Neal Gabler's cover story about the hidden financial struggles of the middle class sparked a firestorm of attention. Here, we talk with him about the personal story behind his revolutionary confession, and how it feels to live the truth.
Open Account is a series of podcasts hosted by SuChin Pak about why money is so universally thrilling, confusing, powerful, and stressful — no matter how much, or how little, you have.
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Open Account was created in partnership with Umpqua Bank, the West Coast’s largest and most unconventional community bank.
SuChin Park: Our guest today, Neal Gabler, has been in the press a lot lately. He wrote a recent Atlantic article titled, "The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans." In it, Neal exposes the personal and systemic factors leading to his very current financial problem. The article is unprecedented, vulnerable, and provocative. It's impossible to overstate the response. Dozens of reaction pieces, thousands of comments on social media, nearly a quarter million shares - Neal really hit a nerve. He's an award-winning journalist with 4 decades of published work, the author of several books, a respected film critic and professor, but he's also one of the 47% of Americans that, according to a 2013 Federal Reserve study, are unable to come up with $400 in cash in an emergency. While the Atlantic article details the personal decisions and the financial illiteracy that led he and his family to a teetering point, it also begs the question:
SuChin Park: What is an American middle class if it can't access the resources to handle minor bumps in the road? Neal's confession is shocking and important, but what he wrote about how he got there - Is what sucker-punched me. His article exemplifies why we make this podcast: Money, shame, confusion; and why we'd rather talk about our bedroom issues than our financial issues. It's the exact reason why we're here. To dismantle the mystery and fear around money through honesty and humor. Sitting with Neal, face-to-face, with the man who many would look up to, he's an incredibly accomplished professional and devoted father, who feels every day like he's just barely keeping his head above water. In bringing light to his shame, in being brutally honest and open about his financial frailty, he would say, out of all of the things he's written over the years, it's been the one he's most proud of. So here's Neal Gabler, in his own words.
SuChin Park: Neal, thank you so much for sitting down with us.
Neal Gabler: Thank you so much for inviting me.
SuChin Park: I know your phone has been ringing off the hook since this article came out.
Neal Gabler: This article got a greater response than anything I've ever written.
SuChin Park: Yeah.
Neal Gabler: People were actually seeking out my email, it's not publically available, and write to me their stories. And, perhaps the best of them, in some ways, was the most succinct of them. It was from a fellow who just said, "I'm a broadcaster in Iowa, thank you, thank you, thank you. Now I know that I'm not alone." And that's precisely why I wrote this piece. Not because I wanted to out myself, or humiliate myself, both of which I did, but uh - [SP laughs, both laugh] Because I wanted to give some solace - To people who are in a similar predicament, but who didn't know that there are others in the same leaky boat with them. I'm in that leaky boat. I drilled a lot of holes in the bottom of that boat. And I'm, I'm with them. And I think they appreciated that I shared this, and I appreciated that they shared their stories with me.
SuChin Park: Sitting down with a person who does "this", for a living....
Neal Gabler: And writing, as any writer will tell you, is about as an unstable a profession as there can possibly be.
SuChin Park: And continues, you know - [laughs]
Neal Gabler: And continues to get worse. [laughs, both laugh heartily] As bad as it was, when I started -
SuChin Park: I mean, we don't want to discourage any young people -
Neal Gabler: I often say to my students, y'know, "Writing is not a profession, it's an addiction."
SuChin Park: Yes. [laughs]
Neal Gabler: If you have the addiction, then you have to do it, you have no choice. But if you think of it as a profession, run out of the room -
SuChin Park: Yes.
Neal Gabler: And do something else!
SuChin Park: [laughs]
Neal Gabler: But I have the addiction.
SuChin Park: Your work, and your day is primarily just you, in front of, y'know, your computer.
Neal Gabler: Y'know, writing is an extremely solitary profession.
SuChin Park: Yeah.
Neal Gabler: And my writing, particularly, I never write about myself, I don't think that I'm all that interesting, to be perfectly frank. This was one of the rare times, this piece for Atlantic, was one of the rare times that I ever wrote about myself.
SuChin Park: And, uh, like you said, the, the response has been so overwhelmingly... Personal.
Neal Gabler: Well, I call it "financial impotence."
SuChin Park: Yeah.
Neal Gabler: And I call it financial impotence, this, this notion of not having enough money, because it has the same characteristics as sexual impotence. And men, believe me, will never talk about sexual impotence, no matter how close you are to, to someone, I've never had that conversation, with any friend, who's ever said to me, "Oh, by the way, Neal," but financial impotence, in some ways, is an even greater barrier. And, and I broke that omerta, so to speak. I had people walk up to me in the grocery store - Several people, coming up to me and saying, "Gosh. Let me tell you my story." People are so pent up with their sense of financial impotence, that they're dying to get it out!
SuChin Park: For those who are listening, that haven't read the article, give me kind of, the career path, and then some of the decisions that led you here, to this financially tricky place.
Neal Gabler: Well, let me just start by saying, that if you were to look at me, or if you were to look at my resume, or, to look at my tax return, you wouldn't think that I would be in financial difficulty, and yet I am.
Neal Gabler: One of the triggers for this piece was a survey by the Federal Reserve, which asked, "If you had a $400 emergency, could you afford that emergency?" 47% of the respondents, which are 47% of Americans, did not have $400 to meet an emergency without selling something, or borrowing money. Now, what was astonishing, only because I didn't realize so many people were in the same predicament that I was in. So that's the setup of where I'm coming from, but, how I got there, was, I made decisions without thinking of financial consequences because we don't usually live that way.
SuChin Park: Um, when you read the statistic about the 47% of Americans that couldn't cover that $400 - You could have easily interviewed one of those Americans, but you instead decided to write about yourself. Why?
Neal Gabler: Because I had thought I had to put my own face on it. I thought, it would be very clinical for me to go and find one of those people, and to discuss their situation. But it would also be dishonest.
Neal Gabler: Because, I'm in that situation, I'm pretending in a way that I'm not. This is about me. This is about my situation. I could have written that article, but I don't think it would have had had anywhere near the impact.
SuChin Park: For us, here, with this podcast, I mean, that's why this whole team wanted to do this project. Because once you start to tell your deepest, darkest, secrets, then everybody kind of comes into the light. And in that collective light, I think there's a lot of healing, and information -
Neal Gabler: I couldn't agree more.
SuChin Park: And there's so much more there, than it is, in isolation, on your own.
Neal Gabler: Actually, I said the trigger for the article was that survey that showed 47% of Americans couldn't afford $400, but the real, final, push, was when I was at my grocery store, talking to my friend, my butcher, Brian, who - One of the only people who opened up to me about his financial difficulties, we would always say, "Hey, how ya doin'?" And he's say, "Eh, not so good," he would ask me how I was doing, "Ehhh, y'know," we would have that sort of exchange, and I remember one day he said to me, and I quoted this in the piece, he said, "If anybody tells you that they're doing well, that they're just sailing through, they're lying."
Neal Gabler: And, that may not be entirely true, but there's a lot of truth in it.
SuChin Park: What is your first memory of money?
Neal Gabler: My father, ironically, given my financial situation, was an accountant. And I think, in some ways, he was an accountant, because he was a Depression kid, grew up very poor, so his life was very much directed towards overcoming his childhood. We heard a lot about money in my house. My father talked a lot about it.
SuChin Park: In what sense, like, what was the emotion, or the content of it? I want to know what it felt like, in your house.
Neal Gabler: Well, I'll tell you, there were several dimensions to it. One was, he was very proud of how much money he was making. He wasn't a wealthy, wealthy man, but he was doing well. For someone who didn't have a college degree, in fact, he later went back, in his 60s, and got his college degree, by going to school at night, which is a very impressive feat, and at the time, did not impress me anywhere near enough, as it should have done.
Neal Gabler: But, y'know, he would boast about how much money he made, things which, on a young kid, made absolutely no impression, and as I got older, and, and, y'know, I was of the Vietnam counter-culture generation, only made a negative impression on me. So there was that. But he was also, at the same time, extremely frugal. We lived in a very modest house. He drove modest cars, we didn't travel, we didn't do any of the things that, were commensurate with the kind of income that he was making. So we got this kind of, double message, which was, y'know, "You work hard and you make as much money as you possibly can, but you don't spend any money." And you see how well I learned that lesson.
SuChin Park: [giggles]
Neal Gabler: And I know, psychologically, I've lived my financial life, probably, in rebellion, against my father. Money meant very little to me. Uh, I went to law school. Much to my parents' joy, and after two years, I realized I never wanted to practice law. And, so the joy of my parents', was immediately dashed.
Neal Gabler: But it was because I didn't really care about money. I really wanted to follow my bliss. I really wanted to do the things that would make my life satisfying, in the fullest sense, and I was never thinking about money when I made those decisions. And I certainly didn't want my life to be driven by money. I'd seen my father's' life driven that way, and, although again, in retrospect, I understand fully why he did that, I didn't wanna live looking for that kind of financial reward. I wanted to live with the emotional, psychological, and even moral reward of doing the kind of work I do, which is, y'know, writing. I dropped out of law school after 2 years, and pursued a writing career.
SuChin Park: That's a, that's a choice.
Neal Gabler: That's a choice.
SuChin Park: Yeah. Absolutely.
Neal Gabler: I chose to live in New York, because I wanted to be near the intellectual pulse, and the writing pulse of the country. That was a choice, it's expensive to live in New York.
Neal Gabler: I could have lived in some rural area somewhere, but I wouldn't have had the same energy, or the same resources, to be frank. I chose to get married. I mean, that's a choice. I chose to have children. And I have two wonderful daughters who are the light of my life, and I love them more than anything in the world, but that's a choice. And I chose to send them to private school, I, y'know, do not have the "keeping up with the Joneses" syndrome. But I do have the "wanting my children to keep up with the Joneses' children's" syndrome.
SuChin Park: It only heightens when you have kids. Before that, I was, sort of, blasé blasé, y'know, what will be, will be, and then you look at your kid, and you're like, "I gotta get braces for him, look at his front tooth is a little funky, that haircut, we gotta go to that expensive haircut place and get him a cool haircut..." So you start to make choices.
Neal Gabler: And you make choices. And, a lot of the letters and emails and things I got, are people who are saying, "We were O.K. until," "Until we sent our kids to college, and that wiped us out." Well, guess what, it wiped me out too, and I didn't even pay the full freight for my children's education.
Neal Gabler: Because my parents, that father who was so focused on money, y'know, picked up a lot of the money, uh, the tuition, and whatever, for my children. But they went to good schools. And I'm happy they did. And, and, you don't have to go to a brand-name school or whatever to be successful, obviously not, but you do want to give your kids every possible advantage. I did, as a parent.
SuChin Park: Was it that moment, when you had to send the kids to school, that you were like, "Wow. Now I've crossed over this line that I've been very close to my whole life, as a writer," but this is what put you over the edge.
Neal Gabler: When I sent the kids to school, that was really the, the knockout blow. Now, there were other things, other considerations. When we moved, I lived in a co-op. And, the, other members of the co-op, for whatever reason, and it was their own reason, which they never shared with me, would not allow me to sell that co-op when I had buyers' comp - And I had to carry that house, and pay a rent, and ultimately I was able to buy my house, so for a while I was carrying both the mortgage of my co-op, and the mortgage - These things kill you.
Neal Gabler: We all live in an ongoing series of calamities. I don't know of any individual who doesn't have a series of calamities. Life doesn't operate where, you make a certain amount of money, you pay your bills, you move on from day-to-day-to-day. No! What happens is, you make your money, you pay your bills, and then a new bill comes up that's completely unexpected. You need your roof to be repaired, or, I have two dogs, and one of my dogs needs veterinary care. Or, you need a new car. I can't afford a new car, but I have a 1997 Toyota Avalon, and it needed a serious repair very recently, and these things, which happen on a daily basis, these are the emergencies that wipe us out.
SuChin Park: Can you speak of a moment that specifically, over your life, where you still feel like, "Woah, man, that was really tough."
Neal Gabler: Years and years and years ago, my wife was working at the time, and we had a child care person, to whom we were very close. And we got to the end of the week, and - The decision had to be made, do we pay her, which would have cleaned us out completely, or do we ask her, could she wait a week? And I felt, frankly, I couldn't do that to her because she was in the same situation. So we paid her. And we had no money. And, I remember this vividly because my wife, maybe 2 years earlier, had found a $100 bill on the street. And she said, "This is my lucky $100 bill. I'm never going to spend this $100 bill."
Neal Gabler: And we got to that weekend, and we paid the childcare person, and we had no money, and we had the two children, who were young, then - And, I said, "You know, we're going to have to spend that $100, we can't get through the weekend." And we had a - a big argument, about it. I said, "Your choice is to hold onto the $100 or to feed the kids this weekend. I, I think the - the choice has to be, to feed the kids." And she finally agreed and gave me the $100, and I went out and bought food and we made it through the week and I got paid, and she got paid.
Neal Gabler: Y'know, so, we - we survived those, 4-5 days, or whatever it was. But to this day, my wife doesn't let me forget, about my taking her lucky $100.
SuChin Park: It's so hard to describe to someone, who hasn't lived paycheck-to-paycheck.
Neal Gabler: And you go to the, even to this day, you go to the mailbox every day, and you hope that that check for that piece that you wrote 4 months ago, is gonna be there. And you dun the people for whom you wrote the article. "Oh, yeah, it's being processed, it's in accounts payable or whatever," and they don't know. And you can't say, because you don't want to look desperate, you don't want to say, "Look it, I need that money now! I wrote the article 4 months ago," it's another aspect of financial impotence that you can't express your desperation, but you're desperate.
SuChin Park: You title this article, "My Secret Shame." When you're in that boat alone, it does feel shameful, doesn't it?
Neal Gabler: Oh, absolutely. You don't want to get up in the morning, because you feel the sense of shame. You can't sleep at night, because money worries will keep you awake in the middle of the night, you will bolt upright in bed, and think of something. You don't want to go to the mailbox, because you know there's going to be bills, but you're not sure there's going to be a paycheck. You don't want to answer the phone. Because there are times when you're worried that there's - It's going to be somebody dunning you. You don't want to look at your bank account, because if you've been in my situation, I've had my bank account levied. And I'm always afraid, to this day I'm afraid, of going to my bank account and seeing whether I might see red there, because someone's taken my money. You argue with your wife. Everyone who is in a financial situation argues with his or her spouse. Many people argue with their children. Or they lose the respect of their children. I, fortunately, was not in that case, but I have friends, who've, since I've written this article, have opened up to me, and their children turned on them! Not because they're bad kids, but because they say, "Well, you don't have the money that I need to do such-and-such a thing."
Neal Gabler: You recede from the world. Because you don't want to deal with people. You don't want to socialize, because you have this deep, dark secret, which is absolutely, y'know, hollows you out.
SuChin Park: And, and you said it - It's interesting, too, that - There were times that you hadn't spoken to your wife, about how close you were to that.
Neal Gabler: I couldn't tell her. When, when we were in deep financial straits, we still are, I'm not saying we're out of this, but, my feeling was, "Okay, now. Do I tell her, when she can't do anything about it, I'm the only one who can even remotely do anything about it, and I'm doing everything I can, or do I protect her?" So - I - I took a very protective kind of view.
SuChin Park: Does she now, in hindsight, appreciate that -
Neal Gabler: Absolutely does not appreciate it, and she is incensed. I mean, I will be frank about it. She is incensed that I hid these things from her. Y'know, my intentions were good, but she very well may be right.
SuChin Park: So I'm curious now, with this out in the open, did you tell her you were writing this article, and, what's that dynamic like?
Neal Gabler: That's a great question. She knew I was writing the article, I told her. I said, "I'm going to open up." I told my wife, "I'm writing this piece." But I also told her, I said, "I don't want you to read the piece. I don't think I could write in quite the same way, if I knew you were going to be reading it. So promise me that you won't." And she made that promise, and to the best of my knowledge, she has not read the piece.
SuChin Park: Wow!
Neal Gabler: Now I asked my children to make the same promise. And... they did not keep the promise.
SuChin Park: [laughs] So, there's no way -
Neal Gabler: They did. Kids, kids don't do that. The, the second most gratifying thing about writing the piece, the first was getting the kind of response I got from, people who were in my predicament, but the second most gratifying thing, was getting a call from my younger daughter, who was crying, and said, y'know, "Dad, this is the best thing you've ever written, and the most important thing you've ever written." That made me feel so good, because even after writing the piece, and even after it was published, I had doubts whether or not I should have done this, I, y'know, I'm, I'm a very private person.
Neal Gabler: An extremely private person, and I wasn't sure I should have opened myself up this way. But when my daughter told me that - I've never had a doubt since that phone call.
SuChin Park: Has it been a cathartic experience for you? Or has it been a painful experience?
Neal Gabler: Both painful and cathartic. I mean, it was painful to write the piece, and it's still painful now. There's been a certain catharsis in it, in the sense that, it has connected me, to this very, very large community, of people who... Y'know, range from, y'know, factory workers and salesmen and academics and writers, who wrote me, and said, "You have told my story," So, there's been that catharsis. But, when it comes to money, frankly, you can never be fully purged. I think that can only happen if the national mindset changes - I was taught to believe, "If you work hard, you will be successful. If you are not successful, it is because you didn't work hard enough."
Neal Gabler: That's how we think of our lives. By that standard, I am a failure. I don't think I am a failure in other ways. Am I a failure in terms of my work? Well, you can't work harder than I do - But I'm a failure by the way that most people in this country are measured.
SuChin Park: Mm.
Neal Gabler: Should we measure people differently? Y'know, it's self-serving of me to say, "Yes, we oughta measure people differently, as failure, by the financial standard, of course I think we ought to be measured differently!" But, y'know, it's shameful. To know that you failed, no matter how hard you work. … We need more than simply financial education. We need to re-orient ourselves mentally, in terms of what the American Dream is, and how we fit into it. And we have to adjust ourselves to understand that finances are not everything in life. That would go a long way, towards changing this winner-and-loser mentality. We have to - Allow people to feel that sense of success, so they won't feel the sense of shame.
SuChin Park: And is that how you would redefine, this definition of the American Dream?
Neal Gabler: Absolutely, I would. And I think it would make a tremendous difference. Obviously, psychologically, it would make all the difference in the world. But I think it would also make a big difference financially. If people understood, that, "Y'know, having all those things, that I was told I was supposed to have, to be successful, really is not a measure of success, and I can't have them anyway -" Yeah, that would make a big difference. It would've made a big difference, I think, in my life.
SuChin Park: That is how some would define, "Keeping up with the Joneses."
Neal Gabler: We are a national "Keeping up with the Joneses." And we can't do it. I can't do it. And those who are doing it, may have to make tremendous sacrifices in terms of the other things that can make their lives successes.
SuChin Park: What has changed for you? What kinds of decisions do you feel that you're making differently, financially, to hopefully get you in a better place?
Neal Gabler: Well, one thing I've done is, I have no credit cards. That was the decision that was made jointly by the credit card companies, and by me. [laughs] I can't say that that was completely on my account. [SP laughs] I buy nothing on credit now, nothing. If I can't afford it, I don't buy it. I have a debit card, that's all I have. Any debt that I have, I am paying down. It's not easy, because that can cost a significant amount of money, and that means that there isn't money to spend, not for extravagances, but for the day-to-day living expenses. So, I don't have a cushion. And we live, very, very frugally. We don't go out to eat, almost never. I was a film critic, but I seldom go to movies now. You look at every aspect of your life, and you tighten it.
SuChin Park: If you could take back one financial situation that you've made, in your past, that could have set you on a different trajectory, perhaps, today, what is that one decision that you could take back?
Neal Gabler: ... That's a very difficult question to answer. When I bought the co-op? I mean, that was a decision that - I was at the mercy of other people, and I didn't think that through, I thought, y'know, "When the time comes, I'll sell this co-op," and I, I think, you always need to look at your financial decisions, and say, are they contingent on other people? Or, are they only contingent on me? Buying a home is usually contingent on others. Then, I think you might wanna think twice, three times, four times, or five times, before you make that commitment. And, in my case, buying this little co-op in Brooklyn, I didn't think that they were going to force me to hold onto that for two years - We never set foot in that apartment. It was empty for two years. And I did it, because I wasn't in control of the financial destiny of that apartment.
Neal Gabler: The people in the co-op were. So that's another thing to always keep in mind. Y'know, if you make a decision, are you the one who controls the decision?
SuChin Park: What would you tell your younger self then, knowing what you know now?
Neal Gabler: "Be cautious, understand the consequences of your decisions." You have to understand the consequences of every decision that you make. If you decide to be a writer, that's going to scale back your life, than when you decide to be an attorney. Y'know, if you send your kids to private school, then it's kind of like the federal budget, where if you spend money on one thing, but you have to cut on something else. So you just have to be aware, at all times, that every decision you make, has reverberations. And you have to understand those reverberations, and either you live with them, or you don't. But that's what I would have told myself.
Neal Gabler: My real problem was certainly decisions I made, and the optimism that I had in making them. Y'know, I mean, I lived within this kind of nimbus of optimism, that, no matter what I encountered, I would always overcome it. Well, optimism can be your worst enemy as well as your best friend, but the other side of this is, that, y'know, expenses grow. But our incomes have not. And that is not just on us. We have stagnant wages in this country. We have stagnant, even declining net worth in this country. That's part of something that's much larger than any single individual. And that is something that is way above my pay grade, to be able to deal with, but it's something I deal with on a daily basis. … All my life, from the time that I was very small, my feeling was always, that there's a moral dimension to life. And it's not the moralistic dimension to life, that we often hear about, that's rather church-y or whatever.
Neal Gabler: For me, the moral dimension of life is that you are committed, to doing everything that you do, with a sense of excellence. That is the morality of writing, that you try and write as excellently as you possibly can. Or of teaching, or of childrearing, or of friendship. Of anything you do. And, I do try and live, as best I can, with all of the errors that I make, y'know, a value-driven life. And that is defining values as trying to give everything you do, everything you've got. Yeah, we could have done things differently. But - If we'd done things differently, we wouldn't be who we are. We are the sum of the choices we make. Even the bad choices we make. I made a lot of bad choices, but on the other hand, I am who I am, and I'm proud of my work, and I'm proud of my family, and those are also the product of choices, including financial choices, that I made.
SuChin Park: But I also think that this could be an opportunity for all of us to look at what we touched upon here, the untying of self-worth to our economic situations, the things that we have, the things that we own.
Neal Gabler: I couldn't agree with you more. Our own personal salvation is to say, "I'm not going to judge myself, or let other people judge me, by my economic worth." We can't, obviously, control how other people will judge us, but - Life's too short to worry about those things. We can't control those things, but we can control how we feel about ourselves. And we work towards that. To say, "My life has been a success. Even if my bank account doesn't indicate it."
SuChin Park: Yeah. That's what it is.
SuChin Park: My husband and I are living in a house that we really can't afford. Dipping into our savings to send our kids to private schools, living just beyond our means, like everyone else on our block. Making small choices every day because we may be too proud or afraid to make different ones. The thing about failure, or perceived failure, is that it's an incredibly isolating experience. Nobody wants to admit it, and nobody wants to be around it. By making this conversation public, yes, we can make different choices. But it's just as important that there is humanity, vulnerability, and hope about how to make it better. Our belief in making Open Account is that the learning lies in connection, you can't really get it unless someone shares first, says, "This is me," and everyone finally gets to nod along, and yes, start to open up.
SuChin Park: So that's it for this episode of Open Account. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes to catch up on past episodes, and stay tuned for a lot more. Umpqua Bank's vision to build a healthier relationship to money for everyone, y'know, no matter how much or how little you have, it inspires them to have these kinds of conversations every day. Learn more about their team and their approach to community banking at MadeToGrow.com.