Honest financial communication is especially necessary when one considers another reality reflected in Gabler’s story. Serious financial problems can’t be addressed by nibbling around the margins. You can stop going to Starbucks or taking nice vacations if you have a professional setback or a family member falls ill. You can’t stop paying your mortgage or your taxes. These big things (not to mention your children’s college tuition) matter much more than the small things you can easily control. Addressing the big things requires genuine life changes, with their accompanying tradeoffs, admissions, and disappointments. They bring important implications for everyone involved, and, as a result, require that everyone—certainly both spouses—be involved.
Gabler provides few hard numbers in his confessional. So I’m not precisely sure what happened. It’s clear that he over-extended himself in ways that now look foolish:
I never wanted to keep up with the Joneses. But, like many Americans, I wanted my children to keep up with the Joneses’ children, because I knew how easily my girls could be marginalized in a society where nearly all the rewards go to a small, well-educated elite. (All right, I wanted them to be winners.)
This passage won’t win Gabler much sympathy. After all, he enjoys myriad blessings. He is a prominent writer who has won prestigious prizes. He has extensive TV credits, is the author of several respected books. The safety net provided by his parents’ wealth propelled his daughters to impeccably credentialed professional lives. He received help in the way of a loan modification. And perhaps his best luck of all: He is apparently healthy.
But even with all those blessings, he still made serious mistakes, which were compounded by bad luck. Indeed, I suspect that the gap between his social and financial status made such mistakes more likely. He over-invested in real estate, and then got stuck with two mortgages in the insanity of the New York co-op economy. He took a financial hit over a missed book deadline.
So now he counts his pennies. He hasn’t taken a vacation in 10 years. He eats out once every few months. He drives a 1997 Toyota. These lifestyle changes are unavoidable. They are nowhere near enough.
Gabler quotes reams of national economic statistics in an effort to explain his situation, noting that most Americans possess meager assets beyond the family home. Indeed the Federal Reserve’s 2013 Survey of Consumer Finance indicated that median financial assets held by American families are only about $21,000.
Gabler’s real problem is more specific than a stagnant national economy. Like the displaced steel worker, he had the bad luck to work in an industry that has contracted if not collapsed. The glossy media economy no longer generously supports non-superstar, respected senior figures such as himself.