How can a successful writer who “is true to himself” end up poor?

My friend Lindsay sent me this article about a very successful writer who has trouble making ends meet.

The story appeared in left-leaning The Atlantic. I don’t want to rehash the whole thing, because I want to make a point.

So, first thing to quote, this guy looks like a success to others, even though he is actually really struggling:

The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?

Well, I knew. I knew because I am in that 47 percent.

[…]You wouldn’t know any of that to look at me. I like to think I appear reasonably prosperous. Nor would you know it to look at my résumé. I have had a passably good career as a writer—five books, hundreds of articles published, a number of awards and fellowships, and a small (very small) but respectable reputation. You wouldn’t even know it to look at my tax return. I am nowhere near rich, but I have typically made a solid middle- or even, at times, upper-middle-class income, which is about all a writer can expect, even a writer who also teaches and lectures and writes television scripts, as I do.

The thing I like about this guy is that he doesn’t blame anyone else but himself – he thinks that his own decisions led him to poverty. Rod Dreher has a nice list of the mistakes at American Conservative:

1) He chose to live in New York, which is one of the most expensive places to live in the country;
2) He chose to be a writer, not the most lucrative and stable career;
3) He and his wife chose to put their kids in private school, something they felt was necessary in their Brooklyn neighborhood, but an expense they could have avoided or dramatically lessened had they lived in another part of the country (they eventually moved to the Hamptons to get out of paying that tuition);
4) He and his wife believed their two children had “earned” the right to go to very expensive universities, and they spent everything they had, and the inheritance his parents planned to leave for him, on educating the girls;
5) They got caught in the housing crash and had to sell a Manhattan apartment they owned at fire sale prices;
6) Given the way his income as a writer is structured, taxes were a bitch (as a writer, trust me, this is true).

Pay close attention to 1 and 2. I would NEVER live in a garbage blue state like New York. I would rather be dead in a ditch than live in a state that is run by Democrats. I hate the high taxes and high spending of blue states. Blue states are great places to go if you want to work and have someone else steal all of your money to buy votes from lazy losers. I’m actually planning a move to a red state right now, and believe me, low taxes and low cost of live are high on my list of requirements. Oklahoma and Tennessee, I’m looking at you two, especially.

And as far as 2 goes, I don’t think that I need to repeat my warnings to everyone about non-STEM fields.

Well, OK, I will:

Starting and Mid-Career salaries by profession (click for larger image)
Starting and Mid-Career salaries by profession (click for larger image)

Regarding the housing crash that he mentioned, Democrats caused that, by forcing banks to loan money to people who couldn’t afford to pay it back. If he voted for the Democrats, then he screwed himself again.

Now, you might think that people end up poor because they want to do work that is fun and enjoyable. And that’s true, I’ve seen that. But this guy’s problem was that he just spent beyond his means. Why? Well, the writer explains that he is compelled to spend the money, because spending money defines who he is. He can’t say no, because he thinks that he has one life, and one chance to define himself. He can’t think about the future, because he has to spend every last dime today in order to be who he really wants to be.

Dreher comments:

He felt that to choose otherwise would have made him inauthentic, untrue to himself. He felt that he deserved the life he had, and could not choose otherwise without betraying himself. I think this must be an extraordinary thing, in terms of history: people who spend recklessly to give themselves the lives they think they deserve. If you think about it, though, our culture, which valorizes Authenticity, encourages this.

I have to tell you, I just don’t understand this. I define myself by Christian virtues – self-control, self-sacrifice, concern for others who I know personally and in my community. I’m not a spender. I am a saver by nature, and the older I get, the more grateful that I am closer to retirement than I was before. Working gets harder as you get older, even for jobs that don’t require physical labor.

If you plan ahead, you can get all your working and saving done before you’re 50. That was my approach. But I see other people who haven’t started working full-time by 30 and even by 35. Every day when you are in school instead of working full-time in your field is a wasted day. With few exceptions, you will learn more on the job than in the classroom. You want get out of school and get working as soon as possible, with an eye to getting married as soon as possible – since marriage is a wealth building engine. The faster you start investing, the more time your money has to grow through interest and dividends.

The bottom line is that my obligation as a Christian is not to be true to myself, or anything weird like that. My obligation is to make sure I don’t starve, and then to turn to the people around me and make sure that they don’t starve. Sometimes, that means giving them good advice. Sometimes, it means recognizing their achievements with little gifts. But the main thing is that the world isn’t safe enough for you to put off earning so that you can do what you feel is the “real you”. Being independent and then serving others is more important than being the “real you”.

8 thoughts on “How can a successful writer who “is true to himself” end up poor?”

  1. College isn’t for everyone. If someone isn’t up to a STEM degree when they’re about to graduate high school, they should go to trade school and work debt-free and can decide to trade up later.

  2. Hi Wintery Knight, I’m doing a series on “The Best Gift You Can Give to Your Husband,” becoming a virtuous woman! Just wondering if you’d be interested as its going to primarily focus on helping wives to obtain the virtuous characteristics of the Proverbs 31 woman, but also applications for sons on what to look for in their future wife, and daughters who are being raised to grow up becoming virtuous women!

    Here’s the first post just introducing the series:

    And here’s today’s, focusing on why it’s so important and countering the different ways women try to evade or discount or give up becoming virtuous:

    1. Thank you for encouraging wives and potential wives to be virtuous Proverbs 31 women. My wife is very hard working and she puts the family first. She has hung in there and not bailed out during disappointing stressful times, contrary to many church-going women who feel justified getting divorced when their husband doesn’t earn enough to provide the things this writer profiled in The Atlantic “needed”. My divorced buddies blame the church for fostering the desire for moms to have “your best life now”, to quote Joel Osteen. I have heard supposedly Christian moms justify their divorce by saying their husband wasn’t a good provider even though he made $100,000 per year plus benefits. It’s as if women have “security” needs where each husband in America has to earn in the Top 5% of all earners, or he’s an Old Testament style sluggard.

      1. I’m so glad you have such a good wife, Jeff! I don’t understand the women divorcing good husbands for virtually no reason, but especially Christian women. It’s so antithesis to what Christian women should be doing: building up their home, and doing good (not evil) to their husbands, **all the days of their lives.**
        I’m on this journey as well, so it’s exciting to see what I’m uncovering and humbling to be able to write about it for others!

        1. The key to stopping women divorcing their husbands is radical and public social shaming. Women who initiate divorce for any reason other than adultery need to be come non-persons and shunned like lepers.

          1. That’s interesting, Jgecik… I think the only way people will feel godly shame is if they are taught they should be behaving a certain way though. Many women are shameless in our society and feel protected from judgment (“no judging!”) even in Christian circles… I like to think that simply helping change wives’ attitudes and raising daughters that desire to want to be good, virtuous women will help with divorce. Women would have to actually feel bad about doing something wrong in order for public and social shaming to work and be widespread. Unfortunately, I don’t think enough women feel shame because they don’t know or care enough about doing the right, virtuous thing.

  3. Two things:

    1) OK is a good choice. I think it’s the last sensible place in the country sometimes. We’ve been here since the late 80’s, and have really enjoyed our time here.

    2) In your list, Petroleum Engineering is a somewhat misleading #1. A lot of times, those jobs don’t exist. The current recession in the oil business means that a new graduate has approximately zero chance of getting into the profession (I speak from personal experience here, having graduated into the teeth of the early 80’s oil bust. I wound up in IT instead).

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