I’m all for using traditional money-saving techniques, but the good thrifty stuff isn’t always set in stone and we regularly need to go back and re-evaluate what works and what doesn’t. In particular, some of us might benefit from letting go of a few rigid ideas, especially when we’re commenting on other people’s choices or the situations they might find themselves in.
What works for us might well not apply to someone else, and it can be hard for some to imagine the conditions that others may have to endure. Sometimes things are said in naive ignorance, and sometimes things are said in an overly forceful, condescending or even bullying way. It’s easy to make a dismissive comment, it’s much harder to properly examine and research the statistics, or understand the nuances of a variety of different individual circumstances.
There’s an increasing lack of empathy from some quarters that can be downright chilling, as is the use of blanket terms to demonise whole groups – these are not wise, kind or helpful words, and if they aren’t factually correct then that’s certainly not ‘telling it like it is’ or ‘just being honest’. They can harm more than they help, plus they misdirect our attention and let the wrong people and institutions off the hook.
Times have changed too, even if some advice holds true
What we experienced ten, 15 or 20 years ago that helped us to form our own personal opinions may well not apply to the current year because times have definitely changed. Society is different, the workplace is different, wages are different, careers are different, education and qualifications are different (especially how we now pay for them), relative affordability has changed (the proportions of house prices, utility bills, and more), and marketing is more sophisticated.
Not everything that worked for me when I was an 18-year-old student is going to work for a new 18-year-old student this year, for example. Yes, it helps to monitor your spending, yes, it’s a good idea try to create and stick to a budget, and yes, it’s best to try to avoid a lot of high-interest borrowing if at all possible. That still holds true, but would I always begrudge a recent graduate the occasional posh cup of coffee? I don’t know what their exact circumstances are, or what the coffee even means to them when you put it into context with the rest of their day, week or month.
Many of the most toxic comments take a ‘should…should…should…’ format, and when I see those I’ve started to take a step back to think around the subject a little more. Here are a couple of things I’ve heard or read recently that made me raise an eyebrow, and I think they need to be scrutinised and unpacked:
“Millennials should STOP doing X, Y and Z…”
I’ve seen quite a few remarks from the wealthy and people from the Baby Boomer generation making broad pronouncements about younger people, often in a hectoring, blaming and shaming way. Do they really need to be so hostile to their workers, their customers, or even their own grandkids?
The Millenials are not a homogeneous group, and someone born in 1985 is likely to think and act very differently compared with a randomly chosen person who was born in 1999. Also, collectively they have worse prospects than the generations that came before them – it’s unheard of in living history, but just because you haven’t heard of something doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. It’s easy to pick at minor, possibly negative, habits and miss the big picture.
An Australian property developer millionaire recently said that “a lot of [young] people won’t own a house in their lifetime. That is just the reality,” and then followed on with “Absolutely, when you’re spending $40 a day on smashed avocados and coffees and not working. Of course”. While I’m sure quite a few people are irresponsible with their day to day spending, I don’t think that applies to everyone in this age bracket – and most importantly, Statement B is not the most likely cause of Statement A.
So let’s step away from that, and look at some of the many possibilities surrounding those plates of avocado toast:
– Maybe those young people you see having brunch in that restaurant or cafe are wealthy and can comfortably afford the food. For all you know, they already own property as well. You don’t know anything about them, apart from ‘they look young’ and ‘they ordered avocado toast’.
– It could be a special occasion, or a payday treat. Why assume they do this sort of thing every day?
– They might be having an informal business meeting, or entertaining media influencers or clients. This could be smart business sense for all we know.
– They could be trying to be seen in the right place, by the right people. This is common advice given out to people who are aspirational in their personal lives, or trying to get ahead in the world of work. Whether it’s good advice or not, I couldn’t tell you, but I’ve had it said to me several times by different people over the years.
– It is possible that they can’t afford the avocado toast, and are wasting their money when they could be cutting back a bit here and there and maybe saving up a decent amount too. Let’s be honest here, some people will fit the stereotype. But it doesn’t mean it’s true for everyone.
– Maybe they’ve given up on being able to afford property, and have reallocated their budgets and lifestyles accordingly. If the average starter home in this city costs thirteen times the average graduate salary, and the job market is unstable, maybe that option’s completely off the table for at least the next few years, and priorities are therefore very different?
Or does it all simply translate as ‘How dare young people do anything fun, even as a one off? I deserve everything I have (no mention of the massive financial help this guy got from his family) and I’m a hard worker – everyone else is just lazy! If you’re having a hard time then it must be 100% your own fault!’
Is it all just nastiness and blame masquerading as concern? It’s entirely possible that the ‘advice’ isn’t actionable in a meaningful way for everyone concerned, and that’s not the only situation where you might find it.
“She should be making slow cooker dinners / roasting a whole chicken…”
Here’s another one: running a household. It goes without saying that there are plenty of ways to cut your grocery bills, but conventional wisdom isn’t always wise and again this can come down to an empathy gap or a lack of understanding about the circumstances of others. For example:
– Slow cooker meals can be great, but what if you’re not even in the situation to afford a slow cooker?
– Slow cooker meals can be great, but what if you’re in cramped accommodation and there’s no room for a slow cooker?
– Slow cooker meals can be great, but what if you’re on a card meter and you’re terrified about the electricity being cut off? The same goes for cooking up soaked dried lentils, chick peas and beans – fuel is relatively more expensive than it used to be, taking up a larger proportion of our essential household bills, especially so if you’re forced into a pay as you go situation which costs even more.
– Bulk cooking can be great, but what if you have no freezer or no oven? Basic or sub-standard accommodation is a fact of life for many, many people in the UK.
– Roasting a whole chicken can be great, but is it worth it if you live on your own?
– Roasting a whole chicken can be great, but what if there’s nowhere to safely store it after you’ve cooked it?
– Roasting a whole chicken can be great, but what if you’re sick of leftover roast chicken, or you only really like one part of the chicken?
– Cooking everything from scratch can be great, but what if you work shifts or long hours or have three jobs and you come home late and you’re starving? In-work poverty is more prevalent in the UK than out-of-work poverty – something has to give if you’re exhausted and hungry, and you can’t have egg on toast every night.
– Cooking everything from scratch can be great, but what if everyone in your household is working long hours? A lot of the advice that’s dished out harks back to the days when men were relatively well-paid breadwinners and women were housewives, so the woman’s time was traded off instead of money, but most mums have paid jobs now and that time is simply not available to them (and why are women getting the brunt of these snotty remarks anyway?).
– Experimenting with cheaper cuts of meat and new recipes can be great, but what if your kids won’t eat it and there’s no money to buy other food after that? With real food poverty people tend to become highly risk averse, aiming for full bellies and no waste instead of the riskier ‘great value’, so behaviour change comes with a possible opportunity-cost as well as possible benefits. If you haven’t been in that situation yourself, chances are you won’t understand the fear.
– Switching from brands to supermarket basic ranges can be great, but what if you’re already using the basic ranges and their prices have mostly doubled in a relatively short period of time? Food inflation is hitting low-income households harder proportionally.
All this barely scratches the surface, but the picture is genuinely complicated. I’ve benefited greatly over the years from people who’ve been supportive and offered practical advice, and I do think that we all need to take responsibility for our budgets and behaviours – if something’s a treat and you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it, so don’t buy it. On the other hand though, many situations are not always as they seem from the outside looking in, and circumstances are not always within the control of each individual.
The general world of thrift has always had a few miserly types in it, as well as the more generous and helpful folks. Things are very difficult for large swathes of the UK population right now and they look set to get worse, so let’s not become any more mean spirited in our outlook or remarks, or stingy with our fact checking. It’s easy to get like that, but it’s also lazy and pointlessly harmful, and I think we can do better.
Have you been given any old-fashioned advice about money that doesn’t apply to your real life? What’s the most annoying thing you’ve heard or read about recently?