(Oops, sorry, no such person exists)
Almost all financial advice is written by people with money for people with money. There’s no such a thing as a financial advisor for the working class: There’s no money in it.
Oh, there are people who claim to be offering advice to working class people. You could always purchase a Dave Ramsey book if you want to read some advice from someone who lives a vulgar life of decadence thanks to wringing pennies from the poor. His schtick consists mostly of “no shit, Sherlock” ideas with a side of weird and questionable advice, like not even having credit cards.
I’m not a financial advisor, but I’ll share my thoughts.
Your problem is not coffee or avocado toast.
It might be – prepare for a shocker – that you just don’t make enough money. My household income has been all over the place through the years (except upper class) and you know what? I’m a lot better at managing my money when I have enough to manage!
We could admit that the bottom half of Americans are simply paid too little to get ahead, but that would mean changing our tax laws, strengthening unions, providing single-payer health care and other things the wealthy do not want us to do. It’s much easier to shame people for even occasionally indulging in something not strictly necessary to maintain life.
What in the hell are you doing, eating canned beans instead of dried beans! Do you think you’re Elon Musk or what? You must cut out the luxury of pre-cooked beans right now if you wish to get ahead!
Go ahead and use your credit card for everything.
I do, and I have been doing so for decades. I have it set up to be paid off in full automatically each month, and get significant cash-back rewards that every so often allow me to purchase an item for “free.”
When my daughter started her master’s degree, she and her then-spouse had to scrape up the funds to buy a small used second car so she could get to class. Moving the car seat from car to car each day was a pain in the butt. If you’ve ever had to do it, you know.
I wasn’t in great financial shape either, but I had enough of a cash-back bonus built up to have a second car seat shipped straight to her house. Of all the purchases I’ve been able to make with cash-back money, that one stands out. I felt so good about being able to lift that burden.
Credit cards allow you to see a complete list of everything you’ve spent money on. When I carry cash, it seems to evaporate from my pocket. Where did it all go? Well, if I used a credit card, I don’t have to wonder. I know. I can call up the info online and see every purchase.
“Oh, that’s right. I had to get four new tires. And pay for my root canal. And take the dog to the vet. It doesn’t feel great to be broke, but at least I know I didn’t blow any money.”
If you have a tendency to blow money when you use a credit card, this advice is not for you. But it’s still good to have one for emergencies, renting hotel rooms and so forth.
Do read financial news.
You might have to look at it backward. When I read that a retailer is facing hard times, I don’t call my broker and order her to sell my stock. Ha! But I might decide now is the time to see if they have something I need on sale.
Financial literacy is good for everyone. You’ll know what you need to know for later on, when, one hopes, you’ll have more options.
Rethink self care.
Yes, you are allowed to have the fancy coffee once in a while. The working class is not obligated to live in an unheated attic dressed in rags and living on gruel.
You are not an orphan in a Charles Dickens novel.
That said, “Treat yourself!” and “You deserve self-care!” are marketing tactics. How much, exactly, are you spending each month on things like coffee, fast food, having your nails done, purchasing new clothes you don’t truly need, etc.?
The best self-care is to have stable finances, so find a balance. Self-care doesn’t have to mean buying a damned thing.
You can instead take care of yourself by taking a long bath, taking a walk with a friend, reading a library book or making a really good cup of coffee inexpensively at home.
Pro tip: Your best bet is to pay attention to who stands to make a profit from your choices. Nobody is spending marketing dollars suggesting you walk your dog or cook for yourself at home. But I’m suggesting it, and I’ll make $0.00 if you do it.
Think three times before making a long-term financial commitment. A little indulgence like a new bottle of perfume is a one-time thing. Beware more of continuing costs that you’ll pay for month after month, like streaming services or other subscriptions. You can only watch so much TV. Pay for just one streaming service at a time and switch it up a couple of times per year.
Take advantage of all the free stuff in your community.
Libraries and public parks are such great deals! Do you live where you can hike for free? Is there free or cheap wilderness camping available? Ask around. Most communities have great opportunities like this.
Your tax dollars support all kinds of things like this. Take advantage of them.
Be a low-maintenance person with your own style.
You do not have to purchase a whole new wardrobe every season. I wear the same black clothes year after year. I honestly don’t think anybody but me cares very much what I’m wearing. I probably can’t convince everyone to develop their own personal style based on vintage clothes or to eschew style altogether, but I’ll give it a try:
Even when I was young and single, I never had even one man seem to give a shit that I wore a simple wardrobe.
I don’t remember any female friend ever caring what I wore, either. I mean, I’m not saying to dress in rags or to wear things that are inappropriate for the occasion. Yes, take ripped and stained clothes out of your rotation. Wear a suit to interviews and funerals. Put on something glitzier for big nights out. But I’m convinced that unless you take things to an extreme, 99 percent of the time, the only person who will even notice your clothing is you.
If it’s important to you to be noticed, do something dramatic with your hair instead of with your clothes. I let mine go gray and grew it very long. Somebody asks me if it’s my real hair almost every single time I go out. I’m assuming they mean it in a good way, but maybe not!
Yes, try to put together an emergency fund.
It may take you a while. It did me. If you can’t save money, be honest with yourself. Write down every penny coming into and going out of your house. Did you spend quite a lot of money at restaurants and bars? Or did everything go to rent/mortgage, utilities, basic groceries and other necessities? Maybe you’re not doing anything wrong. Maybe the real problem is that you are just not paid enough.
I’m not going to tell you to simply get another job that pays more. You know your situation best. This may be the best job available to you at this time. Or maybe there’s something you can do to improve your position, like getting some kind of certification, changing fields, whatever. Maybe you can start a side hustle or maybe you’re already doing everything you can. If you’re already exhausted, starting your own business might not be practical.
Maybe things will be easier at a foreseeable time in the future. If the cost of daycare is breaking you but your child is going to start school next year, hang on by your fingernails and know that you’ll have a lot more discretionary income later. If you’re going to be eligible for a raise after a probationary period, focus on that.
But yes, save money whenever you’re in a position to do so.
Shit happens and will always happen. Emergency funds make emergencies less shitty.
Stay close to your friends and family.
How close? If you’re in a precarious housing situation, and if you have others with whom you get along well, it’s worth considering joining forces to save on rent and utilities. Could you move in with someone or have them move in with you?
If you’re a young adult and you and your parents get along well, don’t feel like you have to move out just because you’ve hit a certain age.
My son moved back home for a couple of years at one point. He paid off his student loans and his car. He built up a solid emergency fund and put aside enough money to purchase good furniture. When he moved back out, he was in a much better position than the one he was in when he moved in.
When you put everything you would have paid toward rent, food and utilities toward car and student loan payments, you can make multiple payments each month. I forget which one he paid off first, but once it was out of the way, he put everything toward the other one.
He still paid for his own cell phone, insurance and whatnot, and he acted like and was treated like a responsible housemate. It wouldn’t have worked if he had acted like or been treated like a high school kid.
Ignore the advice of privileged people who do not understand your life.
You will hear people say you “just have to live within your means” and this is great advice for people who make a reasonably good salary.
So good freaking luck finding housing that is “within your means,” especially if you are among the 50 percent of people who make less than the median.
That said, there are ways.
You’ll have to be on the lookout to find them. One thing to consider is living where housing is cheap. This is what I’ve done. You can easily purchase a decent house for less than $100K in many central Illinois communities and some other places. I have a big house, a nice yard in a quiet, safe area. It’s a walkable neighborhood near bars, restaurants, a grocery store and most municipal services.
If you work remotely and can live anywhere, it’s worth considering this option. It’s what allows me to be a writer.
You could also go for a fixer-upper, if you have the time and skills to do things like gut and remodel a bathroom. I’ve lived through multiple kitchen and bathroom remodels. The most recent one took us several years because we needed to remove half of the flooring. At one point my oven was in the parlor and you could look down through the floor joists and see the bare ground below! But the whole project cost us only about a thousand bucks. (Click that link for pictures).
Be willing to deal with dated styles for a bit, too. If everything functions well, embrace it. Content yourself with a new paint job, which is the cheapest bang for your remodeling buck.
It’s not dated, it’s vintage!
You don’t need a new car.
I drive a 20-year-old MINI, purchased second-hand when I still had a newspaper career. I wish I could get by without a car at all, but I live in a place with essentially no public transportation. My husband drives a Civic that is nearly as old. We bought it from a friend. We have no plans to trade up.
No, you don’t need an SUV or minivan, even if you have kids. I have always driven small cars, including when my kids were young. Those huge vehicles are a menace to pedestrians.
Actually “menace to pedestrians” is greatly understating things. The big vehicles with higher front ends are literally killing far more people than smaller cars do.
Smaller vehicles save both money and lives. Think about downsizing.
Learn to cook.
One of the best ways to save money is to control your food budget. Plan your menus, make a shopping list and check prices.
And then, when you get home, pull out your receipts and do some math. How many servings will you get from each meal you’re making, and what’s your cost per serving? Compare each dish. There’s likely a dramatic difference.
You might decide to eat a lot more of one thing than another in the future. More soup, less meatloaf.
Don’t buy crappy food just because it’s cheap — ramen noodles aren’t really your friend. Buy and eat the healthiest food you can afford. Poor health is very expensive.
You probably have your own favorite money-saving tips. Don’t be afraid to share your idea in a comment!
This piece originally ran on Dec. 3 on the Substack Untrickled — which is always available free. Subscribe!
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