On Excuses and Insensitivity

I received two particularly interesting types of responses to last week's controversial post Extreme Savings, and I wanted to share both with readers. See what you think, and please share your thoughts and reactions in the comments.

Response 1: "My reason for not saving money isn't an excuse, it's a real reason!"

I'm simplifying a bit, but several reader responses essentially took this form. And hey, that's okay: at the end of the day, it's your money, they're your reasons, and it's your right to do what you want with both.

But excuses sometimes masquerade as reasons. And our egos deceive us into confusing which is which. Why? Because it's awful to discover we've been giving our power away to a "reason" that never deserved our power in the first place. And worse, if we figure out that our "reason" was never a real reason, then it means we should have been taking action all along.

Many people lack the ego strength to face this degree of brutal self-examination. And that's why when a reader gets defensive (or even lashes out) when the subject of excuse-making comes up, it suggests this reader is indeed confusing a reason with an excuse. Deep down he may even know it.

Again, sometimes excuses really feel like reasons. And they stop us from taking action. All I want is for readers to think it over sincerely: are your reasons really real? Can you examine your reasons objectively? Or when your reasons are challenged, do you become defensive and slip into ego-protection mode? To me, this gives tremendous insight into how willing (or unwilling) we are to take action on the key challenges we face.

Response 2: "You are rude and insensitive towards low-income readers."

First, some background for newer readers: Casual Kitchen regularly gets hit with the complaint that it's insensitive to poor people, or insensitive to those facing some sort of disadvantage. Normally, I get this complaint script in a cooking-related context, where it goes something like this:

Look CK, just because it's easy for YOU to have all these ideas on how to cook healthy food for less doesn't mean these ideas are easy for everybody. There are people who have no stove to cook on, and who don't live near grocery stores, and who have no time to cook. Assuming this is so easy is simply being insensitive to those who don't share your advantages.

The problem is, there are three gaping logic holes in this "reason":

1) If I shared only hard-to-follow ideas, no one would follow them.

2) I don't write CK for hypothetical people with insurmountable disadvantages who are projections in readers' minds. I write for actual readers who can choose to take action or not.

3) It's actually far more insensitive to presume people with disadvantages can't do things too. Many of my readers have overcome significant disadvantages, both economic and otherwise, on their road to eating healthy and inexpensive food. Likewise, I have no doubt readers facing financial disadvantages can make use of Extreme Savings. To think otherwise is deeply condescending.

By the way, years ago, when I received my first "you're insensitive to the poor!" criticism, I actually felt like a jerk for giving away free advice on how to save money eating healthy food.

Okay. Back to last week's post. Was what I wrote truly insensitive to low-income readers? At least one reader believed so, saying "as a student who visits your site for advice on living cheaply because I already live on $12,000 a year I find the insistence that people who don't save are 'making excuses' rudely presented."

Now, to me, living on $12,000 a year qualifies as a real reason, although only this reader can know for sure. But I do feel like I should respond to the suggestion that last week's post was insensitive to low-income readers. Here, then, are a few important things to consider:

First, things can change: If you earn a low income now, it doesn't mean you'll always earn a low income. Once again, to think otherwise would be deeply condescending! Thus, some of the ideas in Extreme Savings may be difficult to execute today, but they may be extraordinarily useful later on.

Therefore, a low-income reader has four options: 1) use the advice now, 2) don't use it now, 3) use the advice in the future when it's more suitable, or 4) don't use it in the future.

But there's one option I will never permit readers to choose, no matter what their socioeconomic level: I can't do this because of [insert lame excuse here].

Finally, a thought at the very heart of what Casual Kitchen is all about. Should I withhold insights that are clearly useful to many readers, on the off chance that a small percentage of other readers might interpret them as insensitive? Or, more bluntly put, would the world be better off had I never written Extreme Savings, or if I had written it with a more spineless and conciliatory tone?

My (admittedly self-serving) view: No, no ... and no. Look, thousands tens of thousands of people have already read this post, in part because of the specific voice and rhetorical tone I used. With any luck, tens (hundreds?) of thousands more will read it in the coming years.

To me, it's worth writing it even if just one reader takes action--and if a few other readers sincerely evaluate their "reasons" for not taking action. Either way, I'm helping someone put themselves on the road towards greater financial independence.

One last word: I'm grateful for everyone's thoughts and insights--even from those readers who got angry at what I wrote. If there's one thing I can always count on here at Casual Kitchen, it's that my readers make me think.

Readers, what are your thoughts?

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Eleni said...

Sounds like an excuse to me! No matter how big or small your income, savings MUST be a part of your budget! Even if it's only £10 a month, trust me, it all counts. You just have to live within your means! I know if I had drunk less and been to fewer gigs when I was a student, I would not be in debt now, 10 years later!

Cathy said...

You can count me as one of the readers that the article helped. After I read it I had a long deep discussion with my husband about how much we need to save and what is worth sacrificing now for our security later and we,re starting a RothIRA today.

Juli said...

This is a perfect response to the comments you received on that post.

You already know that your post gave me the push I needed to finally take action on a financial goal I'd had for a while, so you've definitely made a difference to at least one person!

Your advice is valuable, and if people don't know how to thoughtfully evaluate your opinions and figure out the take-away points for their own situations/circumstances, that is in no way your fault.

In fact, can you imagine how well off someone would be if they took your Extreme Savings philosophy to heart WHILE earning a low-income? If they did what they could to save at current, but put it into practice more and more as their income increased? They would have great potential for financial freedom, far earlier in life than many of us.

I, for one, thank you, and ask you to please keep the honesty coming! Many of us truly appreciate the reminder and push to reevaluate our reasons (*ahem* excuses). :)

chacha1 said...

I loved the comments on "how do you save?" and "how does savings work?" These people need to be reading PF blogs as well as this one!

For the student living on 12K/yr ... guess what, I was a student living on 12K too. Everyone I KNOW was a student living on 12K. Your life at this moment is not your life forever. If something doesn't apply to you right now, ignore it and move on - don't write snippy comments about how advice should be tailored to YOU. Dan doesn't even know you. For heaven's sake. (Narcissistic bias, right?)

Also Dan, I didn't say this before but I think you should edit your subhead on that post. It's not off topic at all. Your banner says "Cook More, Think More, Spend Less." Extreme saving is ALL about thinking more and spending less. :-)

And for people like me who spend a SHOCKING amount on food, the occasional nudge is useful.

Articles like this have definitely helped me re-shape our financial life. DH and I have gone from negative net worth to positive in less than four years because we were both willing to cut spending to the point that we could live on a single income.

That has made a world of difference, but as simple as the concept is, it was something we really hadn't thought of before self-education through the WWW.

Daniel said...

Thanks. I'm grateful. These comments show other readers not only that it can be done, but how to start taking those hugely important first steps.

This is exactly why I write Casual Kitchen.


Wet Coasters said...

Please don't change a thing about your blog. It is the one I look forward to reading the most every week! Your ideas make me THINK and I can see from comments that it is also forcing other readers to think. Sometimes thinking makes people uncomfortable. Most people don't like change, but given a reason to change and time to think about it, most will do the right thing.
Keep up the good work!

MaryMat said...

I, myself, am a low-income reader, and I can honestly say I wasn't offended at all by the Extreme Savings post.

I actually make right around the example given in this post - minimum wage. And, as CK's dear author has correctly guessed, most of the ideas in the Extreme Savings post would warrant my skipping meals to implement.

Does that make the author insensitive? Not in the least. Should I stop reading CK, being that I can't apply a lot of what I read? Absolutely not!

Especially for those of us who are low-income, I think it is the most important thing in the world to think ahead, to read and comprehend now all the money-saving tips that are out there, so that when that better paying job comes along, we won't excitedly squander our newfound finances!

Not only that, but a lot of the lessons and ideas presented on CK can be applied to daily life while having nothing to do with finance or healthy eating. There are a million concepts in this blog that have moved me to rethink many of the things I do, from what brands I buy (the many posts on how to be a better consumer) all the way down to better ways to motivate myself in work and habit.

So, please - low-income readers, don't look for reasons to single yourselves out! Keep some ideas in your back pocket, and don't stop reading CK!

KB said...

I was a poor, poor student and am not saving more right now because I'm paying off the time that I was a poor, poor student. That said, I started reading PF blogs when I was a student, and funny enough, now that I have a "real" paycheck, I don't read them anymore but am still influenced by what I picked up. A lot of the blogs I read talk about things that don't apply to me -- I don't live in New York city, I don't have kids, I'm not allergic to 10+ foods... but I read them because I still learn from them and enjoy them.

When I was that poor student, I would think to myself, "I can't do this, but I can do other things." Could I do more now? Yup. Am I peeved that you pointed it out? Nope.