Money Troubles

Money Troubles

Personal budgeting advice promises to set us free, but only on an individual level. Instead we need social programs that would allow any woman to flip a finger to unsavory work situations and domestic abuse.

8 million coins dumped at a basic income rally in Bern, Switzerland, 2013 (Wikimedia Commons)

Late last month, Billfold writer Paulette Perhach reminded us that life under capitalism is better when you have money. In her widely shared essay, “A Story of a Fuck Off Fund,” she contrasted two possible futures for a young woman entering the workforce. In one version, “you”—her missive was delivered in second person in the style of Choose Your Own Adventure paperbacks—fritter away your income, rack up debt, and are subsequently left without the means to escape a lecherous boss and an abusive boyfriend. In the second, you have had the foresight to live humbly and direct the bulk of your income into a personal savings account (the “fuck off fund”).  You are rewarded with the freedom to walk away.

The notion of women’s financial independence was interesting enough to Jezebel that they praised Perhach’s advice, though they noted that, of course, not every woman has the means to save. Indeed, recent studies show that the majority of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings, while approximately 20 percent lack a savings account entirely. Have they all, per Perhach’s stories, Chosen the Wrong Adventure?

At a time of grotesque income inequality and stagnant wages—when the majority of low-wage workers are women—one could easily dismiss the “Fuck Off Fund” as part of the tone-deaf elite feminism sold by the likes of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. (Perhach’s references to white-collar internships and Nordstrom credit cards support this characterization.) But the story is characteristic of contemporary personal budgeting narratives that enact a sleight of hand to convert problems of political economy into individual or private affairs.

In her forthcoming book, Home Economics: The American Way of Family and Finance, the anthropologist Caitlin Zaloom traces the rise of personal and household budgeting literature, which began in the Progressive Era and coincided with the growth of the American middle class. As economic expansion in the twentieth century afforded more families disposable incomes, budgets became a way for households to allocate funds toward education, home maintenance, vacations, and other hallmarks of what we now think of as middle-class life. Women, in particular, were urged by budgeting literature to spend and save to promote the social advancement of their household.

According to Zaloom, budgeting advice, both then and now, performs both “an accounting and a moral trick” of divorcing personal finances from the broader economy. Though a given household’s income is determined by a combination of wages, taxes, government incentives, retirement plans, and other “public” affairs, Zaloom notes that personal financial advice makes these streams of revenue private. If a family can’t afford to pay for college, for example, this advice blames poor budgeting or not saving enough. “In other words,” says Zaloom, “achieving middle-class status today is seen as a problem of the individual household, and not a matter of depressed wages, rising college costs, or a badly functioning retirement system.”

If budgeting literature has more or less functioned this way since its inception, recent versions have also added the promise of personal liberation. Dave Ramsey, the author of nearly a dozen books on finance and the former host of a Fox News program on money, offers to liberate readers from debt with the “sure-fire plan” laid out in his bestselling book Total Money Makeover. In The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous and Broke (another bestseller), the Emmy-award winning personal finance guru Suze Orman promises to liberate millennials, whom she calls Generation Broke, from the setbacks of the Great Recession through a crash course in basic financial literacy, including deciphering credit scores and understanding how a 401(k) works. And the “Fuck Off Fund,” of course, liberates women from terrible men.

New budgeting literature has even promised to liberate us from old budgeting literature. So saturated is our current media landscape with personal finance advice—from books to columns to TV shows to web series—that a recently published book by Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack, The Index Card, has pledged to demystify personal finance for laypeople by whittling the existing body of advice down to a 4×6 notecard.

This minimalist approach, say the authors, was borne out of their dissatisfaction with the surfeit of popular finance gurus’ empty promises. Olen’s prior book, Pound Foolish, argued that for the general public, most financial advice is untenable because it is “oblivious to the messiness of the human condition,” which can include extended spells of poverty, unemployment, and bankruptcy. And in The Index Card, a final line advises readers to “Promote social insurance programs to help people when things go wrong,” pointing out that 96 percent of Americans benefit from at least one form of government aid at some point in their lives, whether they realize it or not.

Yet, while it provides a gentle rebuke to the popular budgeting discourse that construes financial hardship simply as a matter of mismanagement, Olen and Pollack’s chapter on public aid is also their book’s slimmest (eight pages out of 256), and it cleaves to the familiar idea that social programs should only function as an absolute last resort. What if we were instead to think of such programs—universal health insurance, public housing, guaranteed income—as starting points for household budgets, rather than embarrassing, last-ditch add-ons?

Furthermore, what if we were to conceive of all the freedoms that contemporary budgeting literature promises us beyond the household level? Budgeting literature won’t deliver us from the economic system that forces us to consult it in the first place, but the crude materialism it espouses isn’t entirely wrong. To put it another way, rearranging money does solve many problems: Probably no one would dispute Perhach’s assertion, for example, that escaping gendered harassment and violence is far easier for those with savings. But this is precisely why the left has long fought for a “fuck off fund” on the societal level—that is, a combination of wealth redistribution and robust public resources that would allow all women (indeed, anyone of any gender) to flip a finger to unsavory work situations and domestic abuse. While for now we may still have to rely on various forms of budgeting advice to figure out how to make do, we can also reject their insistence that this is as good as it gets.

Jennifer C. Pan is a contributor to Jacobin, Dissent, The Margins, and other publications.