Want to have a quick lesson in real-life economics? Check out the May issue of The Atlantic and read Neal Gabler’s essay, “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans,” in which he summarizes the financial plight of many Americans – which is enlightening enough – but then boldly summarizes his own life and the mistakes he’s made that helped lead to his rather precarious financial position. I admire his candor and plan to share it with all three of my children because his story reads like a what-not-to-do manual. If you ever wonder how someone who makes good money can become a financial mess, this is the article to read. Gabler did virtually everything wrong, and though I suspect there are many other people who’ve gone down similar paths, he may have undermined his argument by lumping his experience into those millions of Americans who’ve done everything right yet still find themselves in financial dire straight. Gabler has no such claim.
(After you finish the article, scan through the comments section over a glass of wine or two or three – some are critical, some are empathetic, some are self-righteous, but nearly all are illuminating.)
The essay begins with frightening statistics about American’s lack of savings, lack of liquidity and lack of assets. Nearly half of Americans couldn’t cover a $1000 emergency room visit or $500 car repair out of their own pockets. This should scare the hell out of all of us, because how long can a society thrive and survive when half its population is “financially fragile”? These are real problems with real ramifications, no matter what your financial situation, and I suspect it’s why we find ourselves in such a heated and unexpected political campaign this year.
But then Gabler takes the courageous step of telling us his story, and in it he comes clean. He writes, “I am a financial illiterate, or worse—an ignoramus.” He’s not joking, and it’s troubling because he – like many Americans – not only hasn’t learned from his mistakes, he seems determined not to learn from them, as if being financially illiterate is a condition instead of a choice. In a world where TV and radio have made mini-celebrities out of financial self-help gurus like Suzy Orman, Dave Ramsey and Clark Howard, there’s no excuse not to become at least somewhat educated on financial matters. It’s as important – hell, it’s more important – than learning how to swim or throw a curve ball or learn a Bach prelude.
As parents we need to do much more to help our kids grow up to be financially-functioning adults. I’m going to do my part by forwarding Gabler’s article to my kids and I encourage you to do the same, but I also recognize that the odds of them actually reading the article are low. So next week I’m going to write a quick summary of financial no-brainers that I hope encapsulates all the what-not-to-do’s that Gabler did (and probably many he did not do) and then discuss it with my kids over dinner. Stay tuned for part two...