Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Sharing the Wealth

Apologies to all for my neglect of the blog—with my new job came the obligation to prepare for another bar exam, so anytime not spent on billable hours I spend trying to remember when the Rule Against Perpetuities does and doesn’t apply (don’t ask!).

In any case, the new year has put me in mind of resolutions, since for many, January 1 tends to act as a catalyst for change, or at least promises to do so. For all of my sisters and those who love us out there, I hope that you will agree with me that one of the most important resolutions that we can make (and keep) to ourselves is to get our financial houses in order.

Black women as a group have lower individual incomes, lower household incomes and assets, and less income stability (i.e., last hired, first fired) then virtually any demographic group in this country. We still collectively face real and daunting barriers to our material progress, not the least of which is that we are less likely to be married and more likely to be the sole or primary supporters of households with dependents that lack secondary incomes. These challenges make building financial security both more difficult and more crucial for black women than for virtually any other group. All too often, we are the safety net in our communities—and thus have no soft place of our own to land when inevitable financial calamities strike.

This will only be increasingly true as the U.S. enters a recession that will have negative economic ramifications the world over. I’m far from a financial guru, but I’ve lived and observed enough to come to some general conclusions as to the best ways to both protect and enrich ourselves financially in an increasingly uncertain economic climate:

1. Save and Invest FIRST!
This one is nothing that we haven’t all heard before, but it bears repeating since so few Americans actually do it. Many of us have come to rely on credit cards and home equity as “emergency funds,” letting our precious earned income flow through our fingers to taxes, consumption, and any and every expenditure BEFORE we pay ourselves. Thus, we become trapped in a downward spiral, where increased debt requires increased debt service, thereby further limiting the funds available to commit to building our own financial security.

If you find yourself in this spiral—STOP! Before you pay rent/mortgage, buy groceries, pay MasterCard or Visa, your first and foremost creditor is YOU. Quite often people say “I can’t afford to save—after all, I have to eat/have a place to live/clothes to wear, etc.” However, in the event of a financial crisis, you will not have the ability to pay for any of these things without having savings to tap. It is better to put aside a dollar BEFORE paying anyone else anything, than to put away nothing at all. Too often, if we can’t afford to save large amounts, we become discouraged from saving anything at all—a recipe for disaster. Credit in the coming years will become harder to access and more expensive than ever, which makes having cash on hand more crucial than ever. Whatever your needs may be and whoever you may owe, start paying yourself SOMETHING today.

2. Pay Down Debt
Another “no brainer” most readers will say—we all know we should, and most of us try our best to do it. What tends to undermine our efforts is the factor discussed in point 1: the lack of savings means that we must rely on credit to finance needs (and too often wants), so as soon as we reduce a debt, it simply climbs back up again. This is why it cannot be said too often: pay yourself first, pay for needs (necessary food, necessary shelter, necessary clothes and medical care) second, and pay debt third. Ironically perhaps, the only way to retire debt for good is not to make it your number one priority.

3. Learn to Distinguish Wants and Needs
Americans and other Westerners have often been raised in such an atmosphere of affluence and materialism, that we identify our very selves with our money and possessions. This is dangerous, because when you derive your identity from something, you are dependent on it—i.e., you need it. Thus people scoff at poor children who long for iPods and overpriced tennis shoes, when many solidly “middle class” adults are financially capsizing because they put 50% or more of their income into having the “right” house in the “right” neighborhood. Why? Because to be “middle class” requires living in a “middle class” neighborhood, driving at least two “middle class” vehicles per household, wearing “middle class” clothes, sending your children to “middle class” schools, etc. Too many Americans haven’t heard the news: all but the highest incomes have been stagnant for decades, while the costs of maintaining a “middle class” lifestyle have blown through the roof. In other words, many Americans are really no longer “middle class,” simply because we increasingly no longer have a “middle class.” We have the top 20% of income-earners and wealth-owners, and everybody else, just like most of the countries in the world.

This inability to recognize the fundamental change that our economy has undergone is the root cause of the “dot.com bubble,” the “subprime bubble,” and all the bubbles to come: Americans can no longer depend on earning a middle class income, so they have been reduced to trying to scramble into the top 20%, through stock-trading and selling each other overpriced houses (to paraphrase Paul Krugman). I have strong opinions about what our response to this crisis should be on a collective level—but on the individual level, I think the answer is unavoidable: we in the majority need to withdraw from the consumer society, and stop defining ourselves through our possessions.

For example, we have friends who thought my husband I were “nuts” not to buy a home in the NYC metro area over the past five years: a home is your best investment, with the tax writeoff it’s cheaper than renting, mortgage rates are lower than ever, etc. Left unsaid was the presumption that those who can afford to buy (i.e., the "middle class"), buy, while only poor losers rent. We are educated, earn good incomes, can "afford" to buy--in other words, we are "middle class." So why haven't we bought?

Because a home should not be your “best investment”; it should be a place to live, just as your car is a means of transportation, and nutritious food is fuel for your body. Your goal in purchasing such items is not to mistake them for investments, but to minimize their cost while maximizing their utility. Certainly, historically, residential real estate has steadily increased in value—but that doesn’t mean that it always has or that it always will. Today, millions of people are learning this lesson the hardest possible way: through foreclosure, insolvency and bankruptcy.

For too many Americans, their homes have become, in the words of Elizabeth Warren, a “cement life raft,” that they cling to desperately, even as it pushes them ever deeper underwater. All around us we can see the disastrous consequences of 125% ARM mortgages and home equity loans, used to increase the “value” of our “investments” through the installation of granite countertops and stainless appliances—after all, realtors insist, “middle class” buyers expect nothing less, and we should always be looking for a buyer—right?

My point isn’t that no one should buy a home, or even that our needs are concrete and uniform. After all, if you live in NJ, you need a heavy winter coat; if you live in Florida, you probably don’t. My point is only that we must all look closely at our own lives in order to determine what we really need vs. what we only want—our perhaps have been taught to want—instead of allowing our consumer culture to convince us that we are what we drive, where we live, the clothes we wear, and thus can’t afford to stop spending, least we cease to be meaningful and worthwhile beings. Today, our friends don’t call us “nuts” anymore for renting a modest home that we can afford, and instead saving and investing the excess that would have gone into purchasing a home in currently overpriced Bergen County. We will buy when houses are affordable—and we will decide what “affordable” means for us, not a bank, realtor, or mortgage broker.

I would appreciate it if some of the smart, savvy sisters and those who love us out there who often share their wisdom on this blog will expand on the thoughts I have shared here, and share some of their best financial insights in response to this post. We only have ourselves to depend on, so sharing your wisdom means sharing the wealth!

37 comments:

PioneerValleyWoman said...

Greetings, Aimee!

Welcome back, and good luck with the bar exam!

I admire you--I can't say I want to ever do that again! I took the NY bar, waived into DC, practiced, but "retired" upon becoming an academic.

I'm quite happy to participate in this thread, since reading about the topic of women and financial security is one of my favorite hobbies.

Some resources:

Michele Singletary, an Af-Am woman, has a regular column she writes for the Washington Post.

I saw on Barnes and Noble's website, a collection of books by another Af-Am woman, "Girl, Get your money straight," plus a few others.

The Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement has a lot of great information. Here is a link to an article targeted to minority women:

http://www.wiserwomen.org/pdf_files/wiserminorityApr05.pdf

Here is another group: the Women's Institute for financial education: www.wife.org. I love their bumper sticker: "A man is not a financial plan."

What else? The Independent Women's Forum, a conservative feminist group, has a great article for young women and financial independence,
http://www.iwf.org/publications/show/19943.html


Enjoy:

PVW

foreverloyal said...

I love this post.
We thought about "upgrading" to a larger house awhile ago (more kids and darn do they grow fast). Technically we could afford it. But when we calculated all the increases that would come with it, together with some signs that housing prices might fall, we quickly decided to stay put for awhile.
My little tip: ALWAYS buy less house than you can technically afford.

daphne said...

Um, I should not be this excited to see a new post. But, dang it, I am!

*Virtually hugs Aimee*

I am so glad that you expounded upon home buying. I think too many people get caught up in having the "American dream," going on what mainstream society tells them that dream should be rather than defining it for themselves. Plus, when talking about renting vs buying, too many compare only the mortgage payment vs rent. I rent an apartment, so I'm not sure how it works for renting homes, but it's not just about a mortgage payment. You have property taxes, PMI (possibly), cost of household maintenance, etc as factors that are conveniently forgotten. By all means, if you can afford it, want it, and have clarity about what the costs are, buy a home. I live in Georgia, where we have some of the highest foreclosure percentages in the country, because all people talk about is the monthly mortgage payment rather than the bigger financial picture.

Things I Have Learned Financially:

1) Shop around - don't assume that you're paying the best price for anything. It's great to hear things word of mouth, but don't assume that because your brother's best friend's cousin says they found a good deal, that it is a good deal. There's so much to be found on the Internet - take the time to do a little research. That goes for just about anything - insurance, buying a car, etc.

2) Don't take credit for granted. We are slaves to debt in the US, and while I think some legislation was passed to make bankruptcy filings a little more difficult, I believe blacks are too quick to file bankruptcy because of lack of financial responsibility. As Aimee pointed out, quit worrying about getting more stuff. It never ceases to amaze me how some women have Gucci this, Prada that yet can't keep their telephone service connected.

3) If you can afford it, whether via a job or buying your own plan, get health insurance. Yes, I know that many, many people can't afford it because they're just trying to survive with shelter, clothing, food - I'm not talking about them.
I'm talking about those who don't want to pay for it because you never go to the doctor. Guess what? Because you never go to the doctor, you don't know or you ignore signs of debilitating physical health, then you end up in the emergency room in a diabetic coma or something. Yes, you will be stabilized, and sent home. And that medical bill will come. I know it's a sacrifice for some, but people don't realize - all it takes is one hospital stay to get financially washed away. Granted, there are co-pays and deductibles for some plans, but 80% coverage is still better than 0%. In some cases, the price paid to Dolce and Gabbana would cover the cost of medical insurance for a year.

On a totally random note, I must say that attorneys (current and former) certainly represent in the black women blogosphere!

Ruth LaMorena said...

Happy New Year, Aimee and good luck with the bar exam!

Great post. I don't remember the citation but I do remember reading that (I believe) approximately 60% of BW are impoverished by retirement age. When I find the cite, I will put it up.

I have been "listening up" (all my actual reading time goes to school work) on financial planning, budgeting, and income streams. I thought I would use this information to feather my nest.

Until I found out that my mother might be out of a job this year: Her company is restructuring and her position is being eliminated. This is the second time in my life that my mom has experienced this. She worked for the telephone company for 26 years when they offered an early retirement package to long time employees. I am now working with my mother to try to figure out different ways she can pay her bills from freelance work to per diem work to temporary assignments - she just needs the money, not health insurance or retirement since she got that from her first job.

@ PVW, thanks for the links! I will definitely check them out.

PioneerValleyWoman said...

Ruth:

You're welcome regarding the links.

The one I put up from WISER offers some great information on women and retirement.

The IWF, in turn, addresses another aspect of this whole thing...that women tend to make less than men, and thus they should think about that when they go out to interview for jobs. Their suggestion is that women should be prepared.

Learn the typical pay scale for your line of work, and how it differs, depending on industry, etc. Maximize your pay, minimize your expenses, and watch out for the credit cards!

So for example, in academia, teaching in a public institution can mean less pay than teaching in a private one. Teaching in a professional school (law, business, medicine) can mean more pay than teaching in a college or university.

Women don't negotiate enough with respect to their salaries, according to the IWF article, so they start off with less, which builds up over time, especially when they work in less lucrative fields.

Liz Perle (Money, a Memoir) and Jean Chatsky (Make Money, not excuses) spoke of this too.

PioneerValleyWoman said...

A brief note--I'm not sure whether you heard of the blog what about our daughters, but one of the members, shecodes, she used to respond on halima's blog, and perhaps here too, but she has her own now, black women vote. Both for your sidebar, perhaps?

Anonymous said...

OT: I want to chastise you Aimee for not blogging more. I know you are busy but we need to read something intelligent on a regular basis! I have been checking every day since Nov 26 and found nothing new. Your blog is by far the best among the IR group. I love the diversity of topics and especially your writing style. Consider writing a book. I would definitely be in line to buy it.

bint alshamsa said...

Hello there,

I stumbled on your blog today and I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate this post. As a woman of color who was diagnosed with cancer in my twenties, I have A LOT to add to the health care coverage suggestions that you made but I didn't want to just come to your blog as a total stranger and write an essay for folks.

Instead, I responded to it on my blog. If you want, I'll put it here too but I wanted to ask first. Here's what I wrote:

Smart Financial Advice for Savvy Women (and Men)

bint alshamsa said...

By the way, I'm also a woman of color in an inter-racial relationship. It's always nice to talk to others like me. :)

Anonymous said...

Indeed Aimee, this is the most intelligent blog I've found for black women in IR relationships. This post is very important not least because having financial savvy gives one an advantage on the relationship front. Women (black women) that take care of their finances know how to choose partners who do the same. I also believe that women who can take care of themselves are attractive to serious marriage-minded men. And for many women having a cash cushion means the difference between staying in a bad relationship and leaving.

Glad you're back Aimee.

Me said...

Good luck on the bar and congrats on your new job
*
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http://gorgeousblackwomen.blogspot.com/

CW said...

Great Advice...Wish I would have taken it a little more often ; )

Good luck on the bar...I heard those were a beast....

BWDB http://thecwexperience.wordpress.com

Mel said...

Hi Aimee, Good luck on the bar exam...I haven't taken one in 11 yrs!! But if I move again, I may have to!
Your post resonated with me bc I have been renting for 5 yrs bc I wasn't sure about my employer/boss, I didn't plan on staying this long (LOL), and bc the housing prices were outrageous!! I think waiting and saving is the right thing, if it Works for you. Look at the subprime/overpriced home mess!!

To PVW- Do you teach Law or do you Teach on the bachelor's degree level?

Happy 08 everybody!!

Mel

PioneerValleyWoman said...

Mel--

Hi Aimee, Good luck on the bar exam...I haven't taken one in 11 yrs!! But if I move again, I may have to!
Your post resonated with me bc I have been renting for 5 yrs bc I wasn't sure about my employer/boss, I didn't plan on staying this long (LOL), and bc the housing prices were outrageous!! I think waiting and saving is the right thing, if it Works for you. Look at the subprime/overpriced home mess!!

To PVW- Do you teach Law or do you Teach on the bachelor's degree level?

My reply:

I teach at the bachelor's level. But a question--if you took one 11 years ago, perhaps you can waive in if you were to move?

Professor Zero said...

Academia: does not pay well and your professional expenses are not necessarily covered (e.g. xeroxing, postage, travel to conferences, books). Yet you cannot advance without making these investments.

It is a conundrum since you may not make enough to cover them. I was heavily advised that I should take loans for this purpose - it would pay off big time later. I had avoided student loans but then, in essence, I took assistant professor loans! One is *not* supposed to take on extra work to cover these expenses because that means less time devoted to publishing.

I took all of this advice and it did not pay off well in terms of big raises, and I am still paying on what I borrowed.

The department chair who convinced me to do this, is now angry at one of the new professors. He refuses to go into debt and takes on extra work to cover uncovered expenses. The chair wanted my support in insisting that he take the advice I took. I went and told him I thought he was running his life very well and that he should not listen to the chair - maybe hide some information from this chair so they don't get mad or prejudiced, but not to listen.

Anonymous said...

I'm from Georgia also and before going back to grad school I worked in financial services. Many people fell for all those ads that told them a home is an investment and if you are paying rent you're throwing away money. Both are false.

1) A home is a place to provide shelter. It is not an ATM machine to draw money out of to pay debt. A mortgage is a debt. I have heard stories from banks how people ignore foreclosure notices and don't believe the bank has the right to take their house. Technically, it's the bank house until you pay off the mortgage.
2)If you're paying rent you're not throwing money away. You're putting a roof on your head.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not economical to buy a house and stay in it for two or three years, then try to make a profit. We need to turn off HGTV and stop thinking of our homes as our own personal versions of MTV cribs

PioneerValleyWoman said...

Prof. Zero

Academia: does not pay well and your professional expenses are not necessarily covered (e.g. xeroxing, postage, travel to conferences, books). Yet you cannot advance without making these investments.

It is a conundrum since you may not make enough to cover them.

My reply: Like you said, it depends, some places might pay more and some places might provide start up funds to get their faculty going.

Anon: Many people fell for all those ads that told them a home is an investment and if you are paying rent you're throwing away money. Both are false.

My reply: It is about doing a cost-benefit analysis. Perhaps for some, the mortgage interest and property tax deductions might make it worthwhile. But yes, acting like one's house is an ATM machine and a source of endless credit, is pretty foolish...

Anonymous said...

Pioneer: You also have to value upkeep, ie utilites and the cost of ownership, home association fees.
And let's not forget property taxes, which seem to go up every year!

In my divorce settlement I gave up the house, because being a financial services professional I know all the well about doing cost benefit anaylsis and rate of return. My ex-husband choose to keep the house. Many of my friends thought I was crazy for not keeping the house. Now, three years later. The neighborhood is almost half foreclosure and section 8; the school district is in shabbles; and the home value dropped 10%.
Thanks to my good credit we got a rate on a traditional mortgage.

Point is you have to consider the 'real cost' of owning things. Not just all the benefits.

PioneerValleyWoman said...

Good points!

daphne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
daphne said...

Interestingly enough, MSN Money is doing a series on the middle class squeeze:

http://articles.moneycentral.msn.com/Investing/HomeMortgageSavings/MiddleClassEssentials_SeriesHome.aspx?GT1=10825

Just copy and paste the entire link into a web browser....

PioneerValleyWoman said...

Aimee--a great news article--subprime mortgage foreclosures in a Baltimore community as they are affecting black women:

Another front page New York Times article that raises interesting questions about race, gender and economics.


NATIONAL | January 15, 2008
Baltimore Finds Subprime Crisis Snags Women

By JOHN LELAND
The subprime mortgages that are driving the foreclosure rate have gone disproportionately to women.

Anonymous said...

Happy new year to you Aimee and to all of you precious, beautiful, intelligent, wonderful and cute BW here, and in the world! I love you!

arthur said...

Buying a house can be a good investment for non-real-estate-savy people, but there have to be three things going on:

1) It has to be your house, where you plan to live for at least 5 years. You want to figure on being there long enough to get to the other side of the kind of dip in values that we are seeing now. The main reason people get hurt in RE is when they have to sell when prices are down.

2) You have to be very clear on what it's going to cost. I'd stay away from ARMs because there's no way to predict what your payment will become when the time comes to adjust the rate. If it's a condo, what is the HOA monthly fee? What are the property taxes? Make sure they are part of the monthly payment. Make sure you can afford what it all adds up to. Not being able to pay the monthy amount of the real cost is the usual reason people lose money, or their house.

3) It has to at least be in a decent, middle-class/working-class neighborhood. There is seldom much property appreciation in a bad area, and the living can be stressful. Not letting any cats out of the bag here.

The real estate investment profit is made by increase in property value; being able to sell a house for more than you paid. If you leave that part out of the equation, then renting is usually more cost effective.

So, observing 3) above will get you a property that will tend to increase in value, and observing 1) and 2) will ensure that you are able hold on long enough to realize the gain.

Anyway, my $0.02 :)

Aimee said...

Hi PVW!

I should've known you had some legal training--you just can't keep the IRAC from creeping into your analysis!

Thanks for sharing your wisdom and your resources--I'm sure I speak for us all when I say it is contribution is much appreciated.

Aimee said...

Professor Zero said...
Academia: does not pay well and your professional expenses are not necessarily covered (e.g. xeroxing, postage, travel to conferences, books). Yet you cannot advance without making these investments.

The cost of pursuing higher education (not just the price of tuition and books, but the opportunity costs) are becoming so prohibitive that I'm almost hesitant to give someone the advice of pursuing more education, especially if it involves heavy borrowing.

Law school is a good case in point--there's a movement afoot among a number of disgruntled law graduates to discourage attendance at all but the top 14 schools. They point out, correctly, not only that the top law firms recruit almost exclusively from these schools (that pay the salaries that permit repayment of sky-high debt), but that the "middle-class" of legal employment is quickly going the way of the mastadon--which means too many people with $100k+ debt loads are leaving law school only to find jobs paying $45k a year in Manhattan, or no job at all.

If a person is passionately committed to practicing law, I wouldn't want to discourage them; but a J.D. is no longer a one-way ticket to an upper-middle-class lifestyle, which is the assumption many young people enter law school with.

I know that the same issues confront professionals in academia: huge costs, huge investments in time, and an ever-shrinking tenure track. I believe in education for its own sake, and I know that it is generally more difficult to progress without it than with it. But like housing, it's costs are slowly beginning to outstrip its practical value in many people's lives.

Aimee said...

Anonymous said...
I'm from Georgia also and before going back to grad school I worked in financial services. Many people fell for all those ads that told them a home is an investment and if you are paying rent you're throwing away money. Both are false.

1) A home is a place to provide shelter. It is not an ATM machine to draw money out of to pay debt. A mortgage is a debt. I have heard stories from banks how people ignore foreclosure notices and don't believe the bank has the right to take their house. Technically, it's the bank house until you pay off the mortgage.
2)If you're paying rent you're not throwing money away. You're putting a roof on your head.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not economical to buy a house and stay in it for two or three years, then try to make a profit. We need to turn off HGTV and stop thinking of our homes as our own personal versions of MTV cribs


You put this so perfectly! You don't how many times I've watched some couple on HGTV asking for help "staging" their home for sale because they got married, bought a 700sq ft, one bedroom condo as a "starter home," had a baby two years later, and then decided they needed more space.

Come on, people--you didn't anticipate having a baby? You didn't anticipate needing more than 700sq ft for three people?

And if I hear one more person talk about "throwing money away on rent...." That makes as much sense as saying someone is "throwing money away" on needed food, clothing or medical care.

The investment element of home ownership can be lucrative if you're smart and lucky, but the bottom line is that a house is a place to live, and for most people, should be purchased for that purpose. If it appreciates--great! But on average, residential real estate has appreciated about 5% over the last 25 years--not bad, but hardly the only basket you want to put all your eggs in. And that's only an average--as Arthur points out, where you buy is always a crucial factor.

PioneerValleyWoman said...

Hi PVW!

I should've known you had some legal training--you just can't keep the IRAC from creeping into your analysis!

Thanks for sharing your wisdom and your resources--I'm sure I speak for us all when I say it is contribution is much appreciated.

My reply:

Yikes! I've been caught out! Yes, IRAC, in my teaching and in my writing!

I'll read your new post soon!

Vakker Kvinne said...

Hey Aimee-

It'd be great if you could post some books/other financial resources on your web site. I'm trying to get my stuff back in order after living abroad working low paying jobs for three years and need some advice.

-W

vakkerkvinne.blogspot.com

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