Exploring the similarities between budget culture and diet culture
Healthy Rich founder Dana Miranda joined Virginia Sole-Smith on the Burnt Toast podcast to discuss how budget culture really isn’t that different from diet culture.
Blog writer: Carson Kohler has been writing for the web since 2016. Based in Arlington, Virginia, she is currently a writer at a national news organization.
Categorizing food as good or bad. Counting calories. Exercising to “reward” yourself in food. Skipping meals.
All of these unhealthy habits point to diet culture.
Diet culture rewards restriction and deprivation and promotes an unhealthy idea about wellness. It tells us how we should eat — down to the calorie — and what we should look like.
So what does that have to do with personal finance? Surprisingly, a lot.
Budgeting, in particular, is built around the same set of unhealthy ideals. It rewards restriction and deprivation and promotes an unhealthy idea about money. Budget culture tells us how we should spend (or not spend) our money — down to the dollar — and what “rich” looks like.
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In this episode, Dana digs into the problem with personal finance advice, highlights the similarities between budget culture and diet culture, and shares strategies to break free of this unhealthy mindset.
The problem with personal finance advice
Dana stepped — or more so stumbled — into personal finance in 2015. She was looking for a full-time writing job and joined a personal finance media startup.
She didn’t have any real knowledge of personal finance. She grew up in a working-class family, and they didn’t discuss money. In her 20s, when she was freelancing and earning $12,000 a year, she admits she just buried her head when it came to money. It was easier that way.
In that role, Dana found she enjoyed writing — while also learning alongside her readers — about personal finance. But she began wrestling with a problematic trend.
“The space is pretty much 100% dominated by middle-class, cis, white, straight men,” Dana says. “So all of the advice we're getting is really just coming from that perspective, and it's leaving out so many people.”
She began chewing on an idea she ultimately coined “budget culture,” a damaging set of beliefs around money that rewards restriction and deprivation and promotes an unhealthy ideal of financial success.
The similarities between budget culture and diet culture
One of the biggest parallels Dana sees between budget culture and diet culture is this myth that there’s a right way and a wrong way. Everyone just has to follow a set of guidelines, and they’ll be rich and thin. Simple!
As soon as you figure this out, you’ll be happy. All of your problems will be solved. (Not.)
That’s another thing: There’s this assumed goal that everyone wants to be rich (or, with diet culture, thin). But that’s not everyone’s goal. And this begs the question: What’s rich enough? What’s thin enough? The bar continually moves toward unattainability.
“All these things people just assume are the right goals,” Dana says. “But if you start to examine them, there’s actually a lot of problems with them. Money advice can be really damaging or, at best, useless for a lot of people because [the rules] just don’t apply.”
Here’s why budgeting just doesn’t work
There’s very little research around budgeting, so it’s hard to pinpoint the specific problem, but Dana hypothesizes that, like dieting, it’s the whole restriction element.
When you’re budgeting, you spend so much time thinking about money, tracking money, restricting money. It makes your day-to-day difficult — and you constantly feel guilty when you spend.
Then, when you veer off course — make an “unnecessary” purchase or spend too much in one category — you’re tempted to start your whole budgeting journey over… or just quit.
And even if you aren’t actively budgeting, you might notice this mindset thanks to budget culture. It’s ingrained in much of our society.
There are popular budgeting apps and methods out there that might work for some people. You Need a Budget, for example, has a cult following. The 50/30/20 method is also popular because it applies specific spending percentages per category versus dollar amounts.
But even so, guilt permeates these strategies. You’ll also notice this in diet culture with popular weight-loss programs like Noom or Weight Watchers.
“Everyone is well-intentioned, but because we’re not questioning the premise of budget culture from the beginning, it just continues to perpetuate,” Dana says.
elephant $5 latte in the room
Like diet culture, there’s an element of privilege prevalent in budget culture. (See: middle-class, cis, straight, white men).
“What I find frustrating is I don’t think a lot of personal finance experts and teachers are trying to hide their privilege,” Dana says. “I think they’re just completely unaware of it. They expect they can just give that advice to anyone in any situation and think, ‘Well, you can overcome your circumstances and do the same thing,’ without understanding the difference.”
Here’s a classic example of privilege seeping into their advice: Stop spending $5 on a latte.
“Yeah, you could do that and save up for a vacation — if you already have the privilege of secure housing and food,” Dana explains. “If you’re already operating from a base of privilege, then cutting out one indulgence to free up some fun money makes some degree of sense, but if you don’t have all those things in place, the latte advice is useless and feels laden with so much judgment.”
What about the single mother? The working-class parents raising a family of four? The student? The Black professional? A disabled person?
When Dana was earning $12,000 a year as a freelancer, she had debt she was ignoring, and she was completely strapped for money. Cutting out a couple of items from her spending wouldn’t have helped her make ends meet.
Breaking up with budget culture
With diet culture, Virginia said she actively encourages people to break up with dieting. Divest from the culture.
Breaking up with budget culture is a similar process.
“There’s so much mindset work you have to do,” Dana says. “The simplest answer… is being mindful and understanding how you’re using your money.”
This can be scary for some people, Dana acknowledges. Money feels finite, and you may wonder what happens when you eventually run out of money.
But Dana says, as someone who was having to constantly shuffle money around to pay bills and make ends meet, money really isn’t as finite as it seems.
For example, there’s a lot of low-interest debt you can set to the side and deal with later. Or maybe you don’t need to improve your credit score right now. It might not need to be a priority.
“The idea is to let go of the rules and the methods and be more conscious of how you’re using money,” Dana says. “It’s not just about spending. It’s about how money fits into your life.”
Image by Chevanon Photography via Pexels