximity to family, and that others would value those things (or be affected by them) more than “we” do does not mean that “they” have made bad choices and “we” have made good ones — and the choice to stay put (foregoing education, or quality education, or employment opportunities) can have far-reaching consequences.

    As I may have commented previously, I now live (and have, for more than a decade and for most of my adult life) less than 5 miles from my mom (who is independent and a huge source of assistance to me and who still resides in the home I grew up in), less than 6 from my dad (who has dementia and is in a nursing home and who relies on me to manage his care in that context) and within 10 miles of 5 different households of blood relatives (counting my mom, so her + 4) who could, at the drop of a hat, be called upon to help out in an emergency (and who sometimes have). Plus another such household that’s a whopping (and annoying!) ~20 miles away, one of my adult stepkids. So when it comes to moving away from home/family who either depend on me, or upon whom I depend (or both), I am a “they” (non-mover) not a “we” (mover). But I am fortunate that my parents (or grandparents, depending which side of my family we’re talking about) settled in a region that has prospered economically, so I have not had to make a choice between those 2 things.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That is a great point. The downside of having family members all around to socially insure whenever you have extra money is also balanced by the upside by having family members all around to provide social insurance when you need that extra money. Members of DH’s family who are doing well have, for the most part, moved away to where there’s opportunities. (DH’s parents commute(d) an hour+ to work.)

  13. becca Says:

    My grandfather tired to blow his brains out when he used all his money to pay off my grandmother’s medical bills after she died and he had nothing left to live on.
    Poverty + hopelessness can be lethal (well, *grief* can be lethal, but poverty and hopelessness are it’s tools). If the worst thing your relatives do with the combination of poverty and hopelessness is buy unnecessary granite countertops, your extended family is much saner than mine.
    I tend to operate on the assumption anyone who isn’t a billionare is just one real medical disaster away from poverty (insurance reduces the risk, but does not eliminate it).

    That said, there are probably good ways to think of gifts for them that facilitate stability. Like knowing you have a standing offer to serve as an emergency fund for when a road viciously attacks their car’s tires (this is common in Michigan)- and then buying them tires instead of sending cash (you can purchase online through tirerack or walmart, and have them delivered to their local store). Also, sending money *before* Christmas, if it allows them to spend money on gifts for others, actually could facilitate stability. That’s social capital they are building, and in their shoes it’s probably worth more than financial capital.

    Carebear just lost his brother, and we’re kind of grappling with how much to help his SIL with funeral expenses (I want to help more, he feels the funeral was excessively expensive). I don’t like everything Dave Ramsey says, but I think he’s put some energy into thinking about “how to give so it is a blessing”, and it’s not always simple. That said, I tend to think it’s better to err on the too-generous side- too many people don’t give because they’ve convinced themselves the “risk” of it being spent unwisely is too great. Generally speaking, people seem to overestimate how susceptible *other* people are to unwise financial decisions and underestimate how susceptible they themselves are. It’s like the “advertising doesn’t work on me, only other people” fallacy.

  14. Ana Says:

    This is definitely a topic (among many) that age and experience has lessened my impetus to judge because I truly have no experience. I was one of those assholes that thought I was “poor” because I was a student—knowing full well it was a very temporary situation and I had an airtight parental support system in case of any emergent or even non-emergent needs. I’m extremely lucky to have never been poor, to never know the hopelessness and the fear. I’d like to think I could hold off anything “frivolous” and scrimp and save my way out of poverty, but maybe year after year of never getting anywhere would grind me down and I’d blow any money I got for a moment of happiness. Its still hard not to judge but I’m starting to understand what I don’t understand.

  15. justinelevine Says:

    There’s an interesting book by a Princeton professor called Scarcity, which sheds some light on this topic. His basic premise is that people who don’t have enough tend to make poor choices, simply because they don’t imagine long term. My parents were both savers, and I am, too (to a fault), but I have also seen people who don’t save; they simply scramble. And I can understand, now, why they do, much as I want to step in and tell them to STOP.

    • Liz Says:

      Scarcity was referenced in one of the LL articles, the ones on Detroit – I think, specifically, the long-form by Tracie McMillan on Whole Foods? I kept thinking about that article as I read through the post and comments here.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      And a Harvard economics professor! That’s the literature I was referencing in that last paragraph. It’s really interesting because you can see Sendhil Mullainathan give talks online where he references the “aha” moment he got when he realized the stupid things he does when he’s short on time are similar to the things that people do when they don’t have money. For him, time is the scarce resource that causes avoidance behavior. It’s not just the time horizon, it’s also just not wanting to deal with stuff. When a middle class person doesn’t want to deal with stuff, he or she will get a second chance after blowing the budget for a month– might have to cut back on eating out or traveling or replacing a car in the future. Not so much when you’re at bare bones.

    • Rosa Says:

      sometimes it’s that history has taught people there’s no point – you can scrimp and save and work to get ahead and have it taken from you. If you look at the history of attacks on black communities in the US, the way violence was targeted against people who opened businesses or purchased homes, and the way legal mechanisms like redlining and illegal ones like discriminatory lending were/are targeted, it’s hard to argue that isn’t a rational response.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Absolutely.

        Similarly, there’s a lot of research coming out in the area of gender showing that women are behaving exactly rationally given the push-back they get when they behave like men. So advising them to act more like men isn’t going to help unless culture is changed to make those actions more accepted.

        People aren’t stupid. They optimize given the constraints they’re facing. It’s just that most of the time we don’t see or understand their constraints and think they’re in the same situation we are when they’re really not.

  16. chacha1 Says:

    I think there’s a lot of fatalism and despair (in the sense of no hope) associated with true, long-term poverty. There’s a reason poor people are more likely to be religiously devout than wealthy people. When nothing makes sense and nothing works out right, there must be some comfort to saying “God has a plan” and telling yourself you’re earning a place in heaven.

    I have no idea how I would have coped with long-term poverty. My parents were certainly seriously broke for quite a number of years BUT those years encompassed buying some land – it was cheap, but they were still buying land – and getting an MBA. These are things that people with no capital cannot do. “Broke” may mean “income not quite enough” but it is not necessarily the same thing as “poor.” I’ve been broke. I’ve never been poor.

    As to judging poor people for how they spend their money … well, as someone who spends on luxuries and indulgences, it would be the height of hypocrisy for me to judge anyone else for that. I know why *I* get my little luxuries – because they help make up for the big things I can’t have. I’m willing to bet that is exactly the same reason a poor person buys a lottery ticket or a pack of cigarettes. (Are both of those more self-destructive than my luxuries? Sure. But see above re: despair.)

    It’s also not playing fair for someone with my lifestyle to judge someone who’s probably never had my advantages. I don’t assume that everyone poor is poor through no fault of their own (people DO make stupid mistakes – I certainly have) but I also don’t assume that everyone poor is poor ONLY through their own faults.

    All that said, I will happily judge someone with my level of my education and my level of income who cries poor. They are not poor. They are self-sabotaging, and likely whiners.

  17. amelie Says:

    Oh boy – this is a tough one. My family can live on very little. When I was in grad school our total income in the Boston Metro area was 28K – we bought a house which was cheaper than rent with our wedding money and had a child. We bought nothing. As part of a parents group we shared clothes, my girl child wore boy hand-me downs from a friend until she started school, worked different shifts to save on child care, NEVER ate out, still don’t have cable TV etc. etc. What was different for us is that we had faith that our education would result in a better life in the future and that DH and I had similar goals and so didn’t undermine each other by spending on “luxuries”. The other difference was excellent health insurance from my husband’s employer (in spite of his low income) so that when I got cancer at a young age we had hardly any out of pocket expenses – unlike Delager. (Luck??) A surprising event happened also – when I got pregnant a second time and was bed ridden due to extreme hyperemesis and so there was no daycare pick-up for him and friends were helping with childcare – my husband was able to work slightly longer hours and got promoted making up for my lost income. (Luck again???) While I was home on maternity leave he got promoted again – now doubling our previously combined income. I stayed home longer because of this – and in 4 years his now higher income quadrupled and there were no childcare expenses. (Were we just lucky again? Did we work with what we had? ) When layoffs threatened at hubbies work I got a job – very easily because of all of that education ( I applied for 3 jobs and got offers within 24 hours for all 3!!! since I was starting at a lower salary due to being out of work for so long) and worked for 2 years before he actually got laid off. During that time we saved my entire income – because we believed that we were in control of our destiny. While he was laid off we went back to spending nothing and ended the layoff with more savings than we started with. ( I make less than half of what he makes and am at the top of my anticipated income level – I am in public sector but could go private if I desire or if it is necessary. I really like what I do though). Again I believe that this was because we had FAITH in our education and worked as a team with the same goals – and perhaps were lucky. If you do not believe that you have the skills, or that those skills won’t have a payoff, it is hard to see that temporary hardship will lead to long term gain. I work in education in a very poor urban school with kids who have generational poverty – they see no way out and make choices that show that they believe that there is no way out. Recent immigrants who believe that education is a way out of poverty have kids invested in their education and I send them off to Ivy Leagues with full scholarships – generational poverty families are much more difficult to convince. Pregnant 14 year olds, poor attendance, no homework…. depressing.
    I have family members who make poor financial choices…. Husbands and wives who don’t have the same long term goals so one undermines the others so that they live paycheck to paycheck. Again it seems like it you can’t see the goal of financial independence, the belief that temporary sacrifice will lead to long term gain, it is hard to plan for the long term.

  18. Rosa Says:

    I had great self-control when I was young, without responsibilities, aware of the safety net below me, and had no kids.

    I don’t know that I would be as disciplined with a kid – and I KNOW I’m not as frugal when I’m sick. Me at 40 does not have the energy or focus of me at 20.

  19. Revanche Says:

    Well, I’ll admit to judging because I KNOW I am that disciplined and because, in my case, this is incredibly close to home. I paid off at least 100K of debt while supporting my family for half my life. I started out at minimum wage, worked every minute of overtime I could get, lived w/my family to keep costs down, squeezed every penny, agonized over every bill, late fee, or increased prices.

    The biggest safety net I had was that my parents kept a roof over my head til I was 17, then it was all on me to pay for their mistakes, their bad calls, their messes.

    My parents weren’t any kind of example with regard to thinking long term about money and at 21 I was trying to save enough to take care of them in case anything happened to me. Mom tried to plan for more than just the next day but Dad is an utter effin mess and I give him the side eye. He made stupid decision after stupid decision, and continues to do so.

    He laments about my brother being a burden while he lives off me in crappy living conditions because it’s not enough that I pay the rent and he sometimes pays the utilities, I have to come home and clean too. He works, some, but blows his money on cultural obligations like giving cash gifts at weddings and funerals which I think is absurd and BS and is more important to him than paying the damn water bill.

    I consider him both shortsighted and foolish and oh I judge. After 17 years of supporting him, now that Mom’s gone, I think his decisions are remarkably selfish and I don’t care if his spending gestures are the only thing that make him feel better – I don’t think he has the right to make them at my expense.

    A lot of that is resentment. If I hadn’t sacrificed years to take care of them, and weren’t carrying both him and my sibling, because I’m not ready to put them out on the street (which is basically where they’d go) there would probably be a lot less crankitude.

    I also have relatives who are relatively well off and spend just as unwisely. They’re comfortable fundraising to pay for medical bills and taking money from their parents for essentials while thinking nothing of going on international trips for hobbies, fine dining, and multi thousand dollar accessories for both husband and wife. I judge that as well since I know that should anything happen, we’ll be expected to take on their burdens in return for their occasional “generosity” in the form of an unwanted overpriced Christmas gift each year and footing the bill for an extravagant meal once or twice a year.

    All of this does color how I react to other people spending unwisely. I may not judge them because in those cases I don’t presume to know that their circumstances but I’m very unlikely to give money gifts.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I feel like you can certainly judge family (maybe you shouldn’t but maybe you should; who else knows them better, after all?) in a way it’s hard to judge strangers or people you don’t see very often.

  20. Linda Says:

    I’ve never been poor, just on the low end of middle class. I think because my parents came from families that really did have to scrape by, frugal living choices were ingrained in us and that has helped me a lot. I know how to shop, cook, and run my (single person or two person) household on a budget because of the lessons I learned from my family. I chose not to have children, which has also helped me be more financially successful because I didn’t lose any career-building time to pregnancy, childbirth, or child care. I’m sure that has given me a big financial boost over my peers, as has my ability to actually build my skills and credentials even more by having the luxury of time after work to complete a masters degree.

    I really can’t sit in judgement over anyone who survives on a low income. It’s still tempting to do it, though. It’s hard to not be critical of other people’s choices when they don’t fit your values. I think that’s the human tendency we all struggle against when it comes to religion, class, etc.

  21. Kellen Says:

    Hmm… interesting points about knowing that the scrimping and saving is temporary. I wonder if this might be a problem my sibling faces (who has moved in with parents.) Ze has multiple college degrees, so should have way better income than ze does, but perhaps the poor spending choices are because ze doesn’t have a clear plan for when that spending will be okay in the future, because ze has no plan for how to leverage education to gain higher income.

  22. First Gen American Says:

    One last point about this topic….it sucks to be judged. I distinctly remembered waiting on the snotty “mean girl” who ended up growing up to be a pharmaceutical sales rep. I was very clearly treated like “the help” and some stupid banquet waitress not good enough to have an important job like her. I think the problem with judging is that certain jobs are done as a means to some other end. People don’t grow up wanting to be in a service job, but it is often the means to get educated, get mommy hours, get flexibility, health insurance, etc.

  23. MutantSupermodel Says:

    I personally am low on temperance and all of its traits. I know that so I try not to beat myself up about it but it IS a weakness of mine and it’s a weakness for many others and I believe it’s one that holds me back financially. Some people have more willpower than others naturally and some people have more willpower about certain things than others. That’s why what works for one million doesn’t necessarily work for another million.

    Judging others for anything is just a waste of time and a futile exercise. People only do it to make themselves feel better about themselves even if only temporarily. Not to mention, most people who are judging others are doing so with only a shred of the picture, not anywhere near the entire thing so it’s almost always completely inaccurate.


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