Financial Literacy: Paying it Forward

financial gym client

In late 2018, as most people do, I started thinking about what I wanted to accomplish in 2019. One of my goals this year was to hire a financial planner and take control of my financial future. As destiny would have it, I clicked an ad on Instagram for a financial planning company that was started and led by women (#empoweringwomen).

Working with The Financial Gym

It just so happened that The Financial Gym was also headquartered in New York City, which meant that I could actually meet with a planner face-to-face throughout the process – SCORE! So, by the end of 2018, I’d already met with a trainer and suddenly had a team of highly-skilled, dedicated professionals helping me learn how to properly manage my finances. GOAL: MET!

Getting started wasn’t easy, though. It meant pulling down walls of distrust, removing the armor, and confronting my fear of vulnerability. It also meant acknowledging that, as a grown woman with very high career aspirations, I knew very little, or had deeply ingrained misconceptions, about money.

However, as I toiled over whether I was ready to be this transparent, or “naked”, I had to accept that this was definitely an area that I was not and never would be an expert.

And since I’m also not a mechanic and wouldn’t dare trying to fix a car on my own, I also had no business continuing to deceive myself into thinking I could get by on my own. So, I took the plunge. I committed. I decided that, no matter how hard it was, I needed help. I needed a  sensei. I needed to empower myself with the tools that would successfully guide me into the rest of my life without fear of financial insecurity.

Ditching my spending habits

As someone born into poverty in the rural South, where the Welfare truck came to our house to drop off food or hand out food stamps, I knew how to be poor.

We lived in a borrowed farm house with no phone, one vehicle (most of the time), and a four-person household surviving on my dad’s meager disability income..

I knew how to pinch pennies when we only had two to rub together anyway, and made it a competition to find amazing discount sales and grab good deals on the spot because it wouldn’t be there long and neither would the money to buy it.

While this has served me well to avoid traps of pricey labels, to teach others how to shop wisely, and kept me from needing to keep up with the Joneses, it also hindered me. Because when I had money, I was itching to spend it.

After all, who knew when something or someone would come along to take it away? I knew how to live on a shoestring so long as I only had one shoestring. But two shoestrings? Oh man! Where’s that new pair of shoes?! They’re on sale - I must have them!

Those old habits of poverty never left, or at least, I’d never dealt with it seriously or long enough to replace them with healthy financial habits. The more my salary increased, so did my spending.

No matter how hard I tried, I could not master becoming a saver rather than a spender. I could plan my education or prepare a classroom curriculum long term, but I was dangerously short-sighted when it came to my own finances.

Since joining the Gym, I have not yet mastered those new habits, but it’s still early, and I’m a work in progress and now believe it’s possible. I have a savings account that is gaining interest, and I’m not even tempted to touch it! [insert dancing cat meme]

Paying it forward

Within just a few short months and not surprisingly, what I’d learned at The Financial Gym found its way into my classroom. As a teacher of English to speakers of other languages (ESOL), one of the most important and difficult topics to teach to vulnerable, immigrant adults is the American financial system, its traps, and implementing best practices.

In the past, I’d felt inadequate and ill-equipped to teach those units. This year, I was ready. In January, my students and I embarked on a goals and resolutions journey that included financial literacy.

During our Financial Literacy unit, we explored our beliefs about money and how those beliefs inform our behaviors and lead to good (or bad) habits. We learned about the importance of credit in America, credit card management, how to recognize and avoid pitfalls and traps that target low-income communities, and then developed a step-by-step savings and spending plan.

We evaluated what they should be spending vs. what they were actually spending, calculated the percentage of their incomes for each spending category, and even created timelines for their savings goals.

Showing them a visual timeline and doing the math together helped my students understand how long it would take to reach their goals, adjust their patterns, and determine their next steps toward a financial plan that would work for their families rather than working against them.

One student had planned conservatively to save $20 per week for her son’s college tuition (just 6 years away), but had no idea how much college would actually cost in America.

She was shocked when we calculated how long it would take her to have enough money just for his first year of college. I watched the realization creep in and her face turn serious before she said, “I need to stop shopping too much, Teacher. I had no idea. Oh my god.”

Another student who’d never had enough money to write a budget (like me!) was confused when her budget came out with negative numbers. She thought something was wrong or that she’d made a mistake. I reassured her that it was ok because we’re all there sometimes, but that the key is to find a way to cut spending, increase income, or both.

In our follow-up session, they worked on projects to increase their income. One student decided that she would watch children in her home to make extra cash while not missing out on time with her own children.

Another student, who works as a pastry chef and whose daughter is a culinary student, decided they could create a local, home-cooked meal delivery service so that working parents and busy professionals could spend more time with their families and not worry about meal prep each week. These are some rock stars, folks! New entrepreneurs coming to a neighborhood near you!

Paying it forward to my classroom of hard-working, resilient students meant providing them the tools to get one step closer to that American Dream they came here to find. It meant having to live what I was now teaching and helping others find their way out of poverty through education, innovation, and healthy financial planning.

This was a tiny victory, but I’m also learning through this process to celebrate those small victories, even if it’s just changing one belief at a time.

For me, this journey toward financial freedom has helped me address the shame and guilt associated with not knowing how to manage money. Working with my financial planner has taught me to practice patience, compassion, and extend empathy and grace toward myself as well as others. Coming from poverty, I can’t fault myself or my parents for what we didn’t know. I can, however, learn better, do better, and then pay it forward.