Personal Finance and Pandemics: What A Time To Be Alive

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Photo by Matthew Lancaster on Unsplash

I co-teach a class at Penn (with Brandon Copeland) called Inequities and Empowerment. I got into it from the inequities side of the coin, bringing things like housing discrimination, the costs of college, and the wealth gap into the conversation. I’m going to go a bit deeper on those in tomorrow’s entry. Today I want to share some of the things that I’ve picked up from Cope, and immersing myself into areas of personal finance that, to be quite honest, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about for much of my adult life.

I got my first job when I was 13 or 14. I delivered newspapers in my neighborhood in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania every day after school and early morning each weekend, rain or shine. I did that through my senior year of high school. In the summers I had a second job running an open gym. I got paid minimum wage (which at the time was $3.35 an hour) to basically play pickup basketball and UNO with whoever showed from 10am-2pm each day. It was the closest I would get to the NBA.

Aside from a sneaker purchase here and there, I saved up pretty much all of my money. And by working a number of other odd jobs throughout college, and going to school on a scholarship, I kept saving. My parents — a government human resources officer and a school teacher, solidly in the Black middle class — took my responsible savings habits as a great sign for my future. I even had invested in a CD at my bank before graduation. I guess I thought I was doing okay in life too. Little did I know that there was a lot more to it.

Now that I teach at Penn and have a sense of what some of today’s Ivy League students have access to in terms of investment portfolios, startup funds, and monthly spending allowances, I have a decent measure of just how clueless I was when I had my Penn undergraduate ID card in the 1990s. It’s also given me a glimpse of when, how, and where people are learning about money, or to put it more simply, who’s having conversations and who’s not.

Today I am working with a wide range of students — lower income, upper middle and upper class, students whose parents attended Penn, and students whose parents didn’t go to college at all — and as I think about my own life and the pathways of many of my peers, I’ve been developing a theory around African American financial conversations. I’m being intentional with the use of “African American” as opposed to “Black” (which I use more as a diasporic catch-all term).

I believe for African American families like the one I grew up in, many with roots in the South (as is the case with both of my parents), there is limited passing along of financial strategies for a few basic reasons.

First, they are still figuring it out. Second, there is a sense of shame (or, in a more positive light, a desire for privacy) as they figure it out. America has told them that they are free and should be economically on par with the rest of the middle class (read: have what white folks have). It was never that easy, even in those rare moments when it seemed like it could be.

Finally, there’s a gap. My family had what we needed, but at the same time we never used “summer” as a verb or imagined air travel for our July trips down south. Without scholarships, I’m not sure what college would have looked like for my younger brother and me. My father didn’t have language like “wealth gap.” I don’t think his pride would let him entertain such a notion, despite what the data clearly show, then and now.

All of the African American families that I knew as I was growing up — those in my immediate community, my mother’s school teacher friends, my godmothers and play Aunts, my real Aunts and Uncles and cousins — were doing what they thought they were supposed to be doing, making ends meet through the 1970s, the 80s’ recession, and beyond. Kids weren’t privy to conversations about budgets or refinances or home equity or car notes. We didn’t talk about the market at the dinner table. Best case, we got to go inside the bank and get a lollipop. Maybe we had a savings account. Because that was the key to wealth — saving. Nothing more was said.

This is not an exclusively African American experience. As we discuss in our class, American cultural norms often silence finance conversations before they happen, particularly in households with modest means. Picking up on my post about schooling while at home yesterday, I want to encourage everyone during this time of isolation to create spaces to talk about money with the people around you. Parents, talk to your children. College students, talk to your parents and extended family members. Be intentional. Share your questions, your concerns and fears, your struggles, your goals, your ideas, and your dreams. Let this be a doorway to collective accountability and shaping stronger wealth growth habits.

Also take this time to get what you can in order. There are small and immediate changes you can make to put dollars back into your accounts. Many of us will be scrambling to get through these next few months or longer. Here are two lists of things you can do to tighten up and be more informed. As we learn more about the stimulus relief and other outlets available for people, I will share resources and stories. Bottomline, now is not the time to struggle in silence. We all have a lot to learn as we navigate the new financial hurdles in front of us, and the complicated past that’s drastically slowed our pace.

I am a husband, father, writer, educator, and generator of ideas. Working on my follow through. Latest book, Higher Learning, out now at learnhigher.com.

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