My mother has a talent for offering inappropriate advice at the absolutely least welcome time. We have a regular conversation about how difficult it is for me to save money. This conversation has been repeating itself many times over the last 10 or 15 years. It seems that every time I get a little bit of money in my savings, something big and unexpected occurs that wipes my savings totally out. Then when things get tight for me, my mother has the audacity to say something to me like, “You know, it’s always best to have have about $10,000 in your savings.” She’ll also let a day or so pass and then mention that I really should be making extra payments to my mortgage principle a couple times a year. Meanwhile, I have been telling her things like I have to make a choice between eating lunch this week or paying the water bill or that I’m not sure how I am going to pay the $1,000 bill I got from the hospital for the emergency surgery I had last month when I also have to pay for heat. Where does she expect me to come up with $10,000? If I had $10,000 I wouldn’t be starting the “Eat Only What’s In My Pantry For A Month” Diet.
It’s that kind of useless advice that people offer that boggles my mind. There’s never any additional advice attached that helps explain how you are supposed to reach the lofty goal of the advice when you are in the particular situation you are in. It’s kind of like the obscure New Year’s resolutions “I want to lose weight” or “I want to be more healthy this year.” There’s no specifics. Everyone with smarts knows that in order to make a resolution you can keep, you have to have a specific goal — like “I want to lose 10 pounds” or “I want to walk 30 minutes 3 times a week.” Then you can make a plan to achieve your goal.
The problem with arbitrary advice like “You should keep 3 months-worth of your salary in savings” is that it doesn’t take into account the financial situation the person is in already. Is the person in debt over his head? Is the person living paycheck to paycheck? Is the person making more every month than she is spending already? A person who is struggling is going to have a lot harder time figuring out how to save that much money; in fact, such a person might find the feat overwhelmingly hopeless despite the fact that the advice is painfully obvious and having that savings would in fact make life easier. Dishing out such advice without actually offering any real direction on how to achieve this while still being able to pay bills and eat is just as useful as announcing that you hope for world peace.
But it’s worse because it’s thoughtless and hurtful; it sets the receiver of the advice up to feel like a failure because he or she can’t snap his or her fingers and magically make all of his or her financial woes go away. It’s clear what the goal is, but the path isn’t always obvious and unless you are walking it or at least can see the same point-of-view and offer more than a trite recitation of what all the books or magazines or talking heads have been repeating for ages, sometimes the best thing to say is “I empathize” and leave it at that.