“So… what do you do?” the high school athletes with whom I work will ask me while we're running together at practice. Or they'll ask me what I write about, having only heard obliquely my reference to my occupation.
“Lots of stuff,” I'll say. “But I make most of my income writing about personal finance.”
I remember what I thought about personal finance when I was in high school. I thought it was so incredibly dull at age 15, I couldn't even endure a semester on the subject; I “challenged” the class, taking a test instead of sitting through checkbook-balancing and budget-making and resume-writing. I was one of those who took naturally to money concepts (I think this may be typical of oldest children in large families, especially families in which money is tight), and I sailed through personal finance.
“Is that fun?” asked one of the runners last week. This answer would have blown me away in high school when I made up my sophomore year schedule.
“Yes, it is, I actually really enjoy it,” I said, even still a little surprised.
More financial literacy is always a good thing
I know a lot about personal finance–I'm comfortable calling myself an “expert”–but I certainly don't know everything and there is so much I don't do right. Yes, I know it would be better to budget my freelance income as my spending after I receive it rather than before; it would save me a lot in stress and expenditure-juggling. No, I shouldn't spend so much on cafe costs–buying bagels and coffees and sandwiches and cookies for myself and my kids when we're running around on errands and to meetings. If I used a personal escrow account, I could save at least 10% of many expenses by paying them annually instead of monthly. I could use the produce of my garden more efficiently and save a lot in fruit and vegetable expenditures (I threw away about six pounds of figs last week when I never got around to doing anything with them and they went bad — I felt terrible).
Every time I write a column here or on another web site, I am pushed to do something better. I am pushed to research the answer a little harder and focus more on smart money dealings.
I see every day how much I don't know
But even more than the things I do wrong, there are the things I still don't know. My favorite checkout guy at the grocery co-op told me the other day how it was now cheaper to run my bank card as credit, rather than debit, for most purchases. “I can't keep it straight!” I said.
“It's hard to do,” he said, “things are changing all the time.”
“But… I'm a personal finance writer,” I said miserably. “I should know this.”
He explained that banks with less than $10 billion in deposits, including most of the small community banks and credit unions that are popular with co-op members, are exempt from the Federal Reserve Board rules limiting transaction fees (the ones businesses pay to banks in order to process credit and debit cards) to “reasonable and proportional to the costs incurred by the issuer.” It's thoroughly ironic that a business frequented by people who believe in shopping and investing locally pays different (and perhaps higher) transaction fees than large businesses with no local-investment values because of this value.
This new information had me committed to use cash more when shopping at these businesses I'm trying to support; cash, for them, has zero transaction fees. Even a personal finance writer can use continuing education in financial literacy.
I'm always wishing I was more financially literate; and I'm the financial literati!
I felt this was one of those universe-messaging moments; I'm being prompted to do something. Pass on what I know and keep learning more.
It's financial literacy month, and as it's also the month I start spending a lot of time with teenagers–I'm a volunteer coach from August through October–I've been trying to figure out how I can pay it forward to teenagers without showing up at practice with handouts and prepared lectures. So I was intrigued when I was introduced to CharitySub, a unique “community of givers” in which you subscribe (the sub) to give $5 each month to a different charity. Three are selected each month on a theme and, as you've probably guessed, August is “financial literacy.”
I volunteer coach because I love working with teenagers, and I never had what it takes to put up with the bureaucracy that comes with public schools (I can barely take the bureaucracy of being an unpaid volunteer). Coaching one sport isn't a lot of interaction, but I've seen that even a small amount can make a difference, a community of nudges in the right direction, if you will.
That's why I picked w!se, a financial literacy program aimed at high schoolers and young people who are survivors of domestic violence, to give my monthly five bucks. It's curriculum that teaches kids about the things my woulda-been-dull high school personal finance class was supposed to; about the benefits of having a checking account, how to budget, and other basic things.
“Survivors say their experience at w!se has taught them more about managing money than their friends, family, TV or books,” says CharitySub.
(Note they didn't mention web sites like ours)
I think there are a lot of pathways to financial literacy, and we might need to follow them all. It's like learning a language, or being a lawyer, running cross country; it's rarely the assumption that you're done, you've finished, you can stop working. When I was running with the teenagers at camp last week at Silver Falls State Park, I was stunned to see how sore my quadriceps were after two days running the trails. “Why do I ache?” I asked the head coach plaintively. “I've been training on hills!”
“Not hills like these,” he said. The sharp up and down was a shock to muscle groups I just don't use, running in the city.
Let's all learn something new about our money
A lot of times I read through headlines on financial web sites and think, “oh, can there be anything new here?” And usually, after a few minutes, I realize, “yes.” I think we all loved Kristin Wong's post on the cost of politeness–raise your hand if you said to yourself, “I totally do that”–and it's worthwhile taking stock of our good and bad habits.
Sometimes literacy is just about (cue music from yoga class) being present in our financial decisions. For those of us who are financially literate, we can use this month celebrating financial literacy to give a little back to others and also reinvest in our own continuing financial education. Recognize the areas in which you hold somewhat less than a PhD of financial awesomeness. Learn something more, practice more, run up and down hills in a new way. After a few days of achiness, I promise, you'll be so much stronger.
Where do you need to focus your financial continuing education? Where do you go for inspiration and fiscal strength training?
Sarah is a blogger by trade and a finance geek at heart. She cut her teeth on her first Excel spreadsheet full of financials at the tender age of 21, when she began her investment banking career in First Unionâ€™s Loan Syndications group. She went on to get her MBA from Wharton, work at Merrill Lynch and fall in love with analyzing company strategy and endless rows of numbers. She got into blogging as a marketing strategy and the blogging took. She now is a freelance financial and (award-winning!) literary writer, working in between baking bread and finding socks for her three little boys in her beloved 1912 Portland, Oregon, home.
Sarah's even-more-personal blogging about being an Army wife, parenting, food, biking and life can be found at urbanMamas and Cafe Mama.