Who Cares Who Had It Worse?
Do Millennials really have it worse? Or did Boomers really grow up walking to school uphill both ways? Does it really matter? That is where the conversation started, but it’s certainly not where it ended.
On this episode of the Because Money Podcast, we were joined by Chris Enns, a professional opera singer who blogs at Rags To Reasonable as he works to help artists tackle financial literacy. Lofty goal. His unique perspective and ability to find simplicity in our conversation was very refreshing. Chris was an absolute pleasure to have on the show, we are convinced you will enjoy, so go ahead, press the play button. We don’t mind.
Jackson: Jackson Middleton
Kyle: Kyle Prevost
Sandi: Sandi Martin
Chris: Chris Enns
Kyle: Welcome back to another sizzling episode of Because Money. My name is Kyle Prevost, and with me as always are Sandi Martin and Jackson Middleton.
We’re joined this week by Chris Enns from the website www.ragstoreasonable.com. Chris’ writing is surpassed only by his Trudeau-esque good looks, and angelic opera voice. [Chris laughs] Thanks for joining us, Chris.
Chris: Good to be here.
Kyle: Today we’re talking Generational Warfare—who had it harder, and why we might need to adjust our metrics and perspective, because that argument is only slightly insane.
So Chris, [laughs] we chatted a little bit a couple weeks ago just about how a different lifestyle doesn’t necessarily need to be worse or better when compared to those that came before. It can be maybe just as rewarding in a different way. Does that sort of characterize what we were chatting about?
Chris: It totally is, yeah. I think that sometimes the conversation gets really dumbed down—sorry, simplified—and you start to look at just a few different metrics to determine what you want your life to look like. And I think the conversation around money is a big one, you know.
If you have a net worth of “blank”, if you are making “blank”, then you will be living a fulfilling life, when really that’s not connected, or doesn’t necessarily have to be connected. People want different kinds of lives. Financially, the needs of every one of those lives is different, so why don’t we start with a question of that, and then build in the financial needs after, instead of in reverse.
Kyle: And I guess why we thought Chris would be a great guy to talk about this, maybe just talk a little bit about your background, Chris, because it’s kind of unique as far as personal finance bloggers go.
Chris: Yeah, I am not in a field that generally is known for its money wisdom. I grew up on a farm in Manitoba. So Kyle and I have a Manitoba connection. All the best people come from Manitoba and then a lot of them leave. [laughs]
But I kind of fell into an opera career, randomly. People ask me how that happened, and I don’t really know, but it happened. And somehow I’ve spent the last 10 years training and studying, and singing opera. Artists don’t have the best rap as far as, you know, financial know-how. And that’s earned on a certain extent, and at the same time it’s something I think we get some bad press. The starving artist is an easier thing to sell than the veteran actor who pays off their mortgage. It’s less of a sexy headline. [laughs]
But I came to it basically the way you would think, by doing everything wrong. Everything—I knew nothing about money—and just started to do it wrong, not epically, but just by making a thousand little mistakes that end up with CRA calling and telling you that apparently you have to, you know, pay all the taxes. [laughs]
Kyle: And no one deducted that from your cheques, right Chris.
Chris: I didn’t know you had to do that. And nobody kind of explained that. So then I started to look at it and I started to learn about the nitty-gritty of it, and I randomly fell in love with personal finance. And I have just kind of really developed a passion for how these little basics and how learning a few things about money—how money works, how many can be structured—can really be freeing. Even in a lifestyle where admittedly my goal is not to be rich. I don’t really care about amassing a huge net worth. I’m really interested in building up enough money and a structure that can support the lifestyle that I’ve chosen.
But the basics are the same. It doesn’t matter what the goal is; the basics are the same. It’s watching what you have. It’s making sure that you’re investing in a broader sense, not just investing in the sense that in the market in ways that you can grow over the long-term. But how do you want to invest your money in the short-term? How do you want invest your time in the short-term?
One of the conversations that really we start limiting on, is the fact that benefits are so much more than financial. The things you get out of an investment of time and money, you can’t just limit that to, “Oh, I got a 6% return” or “Oh, I got a 10% return”. You’re not just building a net worth, you’re building a life. And I think that’s one thing you want to talk about generational warfare. I think that’s one of the things that really characterizes the Millennial Generation. We’re interested in trying to find different ways to build our lives because certain avenues have been closed to us.
Sandi: Although, I would say, I think probably if we could put ourselves 40 years into the past, I imagine that our parents—if it’s even worthwhile to segregate people based on when they were born, like, “Oh, you were born in this decade, so therefore you’re this type of a person”. But probably everybody — whenever they lived — they really think about their own personal situation as, “I want to find meaning in my life”. And in the past that often looked like a career with a pension, and then you know you found meaning in other ways.
We have more tools, I would say, in the internet-connected generation. We have more tools, we have the opportunity to find different ways of working. So whether those things like lifetime careers with pensions are gone or they died because of this new generation coming up, I think it’s an opportunity rather than it something to bemoan.
Kyle: Yeah. I mean, when you look at the raw facts of this, there’s really no debate about sort of the raw monetary facts and the cost of things. And I’ve had many of these debates that I’m sure have changed a lot of mind with Boomer relatives and friends. And look, if your path to success is defined as sort of getting a minimal level of education to get into a corporate job and purchasing a house, it’s much harder. There’s no denying this, especially if you live in one of Canada’s urban centres, it’s in order of magnitude, exponentially more difficult than it was in the 60s and 70s.
But would I trade any of that difficulty for not having the internet? Not on your life I wouldn’t. [Chris laughs] I would be like—oh, what’s that ridiculous movie with blue guys and they have that connection to animals?
Kyle: And they have that connection to nature. I feel like that connection is like the internet for me; like I’m hooked, I’m mainframed to it. And I didn’t even grow up with a cell phone. So if that’s me, I can’t even imagine, like today’s generation is like living in the matrix. They don’t have a connection to it. They’re actually just seeing the world in ones and zeros—I don’t know.
But I wouldn’t trade it. So that’s like lifestyle. It’s hard to judge apples and oranges, and if you judge each generation by the current generation’s metrics, you’re like, “Oh man, your life was brutal”. It just doesn’t add up. [laughs]
Sandi: [laughs] So one of the things that sparked this kind of conversation, or this continuation of a previous conversation is this: many of us were at a conference last week, and Rob Carrick who of course our listeners probably are familiar with—at the Globe and Mail—stood up. The very first address of the conference was Rob talking about what he would like personal finance writers to pay attention to. And one of them was—and I really respect Rob, so this is not like a “Rob Carrick is wrong” kind of episode—but one of the things he said was that we need to pay attention to the fact that Millennials have it worse off than previous generations.
So, one of the questions I had, and I think maybe we’re just going to think it through out loud here, is: is it even worth paying attention to that? You know, as writers or as people who give advice, is our advice supposed to be, “Hey you young people, you have it worse off because you have lower incomes and you have higher costs of living, and you don’t have a defined benefit pension plan. So you should orient your life in ways to create those things for yourself. The goal is to have those, even though they’re not really around, the goal is to have something like those because that’s the standard.” It isn’t even a productive conversations to advise people in that direction. I don’t know, is it? [laughs]
Jackson: I’m going to guess and say no. I don’t know. From my experience, my dad was a railroader, a teamster. I mean, 30 years as a locomotive engineer.
Kyle: A man’s man.
Jackson: Absolutely, he went to work, he worked hard. I mean, my dad was a great example of what it was to be that. I remember the day when he realized that I’m not normal. And what is normal? [Chris laughs] Normal to him is go out, get a job, work hard, get a pension and be done with it. I mean, he’s retired now, living off on an island somewhere and it’s perfect for him. He’s got his pension. It will always be in his bank.
I make my living building websites on the internet on the side of a mountain, as we homeschool our kids, and I work in my underwear. That is just not even close to being in my dad’s previous frame of reference. And you can’t say one is better than the other; although I prefer my life over railroading. I mean, he did what he had to. I work on the internet for a living. It’s great, but I think it’s different now.
I’m just going to go to the Rob Carrick point; the reason Rob wants people talking about that is because that creates conflict, and that’s what media does. I mean, to just say the two are different—that’s boring. But to say let’s pit one against the other… that’s generational warfare, like we started. Oh now we’ve got controversy. Now we can talk about it. Anyway, those are my thoughts on the subject.
Kyle: I agreed with the awesome analogy that Jackson’s just threw out there. I pictured like he and his dad working beside each other, like juxtaposed. It’s like Rocky on one side then there’s like Jackson, like building super-cool aesthetic websites.
So I think it’s important, and I think what Rob’s doing is important for two reasons. I think one, he’s really trying to help Millennials, and if we try to take the same path as their parents, we either have to do it really, really smart, or we’re going to crash and burn. So in other words, if you just go to school for the sake of going to school—I mean we’ve had this conversation before—it’s going to end badly for you, if you don’t have that financial luxury of scholarships or parental help.
And if you just buy a house and are like, “Whatever, buy the most house I can afford”, just like your parents maybe did, by the same common sense advice your parents got, your going to crash and burn. You’re going to be house-poor forever, till you’re 65 or 70, if you look at the modern way of doing it. So I think he inadvertently maybe is trying to change that frame of reference.
And I think the only thing Rob does really well is he’s just trying to wake up the generation, that’s like kicking at Millennials all the time, being like, “Shut up and work harder. Go get a railway job”, and he’s trying to tell them “look that won’t work. There’s not enough railway jobs, number one. And number two, there are they all have a university degree that they’re in debt for [laughs], and don’t’ want to go work a railway job, because no one told them how this whole money thing works.”
So I think he’s doing good things. But you’re right, Sandi, he’s just sort of the bemoaning, just constantly throwing the stats out there, like “Yeah, you’re not going to be able to afford as many things on the same salary, because wages have stagnated”. It doesn’t really serve any constructive purpose, by in and of itself, and I don’t think. What do you figure, Chris?
Chris: I think that, you know, Jackson’s completely right about sensationalism is something we love, and it’s also something that — you know, Kyle’s a basketball fan, just like I am. And they’re constantly talking about, “Could Jordan beat LeBron?” You know, “Who had it tougher, the 70s Lakers or the current Warriors?” People love to take different generations and imagine what would happen if they were in the same sphere. And it’s a fun comparison, but at the same time it’s not useful because you have to play the game that’s in front of you. You know, that’s what players in the NBA are doing, and that’s really what we’re doing all the time. It’s like you can only play the cards you’re dealt, and so this is where I think that the problem is. Because I think that Rob is really trying and doing really well. He’s talking to Millennials; one of the few people that are in the mainstream media. But he’s also trying to educate another generation, and so it’s two-fold.
You’ve got the kind of statement that they have it harder than we did, or they have a harder than you think they did, is really valuable for Boomers to hear. But it’s not valuable for Millennials to hear, because I really think that the way you frame a conversation is it really echoes in how people act. And when you have a financial literacy problem, or at least not a huge amount of financial literacy, and you constantly you’re hearing—as a Millennial—things are harder for you, things are tough; you can really build up a victim mentality. And this is something that I talk about all the time in the Arts, because the Arts, and especially the Classical Arts, are changing like crazy. You know, funding is decreasing, audiences are decreasing, and we’re really having to reinvent ourselves as an industry.
So you can on one hand sit on the side and you can say, “I’m a victim, everything’s changing, there’s nothing I can do”. Or you can say exactly like Sandi was saying look, I have the ability as a single artist, as an entrepreneur, as a business owner, to connect to anybody in the world. I don’t need big organizations to create those connections for me. I have so many more tools, but I need to use them in a completely unique way.
So it’s the negativity of that one argument, as useful as it is to the Boomers, is I think it’s really detrimental to having in the Millennial brain because it can drag you back. It can keep you from saying, “I have so many tools, I have so many opportunities, and I have so much education. What am I going to do with it?” instead of “Things are way tougher on me. I’ll never gain wealth through the housing market. I’ll never gain wealth this way. How will I ever get ahead? How will I ever build the stability that my parents built?” And that should be the question that we’re asking.
How do we build stability in this new job market? It’s not going to be through the same channels, so how do you do it? Not “it can’t be done”, but “how is it done?”
Sandi: Oh, that is so super awesome. Sandi’s standard chime-in line—I really love that so much! [laughs] So when you’re talking about the victim mentality, and I don’t know if you guys remember this as being irritating, but in the years just post financial crisis ands immediately afterwards, people would talk about “in this economy…”
You’d have conversations with people and they would say, “Well, it’s the economy”, and you’d think “well yeah, but the economy isn’t one monolithic thing” where yes, as you were saying Kyle, you can point out facts about it: well, here’s the job rate and here’s the debt-to-income ratio, or whatever. Those are facts, but it doesn’t say anything about your own particular set of circumstances and opportunities, and values.
You still have to navigate, whatever those things happen to be, there’s nothing you can do to change them. There’s no knob and dial that you can turn and say, “Well, I want the economy to look like this” [boop-boop-boop] and then it’s done. You just have to deal with what you’re dealing with. And I wish that was the conversation more often.
Kyle: I love conversations about the economy. And I’m a little bit an overt high drive about this right now because of the election, and everyone says, “It’s the economy, stupid”, and everyone quotes Bill Clinton. And I think the line actually originated with one of his advisors—James Carville, I think it was.
Like it’s insane. It’s like talking about the middle class, and the middle classes is everyone who earns $30K a year to $250K a year. The economy, I mean you open up an Economics 101 book, most people that’s not what they think of in the economy. The economy to most people is their job. Their job and maybe their commute to work, and maybe their wife or brother’s job. That’s it. That is the whole economy to most people. So to say, “The economy is doing bad,” are you talking about the world economy?
The world economy is doing actually superb, relative to 50 or 60 years ago. Way more people are earning and can eat meat once a week than could 60 years ago. Are you talking about the Canadian economy? Because I can tell you the economy of rural Manitoba is vastly different than Toronto Ontario; which is vastly different from the Maritimes. So what are you referring to when you say “the economy”? And you make these statements about the economy for Millennials, and the economy for Baby Boomers. And now we’re throwing in all sorts of preconceived stereotypes that really have no relevance to anyone’s situation.
Jackson: Couldn’t agree more. Add the housing market to that one.
Kyle: Yes, that’s part of it.
Jackson: “The Canadian housing market” what, there’s no such thing.
Kyle: It’s actually just Toronto and Vancouver. That’s it. [Chris laughs]
Jackson: The economy and the housing market is local.
Sandi: Come to Gravenhurst and buy a house and then talk about the housing market. [laughs]
Kyle: The housing market, that’s another one that just blows my mind. Talking about Millennials and the housing market. We’ll save that for another day, Chris. But maybe even that is an interesting flashpoint? Chris, obviously with your career, you’re likely going to live in major urban centres for as long as you are pursuing your career. What do you think about buying a house? We look at it differently than our parents did, do we not?
Chris: I’m going to kind of answer your question, but kind of not. Just because when you guys were talking—these are all the things that we talk about when we talk about finance, right? And we talked about the market, we talk about the housing market, we talk about the economy. And I think you’re exactly right. My economy is my job and my specific industry. And the thing is that I’m a big fan of like why you worrying about all the things you can’t control? I grew up on a farm, and this is like classic farm wisdom.
Kyle: It’s my favourite kind.
Chris: You could be the best farmer in the world and never have a crop. Like, the weather happens. There’s so much that’s out of your control. So you do the 10% that you can and stop worrying about the rest of it. I think that all of these topics are generally distractions, and I think they’re generally things that you can talk in circles about and avoid actually coming to the real question of personal finance, which is what life do I want to build? What life do I want to build, and then worry about how? But then you have like have an “in” to these different markets.
If I want to build an urban life, then I have to figure out some way to solve an urban housing problem. If I want to build a life in the country, but my work is in cities, I’ve got to figure out how to solve that problem. But it’s ridiculous to try to jump into all of these issues for yourself. I think that we all like to talk about the general issues and different issues that different people have, because it’s interesting to us. But on a personal level that’s completely overwhelming for somebody that doesn’t really care about this stuff, and isn’t interested in this.
What people are interested in is their own lives. And I don’t mean that in a selfish way, because I don’t think that’s just a Millennial thing. I think, like Sandi said, Boomers 40 years ago were trying to figure out how to make a life just the same way, and with the tools that were in front of them. So it’s like the question at the heart of it all is like what is values? What are my values and how do I want to fulfill them? With a financial kind of focus, how does money help me get this? What kind of investments do I need to make to have this?
It’s a completely distractionary kind of topic to talk about “more” and talk about “gaining wealth”, and to talk about “solving the economy”. And it’s like these are beyond my pay grade. Like I don’t know how to solve the economy, are you kidding me? [laughs] I sing opera. That’s should be the last thing that I’m ever talking about.
But I can talk about how if the grass roots of a business—especially business that’s predicated on contractors and freelancers—is solid, financially. On a personal basis, they’re way more solid. The industry will be stronger—at least I think so.
The industry can’t help but be stronger, because you have people that aren’t desperately trying to fill jobs. You have a powerful grass roots, and in my specific industry, I think that would be really beneficial. Every industry is different. I don’t know what’s best for other industries. There’s too many things to think about.
That’s a big difference between the Millennials and other generations. We have so many options, and that’s an amazing power and it’s an amazing privilege, but it’s also completely overwhelming. And you have constantly this mantra in your head, like, “You should be this” and you should be this, and you should be this”, and it’s like you can’t do all those things. It’s impossible.
Pick some things and know that you are responsible for building your life. You can’t expect to sit around and get a job for 40 years and have a company provide your stability. Figure out how to find it. You know, you are responsible for building that, and you have the tools to do it. It’s just hard. Just hard. It takes a lot of work.
Sandi: It’s hard because the default is so strong. You know, and not everybody’s family default is or your life circumstance default is the same, but the people that you ran into in your town when you were growing up, or what your parents said, or your grandparents said, or your uncle Bill, or whatever , it forms this paradig just as you were saying, “I should do this. I should do this. I should do this”.
And if you don’t get a wake-up call from wherever that says “stop for one minute, just examine the things that you are defaulting to, and think about what you really want.” It doesn’t mean that if you spend a lot of time navel-gazing that suddenly you’re going to be successful in your finances, but…
Sandi: …but it’s still a worthwhile activity. And if I had one general piece of advice for everybody, spend some time navel-gazing, because that’s useful. [laughs]
Chris: Seriously. It is useful.
Kyle: And if you judge your success by a previous generation’s metrics, or even I guess to put it in the reverse by the current generation’s metrics—if you’re a Boomer—if owning your own home is the definition of success, and it certainly was at one point because I know my dad tells me stories like, “If you were a young man and you didn’t own your own home, you were not fit to marry.” Like that was the prevailing wisdom. You cannot financially support a family; you are not ready to go.
So if you judge yourself by that metric, one you’re going to make inefficient, non-ideal choices for yourself; especially in an urban environment. Don’t take it from me. Take it from a neuroscientist named Preet Banerjee—you should be renting. And that’s a hard concept for people to sort of wrap their head around, because again the traditional success was own a home.
So you may never own a home and be quite successful, and actually be better off personally in just the values and in a money sense—both. But then you have to throw away the other side of paradigms, and like Chris says, “Live according to your own values. Solve your own problems” in a modern context. Don’t you say, “Well housing values went up. I’ll never own a home”.
Jackson: And I couldn’t agree more, because I’m right there, right now. I’ve owned a home since pretty much… My brother dropped out of high school, got a job at the airport, bought his first home when he was 17; before he actually could. Like for real. So home ownership has always been there, and now I’ve got a family and wife, and four kids, and we’re renting. And it’s funny because we tell people we’re renting, it’s like, “Oooh. You’re in mortgages and you’re renting?” I was a mortgage broker for seven years.
But right now I just looked at it and said this doesn’t make sense for me to own a home. I like where we’re at. I like the freedom. I don’t fix things. I’ve got a broken toilet and a broken fireplace. My landlord’s coming tomorrow morning to fix them. That is awesome for me. But again, it goes back to what you guys were saying. I did, I took a good hard look at my life and said what do I want it to be.
I didn’t want to work as a mortgage broker, out in an office, 16 hours a day. I wanted to be a dad to my kids. I wanted to work at home, so I figured out a way that I could do that. We rent and we love it. We’re having the time of our life because we actually said, “What do we want?” and we actually went out and got it, and it’s kind of fun.
Chris: And I think that that’s the conversation that so often needs to be had more. More people hearing stories of why renting can be great, and the benefits. People throw out this insane simplification, “When you’re renting, you’re throwing your money away. You’re paying someone else’s mortgage”.
I just had a conversation about this yesterday. It was something like, “Well, that’s the stupidest thing you can do”, but really, I’m investing in the fact that I can leave tomorrow and take a job in another country, and I have no strings. I’m investing in flexibility, which my career demands, and which my lifestyle, which I want. That’s huge. That’s completely worth what I paid—which is a lot less than I would pay if I had a mortgage.
Kyle: So, don’t judge yourself by a previous generation, or anyone else’s standards, and you’ll be okay; whether you’re a Boomer or a Millennial. I love how this turned into a philosophical “Zen” advice session, as much as like a finance one. Keep your numbers economists. We’ve got lifestyle Zen [Chris laughs] on our side, baby.
So Chris, tell us a little more about Rags to Reasonable and where we can find you online.
Chris: You can find me at www.ragstoreasonable.com, and I’m sorry, I probably pulled the conversation to a little bit more of a “Zen” way. It really is what happens you ask an artist to talk about finance. I love the numbers, but the thing that really fascinates me—and this is a thing that I write about all the time—is how the personal side comes into it. And when you add people to money, it becomes a lot more complicated, but in a really beautiful way. And that money can be this really amazing tool to live a beautiful life, on a lot less money. How to take a little and make a wonderful life. And not the idea that you always need more, and that’s the thing that’s going to get you there. It’s that if you just take what you have and you learn to use it differently and efficiently, you can really make something really special. And that’s what I believe and that’s what I write about. You can find me at www.ragstoreasonable.com, or on Facebook or Twitter.
Kyle: Check out Chris’ site. I think it’s one of the most unique personal finance sites out there. Also, Jackson Middleton, no less an authority, that he has said that it’s a beautiful-looking, aesthetic.
Jackson: It’s a great-looking site.
Sandi: It is. It is.
Jackson: It’s very engaging very engaging. You’ve got a very engaging website, and it’s not cluttered. It’s very organized. Top shelf.
Kyle: There you go. And it even looks good on one of those Millennial smartphone things all the kids have these days. [laughs]
So that’s another episode in the hopper for Because Money. Thanks once again to Chris Enns, Jackson Middleton and Sandi Martin. I’m Kyle Prevost. Have a nice week.
Jackson: Thanks Chris. Good-bye: