How A Job-Hopping Latina Does Money

Alisha emailed me recently, volunteering to be the subject of a Doing Money interview:

I would love to share my experience doing money as a Latina who’s been laid off one too many times from New York’s media scene.

I’ve been working in New York since I was 19, living here since 2010, and I’ve found that the instability of this city greatly impacted my POV on money. I’ve tried all kinds of budgeting tools (LearnVest), I’ve tried a cash only budget, I’ve negotiated salaries and rates, I’ve paid off credit cards and cancelled bank accounts … you name it, I’ve done it. I keep an ever-changing Excel spreadsheet with all my income, debts, and monthly bills/expenses that I obsess over on a weekly basis. I take classes on financial planning every once in a while, most recently I had two inspiring money talks with Lady Boss and Mi Dinero, Mi Futuro. So I’m constantly readjusting my efforts in hopes that NYC won’t keep me broke forever.

As a Latina, money is an especially sore subject and financial decisions are unique to our challenges. I don’t live with my white boyfriend because I can’t afford to, I don’t have parents who can chip in extra money when I can’t make my bills, and my savings account is forever in danger. I have to fight for every dime I make and be extra careful on where it goes because I know it’ll be gone soon.

My goal with The Billfold’s interview is to showcase the unique challenges women of color face in doing money.

So, of course, we spoke!

Hello! Would you like to begin by telling us a little about yourself?

Sure, so right now I’m a freelance digital strategist transitioning out of the New York media scene to move to Philadelphia full time. I’m currently in search for a new job.

Oh, so you are moving? When I read your email I wondered whether that was going to be the not-so-happy ending.

Ha, yes! I am moving out later this summer. I’ve been working here since I was 19 and have not been able to thrive financially or professionally as I had hoped.

Can you go into a little more detail about what has been challenging about living and working in New York City and what you think will be easier in Philly?

I think the challenge for me as a very driven person who is obsessed with planning ahead is that NYC doesn’t allow for that kind of mentality. This city is very unpredictable and therefore becomes unstable, throwing curve balls from every direction. It’s also really tough to earn the kind of job and salary you feel deserving of. The concept of negotiating (especially as woman) is basically nonexistent which means it’s hard to land the job you want and even harder to get paid enough to live comfortably and pay off debt. There are plenty of people and situations that have presented themselves and pushed back on my demands. So for me, after doing everything possible to climb the ladder, and not getting to where I want, I lost that sense of resilience.

Philadelphia has been like a second home to me since my college days and when I began to think of where to pack up and start over, everything made sense in Philadelphia. The cost of living is the number one reason for me to go there. On top of that I’ve met professionals in my industry who can attest that the instability and competitiveness is not really a thing in Philly. People just work hard, are nice, generally like their jobs, and own houses! I want that for my future!

Tell me about it! I know three couples who own homes in Philly and another couple that’s buying one now — relatively normal couples, not, like, the 1% — whereas very few folks I know in New York have bought or could buy. But one of the issues people raise in regard to Philly is that, while the housing market might be more reasonable, the employment situation isn’t. Do you plan to keep freelancing? Or will you pursue a FT job in your new city?

That was a concern for me upon evaluating this decision to move, absolutely. However I can speak on behalf of my industry that Philly is thriving! The tech scene (especially PR, marketing, advertising) is growing and there are boutique firms actively hiring. I’m freelancing in NYC because that’s all I can land! I got laid off in December and job searched day and night till I left for a sabbatical in February — I could not get a full time offer for the life of me. So when I returned in March the only thing knocking at my door were freelance offers from friends. Not ideal but to be honest it’s given me time to collect unemployment and reassess my professional goals.

So, I’m simultaneously freelancing in New York while searching for full time employment in Philly. I’ve secured a ton of informational interviews that are giving me confidence and hope that I will land something by the time I move. And that’s not what I felt at all the past few months — let alone years — here.

That’s great! It makes sense: either the workforce will move and the jobs will follow or vice versa, but the same pressures that affect one affect the other. Sometimes I wonder how businesses can make a go of it here too, and indeed, I was not that surprised to learn that an once iconic East Village shop now only exists in New Hope, PA.

I’m also a firm believer that in this day and age you need to create your own jobs or opportunities, no matter where you land.

True. What about social networks, though? Those can be harder to rebuild in a new place. You mentioned a boyfriend in NYC and, after so many years here, you must have lots of friends and such who are hard to leave.

I’m struggling to answer this without sounding mean, ha! Personally I feel that my social group in NYC has dwindled and I can’t count on the same people anymore. Which is fine, as you grow older your friendships may be fewer but hopefully stronger. I have told all my friends that if they’re really my friends, they’ll come visit, it’s that simple. I’m more concerned about my boyfriend who is in a few bands and who I jokingly keep asking every day, “Are you cool with it just being us two for a while?” Because it’s going to be hard rebuilding a social network online and off.

Having said that, we’re awesome people and we’re outgoing; we love meeting new people. Plus, I’ve already begun connecting with new folks in Philly since January, so I’m excited about gaining new friendships both personally and professionally.

Awesome! Do you feel more optimistic about “doing money” in Philly? In your email to me, you mentioned that you have tried all sorts of different financial strategies: going cash only at various points and so on. Will that process feel less frustrating and more straightforward, do you think, in a more manageable city? Will Philly have fewer inducements to spend or give more opportunities to save? Or both?

So my boyfriend and I have that conversation regularly. Just the other night we discussed our financial plan for Philly. We’re super transparent with each other about what we can and cannot afford. We both feel that we can properly “do money” the way we want in Philly because we’ll have more runway. Right now our huge salary difference has caused a lot of headaches in our relationship. But with Philly we both feel like we’ll be able to be on the same page. I mean for the first time we have the option to BUY a house!

Philly will allow us more financial freedom and though we plan to continue being frugal, the cost of living will lessen our stress, which is much needed. We have our spreadsheet of expenses ready, along with our savings goals, which we’ve been working towards for over a year now. I have faith that we can finally stick to a realistic financial plan, both individually and as a couple. I will also add that there is a unique FOMO that happens when you live in NYC that totally messes up any budgeting you do. So, we won’t have that to deal with anymore.

Did the financial gurus you spoke to advise you to try Philly? And this will be the first time you two live together, correct? How do you anticipate that will go? #RelationshipMonth

No one advised Philly specifically but I did have a frank conversation with a friend / mentor of mine who lives in France as a travel writer a while back. She’s amazing and did the whole corporate NYC thing for years and I had an email chain with her basically crying and begging for advice, and she said to me, “Ya know, New York is not the end all be all place.” And it just hit me. I don’t have to stay here, I can live and work somewhere else, it’s not the end of the world.

I honestly have learned nothing from financial advisors or financial planning sites over the years because they don’t give me the “real talk” I need, and they especially don’t understand my specific financial history. In fact the only woman I met who “got it” is the founder of Mi Dinero Mi Futuro, a financial planning service for Latinas. And yes this is the first time we’ll be living together because moving to Philly was basically the only way we could afford to.

Would you like to talk a bit about how race/ethnicity and gender have affected you along the way in New York, money-wise? Do you think it will affect you differently somehow in Philly?

Sure, so I remember the moment I realized the negative relationship I have with money was because I am a Latina. I was sitting in on a presentation/workshop on money and how Americans “do money” and basically all the questions they had me answer were incredibly depressing. I started drawing out the root of where I got money and the emotions attached — from the time I was born to my adult profession. I realized the way I viewed money stemmed from the way I was raised in a Hispanic household: that money is dirty. It’s never totally yours. There’s never enough money. Someone always needs YOUR money. Debt is for life. There is no back up plan when you can’t make ends meet. Your family is probably not able to lend you money …

I put all the pieces together and realized no one else around me had these experiences. None of my white friends could understand why I would get so freaked out and depressed when a freelance check wouldn’t arrive on time, or why I locked myself away for month because I had $0 in the bank … Until I started talking with women of color.

We “do money” drastically different than others because money is a limited resource to us.

Those conversations have opened up my eyes to see that we “do money” drastically different than others because money is a limited resource to us. We’re raised in a way that we feel we don’t deserve it so when we do get it, we have no idea what to do with it. We also — most likely — were not raised or trained to be financially savvy, to make smart financial decisions. So now, as a 29-year old woman, I have to figure out how to “do money” on my own every day in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

This is fascinating and it’s not something I’ve heard talked about a lot before. Have you gone back to talk to your parents at all about the “money is dirty” idea? Do you know whether it’s something they consciously believe or how they feel about having communicated it to you?

It’s funny you bring that up because I was just in an argument with my dad over text yesterday, with my sister. Whenever he texts us, it’s about money. We’ve had the same fight over my cell phone bill and my student loan bill for YEARS. I’ve had one emotional, serious talk with him maybe two years ago where I honestly tried to make him understand how much money I don’t have and the situations the family has gotten in because of our lack of money. It solved nothing in the end. And I bet none of my friends of color have been able to have those conversations. You just don’t talk about money. It’s not nice.

I would absolutely love to sit down with my parents and communicate these struggles and even show them my Excel spreadsheets to prove to them my efforts of budgeting and saving. But I think our ‘Rican stubbornness would get in the way, ha!

It’s funny how, even as adults, we never get over that impulse to try to prove ourselves to our parents. Do you think some of this has to do with the immigrant experience, being either first- or second-generation or with continuing to hold onto that mentality in some ways?

I’m sure it does. I was not born on the mainland (U.S.A.), I was born on the island of Puerto Rico. I’m the oldest in the family, and one of the very few in my family to graduate college, get honors, the whole shebang. So I feel the pressure to succeed in a way that my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles weren’t able to.

Obviously money plays a huge role there. I remember when I graduated college I had two job offers: one was doing music PR and talent booking on a commission only, the other was an editorial gig for a music publication that offered a salary, I think $28K. I didn’t care too much for the second job. I was talking to my dad about trying to make this decision and he responded, “What’s there to think about? Who’s offering you more money? Just go with them.”

I remember chuckling out loud and saying, “There’s more to it, it’s not just about money for me.” He totally didn’t get it.

So which offer did you take?

I ended up taking the second job, hated it, and quit after six months for a travel startup! Ironically, no one — as obsessed with money as they are in my family — taught me how to negotiate my salary from day one. So, again, that’s something I have to teach myself with every opportunity that comes through the door.

I’m still stuck on “You just don’t talk about money. It’s not nice.” That’s such a striking statement. Because I get it and yet of course money is also a positive, right? It can mean freedom and opportunity and security and all those other “American dream” things, or at least it supposedly does. Your father was encouraging you to go with the job that paid more because he knew that, right?

For sure. But even with a salary no one taught me how to budget or save or spend wisely. My parents opened up a bank account for me when I was a teenager so I did learn about depositing money and using a checkbook. But that was it. I’d get my check and blow it all on spoiling myself, my boyfriend at the time, going to concerts and road trips, and lots of food! So, when the time came to actually start paying off student loans I was totally lost.

When and how do you feel like you finally figured that stuff out: budgeting and being frugal and paying off loans?

Oh my gosh, can I say last month?! Honestly I don’t know if I have. I credit the conversation I had with Ramona (Mi Dinero, Mi Futuro) and a recent financial workshop I attended with Lady Boss to when I finally understood a proper way to budget, save, and spend no matter how little money I have. Both were able to pinpoint my exact situation and say, “OK, this is how you need to do money.” So now I have my spreadsheet that is updated weekly. I have a Simple account, which is like a bank but not really, and it’s totally awesome. I also now have MULTIPLE savings accounts that are growing, which has never happened.

So, basically, getting your financial house in order for the first time coincided with your decision that it makes most sense to leave NYC altogether? (Also, congrats! That’s impressive progress.)

You can say that. Though the decision to leave NYC came in January, I just didn’t have a job or income lined up. I just knew I had to get the hell out of here.

Do you have advice that you think is specific to women of color? Or to white people to better understand how the situations may be different than they realize?

I feel like I constantly have to prove to my white friends how broke I am.

White people: get on our level. It’s really about empathy and trust. I feel like I constantly have to prove to my white friends how broke I am. I kind of laugh about it but it’s also super annoying that if I say I can’t afford to do something, they don’t believe me. I at one point was so broke my roommates had to cover my moving expenses when we moved apartments. In order to NOT cook or do groceries, I’d basically stalk out my friends in the food industry for free events where there were free food and drinks. If you looked at my Foursquare history, you’d say, “Wow that girl has money!” when in fact I was just trying to score a free meal!

My advice to women in general, especially women in relationships: DON’T MOVE IN WITH YOUR SIGNIFICANT OTHER (YET). Especially in NYC! Read this book first, read it with your partner, and then decide if moving in together or getting married is truly the next best step. For women of color, my advice is to find a mentor who can help you speak up and get more money. Salary negotiations are tough and uncomfortable, and they can be risky when you’re the only woman of color applying or already on a team. So find someone who has been there, done that and follow their path to success.

Yes to all of that but I’m going to zero in on DON’T MOVE IN TOGETHER, because, again, #RelationshipMonth. 🙂 In the interest of full disclosure: have you ever lived with a significant other?

I have not because we were not financially ready. I’m not saying it’s going to end in disaster but I don’t understand how people make one of the biggest decisions of their lives based on convenience.

The experts are with you on that one, I think. Anyway, thank you so much for talking to us! I hope you write us from Philly after a few months and give an update as to how everything is going. Any last thoughts?

I’ve always been an open book about money so I’m excited to share my story on a publication that aligns with my point of view; the resources I trust out here are rare, so I thank you for the opportunity. I hope people learn from my experiences and consider some of the resources I mentioned. Feedback is always welcome!

Would you like to nominate yourself or someone else for a Doing Money interview? Get at me! ester at the billfold dot com.

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