Pizza & Planning
What I learned at my library’s free financial course.
I was perusing the local library newsletter when two words jumped out at me: Pizza & Planning. The best week of my life — still — was the week that I ate pizza six times in five days. I also love my planner, and I write in it even on the days when I don’t eat pizza. This class was obviously made for me!
I didn’t really know what to expect. I was pretty focused on the pizza part, to be honest. I hoped it would be from a family-owned restaurant nearby, and not a cheap corporate chain.
But I added the event to my planner, and on the big day my husband and I walked into the room to find just three other participants and two leaders. I was a little shocked. I certainly didn’t anticipate that this class would be exciting — not everyone gets as excited about planning as I do—but the title of the class had the word pizza in it. I expected more than three other attendees.
The instructors explained that they would be doing a general overview of retirement and investment planning, and that if we needed more information following the class, we could set up a consultation with them. Ah, I thought. There’s no such thing as free pizza. These guys were anticipating that this hour of their lives would turn into hard revenue when we went from passive pizza-eaters to new clients.
They turned on the slides and got right down to business, throwing terms around like we were inside traders ourselves. I was put off immediately. This class advertised itself as a way to learn the basics of investing, and they weren’t even explaining the basics of the terminology.
I wanted to understand what a 401(k) really was, why they were so popular, and if I was seriously backhanding myself by not having one. I probably also wanted to be told that, no matter what, it wasn’t too late. That, even at age 38, I have the possibility of not being a total financial fuckup. Like — if I put aside $20 every month—could I have an entirely different future?
The guys were throwing out different terms for what they called “savings.” They talked about different retirement plans, as well as trusts, estates, and stocks. They spoke of Roth IRAs and regular IRAs — but they never told us what Roth means, nor what IRA stands for. They talked a lot about withdrawal fees for accessing your own money, if you do it before a certain timeline. “They’re going to give you a penalty for taking your money before age 70,” I heard them say — but I couldn’t get past the idea of a penalty for using your own money. The financial planners kept talking about “they and them,” over and over, so I finally raised my hand and asked “WHO IS THEY?”
The funny thing? They were so floored at the question, they went silent for a minute. Turns out it’s the government! Duh! I could tell it was the kind of thing they thought everyone knew. But we, the people — a lot of us don’t really know.
I sat there for a little while, listening, hoping I would pick up on things based on context. I scanned the other people’s faces to see if they looked as confused as I felt. I scanned my husband’s face. Nobody looked as lost as I was. So I got super frustrated and began to check out, staring at my nails.
Then — just as quickly as I’d decided to check out — I decided to check back in. I got a little angry. I didn’t come to Pizza & Planning so that I could stay as ignorant as I was before the session. Let me tell you how much I knew about savings/planning going in: I knew that one of my uncles kept all of his money under the mattress, because he didn’t trust banks or investors. I knew that my mom and dad still don’t have a savings account, and they’re in their sixties. I knew that as long as I have been alive, credit cards have been the only way I’ve gotten anything.
I came to the class to learn things I didn’t know — things that have alienated me my whole life. I came for the free pizza, yes, but I was hoping to learn how not to need free pizza anymore. I want to be the one buying pizza for my friends and my family. I want to be buying clothes when I need them. I want to stop looking at my financial future with a sense of fear.
So I kept asking questions.
“Do you mind explaining Roth IRA vs. plain old IRA?”
“Who is benefitting from our investing, can you tell me?”
“Could you use like, real words? Like ones that you would use to someone you just walked up to on the street? Think Finances for Dummies when you explain to me and I just might be able to get what you’re saying.”
The instructors seemed a little taken aback by my request, and slowed down their speech. They started incorporating more general terminology, and then, lo and behold, someone else spoke up. “Thank you,” she said, looking over at me. “I didn’t know what any of them were saying either. Now I — kinda — do.”
From that point on, I grasped more of what they were telling us.
That’s the problem for those of us who didn’t grow up in the know. It’s hard to suddenly be in the know without an understanding of what it is you didn’t know. Classes like Pizza & Planning are a wonderful community resource — and they are important. But they are only effective if the leaders learn how to get down on the ground and speak to the attendees like they are lacking knowledge. Assuming the five people that showed up for their course already have an understanding of financial markets and terminology does only one thing — it further alienates them. The woman who spoke up after me was in her seventies. Frankly, she doesn’t have a lot of time to be alienated any more. She was there to learn, and to change her financial life. To better her future. She wasn’t there for the pizza. The truth is, none of us really were.
Overall, I didn’t grasp a ton of the information presented. I still need a serious crash course in the different funds and places “we” are “supposed to” invest in. The girl in me who grew up poor and has never even had a small savings account feels like the whole system is rigged, or something. Like none of this is necessary because life will just play itself out, like it always does, and we’ll make it through even if “they” take “our money” away, which they always do.
But the girl who went to college and now has a child whom she hopes will go to college is starting to wonder if it wouldn’t be smart just to try to save. To tuck a little bit away — store it in the virtual cash cow — and hope that it comes back to me someday. I don’t want a return so that I can “be rich.” My hope would be rooted in humanity: that those funds would allow me to take care of my husband, or my son — or me.
If I could help those men prep for their next class, I would tell them to remember to speak in plain terms and appeal to our sensibilities. Because it’s through understanding that we become compelled to change our behavior— and by doing so, we might be able to change the course of our lives.
My husband and I haven’t called for a consultation. But we took their card. Because we plan to.
Kelly Green is a writer living in Iowa. She loves dogs easily, humans with some effort. She can be found at kellygrain.wordpress.com and on Twitter @kellygreeeeeen. (That’s six e’s, because her name is anything but unique.)
Support The Billfold