1. This story pushes my buttons, for sure. It seems like human nature for people in better financial situations to judge people in worse. Maybe it makes the socio-economic discrepancy easier to take? “I’m in this position not because of dumb luck but because I made good choices in my life. I would never spend $5 on a Starbucks if I only made $20,000 a year…” or whatever. Inequality starts so early–kids with poor parents do worse in school, do worse in life, have worse health outcomes…the only way we know to close the gap between kids living in poverty and those that aren’t is training and SUPPORT (NOT judgement!) for parents. I like your point about the 12-year-old feeling like they’re on the same par as their peers for once. Anyway, thanks for bringing the issue to light and reminding us how important it is to turn our financial judgements off in situations like this.

  2. I remember reading the Grapes of Wrath in high school and judging the Joad family because, when they started making money, they spent some of it on indulgences like Cracker Jacks. When they ended up destitute, my first thought was “Well…they wouldn’t be starving if they hadn’t bought the Cracker Jacks.”

    For me, that type of thinking stems from two things: 1) wanting to believe that I am somehow protected from poverty/bad outcomes because I would make better decisions in that situation and 2) not wanting to acknowledge the bigger social forces that keep people impoverished and that seem so impossible to change. As I am getting older, I am starting to appreciate how much it isn’t just an issue of personal choice to avoid a $5 Starbucks and how much of it is big systemic issues that harm people.

    Thanks for another great post!

    • I do honestly believe that waste and frivolous spending harms finances. But I don’t believe that adults should criticize children like that. Especially when most of us carry around coffee cups!

      As you said, there are many more things at play than someone being treated to Starbucks once a week (or once ever!) for a family to qualify for free and reduced lunch.

  3. Ohh, this makes me mad. Almost as mad as saying food stamps shouldn’t be spent on seafood (fish is a healthy choice, and some of it’s pretty cheap) or fresh produce (ditto.) I agree with the others. There are so many people in our culture that want to blame bad things on poor choices rather than circumstance, and therefore they think it is okay to shame those who they assume made bad choices and to feel superior.

    MYOB, people. A Starbucks drink is not a right or a privilege, it’s a product. If someone has the resources to get one, then what they deserve is the right to enjoy it in peace.

  4. Wow… that *would* have made me mad. It makes me mad just thinking about it. I hate it when people judge someone else’s monetary choices; after all, we never know all of the circumstances surrounding those choices.

  5. Love your “this is what else $5 bought him” thoughts. I think you nailed it with that one. Most of us want to keep up, and fit in with, the Joneses. Acceptance is a powerful thing and I wonder if the adult commentor was parroting an opinion (s)he thought would help gain acceptance with his/her own peers?

    • That’s an excellent point, Ty! I hope that wasn’t the case because it was being said to a group of teachers. I would hope that we would all assume the best about our kiddos and their families. However, I fear you might be right.

  6. I do appreciate it when someone in the FI community steps outside of the largely self-imposed boundary of financial “prudence” to appreciate the absolute truth about money. The sole purpose of money is to assist one in acquiring happiness. Any other use is a waste. Whether you are 12 or 112, you spend your money, invest your money, bury your money in the backyard, because what you are doing makes you happy. Sounds like the mission of that $5 was accomplished.

    • That is so true, and it’s so easy to lose sight of that fact. Just because it isn’t how I would spend (or save or invest) doesn’t mean that someone else doesn’t have the right to do so!

  7. *Insert standing ovation GIF here.* This would have made me incredibly mad. But it also would have made me sad. This teenager’s views of the world were not formed out of thin air. They were created in a system that says it’s ok to judge other people for their life choices. Thanks for sharing this story with us!

    • I have tried to reel myself in so much in this regard. It is so easy to look critically at the decisions of others, but the only person that I really need to work on is myself!

  8. Melissa

    I had a similar moment when I did a training in college for an Americorps program. They showed us a video of a middle-class couple trying to survive for a month on minimum wage jobs (spoiler alert: they really struggled). So many people felt the need to comment on how they spent their money and how unwise it was. They shouldn’t have bought birthday cake to celebrate their niece’s birthday. He wasn’t that sick, he shouldn’t have gone to the emergency room; why are they surprised by the high medical bill? I got so angry – like hello you are missing the whole point! People feel comfortable judging how families spend their money when they are poor but they wouldn’t do the same for a middle class family (even if they make worse financial decisions). It just feels very dehumanizing to me and promotes this view that the poor deserve to be poor when the fact is having a birthday cake is not some huge luxury or an irresponsible use of funds. Thanks Penny as always for your posts on things like this!

    • I would love to see that video, Melissa. It sounds important! I can’t even imagine how much we would struggle living on mininum wage jobs. Our lifestyle, as frugal as it is, is definitely set up to be solidly middle class.

      Happy side note: I maybe wrote about this before so forgive me for repeating myself, but our food pantry actually collects items for birthday kits. Cake mixes, frosting, birthday plates, etc. That way, all families can celebrate! It warms my heart just thinking about it. The fact that some act as if there should be a net worth or class threshold to celebrate a birthday is absurd!

  9. Sara

    Thank you for initiating this discussion. I know sometimes I say things without really thinking something through. Often I later ponder it and realize (and hopefully learn from it) that I was being pretty judgmental. I go through periods of time where I overspend but no point beating myself up–and I am no longer a teen! Thank you for broadening my view.

  10. Oooh this makes me so mad! And so sad! Everything you said about a $5 drink being way more than a $5 drink is so lovely and spot-on.

    Plus we can judge each other all we want about our Starbucks choices (if we should is a totally different question) and argue over the #lattefactor because we’re all adults here. But leave the kids out of it and just let them enjoy their drink!

    • You are so right, Erin! I am a big fan of talking money with kids. But they’re learning and growing. And I wouldn’t even say that this was a mistake.

  11. Hey, if a kid is buying cigarettes or a bottle of Thunderbird, feel free to moralize. If a kid is buying coffee or a doughnut, shut up. There’s a time and place for everything. Standing in line in Starbucks is not the time or place to show disdain for another person’s supposed lack of financial acumen.

    • HA! I read this too fast. At first, I thought, A kid is buying a car?! You’re right. There definitely are certain things they shouldn’t be buying. 😉

  12. We judge a lot as a society. I recently heard a podcast where the person being interviewed explained something similar, but in relation to people who use foodstamps and how others judge what’s in their cart. It’s really sad.

    Plus, the person who made the comment has no clue of this kid’s backstory. For all they know someone gave him some money to go treat himself.

    And I always thought the latte thing was proverbial, not literal. There’s many things the kid could have spent his $5 on that would have been equally wasteful. Not sure why lattes get a bad rap and not other stuff. I bet if the kid was buying a movie ticket or something else the adult likely wouldn’t have reacted the same way.

    Did you squint your eyes at the adult? Sounds like they needed a stink eye.

    • That’s a great point about the movie ticket! Even (especially?) in the personal finance community, we seem to give experiences a free pass.

      I can’t imagine looking at a kid, deciding that they were less fortunate or things were harder for them than they are for me, and then deciding to judge them. Ugh. Stink eye for sure!

  13. Reading this upsets me, but then I think of how critical and judgemental I can be at times. Maybe not for the same things, but other stuff. In short, there’s a real deficiency of love in this world. Thanks for sharing an important post Penny. : )

  14. As a person who was very very poor growing up, I heard folks do this to me and my family frequently. They were jerks and did nothing to make my situation better. Their judgment was only about making themselves feel superior. I didn’t need to judge them to feel superior – their bad manners spoke for themselves.

  15. This story resonated with me so much! I teach at a Title 1 middle school. Three weeks ago we had the amazing opportunity to take 24 of our amazing kids to the Youth in Government conference. The YMCA provided complete scholarships for all of our students. We were able to raise money to pay for the meals as well. That meant that these kids had a few dollars of spending money. On one of the evenings when I walked the kids back I stopped at Starbucks with them and let them all get a drink. The next day one of my girls hugged me and thanked me again for taking them because she had never been able to go to Starbucks before.
    Teaching where I do has opened my eyes to see the needs and possibilities in a way that I never dreamed possible. I feel immense pity for that adult who seems so blind.

    • Your story gave me chills, Jeni! Thank you so much for what you do with and for those students of yours. It is so easy (and ugly!) and perhaps even instinctive to judge. I constantly work to keep myself in line. I wish other adults would do the same.

  16. joanne

    I totally understand! My weakness was clothes too. I’m trying to declutter and stop shopping as much. I just need to stay away from any mall/ store in sight I know I’ll cave XD

    It’s ten times worst when you work for a clothing store. Seeing cute stuff everyday.

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