The following is a guest post by Moss Mint Teal, which explores the intersections of sustainability and personal finance while examining the impacts of systemic issues like discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and more.
What the term “personal finance” is missing
We often hear how “personal finance is personal,” but what about when it really isn’t just personal?
The term “personal finance” (and much of the advice around it) tends to assume individual control. Things like spending, saving, and earning, and the assumption that our choices will only affect us or our immediate household.
But what about when our finances are also deeply impacted by intergenerational models of wealth, perceptions of race, and other systems out of our control?
Advice related to big issues like money or the environment often focuses on individual choices. Yes, turning off the lights when you leave the room will save a few dollars and watts. However, we often emphasize individual choices much more than the systems and broader conditions that have a bigger impact than any personal behaviors.
Here are three ways in which personal finance is definitely not just personal and what you can do about it:
My parents and I were recently joking about how much higher our net worth would have been if we had saved our money instead of spending it on tickets to visit family.
In the end, we agreed that we were incredibly fortunate to even have that dilemma. There’s nothing else we would have rather spent our money on. Can you really put a price on seeing your newborn nephew or sitting down for a meal with grandparents?
Different families have different models of thinking about wealth
For instance, households used to consist of multiple generations under a single roof where wealth was shared. That mentality doesn’t just disappear. Parents helped their children emigrate to other countries, not only to improve their own lives, but often to generate wealth for the entire family.
In these cases, financial decisions aren’t just personal. Family beliefs and attitudes play an integral role.
The Development Prospects Group (2007) of the World Bank notes that…the true size of remittances is larger than foreign direct investment flows and more than twice as large as official aid received by developing countries. Remittances are the largest source of external financing in many developing countries.
This isn’t just limited to immigrant families…
Beliefs about family support can vary based on gender and race. According to a study that looked at attitudes and support for elderly parents, “black women gave more support to aging parents than white women or men of either race.”
Having a high savings rate can be a luxury for some. Although it’s technically a personal choice, it’s unlikely that we’ll sacrifice family well-being for personal gain.
This especially depends on the cultures in which we grew up. If you’re responsible for sending back a certain percentage of your income, even if it’s totally worth it, that could mean less for your own personal savings.
Our financial models can be as diverse as our families. These models that we’re born into can have a profound impact on how much we can individually save.
I remember hearing a priest say that before praying, “you have to eat.” I loved how that showed that taking care of our physical needs first is necessary before we can do any abstract or long-term thinking.
There’s a famous experiment called the “Marshmallow Test,” in which children are given a marshmallow and told that they can have one marshmallow now or two if they wait until later. It’s meant to test children’s ability to delay gratification, which was originally thought to lead to greater success as adults.
However, more recent research has shown that it’s not just children’s inherent self-control that determines how long they can wait.
One study concluded that children’s ability to wait for the second marshmallow is somewhat dependent on if they believe that the world around them is “reliable.”
For instance, children who are used to getting exactly what they need all the time will be able to trust that the second marshmallow will follow. Those who are unsure if there will be food on the table later are more likely to eat the marshmallow.
Children will be more likely to wait if they believe the wait will be worth it, which totally makes sense!
Another recent reevaluation with a larger and more diverse sample size showed that a family’s level of wealth and education may also play a role in a child’s ability to wait. A review of research on the impacts of poverty on decision-making suggests that all the stressors accompanied with poverty can undermine productive decision-making in adults as well.
We might know what the mathematically “correct” way to manage money is, but everyone’s idea of what’s rational depends on life circumstances.
Unfortunately, there are already institutions like payday loans that are set up to exploit the different modes of decision-making that are ingrained in us, making it even harder to get ahead.
In addition to spending and saving being systematically more difficult for some folks than others, there are also some social structures in place that make it harder to earn money.
The Funnel of Financial Privilege can make it easier for folks to earn more money if they start off with more money, but factors like race or gender can also have an important impact on income growth potential as well.
Women are often encouraged to negotiate more to close the gender wage gap, even though they are less likely to get raises when they ask for them as much as men.
The onus is often on women to speak up and learn to negotiate better. They might be doing everything right as individuals, but they’re being perceived and treated differently than men.
Therefore, on the other side of the personal finance equation, discrimination can be a barrier to earning more.
So what can you do?
The systems in place around us have a heavy influence on our lives. But there still are some things you can do to help even the playing field for everyone. Depending on your personal circumstances, here are somethings you can do.
1. Maximize positive impact per dollar
We often think about our return-on-investment when it comes to money. But how about also thinking about maximizing the good we can do with our money?
Although our financial decisions can feel incredibly personal, they can also affect our communities and even the planet. The food we buy, how we get to work, or the banks we use all have an impact somewhere else.
The upside is that we can exert a bit of power through our role as consumers.
Can you replace a current purchase with something that’s more likely to have a positive impact on your community? For instance, here’s a directory of black-owned businesses in Canada and a list of black-owned cafes in the U.S. If you’re going to be grabbing a drink or a bite to eat anyway, why not do it in a spot that supports local entrepreneurship?
Other alternatives that are relatively painless include choosing banks that do not have ties to destructive projects. Here are links to Native- and Black-owned banks in the U.S. and credit unions and other alternatives in Canada and Europe.
2. Reduce inequality in your workplace
While the basics behind personal finance can be pretty simple, everyone has a different ability to execute on them. Is there anything you can do to help nudge that imbalance into something that’s a little more compassionate and just?
For instance, some populations are still woefully underrepresented in a variety of industries. Can you elevate folks who might not otherwise have opportunities in your field?
Whether that’s passing along a resume or encouraging your company to reexamine salary discrepancies, you might be able to help rebalance things. Here’s “A Roadmap to Building an Inclusive Organization” with a ton of ideas to get you started.
3. Do one tiny thing at home…then advocate for more supportive systems everywhere!
Some things that are better for our bank accounts and the planet can also often be healthier for us. If you currently own a car and you’re capable of walking or biking, can you try replacing one drive a week? Here are some other tiny ideas to help reduce a little bit of spending along with reducing broader impacts.
Is there something that you can advocate for in your community to make those choices easier and maximize your personal impact? For instance, do you live in an area where safety is an issue while walking or biking?
The next action steps might vary based on where you live. A good place to start would be any local community groups are already working on whatever you’re interested in.
That might be anti-gentrification efforts or ensuring that neighbors have access to healthy meals. If not, the most straightforward way might be voting for candidates that support more compassionate policies. These are things like providing paid leave or care facilities for everyone from children to older parents.
However, you can encourage your community to adopt better policies as well, even without being an elected official.
Since your time is likely limited, take a look at what other communities have already done for ideas. Usually there are toolkits available so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel (and if you need helping getting started, feel free to get in touch)!
By saying these are all “personal finance” issues, we often miss the structural issues that are really at play. The burden of problem-solving falls on individuals. But we also need to work on fixing the systems that set up these challenges in the first place.
We need to be more compassionate about the different points we’re all starting from instead of just focusing on individualistic, “bootstrap” solutions.
Advocating for structural change is the most helpful thing you can do to make change in a community. We can’t fix everything right this minute. But, there are steps you can take to nudge the scales in the right direction for everyone!