Victim Mentality and the Personal Finance Community

I’ve found a lot of value in seeking out opinions I disagree with and working to understand them better. I have learned a lot more from this approach than from standard debates where both sides are dug in and defensive.

Lately I’ve also used this approach to inform my writing. I’ve reached out for opinions on privilege, charity, and shaming in an effort to have more fully fleshed out ideas.

Given this background, I decided to take a similar approach to something that is often discussed among personal finance bloggers in a broad and vague manner: victim mentality.

Especially on Twitter, personal finance bloggers regularly complain about other bloggers encouraging a victim mentality. These comments are generally met with likes and agreement.

But I didn’t understand. How could this be so prevalent in the personal finance community without me even noticing? Do we just have different definitions of victim mentality? Are we just running in different circles?

I reached out and asked folks to name names and explain their rationale to get a better understanding.

What is Victim Mentality?

In trying to define a victim mentality, there was a baseline definition that everyone agreed on: When someone believes that bad things in their life are the result of the actions and influence of others and there’s nothing that they can do to make things better.

In the world of personal finance an example would be someone that believes that there’s nothing they could possibly do to save money because the deck is stacked against them, so they don’t even try. It’s learned helplessness with a side of blaming others.

There are certainly people that fit this description. There are some people that believe that their money situation is a lost cause because the system is rigged, and so they don’t make any efforts to improve it. We can argue about how common this is (there is a common misperception that the poor generally fall into this category when the vast majority do not) but this mindset does exist out in the world.

It’s pretty clear, however, that there are no examples of this type of person in the personal finance community. If you are choosing to take the time to try to teach people about money, then by definition you are taking the time to learn about money and are working to get your financial house in order.

So where is the victim mentality in the personal finance community that people are complaining about?

Expanding the Definition

To get to where the complaints are coming from, we need to expand the definition of victim mentality to encompass a broader community. Which direction to expand the definition, however, was subject to different interpretations.

The substantive responses appeared to fall into two different, but related, categories: focusing on systemic problems and advocating for progressive policies.

(I specify substantive responses here because a number of people, when pressed for detail beyond the basic definition in the previous section, basically told me that their views were too complicated to explain and bowed out of the conversation. I have my suspicions about where their views come from, but without hearing from them I will set them aside.)

Highlighting Systemic Problems

The most direct expansion of the definition is the inclusion of people that point out systemic problems.

There were two main versions of this idea. The less sophisticated version is simply that pointing out systemic problems is embracing a victim mentality because you are identifying a financial issue outside of your control rather than one within your control.

While very few people were actually able to name names when I asked who in the personal finance space had a victim mentality, one of the people that was named falls into this category.

I was pointed to this person’s recent tweets as evidence. These included a comment about how 529 accounts have not been a successful policy fix in helping most people save for college and a tweet arguing that financial literacy classes are not a silver bullet for navigating 100-page, small print financial services contracts.

The complaints in these tweets are certainly accurate. Having a tax-sheltered college savings account only helps those with the ability to save money and disproportionately benefits people with higher tax rates. Financial literacy classes could be helpful on basic issues but would not prevent companies from taking advantage of consumers.

If the problem is not that the complaints are unfounded, then the implication to tagging these ideas as “victim mentality” is that complaints about systems and policies as a whole are unjustified.

This is backed up by other things that were categorized as “victim mentality,” such as suggestions that the minimum wage is too low, arguments that the tax code is unfair, and complaints about the rapidly increasing costs of housing, education, and other staples. The idea is that instead of flagging these systemic problems, we should be working on improving ourselves (and our readers) in order to overcome them.

The False Dichotomy

This approach is based on a false dichotomy between systemic problems on the one hand and individual actions on the other.

The idea is that you can either take personal responsibility or you can blame others. You can either pull yourself up by your bootstraps or you can complain about the system.

The problem is that this just isn’t true. Taking personal responsibility and addressing systemic issues are not mutually exclusive. We can, and should, be doing both.

My personal approach to personal finance is to work my ass off within the current system while advocating for a system that treats the folks coming up after me more fairly.

We should be working to increase our income and also working to address income inequality for the country as a whole. We should be trying to pay down our student debt while advocating for getting wildly escalating education costs under control. We should be fighting to improve our own situation and simultaneously fighting to create a system of equal opportunity for people of all genders, races, and orientations.

In short, we should be taking personal responsibility and trying to fix systemic problems.

This theory of “victim mentality” would write this approach off as impossible.

On top of that, internalizing the idea that systemic problems are off-limits and can’t be touched is just developing a learned helplessness and a victim mentality from the other direction.

You can take control of your personal finances. You can fight back against unjust systems.

You can do it all.

Encouragement

The more sophisticated version of this argument says that these writers don’t necessarily have a victim mentality, but they are encouraging such a mindset in their readers.

The idea here is that by focusing on systemic issues you are leading your readers to focus on those big picture problems rather than on their own actions or specific situation. This, in turn, causes your readers to decide that systemic issues are the reason they can’t succeed financially and leads them to adopt a victim mentality.

One person that espoused a more nuanced version of this view acknowledged that systemic issues are real and need to be addressed, but said “I see a difference between ‘here’s why it might be harder for you; don’t despair if you aren’t getting where you want as fast as you want’ and ‘the system is against you look at all of the examples, life sucks, this is why people can’t get ahead, you should be mad at these people for it, bootstrapping is 100% stupid, this isn’t your fault.’”

Essentially, systemic issues should be addressed, but they should be addressed in a way that uplifts rather than depresses your readers. This person said, “I also think people who are money influencers have a responsibility not to discourage people from improving their financial situation.” In this view it is fine to highlight systemic issues, but only if you are also presenting a solution.

How We Are Perceived

This is an idea that is worth exploring. Before we do, though, I want to note that while this is the most thoughtful approach to “victim mindset,” it was also the least common. None of the people that publicly rail against, or even sporadically complain about, victim mentality espoused this view. Instead it was discussed by a few people that DMed me to discuss the issue despite not taking a public stance.

With that out of the way…

I view this critique in a way that is similar to some of the more thoughtful critiques of the privilege discussion. It doesn’t mean that those of us discussing systemic issues are wrong, but it does mean that we should be mindful of how our words may be perceived.

None of us want to discourage our readers. The reason that we are writing and sharing our experiences and our knowledge is to help others. To the extent that our framing and our language holds us back from that goal, we should be cognizant. We should work both to challenge the system and to provide a path forward for individuals.

This is made especially difficult by the character limits on Twitter.

Some of the names mentioned in discussions on this topic are folks who write extensively in their blogs about how people can take control of their financial lives, but focus their twitter presence on highlighting systemic issues.

While we’d all prefer our audience to read and remember our full bodies of work, this isn’t usually the case. Because of this, it is possible that some readers may be taking away the wrong message.

I don’t think that this is a reason to stop flagging systemic issues. If we give our readers the impression that they shouldn’t try to change the system, then we will simply be instilling a different type of victim mentality or learned helplessness.

Instead, I think it is simply something to keep in mind as we tweet. Maybe for one person this means finding a balance of systemic and personal issues to discuss. Maybe for another it means continuing a focus on systemic issues but including calls to action that empower your readers. There are plenty of different ways to handle this and plenty of examples out there of people that are doing this well.

Just make sure to take a bit of time to think about how your words may be perceived by others before hitting “tweet.”

Progressive Policies

With that aside covered, let’s head to the second expanded definition of victim mentality: supporting progressive policies.

This was the most common approach taken by folks who complain about a victim mentality. The argument here is basically that looking to progressive policies to solve problems (including income inequality, racial inequality, gender inequality, minimum wage, health care, education costs, housing shortages, monopolies, and many more) means that you are refusing to take personal responsibility and are instead treating yourself as a victim. Advocating for government to solve problems means that you aren’t willing to put in the work to solve them yourself.

As one person told me, “My biggest struggle is when my favorite people in Personal Finance…want to turn over more power to the government.” Others made similar, albeit less direct, comments pointing to progressive policy positions.

If you’re arguing for a raise in the minimum wage, then you’re against people working harder. If you are advocating for decreased education costs or loan forgiveness, then you are preventing people from taking responsibility for their debt and choices. If you are supporting policies that push towards gender equality, racial equality, or anything else, you are viewing individuals as cultural monoliths and taking away their autonomy.

But really, when it comes down to it, you’re supporting political priorities with which these folks don’t agree.

Straying from Libertarianism

Where the previous interpretation of “victim mentality” said that we must provide solutions, this one says that those solutions can’t be from the left side of the political spectrum.

As we’ve discussed before, the default political position in the personal finance community is libertarianism. It’s a community where complaining that taxes are too high is fine, but advocating for an increased minimum wage gets you a bunch of messages from people telling you to leave politics out of it.

This approach to victim mentality stems from that libertarian base. As one person told me, it’s a “bootstraps or bust” mentality. Either you man up, take responsibility, and grab those bootstraps, or you whine and cry and ask the government for a handout. Like a certain personal finance manifesto laid out earlier this year, libertarianism is the right way to get to financial independence and everything else is bull.

Helping Others

Obviously I don’t believe this is true.

First, as it relates to personal finance writers, most of us progressives aren’t necessarily advocating for policies that would help us on our way to financial independence.

I support Elizabeth Warren’s student loan forgiveness plan, despite the fact that it won’t help me. I advocate for a living wage despite making six figures. I support policies and social changes that help lift up women and people of color and LGBTQ people despite being a straight white man.

It’s not about thinking I’m a victim and looking to the government to help me hit my savings goals. It’s about recognizing that there are a lot of systems in place that hold other people down through no fault of their own and trying to correct that. It’s about using my position in society to help other people. It’s about lifting people up rather than tearing them down or trying to stand above them.

I do a lot in my personal life to try to improve my family’s situation. I also advocate for progressive policies and support progressive causes because I want to improve other families’ situations.

Quietly Defending the Status Quo

More importantly, we live in an unfair system.

Brushing off people that highlight systemic issues as having a “victim mentality” is a way to defend the status quo without having to explain why you support an unjust system.

In 26 states you can be fired for being LGBT.

That’s ridiculous and indefensible. But you can help keep the policy in place without directly defending it by telling people that they should ignore that and focus on things within their direct control. You can say that a focus on LGBT rights divides us when we should be focusing on the things we have in common. You can say that the free market knows best and we should work as hard as we can within that framework. You can tell people to stop seeing themselves as victims and instead spend their time working on what is in their direct control.

In over half of the United States, a demographic of people can lose their source of income just because of who they are. That is a major systemic issue that needs to be addressed. There is no bootstrapping your way around it. There is no personal responsibility solution. It can only be addressed by public pressure on state, local, and federal governments to change the laws.

Highlighting problems like that to raise awareness and increase the pressure to solve them does not mean you are acting like a victim. It means you are being proactive and taking steps towards creating a more fair world.

We should all be in favor of a world where everyone has the same opportunity to succeed, regardless of the circumstances of their birth. Acknowledging that we aren’t yet there is not having a victim mentality. It is a recognition of reality and an important first step to getting there.

Locus of Control

One of the themes that came up often in these conversations is “locus of control.”

An internal locus of control is where you believe that you are in control of your own life. An external locus of control is when you believe that you don’t have any influence over what happens to you.

This has mutated lately, first within the self-help community and then within the personal finance community, into a belief that you should only focus on issues in which you directly control the outcome.

Under this mindset you should focus on working hard, learning new things, building relationships, and other self-improvement staples while ignoring the larger systems around you. Have an internal locus of control.

However, this ignores the fact that you can influence the systems around you. Working to impact policy is completely consistent with having an internal locus of control.

You can vote for politicians based on how they will reshape policy. You can call politicians and rally and march to push them on issues. You can advocate for causes to raise awareness and create grassroots support.

You can advocate for more diversity within your company. You can use your leverage to get them to hire more women. You can be proactive about discussing your salary to help to level the gender pay gap.

It’s true that you can only control your own actions and not necessarily the results of those actions. But your actions can have far more impact on systems than you may believe.

Don’t let people use vague bad faith accusations of “victim mentality” to make you into a passive victim of the systems around you.

Do It Anyway

Confession: I almost didn’t write this piece

I wanted to find out what the people constantly complaining about victim mindset meant. It seemed like it was mostly just a way of complaining about progressives without seeming political, but I wanted to find out.

Turns out, that’s pretty much it.

For the loudest people it is just a way of arguing against progressive policies without actually engaging with those policies. It’s pretending that an “either/or” exists rather than an “and,” because you don’t want people fighting to change the system, but you can’t (or don’t want to) argue against the actual ideas.

It’s a way of preventing a discussion on how to make things better. It is a way to defend the status quo without appearing to defend the status quo.

Calling that out is not really a useful article.

Ultimately, I decided that it was worth including the other interpretations, even though they did not come from people that are vocal about victim mentality within the community. It’s useful to understand what other people think and how they see things differently.

There is some useful advice in learning how to reframe issues and debates and how best to reach others.

With that said, the answer to my original question is that people complaining about a victim mentality on Twitter are usually trying to discourage you from talking about something. Think about what that is and shout it even louder.

Systems can change, but you need to make them.

15 thoughts on “Victim Mentality and the Personal Finance Community”

  1. Great article, Matt.

    I think another motivator for people is avoiding acknowledgment of their own privilege. “I made something of myself, why can’t you?” Well… maybe one of the reasons is because you had an inherent advantage or the help that others didn’t. Somehow acknowledging it reduces the internal satisfaction from a wonderful and well-deserved award to a participation trophy.

    Keep on making the world a better place.
    Jeremy recently posted…Accidental Market TimingMy Profile

    1. Thanks, Jeremy. It does seem like there are a lot of very fragile people out there and I don’t really know what to make of it. We can all acknowledge our advantages in tandem with our hard work and then turn around to offer a hand to others.

      Thanks for the kind words and for doing what you do.
      Matt recently posted…When is Shaming Okay?My Profile

  2. Good take on the topic.
    My one thought about the issue is I don’t want 80% of my time spent focussing on social injustice or about how unfair the world is. I already know that have experienced it my self I get it..
    I like to and do stay informed on the issues but the reason I don’t watch more then 15min of cnn or Fox is because they over focus on one side of the issue and I don’t want FIre to become like them. There are already many place to discuss social topics
    I am cool about discuss them sometimes.
    I can and have learned from both sides but if either sides takes over we will lose the 80% of us that are somewhere in the middle and then know progress will be made.

    1. Hi Brian,

      If you don’t want to spend 80% of your time on social justice, then don’t. I only ask that we spend some time on it rather than ignoring it. It’s about understanding the problems that exist and doing our part to make them better, not losing ourselves in obsession and existential dread.

      If you want to go ahead and cut CNN and Fox out completely, then I fully support that. I certainly have. Any news source that treats politics as a red team vs. blue team sport is not helping anyone.
      Matt recently posted…When is Shaming Okay?My Profile

  3. “It’s a way of preventing a discussion on how to make things better. It is a way to defend the status quo without appearing to defend the status quo.”

    So much of right leaning PF twitter can be boiled down to the statement above. OF COURSE they want to defend the status quo: look how well it’s working out for them.

    But saying you’re okay with a system that keeps so many people in poverty, or facing a lifetime of discrimination is…well, not going to earn you many points in social circles.

    So the bootstraps, “focus on you, not on any problems around you” narrative is, as you said, a clever & deceptive defense of the status quo that allows them to seem like they want to improve things. But they don’t. Or, if improvement randomly happens for some other individuals…fine, but that’s secondary.
    Done by Forty recently posted…I’m a Goddamn House CatMy Profile

  4. I personally will never talk about politics under the Full Time Finance handle as FTF is my escape from a world drenched in politics. But I will tell you one thing I’ve learned over the years. Nothing is black or white. If you can boil down the opinion of a large group of people to not being of value, you haven’t dug deep enough to understand their arguement. …

    1. I can’t tell if you’re agreeing with me or disagreeing with me. If the former, thanks. If the latter, I’d be happy to have a discussion in direct messages if you think there’s something I missed. I had quite a few in depth conversations with a lot of folks, but always happy to talk to more.

      Thanks for stopping by either way.
      Matt recently posted…When is Shaming Okay?My Profile

  5. If a writer resorts to appeals to their own personal politics when trying to educate about personal finance, then they’re going to alienate between 20 and 60 percent of their potential audience. People with a commitment to personal financial education should not be in the business of narrowing their audience with the airing of political views.

    Otherwise, hear hear!
    Christopher Robbins recently posted…On Credibility And Objectivity As A BloggerMy Profile

    1. I think it depends on how any discussion of politics is framed and how respectful, informed, and data-driven it is. There are all sorts of places that politics and personal finance interact, from wage growth, to the wage gap, to income inequality, to any number of other topics. Pretending that doesn’t exist does a disservice to your audience. I recognize that some people are going to see you talking about problems that they don’t think need to be solved and be turned off by your “politics,” but you can’t please everyone. What’s the point of building an audience if you aren’t willing to give them the whole story and try to help on a larger scale?

      For what its worth, my traffic is significantly up since I shifted more towards systemic “political” topics. That’s one data point and there are plenty of other variables at play, but I think the fear of being seen as political is overrated.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Christopher.
      Matt recently posted…When is Shaming Okay?My Profile

  6. Thank you for putting into words what I could not. It’s about simultaneously trying to change the system to help others while taking control of our financial lives. You can rally for change without advancing a victimhood mentality in yourself or others. You can recognize inequality without saying that people experiencing it are completely helpless. They’re simply at a disadvantage, sometimes severe, and have to work that much harder to get to where straight white middle to upper class folks like you or I start from. There’s nothing wrong with saying the system is broken when it is, and you can still advocate for personal responsibility while acknowledging society’s flaws. In short there’s a difference between stating the current reality and giving up all your power to it. Of course I’m a knee jerk liberal who believes the government does need to address a lot of these problems so I suppose I’m just as biased as (albeit in a different direction than) the libertarians.

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