Updated on 08.17.09

Cultural Divides

Trent Hamm

A reader once told me that he identifies better with other blogs because they write about the “city” and I write about “rural life.” I was informed, quite clearly, that he couldn’t possibly learn anything from a blog that spoke from a “rural” perspective.

This is actually a pretty common thing. I hear all the time from city dwellers who don’t see any value in conversations about gardening because they live in an apartment. I also hear from people who live in rural areas who don’t want to hear me mention using buses and subways for transportation because it’s just not available in most areas.

Yes, let’s take a look at those cultural divides, shall we?

I can’t possibly know what it’s like to live New York or San Francisco’s enormous rent and property costs. I’m also completely clueless about sustainable living in a truly rural environment.

I don’t know what it’s like to be truly poor, living paycheck to paycheck (although that’s how I grew up). I know nothing about the challenges of managing a large income while living in a high-priced area.

I can’t conceive of what it’s like to live in an area where I’m a cultural outsider. Being a white male, I know nothing about prejudice and how it can hold you down.

Here’s the truth, though. There’s always someone with more advantages than you. There’s always someone with fewer advantages than you.

One thing’s for certain, though: you can find success no matter what your situation.

Sure, your success might be different than another person’s success.

Your success might be building up a $1,000 emergency fund from your low-income job, while someone else’s success might be paying off a $500,000 mortgage.

Your success might be finding the perfect small apartment exactly where you want it, while someone else’s success might be a big farmhouse in the country.

Your success might be an engineering career, while someone else’s success might be enough financial stability to be a stay-at-home parent.

The interesting thing is that we all use more or less the same tools to achieve that success.

A few days ago, I talked about the idea of the “financial toolbox,” that there are a handful of tools that we can use to solve any financial situation. Frugality. Increasing your income. Steady behavior. An emergency fund. Targeted savings. Automated savings. The “ten second” rule. The “thirty day” rule.

No matter where we are in life, we apply these tools for financial success. The basic principles cross every cultural, personal, and philosophical divide. I can learn how to improve my frugality from a person living on Park Avenue, from a homeless person, and from a person in a farmhouse in the country.

Sure, I can’t use every tactic thrown at me. But I’ve found time and time again that the best tactics are the ones that come from unexpected places. I actually have less to learn from my neighbor than I do from a person living a very different life.

Why? Different people see the world differently. Their lives are filled with a different perspective than your own. They grew up differently. They see the world differently.

For example, I know very few people who grew up in the financial situation that my family had when I was young. It shaped me in a lot of ways, giving me angles on life that others may not have had. However, I really have no idea what it would be like to grow up in a privileged household and what lessons those people might have learned.

Another example: for several years, I worked next to an individual who grew up in a city in South Korea and had limited ability to speak English. Over the years, we shared a lot of stories about our lives and I learned many, many things from him – new ways of looking at the world, new tactics to use in my own life, and new perspectives on spirituality (just for starters).

The best thing we can always do is share our tools and our ideas freely. It costs us nothing to share our best financial tactics, but by sharing, we encourage others to share. And if the person sharing is coming from a very different perspective, we’re bound to learn something new.

A cultural divide isn’t something to turn away from, it’s something to seek out. Sure, it’s useful to read the words of someone familiar to you, but don’t turn away from new angles that seem at first to not have anything in common with you. You might be surprised to find that there are life-changing answers there.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. T'Pol says:

    I am not American. I am a single forty-something Muslim woman living in Istanbul (a megapol), Turkey. I do not have kids. Yet, I find your blog very insightful. I guess it is a matter of perspective… ha?

  2. Living paycheck to paycheck is not “poor”. You did not grow up “poor”. Throwing that word around casually is very offensive, demeaning, and culturally insensitive, when we live in a world where more than 30 million of our brothers and sisters starve to death every year.
    “Poor” is when there is no paycheck, and you have to put your three little children to do 18 hours of backbreaking work a day since you broke your arm and are no longer able to earn the few rupees you need to purchase a cup of rice to share between the whole family to keep them from starving to death.

    As part of your cultural divide education, have you considered visiting or living in a place which is impoverished?

  3. Gabriel says:

    Very, VERY well said.I’ve found that the best lessons come by observing how something differs from your own life. It’s difficult to gain perspective on an issue if you only look at your own (figurative) reflection in the mirror.

  4. Sarah says:

    To Frugal Bachelor – you’re correct, if a little harsh. However, that doesn’t seem to stop people who do have food and shelter from using that word for themselves. In developed countries, it seems like “poor” is as much an identity as a financial state, and it can be abused as an excuse and a scapegoat just as often as it is used as a simple statement of fact. I doubt that the people criticizing Trent for not understanding their poverty (though they have the time and capability to read his blog) really understand your point either. Hurrah to Trent for trying to open people’s minds, if only just a bit.

  5. Michele says:

    I don’t share that much in common with you, but I still enjoy reading, because you do share things that I can and do apply to my own life.

    In regards to gardening and apartments, I grew up in an apartment in a big city, and we still had plants growing around us. In the kitchen window we had pots of basil that got used all the time to cook sauces and pestos. In my window right now, I’ve got oregano, basil, mint, and parsley growing.

  6. marie says:

    There isn’t ONE blog out there that completely reflects me. This is what makes blogs interesting, its about taking some and leaving some. When you make a post about gardening for example, I might just skim it.

  7. Gwen says:

    Trent’s situation doesn’t mirror mine very well at all either. My husband is in graduate school and we live off of a small stipend, but I still gain a lot of insight from his blog. It is just that some posts, like the cooking posts, frugality posts, etc., matter more to me than the investing and banking posts. I’m sure other readers are the complete opposite of me.

  8. Pam says:

    Trent I have been a reader of your blog for a while. I think this is one of your most profound posts. Keep up the good work.

  9. Julia says:

    @ Frugal Bachelor

    It’s the difference between relative and absolute poverty. Relative poverty comes from having less resources and few options than those around you. Absoulte poverty (of the $1/day standards) does not exist in the United States. But we have plenty of people who are very poor in terms of standards of living in the United States.

    From all that he’s mentioned about his past, I’d say that Trent really did grow up in a relatively poor home. So, in the context of the United States, he can consider his family as poor.

  10. Kathy says:

    If everyone could open their minds to take the time to get to know “the other perspective”, the world we live in would be a much better place. To completely dismiss something that isn’t from “your perspective” on the surface is close-minded and reeks of ignorance.

    I can relate to some perspectives in this blog (small town, living in the Midwest), but not to others (I live in an apartment complex and I am not a homeowner.). It does not mean I get absolutely nothing from what I read here and it does not prevent me from reading that which doesn’t pertain to my “perspective”.

  11. I’m one of those city folks who complain that a lot of the advice from your blog or JD’s is not relevant. In fact, that’s why I started my blog–because I wanted to provide targeted advice that applies to city-dwellers.

    But I still read your blog. And JD’s. And other blogs by folks living in rural or suburban areas. As you say, any time you write about the basics, or philosophies of personal finance, it’s still interesting and relevant. I continue to enjoy your blog posts and think we still have a lot to learn from one another.

    But I reserve the right to (privately) roll my eyes next time you write about car maintenance or gardening. ;-)

  12. jules says:

    Funny, but despite living in an apartment, I find your gardening tips very useful. I don’t cook often, but I find myself making use of your cooking tips. People seem to get stuck in ruts with their ideas as to what’s good and what’s not.

  13. Everything is relative. I think many American’s (myself included) sometimes take our country for granted. We forget that as bad as some of us have it, our problems pale in comparision to those living in other parts of the world.

    As for being able to relate to Trent’s perspective… everyone is different and just b/c you live a different lifestyle than Trent it doesn’t mean that you can’t apply the meaning of his lessons to your own life.

    -Gen Y Investor

  14. I get the same thing with my personal finance blog. I’m a single male and I write from a single male’s perspective but most of the information I write is applicable to singles and couples alike.

    Topics such as debt reduction, saving money and increasing your credit score can by used by a single person and married couples.

    – Single Guy Money

  15. CB says:

    Keep up the diverse posts, Trent!

  16. Lego says:

    Having lived on a farm, in small towns, and in cities larger than a million, I guess that (while no doubt I am drawn to perspectives more similar to my own) it would have never occurred to me to actively dismiss a perspective based on its rural/urban geography.

  17. Sara says:

    Isn’t it easy to just not read a non-relevant article? I have zero interest in the book reviews, so I skip those. I will just read the book if I want to read it. I might one day have land where I can garden as much as Trent (and I would like to) though I can’t use the information now.

    I am glad to read many different blogs because I don’t want just one perspective – I want that diversity.

  18. Brandi says:

    Amy Daczyczyn wrote about being criticized for the same topic. Having lived in large cities, college towns, and rural areas, I can attest that I’ve ALWAYS found useful information appropriate to all my living situations on this blog. Blogs are like 12-step meetings-take what you like and leave the rest. It’s also interesting to learn about frugality in situations other than my own.

  19. Part of being human should be about learning about new cultures, or ways of living, not just about doing the same thing day out and day in. My opinion is that it is actually dangerous not to challenge your own thinking and not to experience something new.

  20. Rob says:

    So, Trent, you always said you would never put a ad in your blog you dont agree with, or would never use. Your going to tell me you agree with the online degree scam? MSN or CNN, I cant remember which, did research on these so called online degree balony. A feline ( cat ) recieved a degree. Imagine that.

  21. Jamie says:

    Frugal bachelor

    If I had a terminal disease and you had a terminal disease but I was wasting away faster – would that negate your disease?

  22. Nick says:

    @Rob #15. There’s a link on the sidebar and below all the ad network ads to “report an unethical ad”. If you find one that you think might be from a scam company or something I bet that Trent would rather you actually report it rather than just posting a random comment which doesn’t actually accomplish much.

  23. Jojo says:

    I’m a single female 23 year old who lives at home…in Jamaica.

    I find your blog helpful, not only to give tips and tricks but also for motivation. We have clotheslines and we are accustomed to going to the market but the same problems like spending more than we earn and taking on American habits like eating fast food.

    I think you are an excellent PF blogger and I’m a little bit in love :).

  24. Jesse says:

    I find it funny when people equate differing perspectives with an inability to learn. I live in a city apartment, renting, with no garden, I’m a stay at home mom and my husband has a good job. My grandparents live on a farm, bought (with hard work and several POOR years), with a huge garden, retired. Yet I am still able to learn quite a bit from them on many subjects. I may not be able to apply ALL posts here (or in other blogs I read) to my own personal life NOW, but I have lived in many circumstances in my short-28!-years, and I am always looking for different ideas.
    However, if a blogger seems way out of my personal experience, and his or her posts aren’t resonating with me, I just don’t read the blog. I don’t complain at them or tell them why I’m not reading them, I just don’t read it. I think Trent does a good job with his blog, even if I don’t identify at the moment with all of his posts.
    My family always said, though, if you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all…

  25. katie says:

    @ the Frugal Bachelor – I think the issue you highlight indicates how much of a divide there is about the meaning of poor. Some wealthy individuals might consider anyone making less than 100k/year or living paycheck to paycheck poor. In other places, absolute destitution is poor. One man may complain that he can’t pay for enough electricity to run his AC, while another may be struggling to get food on the table. To some extent, anything other than destitution will be somewhat subjective.

    Trent, I appreciate how open minded you are. No one will agree with everything you write, but that’s ok! We’re here to share ideas and learn from one another. Even the somewhat negative comments usually have a good discussion lurking underneath their harsh tone. The friends who taught me the most in college were the ones who came from really different backgrounds than me and the ones who were willing to call me out when I was being a bit insane, stubborn, or stupid about something.

  26. Auntielle says:

    I’m turning 52 tomorrow and something I have come to believe is that one way to know that you are “over the hill” is when you become close-minded and unwilling to learn from a variety of “teachers”. My goal as I continue into my 50’s and beyond is to become more committed to learn and to grow (regardless of where the “lessons” come from), and less judgemental of others – in every area of life.

  27. BD says:

    Great post!
    Also: I love reading your blog. I’m always able to glean a little bit of wisdom and insight from all the posts…even the gardening ones.

    You *never* know for certain where your life will go or how it will turn out in the future. Those big-city folks might very well find themselves living in a rural farmhouse one day, and then they’ll regret not paying more attention to your gardening posts! ;)

  28. spaces says:

    IME — living in areas as small as 10,000 and as big as 4 million — there’s not that big a divide between smaller cities and bigger cities, if both cities are the metropolitan center of their geographic area and you live reasonably close to the services that are available. I was surprised to come to this conclusion.

  29. JS Dixon says:

    I really like how you highlight on the similarities between different situations in this article. I’ve lived in both rural and major city areas, and there are a ton of things that we can learn from each other, and city or not, even an apartment can have a box garden to cut back food costs.

  30. IRG says:

    As a big city dweller, it’s true that some of your articles have little relevance.

    But that’s the case with any blog. Not every article will resonate.

    I read The Simple Dollar because I like to hear how you think, Trent, your perspective. Doesn’t matter if I agree or disagree, I like hearing how someone like you “thinks” their way through to choices and behavior. And I like your stories.

    Your work is not superficial, or auto pilot and it always comes across with your voice. That’s what I look for in a blog.

    Plus, you have an open mind and always accept that your way is not everyone’s way. It’s like you make a meal, you share it. Some will enjoy it, some will not. It’s the thought that counts.

    FYI: Very few so-called city blogs hit all the city dwellers. If you live in NYC, there are many, many different circumstances (professionally, financially, culturally) and lifestyles. No single blog hits all the spots.

    And although I do not have children and am not married, I read blogs about children, about raising them and about married people in the burbs. Why? Cause I do want to hear what those people think and feel and are going thru. How can you care about people and NOT want to learn more about their daily lives?

    What’s amazing to me is how many people have next to no interest in how we single, not young, not sex in the city-type, city dwellers live. I know far more about my suburban/country friends lifestyles and interests and activities. They know next to nothing about mine, because they’re so wrapped up in their own lives.

    It’s always important to keep open to how everyone else lives. One of the best things about where I live is the diversity. In any given day, I can meet people from around the world and learn about THEIR lives. It’s one of the many reasons I live here. I don’t want to live in a community where everyone is alike–no matter what the similarities are. (Don’t ever have to worry about that. My apartment building alone is a very global mix by geography, lifestyle, income, etc. And I’m glad about that.

    sure, people tend to hang with people “like” them or those who share at least some of their interests. But life is such that you meet people, care about them and then your lives diverge. Do you stop caring or relating? Sometimes, you do.

    But you can retain connections by being open to learning about the changes and differences. Blogs can be a great way to do that.

    Plus, you rarely learn from people who think the same as you do.

    If you really want to keep learning, it’s all about finding those “A Ha!” moments wherever they surface.

    Sometimes, I learn as much, if not more, from the comments, as the original article. Which again proves you’re doing a “good thing.”

  31. A lot of what can be learned is in principals, not practical tips. The psychology of personal finance is what will ultimately change behavior and you certainly capture that in your posts.

  32. brooke says:

    I love Auntielle’s comment! Agreed to continue learning and never become “over the hill”!! As for Trent’s post, I come from a very rural town eastern KY, I currently live in an mid-size city in upstate NY, and I am moving to NYC in the upcoming weeks. I find your tips useful in all living situations and wish I had applied them earlier. My rent is about to double when I move to the city, and though I already apply many PF tacticis, I keep reading for inspiration and motivation as my cost of living goes up enormously!!

  33. FrugalGal says:

    @Frugal Bachelor – I just passed the point where I can no longer afford any preventive or routine medical care. In other words, need of money is threatening to shorten my life. Not as much as if I couldn’t afford food, but there it is.

    Your silly self-righteousness about trivial points of language did not buy me one doctor visit, nor did it put one bite of food into the mouth of any starving person.

    On the other hand, the kind of detailed frugality advice Trent and other folks like Amy Dacyczyn give is what makes it possible for many of us to avoid outright beggary. And as a bonus, they don’t go around denouncing people. So put a sock in it.

  34. Mary says:

    I really liked this post. I typically only scan for tips and ideas, but I read this one word for word. You are a good, open-minded writer!

  35. Michelle says:

    I am very appreciative of your attitude that we can all coexist and thrive from interacting with people from other experiences/backgrounds.

  36. littlepitcher says:

    Once lived in a city and had never gardened in my life. A frugality article in a magazine suggested container gardening and I had a weed-filled flowerbox outside. So…I gardened.

    I hated home ec in hs and swore I’d never sew. A full twenty years later,my sofa needed a slipcover and the local thrift store had a sewing machine for $20. Learning never is wasted (although I’m still waiting, after nearly 40 years, to try out that algebra?

    Write about anything you want to, Trent. It will help somebody now, and may help someone later down the road.

  37. kn says:

    I’m a Boston resident, but I read both your blog and JD’s GRS quite often. True, life in Boston is quite different from life in Iowa or Oregon, but I’ve still learned a ton of useful information from each of you, and you’ve made me think about city life in different ways. There are a few posts that don’t apply to me at all (mostly involving car ownership, as I don’t have a car and don’t need one in Boston), but I just skip those and move on with my day.

    I guess all I want to say is – Thanks. For this city reader, the cultural divide is not so great that it makes your blog less worthy of my time.

  38. Just chiming in from a very different cultural perspective – that of a white woman living in the Caribbean (not born here, but lived all my life here), neither rural nor city dweller.

    Much of what’s said here and elsewhere may not apply directly to me, but I really don’t find it that much of a stretch to re-interpret it by taking core concepts and seeing what in my situation could replace the things that don’t apply. Doesn’t always work, but it’s this diversity of experience and opinion that allows me to find solutions where I probably otherwise would not have if I kept ‘to my own’.

    I write a blog about trying to live a productive life as a creative self employed person – I write with a Caribbean perspective, but by no means does that make all of what I say irrelevant to any creative person, anywhere. Even when I ‘rant’ about local situations, my overseas, non-Caribbean readers are often the ones who comment positively on the insight!

    I love the blogworld for just this – the ability to dip into perspectives that we otherwise may never have been able to benefit from.

  39. Juli says:

    Wow Trent, I guess I didn’t realize you lived in a rural area. Your blog is really one of my favorites! I’m engaged, live in a suburb, and have lived in various locations in Chicago for about 10 years before that.

    I learn a LOT from you and the other commentators on this blog, and am surprised that someone living in a city would not find a lot of value.

  40. Diana says:

    Sounds silly to me – there are some things unique to urban life, like mass transit – that merit discussion. That said, ANYONE can garden. I live in an apartment, in a very urban part of Minneapolis. I am at the moment looking into small, affordable ways to grown an indoor garden in the winter, and I have local friends who own property who share the bounty of their gardens with me as a way of saving us all money and celebrating the goods of the earth.

    Silly people, grow an herb!

  41. If one is trying to get out of debt, I think that for sure the same principles will work for a “city” person as well as a “rural” person. What works is what works and debt is debt, whether you’re surrounded by cars and tall buildings or cows and farmland…

    I have learned a great deal from this blog and it never even occurred to me where you live Trent.

    And I am a city boy!

  42. I can appreciate that people living in high cost cities may not see the value of this or so many other thrift centered blogs. I used to live in a high cost area, and there is most definately a different way of seeing things.

    It’s true as the post says that anyone can make changes in any situation, but the options for being frugal are much more limited in high cost areas.

    You can cut back SOME, but the basic problem is that the high cost of everything is built into everything, like a giant catch 22. If housing prices and property taxes are high throughout a region, there aren’t really any low cost housing options. The same will be true of clothing, car repairs, insurance, child care, entertainment–the general high cost of operating in the area is reflected in everything.

    It may be that the most effective thing you can do if you live in such an area is to move out. But that’s asking more of people than they may be prepared to do.

    Living in a lower cost city, there are always cheaper options for what you need or want to do. But in high cost areas, the options do tend to be more of a challenge.

  43. I live in the suburbs, and I find plenty of common ground in your posts. I never thought that geography would have any impact given the medium (the internet), but I guess that I was mistaken.

  44. Tuimeltje says:

    I’m Dutch, single, childless, a student, live in a very urban area in a balcony-less appartment, and yet I get a lot of useful info from your blog and the other (overwhelmingly U.S., or at least American-based) personal finance blogs I read.
    Sure, certain more local things (tax-related, pension schemes, that sort of thing) are not that relevant to me, but I can just skip those. Or read them anyway and learn how things work elsewhere in the world.

  45. Caroline says:

    Ha! I learn a lot from your blog and find much common ground despite some huge differences in lifestyle. Plus I pass on things that don’t apply to me to people than can use the tips! Thank you for writing thoughtful posts. ~a city girl

  46. I have lived in Manhattan (that’s NY City for you country folks) and now I live surrounded by wildlife preserves and horse farms (that’s the sticks for you city slickers), and I can certify no country or rural bias on this site. Your reader has other issues . . .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *