Money Narratives: Power Systems and Individual Actions

More than one thing can be true at once, but what is the weight we give truths when we tell our stories?

American and “World” History classes dominated my teaching schedule for the first few years of my career (I put World History in quotation marks because of the prominence of Western European events and perspectives). Discussions of systems of power and actions of individuals proved to be a consistent theme for framing content each year.

Dialogue about systems of power and individual actions always prompted the same questions:

  • Who has power? Who does not?
  • How do individuals and groups use and maintain their power?
  • How are oppressed individuals affected by their lack of power?
  • How might they challenge the system?

One of my favorite TED Talks of all time, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story”, always served as a catalyst for these questions. What stories do we tell about ourselves, our groups, our country? What stories do we believe about ourselves or others? Why do we tell or believe these narratives and what are the effects?

I highly recommend everyone watch this! It’s an important look at, among other things, power structures within the context of personal experiences

While on vacation, I missed many personal finance blog posts as I tried to minimize my time spent online. One of the few I did read was this wonderful piece from The 76k Project. Doubts about writing in a section titled “Who am I to talk about money” resonated with me, but the parts about judgement and systemic issues prompted me to assess my own perspective and how I approach these institutional challenges in finance and beyond.

I immediately thought of the concept of narrative — what money narratives do we tell about ourselves or others?

Student Loans As An Example

Although analyzing narratives can be applied to countless examples, I want to focus on student loans in the US. Repaying the skyrocketing costs of college still affects me (and it will until early 2021) and it’s a topic that has received lots of media attention in recent years. Student loan forgiveness from benevolent acts like the generous gift from Morehouse’s commencement speaker Robert F. Smith or proposals from presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren seems to divide the personal finance community.

I think even the most “bootstrappy” among us can admit there is a problem with the costs of higher education. The College Board found the average tuition and fees for public four-year institutions increased over 200% from 1987 to 2017. Of course, this increase drastically outpaced inflation.

Some recommend individual solutions like taking community college courses (especially when still in high school), sacrificing passion in order to focus on a high-paying field, or forgoing university altogether. However, others focus on societal and systemic changes like reassessing funding models for institutions or expanding programs for loans or loan forgiveness. Sometimes it seems these two groups cannot reach common-ground but, as I see it, both are telling versions of the same story. The narratives contain similar elements, but are told in different ways.

If I had to reduce it to two viewpoints, here’s how I would characterize them:

Person 1: “Yeah, the system is broken, but she is the one who took out the loans.”

Person 2: “Yeah, she took out the loans, but it’s because the system is broken.”

I’m not sure robbery is a good student loan payback strategy…

Neither statement is necessarily “more true” than the other. There’s a subtle difference in the stories we tell–do we emphasize the power system or the individual action in our framing of the problems? Since we do not make decisions in a vacuum, you cannot fully separate the individual from system.

The way one examines college tuition costs and student loan forgiveness is usually shaped by their experience. I am Person 2. For me, my choice to take out loans was shaped by the system. I was taught both directly and indirectly by my parents and other adults in my life that college was the key to success. That the cost was to be seen as an “investment” and “good debt.” Also, I had no concept of what 18-year-old me was getting herself into when I took on student loan debt. (I want to write more about my experiences with taking out and paying back my student loans, but that will take some time to put together.)

I do not want to seem like I’m completely absolving myself of any personal responsibility. Yes, I could have and should have worked more in high school and college to save more to cover some of the costs. Yes, I could have and should have educated myself on personal finance and the real costs of loans.

But also if I were born in a country like Germany I would not be saddled with this much debt for attending university. (I spent some time in Germany on a teacher tour and our examination of their educational system was very interesting.) I absolutely loved and thrived in my five years of undergraduate and graduate school — I would not trade my experience for anything. However, the thought of entering the workforce without $50,000 in debt–like many young people do in countries with robust funding for the public higher education system–does affect me. Not to mention the students who are born into wealthy families or even just families with parents who save enough to cover the costs of their child’s education.

Addressing complex social issues (including financial ones) involves an understanding of not only why one individual made a particularly “bad” decision, but also an examination of how economic, political, and social power structures create environments that may pose barriers for even the most well-intentioned among us. The student loan crisis is not simply because people are “too lazy” to pay off debt or “too stupid” to realize they signed on the dotted line. It’s imperative that those with power in society reject the simple (and incomplete, if not incorrect) “too lazy” narrative if we want to work to create meaningful change–and hopefully creating meaningful change is the goal.

Note: I use this framework with my students in a variety of contexts. Take a basic example of police brutality — “Yeah, the police officer may have used excessive force, but the young man ran from the police” vs. “Yeah, the young man ran from the police, but the officer felt justified using excessive force.” Students generally tend to see only the individual actions and not systemic issues–it’s usually much simpler to blame the individual action when there is no context. I try to emphasize context with my students: Why might that young man run when I, a middle-class white woman, would not? How might history and power influence the actions of individuals and the structure of institutions?

There is no one narrative when it comes to money, or anything else for that matter. That also means there’s no one solution to societal problems. Simply focusing on (and judging) individual actions–“He just needs to work harder ”–will not yield remarkable and consequential social changes. Not to mention, some approaches to “hacking” your finances may be difficult, if not impossible, for people in different situations. Understanding some of the nuance when it comes to challenges for young people entering the job market (or buying a home or starting a retirement account or a variety of other financial considerations) can help foster empathy when thinking about costs of and solutions to systemic issues. Can we find ways to allow for individual actions (like hard work, for example) to more easily open paths to success for all within our systems?

When examining a complex or troublesome issue in society, it’s sometimes easier to place the burden solely on individuals instead of acknowledging that our system can contribute to unfairness, inequality, and situations that no human being should experience. In the same vein, some believe that if they were able to accomplish something, anyone can. This is not to say PF bloggers should stop sharing their own strategies and money wins, but we need to recognize that advice cannot be applied in all circumstances. I turned around my finances last year thanks in large part to reading ideas from others, but I recognize that the route I took would be much more difficult for someone who had physical or mental health issues, an unstable job, or things like unreliable transportation. Of course I am going to do what I can to improve my lot, but that does not mean I should ignore systemic issues or blindly believe that my higher net worth is solely based on my effort while ignoring the advantages I may have.

Although I probably will not directly or significantly benefit from things like an increased minimum wage, free school lunch programs, or the construction of affordable housing, that doesn’t mean I couldn’t or shouldn’t support them. Systemic changes are important for improving the conditions of others, allowing individuals to fully contribute to and participate in society, and affirming the dignity of all humans. Supporting policies and politicians than can bring substantial and meaningful change to help those confronting enormous challenges is important. And I cannot think of a reason why we would not want a society where all individuals have the freedom, opportunities, and tools to add value, unless we are committed to maintaining unequal power structures.

At the beginning of each school year I emphasize my goal of building empathy and solidarity. In each of my courses I strive to introduce perspectives that may challenge the worldview of my students in an attempt to tackle a discussion of how “the system” can influence the experiences and viewpoints of others. It’s important to remember that just because we exist in the same society, it doesn’t mean we all have the same choices. We should choose empathy over judgement. Always.

Help each other out!

But a key complementary piece to teaching about empathy is also stressing solidarity. We are all human beings deserving of respect and we should support one another. Yes, we live different lives, but we can still work toward common goals.

Spending the summer reflecting on and working to improve my instruction makes me want to find more ways to allow students to think about and advocate for real solutions to the problems they see in society. I want to not only ask students to consider individual actions, but also identify and understand how systems of power impact individuals. With this knowledge, hopefully they can improve their own decision-making for the future, but also work toward solutions about which they are passionate and use this momentum to fight for consequential changes.

As I continue to process competing narratives in the Personal Finance space and consider solutions on my own, I plan to add more about what I’m thinking of doing in my classroom to help students recognize and work to change societal issues.

What do you see as competing narratives in the PF space? How might we address problems on an individual or systemic level?

3 thoughts on “Money Narratives: Power Systems and Individual Actions”

  1. This is about so much more than narratives. Thank you for this post. I become easily frustrated with political debates on Twitter and Facebook because they encourage oversimplification and tribal thinking.

    As a side note, thank you for helping me frame the work I’m currently doing with expanding dual enrollment as a sign that I am actively working to dismantle the “broken system” that results in excessive student loans. I miss working directly with kids sometimes, but the impact of my work is pretty far reaching right now.


    1. Thank you so much for your comment! I think the structure of social media “debates” does frustrate those of us who want to embrace the nuance of complex issues. Anyone who has one “simple” solution to a problem probably doesn’t get it. I always have my sociology students start with an activity about how a fish “doesn’t know it’s in water” as an analogy to help them think about experience and perspectives.

      That’s wonderful that you are doing what you can to create pathways for change in a “broken system.” As a high school teacher, I understand how important your work is!


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