Financial literacy training, through books or in school, seems to be an enduringly popular solution to the chronic problem of people living paycheck to paycheck.
Another example in this genre arrived at the office not long ago, “The Kids$Vest Project,” by former James J. Hill Center President Greg Fouks. It’s both a personal finance book and an introduction to a broader educational program.
Fouks covers a lot of familiar territory but he does it well, including clearly explaining the impact of compound interest. He peppers his work with facts on the financial challenges of Americans, including how seven out of 10 of us know we can’t retire or lack the savings to do so.
One of his ideas to fix the retirement funding problem is to have teenagers learn enough about saving and investing that they then establish their own Roth IRA. Through steps like this, he wrote, kids can learn that they really can achieve financial security.
Yet a fair criticism of this book, and pretty much all others like it, is that it makes achieving financial security sound a little too easy. It therefore follows that, if people still live on the financial edge after many years of working, the problem must be them.
And one problem with financial literacy as a solution is that, in many families, teaching Fouks’ money lessons wouldn’t have made much of a difference. That’s because all the kids knew growing up in poverty was always going without, and so it was never going to be easy once they have a few dollars to resist spending them.
This insight now seems obvious, but that’s only after reading through the real-life financial lessons essayist Samantha Irby described in a book out a few months ago called “We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.”
She admitted she had no idea how middle-class parents taught their children about money. But she certainly knew how poor parents did.
“No you cannot have that.”
“The lights will come back on Tuesday when I get my check. Until then, stop letting the cold air out of the freezer. I don’t want that ground beef to thaw out.”
“Wash those underwear out in the sink and hang them up so you can wear them tomorrow.”
“Steer the car while I push it down the street to the gas station.”
“Did you hear me? Put that back! I said you can’t have it!”
Irby grew up in suburban Chicago, and she wrote that after her parent’s divorce when she was a young child, everything she wanted her family had no money to buy. Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal? No way, get the generic bagged kind. If she got caught sneaking some Capri Sun juice pouches into the shopping cart, she was angrily told to put them back.
And forget being taught about credit cards. Her only experience with credit was taking home cartons of milk that had gone past the expiration date with the promise to pay for them when her mom’s Supplemental Security Income check finally arrived.
When she started earning money from babysitting, she promptly spent every nickel. She bought magazines, pop-music recordings, every drugstore lipstick she could get her hands on and steel-toed Dr. Martens boots she even wore to gym class. When she started getting regular paychecks she kept spending, buying grape Crush drinks and DiGiorno pizzas along with a Sony audio player powered by Energizer batteries.
There was never a thought given to saving for a rainy day. It had rained every day of her life so far, so what would be the point?
“I was trying to fill this gaping hole inside me with stuff I couldn’t have when I was a little kid, and I assumed that one day, when I had finally bought enough magazines and name-brand snack foods to feel caught up, the feeling would go away,” she wrote. “But it hasn’t.”
“And because I know the value of a dollar, when I get one, I want to buy the nicest thing I can with it.”
Her long-term plan was to get rich, maybe by getting hit by a transit bus. She also knew she needed a financial guardian if she did get a windfall. Left on her own, the money would soon be gone, as she rode through her neighborhood in her new car with a full tank of gas, the windows down and the air conditioner blasting, all the while munching Life cereal and sipping a Capri Sun.
Irby’s work is often described as darkly comic, and this account of her financial upbringing managed to be both funny and heartbreaking. She sure didn’t make never keeping a dollar longer than a day sound admirable.
Irby, of course, would agree with Fouks that budgets really can be useful and spending less than you make is wise. A Roth IRA while still in high school would be awesome.
It’s impossible to imagine how she would have thought to open one, but it must be awfully rare to have teenagers of any background open their own IRAs. Unfortunately, having a fully funded retirement account by age 60 isn’t exactly common.
This observation has been made before, of course. And a recent report by Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research confirmed that nearly 40 percent of workers 55 to 64 years old, with earnings in the middle 20 percent of household income, didn’t have any retirement account savings.
If millions of Americans find themselves with not enough money to ever retire, then it doesn’t seem fair to conclude that all of them made enough mistakes to deserve their own predicament. Some may have grown up as Irby did and never quite outgrew a fear of having to go without. Others could have had a job loss or other bad luck.
So maybe we can just stop judging these people who have struggled to achieve financial security and admit that it’s not particularly easy to get there on a no bigger than middle-class income.
If people do manage it, then they deserve a hearty congratulation. It would be a fine thing if they also remembered to express a little gratitude for having the money to buy all the Capri Suns they could fit in a shopping cart.