One day Ganesha and Kartikeya, the two sons of Lord Shiva and Parvati, decided to have a race. They decided that the one who circled the world three times and came back first would be declared as the winner.
Kartikeya leapt on his peacock, and flew across the continents, mountains and oceans. He went around the world thrice.
But Ganesha simply walked around his parents, Shiva and Parvati, three times, with great devotion. When his parents asked him why he was not circling the globe, he answered – My parents, Shiva and Parvati are the whole world. Within them is the entire universe. I need to go no further.
Ganesha won the race!
The World Vs My World – Who Gets To Set The Rules Of The Game
Now that you know what happened and who won the race, let’s take a step back answer what would you do if you were to judge this race:
- Who according to you, is the winner?
- Did Ganesha “cheat” his way to victory?
- Who gets to set the rules of the game?
In answering these questions, lies the answer to some of the glaring assumptions people make when giving out personal finance advice. It exposes how you think about the concept of “absolute truth” and “subjective truth.” The boundaries of “right” and “wrong” get blurred.
Have you ever wondered if the advice you are listening to aligns with your “worldview”? Are you listening to advice that arises out of a certain view of life that may not be in line with yours? How do you discern if the advice is still valid and applicable to you?
Let’s question some deeply perpetuated and popular opinions to see if they should be taken at face value.
1. FIRE Movement – Follow Me And I Will Set You Free
The more I read about the FIRE movement I see a pattern that seems to emerge over and over.
Everybody seems to believe their view of money, wealth creation and a meaningful life is the “absolute truth” and those who can’t see it are somehow missing this wonderful opportunity in their lives.
This belief seems to stem from the following assumptions:
- Having a 9-5 job forces you to trade time for money. Hence you need to pursue FIRE and own your time.
- People with a 9-5 job lack a purpose or mission in their lives. Hence they need to be liberated.
- If you pursue a 9-5 job, you can’t have a fulfilling life.
There is clearly a fundamental divide in the way the vast majority of people want to live their lives vs. the way the FIRE community expects them to be.It is almost as if people in the FIRE community have taken it upon themselves to “liberate” those "stuck" in a 9-5 job. It’s become the modern day's white man’s burden. Click To Tweet
We Aren’t Selling You Anything, Except…
Why is that in spite of so much drum rolling and countless blog posts, podcasts, high profile conferences and books written on FIRE, people still roll their eyes when they hear about it?
Why don’t they believe it’s possible for them too?
My initial response was, maybe their addiction to consumerism or their unending relationship with debt was the culprit.
But if we exclude them, we still have a lot of people who aren’t very excited when they hear about FIRE. They are skeptics.This a large segment of the US population, which simply doesn’t understand how leaving the rat race of consumerism to jump to another race (not necessarily a bad one, but nonetheless a race) to pursue FIRE is right for their life. Click To Tweet
So they try to look at this whole movement with disbelief. They can’t come to terms with the fact that people willing to forgo so much today to achieve FIRE in the future and then live life on their own terms.
As sad as it might sound, not everyone in this crowd is ready for that kind of freedom. It’s like handing someone the nuclear codes when they haven’t ever pulled a trigger in their life.
It can be scary. It’s from this fear that the disbelief originates and prevents these people from ever jumping the ship. They are never gonna take that leap of faith.
So instead of understanding where people are coming from and why they are the way they are, some people in the FIRE community seem to be very eager to “sell” them the FIRE Dream.
There is no shortage of the FIRE sales folks.
Some want to sell your their ebooks on “Secret Steps to Becoming a Millionaire” in return for your email ids, while others want to sell you a blogging course that will take your blog to the “Next Level” and help you retire early.Who needs an active income, it’s for the mere mortals. Let’s earn some passive income baby!! After all, we are pursuing FIRE. Drink the kool-aid and you'll be fine! Click To Tweet
Can I See Your FIRE Badge Please?
If there is anything that has changed for the 9-5 people because of the FIRE movement, it’s got to be this.
More and more people with a 9-5 job are now forced to find reasons to dislike them and look for reasons to quit them.
The subtle passive aggressive way in which FIRE folks come after the 9-5 job folks is truly mind blowing.
Did you say you’re passionate about your job? Are you sure? Are absolutely sure? What if you could still do it but <insert the catch phrase> in this way?
Who needs subtle hints. Let’s be direct!
So you’ve got drop everything you’re doing and find a reason to quit your 9-5 job. The FIRE crowd will take care of the paperwork!
They will guide you to achieve Nirvana. And remember, it has been achieved before <insert the magical age> or else yours might be considered as late FIRE.
If you missed the dead line and FIREd late, you could risk the chance of being tagged as “Traditional Retiree.” Awww!! That’s awful.
But if you did get the memo and somehow managed to reach FIRE, you could be still waiting for your “FIRE Badge” to arrive.
Depending on the size of your nest egg or the style in which you achieved FIRE, you could earn one of these badges:
- Fat FIRE
- Lean FIRE
- Barista FIRE
- <Insert The Hip Word> FIRE
All of this makes me wonder why we don’t stop to question:
- What if there is more than one way to achieve Nirvana?
- Who gets to decide what’s the right path to reach Nirvana?
- Is pursuing FIRE forcing me to join another form of “rat race”?
- Is the sacrifice (often extreme) to pursue FIRE worth it?
- Am I ready to deal with the “freedom” that’s handed down to me?
2. You Aren’t Wealthy Because You Aren’t Working Hard Enough
We all start our lives at different points and overcome various hurdles to reach an individual economic status in society.
Unfortunately, the presence of systemic hurdles makes the journey harder for individual sections of the demographic.
So even though they may all want to reach the same endpoint, what it takes to get there isn’t the same.
It appears as though that talking about systemic inequalities and what it takes to overcome them, is frowned upon in the PF community.If you complain about being born into poverty or belonging to a race that puts you at a disadvantage compared to others, you are bound to be termed "lazy" or accused of playing the "victim" card. Click To Tweet
They will go to any length to discredit the fact that there is any systemic inequality at all.
Acknowledging it forces them to admit the privilege they may be enjoying for decades or centuries. It also means they cannot take credit for their own achievements, to the extent they would have liked to.
This is very disturbing since it makes people turn a blind eye towards these real societal problems.
We cannot really be doling out advice to these people, the same way we do it for people who are not disadvantaged or those with a better socio-economic background.
So when we set the same benchmarks of success to everyone but fail to acknowledge the hurdles people have to cross, to “join the club,” it is unfair.
It’s unfair to those who have to play the game but the rules were not set taking them into account.
According to the data published by inequality.org, this inequality manifests in different forms.
The following data throws more insights into how systemic hurdles have increased inequality in wealth. Let’s look at some startling figures from the study.
1. Median Wealth By Race
The median White family has 41 times more wealth than the median Black family and 22 times more wealth than the median Latino family.
If the trajectory of the past three decades continues, by 2050 the median White family will have $174,000 of wealth, while Latino median wealth will be $8,600 and Black median wealth will be $600.
The median Black family is on track to reach zero wealth by 2082!
2. Families With Zero Or Negative Networth
Black and Latino families are much more likely to be in this precarious situation.
The proportion of Black families with zero or negative wealth rose by 8.5 percent to 37 percent between 1983 and 2016. Although there was an increase in the net worth of Latino families in the last 3 decades, it’s still very small compared to the white families.
3. Home Ownership Is Heavily Skewed Towards White Families
In 2016, 72 percent of White families owned their home, compared to just 44 percent of Black families.
Between 1983 and 2016, Latino homeownership increased by a dramatic nearly 40 percent, but it remains far below the rate for Whites, at just 45 percent.
4. Likelihood of having 1 Million Dollars or Zero/Negative net worth
Of all the stats that I saw, this one really drives the point home.
No matter how much people from these communities try, the likelihood of them ending up with a very high net worth of 1 Million dollars or more is very low compared to a white family.
5. Lack Of Affordable Quality Education To Low-Income Families
A new National College Access Network analysis shows that students are right to be concerned: Affordability is decreasing at two- and four-year public institutions, whose mission is to provide a postsecondary pathway to benefit individuals and the public at large. In 2016-17, just 48% of community colleges in our sample were affordable for the average Pell Grant recipient, according to NCAN’s affordability formula. Only 27% of four-year public institutions were affordable.
It is beyond doubt that there is very clear systemic inequality in wealth and it also shows how this is almost impossible to catch up for people from certain races like Black and Latinos, even if they ended up putting more efforts.
So when I hear people in the personal finance community make comments like:
- Stop playing the victim card
- Anyone can make it if they just work a little harder
The comments come across as ill informed and incredibly insensitive towards those who are really trying hard to cross the hurdles.It's not as if the people in these communities want to be where they are and enjoy their socio-economic status. They certainly want to see economic mobility. But if there are systemic hurdles, we need systemic solutions to fix them. Click To Tweet
It’s a really insightful observation, one that everyone in the PF community needs to acknowledge.
Changes in individual behavior will not close the racial wealth divide, only structural systemic policy change can do that. We need to stop expecting people to fix problems at an individual level when they are actually systemic in nature.courtesy: https://inequality.org/
Are the rules of the game fair? Are they enforced in a just manner? Are they geared to favor a few in the society?
3. One Size Fits All Approach To Personal Finance
One of my pet peeves of personal finance is that, they all seem to resemble some sort of “commandments” that cannot be violated.
There is baggage of rigidity and an undercurrent of “consistency” and “uniformity” in every advice that’s given out.
It often derives its roots from the stories the person (giving the advice) grew up with. It also has a lot to do with the belief system he or she subscribes to.If you come from a world-view that believes in "absolute truth" and not "subjective truth", you are more likely to dole out advice that is also very rigid and prescriptive in nature. Click To Tweet
It often resembles following a set of steps in a specific order and sticking to it very religiously. If you observe carefully, you’ll notice a pattern.
Case #1: If you happen to subscribe to a worldview of marriage where it is merely a legal contract between two individuals and they are entering this partnership to achieve a shared goal, your approach to finances will reflect that.
In this case, marriage is just a part of your finances.
You could be very skeptical of combining your finances with that of your spouse and choose to keep them separate.
You’d be very cautious to protect your assets you bring into the marriage either by signing a prenup or discuss at length with your potential partner before the marriage.
It’s coming from the world-view that a marriage is merely a contract and nothing beyond it. Your strongest lever to hold the marriage together is to make your finances work well. Failing to do so, is bound to spell damage!
Every decision you make might be viewed from a lens of profit or loss and not from what’s best for the marriage.
In fact, you may be choosing your life partner solely based on whether or not they have the same beliefs on money as you or not.
Although there is nothing wrong with this approach, taking such an approach seems extremely short-sighted since it tends to overlook a lot of other qualities in a life partner which are required to make a marriage successful.
So be very mindful of this when you are either searching for a potential partner. Let this not be a blind spot and force you into a relationship that’s biased towards just one trait of a person.
Case #2: If you subscribe to a worldview of marriage is that it’s not merely as a legal contract but a promise that one individual makes to another to be with them no matter what, your finances will reflect that.
In this case, your finances are simply a part of the marriage and not the other way around. It’s a big deal since the decisions are not merely viewed from a lens of profit or loss but also based on the people involved and ultimately what works best for the marriage.
A couple with this world-view may take decisions that aren’t necessarily the best financial decisions but nonetheless works best for their marriage.
It might be the decision to have a certain number of kids or have no kids at all, live in an HCOL area, driving a particular car, etc.
They are more likely going to combine their finances since it’s just another aspect of their marriage. Only like they share everything else in their marriage, their finances get merged as well.
There is no “yours” or “Mine,” it’s “Ours.”
What you’ve just witnessed is what I consider the conflict of two world-views. When we don’t understand the context of a financial decision, we can often be tempted to judge other people’s choices as “stupid” or “naive.”
They are both perfectly valid and will server best, for the ones who believe in them. It all boils down to what someone views as “worthy” enough to pursue.
You might also notice how this conflict plays out in other areas of personal finance as well. Some of them include no right or wrong answers.
- Should you rent or buy a house?
- Is it wrong to use leverage to build wealth?
- What is the right way to pay off debt?
- Should you DIY your investments or hire an investment advisor?
- Should you do index investing or go with actively managed funds?
With this thought in mind, I want you to question if the advice you receive in personal finance is biased as well?
- If there is no absolute truth in the world, why are we so adamant on finding one in personal finance?
- Why do we struggle so much to make peace with people having a different worldview of money than ours?
- Why is it that everyone’s blueprint for building wealth should look identical or follow a similar path?
- Where does this desire to enforce uniformity stem from?
I would love to hear your thoughts on these topics. Share them in the comments.