American households are notoriously financially vulnerable, with 36% saying in 2020 they would struggle to meet a $400 emergency expense.
A recent survey by PYMNTS and
found that 61% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, including 36% of consumers who make $250,000 or more a year. There are many blames for this uncertainty, including wages that have not kept pace with inflation; a system that ties health insurance to full-time employment; the crushing cost of higher education; and a school system that fails to teach the basics of personal finance—to name a few. Yes, people make bad decisions with their money, but they do so within a financial structure that compounds their mistakes instead of helping to fix them.
Personal finance coaches have stepped into this breach, and in a new way
documentary Be smart with money follows four of them as they help four millennials overcome their financial hurdles over the course of a year. Each person has a different goal that illustrates some aspect of personal finance: earn more, start investing, pay off debt, and prepare for retirement.
These themes are well chosen by the producers; They are a good representation of the great struggles average Americans face with their money. Aspects of the subjects’ experiences will likely sound familiar to many viewers, and those with some personal finance background will likely nod at the coaches’ advice. However, it’s hard to look at the program without considering what it doesn’t address: the deeper structural issues that have helped pinch each of these people financially and the limited options they have to make ends meet escape.
The documentary begins with Lindsey, a blue-haired bartender from Austin, Texas, who wants to stop living paycheck to paycheck. “I really don’t have much time to be myself,” she laments her 50-hour week and two jobs. “It’s about making that money to survive.” She doesn’t have much time to pursue her art, and she doesn’t have health insurance to afford to treat her anxiety and depression.
Lindsey works with Paula Pant, a financial journalist and founder of Afford Anything, a personal finance and financial independence platform and podcast of the same name. Pant sees Lindsey’s potential immediately and trains her with side hustles that can bring in more money and showcase her artistic talents. One clever idea that Lindsey puts into action is for her to go to a dog park, sketch the pooches and show their owners the illustration and their phone number for dog walking services.
The story continues with Jalen “Teez” Tabor, a professional NFL safety who was disqualified from the Detroit Lions after two seasons and broke his foot before starting with the San Francisco 49ers. Suddenly he was left without an income and had not saved enough to support his wife and young daughter. Like many pro athletes from humble backgrounds, Teez spent much of his early paychecks. While his parents taught him to hurry up and take care of himself, saving and investing is “a language we’re never taught,” he says.
Enter Shareef “Ro$$ Mac” McDonald, a former Wall Street pro and creator of the weekly Maconomics show on REVOLT TV. He teaches Teez the Standard & Poor’s 500 and helps him open a brokerage account to begin investing what relatively little savings he has left. “What if the S&P falls?” Teez asks seriously. It’s not a question of if, but when, McDonald replies, and he urges Teez not to panic and sell his position whenever that happens.
It’s the kind of basic good advice that pervades the whole program in a format that might be a lot to digest for a beginner. After all, there are entire books on every topic of the film. Important issues such as credit card interest are dealt with in a matter of seconds. The film would be a good conversation starter between teenagers and any trusted adults in their lives who understand the concepts and can expand on them. (It would be nice to see a future version that focuses on older adults, as money worries are hardly limited to the young.)
The film jumps back and forth between themes over the course of a year. Tiffany Aliche, aka Budgetnista, is helping Ariana, a New Jersey mother of two, reduce her credit card debt from $45,000 to $5,000 over the course of the program. “Credit card debt is carcinogenic,” she says, “we need to get rid of it.” Next Up? The $108,000 in student loans that Ariana took out as the first in her family to attend college. Pete Adeney, also known as Mr. Money Mustache, helps Kim and John, a wealthy couple from Boulder, Colorado, get their spending under control so they can plan for early retirement.
The film bills itself as “strange eye for the Economy,” but it has a challenge most makeover shows don’t, as progress on finances isn’t as visual as a style makeover or home renovation. There’s no big reveal at the end, but there are tears of joy. Viewers watch as Lindsey makes good money with her artistic talents, and they watch as Teez gets his football career back on track and teaches a group of black teenagers the money lessons he’s just learned.
But when Lindsey finally gets health insurance — and enters therapy — it’s thanks to her partner’s recent promotion. This shows the limitations of financial advice in a gig-oriented economy: you can’t always squeeze into healthcare.
It’s easy to get excited about the compelling themes, but watching them fight made me wish America didn’t demand such bootstrapping from people not born with means.
Write to Elizabeth O’Brien at [email protected]