As a little girl growing up in a West Philly row house with my Grandmom, her five daughters, and their six kids, I marveled at how my Gmom, now 86, kept the home running on all cylinders.
Aside from keeping a tidy abode, she always “handled her business,” especially when it came to money. Was she rich? No. But she was a smart money manager who understood what personal finance experts have been evangelizing for years: Building wealth has more to do with creating good money management habits than it does with pulling down a big paycheck.
For example, my grandmother taught me to:
• Pay with cash.
• Buy only what I need.
• Eat at home.
• Pay all my bills on time.
• Don’t spend without a budget.
Simple enough advice to remember, but sticking to it can be a challenge, especially for African Americans, who experience higher unemployment and lower incomes than the general population.
Case in point: The median income of black households in 2014 was $35,398, compared with the national median of $53,657, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's annual report on Income and Poverty in the United States.
Even for those African Americans who are doing well, the truth is that we still experience less intergenerational inheritance, higher rates of caretaking for extended family, and differing patterns of home ownership.
One way to take steps toward closing the wealth gap is to return to the kind of financial lessons my grandmother espoused. Here are five ways you could make her proud, and help yourself in the bargain.
Give every dollar a home. “We need to put a GPS on our dollars and see exactly where they are going,” says Gail Perry-Mason, financial coach and author of Girl! Make Your Money Grow: A Sister’s Guide to Protecting Your Future and Enriching Your Life. “Every cent should have a home, whether it’s for savings and checking, the bills, the credit union, or retirement funds.” To track spending, take advantage of online tools like MoneyMinder. You can quickly see if your spending reflects your values, visions, or goals or if you need to make some adjustments.
Dine in. Sure, it’s Friday and you’ve worked hard, why not hit the town? For starters, because spending $100 a week on eating out means you'll blow through $5,200 a year. If you saved that same amount and earned 5%, after 10 years you would have $68,000, thanks to compound interest. That doesn't mean you have to be a complete homebody. If cabin fever is setting in, go out on Wednesdays, when you’re likely to order less food and drink than on the weekend. Or hold a pot luck, with everyone’s fav apps and cocktails. (And before you go out shopping, check out all these smart ways you can save on groceries).
Offer a hand up, not a hand out. We do a lot of emotional spending as African Americans, especially when it comes to helping out family and friends. “People can tug at our heart, while at the same time tugging at our pursestrings,” Perry-Mason says. But if the money you’re doling out, whether it's $20 or $200, isn't part of your spending plan, then you’re busting your budget. Perry-Mason suggests offering a portion, then helping guide the borrower toward other ways to bring in more income (see some ideas below).
Tweak your money mind-set. African American buying power is expected to reach $1.3 trillion by 2017, according to a report published by Nielsen in collaboration with the National Newspaper Publishers Association. While the upward trend is good news, it's not enough just to be able to afford what you want today. "Africans Americans must consume less and own more,” Perry-Mason says. Toward that end, she recommends creating at least five different income streams. That way, if one financial resource dries up, you'll always have another to fall back on. For example, if you have some extra time, pick up a side hustle on pennyhoarder.com. Got extra stuff? Unload it for cash on eBay. And it you have some money left over at the end of the month, make it work harder for you by investing spare change in one of the portfolios at Acorn.com, or read up on how you can build long-term wealth by investing in real estate.
Take a "mind your own business" day. Think of yourself as the CEO of your own company, and if your budget is stubbornly in the red, make a few layoffs. This week maybe it's streamlining the cable, next week it could be saying goodbye to custom haircuts and mani-pedis. “You have to realize: My house is not going to be run like a nonprofit,” Perry-Mason says. Review every bill. Look for miscellaneous fees, overspending, high interest rates, and recurring automatic payments for good and services you don’t use.
Remember, it’s never too late to create good money habits. My Gmom's sage advice to "always have a dollar in your pocket" rings true. I used to whip out my debit card for random purchases. Now I make weekly trips to the bank for cash. I spend less, save more, and funnel a good chunk to a rainy-day fund. Here's to financial freedom.
Tanisha A. Sykes is a personal finance and career development expert. Follow her on Twitter @tanishastips.