Let's be honest: Personal finance writers can sometimes cross the line into shaming or guilting readers. They might, for example, make saving sound a lot easier than it is. It's hard to harness the power of compound interest if you're living paycheck to paycheck or struggling to find a job. The last thing you need in times like those is a lecture about how you're irresponsible.
Of course, cliches can have truth to them. Unless you want to work through your golden years, you'll need to embrace some of that tried-and-true advice sooner or later. And following many maxims or wisdoms (e.g., that everyone should set up a Roth IRA) can actually be pretty easy.
But there's also a lot of snake oil out there, not to mention advice that's outright patronizing and condescending. Here are three of the biggest myths around about why you're broke — plus advice on how to identify and overcome the real factors holding you back from financial freedom. No shaming necessary.
1. Your morning coffee is making you poor.
An oft-repeated tip in personal finance is that your daily latte habit is making you poor: If only you had bought stock with the money you spend on your morning coffee, you'd be kicking it in the Florida sunshine already!
The idea is tantalizing. Personal finance writer David Bach popularized it in his 1999 book Smart Women Finish Rich, in which he asked, "Are you latte-ing away your financial future?" In the book, Bach estimates that by forgoing a $5 daily Starbucks habit, you save $2,000 a year. If you invested all that money instead of drinking it up, you'd have $2 million by the time you were 65.
But as money writer Helaine Olen has written, Bach's math is suspect. Even the largest available latte at Starbucks costs around $4, which means even the most indulgent coffee habit would set you back about $1,460 a year.
In addition to rounding up the cost of coffee, Bach also uses overly optimistic stock market returns to make his $2 million formula work. The market rarely returns 11%, as he says it does, Olen points out. Indeed, a study by NerdWallet estimated investors shouldn't count on returns of more than 5% to 7%. Factor in taxes and inflation, and Bach's latte ban might yield only $173,000 by age 65, Olen wrote. And run the numbers using the actual average cost of a cup of coffee — around $3 — and the nest egg shrinks to just $50,000 over 30 years.
If you're not a morning person, $60 a month doesn't even seem like an unreasonable amount of money to spend, and it's certainly not going to be one of the bigger line-items in your household budget — in our sample budget, a lavish latte diet would fall right between booze and kitty litter.
The coffee metaphor works if you're trying to explain that a little bit goes a long way, but there are probably going to be far fatter expenses in your budget that are more ripe for trimming: like energy costs, your cable bill or securing a monthly payment on your student loans (expert tip: consider refinancing).
Better yet, find ways to save without cutting "anything" at all — by shopping smarter: Avoid purchasing stuff when you're hungry and are likely to overspend, play the seasons so you always get stuff on sale, and buy used.
2. You lack financial literacy.
Big banks, economists and governments alike tout the benefits of improving financial literacy. The United States even has a "National Financial Literacy Month" in April. And, of course, promoting financial literacy is a worthy goal: Only 14% of Americans get all five of these foundational money questions right on the first try, suggesting financial education could stand to be improved significantly.
But how helpful is it, really, when folks like Harvard historian Niall Ferguson point out that it's a "well-established fact" most people are ignorant about finance? Focusing on financial ignorance can sometimes verge on victim blaming — insinuating it's a failure to grasp the mechanics of interest rates that's behind your current state of broke-ness.
In reality, even educated people get swindled out of their hard-earned cash through no fault of their own. And it's not just scammers or petty thieves causing problems. Financial services firms are incentivized to blame financial illiteracy for people's money woes: If their clients aren't financially savvy, then it's not the firm's fault for, say, making borrowers sign agreements more than 5,000 words long, full of confusing catches, caveats and "gotchas."
Ignorance might even be overstated, a University of Pennsylvania professor found after working undercover at a check-cashing store in the Bronx in New York City. She saw that vulnerable groups often turn to alternative financial services because they can actually be cheaper than big banks at times. These folks weren't financially illiterate: quite the opposite.
You're probably savvier with money than you think you are. Be sure to read all contracts you sign carefully, and learn a few simple tips to help you protect yourself from identity theft. Report any unfair or misleading statements to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which tracks common complaints so you know which service providers to avoid.
If you feel you need a human expert to advise you on your money questions, you can always hire someone certified to help and simply pay them by the hour. But the truth is, you can often trust your gut. Don't let financial literacy shaming get you down, or make you complacent about taking control of your money.
You don't need an expert to explain to you that earning interest on your savings account is good for you, or that paying off a loan more quickly will lead to savings. If your current bank isn't doing enough for you, the current environment of rising interest rates creates the perfect opportunity to shop around for a no-fee interest-earning account.
3. You aren't "hustling" enough.
Startups and entrepreneurs are especially enamored with the idea of millennial hustle, but as Jia Tolentino pointed out in the New Yorker, the growth of the side-hustle industry has a dark side. It shows that "9-to-5" jobs are a rarer commodity — and they don't necessarily cover the bills like they used to.
One of the more alarming examples of just how much people are hustling? Try a pregnant woman who continued accepting Lyft passengers even as she went into labor. That was a story Lyft felt was worthy of a post on the company blog, but, as Tolentino notes, it is no badge of honor if your "quasi-employees" pass up urgent medical care for the extra $11 that a typical ride yields.
The truth is, Americans already forgo a lot of leisure time and work very hard, harder than many other developed countries: The OECD estimates that people in the United States work an extra 10 hours a week compared with Germans, for example.
Young Americans are also working longer hours. In 1992, the typical graduate of the Wharton School expected to work 58 hours a week after graduation. Those are pretty long hours — almost 12 hours a day, five days a week. But by 2012, that number had grown to a whopping 72 hours per week.
So you may not actually need to work harder — you might just need to work "smarter." It's a shame that 658 million vacation days go unused every year in the U.S. Taking breaks is healthy, and can actually make you more productive. So if your boss is sending you mixed messages about whether it's okay to take a vacation, remember they may just be anxious about what your absence will do to their own workload.
By getting a colleague to cover for you or closing the loop on a project before you ask for time off, you increase the likelihood that your boss will give the okay. And if a vacation doesn't squash that sinking feeling that you're slaving away for naught? Consider changing gigs to kick yourself out of your rut.
If you're ready for more money and more happiness, avoid the "spray-and-pray" approach of spamming your resume to everyone in your contacts list. To find your dream job, career experts suggest sending a few thoughtful inquiries to a select group of people.
And you can enjoy that latte in the meantime.
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