Personal Finance as Neoliberalism

It has been a few years since I hung up my tomes of feminist and political theory to forge a new path in the non profit world. Full disclosure, I never fully embraced the theoretical deconstruction of all earthly things that I was routinely privy to in my MA classes. I once had a classmate argue the ‘theory’ of gravity with me and state that gravity too, is a socially constructed human concept. This same person also generously explained to me that they did not ‘believe in cancer.’ My experience with political theory is fraught at best.

But there is a link between political theory, particularly neo-liberalism and personal finance. I am not the expert on this, but neo-liberalism has a long and conflicting history- many philosophers still disagree on the meaning. Usually in personal finance sphere people are actually talking about economic neo-liberalism/homo economicus, etc. For the sake of not boring you with pages of riveting history of the terminology,some could say that

Neo-liberalism is the belief that the individual needs to work hard to make it for themselves, with minimal input from states or government systems.

(Please feel free to respectfully debate this with me in the comments, in case I totally fell asleep in my theory classes).

Some also say this a major movement or ideology that underpins all aspects of current capitalist systems. As it relates to personal finance, some critique the personal finance industry as essentially re-purposing neo-liberal ideals and blaming individuals for their own economic shortfalls, regardless of their situations.  I think that the personal finance industry- if you were to include all the books, blogs, shows and websites on the topic, does have some folks that would absolutely fall into this category. But personal finance authors, self-made gurus and hacks are a very diverse bunch!

You have your get out of debt bloggers, you have those who are racing to retirement, you have bloggers who are trying to make it based on limited resources such as non profit salaries (like me!), single income families, single parent families and post-divorce or widowhood situations. You also have investment bloggers, intro to real estate folks- and everyone in between.

To say that all of these folks are neo-liberal I think is not only misusing the term (not that I am defending it) but also mis-categorizing these personal finance people.

Yes, I have absolutely read some authors who criticize our governments pension and health care spending and implore people to go it alone, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, etc.

I personally am not one of them. I do believe that minimum wage needs to be a living wage; that we need to support people in old age so they do not have to choose between medicine and rent; so newcomers can access health care and that transportation is accessible and affordable. 

I have read more authors, particularly young and female authors who instead are advocating for other young people to educate themselves and empower themselves while acknowledging the limits of our current system.

Neo liberalism says that we need to be individuals and not rely on the state for services, safety nets or handouts. Personal finance says that you can’t rely on the government 100% to provide for you in times of emergency or retirement since social service programs are subject to the whim of party politics and can swing widely every election.

Neo liberalism says that if you work hard you will get ahead. American dream, etc. Personal finance says that life happens, and bad things can happen to good people, it is not a matter of being rich or poor- you need to let your money work for your own goals and values. Personal finance allows for diversity of goals, values and achievements- if you goal is to have 3 children and stay at home to raise them, personal finance teaches you how you can save in the years prior to make this as doable as possible.

Ne0 liberalism says that we need to figure things out for ourselves and work hard to reach the top. Personal finance says that we can learn from each other, and empower each other to not rely on stereotypical role models of power such as male partners, parents, bankers, etc. Personal finance says that we can use governmental social supports, understanding that they are not enough and we need to advocate for their improvement.

  • I don’t think it is a ne0 liberal goal to show people how to write a budget and put their money where their values are.
  • I don’t think it is a neo liberal stance to educate people on governmental tax breaks, social programs and tax savings vehicles so they can have more money in their pocket for their own needs and wants.
  • I don’t think it is a neo liberal stance to talk about how to minimize paying extra money towards interest on high credit, to talk about how to avoid pay-day advance loans and other exploitative financial institutions so they will not be caught in a cycle of debt repayment. I don’t think it is a neo liberal value to recognize that things like the lottery, pay day loans and high interest credit do more damage to the working class and poor folks than middle class and wealthy people.

Financial security is a form of security. If I don’t have to work 3 jobs I can have more time to volunteer with the socially progressive causes I hold dear. If I budget my money, I may find that I have $10 a month to give to one of the thousands of amazing, radical, society-changing non-profits that are working to reduce disparity gaps. If everyone could do that, how much change could actually happen.

Let’s not write off personal finance as neo-liberalism and try to understand that all things financial are not instantly bad and non progressive.

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2 thoughts on “Personal Finance as Neoliberalism

  1. Hi, I would agree with you that not all personal financial information has to be categorized as neoliberal, but what I would like to point out is the individuals who capture a substantial portion of the public’s attention and dollars, here in the US, are those who offer advice within a neoliberal context. Therefore, the Dave Ramsey’s and Suze Orman’s of the world greatly influence the public’s perception of what the personal finance industry is all about. Changing the perception of the personal finance field seems to me to be an issue of how to provide progressive financial experts like yourself a bigger platform. A platform where financial advice and progressive political advocacy are given side by side. In other words, make the personal political.

    • Hi Louis,
      I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I really appreciate your point. Personal finance is absolutely dominated by a few thinkers, particularly those who want to do away with all social services, but the beauty of the industry (and the internet/blog side) is that smaller voices can be presented. The personal is always political- I couldn’t agree more!

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