Photo: flickr/aflcio

Gail Vaz-Oxlade has made a name and a career out of “helping” people get their finances in order. About her most recent book, Money Rules, Vaz-Oxlade states: “Your money is your responsibility. If you won’t take the time to figure out how it works, you shouldn’t be surprised when it doesn’t work for you.”

Her show, Princess, targets young women who live beyond their means. Vaz-Oxlade’s shtick is a kind of “tough love” approach; she pulls no punches on her TV show, calling the “princesses” featured on the show “entitled,” “selfish” and “shallow.”

That Princess is gendered, is another article unto itself. I can hardly imagine a similar show focusing on “spoiled,” “shallow” men, because men aren’t perceived to be as silly and irresponsible as women. Of course why women, in this case, might end up deeply in debt because of a lavish lifestyle they can’t afford, isn’t addressed. 

However, she isn’t completely wrong. We, as a society, have learned to value things in this culture, almost above all else. But there is no separating consumer culture from capitalism, a system that encourages and feeds on greed. “Shallow” we may be, but we’ve been given little in the way of alternatives.

Are the rules the same for everyone?

In an interview with host of The Current, Anna Maria Tremonti, preceding her Money Project special, Vaz-Oxlade argues that “the rules are the same for everyone.”

You can’t simply change or ignore those rules because you’re a single mother or because you’re making less money. We are not to spend money we don’t have, we are to save for a rainy day and we are to put money away for retirement, she says.

“If you’re spending money you don’t have, I want to give you a good slap,” says Vaz-Oxlade. Okay. Got it. We’ll all just let the power go off then because the day the bill was due, we came up short.

Vaz-Oxlade believes we don’t follow these rules because we simply aren’t “financially literate.”

She tells us to stop making excuses. Does poverty count as an excuse? How about the student loan debt we accrued because we hoped, one day, to climb out of blue collar work or the pink ghetto? Nope.

Money is all about “choices” for Vaz-Oxlade. We can “choose” to live either within or beyond our means. The assumption is, of course, that living within our means still allows us a comfortable life in this society.

“Playing the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses game is stupid at the best of times, but it’s suicidal if you’re doing it on credit,” Vaz-Oxlade points out gravely. Great point.

Tell me, how does one make it in this world without “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” as it were? Is Ms. Jones permitted an education because Grandpa Jones was an oil tycoon while others are not because “credit equals suicide?” Is this system wherein the 99% rent unaffordable, substandard apartments that are inevitably bulldozed and replaced with condos they can’t buy because “credit is death” the system you had in mind, Gail? 

Poverty and debt don’t simply exist because of “money mismanagement.” Most people who are in a financially strong position and who don’t have debt are in that situation because they were born into a privileged class.

Most aren’t even trying to “keep up with the Joneses.” We’re just trying to keep up. 

A life of debt, living paycheque to paycheque, without any retirement plan on the horizon isn’t a “choice.” It’s how the system was set up.

What happens if you aren’t privileged?

Vaz-Oxlade’s message is that we’re all fooling ourselves by living beyond our means, but the one who is really doing the “fooling” is Vaz-Oxlade herself. Her logic only applies to those who inherit wealth or middle class status, but it is presented as universally applicable. She presents a dwindling middle class as the norm.

Being poor is shameful in capitalist North America. We are doing something wrong — we aren’t good with our money, we are irresponsible or we are lazy. So we try to pass as middle class.

Tressie McMillan Cottom addressed this trying to “pass” in her piece The Logic of Stupid Poor People: “Why do poor people make stupid, illogical decisions to buy status symbols? For the same reason all but only the most wealthy buy status symbols, I suppose. We want to belong.”

Though my family was a working class family, my parents wouldn’t dare even admit we needed a subsidy for my sister and I to attend summer camp like the rest of my classmates. We just didn’t go. To admit one can’t afford what “everyone else” can is embarrassing. That’s why people fake it.

It’s easy to paint others as irrational when your struggles with money have never placed you on the edge of survival. When starved of pleasures and comforts, just like when we’re starved of food, we binge. Oh, the joy of grocery shopping after weeks of canned soup.

People of colour are often berated for valuing status symbols by people who don’t understand what it’s like to be deprived: “Why buy such an expensive car when you’re living in the ghetto?” white privileged people like to ask from the comfort of their yuppie lives, subsidized by family money. God forbid the “lower classes” try to enjoy their lives from time to time!

How does one save money when there is none left over?

Money rules” are for people who have money. It sounds straightforward enough to say, but Vaz-Oxlade denies that logic in her approach. “Saving” means having money left over after rent, bills and student loan payments.

Vaz-Oxlade’s message isn’t just dishonest, but it’s dangerous, as it further compounds the sense of guilt and shame already felt by the working poor who wonder what is wrong with them that they aren’t able to save a nest egg or pay their bills on time like “everyone else.”

Real solutions to our “money problems” cannot be found simply in “better planning” because real solutions aren’t individual ones. What is required to get us out of debt is a drastic change to this system, a viable social security net, an end to student loan debt and a real minimum wage. For the record a living wage in Vancouver would be $19.62. 

Solutions like those offered by Vaz-Oxlade are meant to be empowering, yet are anything but. They place the burden of survival on an unempowered and desperate population, blaming individual “choices” for what is a systemic failure.

Financial crusader she may well be, but only if our crusade is a neoliberal one.

Meghan Murphy is a writer from Vancouver, B.C. Her website is Feminist Current.