“I would love to make more money.”
It’s not an uncommon sentiment. In fact, social media and real life conversations are equally dotted with people wishing for more.
But a lot of times, it’s a real request. A true want. Or even an absolute need.
And depending on who says it, the responses vary slightly, but the general sentiment is the same. If you need more money, earn more. Work harder. Spend less. Bootstrap better.
For the most part, I ignore the responses. I’m trying hard to learn to let things go, especially if they don’t directly impact me. I used to see comments on social media and feel the need to respond, refute, or defend cessely.
Most of the time, I just focus on what I can control and who I can support.
But the other day, I saw something that stopped me cold. Someone who was raising a family near the poverty threshold said that she would love to experience what it was like to live at the median income level.
She was replying to what I suspect was an automated tweet. But she got a real reply: Do menial labor on the side. After all, it’s what Tim Ferriss suggests.
I knew I had to say something. Not on Twitter but here. I had to tell you my story. I had to share my math problem.
I Used to Think It Was About the Math, Too
When I was seventeen years old, I got a job. More precisely, I got another job. Since I was 14, I worked myriad part time jobs, so adding one more wasn’t exactly atypical. It was equal parts understanding that I had to cobble together more than a handful of hours to keep my gas tank full and my inability to quit, even when the writing was on the wall that it was time.
So, I took another job. I loved this one too. I got to work with kids, and I had wonderful coworkers.
One of the first people I met at that job is one of my very best friends to this day. At the time I met her, her family was struggling financially. While I had yet to learn the details that caused her money problems, I was acutely aware that money was tight. Like which bill gets paid first tight.
This same coworker of mine was having a family party, and she thought to invite a handful of us. I was thrilled. It felt like the start of a real friendship. Which is why, when I heard the party was being catered, I said, “Maybe we could do some cooking. I think it would be cheaper.”
I actually said it to another coworker. Because in my naivete, I thought, Hey, saving $50 on this party would help out her family and make us all better friends.
The math works out, but what I said couldn’t have been more wrong.
Of course, it got back to my now-best friend. I can still see her face when she asked me if I had made that suggestion. Her face was a mixture of pain, frustration, and betrayal. But also something else. There was a look of embarrassment, but not for herself. For me and my lack of understanding.
What I didn’t understand at seventeen is the fact that life is confluence of factors. This family was battling mental health issues, a debilitating-and-perhaps-terminal illness, and all sorts of other financial black swans that were entirely beyond my ken as a suburban teen whose biggest financial struggle in life was how to continue to earn more spending money.
If we fast forward through some awkward exchanges at work, you should know that I did attend the party. I brought a small hostess gift like I always do, and I had a good time. We all did.
I also made a new friend. Not because of the kindness in my heart, but because of the generosity and forgiveness in hers.
An Unchecked Heart Condition
One of the most common things I hear in the personal finance community–from bloggers to best-selling authors–is that you have to take the emotion out of money.
It is the biggest lie on the Internet. Or at least one of them.
When you approach something from only the perspective of dollars and cents, you are taking the wrong approach. If you are seventeen years old, your approach is short-sighted and sheltered. If you are a grown adult branding yourself as a money expert, your approach is insensitive and embarrassing. It’s also indicative of a much bigger problem.
But for the advice giver, not the receiver.
When we try to strip away emotion, when we approach something entirely devoid of context, when we remove the person from personal finance, we are playing a numbers game. And the numbers do work out on paper.
But a far greater issue remains. You might be able to solve someone else’s math problem, but who is going to fix your heart condition?
Telling someone to shovel snow when they live within walking distance of the poverty line is a bandage for a bullet wound. It’s a temporary fix that doesn’t do much of anything to mitigate the problem. It certainly doesn’t keep them from getting shot at again.
Often times, these notions that someone only needs to do more work dismisses the fact that they work harder and for longer hours than we realize or can even imagine. Books like The Four-Hour Work Week were never intended for people who were living paycheck to paycheck, facing bankruptcy from medical debt.
How do I know? The author of the book pontificates on what people should do with discretionary income each month. A lot of discretionary income. $5,000 worth of it to be exact. That is not the type of rhetorical question my friend and her family were contemplating.
That’s not to say there isn’t value in the advice to start a side hustle or that Tim Ferriss and other gurus have never helped anyone. They have. And it is true that home cooking can yield considerable savings if you have the time, the resources, the access, and the capital to start.
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There is no magic money bullet. A piece of advice that might work really well for one situation could be ineffective and downright offensive in another. The sooner we learn that, the better.
So why didn’t I call out this person out publicly? I don’t shy away from showing examples of exactly the kinds of financial advice we don’t need. And yet, here I am, 1000 words deep and still nothing.
Because the response I wanted to give–the angry pithy tweet I had in mind–wouldn’t have done anything to help the person who was struggling financially. And I fear that it would only fuel some of these fires that so desperately need to be extinguished.
I went a different route for a reason. As embarrassing as is was to share my story, as difficult as it was to keep silent while I read that tone-deaf advice from a money master, I realize what these instances have in common: all of us.
I am that person. We all are. We’ve approached a problem all wrong at one time or another. We’ve looked only through our own lens. We’ve stripped away nuance, removed context, and imposed ourselves in someone else’s situation.
I will never forget that look on my friend’s face, not just because I realized I had hurt her feelings. But because she was embarrassed for me. She understood something all those years ago that I couldn’t begin to comprehend. It doesn’t matter if you can solve a math problem if you don’t have any heart.