April's post about Fallacy of Financial Literacy.” The idea here is that we are sold tools to increase our financial literacy, when in fact they only increase our knowledge of products the banks who create the tools can use to their profit and our detriment.
The reason we don't know enough to object seems to be rooted in a real problem: financial literacy is a woozy concept that we think of in the same way we think of math literacy. In other words, there are a bunch of technical facts we need to learn, which seem hard, and boring to boot. The real solution, I think, is to think of financial literacy in the same way we do possessing knowledge about history or culture: through stories.
We need to tell the story of our own financial lives, to our children and to our friends. This is the best way to turn financial literacy into something we share instead of something sold to us. But:
We don't want to talk about money
People talk to me about money. Perhaps it's because I'm perceived as knowing something about money (I have an MBA, I write about money, I work in finance). It's not because I'm perceived as having a lot of money; I think that, conversely, would decrease my friends' willingness to approach me about the topic.
So often, I find that simply by knowing more information about the salaries, hourly rates, work conditions and spending habits of other people in their peer group, people are able to make far more engaged decision about their own work situation, spending habits and expectations. They are able to make comparisons and discover if they are working far too hard and too many hours compared to others in similar jobs or if they should be proud of their ability to juggle needs and wants within their budgets. They can decide whether it might make sense to go back to school to get that job of which they've dreamed, or if they'll spend all the money on an expensive degree only to make less.
Let's take my friend, we'll call her Bella, who works as an adjunct professor. She's one of those who's willing to talk about money with me; she's willing to talk about money with a lot of people, and she's unusual in that way. But she's used to people not being willing to talk back. We've softely prodded, for instance, to discover exactly how much a mutual friend makes in a job she's told us makes her happy but not rich, but she wouldn't say. It would be an interesting data point in our quest to understand how creative people balance “day jobs” and their creative pursuits. (It's a passion project, as they say.)
So I know how much Bella makes and why she's being kept as a part-timer. (Her boss is worried that, after parts of health care reform are enacted, they'll have to get health care for all the adjuncts at her school. “No they won't!” she says. “We all have partners whose insurance covers us.”)
The important part of her story is how these are some of the only jobs available in her field of teaching writing; they're largely offered part-time, without benefits and are very low-paid. Yet every year thousands take advanced degrees to enter her field, not really knowing what it's going to be like; all will have to either find partners willing to work more traditional jobs, work more traditional jobs themselves, or figure out a creative way to live on $20,000 a year.
“I've learned,” says Bella, “that if you want to be a writing teacher, you should find a partner who is OK with working a boring job that brings in a lot of money.”
We don't want to talk about work conditions
My babysitter, we'll call her Vivian, is a teacher of English as a second language for one of the top private companies that offer such classes. Most of her students are wealthy U.S. immigrants, students at the local college or those who are here on temporary visas. They pay a lot for her services, and she's extremely good at her job. Like Bella, she and all the teachers she works with are strictly kept at part-time schedules, and they make, she said, a little more than $1,000 a month after taxes, for work that is so close to full-time it's hard to hold another job (which is why she's available for babysitting only once a week).
She got a new schedule a few months ago, with classes back-to-back, only 10 minutes between, “barely long enough to go to the bathroom,” she told me. She works almost seven hours straight without a break — an illegal schedule in many states (and definitely ours). When she asked her co-workers about it, they said, “Well, you don't have to do it!” and ended the conversation. With the uncertainty of any job in this market, she felt, she did have to do it; it would have made it a lot easier for her to object if her colleagues were willing to object, too.
“If my students had any idea,” said Vivian, “that they are paying so much for these classes in a state-of-the-art building, and that their teachers were being paid — ” here I interjected, “below the poverty line!” — they would be shocked and dismayed. They might demand better.
We don't want to talk about how much we put on credit cards
I think this is the key, really. My friend Bella and my babysitter are pretty smart about money, in that they don't put groceries or going out on credit cards. They make do with what little income they have, in Bella's case being extremely frugal with food, and in Vivian's case sharing a house with three other roommates.
But I know not everyone does that. I was talking to another friend, we'll call him Greg, about his wife's financial situation. I know exactly how much he makes, because his salary is public information, and it's not much. His wife makes a little more than he does, but she's saddled with a huge amount of credit card debt. “From that shopping problem,” he says darkly. So they struggle, and they're having to make very difficult decisions about their living arrangement and careers because of the load of her debt and underwater mortgage.
And every time I see her show up with new boots (“bought at a super sale!”) or pay for lunch, I worry; I'm afraid those purchases are going on her credit card, and I wish I could talk to her about it. It's probably too late anyway; she's learned her lesson, mostly, and she's now in the debt-paying-off mode. But I feel like, if she'd talked more about this back when her “shopping problem” was at its height, she might have found a way to recognize that her debt was outsized.
What we need to do is talk about these things, so we can compare, contrast and find a better way.
It's not nosy or salacious to know how much your friends makes, what their working conditions are and how much they are spending in debt and in cash. It's not prying to see how much your parents are putting into retirement or savings accounts. It's healthy. We (many of us) tell our friends about our love lives, how we put on makeup, and whether our parents yelled at us too much. We tell our kids how to wipe their bottoms, why we do or do not go to church and when we started using dandruff shampoo. Why can't we tell them about our financial choices, our salary, our mistakes and the lessons we've learned?
This is the route to financial literacy: telling financial stories. I'd love to hear yours.
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.