Can You Really Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps? Thumbnail

If you have read even just a few financial articles on the internet, you will notice a common trend in the authors’ assumptions or beliefs. Financial authors are writing with the conviction that anyone can improve their financial situation if they try hard enough. The idiom, which communicates this ideology, “Pull yourself Up By Your Bootstraps,” is prevalent in the blogosphere. There are many success stories that support this idea, but I can’t help but wonder if it is a load of crap (to put it nicely).

Similar to when Sam asked if we can change our spending habits, I can’t help but wonder if we are truly in control of everything. Do we have the power to change our life around when the worst happens? I know what I have been taught to believe and what I would like to believe, but is that really the case?

We Like to Have Control

For those unaware of the phrase, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, it refers to improving your situation by hard work and determination. It implies a certain degree of agency or influence to make your own situation better. In many ways, it aligns with much of American ideology like that of ‘Manifest Destiny’, which implies themes like conquering, destroying, or controlling. We like to be in control, don’t we?

Many of us are unwilling to give up private transportation (even though cars are destroying our society in more than one way) because we like the control that it offers us. Who likes to wait for public transportation or ride a bike to work? Not only does it generally take more time to use public transportation, but you never know when the weather will change. A long walk or ride in the rain or snow is hardly enjoyable (maybe because it disrupts the “order” in our lives). While I enjoy riding my bike in the summer (when it’s not raining), I will be the first to admit that I also enjoy the luxuries of having my own car and being able to travel wherever and whenever I choose.

My wife and I spent 6 weeks in Central America after we got married, teaching English at a university. It was on the Caribbean coast and very remote. While we lived not too far from a small airport, there were several towns that were only accessible by boat. This sounds manageable, except when it is raining and the waves are too choppy to make the trip. It rained when my wife was visiting one of these towns and it delayed her return trip by two days. A two-day delay just because of some rain! I often complain about a flight being delayed a couple hours, so you can imagine our feelings when the rain changed our plans for half of the week.

Why We Like to Think We Are In Control of Our Finances

While I think that our cultural beliefs and ideologies influence how we see personal finance, there seem to be other factors at play for the popularity of this ideology within personal finance. I think there is something unique about the field of personal finance that requires this belief that we have the power to change our situation. In the world of personal finance, it’s not just an issue of whether the leopard can change her spots, it’s that a leopard must be able to change her spots.

Without some degree of influence, our writing is pointless – Many personal finance authors write in order to help others take control of their finances. This is probably because we know that everyone needs help with money, but it also implies that our readers have the ability to change how they manage their finances. If we don’t have at least a small degree of power to change our situation, it seems meaningless to keep writing as a personal finance blogger. If everyone is a product of their environment and/or genes, then there is no point to try and convince them to save more, spend less, or invest properly.

I believe this understanding stems out of the experiences that we have as people. We have been there. We’ve made dumb financial decisions and learned valuable lessons. If we can change our perspective or habits, surely everyone can change, right? If we can learn to manage our finances successfully, why can’t everyone else?

This is where it gets tricky. This necessary belief in a small degree of influence often gets misinterpreted for equal and infinite opportunities. The belief that You Can Be Whoever You Want to Be is misleading. While our capitalist society may not legally prevent someone from becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg, reality tells us that not everyone is given the same opportunity. A 16 year old who is forced to drop out of school to get a job and help his single parent make ends meet is not given the same career opportunities as a Harvard graduate. Social and economic setting may not absolutely determine one’s options (because the 16 year old could come up with a great business idea), but it certainly affects them.

Do you buy into this belief that everyone can change their situation? What has caused you to think this way?