you vs. the economy

blog_economy_word_map_july_2011My wife and I were driving to visit family the other day, and we were listening to the radio.  NPR, naturally (have I said we’re hipsters?).  They were reporting on the economy and whether or not the “average American” had felt as if we have recovered from the depths of the financial crisis.  Being as that I love listening to and discussing anything even tangentially related to money, economics, or finance, I tuned in.  And well, I feel for those people in the country (and world) who have lost jobs, struggled, and been hit the hardest by “the great recession.”  I’ve got family members who have been in and out of work for years now.*  I suffered through a lengthy unemployment myself.  But, at what point do we place blame on the person, and not “the economy?”  If the economy is down, it’s you vs. the economy, right?

I don’t ask this because I enjoy getting hate mail and want people to think I’m some nut job, or because I “blame the victim,” but because something in this story stuck with me.  They were speaking with a 40-year-old mother of two from Arkansas, a “prime aged worker” aged 25-54, who had been out of work for some time.  She used to be a teacher and licensed respiratory therapist, but “as the economy tanked, the work dried up and she is still out of work.”

One of the first audio clips they played was of this mother saying “We’re doing everything we possibly can to save every single dollar just so we can eat and pay our bills and buy gasoline.”  Almost instinctively, my first thought was “you’re probably not.”  I know, I’m a jerk.  But hear me out.

The next clip of hers- “I don’t go out and buy anything just because I want them … we have to be really careful.”  Okay.  I might be missing some sympathy gene here, but doesn’t everybody do this?  So when employed, you were going out and buying anything you wanted?  And now you’re lamenting the fact that you can no longer do this?   And that you aren’t adequately prepared to live off of one salary?  I know a few people that go out and buy things just because they want them.  And if something were to happen to their current income streams, they will probably find themselves SOL, with no one else to blame.  So, needless to say, I didn’t hear this statement on the radio and go “awwww.  Sad face.”  I don’t think I’m inherently employable.  I’m glad to have a job, but I also take care to ensure that if I lose my job, we’re ready to face a lengthy unemployment.  I know a lot of you all do the same.  I also take steps to ensure that I have valuable skills that translate across industries.  I try educate myself on anything I don’t have a solid grasp on.  I network.  Generally speaking, I work to better myself so that were I to lose my job, I would hopefully be able to land another.

She then stated that they don’t go out to eat “as much.”  So they still go out to eat, but they’re doing everything they can to save every single dollar?  There’s a disconnect there.  I understand she has kids, and they still need to go out.  But wouldn’t once a month suffice, maybe at somewhere inexpensive, like Ci-Ci’s Pizza, or somewhere that “Kids Eat Free?”

The report ended on an “inspiring” note, with this mother explaining under what circumstances she would consider herself recovered.

“I think that my family is learning how to survive in the economy now,” she says. “If in the near future, I’m lucky and I get a job at a living wage … then I think that the recovery may be possible. I might be able to see that light.”

I’m really not trying to pick on this lady, because I would imagine she is a great person, and a caring mother and wife.  And I know their struggles are real.  But EVERYONE is learning how to survive in the economy now.  Technology increases exponentially, costing jobs.  New sweeping laws are passed that impact 1/6 of the entire economy.  Companies that didn’t exist 5 years ago on technology that didn’t exist 5 years ago are now worth millions of dollars.  Everyone is learning to survive in the new economy everyday.  It’s actually a pretty well-known evolutionary theory, much applicable to business and finance in my opinion.  In addition, her husband still has a job.  Half the bloggers I know survive on one salary.

And that brings me to the phrase “living wage.”  The subtext here is that a minimum wage job won’t do.  I’m not here to discuss that, except to admit that minimum wage is not much.  But it is what it is.  Her skills, education, training, and experience might make her worth much more than minimum wage in her mind.  But right now, that isn’t what the market dictates.  Say she could find work as a grocery store cashier while still searching for a new job at a “living wage.”  Would not an extra $200 per week be helpful?  Yes, it would suck to have to take some job at $8/hour that you feel is beneath you.  But I know that when I was going on my 5th month of unemployment, I was applying EVERYWHERE and for ANYTHING.  I had a Master’s and was applying to stock the shelves at Wal-Mart.  That is the honest to God truth.  So here’s what really inspired me to write this.  Yes, the economy isn’t great.  But are you?  Are you striving for greatness?  You can’t turn down jobs and say that you are doing everything you can to survive.  I’m not saying she isn’t applying to them.  And I’m not saying she’s been offered these lower paying jobs.  But if she isn’t applying for anything to which she is remotely qualified, she is in essence, turning them down.  Maybe she’s being honest here.  Or maybe she knows it would sound terrible if she said she was still just looking at jobs that she felt were worthy of her.  I want to believe her, and I have no reason not to, but I still find it hard.

Can you say you’re doing everything you can out of one side of your mouth, and then flatly admit you aren’t out of the other?  How many times have you spoken to someone who claims to be doing “all they can” in regards to a particular situation, but after speaking to them for a few moments, you realize they are not doing everything in their power, but only those things they are comfortable with?  Or people who waste money everyday because YOLO or some other stupid garbage?

It might be uncomfortable sticking with a budget, but you do it because you know things can change in the blink of an eye.  You read more to increase your knowledge.  You work harder.  You advance your education.  You take free classes at the community center to learn new skills.  You find ways to make yourself invaluable to your employer.  Basically, you do things that suck hard ass sometimes, because you know that while they might not matter now, they could one day.

Now, I know that the program didn’t provide nearly enough information to determine what this woman was doing right, and what she was doing wrong.  I was just using her as an example, as unfair as it might seem.  If she were to read this, I hope she would know I’m honestly not picking on her, and would do what I could to help her-  budget, craft a resume or cover letter, prep for interviews, and search for jobs.  I sincerely mean that.  And I also didn’t mean for this to serve as some sort of platform for the discussion of unemployment in America.  Simply to discuss that personal finance includes preparation, effort, and adaptation.

I know I’ve had help in getting to where I’m at.  I’m also fortunate that I have a job.  But when it’s you vs. the economy, you have to do everything to make sure you come out on top.

*She sounds very much like a close cousin of mine, who after 2 years of unemployment finally applied at Home Depot.  I have no idea what took him so long aside from his pride.

Am I being unfair here?  Do you agree?  Do you feel like you have to do everything you can when it’s you vs. the economy?



  1. I don’t think you’re being unfair. Some people truly don’t get the fact that they have to completely let go of their old lifestyle and buckle down when something like this happens. When my dad lost his job, we never went out to eat, but my parents refused to consider quitting smoking, they didn’t get rid of cable, and sadly after some time, my dad gave up on applying to jobs (he did apply to retail places).

    They thought they were cutting down, but in reality, there was a lot more they could have been doing. Maybe it’s a mindset thing: trimming your budget means facing the cold reality of being unemployed. I guess with parents, they also want to be able to provide certain things for their kids, like a night out. There’s other alternatives though, as you pointed out.
    E.M. recently posted…Going the DIY Route: Fixing the CarMy Profile

    • That’s a rough situation to have to watch your folks go through EM. The cousin I referenced above still made a bunch of dumb lifestyle choices, even though money was clearly an issue. I think a lot of people admit that things need to change when their situation changes, but they don’t want to take the hard action required to implement those changes.

  2. It’s kind of unfair to judge someone’s predicament based on the small amount of information the media stories provide. But yes, I’ll admit I do the same exact thing. And many times I do think that the people in the stories may not be doing EVERYTHING possible when it’s you vs. the economy. When I worked in housing court, I noticed many who couldn’t afford to rent yet, had nicer clothes, cellphones, and other stuff than I did…if you’re in such dire straits…then don’t spend on frivolous things. Granted I didn’t know their personal stories and just judged them based on what I saw.
    Andrew@LivingRichCheaply recently posted…Are You (Financially) Better Off Than Your Parents?My Profile

    • I do think it’s unfair to judge someone based on the small, highly selective portion the radio might have selected from what she said. She may have talked for ten minutes for all I know, and those 15 seconds are what made it to air. I will say I think if you commit to being interviewed for a national radio segment, you must know you’re opening yourself up to criticism, as unjust as it is.

  3. Ryan tell us how you really feel. You know I agree with your points. Did u get the job at Walmart, we could’ve been coworkers. recently posted…What It Means To Be Poor In AmericaMy Profile

    • Ha! I tried to be as gentle as I could. This interview ran on Super Bowl Sunday, I wrote this post the next day, and just have been working on it since. I was a little hesitant to post it, even. And unfortunately, no, I didn’t get hired by Wal-Mart. I would have enjoyed working with you, I’m sure. I didn’t hear back as to why, but I’m going to keep telling myself it was because I was over-qualified. Anything to help me sleep, right?

  4. LOVE this, Ryan. We have SEVERAL family members and friends in similar situations (and we used to be “them”, so no judgment here), and to this day, they can’t understand for the life of them why life is so unfair to them. It makes me so sad, but from my experience, it seems to be the rule and not the exception. :-(
    Laurie @thefrugalfarmer recently posted…Steps To Self-Sufficiency and Why They’re Important to UsMy Profile

    • I was in those shoes as well Laurie. I agree with you, it makes me sad too, but it does seem to be the rule and not the exception. Lifestyle changes are hard to make- it’s understandable why they don’t get made, even when they need to.

  5. It depends on the person, but there are A LOT of people who spend like crazy when they’re working and fail to prepare for a job loss, etc. I know a lot of people like this myself. It’s hard to tell with the limited information you’ve put here, but she might be one of those people. It’s often easier to blame the system then it is to take a look at your own decisions.
    Holly@ClubThrifty recently posted…Social Finance: Responsibility and ProfitMy Profile

    • It is hard to know if she did and is doing what she can, which is why I added that little caveat- I didn’t want it to seem like I was making these judgments and drawing conclusions based on all the facts when I definitely didn’t have them (I tried to remain non-conclusive, as much I could). I know a lot of people that do this, and hell, I even used to be one of them. But there are many convenient scapegoats for people who are their own worst enemy.

  6. I think there are definitely exceptions to the rule, but I have to agree with this. I also tend to judge people and say “really?” which is horrible because I am in debt, and no financial pillar of the community. It can be kind of hypocritical depending. That being said, when I was done my schooling I applied for A LOT OF JOBS!!! And some of them were technically beneath my education, and some of them were better fits, but I was willing to take anything really. I needed to. I didn’t have luxury of waiting around for the perfect job (did I mention how much I love Emergency Funds now?).

    Disclaimer: I am Canadian and we weren’t hit nearly as hard by the downturn in 2009, so I might not be the best example.
    Alicia recently posted…Loans I Hate Giving.My Profile

    • I definitely think there can be some hypocracy, and I’m sure I’m guilty of it too, Alicia, so don’t feel bad. But like you, I was applying for and willing to take anything. The job I took 4 years ago was beneath my education and experience, but I needed a job. I think there are some exceptions to the rule, but they are exceptions and you have to search for them. And I am a big fan of emergency funds too!

  7. I agree. Of course we don’t know this woman’s life, but I would have taken the same logical leaps that you did. I had a “friend” that always complained about having no money for her student loans and her lifestyle (shopping at target all the time). I told her about my side hustles (mystery shopping, babysitting) and encouraged her to find a side hustle. Her answer was that she didn’t want to do anything outside of her normal 9-5 work hours and she didn’t want to give up any of her time on the weekends. It took everything in me to not say, “Well, then stop complaining about having no money.”

    The entitlement just confuses me to no end. I know a lot of people that think the rules of the world don’t apply to them for some reason. How could she think she could make extra money without putting in any effort? *oh well*

    Thanks for the post–sorry for the vent :)

  8. I don’t think you’re being unfair at all. Pride is something that literally gets people killed and as unfortunate as it is some people have to hit rock bottom or be smacked in the face until they realize the error of their ways.
    Marvin recently posted…Wealth Brick Weekend Update #1My Profile

  9. I try not to judge either, but the fact is there is ALWAYS room for improvement on your finances it just means tough decisions. My financial planner mantra is from the Rolling Stones “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” It is just a fact of life and not a sob story. Most financially successful people that I know do not in fact have high incomes, they make smart and difficult choices.
    Shannon @ Financially Blonde recently posted…7 Tips to Raising a Financially Fit KidMy Profile

    • Haha! I love that Shannon. But you’re spot on. There are a lot of things I want that I don’t get for one reason or another, but the typical reason is that they cost more than they are worth in terms of money and future financial security. But I think a lot of people believe they should be able to get everything they want, and feel as though it’s unfair they can’t.

  10. I agree and disagree.

    I was recently offered a part time gig at $13/hour (significantly above minimum wage) and I turned it down because I know I’m worth more than that. Then again, I don’t have children and I have an emergency fund and side hustles that allow me to do that.
    Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life recently posted…The Price of Being LastMy Profile

  11. I love this article Ryan and totally agree. Even for me, I’m working hard yes, but I’ll fully admit to not doing “everything I can” to get really far ahead. If I did I would not be living in LA and I would most certainly have a roommate. So I won’t feed anyone that crap, however, if I got really desperate, believe you/me I’d be stepping up my game. I just read this article today which outraged me: What I hate most about this article is the victim mentality. That she thinks that she is destined to be poor forever. And because she thinks that, she is exactly right. I loathe the victim mentality. I admit that times are tough, and way tougher and maybe even unfair to some people out there, but what are you gonna do? Settle? Not me. I’m going to fight kicking and screaming!
    Tonya@Budget and the Beach recently posted…My Frugal Year…My Profile

    • Thanks Tonya! And I’ll be the first to admit it as well. There are certain improvements I know I could make in my budget that would save a few more dollars. But I’m ready in case something happens like a job loss or anything, and like you I would work my butt off if it did happen.

      Oh! Don’t feel too bad about that article. It turns out that chick was just a huge fraud-

      -so you can feel a little better now. But life can totally be unfair, and some people may be dealt a crappy hand, but I think a lot more people just aren’t willing to commit to those hard changes.

  12. Nailed. It.

    “Yes, the economy isn’t great. But are you? Are you striving for greatness? You can’t turn down jobs and say that you are doing everything you can to survive.”

    I’ve said something similar time and time again to people, especially when I hear recent college grads say they can’t get a job! No, you just can’t get the job you thought you’d get right out of college… When I first moved to NYC, as a college graduate, I was working my day job in entertainment, babysitting on the side and then picked up a gig at Starbucks to help cover my bills. About a year later (after I was no longer at Starbucks) I was talking to a friend and mentioned being a barista just to make ends meet.

    She said, “Why? Couldn’t your parents just give you money?!” This enraged me on several levels. Truthfully, they could’ve easily supported my living in NYC but why should they have to? Why shouldn’t I be getting whatever job I needed (minimum wage or otherwise) to survive on my own? My time at Starbucks as a kid fresh out of college in the “big city” was incredibly humbling and the $9 an hour and food I could take home after closing meant I was able to make it on my own without parental welfare.
    Broke Millennial recently posted…Roommates: A (possible) Financial NightmareMy Profile

    • I think a lot of it is special snowflake syndrome, where each person feels like they are unique and special. I can only imagine how angry someone saying something like that to me would have made me. I actually did some work in construction when I was unemployed (after getting my grad degree) when one of the guys there asked me if I was a felon, because he didn’t understand why else I would be doing construction. I had to tell him no, because while economy sucks, I need some money. I hated doing it, but I would do it again in a heart beat. It’s awesome that you were able to survive without your parents because you had that work ethic and pride. It’s harder when the parents are the one lacking those attributes.

  13. I’m very similar to you Ryan. I hear or read similar articles about families struggling right now and also wonder if they are REALLY doing everything they can. I do know it’s hard out there for a lot of people and definitely don’t want to judge. I think in my case I’m a little biased because of what I see in my husband’s family. I have in-laws who are about to lose a job and are up to their eyes in debt claiming they are doing everything to “cut back” but when asked how much their cable bill is the answer is $200 a month. I have a problem with that.
    Kay recently posted…What’s the Difference Between an ETF and a Mutual Fund?My Profile

    • I’m right there with you Kay. It’s hard not to judge, but that’s the curse of knowledge, right? I have family members who do the same thing- out of work, but still smoking, drinking wine, watching cable- living like nothing has changed. Outwardly they appear fine, but it’s really just a sham. A house of cards, if you will. There is no wizard with them, just an empty bank account behind the curtain.

  14. This is so spot on. It’s really up to you to change, not the economy.
    Shaun Hoobler recently posted…recipe secrets couponMy Profile

  15. It’s hard to completely understand people’s whole situation from an article or a news report, so I always do my best not to judge.. That said, there is definitely some truth in the “victim” mentality that many folks seem to have.

    If god forbid I lost my job and was struggling to pay my mortgage, I would start delivering pizzas at night and working another job during the days, until I could find work again.

    I guess “whatever it takes” means different things to different people.
    jefferson recently posted…Taekwondo For Kids: Worth the High Cost?My Profile

    • I try not to judge, too (although I’m sometimes more successful than others). I think it’s difficult for a lot of people who run PF sites because they likely have been in a similar, if not the exact same position. But I’m just like you, I would do anything I could in order to provide for my family. But you’re right, “whatever it takes” really should be followed by a caveat for some people… “whatever it takes (if it isn’t too hard).”

  16. I don’t know that lady’s personal situation so I can’t comment on that, but I can comment on several similar situations I’ve seen with people around me (who shall remain nameless). It’s easy to blame others or the president or the economy for your problems. Much easier than applying for a job cleaning toilets or waiting tables (I’ve done both). Despite a “bad economy” I know I’ll never go hungry because I’m willing to do just about anything to keep food on my table and a roof over my head. It might not be fun or enjoyable, but I know I can do it. Unfortunately (in my opinion) not everyone has that same mentality. When push comes to shove nobody cares about my ivy league master degree, they just need someone who can do the job (whatever the job may be).
    KK @ student debt survivor recently posted…The Best $200 I Ever SpentMy Profile

    • I don’t know her personal situation either, aside from the small portion presented in the segment. It likely was unfair to single her out, because I was generalizing a bit. But you and I sound similar KK, because I was a waiter after getting my MA from one of the top institutions in the country for my field. It needed to be done, so I did it. The situation presented by NPR just seems to be all too common these days, at least to me.

  17. I think there are so many factors preventing people from getting jobs that we can’t always accurately assess the situation. However, I do think that most people don’t want to do “whatever it takes” to get a job. After my master’s degree, I worked at minimum wage and just above for what seemed like a long time. With a great degree, and tons of debt. But I knew no one else would save me. I was also on food stamps at this time, which was so freaking humbling for me. I am finally where I ‘want to be’ and doing much better than 2 years ago.
    Dear Debt recently posted…It was all a lieMy Profile

  18. I think you are correct in asking “are you doing everything you can to get out of debt?” but the only one that can really answer that is ourselves. We really can’t change anyone else…but it never hurts to keep asking the question because the right people will hear it when they are good and ready. Plus, as you say you can never know for sure what other people’s circumstances are completely.

    But, in sort of answer to your other question, is it fair to say it’s “Us against the Economy?” I don’t believe that is true. I think the better question is, “it’s us again US.” We are biggest helper or our biggest enemy. I’m old enough to have lived through several boom times and several depressions/recessions and it really didn’t matter much what was going on in the economy–but it mattered A LOT what was going on with me!
    Kathy @ SMART Living recently posted…Five Ways To Slay The Succubus of Crippling DebtMy Profile

  19. Our economy in Canada is okay.. not great not horrible right now. I don’t think anybody is doing EVERYTHING they can – there are always more jobs to pick up, more ways to protect yourself. I’m recession-proofing myself pretty well though.
    Daisy @ Prairie Eco Thrifter recently posted…Focusing on My Health — Not My WeightMy Profile

  20. I used to be this woman ten years ago. I had a job but spent more than I earned and thought I was doing the best I could. It was only after I started reading financial blogs that I learnt how to manage my money. However, the change only came after I decided to learn how to live within my means, through reading blogs and attending financial literacy classes at church. Am I glad I did so!


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