Could You Afford a $400 Emergency? Neal Gabler Says His Financial Confession ‘Was Not an Easy One to Write’

If there are two things Americans are good at, it’s mishandling our finances, and using Twitter to judge those who are in worse shape than us.

Thus we have the perfect Atlantic cover story this week—a refreshingly honest and desparingly relatable personal essay by writer Neal Gabler about his many financial mistakes, as well as a look at why even high-earning families in the U.S. are still living paycheck to paycheck. Gabler told me the piece “wasn’t an easy one to write.”

“I wrote it to provide some small solace for other people suffering from financial impotence,” he says. “Shame is more easily borne when you realize you are not alone.”

In the piece, Gabler admits:

I plead guilty. I am a financial illiterate, or worse—an ignoramus. I don’t offer that as an excuse, just as a fact. I made choices without thinking through the financial implications—in part because I didn’t know about those implications, and in part because I assumed I would always overcome any adversity, should it arrive. I chose to become a writer, which is a financially perilous profession, rather than do something more lucrative. I chose to live in New York rather than in a place with a lower cost of living. I chose to have two children. I chose to write long books that required years of work, even though my advances would be stretched to the breaking point and, it turned out, beyond. We all make those sorts of choices, and they obviously affect, even determine, our bottom line. But, without getting too metaphysical about it, these are the choices that define who we are. We don’t make them with our financial well-being in mind, though maybe we should. We make them with our lives in mind. The alternative is to be another person.

Twitter, of course, had feelings too. Some could relate…

…others could not:

America prides itself on individual freedom and responsibility for our own welfare, yet we are perpetually unprepared to deal with it—we are unable to save for the future because we are mired in the debts of the present. (Per Gabler, a Federal Reserve Board survey found that 47 percent of Americans would need to borrow money or sell something in order to cover a $400 emergency.) And those who are getting by still don’t have the luxury to think 10 years, five years, or even two years ahead—to confront the financial sinkholes awaiting us with health care, child care, education, job loss, and caring for our elders.

Combine that with wages remaining stagnant while costs of living rise; with social pressure to keep up with others; and with the private shame of not being able to talk about financial troubles with your friends, family, or even your own partner; and you have a pretty good glimpse of why our economy seems healthy but no one feels particularly happy about it.

How do we fix it?