Impossible to Save?
I was at a Labor Day barbecue last Monday at a friend’s house. There was an interesting mix of people. My best conversation was with a woman who had immigrated from the Philippines as a teenager in 1976 and had grown up in poverty. She, like me, had a real appreciation of her adopted country. She had immediately noticed the higher standard of living here. How could she not? But she was surprised to learn that when I immigrated to the United States from Canada on a student visa in 1972, I immediately noticed the higher standard of living also; I estimated it as being 15 to 20 percent higher.
Later, she and I were in a discussion with a woman (I’ll call her L since I don’t have her permission to quote her) who gets much of her news from MSNBC and likes both Robert Reich and Jared Bernstein, who is the chairman of President Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers. The discussion was quite amicable. (L seemed impressed by the fact that I had debated both Reich and Bernstein, the former on KQED-FM and the latter at a Mercatus event in Annapolis in the 1990s.)
L commented matter-of-factly that the vast majority of Americans couldn’t save money. Both J (the woman from the Philippines) and I disagreed strongly. I think it was for the same reason. We both had come from places that were poorer than the United States, extremely poorer in J’s case, and it was easy to see how people could save if they cut back on their luxuries that they have come to regard as necessities. For example, my wife and I often order take out food on Saturday for lunch and the bill is usually over $40. But we could make sandwiches at home for a cost of a a few bucks and do it in less time than it takes me to go pick up the food. Or we could get takeout from Carl’s Jr. for a total of about $15.
One of the best parts of Dwight Lee’s and Richard McKenzie’s book Getting Rich in American: 8 Simple Rules for Building a Fortune and a Satisfying Life is the chapter on resisting temptation. I have found that easy to do in my life. I think a big part of the reason was that I got an allowance of 10 cents a week when I was in single digits, 25 cents a week when I was a tweener, and one dollar a week when I was a teenager in the mid-1960s. To do things that cost money, I needed to figure out ways to make money. Because I had to work hard for that money, I learned not to waste it.
Most people I run into have more trouble than I had in saving money. It’s not easy for many of them. But that doesn’t mean they can’t do it.
Relatedly, I was watching Laura Ingraham earlier this week and she quoted, the way people on the right, left, and middle often do, a study that said that most people who had an unexpected expense of $400 couldn’t pay it. The study didn’t say that at all, as I discussed here. That then led to her saying that most people live paycheck to paycheck. That last one may be true, but what it leaves out is that they are making choices and could make different choices. Easy? Not necessarily. But doable? Absolutely.