There’s a person I meet every time I write about money. A sanctimonious, self-righteous, arrogant, uncaring and unsympathetic eel of a person who I sure hope never encounters any kind of unpredictable financial event in their lives. Because I assure you, no one will have any sympathy for this high-priest of money.
I am really, really sick of The Person. And, I am sure, this person is really sick.
“What were they thinking??!” writes the person, in a shrieking voice of faux incredulity that’s so high-pierced I can hear the cackling through the keyboard. “Why did they take out that loan/go to that school/buy that car/have that child/eat that second potato chip/have that feeling?” And with all the self-serving judgement-alism that can be mustered over high-speed bandwidth, the underlying message couldn’t be more clear.
“I WOULD NEVER DO THAT.”
If The Person had an ounce of self-awareness, she or he would be able admit the next sentence running through their head and heart is, “There, I feel so much better about myself.”
Remember that thing we were all taught to stop doing in Kindergarten – make ourselves feel better by attacking other people in different circumstances than us? For some reason that scholars are sure to debate for centuries, early 21st Century America has managed to erase this basic tenet of humanity from so many people, particularly when it comes to issues of money.
America has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to invent this wonderful communications technology we know as the Internet. Sadly, it is now used mainly to focus petty, judgmental energy into intense rays of darkness that seek out victims the way the Death Star seeks out rebel planets.
“I have NO sympathy for this person,” The Person can’t help but write, about someone he has never met, will never meet, and about whom he knows 0.0001% of their life circumstances.
OK, I have a name for The Person. It’s the polite version.
See, implied in every sanctimonious cruel utterance is that warm, fuzzy feeling that comes with thinking, “This could never happen to me.” Why else would someone bother to say such a thing? I mean, if you think the story of someone suffering financial difficulty is bogus, you could just move along pretending nothing has happened, the way one ignores a homeless beggar on the street. But no, Sucker has to stop and yell mean things at the person having misfortune. This gives Sucker a “high” of some kind. Yelling at a beggar. (Yup, that’s you, if I’m getting you angry right now. Especially if you are angrily typing something like, “But you should have seen the new sneakers that beggar was wearing!)
Back to the name, Sucker. Yelling at a beggar would only make you mean and cruel. What makes this person a Sucker? Let me tell you.
The financial services industry. Because you know what makes people spend money stupidly? Men in white shirts who steal your money through commissions while telling you how much smarter you are than people who have money trouble. Nothing separates suckers from their money faster than that “in the club” feeling. So, hahaha, you are the one who bought that great life insurance plan because you are so much smarter than that old couple you read about who took out student loans in their 40s looking for a better life. How dumb they are! And how smart you are. There is nothing easier than turning someone’s self-righteousness against them.
Even if you aren’t paying someone else to feel good about your money, you probably are and don’t know it. You probably are so busy laughing at poor people that you don’t realize you are getting killed in 401(k) fees or through dumb payroll deductions. Or by your auto mechanic. Or your dentist. I promise you, everyone is getting screwed by someone, because no one has the time to be a detailed expert in every area of their lives, it’s just impossible. There but for the Grace of God goes….Everyone. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and let me tell you, the EASIEST person in the world to scam is the person who thinks they cannot be scammed.
But, high priest, Sucker of Self Righteous Commenting, you are getting screwed in a much deeper, more insidious way. You are getting screwed by the mere existence of people like Dave Ramsey. Ramsey has made millions of dollars by making it ok to be sanctimonious about money. Ramsey has declared bankruptcy himself, but no one else can. He’s so crazy that he maniacally confronts former employees who dare say bad things about him, even though he is seen as somehow seen as a great voice of Christian virtue. What is he really? One of the intellectual architects of Making America Mean Again. If you giggle self-satisfyingly to yourself about people in financial trouble, you have people like Ramsey to thank. You can thank them for America’s decidedly mean streak, where our favor civil discourse is the put-down, where we like it so much we elected an Insulter-in-Chief. Meanwhile, believe you me, Dave Ramsey is laughing all the way to the bank. People like Ramsey build their fan base and print money by churning up all those self-righteous feelings and monetizing them.
Sanctimony, you see, is big business.
Ramsey is laughing at you, not with you. So, how does that feel? Empty, I hope.
Author Helaine Olen expands on this idea much more in her great book, Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry. I asked her why sanctimony persists online.
“A lot of Americans confuse luck with smarts,” she said. “Some people are just sanctimonious self-satisfied jerks. But for most, I suspect it’s a self-defense mechanism. In a society where all too many live in constant fear of falling out of the middle — or even the upper middle -class, many people take comfort in thinking when others suffer a financial misfortune, it must be because of their behavior. if that’s not it, it could happen to them. It’s no different than thinking you’ll survive an airplane crash if you just pick the right seat.”
If you can’t help but load up on random Internet people who are struggling with student loans or credit card debt by banging away at your keyboard, your soul is really hurting. Since I meet you every time I write about money and a person’s struggle, let me, out of exasperation, offer this bit of soul-saving help. Remind yourself that rules of being a decent human means you shouldn’t judge others until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. That requirement isn’t suspended just because you are behind a keyboard, and because you’re talking about money. Ask yourself, “Why am I about to say a cruel, hurtful thing that I would never say in person? Is there something about me, instead, that’s broken?”
Then back away from the keyboard and go look in the mirror. Do this before you need help some day. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.
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