Money trolls: Why are we so judgmental about other people's finances?

Janna Herron

Jessyca Nagorski, a small-business owner in northeast Ohio, joined a handful of personal finance groups on Facebook for support after she couldn’t qualify for a home loan on her income alone.

In some groups she found advice. But in others, she found money shaming.

Some “are not a bunch of judgmental jerks, but there are others that are toxic,” says Nagorski, a pet care service provider. “They’re ‘my way or the highway.’”

In one, some people shamed her for not driving an older car that was paid off. But she considered her monthly car payment reasonable because driving a reliable vehicle in Midwestern winters was a necessity for her job. She also got shouted down when she suggested that someone consider zero-percent financing to deal with an unexpected expense they couldn’t cover with cash.

Instead of receiving empathy or advice, some people who have sought financial help online say they have been mocked for their mistakes.

“I was slammed for it," she recalls,  "because you should never borrow money,” they claimed.  “They need to find a way to sell things and pay in cash. But that’s not always an option.”

Money trolls

At a time when many Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, struggling with debt, or have fallen way behind on saving for retirement, some turn online to share their money troubles. Instead of empathy and advice, some are criticized or, even worse, mocked for their financial mistakes.

In USA TODAY articles this year about tax refunds, student debt and the government shutdown, among others, many readers commented or emailed their thoughts, often unsympathetic – “I have no pity for people saddled with debt” – and sometimes vitriolic, calling those profiled “stupid” or “unambitious idiots.”

Even those who seemingly have secured their financial lives cannot escape judgment.

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Sam Dogen, who has been financially independent since 2012 and runs a blog called "Financial Samurai," routinely deletes negative comments from the site that attack how he spends his money, his lifestyle and his choice to live in San Francisco.

Criticisms come from people outside the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) movement that he’s a part of, as well as inside the often normally supportive community.

“I think essentially people have nothing else better to do with their time,” he says. “And if they see someone who is living a certain lifestyle that is contrary to their own or is doing better than them, they can’t help but judge and criticize out of anger and jealousy.”

Why be so mean?

Even Nagorski admits to succumbing to the urge to judge, despite her experience on the receiving end. “I’ll be honest. When my neighbor buys a new boat, I think, ‘Wow, how can they afford that?’” she says.

Money, in particular, represents so much in our society: power, security and how we value things, experiences, even people.

“Money is so fraught,” says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  “It’s how we keep score.”

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Some people who are prone to judge may be masking their own money doubts and fears, according to some experts. Shaming draws a line between them and those who are open about their struggles.

“A lot of times the loudest and most judgmental are camouflaging insecurities,” says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and professor emerita at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. “The people who are shaming are often not super happy people.”

But there’s also the other end of the spectrum, a type of anger that is actually pleasurable, Loewenstein says. “It’s righteous indignation,” he says. “They get pleasure from attacking other people’s spending habits.”

Empathy instead?

Perhaps a better way is for the judger and judged to understand how each other’s relationship with money differs – beliefs often cemented in childhood – and appreciate that people face many financial situations and tough trade-offs, says Nathan Astle, a student board member of the Financial Therapy Association.

“Once people understand that money choices reflect deeper values, traumas and life stories, they may see that a financial need for me may not be the same thing it is for you,” he says.

That can help dispel the idea that people without money or who are bad with finances are lazy or stupid and have only themselves to blame, he says.

Nagorski also points out that the bulk of personal finance advice that underpins judgments doesn’t address the real hardships of working-class people.

For instance, how can she cut a gym membership to save money if she never could afford one in the first place, Nagorski says. Or, how can she relate to someone who pays off $24,000 in student loans, an amount equal to her annual income?

“I feel like a lot of people don’t understand that reality,” she says.

But still, they are shamed and blamed on a topic that most people already find hard to broach.

“And here’s the thing,” Loewenstein says. “If people become too reluctant to share their money troubles out of shame or fear of being insulted, what happens when they really need financial help?”