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?


  • It’s not just America. Much the same applies to the UK too.

    Liked by 6 people

  • It’s a sad state of affairs. We are so dependent on debt, but everyone seems oblivious to it. That is why Dave Ramsey is so popular. His message is simple and his advice is very basic, but it is desperately needed! I don’t think we realize how much better life is when you have no debt. The pressures are much less and you actually are more free.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Elliot says:

      I agree with your comments about Ramsey (who took his snowballing debt payment ideas from Debtors Anonymous and charges for what is free from DA) but the focus strictly on debt misses much of the point which is that real incomes peaked in 1972 as Gabler points out. That is a failure in macro-economic policy. Yes, being in massive debt compounds an individual’s problems but if someone has erratic income, through no fault of their own, then it’s very hard to move beyond Ramsey’s advice about debt to securing a future. This is now a contract/freelancing economy with all the risk shifted onto individuals and little of the rewards. The near elimination of employment benefits (pensions being perhaps the most critical loss) has pushed the average person off the financial edge. If credit wasn’t so easy to obtain then many, many people really would have sunk long ago. I guess what I am trying to say is that the debt issue was caused by deliberate economic policies and until there are changes in those policies Dave Ramsey will have many more buyers of his products for generations to come.

      Liked by 2 people

  • 400$ bill will be for a visit but wait until you start getting the brake down bills that will charge you for pills, xrays, etc. It is sad indeed that we are such a great country and an medical emergency can financially ruin (or affect in an enormous way) families and deplete life savings.

    Liked by 6 people

  • Mary Ann says:

    How do we fix it? it is only my opinion.. but we need to be happy with less.. to many build their life around “things” and there is seldom enough of the little things in life that we truly “need”

    Liked by 13 people

  • Sara Wright says:

    Ever so honest – and as a writer I appreciate emotional honesty most of all. I too have felt enormous shame over my financial incompetence believing it was just me. Thank you.

    Liked by 7 people

  • Elliot says:

    The debt issue was created by macroeconomic policies as Gabler makes clear. The fact that average incomes peaked in 1972, strangely coinciding with the beginning of the surge of credit card issuance across the middle class (previously there was a very low percentage of credit card ownership) is what has driven the level of financial insecurity we all feel. Deliberate macroeconomic policies such as encouraging union-busting, implementing international trade deals, shifting away from defined pension plans to 401k plans, and many legal rulings that have progressively shifted asset ownership to the top quartile of the population, have created the anxiety society. This goes far beyond individual responsibility and personal choices in the aggregate. Yes, of course people make some bad choices and there are consequences. But each one of us operates under, and are greatly at the mercy, of policy decisions that constrict our personal choices. The one thing that I can say is that anyone who choose to vote for politicians and leaders (Ronald Reagan!!) who promoted those economic policies, when it was obvious who would benefit and who would suffer, do bear responsibility for that particularly poor set of political choices.

    Liked by 3 people

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