Opinion | Personal finance advice will not help Americans truly cope with inflation


The Internet turmoil over a recent opinion paper on inflation illustrates a fundamental issue with the kind of self-help known as personal finance: it generally places the responsibility for tackling big economic problems on individuals, even though they often can’t do much to change. their situations.

Bloomberg’s column – which was well-meaning – said that inflation is a growing problem that particularly affects people earning less than $ 289,000 a year. No disagreements so far. The column went on to suggest what people could do to improve their finances.

Bloomberg summarized the tips in this tweet:

The phrase “Nobody said it was going to be funny” comes from the tweet, not the article itself. But no one wants to be told to eat lentils and cut down on treatment for their sick pet, especially when the rich don’t need to do the same.

The big reason the piece missed the mark was to assume that these lifestyle cuts could result in significant savings and confer the benefit of teaching self-control control and increasing personal resilience.

Catherine Rampell: Americans are not happy with the economy. Many on the left don’t want to hear it.

Inflation, of course, is a big deal. Prices continue to rise at the fastest annual pace in 40 years, data for February showed, with the cost of gasoline, food and accommodation responsible for much of the increase. Food banks report an increase in demand for aid. Polls show that Blacks and Latinos are more likely to say that inflation is causing them financial stress than white respondents. Three out of four Americans said in a Bankrate poll this month that rising prices are hurting their personal finances. The anger of the public is growing.

But the political and economic issues related to inflation tend to be minimized, if not thrown out the window, when inflation is framed as a personal finance story. In this treatment, inflation becomes just another challenge that individuals face in order to improve their situation. Instead of making policy recommendations – measures, for example, the Biden administration could take to alleviate supply chain deficiencies – a personal finance column describes the economic conundrum that readers face and dismisses their responsibility for the action. .

Under normal circumstances, personal finance books and articles are popular. Most of us would like tips for investing in our 401 (k) plans, for example, instead of reading how the U.S. system of funding retirement actually leaves large numbers of us at risk of running out of money in old age. .

But when it comes to inflation, this approach is useless. No one can cut the budget to get out of rapidly rising prices across the board, not when wage increases aren’t keeping up with inflation. Demands for sacrifice are deaf because, no matter how well-intentioned, they are.

News: Inflation falls hardest on low-income Americans

Much of what Bloomberg’s column claims is true. Vegetarian meals I am often cheaper and healthier than meat. It’s a good idea to review your credit card statements for the monthly subscription fees you are paying but no longer use. (I did this recently and found two separate Disney Plus memberships.) And pet owners should think carefully, for ethical reasons, before submitting a pet to chemo.

But people know this stuff. Post reporter Abha Bhattarai showed this week how inflation is affecting those with fixed income. He talked to retirees who were rationing hot showers and, yes, skimping on meat. “I do most of my grocery shopping in discount baskets,” said one. Another said that many of his meals consist of “oatmeal, eggs, pasta salad, toasted cheese sandwiches.” The problem was not ignorance of budgetary decisions. The problem is that they were cutting and still they have not been able to keep up with rising energy and housing costs.

And if lease rent increases by 33 percent – as happened in New York City between January 2021 and January 2022 according to real estate website Apartment List – meat is unlikely to cut, even several days a week. significant difference. The same goes for gas prices, which have been rising at the fastest pace since data logging began in the mid-1970s. People may be able to eliminate optional units; but their work and school commutes are unlikely to change significantly, and taking public transportation to save money is highly impractical in much of the United States.

Giving people some helpful savings tips can’t “fix” inflation or make navigation significantly easier, any more than the problem was solved when financial adviser Suze Orman suggested people stop “peeing” away your retirement savings with expensive take-out coffee. Or when then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told people to give up their iPhones if they couldn’t afford Obamacare awards, or when experts suggest millennials could afford a home if they just skipped avocado toast.

Inflation is not a simple personal finance story. And treating him like one doesn’t change that fact.

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