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5 money lessons I learned while writing an anti-capitalist personal finance book
Things I didn’t know I didn’t know when I proposed an inclusive, budget-free approach to financial education
Last year, I wrote a book proposal for You Don’t Need a Budget, a book investigating budget culture and introducing readers to a budget-free approach to personal finance, and I got a deal with Little, Brown Spark to publish that book.
This year, my job was to write that book, and in a couple of weeks, I’ll turn a draft in to my editor as promised.
Predictably, I didn’t write the book I proposed.
The timeline and sheer volume of content that goes into writing a book makes the process an opportunity for nonfiction authors to learn as much as it’s an opportunity to distill our knowledge and wisdom for readers.
Contrary to the confidence I displayed in the proposal, writing this book was a process of discovering what I think and feel about money after realizing the way I was thinking and writing about it for years was all wrong.
Tons of brilliant people aided in that discovery through their own work or through direct conversations with me as I wrote. As I’m preparing to turn the draft over to my editor, I’m reflecting on some key lessons that transformed this project from the book I thought I was writing to the book I needed to write.
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1. What you own isn’t truly yours
As I was researching for the book early this year, I was also working with a client to design a college course on personal finance basics — in a Christian theology department. As an atheist, I could only supply the financial education; they brought the (progressive, inclusive, don’t worry) theological perspective.
I designed a course around the budget-free fundamentals, and the only revision they asked for was to cut the “your” in references to “your money.”
I’d heard of the concept of stewardship, but mostly filtered through personal development experts, who budget-cultured it into a set of rules for using money in altruistic ways. I researched the Christian teachings of stewardship to get it right for the course, and I learned the foundational concept is simply that we don’t own resources; they’re only in our care for now.
Embracing this idea necessarily transforms your relationship with money. You might believe these resources are bestowed by whatever you believe god to be, or you might believe they’re collectively shared among humans and/or other earthly creatures — the specific spiritual interpretation doesn’t matter. The point is that resources don’t exist for you to own; they’re just available for you to carry through the world. That frees you from making financial decisions based on how they’ll best help you gain and keep money, and lets you make decisions instead based on how a money move can serve the highest good for all involved (shout-out tofor that lovely phrase!).
2. The worst-case scenario is rarely (actually) that bad
I interviewed Meredyth and Jennie Mustafa-Julock, the coaches and owners of, to share their story of leaving behind their life in L.A. and moving full-time into an RV after Meredyth left her career as a school administrator.
I wasn’t surprised to take tons of gems from a conversation with two coaches, and only a fraction of it could make it directly into the draft. One snippet that won’t be in the book but that colors the way I approach money (and everything) is the way they analyze “worst-case scenarios.”
Jennie and Meredyth teach this in their coaching practice, and they’ve had to do it to make major decisions in their own lives, too. They were, of course, terrified to make the leap from two predictable incomes and into life on the road as business partners. But they asked, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
The way they teach it, “what’s the worst that could happen” isn’t an opportunity to write a horror movie for your future. It’s an honest look into the worst likely outcome of a decision.
And that’s the key. You can imagine every decision you make following your gut could dubiously “ruin your life,” but what might actually happen? Maybe your worst-case scenario is moving into your parents’ basement or declaring bankruptcy or going to college for an extra two years or draining your savings account dry. Whatever it is, calibrate your risks toward a worst-case scenario you can get through.
Whatever decision you make today isn’t the last decision you’ll ever make. You don’t have to follow budget culture’s rules because everyone treats them like they’re the only safe bet. You can make the moves you need to take care of yourself now, and know you’ll be able to make a different decision later if you need to change your circumstances.
3. Divesting isn’t the only way to reject a system
When I committed to taking an explicit anti-capitalist stance, I struggled with how to discuss topics like investing and property ownership in the book — even though they’re the subjects of some of the most popular questions in personal finance.
I gained an important perspective from my interview with K. Kenneth Davis of The Trans Capitalist, as well as from following other Black financial educators, including Tiffany Aliche of The Budgetnista,of and Kiersten and Julien of Rich and Regular.
All of these folks speak directly to marginalized people, and they talk a lot about traditional ways of building wealth in budget culture. It’s always irked me: Why encourage people to participate in a system that intentionally hurts them?
What I learned over and over again (from asking this question directly! to people whose experiences are different from my own!) is sometimes the best way to fight a game that’s rigged to make you lose… is to win it.
Capitalism has been built and grown on the backs of Black Americans and other marginalized people for centuries. It’s working as intended when so many people face staggering, systemic inequality. If those people beat capitalism at its own game? The system is necessarily breaking — and that’s a step forward.
(That’s all in addition to the fact that constant resistance is exhausting, and people deserve a chance to rest and survive in whatever way they can. You don’t have to be an activist just because you’re oppressed.)
4. Work isn’t an ethic
I honestly conceived this book with “making money” as a prominent step to divest from budget culture. Restriction-centric budgeting advice never talks enough about the money you earn, so I thought my differentiator would be to focus more on work.
Reading Tricia Hersey’s Rest Is Resistance (another Spark title!) and other anti-racist literature, including Emma Dibiri’s What White People Can Do Next, helped me understand how that line of thinking fed directly into budget culture.
Both writers talk about how race (along with other ways of classifying people) was invented as a justification for capitalist exploitation, that believing in our need to “earn a living” feeds not just budget culture but white supremacy, patriarchy — the whole shebang.
Earning money isn’t a necessary place to start a conversation about money management, because productivity is by no means a reasonable standard for humans. My Protestant Midwestern brain has to flex hard to hold onto that truth, so I’m grateful to have these books on my shelf when I need a reminder.
Another good perspective on this, from:
5. Habits aren’t for everyone
I include a whole section in the draft about “changing your habits around money.” It’s pretty standard personal development stuff, though I include some caveats about not feeding into budget culture, etc. etc. But I had to revisit it entirely after hearing several pieces of criticism directed at popular habit-forming advice, namely the stuff from James Clear’s mega-hit book, Atomic Habits… which I cite in the draft.
An episode of thepodcast finally pushed me over the edge to revise this section. I didn’t remove it completely; habit-building advice is immensely popular because it’s encouraging and useful for a lot of people. But its typical all-or-nothing approach ignores neurodiversity.
On Autistic Culture, hosts Angela and Matt point out that autistic brains form and use the pathways that make habits differently from the ways neurotypical brains do. “Everything we do has to be a conscious effort,” says Matt. “Every action we make is somewhat deliberate — including breathing…which is why so many of us have non-obstructive sleep apnea, because we forget to breathe, because we can't even make a habit to breathe.”
I feel this truth, and I appreciate them for putting words to it (and explaining why habit-building exercises have just never clicked for me).
Turning financial behaviors into habits is a great way to make money management easier — for some people. For some of us, we instead have to find ways to build a life around how our brains work. Our culture’s obsession with habit-building is ableist and perfectionist, and advice that centers on habits is alienating and shaming for tons of people. My work is about expanding the conversation to invite in those who’ve been left out, so I expanded this section to include more diverse ways to approach money management practices.
💡 Want to have your own aha! moments about work and money?
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