American households are famously fragile financially, with 36% in 2020 reporting that they would have trouble covering an emergency $400 expense.
A recent survey from PYMNTS and
found that 61% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, including 36% of consumers who make $250,000 or more a year. There’s plenty of blame to go around for this precariousness, including wages that haven’t 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 doesn’t teach personal finance basics—to name a few. Yes, people also make poor choices with their money, but they do so within a financial structure that compounds their errors instead of helping to fix them.
Personal financial coaches have stepped into this breach, and the new
documentary Get Smart With Money follows four of them as they help four millennial subjects overcome their money hurdles over the course of a year. Each person has a different goal that illustrates an aspect of personal finance: earning more, starting to invest, paying down debt, and preparing for retirement.
Those issues are well-chosen by the producers; they’re a good representation of the major struggles that average Americans face with their money. Aspects of the subjects’ experience will likely feel familiar to many viewers, and those with some personal finance background will probably nod along with the advice doled out by the coaches. Yet it’s hard to watch the program without also thinking about what it doesn’t address: the deeper structural issues that helped back each of these people into a financial corner, and the limited options they have to escape.
The documentary opens with Lindsey, a blue-haired bartender from Austin, Texas, who wants to stop living paycheck to paycheck. “I really don’t have a lot of time to be me,” she laments of her 50-hour workweeks 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, which she needs to afford therapy for her anxiety and depression.
Lindsey is paired with Paula Pant, a financial journalist and founder of Afford Anything, a personal finance and financial independence platform and a podcast of the same name. Pant recognizes Lindsey’s potential immediately and coaches her on side hustle that can bring in more money and put her artistic talents to work. One smart idea that Lindsey puts into action involves her going to a dog park, sketching the pooches and presenting their owners with the illustration and her phone number for dog walking services.
The story moves on to Jalen “Teez” Tabor, a professional safety in the NFL who got cut from the Detroit Lions after two seasons and broke his foot before he was due to start with the San Francisco 49ers. Suddenly, he found himself with zero income and not as much saved as he could have to support his wife and young daughter. Like many professional athletes from modest backgrounds, Teez splurged much of his early paychecks. While his parents taught him to hustle and fend for himself, saving and investing is “a language that’s never taught to us,” he says.
Enter Shareef “Ro$$ Mac” McDonald, a former Wall Street professional and creator of the weekly Maconomics program on REVOLT TV. He teaches Teez about the Standard & Poor’s 500 and helps him open a brokerage account to begin investing the relatively little savings he has left. “What if the S&P goes down?” Teez asks earnestly. It’s not a question of if, but when, McDonald replies, and he urges Teez not to panic and sell out of his position whenever that happens.
It’s the kind of basic good advice that’s peppered throughout the program in a format that might be a lot for a beginner to digest. After all, there are whole books written about each of the topics the film covers. Important issues like credit card interest are covered in a matter of seconds. The film would be a good conversation starter between teens 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, since money woes are hardly limited to the young.)
The film cuts back and forth among the subjects over the course of a year. Tiffany Aliche, also known as the Budgetnista, helps Ariana, a New Jersey mother of two, chop her credit card debt from $45,000 to $5,000 over the course of the program. “Credit card debt is cancerous,” she says, “we have to cut it out.” Next up? The $108,000 in student loans Ariana took out as the first one in her family to attend college. Pete Adeney, also known as Mr. Money Mustache, helps Kim and John, a high-earning Boulder, Colo., couple, get control of their spending so they can plan to retire early.
The film bills itself as a “Queer-Eye for economics” but it has a challenge that most makeover shows don’t, in that progress with finances isn’t as visual as a style makeover or a home renovation. There’s no big reveal at the end, but there are happy tears. Viewers watch Lindsey start making good money off her artistic talents, and see Teez get his football career back on track and teach a group of Black teens the money lessons he’s just learned.
Yet when Lindsey finally gets health insurance—and into therapy—it’s thanks to her partner’s recent promotion. That shows the limits of financial advice in a gig-oriented economy: you can’t always hustle your way into health care.
It’s easy to root for the engaging subjects, but watching them struggle I wished that America didn’t demand such bootstrapping from people who aren’t born with means.
Write to Elizabeth O’Brien at email@example.com