In March 2019, Black Enterprise published an article titled African American Economics: Real Facts. The article referenced a State of the American Family Study by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. (MassMutual), which found that:
1. Outside of retirement accounts, only 37% of African Americans own wealth-building products such as stocks and mutual funds.
2. Only 35% believe they are doing a good job of preparing for retirement.
3. 33% have less than one month of funds saved for a crisis and less than 25% have amassed more than six months’ of emergency savings.
4. 58% are actively involved in educating their children on finances versus 48% of Caucasians. Forty-percent rely on family members for information.
To give you some background, The State of the American Family survey consisted of 3,235 total interviews with Americans, including 482 African American respondents. The vast majority of these interviews (2,730) were conducted with men and women aged 25-64 with incomes equal to or greater than $50,000 and with dependents under age 26 for whom they are financially responsible. Respondents had to contribute at least 40% to decisions regarding financial matters in their household to qualify.
In response to bullet points one through three, I have found that it’s tough for someone to conceptualize planning for the future if they can’t see how they can financially get through today. If you don’t feel financially equipped to do more than live paycheck to paycheck, you definitely won’t be looking for a stock or mutual fund to invest in. Putting away money for savings or retirement for your future self may feel like taking away even more money from your current self who needs the money more. When you feel that you have a good handle on your income and expenses, it’s easier to think about investing, saving, and building wealth. It’s also easier to teach a concept that you feel you have mastered to your children.
As I read the article, it reminded me of why I am passionate about showing people what they can do with the money that they have now as opposed to waiting or relying on a raise or some other future event to finally start doing things with their money. I am passionate about it because learning that I had the power to do something with the money that I have right now was a game-changer for me. I often talk about making a plan in my articles. I was forced to make a plan for my money when I started working for a nonprofit that paid its employees only once month. That meant that whether or not it was a four-week or a five-week month, I had to make one check last until the next one.
For the first few months, I would pay my bills and hope for the best.As many of us have learned, hope is not a plan. I found that I kept being “surprised” by bills, overdrafting and not being able to save. If I did save, I withdrew the money in a matter of days. My first thoughts were that I needed to make more money and that my predicament was my employer’s fault for being cruel enough to pay anyone once a month. I asked my boss, who had been working for the nonprofit for five years before my arrival, how she managed to adapt to being paid on a monthly basis. She said that at first she thought that she wasn’t making enough money until she actually looked at her income and expenses on paper. She then realized that she actually had more than enough to cover her expenses and also save, she had just been spending it all.
I didn’t think that I would come to the same realization, nor did I believe that merely writing down my income and expenses would do anything to help my circumstances. However, I have always been willing to try anything once if it has the potential to benefit me. What an eyeopener it was to do this exercise!
Using a template like the one depicted below, I typed in my income, all mandatory expenses and minimum debt payments (i.e., all the rows with titles that end in "due on the ___") with their corresponding due dates. I was surprised to find that there was a lot of money that still remained after each paycheck.
I was in shock. If not to my bills and debts, where the heck had my money been going then? It certainly wasn't going to the investing or tithing lines because I was doing neither of those things at the time. The low balance in my savings account also revealed that the savings lines were not the culprit. I was ashamed to find that dining out was what was really eating (no pun intended) my money. In my head, I didn't think that I was spending a lot on food. I thought that I just had too many bills and wasn't being paid enough.
However, doing the above exercise brought 100% clarity that my spending and not my earnings was the source of my money issues. Once I got over that truth, I decided that instead of being ashamed about the fact that I caused my own money problems, I wanted start making better money decisions that I could be proud of. I asked myself where I would like my money to go. I knew that I wanted to demolish debt, save money, build an emergency fund, travel and invest. But how? That's when I started tinkering around with the numbers on the template. I asked questions such as:
What if I pay $10 more ($25 more, $50 more, etc.) than the minimum on all of my debts? How much income will I have left after each paycheck?
What if I pay $10 more ($25 more, $50 more, etc.) than the minimum on one or two of my debts and pay the minimum on the rest in the meantime? How much income will I have left after each paycheck?
Can I pay more than the minimum on all of my debts and also save at least $100 per paycheck?
How many paychecks/months will it take for me to successfully pay off each specific debt by paying the minimum, more than the minimum, etc.?
How many paychecks/months will it take for me to successfully pay off each specific debt if I'm simultaneously putting aside money for such and such savings goal?
If I need $X,XXX by next March for a trip, how much do I have to take out of each paycheck from now until then in order to have enough money?
If I aggressively pay down my debts and also save money, will there be any money left to possibly start investing?
I kept playing around with different allocation amounts on the template to see what my income allowed until I came up with the mix of allocations that I liked. Before doing this exercise, I would spend money without thinking about it, only to end up upset that I felt financially stagnant and like I was on a hamster wheel from check to check. This simple exercise showed me that I could use each paycheck as a step towards my present and future goals. I revisited and revised the template each time I got paid. Some paychecks went exactly as planned.
Some months I had to deduct money from one line and increase another. When I got my tax refund, I added the amount to the template and made a plan for where I wanted the refund money to go.I couldn't do everything at once, but I sure could do more than I had done previously. It took me a few years to pay off my debts and finally start investing. As my income increased over the years, I would tinker around with the template again in order to make a conscious decision about where to put the additional income. It still boggles my mind how doing something so simple forever changed my financial life. Once I got a handle on my monthly finances, the idea of building wealth no longer seemed like something out of my reach.
As a gift to DDS readers, I created a free biweekly money plan template that can be accessed HERE. The file is view only, so you have to download it, and then you can customize it to your liking. Delete rows. Add rows. Rename categories. Go crazy. There is a tab for each month of the year. Each month's tab has three paycheck columns to leave room for the months where there may be three instead of two biweekly paychecks. I encourage you to plan out your year. Decide where you want your money to go.If you know that a bill comes quarterly, biannually or annually, include the expense in that month's tab so that it doesn't come as surprise when the bill is due. Please note that this basic template excludes the additional feature that allows you to track your expenses and the feature that allows you to see how your debt payments affect your overall debt over time. Send an email to email@example.com if you’re interested in a template with those additional features or want guidance on how to use the existing template.
Zikora is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) by day. When not assisting and advising clients, she can be found writing, singing, songwriting, exercising, cooking, and or plotting her next move. She is a sounding board for friends and family and enjoys showing people that they can indeed do things that they believe to be difficult or impossible. Send questions and/or topics that you would like Zikora to cover in future articles to firstname.lastname@example.org.