I was sitting at my cubicle diligently distracting myself from actual work when I caught my co-worker’s conversation on the other side of the cube wall. She was talking to another team member about her goal to save $10,000 every year. More than five years later in that same office, but a different cubicle because, I overhead my then boss talking to another manager about making sure to max out his Roth IRA contribution for 2009 because he projected that it was the last year he would be eligible to contribute. I remember hearing these types of conversations around me on a regular basis when the General used to sign my checks. I would always think to myself, are these white folks making secret money that I am not, followed by a feeling of mild discomfort at hearing money discussed so freely in public.
When I was growing up there were always whispers about who was well off and who was struggling, but the details always stopped at the outward signs of consumption and assumptions based on profession. By the time I got to college I knew that my grandparents lived a comfortable retirement but was clueless as to how a former postal worker and public school teacher got so flush. It was considered gauche to discuss the details lest you were trying to be in someone else’s pockets. Besides my father’s advice to pay myself first upon starting my post collegiate career, nearly everything I’ve learned about personal finance has come from people who openly discussed money.
I remember when I was 23 years old and freaking out about a dental bill for hundreds of dollars. My friend and colleague casually asked, “Can’t you just pay it from your FSA?” My reaction?
For the life of me I could not understand why she couldn’t stay on topic while I vented about paying for healthcare. Until that moment I had never heard about a Flexible Spending Account. Knowing that I had employer coverage for medical and dental was the extent of my knowledge. I listened as she talked about the pre-tax dollars and reimbursements she used to pay for her type 1 diabetes meds then said, “But that doesn’t apply to me because I don’t have regular medical bills.” It took a year, an unmet deductible, and the bill from a trip to the emergency room for me to realize that an FSA absolutely applied to me. I have contributed ever since.
Over the years I have grown more comfortable not only hearing how other people manage their money but also sharing how I deal with mine. Financial literacy doesn’t just happen by virtue of earning an income and you don’t know what you don’t know. Opening up to others about my finances has made me a better saver, a wiser spender, and a more shrewd investor. It has helped me find better jobs, negotiate higher salaries, and milk the hell out of all my benefits. Too often too many of us eschew this type of communal knowledge sharing in the name of “minding our own business.”
Two days ago I was having lunch with my chapter soror. She relayed a story about her friend who only realized that she was being grossly underpaid with a whole ass Masters of Public Health after learning how much my soror earned with a Bachelor’s degree. You better believe that friend is getting her Molly on and finding the highest bidder.
Last summer a friend from business school told me that she doesn’t depend on her bonus to max out her 401K, choosing to withhold a higher percentage from her base so that her contributions max by September. I gave it a try this year and while my paychecks wept up until last month, my year to date returns have me like
At first this type of candor felt almost invasive. However, I noticed that as my income increased along with the people’s in my circle, the topic of money became more pervasive. Whether we’re complaining that we don’t have none, asking for recommendations on accountants and financial planners, or starting an investment club we have come to look to each other as resources for reaching our personal financial goals.
Now I know that many are reading this like
How we choose to manage our money is extremely personal. I also understand that not everyone needs to know everything. Say too much to the wrong person and… . However, that doesn’t mean that the conversations shouldn’t be had at all. If there is one thing I’ve learned from being a homeowner it is that wealth is not individual it is communal. My home’s value doesn’t increase unless my neighbor’s does too. I installed hardwood floors throughout my unit. Four other members of the condo association have followed suit, thus compounding the value of my initial investment.
I understand that it’s not easy to go from to singing like a canary. Here are some easy ways to dip your pinky toe into the pool before going
- Start reading personal finance blogs (like this one) and participate in the comments. The internet lets you be as anonymous as you want so you can ask questions and get advice from likeminded people. Try sites like Rockstar Finance, Dave Ramsey’s YouTube channel, or if you wanna do the most head to Financial Samurai.
- Online forums are great places to discuss personal finance. I frequent one focused on haircare for Black women and in the Off Topic section we discuss everything from which stocks we’re buying to how we save on groceries. I have followed several women along their journeys to becoming debt free and the support, encouragement, and accountability is unparalleled. Sometimes it’s easier to share our situation with those who don’t know us best. If you’re already part of an online community venture into the Career and Finance threads to see what’s up.
- Bring in a professional. Sometimes it’s more comfortable to have an objective third party facilitate the financial conversations. Get the ladies together for tea while you all listen to an estate planner. Gather the married couples and head to a real estate investment meeting. The information in these types of settings tends to be more general so it’s easy to process without feeling like you’re out on front street.
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