Pound Foolish By Helaine Owen

What if a lot of personal finance experts want to make you feel guilty? What if a lot of personal finance experts think it’s your fault you’re not rich? What if a lot of personal finance experts think daily joys will bankrupt you?

Slate recently ran a great excerpt from a book called Pound Foolish: Exposing The Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry by Helaine Olen. Helaine has an interesting idea: That a lot of personal finance experts–the Dave Ramseys and Suze Ormans of our world–are too quick to blame ordinary people like you and me for financial failings. That it’s okay to treat yourself to clothes or fancy espressos. And that, most importantly, a whole load of structural changes to the American economy make it much harder for ordinary people to save, invest, buy homes, and support their families.

Olen is right… kind of.

I remember that my parents had a CD when I was younger. That CD was in the 1990s, when certificates of deposit–as low-risk and safe an investment as you can possibly imagine–offered approximately 4.5% interest for a six-month investment. As of January 2016, Bankrate.com says the average six-month CD offers a staggeringly depressing 0.16%.

Let’s not even talk about sky-high real estate prices in many cities and suburbs these days. Let’s not talk about not being able to afford property that’s in easy commuting distance of city jobs.

Olen says personal finance gurus are too quick to blame individuals. She says they don’t criticize a system which makes good financial choices so difficult. It’s hard to disagree with a lot of that. I know for myself, it’s a real disappointment to hear Dave Ramsey froth at the mouth and be mean to people on his show who just want to make a positive change.

With that said, we live in an imperfect system. Even if the cards are stacked against saving money, making more money at work, and living a better life, we can still improve our own personal odds. The stock market might be like gambling, savings account interest rates might be terrible, and saving for the down payment to buy a house or car is much harder than it was in the past. But we can make our lives better.

The first step–whether we’re fighting for political advocacy to make things better or trying to improve our own chances–is just being aware. Be smart about money, spend your money wisely, make sure you’re being paid what your worth (and start side hustles if your employer won’t pay you what your worth), and crucially… make sure you are only buying things that matter to you or that you need.

It might be a crooked poker game, but the only way to win is to know the cards in your hand.