American households are notorious for their financial fragility, with 36% in 2020 saying they would struggle to cover an emergency expense of $400.
A recent survey by PYMNTS and
found that 61% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, including 36% of consumers who earn $250,000 or more per year. There’s plenty to blame 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 the basics of personal finance, to name a few. Yes, people also make bad choices with their money, but they do so within a financial structure that compounds their mistakes instead of helping to fix them.
Personal financial coaches have stepped into this breach, and the new
documentary Be smart with money follows four of them as they help four millennial subjects overcome financial obstacles 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 off debt, and preparing for retirement.
These problems are well chosen by the producers; they are a good representation of the major struggles that average Americans face with their money. Aspects of the subjects’ experience will likely sound familiar to many viewers, and those with some experience in personal finance will likely acquiesce in the advice given by the coaches. Yet it’s hard to watch the show without also thinking about what it doesn’t address: the deeper structural issues that have helped each of these people find themselves in a financial corner, and the limited options they have to make it out.
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 much time to be me,” she laments about her 50-hour workweeks and her two jobs. “It’s about earning 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 pay for 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 podcast of the same name. Pant immediately recognizes Lindsey’s potential and pulls her into side businesses that can bring in more money and put her artistic talents to work. A clever idea that Lindsey puts into action is to go to a dog park, draw the pooches, and introduce their owners to the artwork and her phone number for dog walking services.
The story continues with Jalen “Teez” Tabor, a professional NFL safety who was cut from the Detroit Lions after two seasons and broke his foot before starting with the San Francisco 49ers. Suddenly he found himself with zero income and not as much savings as he could have to support his wife and young daughter. Like many professional athletes from modest backgrounds, Teez splurged on much of his early paychecks. While his parents taught him to fend for himself, saving and investing is “a language we were never taught,” 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 start investing what little savings he has left. “What if the S&P goes down?” Teez sincerely asks. It’s not a question of if, but when, McDonald responds, and he urges Teez not to panic and sell his position whenever it happens.
It’s the kind of good basic advice that’s sprinkled throughout the program in a format that can be hard for a beginner to digest. After all, there are entire books written on each of the topics covered by the film. Major issues such as credit card interest are covered in seconds. The film would be a great 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 people, since money issues are hardly limited to young people.)
The film goes back and forth between subjects over the course of a year. Tiffany Aliche, also known as Budgetnista, helps Ariana, a mother of two from New Jersey, reduce her credit card debt from $45,000 to $5,000 during the program. “Credit card debt is cancerous,” she says, “we need to eliminate it.” The next step ? The $108,000 in student loans Ariana took out as the first member of her family to attend college. Pete Adeney, also known as Mr. Money Mustache, helps Kim and John, a high-income couple from Boulder, Colorado, control their spending so they can plan for early retirement.
The film presents itself as a “weird eye for the economy,” but it presents a challenge that most makeover shows don’t have, in that financial progress 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 Lindsey start making big money from his artistic talents, and see Teez get his football career back on track and teach a group of black teenagers the money lessons he just learned.
Yet when Lindsey finally gets health insurance and goes to therapy, it’s thanks to her partner’s recent promotion. It shows the limits of financial advice in a gig-driven economy: you can’t always navigate your way to health care.
It’s easy to root for engaging subjects, but watching them struggle, I wish America didn’t demand such priming from people who weren’t born with means.
Write to Elizabeth O’Brien at firstname.lastname@example.org