While listening to the Marketplace Podcast the other day, there was discussion that led me to this article posted at The Atlantic titled The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans.
It is one man’s honest story about how he is part of the 47% of Americans that would not be able to come up with $400 in the event of an emergency. It’s a frank and controversial cautionary tale about one man’s financial impotence. The author, Neal Gabler, is a college graduate, published author of several books, journalist, movie critic and teacher. He’s written television scripts, published hundreds of articles, and even sold movie rights a biography on gossip columnist Walter Winchell to Martin Scorsese. Mr. Gabler and his wife own a home and have two adult daughters. From an outside prospective, it would seem like Mr. Gabler is very successful and living the American dream. However, that’s far from the truth.
Mr. Gabler admits to being broke to the point of having $5 in his bank account, waiting desperately for his next paycheck to arrive. He’s had creditors coming after him for money. He’s been sued for not meeting a writing deadline after collecting an advance. He’s had to borrow money from his adult daughters because he ran out of heating oil. Mr. Gabler is financially impotent. He can't properly provide for himself nor his family.
Mr. Gabler shares that he is now admitting his problems because he realizes that he is not alone - that millions of other Americans of all income ranges also struggle to make ends meet. Studies consistently find that when people come across new money, whether a bonus, tax refund, or inheritance – people are more likely to spend it than to save it. I’ve noticed this same phenomenon myself.
People regularly share with me how much debt they have, how they are struggling to pay their bills or pay down their credit card debt. Yet these are the same people I often see driving around in flashy luxury cars (often leased), eating out at restaurants regularly (often daily), or buying the newest gadget. These are definitely the same people who always have the newest iPhone.
Studies quoted by the article indicate that almost half of Americans are “financially fragile” and barely getting by. A Bankrate survey in 2014 found that only 38% of Americans could cover a $1,000 emergency room visit, or a $500 car repair with money in their savings account. The Pew Charitable Trust in 2015 found that 55% of households didn’t have enough savings to replace a month of lost income and that 71% of people were concerned about having enough money to cover everyday expenses. Nearly 30% of Americans don’t save any of their income for retirement.
Mr. Gabler admits making poor financial choices, which has led to his financial impotence. As a writer who could live anywhere in the world with lower costs of living, he chose to live in New York. He utilized credit cards often, and would regularly only pay the minimum amount due, leaving a balance that incurred high interest fees. Him and his wife bought a co-op apartment in Brooklyn. They paid to send their two daughters to private schools, because they wanted to “keep up with the Joneses’ children.” Before selling their co-op apartment, they bought another house in East Hampton. They were barely getting by and then added a second mortgage. Mr. Gabler handled all the household finances, keeping his wife in the dark about how financially unstable the family was. Since Mr. & Mrs. Gabler never saved enough, they could not afford to send their daughters to college. The grandparents ended up paying for most of the college expenses. As if the poor financial choices could not get any worse, they emptied their 401K to pay for their younger daughter’s wedding. WTF?!
In the end, the author pretty much blames much of his poor financial state on the fact that his income did not grow steadily over time. He also admits that he is a financial ignoramus. His solution is to live as frugally as possible and work seven days a week. The author drives an old Toyota with 160,000 miles on it. They haven’t taken a vacation in 10 years. They claim to eat out once every 2 to 3 months. They don’t go to the movies, they shop sales and count pennies. Seems like he regrets the decisions he’s made and accepts that this isn’t a “rough patch” in his life but may be the way his life is permanently going to be.
While it’s easy to read this guy’s story and feel sorry for him, it reminds me about another post I recently read by Financial Samurai titled Financial Independence: Maybe You Don’t Want It Bad Enough. Financial Samurai tells it like it is. To quote directly from his post, “Being a debt welcher demonstrates bad character. If you’re not willing to scrub toilets, drive a car, get up at 5am to work extra hours, or flip burgers to pay your debts or get out of a bad financial situation, then you are going blame the world for your problems until you die”.
Financial Samurai goes on to say that "if you want to be free, put in the extra work today, and every day until you get there!"
Mr. Gabler made a ton of financial mistakes that have left him financially impotent. Seems like the Gabler family made as many financial blunders as possible. I’ve noticed that people who feel like it’s impossible to save up enough for retirement simply give up and don’t bother starting to save at all. They spend all the money they make, and then spend even more on credit. They hope that everything is just going to magically work out on its own.
It’s a good thing that no one in the Gabler family had any health issues and they did not go through divorce. While he did sacrifice to provide for his daughters’ education, him and his wife may end up being a burden on their children who will probably have to support them when they can no longer work. Will he be able to catch a break with increased hard work and more savings? Maybe. But putting the blame on others won’t get him anywhere. You can read the article here.
Are you financially impotent or financially capable?
Edit: What can the Gabler family do now? First, Mr. & Mrs. Gabler should put their pride behind them. No one is entitled to a rich life. They should start hustling for more money on the side. They should also immediately start to save in their emergency fund. If they put 5% to 10% of their income into a separate account, in no time they’ll have a healthy emergency fund (hopefully it’ll be more than $400). There is a limit to how much they can save, but no limit to how much they can earn. Now that their daughters are out of the home, they can consider turning the empty rooms into Airbnb rentals. Or even sell the house and move to a community with a lower cost of living. Mrs. Gabler is not “overqualified” for less prestigious work – she should be able to find a lower paying job. The daughters should realize the sacrifices their parents made that helped them become successful – and maybe consider helping their parents to alleviate their financial burdens.
Anyways, everyone’s personal financial situation is different. It’s a good thing Mr. Gabler can recognize the mistakes that he’s made. Better to start turning things around sooner than later. It takes real effort to be successful and to maintain success.