For my American readers who aren’t familiar, allow me to start with a short introduction on who the hell Gail Vaz Oxlade is.
Vaz-Oxlade was born in Jamaica in 1959, emigrating to Canada in 1977. She worked as an administrative assistant and in marketing, before turning a gig writing a RRSP guide for a bank into a full-time job freelance writing about finance, eventually writing 27 different columns a month. After quitting for a couple years – citing burnout – she was asked to host Slice TV’s new reality show ‘Til Debt Do Us Part, a show which gave $5,000 to couples who took actionable steps to improve messy financial situations. The show ran from 2005-2011, and the spinoff Prince$$ (which profiled young women with poor money habits) came shortly after. Vaz-Oxlade is also the author of many personal finance books. Thanks, Wikipedia.
Canadian readers probably don’t need much of an intro to Vaz-Oxlade’s work. She’s one of the biggest celebrities in the personal finance world in Canada, her shows are watched (and live-tweeted) almost religiously, and many of the female PF bloggers view her as a hero.
Personally, I don’t have much of a problem with Vaz-Oxlade. Sure, I find her advice pretty simple, and none of it applies to me. It’s not that her advice is necessarily bad, it’s just that it’s too simple for people who have the basics of their finances under control. My problem isn’t controlling my spending, it’s investing my savings to maximize my returns. But I’m not about to complain about her advice, since that would be the equivalent of going into a 5th grade math class and making fun of the kids who can’t do long division. Everyone has to start somewhere.
However, there’s clearly not much love for Vaz-Oxlade outside of the PF community. Is it her no-nonsense tough love approach to young couples with money troubles? Is it her attitude, which can pretty easily be interpreted as a little rough around the edges? Are people just getting tired of her message? I dunno, but the evidence is pretty clear.
Vaz-Oxlade has been pushing the same message that every personal finance author in existence has, and that’s to pay down consumer debt. People have to live within their means, pay down their debt, and everything will be all better. This message is pretty simple, but people just don’t seem to get it. They’re ignoring me, other finance bloggers, and especially Vaz-Oxlade, who has the means to influence an audience bigger than all the other Canadian finance blogs combined.
From 2008 until now, the average Canadian’s consumer debt (excluding mortgages) rose $6,500. That’s a 29% increase, and it happens to mesh quite nicely with the height of Vaz-Oxlade’s popularity. And this doesn’t even include housing, which is more expensive than ever across Canada. Now the only question is whether Canadian consumers are doing this intentionally as a slight to Ms. Vaz-Oxlade, or whether it’s an unrelated phenomenon. Whatever the case is, it’s pretty obvious her message is falling on deaf ears.
Sure, there are people who tell Vaz-Oxlade about their accomplishments via Twitter (which she immediately retweets, because she’s making a difference!) but the numbers don’t lie. These people are clearly in the minority, or else national numbers would be going down. We can’t even blame this primarily on young people either, since it’s obvious baby boomers are just as maxed out as their children. With no one else to blame, I’m doing the obvious, and that’s pointing my finger at Gail Vaz-Oxlade.
Now, of course, nobody can actually blame Vaz-Oxlade, no matter what I, your undisputed GOD, put in the last paragraph. The issue isn’t that simple, and blaming her doesn’t address other factors which surely play a part – like easy access to credit, credit becoming something that’s acceptable in our society, the growth of credit to non-prime borrowers, and so on – but at what point do so called “gurus” have to throw up their hands and admit some sort of defeat? And no, the smile from helping one person isn’t reward enough, not when you have a national platform reaching millions of people.
It’s obvious we have a financial literacy problem in this country. And sorry folks, the way to teach it isn’t to make it some mandatory class for 15 year olds who couldn’t give two craps about it. Just because you or I are passionate about something, doesn’t mean we can influence anyone who doesn’t want to learn. And if the sampling of people I know are any indication, people don’t really think they’re doing that bad, financially speaking.
We’re all collectively not making a big difference here. Blogs aren’t working, banks obviously have no incentive to get people to cut down on debt, and gurus like Gail Vaz-Oxlade aren’t putting a dent in rising debt rates either. If you think the solution is another website or some class devoted to personal finance basics, you’re nuts.
Maybe Singapore’s model can work in North America. The details can be found via this link, but the gist of it is that the government forces its citizens to save 40% of their wage (costs split equally between employer and employee) into their own retirement savings. It not only creates huge amounts of capital for people to invest – hence, stimulating business – but it ensures that even if people wallow in debt their entire working lives, at least their retirement will be taken care of.
Yeah, the Singapore model is a little nuts, but there’s no doubt it has contributed to the success of the tiny country. I’m not sure if it’s the answer, but I’d put my weight behind that over another website promoting financial literacy, some course, or Gail Vaz-Oxlade’s TV version of tough love. It’s time to think outside the box.