Financial Heroes or Financial Zeros?

I hope this post doesn’t come off as too mean-spirited.  I love listening to personal podcasts (non-NPR/APM) partially because you get to know the hosts rather intimately over many episodes.  One of my current favorite podcasts is hosted by a married couple and they talk about their life and relationship quite a bit.  Over the course of a hundred or so episodes, I’ve picked up a lot of tidbits about this couple’s financial situation, and I can’t figure out if they are financial zeros or financial heroes.  (I don’t mean anything particularly negative by ‘financial zero,’ just people who are living a typical American life with little savings, some debt, and plenty of money spent on wants.  A financial hero, to me, is someone who is doing well net worth-wise in comparison with her income and is conscious to get high value out of the money she does spend.)


Based on the types of careers this couple has (low-paying for most, high-paying for a few) and where they are in those careers (starting out, but on an upward trajectory), I can’t imagine they are making the big bucks.  Only one of them is currently earning money from a primary job, though I can’t tell if or how much they are earning from their podcast.  They live in a very high cost-of-living city.  They have occasionally mentioned money pressures, yet in subsequent episodes describe spontaneous purchases and travel.


Are they financial heroes because, despite their irregular income, they are managing to buy themselves little luxuries and travel on top of saving and being responsible with their money?  Or are they financial zeros because they are spending everything they earn and counting on future income to pay off debt and fund retirement?  I haven’t heard them mention long-term savings on the podcast, but is that because they aren’t saving or because saving is such a default mode that it’s not worth mentioning?


superheroThis question relates directly to the premise of The Millionaire Next Door (affiliate link – thanks for using!).  The authors found that people with net worths of above $1M don’t look like you might imagine they would: they live modest lifestyles in terms of their homes, cars, and day-to-day spending.  The flashy spenders likely do not have high net worths.  When rich people appear to be broke and broke people appear to be rich, how are you supposed to tell who is a financial hero and who is a financial zero?


With someone I know in real life, I usually just have to wait and hope I pick up on enough clues to figure out if she is a financial hero or perhaps ask a question if it feels natural in conversation.  As for this podcasting couple, I doubt I’ll find out for sure unless they start revealing more about their finances or say something like “Surprise!  We bought a house with a 20% down payment!”


How do you tell financial heroes and financial zeros apart?  Have you discovered any financial heroes in your life and have you taken steps to emulate them?


photo from Free Digital Photos


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21 Responses to "Financial Heroes or Financial Zeros?"

  1. Cash Rebel says:

    That’s an interesting assessment. It’s really tough to tell based just on hearing someone’s voice. Even when I know people in real life, it takes me a while to figure out how they’re doing financially. It’s none of my business, but more often than not, if the individual is in crazy amounts of debt, they’ll mention it to me and ask for a little advice. But I spend a lot of time wondering about certain coworkers. Wondering which one is a secret millionaire who might quit tomorrow and start living their dream.
    Cash Rebel recently posted..Proof that practice is more important than talent

    1. Emily says:

      I guess if you are open about your financial situation (even just with occasional references) some people will open up as well. I’ve had lots of friends as me for advice after I’ve talked about ours – and a lot of them are financial heroes!

      I think you should whisper to each of your coworkers “Are you a secret millionaire?”

  2. It’s tough. I use a few mental shortcuts, but they are by no means perfect. If I see someone driving a new car, I assume he or she is broke. (Unfortunately driving a crap car doesn’t tell you much: they could either be rich or not). If someone is bringing their lunch to work every day, I assume they are frugal in other parts of their life as well.

    Stuff like that. Travel is a hard one because it can cost barely anything or a small fortune, depending on how you approach it.
    Done by Forty recently posted..The Lottery: You Can’t Win If You Don’t Play

    1. Emily says:

      Yeah, it’s funny about the older or kinda beat up cars – that could indicate either state! That’s a great clue about bringing lunch consistently.

  3. If anyone talked to me, they’d think I have my life pretty together, financially. Those who read my net worth statements know that’s probably not the best assessment of me – I am working on it, but I’m still no “financial hero”. But I keep my financial hand pretty close to my chest. I don’t offer advice, or information for the most part.

    I was talking to one of my collegues recently, and he started talking about investing and how he’s switched to index funds and blue-chip/dividend stocks… I had originally had him written off as a “financial dud”. I might have been off the mark on that one.

    Another thing that is important to point out is that a lot can be pretty glossed over. I can paint my picture pretty positively if I wanted to… doesn’t mean it’s the truth. It depends on what people want to show the world. When I am in person it’s a bit harder to get around because I’m someone who makes faces when I don’t like what I’m hearing/being asked.
    Alicia @ Financial Diffraction recently posted..Credit Cards Revisited.

    1. Emily says:

      I think pretty much every PF blogger is a financial hero – rapid improvements in net worth also counts!

      Talking about investing is a good indicator of having your financial life together, and especially investing in a way that is systematic and low-cost.

      I guess you have to try to gauge how guarded/careful the person is being when talking about finances. I think these podcasters are pretty unguarded since they are only giving tiny hints once every bunch of episodes and probably don’t realize anyone is picking up all of them. 🙂

      I also am very expressive and don’t hide negative reactions well. :/

  4. SarahN says:

    I tend to ‘judge’ the hero/zero on their approach to credit card debt. If they have none, or pay it off every month, then I assume hero, else, they’re a zero.

    I also think living large – such as partying hard, buying many drinks, entertaining in the form of big parties, I’m more inclined to think zero than hero.

    Travel is a really tough one – almost everyone in my demographic (young, working) travels in Australia. Admittedly I think some live the high life on holidays, great hotels, yes to every cocktail offer etc. Me, I splurge on what I like (like an upgraded airfare) but still stay in hostels and take a bus to the airport. Weird, but true! Am I a hero or a zero? WEll I have a mortgage, and no other debt. So my net worth is negative, in that regard, but I did buy with 18% downpayment…?
    SarahN recently posted..Spy on my shopping

    1. Emily says:

      But how do you know if someone carries a credit card balance?? That’s even more taboo to ask about in my mind than investing or buying property.

      Your net worth is negative? Are you not counting your house as an asset or did it drop in value??

      1. SarahN says:

        Yeah I mean if people carry a credit card balance. And you never know, but sometimes it comes up in conversations… like a friend who ‘could pay off $14k’ on her credit card but she ‘needed a holiday’!?!?

        Oh I assume my house is worth $0, rather than try to work out what it would sell for (knowing that housing prices in the US have had such issues) It hasn’t dropped in value, but it has only grown $10k in 2 years, which is 2.15% :s
        SarahN recently posted..Take the Stairs Challenge Update

  5. Matt Becker says:

    I think it’s pretty much impossible to tell without having a true understanding of where all of their money is going. The view on the surface can just be way too deceiving to take any real meaning from it.
    Matt Becker recently posted..How Much Life Insurance Do You Need?

    1. Emily says:

      So do you assume everyone is a zero until they give you a LOT of information? Or do you try to pick up on heroes? I want to learn from them so I try to figure it out!

  6. That’s an interesting question, and I’ve pondered it on occasion with different people.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that sometimes it’s obvious but often this can be very tough to discern for some people. Sure, some folks are obviously clueless and living above their means, regardless of how confident they seem to be. However, there are others who seem to be splurging here and there but they actually have much more money than they let on.

    I guess I just pick up on different clues and then trust my gut feel, without devoting excess time to analyzing.
    Tie the Money Knot recently posted..4 Health Moves to Help You Get Wealthy

    1. Emily says:

      You’re right, I’ll never been certain without asking some questions, anyway, so I shouldn’t spend time considering it if I don’t plan to pursue the issue with them.

  7. Very interesting question. I have a family member (who shall remain nameless) who most people would assume is a financial hero. She and her husband both have newer cars (his is brand new), they have a cute home in a good area, wear brand name clothing, send their kids to private pre-school, have a golf club membership etc. On the “outside” they look like they’re doing really well. It wasn’t until a couple years ago that we had a conversation about money and she disclosed to me that she doesn’t even know how much credit card debt her husband has (news flash-his debt is your debt). I tried to talk to her a little bit about the situation and his spending (he likes to “show off” to others) and she chose to bury her head in the sand. It’s been hard for me to keep my mouth shut, but it’s really none of my business.
    KK @ Student Debt Survivor recently posted..5 Tips for Planting the Seeds of Wealth

    1. Emily says:

      It sounds like they would have to have a VERY high income to be living that lifestyle in a balanced manner. That is really awful that she’s chosen to ignore the problem. It’s going to be a rude awakening.

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