A Commonly Believed Myth: The Little Guy Just Can’t Get Ahead

During the time that I’ve been writing this blog, one thing that I have noticed is the difference in attitudes between those who are on their way to financial success, and those who just seem to be mired in debt and despair.  They have a distinct difference is an attitude and outlook.

Those on the road to success believe that anything is possible.  They know they can pay off their debts, save, and live a bright future.  They plan for that future, they work hard, and they make it happen.  They have a can do attitude.

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Then there are those who believe that improving your situation is impossible without help, that the little guy just can’t get ahead.  They believe that everyone else has some advantage over them.  Others who have done well have gotten there because they were treated others unfairly, or because they had it handed to them on a silver platter.

Personally I don’t subscribe to the theory that the little guy just can’t get ahead, I think it’s a cop-out.

Are there legitimate situations where people can’t get out of debt because of medical bills, addictions or because they live in a third world country and are truly poor for reasons beyond their control?  Yes. Bad things happen and people get into financial trouble they can’t get out of. Is that true in most situations? I don’t think so.

Different World Views – Poor & Broke

There’s a difference between thinking you’re broke, and thinking that you’re poor. Being broke is temporary, and you know you’ll do better.  When you believe you’re poor (even if you are in fact only broke), you know you’re going stay that way.  It’s a complete worldview where you are at the bottom, and there’s no way out.

I believe that many people nowadays believe that they’re poor, even though they have the resources to do better.   The same people you’ll find complaining about not making enough money, are the ones with a $400 car payment, expensive clothes and an $1800  TV.  The problem isn’t that they’re poor, the problem is they’re bad with managing money, and that they haven’t learned to do without. They want things, and they want them now!

If they were to sit down, come up with a financial plan,  and decide that they’re going to stop going into debt for things they don’t need (like $400 car payments and expensive TVs), they would most likely be able to turn their situation around.

Here’s a commentary from the Dave Ramsey forums a while back that really crystallized my feelings on the topic:

The American Dream is still very much alive and well. But rather than working for 10 or 20 years to get there, people want to have it NOW! Selfishness and lack of self-control are major reasons why so many people can’t “get ahead.” People want the big house, nice car, great neighborhood at 25 years old. What it took our parents 30 years to achieve, we want in 5 years.

If people take control of their financial lives…pay off student loans, credit cards, don’t buy/lease a new car for $500/mo.. and instead actually live within their means and save money to buy those things, they wouldn’t be in such a mess. People take on too much mortgage that they know they can barely afford – just look at all the foreclosures for people who knowingly bought a house they couldn’t pay for.

Its really not that hard to get out of debt and take control of your financial life. I am 29, my wife is 27. After finishing school, we took about 2 years to pay off all of our student loans, credit cards, and anything else that we owed to anyone (except our modest mortgage). $45k paid off in 2 years. Did we have to make sacrifices and actually live within our means? Absolutely. Was it worth it? I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Now, when everyone is complaining about high gas prices, it is only a minor annoyance to us. Many of those people complaining about not being able to afford gas make me laugh, as those same people are frequently paying a $400-700/mo car payment instead of driving something they can afford.

When you don’t have any debt and you control your money rather than letting it control you, you have a financial peace that is indescribable. Not only do you not worry about making your car or house payment or worrying about where grocery money is going to come from, you actually have money to save and invest and give to worthy causes. Stress in life declines dramatically.

So don’t have a pity party for yourself and cry “woe is me,” but instead make a plan and take control of your financial life.

It is easy to complain about where you are, and about how you’ll never be able to get ahead, but it’s another thing to actually take stock of your situation and start the hard work of making it better.

If you’re in that situation right now, make this the year where you change your life, and take control of debt.

Make this the  year that the little guy got ahead, and won!

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Last Edited: 21st May 2015

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  1. says

    Great post and good timing for me and my wife! We were just having this discussion this weekend in fact. Sometimes we get the feeling that we’re “poor”, but really at the worst we’re just newly-married broke people.

    It’s a hard battle going against the flow and saving for stuff. We dreamed of graduating from college, getting a good paying job and getting married. All that has happened, but we made a commitment to not go into debt for anything except a house. Now we have to watch all our friends get the nice cars, nice houses, all the new toys, etc. It sometimes gets discouraging and we feel “poor”.

    The truth is I do have a fairly secure, good paying job, and so far the economic crisis has barely affected us. We are both recent college graduates with no student debt :-)! We have all our needs paid for, and by the end of this year should have 4 months of living expenses saved away, and a newer car we’ll by cash in November. We’re not poor, we’re just saving our tails off starting a new family.

  2. says

    I agree with you to a point, but I think you’re assuming that everyone is on a level playing field and it’s just not that way. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunities that I have had and been able to make of them what I have, but I also have what I think is a pretty deep understanding that there are a lot of people in this world who have a lot more going against them in the battle to get ahead and I have a hard time blaming it all on a poor attitude.

    Now, if we’re talking about apples and apples – a bunch of middle class white people with similar backgrounds then yes, I think that attitude is a differentiating factor in what their financial picture looks like.

    Emily@remodelingthislifes last blog post..Shopping at TJMaxx

    • says

      I did put in the caveat in the post about there being legitimate reasons for people not being able to get ahead:

      “Are there legitimate situations where people can’t get out of debt because of medical bills, addictions or because they live in a third world country and are truly poor for reasons beyond their control? Yes.”

      I understand that there are some people in situations that they can’t control, I’ve seen them first hand through my father who worked in social work for many years, and at a local food shelf. There are truly some hard luck stories out there. I also think, however, they are the exception rather than the rule – especially in this country.

      I also think it is a duty of all of us that have moved beyond being broke (or the poor mindset) to help others that are still struggling.

  3. says

    From personal experience all I could say is that the key ingredient is time. About 3 years ago I was trying to figure out how I was going to pay for school. What did I do? I worked all summer and saved my money slowly. Then during the school year I continued working and slowly saving more and more. Now I am almost completed with my studies, debt free, invested my money wisely and ready to hit the real world without any financial stress at all.

    Studenomicss last blog post..Questions To Ask Yourself Before Attending University

  4. says

    Agree with FFb that it is a cop out. But sometimes people need a good wake up call to get them going. A little help never hurt and can certainly go a long way. It’s all about the attitude.

  5. says

    Thank you for your insights. You are absolutely right. Getting out of debt, living financially stress free, creating wealth etc. is a mindset and anything is possible if we’re willing to plan, work and pray. “For with God, nothing is impossible.” Luke 1:37. “…all things are possible to him who believes.” Mark 9:23
    I appreciate your biblical approach to money and finance and look forward to receiving your emails.

  6. says

    Great post! Even though it can be difficult, it can be done. Low income doesn’t mean a cycle of debt. It reminds me of my grandma’s ingenuity.

    She raised 7 kids on one income and made everything stretch. She hadn’t gone to high school, but she made sure all her kids got at least a high school diploma.

    She hated debt and while it took longer to obtain things, it was all heres when she got it. I’m trying to learn from her example and eliminate debt.

    Green Pandas last blog post..Weekly Round Up: Under the Weather

  7. says

    Interesting post. My opinion has changed since I’ve gotten older. I was a poor child who really worked hard, had focus, and was optimistic. I went on to get a BS in engineering, a master’s, and I’m pretty darned successful.

    But that doesn’t mean everyone can do it. Certainly, attitude is some of it. But not everyone can do X,Y, and Z. In the first place, my parents were poor, but not uneducated. They taught me the value of hard work. Some people don’t get that from the start.

    Also, there’s the natural skill set. Just as not everyone can be an engineer, not everyone can be a doctor, lawyer, accountant, pro basketball player, or famous musician.

    I think it can be really hard to get out of the mindset of “I can’t”. I will fully admit to listening to Dr. Laura on the radio, and I am surprised at how many people build themselves into a little box. “I can’t move closer to my child because my husband’s job is here.” “I can’t give my baby up for adoption, because, how could I?”

    Marcias last blog post..Roasted Potato Leek Soup

  8. says

    I think all of the info on this article is very good. I also think that there is much truth to simply learning to live within your means. What is not taken into account are the diverse ways life can change, especially for those of us over 45 who have a little more wisdom than those who are younger. Case in point.

    A father of two who experiences a divorce and job loss within the same year. His kids live at home two weeks out of each month. For the next two years, he works three part-time jobs to come half as close to the yearly salary he was used to. Keep in mind his previous spouses salary is no longer there to draw from either. In previous marriage, monthly expenses added up to about 60% of monthly income. At 24 months, house is sold under market value because of dense housing market, additional condo rental over the next year is sold on short sale. All of his retirement from the past 12 years is spent paying on mortgage of house which eventually sold under market value as well as other expenses such as medical for him and kids during time when there was no insurance. After new job gain, rentals, moving expenses, re-marriage 6 years later and 400.00 a month fuel expenses to keep the job after move, the man is just now starting to break even. Sure. the only debt he has is about 1100.00. While this is manageable, such statements as, “get over it” or better yet, “stop the excuses,” only serve a person who has not lived very long and had to really really suffer major change. Be careful how you word your opinions folks. It just might turn away the person who could benefit from some “additional” perspectives.

  9. says

    I agree – that mindset is a cop out! I’m not saying that bad things don’t happen, but we have a choice to respond to these bad things and we have a choice as to which actions to take. Whether you choose to complain or change is up to you.

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