the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

One Thing a Day #3 – High Finance


My grandparents were socialist-leaning Democrats who kept a photo of Eleanor Roosevelt in their hallway, next to the family photos.  My father worked in a city hospital, and received a city pension.  He bought New York City bonds, the safest bet at the time, which had the lowest interest.  We never talked about money or finance.   The business section of the Sunday newspaper was the one we always tossed aside.   “People like us” didn’t have anything to do with Wall Street or the business world.

I became an English major in college.  A film student in graduate school. A writer. A blogger. An instagram photographer. To this day, I remain a financial idiot. I don’t own any real estate or stock.  Doing my income taxes gives me anxiety.   There’s no one else to blame.  I am to blame.   I’m certainly smart enough to open a book on investing or use google to search “mutual funds.” It just never seemed like something that I should do.  Thinking too much about money was wrong.  I should rather worry about the wealth inequalities in American life than selfishly grab my share of it.

I’ve been blogging for nine years now, and I’ve met many people.  I can categorize everyone I know into two camps — those who understand the business side of life AND those who are clueless.

Most of my friends tend to lean towards the artistic side, and for many of those who don’t have a working spouse or a trust fund,  they are hurting financially. Freelance jobs have disappeared, and the publishing, film, academic, and music worlds are shrinking.  Years ago, our parents worked for the same firm for decades.   You could live a comfortable life, even if you weren’t a self-starter.  We are not as lucky.

My advice to you.   Forget BlogHer this year.  Attend a personal finance class instead.  Some of have started online courses. Others have bought real estate, renting it out to students.  The key to survival is KNOWLEDGE.  Most who make money found a mentor, or have a relative, who showed them the ropes.

We feel uncomfortable talking about money.   We say platitudes like “there is enough for everyone,” when we know this isn’t true.  There aren’t unlimited opportunities.  Luck comes from the whispers in a room, and not everyone is invited.

If times are tough for artists and writers, imagine the difficulties of the hard-working individual, stuck in a low-paying job.  We’ve heard many reports about the vast inequality of wealth in America, where the richest 1% of Americans own 40% of the country’s total wealth.  In an article in The Atlantic, Noah Smith, an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, says that while income is important, we should not forget the importance of finance and savings.  It is through saving and investing that the wealthy STAY wealthy. He goes as far as suggesting that public schools TEACH financial education as a way to prepare students for life.

Financial education in public schools is a must. I’m not talking about teaching kids the Capital Asset Pricing Model. I mean what Bob Shiller calls “basic Suze Orman stuff.” How to make a monthly budget. What “saving” and “borrowing” mean. How wealth builds over time. How to avoid borrowing lots of money at high interest rates (e.g. credit cards and payday loans). Etc. The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can help a lot with this too, by preventing companies from tricking poor people into taking out high-interest debt.

I think this is a great idea, even if all this money talk seems like a foreign language to the disenfranchised.   It will demystify the concept of wealth and money.   I have two advanced degrees — and I need help with the basics of saving, borrowing, assets and mutual funds.

In addition to “nudging” middle-class and poor Americans to save more, we can help them get a better return on their assets — the second thing that has a huge effect on wealth in the long run. This means helping middle-class people invest in stocks without paying high fees. The first part of this is teaching middle-class people to avoid making frequent changes in their stock portfolios. Studies show that individual investors consistently lose money when they try to buy and sell and buy and sell, mostly because they tend to ignore trading costs. So financial education should teach people to let their stock portfolios just sit there for decades, and ignore the ups and downs.

Last year, we wanted to Occupy Wall Street, but no one had a plan for what to do with it — once it was occupied.   Perhaps a better strategy is education, so everyone can be smarter with their money.    Those with money have created the game so they always win.  Everyone else is going to be left out, unless they study up.


  1. Schmutzie

    Good advice. Now I just need to take it.

  2. sarah gilbert

    first: this is a really excellent post.

    I would so happily teach personal finance classes. I would even do it for free. (I’ve written a bunch of 101-style posts on Get Rich Slowly Guide to Money, for the record.) I’m kind of woo-woo when it comes to my own personal, personal finance philosophy, but I do know the rules of the road!

    My first piece of advice: never buy anything with debt, except a house or a graduate degree, and NEVER an MFA. If you must get an MFA, save up. It will not pay you back.

  3. V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios

    My father was an electrician and my mom didn’t work. Because they’d both come of age during the Depression and because my father’s work was tied to the construction industry, they were very frugal. Even when we lived on Long Island, they grew most of the vegetables we ate and my mom cooked from scratch. We never went out to eat (a trip to McDonald’s was a HUGE event) and never went on vacation. My father saved his vacation days and sold them back to the Union. He and my mom were do-it-yourselfers. He built our house, knew how to work on car engines, fixed everything, and was a gardener. My mom could sew, knit, crochet, put up vegetables, and cook. My dad had a pension plan and Social Security and owned our house and farm when he retired. When I was a kid, money was often very tight but I never went hungry (However, I was often cold! They kept the thermostat LOW).

    So the financial education I got from my parents was to SAVE money every way you could. I didn’t know about investing. A college course in economics helped me assess the “real cost” of material goods and behaviors. I took a single class in retirement planning and investing when I was 24 (just a community center class, not a college class). In the beginning, I managed the money in our marriage, my husband took over around the 8 year mark but I was still involved. After the kids arrived, I became less involved. Now my kids are teenagers and I’m playing catch up on all things financial. Over the last 18 months, I’ve been working with my husband to get a better grasp of the Big Picture (our investments and retirement accounts) as well as breakdown our monthly expenses further. I recently took a 6 hour class on financial planning, tax planning, risk management, and probate and trusts. I understood a lot of it but a lot of it went over my head, particularly the details of the tax laws. We have done a lot of things right with the way we’ve managed our money and life style, but we’ve made mistakes too. Every one makes mistakes! We’re just trying to get through this recession and salary cuts while facing down the reality of college costs for our kids, who have had college funds since their preschool years! Those funds will buy maybe two years of college, incl. room and board. That’s not going to work. So we have to adjust our plans.

  4. Kim

    Great post Neil, and fantastic advice. I never have really worried about money because my parents and grandparents did it for me, whether through stocks, bonds, real-estate, investing in gold, teaching me the market, etc. I think that’s a great gift for any parent to give their children. My mother grew up super poor, and then she wasn’t, but she still worries about ever single penny. She could stick a lump of coal up her ass and it would come out a diamond, that’s how anal she is about it, and that’s good, I wish I was the same. I think as I get older I am starting to worry about it more though, because my grandfather, father and husband are all dead and gone, and now it’s on me to be the “money man” of my own rapidly dwindling family. When I got all caught up in what seems to be the never ending probate hell, I started doing some research on my own, including meeting with a financial advisor. One of the many reasons I went back to school to finish pursuing my dream.

  5. Kim

    Also, a word of advice…if you are married and have step kids/kids/dependents that will gain something from your death, DON’T do a will, do a “living trust” instead. Will save lots of time and headaches.

  6. Elizabeth Aquino

    This gives me agita. I guess that tells you what camp I’m in.

  7. Lily from It's A Dome Life

    I am struggling with the same thing right now. I am having trouble selling my work. How much should I charge? Should I advertise? It’s so uncomfortable to even admit that I am trying to make money. Retirement plans and all of that seem so mind boggling to me. I have never been very good with numbers. The older I get the more I worry about my financial future. I think finance should be taught in school and so should business. I am hoping to overcome my aversion to thinking about or talking about money. I need to study up too.

  8. Kanani

    Like you, I went to art school. Thinking back, every single teacher was being supported by their teaching gig. The smart ones stuck with it and would be able to retire with a state-pension. Art school was a lot of work. We’d get lost in color theory, mixing colors, making things, learning how to calculate glaze formulas, wondering about art history and theory. It was the kind of education that has the ability to create true eccentrics, and also make a class of snobs be totally unprepared for the world. That is, unless, one is a snob and pragmatist, and becomes a school teacher. (Mind you, this was before computers, so none of the current skillsets even existed).

    I bring this up, because it explains why during the time I went, there wasn’t a single class let alone a teacher that would talk about bidding, contracts, and running your business. Most people couldn’t even balance a check book. A lot of “art majors” ended up doing other things. It’s not a wasted education, because creativity is applicable but the missed opportunity was not giving us the added “oomph” in financial and business knowledge so that more could have made a go.

    After the BA, I had kids. Later, I fell into the same groove, and studied creative writing. And hey –it was the same thing. Sure, everyone would teach you how to pitch, but no one was talking about how much writers make, how much then-agents demanded. But mainly no one was talking the truth: Hey, you probably will never publish a major novel. You probably don’t have the patience to be an editor. You aren’t cagey enough to be an agent. Yeah, babe, you will probably go back to your pathetic life with lots of admirers, and wondering how to make money off your so-called brilliance. Pizza anyone?

    Anyway, it took me a long time to cross the Rubicon. I do outreach work for teeny films, and so I get to write and get paid. I am not rich by a long shot. My investments have caught up a bit. I have a savings account. I have no car payments, and pay the credit cards off each month. But still, at 52, I often feel like I’ve been running to catch up with everything (the changes in the past two decades have been enormous). And this month, at 53, my big worry is figuring how to keep what I have, get more money because quite honestly, I worry about being old and poor. (The advantage of the old days is everyone died when they were relatively young. Living longer just means working longer –a cynical view).

    So yes, skip BlogHer. You already know you’re a good writer with an engaging voice, and with a following. There’s so much more to do, and since you’re going to live well into your 80’s, you have at least what –30 working years ahead of you? XO K

  9. Joe

    Good post, Neil. Like you, I never really learned how to make money with my money. What little I was able to save in 401K’s (back when I had a real job, before my second lay-off) is in a Fidelity Freedom fund, so at least it’s making a little money. But your post really hit home. Knowledge is the key.

  10. Jane Gassner

    Yep. You nailed it. My parents brought me up with the certain knowledge that I would have a career, a fulfilling one. They just neglected to tell me that I’d have to earn a living.

  11. Father Muskrat

    So, this means you aren’t going this year? I’m considering skipping, too…I keep learning that folks I like seeing each year aren’t going. Maybe 4 years is enough.

  12. kimberlee

    I spent more than 20 years in a finance career. I planned made more than good money, left with a nice real estate portfolio and pursued my dream of living in france. real estate market crashed, I’m more than broke but slowly rebuilding. I hate banks and money and planning bullshit. Now I care about enough to eat, enough to heat, small comforts. I am lucky enough to now live in a land where I know my basic needs will be covered and I have lived long and hard enough to know the rest is just an illusion we are sold to keep the capitalist machine coughing along. Live in the present, accept what is enough for that and the rest will happen as it should no matter what you do. I also read a great tip from a friend … growing your own food is like printing your own money. so there is always that.

  13. angela ( angfromthedock )

    good post. i am an artsy type who likes money and order and security, married to a financial type, so luckily we have most bases covered. but i am surrounded by family members and friends who are not so clued in. the fear around money and preparing to be secure is so important to dispel because if we don’t? then there will be consequences. and usually at a time when we are not so able to turn a new leaf, start a new career or take a risk.

    i laughed at your suggestion that people attend one less conference and invest in their financial self. good advice. no swag is ever going to trump solid knowledge.

  14. pia

    Actually NYC bonds in the 1970’s (Big Mac) were about the least safe investments (when they first went on sale) and paid the highest amount of interest of any muni bond I have heard of. People bought because they believed in NY and wanted to see it from going under. Subways didn’t run on time and many trains were deleted. The city was dirty. Many industries left–the garment center is a shell of what it was. The flower district–yes there was–totally gone.

    The summer of 77 was one nobody can forget. Between Son of Sam, the blackout which wrought looting and racial tension it was horrible.

    But people kept buying the bonds

    And thus began the now unaffordable to most people now.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial