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The Truth About Money

This article was originally published in The Helm, a lifestyle brand and venture fund that makes it easy for people to invest in women.

In the Indiana home I grew up in, money was almost always mentioned in laments.

“How much does it cost? We don’t have enough for that.”

“You need a job. I can’t afford to keep buying this and that for you.”

“Please, don’t ask me for another thing. I can’t help you.”

Money was a minefield in conversation. The reality that there was never enough was not considered a reason to mention what we were forced to go without. Over time, I learned not to ask questions about the financial state of our home. I learned that when money was especially tight, or nonexistent in some cases, there would be clues left for me to discern this information. If I walked into our kitchen, and the electric oven was on and open wide, then the heat had been turned off that month. If I went to turn on the TV, and there was nothing but snow where my favorite shows should have been, then we must not be able to afford TV right now. I rarely asked for new clothes or shoes, I earned my books through reading programs at the local library, and I desperately waited for Christmas or my birthday to request a favorite CD, special bath products, or sketchbooks with colored pencils. I thought about money a lot and considered how it affected my family, but I did not talk about it in any real way. Nobody did.

Most people I went to school with came from families living paycheck-to-paycheck, or worse. When we talked about money, we talked about being poor. That was the only financial language we had, and the only one our parents had to pass on to us. Every once in a while, there would be some event or awards ceremony for “gifted” or “accomplished” students, and the keynote speaker would mention something about being good stewards of our money as we grew older. But these ceremonies were usually founded and run by religious black men in our community who would pull the teen boys aside and hand them copies of the book “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”. Then they’d tell us teen girls how important it was to respect our bodies so we didn’t end up broke single mothers. According to them, that was all we needed to know. Our husbands would take care of us otherwise, and our husbands should be the ones they’d handed those books. But I wanted the book for myself.

When we talked about money, we talked about being poor. That was the only financial language we had, and the only one our parents had to pass on to us.

It didn’t take long for me to realize how many gaps I had in my overall understanding of money and money management. When I went to college, I had to fill out my FAFSA on my own because no one in my immediate family knew how to, nor were they comfortable on the computer. My only wish was that the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) wouldn’t be too high. After following the directions, searching the words I didn’t understand, and plugging in all of my family’s information, I got our EFC. And it was 0. I thought I was going to get to go to college for free! So did my mother. And so did every other adult in my family. Then I spoke to my guidance counselor. He explained to me that that just meant I was eligible for more student loan assistance. And because I didn’t understand what that meant either, I signed up for as much of that as I could possibly get. No one asked me to think it over. No one asked me if I understood what I had just signed up for. I was moving on to acquire a college education, but my understanding of my own finances was still in the elementary stages.

This was true for a lot of my friends as well, especially those who were people of color. A few other black folks I went to high school with enrolled at the same university as I did. Those first few weeks on campus we clung to one another and met up frequently. Over cafeteria trays and class notes, we’d whisper about the things we didn’t understand culturally or otherwise. If my understanding of money and finances was underserved, their understanding was almost non-existent. One day, a woman I graduated high school with sat across from me at a table full of our friends. She ate one of the fries on her tray, turned to us and asked,

“Do we have to pay back Pell Grants?”

The rest of us laughed. I mean, we roared. We giggled, and our eyes teared, and we shook until our bellies ached. Then we explained you don’t pay back grants. Later, in my dorm room, my friend Janae turned to me and said, “I didn’t really know that about grants. I thought you did have to pay them back. I just laughed because everyone else laughing made me laugh. But now I feel bad.” I asked her how it was possible she didn’t know that we didn’t have to pay back grants. I asked her if the idea of paying back all that money didn’t terrify her. She answered,“Nobody told me. And that much money doesn’t even sound real.”

I wanted to respond with something compassionate and real. I couldn’t. I said nothing. I might have known the difference between grants and loans, but I wasn’t really smarter than her about money. I couldn’t even pretend to be. Because that much money didn’t sound real to me either.

In college, I made a number of terrible financial decisions. I ran up multiple credit cards. My purse got stolen and instead of battling all the charges, I let myself get browbeaten by a local bank that left my checking account in the red, closed it, and made it almost impossible for me to open another account anywhere for almost three years. I was so angry with myself. At this point, I’d done a lot of reading about the importance of budgets, savings, and credit, but found it nearly impossible to apply those strategies to my life. Or, by the time I did, I’d already messed up royally in that area. I was trying so hard to manage my money, but there never seemed to be enough to manage in an effective way.

In college, I made a number of terrible financial decisions…I was so angry with myself.

By the time I left college, I had a terrible credit score, three maxed out credit cards, a mountain of medical bills, and a head full of dreams and goals limited by my financial reality. I taught myself not to want more because I simply would never be able to afford more. Which means I made no plans for what was to come.

In the spring of 2014, I left Indiana for New York City. I arrived with a job offer at a big media company, a busted knee, and about $800. Despite being on crutches for the first few months, I found living in NYC exciting, and every person I spoke to interesting. At my job, I was earning a higher salary than my mother ever had while raising four children alone. And yet, I was always broke. I learned very quickly that having enough money meant nothing if you managed it poorly. I went back to trying to live on a strict budget, even though that had never worked out for me before. To my surprise, when I had enough money to truly make ends meet, a budget worked splendidly. I used apps like Mint to keep an eye on my money at all time. I opened multiple savings account. I got really good at keeping my money. Then I started talking to my friends.

Once you start talking about money in real, honest, and open ways, you can’t stop. In Indiana, talking about money was considered so rude someone might hit you over it, or throw a drink in your face, or certainly gossip to most of the city about your uncouth behavior. “No class,” they’d whisper politely behind your back. But in New York? Everybody talks about money! And I was lucky enough to connect with women early in my journey who also loved to talk about money. They introduced me to the concept of investing which, up until the past few years I’d only equated with elderly white men who wore tuxedos a few nights a week.

Once you start talking about money in real, honest, and open ways, you can’t stop.

Don’t get me wrong, those first few money conversations were rough. When someone would mention a money market account, a Roth IRA, or a mutual fund, my eyes would cross. Not only did I not understand what it meant to invest, I didn’t know that investment wasn’t just for people who were already wealthy. When I read about finance, I always skipped the investment parts because surely those didn’t apply to me. It wasn’t until I started reading a website called The Financial Diet, which broke down these ideas for me, that I realized by not investing I was missing out on money. Not only that, but I was missing out on opportunities to take a real stake in products and ideas I actually cared about.

This past fall, I hired a financial advisor and planner. She took the time to sit with me and help me truly understand what was happening with the money I chose to save versus what would happen with the money I chose to invest. I couldn’t believe that, at one point, I’d thought there was no difference between the two. My understanding of money has come a long way in the past 31 years of my life, but if there’s one major lesson I’ve learned, it’s this: I would be in much better financial shape if someone—anyone—had taught me how to save and grow my money at an earlier age. Even if it was as late as right before college. Like most things, when it comes to money-making, money-saving, and money-growing, silence doesn’t serve any of us; least of all young black women.

My niece was born four months ago, and one of the first things I did to celebrate her arrival was make an investment in her future. I opened a 529 account for her college education. I hope to talk to her about the account as she grows up. We can watch it grow together, and make plans for how she’ll use the funds. I honestly can’t wait. She isn’t the last thing I’ll invest in by any measure, but for now, I can’t think of a better choice.

→ For more on “A Single Parent’s Financial Guide to Returning to School

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