Listen to this week’s podcast episode above or follow along with the essay below.
About the author: Dana Miranda is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® and founder of Healthy Rich. She’s written about work and money for Forbes, The New York Times, CNBC, Insider, NextAdvisor, USA Today and Inc. Magazine.
I keep running into a problem in conversations about the work I do with Healthy Rich.
When I talk to people whose understanding of personal finance is rooted in budget culture, I tend to explain the problems with budget culture by falling back on a few maxims about inequality and shame.
I continue to see folks on the other side of the conversation not coming on board.
Some do. Some people are already there — they see the problems with budget culture; they’ve just never had a name for it before.
But the folks who aren’t already there… aren’t easy to convince. And that makes sense. Challenging a dominant paradigm is a big deal, and retooling one’s worldview takes a lifetime of work.
But there’s more happening. I’m not just introducing an idea that’s hard to get on board with. I’m doing it badly.
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I talk about systemic inequalities and biases, because it’s easy to agree that those exist. No one argues with me that our society is just and equal, that everyone gets a fair shake. (People would, but it’s pretty easy to avoid the circles those people hang out in.)
I talk about the restriction and discipline inherent in budgeting, because it’s easy to entertain the idea that those are bad, or at least difficult, or at least not well liked.
I talk about debt shaming, because it invokes a memory of any time you’ve been shamed for any decision you’ve made, and it’s easy to understand why that’s bad even if you still believe debt is bad.
But these are unconvincing because they’re incomplete. None of this is the point.
Debt shaming is beside the point, because the point is that we live in a system where a few hold the funds the rest of us have to pay to access, most often for basic necessities and life-saving care.
Budgeting is beside the point, because the point is that we live in a system where everything costs money, and we often have to choose between joy and security.
Even inequality and bias — real and detrimental as they are — are beside the point, because the point is that we are all subject to an economic system that disadvantages the many for the exclusive benefit of a few. (And even “benefit” here can only be applied to their financial status, as this system strips the privileged few of their humanity just as it does for the rest of us).
The point is that inequality and bias are an invention of this system that requires haves and have-nots, so have-nots had to be created for it to function. Restriction and discipline are a response to built-in inequality, and shaming is necessary to enforce them. None of these are inevitable or natural.
The point is that the afflictions of budget culture are nothing more than attempts to survive (with the spurious promise of thriving) under a capitalist economic system.
That’s the part I keep being afraid to say.
I keep talking about budget culture and not saying “capitalism” enough, because I’ve been made afraid to question.
We have a real political problem with perceived socialism in this country. Generosity and community resources are demonized because of a set of values people believe they hold. But those values were invented to prop up capitalism, as was the fear of anything labeled “socialism” (a fear that actually mislabels communism, because there’s a bit of a political problem with persecuting communists, thank you, Mr. McCarthy…) It’s easy to sound like a kook critiquing U.S. capitalism in a meaningful way.
I don’t want to sound like a kook.
More to the point, I fear that my thoughts on capitalism and socialism mean I am a kook.
I grew up breathing the same air we all breathe in this culture. No one around me ever named “capitalism”; it’s just always been the way things are. The sky is blue, the grass is green and living costs money. I had to learn about the existence of capitalism in reverse, through those aha! moments when you get a new lens to see something that’s never been quite clear before. All those ways life never seemed to quite add up? Those were capitalism. Ahhhhh.
So I’ve got this language now for the way things are and the way they could be. But I’ve got decades of conditioning trying to convince me the way things are is the way they should be, and it’s so hard to argue with that old, misguided version of yourself. There’s so much resistance when you pull the needle out of a well-worn groove. It always wants to slip back in.
I keep talking about budget culture and not saying “capitalism” enough, because that old version of myself tells me not to. It makes me question my new beliefs. It makes me fear the response. It tells me the reason this idea isn’t clicking with people is because I’m bad at conveying it.
But I know the reason this idea isn’t clicking with people is because I’m not conveying it.
I’m dancing around it. I’m approaching the edge of it and backing away. I’m keeping people comfortable. (Even that is capitalism, by way of good ol’ patriarchy.)
But this is supposed to make people uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable! I have a bunch of questions without answers, and now I’m just living with an open can of big, juicy worms I can’t get out of my life.
The point of this work I’m doing is to question the ways we’ve found it acceptable to think, teach and talk about money. And I’ve been out there having flaccid conversations about maybe not budgeting so much.
Fighting budget culture isn’t about not budgeting. It’s not about being nicer while people are repaying debt to credit card companies. It’s not about giving Black women access to the same tools for hoarding wealth that white men have had for centuries.
Yeah, we should do those things immediately. But none of this is the point.
Fighting budget culture is about recognizing that the rules you’re being taught about money have nothing to do with helping you succeed. They have everything to do with keeping you and the rest of the proletariat in place at the bottom of the pyramid to maintain a strong foundation for a few at the top.
That’s the part I keep being afraid to say.
A few things you can do next…
Artist, writer, theologian and community organizer Tricia Hersey is author of Rest Is Resistance and founder of The Nap Ministry, a movement to understand the liberation in rest. In this interview for We Can Do Hard Things, she shares how capitalism and white supremacy collaborate to keep us exhausted, and concrete ways to bring rest into our lives as a form of resistance.
Tara McMullin, author of What Works, examines the American obsession with work and proposes the reality that those who don’t work also add value to the system. We just have to expand our imagination about the fundamental nature of work.
This directory from The U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives makes it easy to peruse your area for worker cooperatives and democratic workplaces (people-centered antidotes to the inequalities of capitalism). Only member businesses are included, but it’s a great place to start if you’ve never thought about the ownership structure of businesses in your community or state — and you might discover a favorite business is a coop, and you didn’t even know it!
Say the thing you’ve been afraid to say out loud. Right now. To whoever is listening.
What in your world never seems to add up? What phenomena are you always lacking answers for? How can you shift your understanding of something you’ve always taken for granted by giving it a label and tracing its motives?
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Image by Eren Li via Pexels