Thursday, November 3, 2016

Book Review – Hillbilly Elegy

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I just finished reading Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance and highly recommend it. Although the author is only in his early 30s he has a gift for self-reflection and has analyzed his upbringing in such a way that I felt I was able to more easily understand some of the real struggles facing America's poor.

I've noticed that one of the interesting consequences of the internet is that in general we tend to be more aware of poverty around the world than we are the poverty that exists in our own communities. When I worked as a financial advisor I felt fortunate that outside of work I was involved with my church and lived in an area with a congregation that spanned the gamut of economic demographics. I feel that these interactions helped keep me grounded since at work I only really interacted with people who had over $1 million in investments and could easily have lost touch with the economic realities facing most people. This book took me even further into the lives of Americans that struggle financially and helped connect the other life decisions that are made and how they affect the rest of their lives.

In this book, the author shares stories from his life growing up in a poor household in the Midwest, in a city with many similarities to a place I once lived. Middletown Ohio was once a promising company town that is now a shell of what it once was as manufacturing jobs have been automated or exported. J.D. grew up in a poor white family in Middletown and provides some very well thought out analysis of the problems facing his home town, friends, and family members. I've read a lot of news articles and stories about the decline of rural America but this story is different because these are stories from the authors' actual life and family, not something he experienced while trying to investigate for a story.

This book is not necessarily a finance book, but I will just highlight two interesting things related to finance from the story.

  1. Throughout college and his time in the marines, the author periodically used payday loans as a way to bridge the gap for short-term needs. While I will never recommend anyone take out a payday loan, this book is worth reading simply to read his compelling defense of the industry. While there are certainly abuses within this industry, I have read that many users of payday loans can accurately predict how long it will take them to pay off debt and how much they are paying in fees and they enter into these agreements fully aware of the costs.

  2. As the holidays approach, it broke my heart somewhat to read about Christmas in a poor household and how common it is to make bad financial decisions just to provide what the parents consider a good Christmas even when the kids may not care or appreciate it. Our children are young enough that they still haven't asked for a lot of things for Christmas, and while we can often provide most things for our children we have made it a point to not be extravagant in our gift giving. This book helped me understand some of the thinking that goes on in households that feel the need to splurge on Christmas even if it they're just hoping to hang on and pay for the gifts with their tax refund at the beginning of the new year, crossing their fingers that it will be enough.

I highly recommend you pick up a copy of this book. It kept me engaged and interested throughout the story and my wife and I both read it within a week. I consider books to be worth recommending if I feel that after reading it I have learned something new, developed empathy for others, and feel a call to change something I have been doing. For me, I find that there are times when I may be too quick to judge those in poor economic conditions as victims of their own decisions. While I still believe this to be somewhat true, this story helped me recognize that there are many instances where people may not know any better (some of the things he didn't know until very recent in life are things I take for granted, such as that one should wear a suit to a job interview or that finance is an industry that people work in).

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1 comment:

  1. I have heard several good reviews of this book from readers of different backgrounds and it seems to be the better of the "hillbilly" books that have been released lately. The financial lessons can be very beneficial for many people. We lived in seme-rural Kentucky last year and got a small taste of what Mr. Vance writes about from the work my wife & I did. While the Appalachia gets a bad reputation, the problems laid out in this book are happening all over the country where the asphalt turns into gravel.