Seán Moncrieff: Judging others about their money is a thrill
There’s something delightfully righteous about tut-tutting over the money habits of others
This hole-digging leaves you with no option but to tap again. And it fails again, prompting more protests from you. Too late now though. The queue behind you is growing. You have to slink out of the place, coffee-less.
That small rectangle of plastic can really ruin your day. You know, you’re in the queue in the coffee shop to get your zero-fat oat milk frozen latte. You tap your card. But the server suddenly gives you That Look: the one reserved for catastrophic news. You have a terrible skin disease. Your house burned down and your insurance has expired.
“Sorry, that didn’t go through.”
No matter how quietly they say it, everyone behind you knows what’s happening. They’re watching and judging. Instinctively, you launch into an immediate defence of your finances; “I don’t know how that happened. I checked my balance this morning”. You’d whip out a bank statement if you could, to show that you have loads of money. Just look at the fancy coffee I drink.
This hole-digging leaves you with no option but to tap again. And it fails again, prompting more protests from you.
Too late now though. The queue behind you is growing. You have to slink out of the place, coffee-less. Or perhaps even worse, endure the indignity of getting free caffeine, just to get the queue moving again. Which means you have to stand there, waiting for it, knowing that everybody else knows that you didn’t pay for it. Freeloader.
In truth, probably everyone in the shop has had a similar experience, except in their cases, there was all sorts of mitigation unique to them. They wouldn’t go blowing their money on fancy coffee if they couldn’t afford it. And yes, it’s happened to me too. Happened last week; though it turned out I did have money in my account, and the coffee was actually paid for. Their machine was wonky. So that’s completely different. Completely. Different.
Judging other people is of course endlessly enjoyable: size, shape, accent, job, face, hair, golfing technique. We’re all horrible. But there’s something thrillingly righteous about tut-tutting over the money habits of others.
In the mostly capitalist world we live in, notions of freedom are tied into economics. The freedom to vote and express ourselves is of a piece with economic freedom.
Yet while (theoretically) we might be loath to tell other people how to vote or what to say in public, we seem to be far less bothered about being prescriptive when it comes to what other people should do with their money, particularly when those people are less well off. Don’t give anything to a beggar. They’ll only spend it on drink or drugs. That family is on social welfare, but they can afford to get Sky Sports? Outrageous!
The social-welfare-Sky-Sports trope is often predicated on the assumption that such people are gaming the system: that they have opted not to work, but to have many children, to shrink the life prospects of their family in return for the short-term gain of “free” satellite television.
Invariably, these judgements arrive unencumbered with much knowledge about the people in question – because too much information might muddy the quality of the Old Testament-style verdict; the poor are poor because they have a skewed sense of priorities. Being poor, they don’t deserve Sky Sports. Being poor means they don’t deserve even a sliver of joy from any funds they might receive from the State. Justice demands that they be humble and miserable too.
Anything else seems offensive – because poverty is the punishment they have to accept for the crime of being poor.
Or perhaps being so judgmental reflects a fear. We might have emerged from the crash, unemployment might be low, but it’s still the case that many middle-class (whatever that is) families are only a couple of pay cheques away from disaster. Sudden illness or unemployment could leave them homeless. Or dependent on social welfare. And deciding to hang on to the Sky Sport package. Because you have to have some happiness in your life.