• Common financial advice includes: save for retirement, build a six-month emergency fund, and “pay yourself first.” But I didn’t learn those lessons from my parents.
  • As an African American woman, the financial wisdom I gleaned from my family looked a little different.
  • My parents advised me to invest in myself and secure my own future, spend the time and money it takes to secure quality goods that last, and always maintain your health – maintenance is cheaper than an emergency repair.
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Typical financial advice begins with the adage, “Pay yourself first.” It refers to the wisdom of saving a minimum of 10% of your income before taking care of any other financial obligations.

You may have also heard that you should build and keep an emergency fund of at least six months’ of cash reserves in case of sudden unemployment.

And you should also make contributions to a retirement account to receive the maximum matching funds from your employer.

This common financial wisdom isn’t information my parents shared with me. Their top three recommendations were different for one glaring difference – I am an African American woman. Here’s what they taught me instead.

Invest in yourself first

On average, African American women earn 68 cents for every dollar a white man makes, so there is rarely enough to save anything.

Furthermore, for people of color, again in particular African American women, there is the LIFO effect – last in, first out. African American women are typically the last to be hired and the first to be fired/downsized/laid off. Plus, it takes people of color longer to find another job, regardless of the state of the economy.

My parents’ stories of their work experiences, as well those of colleagues and neighbors, reflected the following indomitable truth: Racism and sexism are real. So securing my future was paramount – and my responsibility.

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Some examples that stuck with me: My mother was a teacher whose career was interrupted three times because, at that time, it was against the law for a woman to work if she was pregnant once her pregnancy became obvious.

Plus, black teachers were paid significantly less and denied promotions and tenure because of their race. I remember that the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike a few times during my childhood to protest this de facto two-tiered race-based wage system.

My family did encourage me to save for retirement and have a rainy-day fund, but they also pointed out that as an African American woman, those rainy days would be more like hurricanes. “When white people catch a cold, black people have pneumonia,” was an oft-repeated phrase in our household.

For my parents, the act of “investing in yourself” was a way to offset both the LIFO effect and the earnings gap – they taught me to take advantage of every opportunity to enhance my skills and further my career.

Most employers offer funds for professional-development training and education, and I look for each and every opportunity to invest in myself and secure my future. My job skills are the most dependable and valuable assets I will ever have.

Quality takes time and money

When my siblings and I were small, my mother made our clothes. The purr of the sewing machine lulled me to sleep most nights.

Instead of shopping at department stores, we went to fabric stores. I remember touching the bolts to learn the difference between silk, cotton, linen, and polyester.

As we got older – and stayed the same size for longer than a summer – we started buying our clothes more often and my mother explained the value of good zippers and buttons, tight seams, and thick soles on shoes and boots. Those attributes are what make clothing and footwear last longer.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that my mother was teaching me about quality – it doesn’t always come cheap or fast, but it matters. Spending the time or money to find good-quality items that will last means spending less money on clothing and similar necessities in the long run.

These days I don’t make my own clothes, but I take the time to suss out great quality for the best price. In my experience, the best bargains can be found at consignment and thrift stores. My daughter and I visit them regularly and shop by touch as well as sight. Once, I found a cranberry coat dress for $25. The item was made from raw silk. I didn’t need to check the label to know.

Maintenance is cheaper than repair

At 16, when I got my driver’s license, my father urged me to never let my gas tank drop below a quarter tank. This was before cell phones, and my father was warning me of the dangers of a young girl running out of gas. I ignored him.

Six months later, I ran out of gas on the highway. I was able to pull over to the hazard lane and review my options. A car pulled up behind me and an older African American man offered to drive me to a gas station and return me to my car. I declined.

The man left and returned 15 minutes later with a full gas can, while I was still weighing my significantly limited options. The lesson? Prepare in advance by keeping things in good working order and preserving them for the long haul.

Now, not only do I keep my tank at least a quarter full, when that maintenance light goes on my car is at the neighborhood repair shop within days. I get my tires rotated twice a year and my oil changed every 5,000 miles. I cannot afford to be without my car because we live outside the city center and public transportation is unreliable – I minimize my risks by performing car maintenance before something goes wrong.

I also can’t afford to be sick, so I practice good health “maintenance” with my body.

This lesson really hit home a few years ago. Before the Affordable Care Act went into effect, I was in between jobs and used Planned Parenthood for routine medical care. A friend didn’t do the same, confident that she would quickly find a new job with healthcare benefits. She did find a new job and booked an appointment for a mammogram right away, but it was too late. They found a lump.

The death rate for breast cancer is 40% higher for African American women than for their white counterparts. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, for other treatable diseases like heart disease and diabetes, African American women are twice as likely to die as white women.

Every year, I think of my friend and get that mammogram as well as those other preventive “maintenance” exams. They are uncomfortable, but not as bad as the actual diseases. Illness is the most costly expense for everyone, but for people of color, it’s more likely to cost you your life.

It’s been decades since my parents first provided me with this advice, but it’s still relevant today. Many laws have changed; customs have not. As an African American woman, my financial priority is to minimize risks, not maximize returns.

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