Episode 77: Frugality Fables and the Poor-Shaming Grift of Financial Advice Journalism

Citations Needed | May 29, 2019 | Transcript

(Credit: @aaronlinde)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Adam: If you could support us on Patreon that’d be great. If you can afford it, please do that. If you can’t, just steal it from Reddit.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Whatever.

Nima: “How this millennial saved $1 million by age 30,” The Washington Post writes. “A Millennial Saved $100,000 With This Simple Habit,” CNBC insists. “How to save for retirement when you’re living paycheck to paycheck,” CNN confides in us. Everywhere in American media we are told, if only we engaged in simple, no nonsense discipline and budgetary constraints, we can retire at 45… if not by 35.

Adam: But what is the political objective of this popular mode of journalism? More than just generating clicks to sell investment instruments to the credulous, this genre has a distinct ideological purpose: to obscure generational poverty, largely brought on by the legacy of racism and Jim Crow and make being poor the result of a series of moral failings rather than a deliberate political regime decided on by powerful actors.

Nima: In this episode we’re going to explore the “personal finance” media industry and the corollary so-called FIRE movement — and how their poor shaming, libertarian ethos has increasingly seeped into our mainstream click-happy online press. We’ll be joined later in the show by writer and editor Miles Howard, whose work has appeared in VICE, NBC News, The Boston Globe, LA Times, The Nation, The Outline and elsewhere.

[Begin Clip]

Miles Howard: For ordinary people to reject capitalism as we know it, we have to consider ourselves worthy of economic security and dignity, right? Virtue of being human. And you know, these bootstrapping tales promote a very different idea, which is that if you’re not working hard enough, then you don’t deserve security or dignity. So whether they realize it or not, these savings heroes are letting themselves be used to promote a really insidious idea.

[End Clip]

Adam: The so-called financial media or finance media and even oftentimes mainstream corporate media loves the “personal finance” advice vertical especially when it is targeting quote unquote “millennials” and they are oftentimes insisting that if they just follow these simple strict rules, they too can retire by the age of 35.

[Begin Clip Montage]

Woman #1: We begin with retiring early, very early, not in your fifties or your sixties. A growing group of millennials are actually quitting work decades earlier.

Woman #2: With very strict budgeting, including wearing parkas inside during winter to keep the heating bills down, Hester and her husband were able to quit stressful political consulting jobs two years ago with very healthy retirement accounts in place.

Woman #3: This movement is called the Financial Independence, Retire Early or FIRE Movement and it originates in the US.

Woman #4: A millennial millionaire who lives in a tree house. You might ask why?

Woman #5: Even ditching his costly razor.

Man #1: We were saving around 70% of our income.

Man #2: Well next it’s what many people want to hear: early retirement. Tonight, a plan to make that happen. It’s pay now to play later.

Man #3: And do you dream of leaving work earlier than you ever planned for a life of leisure?

Man #4: How much do you spend a year?

Man #5: We don’t but it seems to always end up around $25,000 to $27,000 per year for the family of three.

Man #6: Plus health insurance in the low thirties, Adeney and his followers, known as Mustachians are key players in the F-I-R-E or FIRE movement, Financial Independence, Retire Early.

[End Clip Montage]

Nima: In the past couple of years this FIRE movement, which is really just a faux self-help platform for financial planning companies, has taken off and the U.S. media typically in the form of lifestyle and finance verticals uncritically eats this shit up, usually when they come in the form of self-reported anecdotes: ‘Young people able to save so well that they retire early!’

Adam: And this isn’t just in the CNBCs and Forbes’. The New York Times back last fall had an article, “How to Retire in Your 30s With $1 Million in the Bank.” The subhead read “Fed up with their high-pressure jobs, some millennials are quitting and embracing the FIRE movement. (It stands for financial independence, retire early).” The Washington Post frequently does profiles on this. CNBC and Forbes especially though are really the two biggest promoters of this vertical.

Nima: So when you look at the numbers, it’s kind of mind-blowing. Forbes alone ran about 3,600 millennial-related an targeted stories in the past 12 months; CNBC puts out a new story on millennials and money almost every day. The woman-focused fashion, culture and lifestyle site Refinery29 has its own vertical called “Money Diaries,” which it says asks “millennials how they spend their hard-earned money during a seven-day period — and we’re tracking every last dollar.”

Adam: Yeah, the site has this open call for content saying, “Calling all entrepreneurs: We want to hear from you! If you’re a freelancer or self-employed, we’d love to feature your Money Diary.” Which is sort of an invitation for people to again use this platform in this really bizarre way where they’re extensively being open and honest about how much they make but are just asserting a bunch of numbers which may or may not be real or true.

Nima: Last summer, one of the Refinery29 “Money Diaries” entries caused a bit of an online uproar. Originally headlined quote, “A Week in New York City on $25/Hour,” it documented a 21-year-old college student’s weekly spending. But the article quickly revealed, as Vox’s Eliza Brooke pointed out that quote, “that the subject does not actually live on her $25-per-hour marketing internship wages: She also receives $1,100 in allowance from her family each month, and her parents pay her $2,100 monthly rent while footing her college tuition, phone, and health insurance bills.”

Adam: And so this was roasted online. This is the more cartoonish extreme version of this. What we’re going to argue in today’s show is that this is not at all unique. This is extremely common even for profiles that have run in US News & World Report and The Washington Post that when you really dig below the surface of these stories almost always they’re stories about people who are just already rich who save some money and get slightly richer. There’s four major problems with how the financial advice vertical works, which we’re going to get into. The first is that they’re based entirely on anecdotes of kind of superhero money savers for which journalists have zero way of knowing if any of what they are saying is true. In none of these articles is there any attempt to really verify the veracity of their claims namely their acquisition of general wealth — which we’re going to call for this episode “mystery money” — which is money you get from inheritance, trust, annuities and other forms of generational wealth without a sort of déclassé to talk about and that most people don’t like to talk about because we like to all sort of view ourselves as being bootstrapped and scrappy. So this mystery money is never accounted for because the personal finances are never meaningfully interrogated even though their entire narrative is based on their personal finances.

Nima: The second problem is the net effect of this type of reporting is to turn financial problems into an individual moral failing as opposed to systemic societal problems requiring broad political solutions. The idea that being thrifty, frugal, responsible and just determined to succeed is really all that’s needed to get ahead in our society and to stay there. So never are the more systemic and structural barriers to success and opportunity part of this equation, this kind of bootstrap mythology with a crafty budget as proof of concept of how to get ahead is really all of these things are about.

Adam: Yeah, so if I looked around and said, we have a society that has $1 trillion in credit card debt in $1.5 trillion of student loan debt, the logical thing would be, ‘well, why don’t everyone who has all this debt just get together and talk about a way we can restructure our system or have massive debt forgiveness, ‘right? This was sort of be the political solution, but in lieu of that, we have this individual capitalist moralizing where, ‘No, if just collectively millions of people stop going to Starbucks this would therefore solve the problem.’

Nima: Right. Brew your coffee at home and you can retire at 28.

Adam: The third problem with this is not only is financial advice useless, as we’ll show later, for poor people it can actually be damaging, it can make them poorer. And not just in a kind of general shaming way, not just in a sort of way in which it stigmatizes people who are poor, although that’s important, but the financial history is actually generally designed, as we will discuss, to keep people who are poor poor with high banking fees and predatory subprime lending rates and other kind of exploitative regimes that don’t really make sense for low income earners.

Nima: The fourth major problem that we have identified here is the complete obfuscation, if not total omission, of the trillions of dollars, if not way more, of stolen wealth, wealth extracted from the bodies of Black people who were enslaved and whose labor and lives this country was built on. And so the idea that, you know, now, really, financial advice can be given and millennials — we see time and again — millennials as a cipher for upper middle class white people and not for black and brown people. This idea that all it takes is being a little scrappy, completely, completely ignores and covers up how this country was founded and continues to operate, which is the exploitation and extraction of wealth from black and brown communities.

Adam: Because they don’t, by and large do not have what we call mystery money. And as you’ll see when we dig through a lot of these gurus, these kinds of savings gurus, is that almost all of them, if not all of them, have mystery money and this mystery money, which was really just generational wealth, is a key component to all this and it’s a key component to why you have poverty in general. It’s important to note why there’s been an uptick in all these millennial money stories. There’s been a pretty clearly proven and defined reduction of two things for millennials, which is buying houses. Millennials aren’t buying houses as much. This generation as well as the next one, for reasons that have a lot to do with the corollary debt. And two, they’re not investing their money into financial services and there’s anxiety from groups like Fidelity or Charles Schwab even large banks like Chase or Bank of America, which make a tremendous amount of money off these investment instruments and they need to market them to millennials. And one way they do that is through CNBC and Forbes and these other kinds of financial advice vertical outlets. And that way they read the story and they come away thinking, ‘oh, I can become a millionaire if only I give, you know, Charles Schwab an investment fee of three to five percent.’

Nima: So the thing about this Financial Independence, Retire Early Movement, FIRE, in addition to being right-wing self-help gaslighting, effectively, the way that the media really boosts this movement is primarily as a way to get people to use financial services and their investment products. So at the core it’s advertising, but there’s actually more to it. The most glaring point is that all of this is based entirely on assertions by people whose brand is itself wrapped up around their wholly self-serving bootstrap narratives. So, for example, let’s take a look at someone named Grant Sabatier who has received glowing write-ups in dozens of mainstream outlets. Here’s a headline for a puff piece on him in The Washington Post. It’s this: “How this millennial saved $1 million by age 30.”

Adam: US News & World Report did virtually the same write-up around the same time, uh, with the headline “Invest Like Millennial Millionaire Grant Sabatier.” Uh, so let’s read a section from the US News puff piece. Quote:

“GRANT SABATIER KNOWS what rock bottom looks like — sleeping in your childhood bedroom with $2.26 to your name. Jobless and only avoiding homeless by the generosity of his parents (generosity which they told him would run out in three months’ time), 24-year-old Sabatier set two goals for himself: save $1 million and retire as soon as possible.”

Well, that seems very likely.

Nima: So, the article effectively paints a picture of a scrappy, can-do young buck totally hand waves away considerations of generational wealth. The fact that he was able to live with his parents for three months and that that was not a problem. You know, which I know there’s this trope we all have, which is ‘Okay, well, you don’t want to live with your parents because then you’re just mooching and yadda yadda yadda.’ But like a lot of people actually aren’t able to just live with their parents. That’s not a burden that their parents can actually take on. And so, so much of these stories also has to do with a very specific kind of familial situation.

Adam: Yeah. Okay. So you lived with your parents for three months, we’ll just kind of hand-wave that away. Um, and so we were curious about the details of Grant Sabatier who had these write-ups in The Washington Post and the US Daily News. So we emailed both of those publications, asking them if they had fact check is central claims. Neither one of them, both the editors or the journalists got back to us, after repeated attempts. But we did eventually ask Grant Sabatier himself who did get back to us and said, he said that The Washington Post did fact-check his two central claims: a) that in 2010, he had $2 in his checking account and b) that he was, as of 2015, a millionaire. Now we’re not really going to dispute the second claim that he’s a millionaire, although it’s impossible to tell where exactly that money came from. But the $2, as of 2010 is difficult to examine. He says he posted a screenshot of his bank statement from 2010 on his About page on his website, but we of course have absolutely no way of knowing if he has other bank accounts or if he just moved funds around or whatever. Again, someone who sort of takes screenshots of their bank accounts may have anticipated this kind of branding exercise. It’s not something normal people do. So here’s what he told us in a statement he said, quote, “Both of these statements were fact-checked with bank account checking, including Washington Post, who verified my actual investment statements. Also, screenshots of my bank accounts at the time. I’ve always been available on my About page since December of 2015.” So, you know, the problem with building entire stories and therefore an entire ideology around personal narratives for which there are dozens of them of varying veracity. Grant Sabatier appears to be on the, more on the somewhat plausible end of the spectrum is that we really have no way of knowing and if we take him at his word about what The Washington Post did in terms of their fact-checking, we don’t really have any way of knowing really how much money he had in his account at any given time. Uh, he claims that he got no inheritance from his parents. But again, that’s just something he’s telling us. It’s impossible to really know for sure. And this is the key component to all of these stories that people start from nothing and turning $2 into $1 million in five years is very difficult. The implication of course being, Nima, is that is that anyone can do it, that any homeless guy who has two dollars can, if he invests right, can make $1 million. You know, if he saves well and and does this kind of spartan lifestyle. But the key components of the story or just a really impossible to verify work on the kind of origin story part, we’re more or less taking his word for it. So he wants to give this stock advice about savings, fine, whatever. But he should really lead with his tremendous advantages. That should be disclosed. We should get a sense of really what is real finances are and if an ostensibly reputable publication like The Washington Post is going to repeat that they need to, they need to say, you know, ‘we detailed this and we fact checked this and we said this is indeed true’ because again, the fact that he’s white and has generational white wealth and his parents are rich is way, way, way more relevant than he’s a millennial, which is an arbitrary accident of birth, which has nothing to do with anything. And so when they say millennial millionaire, the headline should say, you know, guy who was born into a millionaire family is a millionaire. Well, okay, that’s not very remarkable.

Nima: (Laughs.) Right.

Adam: Yeah, I just think like if you had to list the labels that are relevant here, “millennial” has got to not crack the top hundred.

Nima: So, here’s the thing, for all these advice columns, the basic fact of crushing student debt and virtually stagnant wages, if not wages that have actually decreased, make many of these prescriptions for, you know, tightening your budget belt totally impossible to actually fulfill. Most personal finance gurus, aside from maybe the most blatant, you know, con artists and scammers, offer advice that is, you know, fairly reasonable for people with already large amounts of disposable income or investment portfolios or whatever, but are effectively impossible to follow and enact if your wages barely cover your expenses every month.

Adam: We’ll give you some examples of these popular blogs. So Charles Schwab has a “Financial Tips for Millennials” and they suggest increasing your 401(k) contributions while avoiding credit card debt, creating a “rainy day fund” to cover up to six months of expenses, and contributing 15-20% of your income to a retirement account, which, conveniently, Charles Schwab happens to sell. You have this very popular website called Millennial Money: “How to Start Investing” and it suggests maxing out your IRA and 401(k) contributions and investing your money in Vanguard index funds preferably by clicking on the affiliate marketing link that’s in the post.

Nima: Hey look! It’s right there! How convenient!

Adam: Right. To the Vanguard index funds that are being sold. But research shows that student debt, which has quintupled in the last 15 years, it leads to a roughly 33% reduction in long-term net worth. So even when people save money at the same rate of those who graduated with no debt. So the main key component here, which is college debt is just not really talked about. It’s sort of this non factor. And then the extent to which they try to budget it it’s given short shrift for like, you know, $100 a month or $200 a month or something unreasonable.

Nima: A really good example of this was seen in a 2018 profile of what CNBC called a “25-year-old who makes $100,000 a year and is excellent with money.” Now, this profile of this guy named Trevor Klee, actually came initially from a blog post he wrote on a site called “Budgets Are Sexy” on November 18th, 2018. It was then picked up and reposted wholesale by Business Insider just nine days later on September 27th, 2018, except Business Insider, when they posted this blog about how this guy who’s 25 years old and started his own graduate school test tutoring service, which has given him a lot of money, when Business Insider reposted it, they turned the headline from something pretty innocuous to this: “I turned my tutoring side hustle into a full-time job that makes $90,000 a year, and I have a 4-step process for just about anyone to do the same.”

Adam: That doesn’t seem like that scales very well. I like the idea that the two thirds of our global economy is people tutoring.

Nima: (Laughs.) Right. It’s like, ‘Here’s how you can do this too!’ It’s like everyone can follow this advice and become a GMAT tutor. So then this Business Insider repost blog then picked up a couple months later by CNBC and turned into an article itself. And the article is quite remarkable that, you know, it touts, “The budget breakdown of a 25-year-old who makes $100,000 a year and is excellent with money.” And so, in this profile of Trevor Klee — and I don’t want to shit on this guy because actually his own blog post is really just about his own experience it’s not about saying you should do this too. It’s just kind of like what worked for him, but in his own post, in his own words he explains that he graduated Princeton University with no debt in 2015 and he says this quote, “I had no money. I had savings, but I had no income, so I desperately needed to find people.” So, let me repeat that. This is from the CNBC article profile of this guy. It says, “I had no money. I had savings.” To most people, that wouldn’t mean you have no money.

Adam: This is the thing with this. They always do this caveat where they’re like, ‘Oh, and I also have this other thing,’ but that’s the thing. Like, the savings are the thing that makes it possible like money begets money, money makes money. That’s the whole point. That’s the problem. This is why these things don’t scale.

(Credit: CNBC Make It)

Nima: In this breakdown, the thing that actually made this blow up was an infographic that CNBC posted on Twitter along with this article. And it’s the budget breakdown, like as a pie chart, for what this guy spends every month. And it says “Typical Monthly Spending: $2,775” and it breaks it out into these ludicrous amounts that only by clicking through and actually looking at how this money is allocated does it make any sense because the article actually details it this way: his rent, which is listed at $825 a month, is only that amount because he has four roommates. So that seems to be important information in actually looking at how someone can be frugal. It’s like, you live with a ton of people, but also a lot of his expenses are shared. So the Internet costs him only $20 a month because he’s sharing it with four roommates. His cell phone is only $40 a month. Why? Because he’s still on his family’s fucking phone plan. And again, he graduated college, an Ivy League college, with no student debt. So, as Libby Watson has pointed out in an article in Splinter, this guy “makes his money by tutoring for the GMAT, LSAT and GRE. His big innovation? Charging more.” End quote. And Watson quotes the CNBC piece this way, quote:

“He owes much of his success to his own hustle. ‘You can get more money a lot of the time if you ask for it,’ he says. ‘There are other GMAT or GRE tutors who charge probably like a tenth of what I charge, or at the very least, half of what I charge. I just charged more and now I make more money.’”

Brilliant! Brilliant strategy.

Adam: Yeah. And the thing we can’t stress enough is just how much of this is about, there’s the broader racial wealth gap. Like none of this talks about how being white, for the most part, there are obviously exceptions before you yell at me, but for the most part, being white in this country is an incredible advantage from a purely generational standpoint because so much wealth was stolen from people when they work for free for 300 years. They never accumulated wealth. They never had mystery real estate. They never had mystery trusts. They never had random stocks from some mineral farm in Peru when they’re, you know, colonialist daddy did such and such and so you have a, you have a racial wealth gap in this country, which is shocking. The average white household has 16 times more wealth than the average Black household, In absolute terms, the median white household has $111,146 in wealth holdings in 2011, this is compared to the average median black household which has $7,113 and the average Latino household which has $8,343. When you factor in debt and you factor in the total amount of assets that white people have, like things they have. And so there’s never an account for that. There’s never an account for the fact that this advice may not be applicable to everyone for that reason, which gets to our final point here, which is I think really important, which is that for low income people, these money management techniques that are being pushed by these investment instrument peddling groups like Bank of America, Charles Schwab, Fidelity, they’re actually bad for poor people. They make them poorer. That low income households, if they follow these rules and there’s a piece in MarketWatch last year that was actually quite good, which we’ll have in the show notes. MarketWatch of all places, which is one of these financial rags, they basically said that low income people that it’s more than useless. It’s harmful and the reason that is is because bank fees for low balances are incredibly disproportionate. They have predatory subprime lending rates and housing discrimination against people with low credit scores. So not only is it not applicable for poor people, especially poor people of color, the self-help advice organizations, which again sort of themselves take on a kind of multilevel marketing component, can actually continue to make people poor because for the most part, and the study show is that poor people already know how to be frugal. Like poor people actually are very good at being frugal. That’s not why they’re poor. And so you can’t keep nickel dime-ing your way into wealth.

Nima: Right. That’s how they’ve survived. The common stereotype that being poor is just the result of being stupid or impulsive or careless is just total bullshit. It’s not just a matter of having no financial literacy or bad personal budgeting or weak willpower. Ann Huff Stevens, an economist and founding director of the Center for Poverty Research at UC Davis and who will soon become the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas in Austin has pointed out that “people who are living in poverty often do a better job of tracking where every dollar goes than those at higher income levels,” because, for those with lower incomes who live in poverty, “every dollar matters more for them.” Wealth isn’t built by following a few smart tips from a CNBC listicle. There are entire systems built and maintained to push communities into poverty and make escape nearly impossible. In 1915, for example — fifty years, half a century, after the end of the Civil War — Black property owners in the U.S. South held less than one-tenth of the wealth of their white counterparts. But nothing much changed for another fifty years after that. By 1965, Black people made up more than 10 percent of the American population, yet still had less than 2 percent of the wealth, and less than 0.1 percent of that wealth was invested in stocks. Deliberate government policy led to the prevention or destruction of what little wealth Black families could accumulate — racist housing restrictions and redlining are just a couple examples. Programs that purposefully built assets and wealth for white Americans from, like, the New Deal to post-World War II public policies like the GI Bill, for example, they often explicitly excluded Blacks from acquiring benefits and assistance.

Adam: There’s a 2017 Harvard study that found that 401(k) auto-enrollment plans lead to lower net worth for lower-earning workers than those with high levels of debt because they end up borrowing more money and cut back on loan payments to supplement their lost income. So, aggressively setting aside money for your 401(k) if you’re poor, costs you more money than the money you make on the 401(k).

Nima: So this is just a very different way to approach these issues than the usual CNBC claptrap of headlines like quote, “Saving for retirement depends on whether you listen to The Beatles or Bon Jovi” or “Millennial households are earning more money than ever before — here’s why it may not be enough.”

Adam: I’m going to go ahead and say the bigger predictor is your class and your race. But yes, Bon Jovi, there you go.

Nima: (Chuckles.)

Adam: Which one is it by the way?

Nima: You have to click through, Adam. You have to click through.

Adam: Oh, right. How stupid of me. I thought I could get that information without giving them ad revenue.

Nima: No. And we’re not actually going to give it on this show so you have to click through. To talk more about this we are going to be joined by writer and editor Miles Howard, whose work has appeared in outlets such as VICE, NBC News, The Boston Globe, LA Times, The Nation and The Outline. He’s going to join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by writer and editor Miles Howard. Miles, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Miles Howard: Thank you for having me. Happy to be here.

Adam: So you wrote a piece in The Outline about this phenomenon, which we really liked and I want to start off by talking about the kind of aggregate nature of these subjects that are covered. CNBC, Forbes, even places like Washington Post, New York Times and they love these kind of savings heroes, these sort of magical savers. Now the most cursory review of people being profiled shows that they are almost all children of privilege. They’re almost all white with some rare exceptions. Many of them, almost all of them, didn’t have to pay for college. They received sizeable in kind or cash loans from their parents. What in your opinion does this say, the fact that they can’t even find sort of a good one off Horatio Alger story that’s sort of remotely authentic in terms of someone born into poverty, what does it say about the nature of this sort of bootstrap tale that they’re trying to tell versus the reality?

Miles Howard

Miles Howard: I think the purpose of these bootstrap tales ultimately is to uphold the idea that makes capitalism palatable for most people and that idea is if you work hard and play by the rules you can support yourself and enjoy prosperity. That’s actually pretty much a direct quote from Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 presidential campaign launch video. And, uh, I bring it up to demonstrate how capitalism is just this thing that many of us really want to believe in. I mean, you know, most of these modern bootstrapping tales are pretty much postmodern rewrites of the Horatio Alger stories about those boys who would make the climb from rags to riches. Alger was the Stephen King of his time and we’re talking hundreds of millions of books sold. And you know, and unsurprisingly, the message of those books, the idea that social mobility can be achieved by anyone who works hard enough and disciplines their impulses is still propping up much of capitalism as we know it today. And, uh, yeah, that idea has shaped the way we think about who deserves dignity and like who deserves to die in the streets. And it’s the fuel for these 21st century narratives about savings heroes who become rich enough to retire in their thirties because you know, they invest in low fee index funds and they don’t buy pre-sliced vegetables at Whole Foods. But you know, of course a lot of the savings heroes benefited from undisclosed economic privileges that have nothing to do with their work ethic or self discipline. And there’s a similar disparity between the books that Horatio Alger wrote and how his actual life played out. Despite achieving this best selling author status and shaping American culture, the guy suffered from financial insecurity for most of his life. He had debts, he was nearly penniless when he died and yet somehow the ideology of these stories endured and just metastasized for decades. And so the savings heroes are basically his grandkids. So, you know, again, I think the utility of these bootstrapping tales is that they basically pump oxygen into an ancient belief system that ultimately led to intense wealth and equality, the dehumanization of poor people in American life and a cultural fixation on work above all else. And all of those things are very convenient for people who are wealthy, but maybe a little bit more paranoid these days because while these bootstrapping stories just refuse to go away, there is growing consciousness about how the grand bargain of capitalism in America today is actually rigged for the wealthy and has been for a long time. You know there’s growing solidarity between people who feel cheated, but for ordinary people to reject capitalism as we know it, we have to consider ourselves worthy of economic security and dignity, right? Virtue of being human. And you know, these bootstrapping tales promote a very different idea, which is that if you’re not working hard enough, then you don’t deserve security or dignity. So whether they realize it or not, these savings heroes are letting themselves be used to promote a really insidious idea.

Adam: I will say I’m, I’m the laziest man alive. But if, if you, if you buy pre-cut vegetables from whole foods, you probably deserve to be poor. That’s the one exception on me.

Nima: (Laughing.)

Miles Howard: (Laughs,) I could, I could come around on that.

Adam: That’s the only exception I’ll make. Everyone else deserves to live —

Nima: That’s the one budget beater that you actually agree with.

Adam: I look at you and I go, ‘you make me sick.’

Miles Howard: Fair enough.

Nima: So Miles, speaking about these kinds of convenient narratives, the common mythology of bootstrapism, of the American dream and how it goes hand-in-hand with blatantly unexamined privilege when it’s brought into media spaces. Can you tell us about the “Frugalwoods?” That is the online moniker of money guru, husband and wife team, Liz Willard Thames and Nate Thames, the so-called “millennial couple” who you have written about and uh, who really are very popular in the US media space. Explain what is kept in that story to make it really compelling and what is deliberately left out.

Nate and Liz Willard Thames, known as “The Frugalwoods”

Miles Howard: Yeah, so the Frugalwoods are a married millennial couple who pretty much exemplify the savings hero journey basically. They’re white young professionals from Cambridge, Massachusetts who basically cook their own food, buy used goods whenever they can, very careful of, you know, ever splurging on lavish treats and you know, uh, also this is their words, not mine, they “insourced” stuff like house repairs and pet care that might otherwise be farmed out to contractors. Like you guys said real names are Liz and Nate but Frugalwoods is the name of their blog, which they started several years back and it depicts their frugal lives in kind of a day-to-day scale that people can hopefully be inspired by. It’s kind of like an open diary with self help tips for aspiring frugalists. But the thing that really put the Frugalwoods on the radar for me and a lot of other people was the next chapter in this story. A few years ago, the two of them retired from Cambridge to the middle of rural Vermont where they purchased this beautiful four bedroom house on an estate with a barn and a pond, even its own orchard. You know, not long after they left the city and retired early, Liz wrote and published a memoir called Meet The Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living. It got a ton of press coverage from legacy media outlets, you know, NPR, Washington Post, New York Times. Actually published an excerpt of her book in The Guardian in the winter of 2018. I’ve got the article in front of me right now actually and the headline says “Extreme frugality allowed me to retire at 32 and regain control of my life.” And below it there’s this sexy picture of the Frugalwoods Vermont house blanketed in snow, lights glowing in the windows, you know, I’m sure there’s a pot of stew bubbling inside or something, you know, it’s what people many urbanbound young professionals dream.

Nima: Yeah. It’s like the last scene in Funny Farm come to life.

Miles Howard: Yeah, exactly. It’s eerily close and you know, I, and I, I have to admit, you know, I had a little pang for that, you know, of, you know, desire when I first got this article emailed to me from a friend right after it came out. She, you know, she sent it to me because as a writer I’ve covered issues that really affect young people like, you know, structural inequities, terrible labor practices and the gig economy, you know, of course this dumb idea that young people are struggling because they piss their money away on matcha green tea lattes and all that shit. So, you know, as I read this coverage of the Frugalwoods, I immediately felt like there was something crucial missing from this story. I’ve spent a lot of time in northern Vermont. I have some friends up there and I help them cut their wood each year. And you know, retiring there is not cheap. And I also practice many of the same frugality habits that the Frugalwoods endorse, you know, often by necessity, not by choice. I’m a writer, so. And yet due to my income level, I spent most of my twenties on the verge of poverty. And so did a lot of young people I’ve interviewed for this story. So I decided I was going to dig past the headlines about the Frugalwoods and spend a bit of time combing through their blog and see if I could kind of get some clarity on the fuller story that I felt was missing. And what I found that was omitted from this narrative that the media really propagated about the Frugalwoods, it was kind of staggering. It turns out that the Frugalwoods actually bought property in the Cambridge real estate market years before they moved to Vermont. And, you know, Cambridge is one of the priciest markets in the country, even a good season for buyers, that’s not a joke. And they, they still own this property and rent read it to tenants, that’s where a significant portion of their income comes from.

Adam: Oh, well, yeah.

Miles Howard: Yeah. Both of them were fortunate enough to have also graduated from college without student debts. So that’s nice. They also received sound financial education from their families, you know, knowing how to invest for retirement at an early age. And that’s a huge advantage too, and they, you know, they haven’t shared the salaries they made at their nonprofit jobs, but they have publicized information about their 401(k) contributions on their blog and the percentage of their annual pre-tax income that they managed to squirrel away. And so what I was able to deduce after doing some pretty basic math, is that at least one member of the Frugalwoods is making a six figure salary, which, you know, I mean frugality maybe helps, but you know, that’s, that’s, that’s not insignificant right there. And you know, putting all these factors together, that’s when I realized, holy shit, this frugality fable that most of the major media outlets are amplifying wasn’t actually a case study about how frugality pays off. It’s a case study of how being thrifty works best for people who are well off to begin with. I mean, the frugality thing is just kind of folksy seasoning. It’s basically a pretty unremarkable story about a cute white upper middle class couple who worked in the Boston area, saved up some money and bought a house in Vermont. Never heard that before you know?

Nima: (Laughing.) Wow.

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: Yeah. You mean Baby Boom can be real?

Adam: Well, what’s funny is that like the second day build this myth, I mean 90% of which is fueled by this free press they get by this credulous financial media — credulous or cynical, we’re not sure which combination — is that then they sort of turn around and write these blogs and then they start selling ads that have sort of passed through marketing purposes and then they oftentimes will engage in these, how to save, you know, books, seminars, the sort of sleazier end of the spectrum, gets basically involved in the industry of making money, which itself is how you make the money. When I was in college, you’d watch poker on TV and they’d say, ‘oh, this is so and so’s poker coach.’ And I remember thinking like, there’s no athletic barrier to playing poker. Why are you the coach? Why if you’re that good, why are you not just playing poker? If you’re so good at making money? Why are you telling people how to make money? You should be the one making money. And of course it’s just exploiting people’s credulity and oftentimes has a kind of multilevel marketing or ponzi element to it.

Miles Howard: Yeah, I mean, as you guys discussed before, you know, there’s this massive FIRE community. It’s people who you know, believe in one of the most simplistic readings of capitalism, which is if you work hard and are smart enough and you’re self disciplined too, you can, you know, enjoy serious prosperity for the rest of your life. Maybe retire early, maybe you own a house in Vermont one day. When The Outline piece came out, it seemed to resonate with a lot of younger readers who weren’t buying the Frugalwoods stories being sold to them. But unsurprisingly it incurred a lot of anger from readers who truly believe in the FIRE ethos. And you know, the rebuttal that I would hear from these people is that my criticisms of the Frugalwoods were just evidence of jealousy and a lack of work ethic. I mean that, I’m not kidding. That’s exactly what they said. And it’s this sort of thing that capitalism’s most ardent cheerleaders like to say about anyone who questions the means by which rich people become rich. They’re wedded to that idea that the system still works. And you know what, I argued in the finale of my article on the Frugalwoods that capitalism doesn’t work for people born without the advantages that they’ve enjoyed. And the tales like the Frugalwoods story distract us from that well-documented reality. And again, I think what the Frugalwoods are doing is more harmful than they understand. But maybe, but you know, given the growth of this industry we’re talking about right here and the way in which, uh, the Frugalwoods have plunged headlong into that, maybe they do. Maybe there is kind of a cynical side to it right here. I mean, I generally want to give people like the Frugalwoods the benefit of the doubt when researching and writing these pieces. But you know, one little fragment I came upon that really didn’t sit well with me is that in a lot of their press, they often refer to their nonprofit jobs, the implication that, you know, they don’t make a lot of money and live on a pretty modest income. Obviously not true. A nonprofit job can mean anything from 25K a year to 250K or possibly more.

Nima: Right. You could literally run a multi-billion dollar foundation and that’s a nonprofit job.

Miles Howard: Right. Exactly. The definition is very expansive. So, you know, so that, that was the moment when I felt kind of affirmed in writing this piece right here and actually, you know, putting the Frugalwoods under a more critical spotlight because I do think what they’re doing is harmful. What they’ve achieved is something that millions dream of in the most literal sense. But the idea that many of us can retire early to our own Vermont estates if we watch our wallets more carefully, is detached from the realities of structural inequality and it’s just frankly insulting.

Adam: It’s funny to me the extent to which they bury the lead. It’s like ‘we invested in real estate in Cambridge, oh, and by the way, here’s how you can save by reusing cucumber peels.’ And it’s like, it’s like that Simpsons where Homer is like, ‘I was fired from the AV Club in college because of, because of my views on Vietnam. Oh, and I stole some slide projectors.’ It’s like, well that’s the thing that’s the most important part of it.

Miles Howard: I mean on the one hand I was sort of like, how did this get it past the publisher? But you know, on the other hand, I mean a lot of people buy into this, even with, you know, the lead buried obviously right there, there is a market for that kind, for again, that, that wanting to believe, captive audiences right there. And I clearly, I mean, in spite of all, in spite of the exposure that the Frugalwoods have gotten in light of their initial success, they still have a core audience. And that’s very interesting.

Nima: I mean the idea that so much of this hinges around simple living, right? The sub headline of the Meet The Frugalwoods book which, uh, Elizabeth wrote, is Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living. And the idea that wealth can be accumulated by simply not being wasteful has the implication that therefore poor people, people born into poverty or now in poverty as a result of our system deliberately, which is exploitative and extractive, not to mention racist, but that that can be, you know, overcome, you can rise out of that by living simply and that solutions inevitably therefore our simple as opposed to a complex system that actively works against people.

Miles Howard: Yeah, that’s something I don’t often hear from people who’ve actually experienced the stinging side of structural racist wealth inequality in some way growing up. I mean, I feel like we’ve had, you know, in the last few years, I’ve also written some pieces about the, you know, the, the obsession with tiny houses too. And you know, and how that factors into this sort of, uh, romanticized idea of simple living now after the more, you know, decadent and kind of expansive idea of what, you know, capitalism and wealth meant for a lot of Americans. And I think that when you spin that into something that, you know, is meant to present itself as a tonic for that structural inequity, you’re either unwittingly or intentionally leading people down a very irresponsible road right there. And it’s just, and I don’t even know how much of an audience there is for that these days really because even though the Frugalwoods have, you know, found their crowd and there is this very, uh, you know, zealous FIRE community that absolutely believes in these things, most people I showed this story to, well before I published The Outline piece, rolled their eyes at the whole thing. They didn’t believe it. They were, you know, the Godzilla-sized question people were asking was ‘yeah, where’s their money really coming from?’

Adam: Yeah. Because the thing is like, I don’t think anyone’s opposed to saving, right? Like, saving is a good idea. We all sort of understand that like you can’t just go around and spend all your money on booger sugar and trips to Atlantic City. Like, that’s reasonable. The thing is that if someone says like, ‘oh, through sheer savings,’ you know, if these articles said ‘through sheer savings, we saved $10,000 a year,’ I’d be like, ‘oh, word like that’s cool, like, that’s, that sounds reasonable and interesting and how do I, how maybe how can I do that?’ But they’re like, ‘we saved our way to $1 million.’ And it’s like, that’s not a thing.

Nima: And now don’t have to work anymore.

Adam: Yeah and I don’t have to work anymore. And it’s like, that’s not a thing. Like it’s, the thing is they’re taking something that’s intuitively good — saving — and they’re turning it into this, you know, they’re like, ‘oh, you know, I took this food supplement and now I can bench press a thousand pounds.’ And it’s like —

Nima: Right. As opposed to, like, ‘Now I’m slightly healthier, maybe.’

Adam: It’s like, oh, that sounds cool. Like they’re just fucking getting greedy. Like they’re taking something good and acting like it’s this —

Miles Howard: Yeah. Well, you know, it’s kind of like those stories that, you know, local news stations used to run about, you know, here’s a squirrel that can water ski, you know, or something like, people want this kind of content that, you know, offers a sort of mindless amusement here and there. But I think it can be a kind of mindless aspirational amusements.

Nima: Yeah.

Miles Howard: We’ve seen all these articles in the last, uh, you know, decade or so about, you know, people who write like ‘this is why I quit my job at an ad agency to go and travel the world for three years’ or something. ‘And how you can do it too.’ I mean, it’s a kind of porn in some ways. And I think those pieces perform tremendously.. They still do to a certain degree. I mean, you know, you could argue that a lot of the ethos behind how Instagram is used even, you know, offers a similar kind of lifestyle pornographication in some ways. And I think that, uh, it was only a matter of time before this kind of bled over into the finance side of it. And especially the idea of personal finance. You think about, you know, gurus like Suze Orman, you know, who kind of propagated, again, these ideas that your lack of self discipline and impulses are holding you back from having economic security and even prosperity in life. I’m surprised that the Frugalwoods didn’t come along earlier and kind of take advantage of that.

Adam: And she of course is endorsed by PBS and it’s like, oh here’s microfinance for like, you know, you have the sort of junior achievement like poor people who need to learn how to save. And it’s, again, it’s sort of harmless enough in a micro sense, but it really, when it starts to make broad macro implications, it starts to get dangerous.

Nima: Well, because it also speaks to the performative nature of capitalism in general, which kind of relies on the idea, in order to be really sold, that you have to come from nothing for your success to mean anything.

Miles Howard: Right!

Nima: And so, like, if you start rich and then you explain how like you stayed wealthy and you were smart about things and you were, you know, had a good budget and that’s why you’ve stayed wealthy, it’s like, that’s reasonable but it starts from a premise that you already have money and you’re not working against incredible systemic barriers, which is why you need to backtrack. Right? Which is why Trump needs to be like, ‘I got a measly $1 million loan.’ It all plays into the idea that everyone under capitalism wants to be rich, needs to be rich and can be rich. But you always want to start out from a pauper’s coal pile otherwise your success is fucking meaningless.

Miles Howard: Exactly. Everyone, yeah, you need to go through hell to truly have that sexy sheen upon your story of how you made your millions, right? I mean, this is a really weird example, but it just sprang to mind, I remember when, uh, when Girls debuted on HBO and you know, all four leads were the progeny of celebrities in some way right there. I remember that when Lena Dunham had all these criticisms of nepotism hurled at her she fought back against them vigorously right there and you know, in a similar way I, I think that that impulse to, you know, want to guard the advantages that you’ve had in life for fear that it would affect the way that people see you and appraise your story, you know, applies to so many different industries and endeavors. And I kind of get it because it does affect that, but at the same time, once you start getting into issues like personal finance that have, you know, roots going to our economy and everything, then you get into, you get into territory where, you know, dangerous mythmaking can really run rampant.

Adam: Yeah. Cause it’s, it’s totally fair game if your entire brand is built on your own personal finances. Of course we need to know what exactly those really are.

Miles Howard: That struck me as, that was the strangest thing to me about the Frugalwoods not revealing their salary right there. I mean other, I mean to their credit, some of the others savings heroes I looked at while researching this article were actually very forthcoming about how much they made. I mean it was often astronomical. Usually work from a, you know, marketing consulting and other kinds of remote work and that milieu.

Adam: I feel like people are usually forward about their, where they make money. I think the one thing most of these people are very cryptic about is of the money they inherited.

Miles Howard: Yes.

Adam: They think ‘I have a Lamborghini, here’s my bank statement.’ But like they’ll never, they’ll never sort of tell you, ‘My parents paid for my college’ or ‘I have mystery real estate or some oil land somewhere in the middle of nowhere.’

Miles Howard: It kind of reminds me of the recent scandal with the, you know, the college admissions rigging that happened recently. I mean, you know, these, these kids are the children of immensely wealthy and powerful people. They could probably do whatever they wanted to in life in all likelihood after that. But I mean the very fact that their parents went to this level to get them into these elite colleges right here, there’s something going on right there with the uh, you know, continuing this mythmaking of meritocracy right there. The kids, you know, are going to go through this rigorous educational background to get to whatever glorious futures.

Adam: I want to talk about the rub here, which is the financial motive behind a lot of these, not all of them, but a lot of them, which is, we discussed this earlier, the anxiety that has set in in recent years with the Charles Schwab’s’ of the world where millennials just aren’t investing as much and they’re not buying homes at the same rate and that this FIRE movement to some extent is astroturfed by these news outlets like CNBC and Forbes that are almost entirely subsidized by groups like Charles Schwab and these kinds of freelance grifters who have passed through advertisement or sometimes not really disclosed promotions and financial instruments with these organizations, to what extent is this really just a way of getting quote unquote “millennials” to give more money over to people who make huge fees on financial instruments?

Miles Howard: You know, the astroturfing aspect is something that I really only just cracked engineer the end of my research on the Frugalwoods gauging the scale of this. And you know, I think when you talk about that anxiety, from where I’d been standing, I’ve been watching the conversation about millennials and why they are/aren’t making these investment decisions for awhile and it only feels like it’s just starting to bubble in the panic right now. A lot of these, a lot of it still feels like a kind of bewilderment over why young people aren’t following the same timeline as the generation before them. And I think you know, more than anything, it betrays a profound attachment from the economic vulnerability that most young people are experiencing today due to the cost of living in society and the erosion of wages, benefits and full time work. And I think that detachment is a testament to how classist our narrative of the millennial generation has been and continues to be. I mean most millennials don’t have college degrees and yet we talk about student loan debt far more than credit card debt, which is actually more common among the youngest generation today. And the, the idea that today’s young people are struggling economically because they’re too self indulgent with their money, this idea that they’re wolfing down too much avocado toast and washing it down with cold pressed juices. I mean that’s as bougie as generalizations get and a lot of people still buy into it. But I do sense this slight tremor of fear in some of the messaging with banks and other financial institutions are aiming at young people now. I mean, I’m sure you guys remember a few weeks ago Chase bank put out that tweet when they essentially play acted the inner workings of a cash strapped young person’s mind when they look at their account balance and are like, ‘holy fuck, why is my balance so low?’ And you know, in the tweet Chase bank proceeds to toss out these hacks for a lower account, for a better account balance, you know, ‘make coffee at home,’ ‘walk, don’t take an Uber,’ ‘eat the food that’s in your fridge,’ that kind of stuff. And you know, what’s striking about these prescriptions for financial security that are now coming out of places like Charles Schwab and these banks, is that they’re not substitutes for lavish spending. Declining a $2 coffee, a car ride and take out food should not be the barrier between economic security and poverty. But in America for many young people, those little can add up and be the difference between surviving and becoming insolvent. And I think that that reality is starting to permeate the financial sector at last. But unfortunately I think it just means we’re going to be subjected to more banks and financial services corporations doing just what Chase did and they’ll be preaching the same misguided frugality pep talks that all these bootstrapping savings heroes like the Frugalwoods have been passing down from ivory towers for the last few years. I mean, you know, I think that the scale of the astroturfing that you all mentioned is going to be, I think it’ll be quite galling to see the full extent of them in the future. And it’s something I need to write about further down the road.

Nima: Now, something you just hit on, Miles, is something we’ve actually did a whole episode on it last year, Episode 38 on the idea of generations. And something that I think you’ve been noting that I’m really hearing is this idea that even calling a set of people “millennials” as a distinct or actually meaningful way to group or categorize people is in many ways very deceiving and totally disingenuous. And that what you’re really talking about and what these stories are really talking about and what we’ve talked about before is that class still remains incredibly important to discern when doing financial reporting, when talking about subsets of people and their common goals, their common struggles. And so the idea that these “millennials” have become millionaires or you know, “millennial money” or “millennial couple” like that this is somehow a way to categorize people as opposed to, well, what were people born into as being far more important than like that they were born between 1982 and 2000.

Miles Howard: Yeah.

Nima: Because the story that way just doesn’t wind up being all that interesting if you’re just like, you know, here’s how a rich kid stayed rich. How do you think these facile generational labels serve to erase what is really the undertone of all these stories, which is white privilege and wealth?

Miles Howard: Well, you know, with respect to millennials, you know, and this particular generation, let me put it this way, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that our initial mainstream idea of what it meant to be a millennial involved mindless consumption of luxury goods. I mean, yeah, painting a whole generation with one brush stroke is inherently disingenuous, dubious and it’s a super convenient way to whitewash narratives that reveal, you know, any distressing truths about our society. Narratives that speak to issues like racial oppression and you know, classic inequity. You know, believing that careless spending is the root of a young generation’s struggles like that absolves the older generations and especially the wealthiest of any complicity they may have had in making society worse for the next generations to come. And you know, and in my article for the Frugalwoods, I talked about how their story almost feels like two young people telling the wealthy exactly what they want to hear. The system still works for those.

Adam: There’s a big market for that, buddy. Ask Thomas Friedman.

Miles Howard: Yeah, exactly like Thomas Friedman. Thinking about the profound class divides that, you know, have echoed through generations that we see with millennials right now, one of the issues I think a lot about these days and I’ll probably be doing more writing about it in the future is, is this going to, how is this going to shape the way in which working people are or are not represented in Congress, for instance, going forward? I mean, you know, as millennials start to, you know, take control of public office here and there, obviously we’ve seen this tremendous resurgence of uh, you know, working class grassroots candidates like, you know, obviously Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York but you know, ultimately, as long as the cost of running for office remains prohibitive, as long as all this money is thrown at challengers, you know, will the economic makeup of the first millennial Congress be distressingly similar to what it is right now, where most of our elected officials are millionaires for whom this system is ultimately for either by virtue of the birth lottery or you know, a few lucky breaks?

Adam: That’s why I find the term, even the term millennial is just so racialized, you know, close your eyes and think of a millennial. It’s this sort of frivolous white middle class person.

Miles Howard: Yeah. I’ve stopped using it now. I mean I used to be very forward when I started writing about millennials with, you know, trying to kind of reclaim that term.

Adam: Yeah. The thing is its origins, its origins are in marketing and it’s just very telling that it’s limits or so, cause again I think it’s fine if you discuss it in the context. Like if you qualify for race and class I don’t have a problem with it.

Miles Howard: Yeah.

Adam: But you notice the second you start qualifying for race and class, like again the millennial couple article, the fact that they own land and make profit off land and in one of the most expensive zip codes in the country has to be, has to be far, far more relevant than the fact that they were born between 1980 and 2000. Like it has to be right? And yet one is centered and one is just completely ignored.

Miles Howard: You know, there’s a really funny thing that happened with some of the Frugalwoods’ writing that I noticed in Liz’s book and on several of the blog posts, which is that, I dunno if you guys saw this from what you looked at, but they are actually very quick to kind of upfront acknowledge their privilege that they have as upper middle class white people. They sort of throw it out as this kind of toss away disclaimer, beginning whenever they’re about to extol to people. And you know, I don’t know if, there’s no term for this yet, but it kind of feels like the economic version of greenwashing, you know, a lot of companies will engage in to try to uh, appear conscious of, uh, to appear “woke” quote unquote.

Adam: Well, they’re checking their privilege but they’re not like accounting for it.

Miles Howard: Exactly. That’s pretty much it. I mean, now I expect that we’ll see that from, you know, many more of these personal finance gurus in the months ahead as they try to better engage with millennials to get them to fork over more money to Fidelity and Charles Schwab.

Nima: Well, I think that’s a great place to leave it. Miles Howard, writer and editor whose work has appeared in places like VICE and NBC News, Boston Globe, LA Times, The Nation and obviously The Outline where you have written an excellent article on the Frugalwoods. Miles, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Miles Howard: Thank you for having me guys. Appreciate it.


Adam: So yeah, that was very, very enlightening. Uh, want to say one thing before we go, which is that we are not saying that saving is bad.

Nima: It’s actually very good. If you can do it.

Adam: Blowing all your money on Ketamine and Sea-Doos is probably not a good idea. You would generally want to be frugal on a micro level, but that you’re not going to save your way out of poverty in general. It’s extremely rare in that we should not build an economy based on the exception rather than the rule.

Nima: And especially not on bootstrap myths that rely on bootstraps starting all the way like in the clouds. And so, you know, to remind our listeners, if you have not listened to our Bootstrapism episode, that the origin of the term “bootstraps” — like ‘pulling oneself up by their bootstraps’ — comes from the story, uh, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” which is an absurdist fictional tale, obviously. But the idea of ‘pulling oneself up by their bootstraps’ is inherently impossible to do in the story. It’s something that literally cannot be done. You cannot pull yourself up by your bootstraps because you are you. You are weighing yourself down. That is the point of saying that in the story, it has been turned into the ultimate American ethos of success, these aspirational financial advice columns targeted oftentimes at millennials who, you know, now make up the majority of people working today.

Adam: People who are under the age of 40. Such a specific, useful concept.

Nima: (Laughs.) These financial advice columns which are targeted toward people that look like the people they’re profiling, that uh, come from the wealth, the people they’re profiling wealth come from, let’s remember that saving on coffee in the morning is not going to, yeah , alleviate poverty and that possibly changing the system fundamentally through wealth redistribution or reparations or other ways of completely changing this system are actually the way out, uh, not just living the Frugalwood lifestyle.

Adam: Doing little things will not make you richer. Like, for example, stopping your Patreon donation. That would not help at all.

Nima: For instance. And with that we will end this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a patron of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. Please do that instead of buying one Starbucks coffee a month, that would be really great. And of course a very special shout out goes our Critic-level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. This episode was researched and co-written by Ethan Corey. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks everyone for listening. We’ll catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, May 29, 2019.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.