The Habits of Highly Annoying Get-Rich Gurus

Coverage on Australian news

Sorry for the extended holiday hiatus everyone. Both Brendan and I have been really busy and have struggled to find time for blogging. But now we’re back, so why not let us start the year with something horribly depressing and infuriating – Happy 2014 everyone!

This is something I saw at the end of last year, and have been meaning to write about since. It’s a list of comparisons of the habits of the rich and poor compiled by a US money guru called Dave Ramsey, culled from a book by fellow money advice guy, Tom Corley. I wouldn’t normally write about the witterings of random “Biblically inspired” American financial advisers, but this list got a lot of  coverage last year in the States. Admittedly, a lot of the coverage was negative; but with 470,000 Facebook likes, it obviously struck a chord somewhere.

Here’s a sampling of the points Corley makes (you can read the full list of 20 here):

  • 70% of wealthy eat less than 300 junk food calories per day. 97% of poor people eat more than 300 junk food calories per day.
  • 80% of wealthy are focused on accomplishing some single goal. Only 12% of the poor do this.
  • 76% of wealthy exercise aerobically four days a week. 23% of poor do this.
  • 63% of wealthy listen to audio books during commute to work vs. 5% of poor people.
  • 63% of wealthy parents make their children read two or more non-fiction books a month vs. 3% of poor
  • 80% of wealthy make Happy Birthday calls vs. 11% of poor
  • 79% of wealthy network five hour or more each month vs. 16% of poor
  • 6% of wealthy watch reality TV vs. 78% of poor

The clear idea behind the list is that these are the reasons the rich are rich and the poor are poor. These are things that rich people have been doing to help them get rich, but that poor people for some reason shamefully refuse to do. The numbers are based on a small, selected sample of 233 wealthy and 128 poor people that Tom Corley observed (in the most detached, unbiased way possible, I’m sure) for five years.

Even putting methodology aside, some of these points are just self-evidently stupid. The rich are more focused on accomplishing a single goal? Well I imagine it’s a lot easier to focus on a single goal when goals like “Put food on the table”, or “Find the money to pay rent” are taken care of. The rich spend more time ‘networking’? What an amazing insight!

Other points seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with getting rich or staying out of poverty. The poor watch a lot of reality TV and don’t make Happy Birthday calls? How has this got anything to do with anything? Other than saying “Eurgh, look at the tacky TV poor people watch. And, they don’t even get their assistants to schedule birthday calls for important clients – are they even trying!?”. This is true even of the few points that actually have some wider evidence to back them up. There is a social gradient in healthy food consumption, and in exercise levels. But eating right and being thin aren’t going to get you out of poverty, let alone make you a millionaire.

A lot of people though, were impressed by this list. 470,000 of them looked at it and thought “Yeah, that sounds right – I should tell my Facebook friends about it”. Not because of the exact points it makes (which, as you can see, don’t really bear up to close inspection), but because of the support it offers for a lot people’s beliefs about poor people.  Basically that poor people are a different kind of person; a worse kind of person who is fat and watches trashy TV and is not like us – that’s why they are poor.

It’s so so tempting to think this way. To ignore all the things about our society that make poverty stick, that make life on a low income different and harder. The stresses and worries that, yes, can sometimes lead to decisions that are harmful, or aren’t perfectly optimised for financial success. For those of us who are doing OK, ignoring all that means we can feel like we’ve been actively doing something right. Whatever it is that makes poor people poor, we haven’t been doing it – so we can feel good about ourselves. It also means we don’t have to do anything economically to help the poor, we can just stand on the sidelines and tell them to listen to audiobooks and spend more time networking.

About Robert de Vries

I'm an Early Career Research Fellow in the Sociology department at the University of Oxford. I'm mainly interested in how people are affected by concerns about their social status; how it colours the way they think, feel, and behave. I try and contribute here regularly, but my addiction to writing excessively long posts keeps getting in the way.
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7 Responses to The Habits of Highly Annoying Get-Rich Gurus

  1. Liz says:

    It feels so ridiculous that this kind of nonsense finds a popular audience. Yet this and the ‘benefit street’-type narrative has become so popular that the idea of saints and scroungers goes completely unquestioned. How can we even hope for useful debate when this is the starting point?

    • Robert de Vries says:

      Yep – I really feel that way too. It’s really difficult to have a proper conversation when the starting point is “All benefit claimants are too lazy to get up from their big screen TVs (that they can afford because benefits are so generous)”.

  2. Pingback: The Habits of Highly Annoying Get-Rich Gurus | Inequalities | Stuff That Stood Out

  3. Ideas says:

    You make a good point in that there are many social and environmental factors which tend to perpetuate poverty. When someone is born into a poor family they will, unfortunately, have a built-in liability that will tend to keep them poor.

    The “success gurus” also have a point in that there are personal time-management choices that we can make (read a book versus watch reality tv) which impact our chances for success. I don’t get the sense that your review acknowledges the importance of this second point.

  4. tomcorley3954 says:

    It is easier to be a victim of your poverty than to accept responsibility and change your circumstances.

  5. Kayla says:

    Poverty is very much a state of mind. It’s a result of poor choices and the consequences of those choices. As a college student trying to scrape by, I always heard my friends talking about being a “poor college student.” I hate that term. I always said “broke.” Why?

    Because I was out of money for a short amount of time. I made REALLY hard choices to be different than my peers. I refused to take out loans (didn’t want my post-college paycheck going to lending institutions). I rarely ate out (once, maybe twice a semester). I worked my tail off at a minimum wage workstudy job. I didn’t have a car my freshman year. I chose a college I could afford.

    I chose to live in a way that probably looked “poor” to outsiders, but it has had huge dividends. I can be a stay at home mom now, while we finish paying CASH for my husband’s degree (and he works as a pizza delivery driver). We made -and are making- choices that go against the grain of society but that will put us ahead in the long run.

    We aren’t rich yet, but we are by no means poor. Fair is not equal; equal is not fair, by the way.

  6. Robert de Vries says:

    Hi Tom and Kayla, thanks for taking the time to reply.
    I would never claim that people have absolutely no responsibility or power to affect their own lives. It can and clearly does happen. Some of the advice that people like you, Tom, offer on things like money management and goal setting can even be helpful (some of the other things on the list, less so…).

    However, there are structural factors at play in our economies and societies (both in the U.S. and here in the U.K.) that a) create unnecessary poverty and b) tend to trap poor people in their circumstances. Put simply, it is harder for a poor person to become not poor than it is for a rich person to stay rich. It takes an extraordinary (or very fortunate) person to achieve wealth coming from a poor family, whereas it really doesn’t take much to get by coming from a wealthy one.

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