Money Talks

Anne Helen Petersen hosts a community publication, Culture Study. I suppose one could call it a newsletter since it’s on the Substack platform, but in fact, it is so much more. Not too long ago I dubbed it “my new intellectual hub.” Anne-Helen posts at least two discussion prompts per week, some of which arise from community members and others that seem to be a culmination in response to a recent event and related conversations. This week she asked folks to talk about their understanding and/or experience of family wealth. Following the announcement of the student loan relief package, almost everyone had something to say about money, debt, responsibility and inequality.

Here’s part of her prompt:

Family wealth is similar to societal privilege, but it is also different in some tangible ways. When multiple people in a family have some form of wealth, there are also multiple wells to draw on. When only one person does, there’s less wealth to save, to replicate. Wealth begets wealth, but usually only when you’re also not supporting an entire extended family and/or community.

So the question is: what has familial wealth made possible in your life? And, alternately, what has lack of familial wealth made really fucking difficult in your life? AND EVEN MORE IMPORTANTLY, how do you and your family think of “wealth”? Do you call it that? Why or why not? What *do* you call it? And what have been the effects of that choice? Be as explicit as you’re willing to be.

Anne-Helen Petersen, Culture Study, Friday Thread, Aug. 26, 2022

I first read this on my phone and immediately began reading the responses which seemed to be pouring in minute by minute. I wanted to respond too and also knew that I needed time and to be seated at laptop keyboard in order to get my thoughts together. When I finally found the words, here’s what came out:

Wow, this is a powerful prompt and necessary discussion! There’s a lot that comes up for me as Black person who grew up in a family of educated working class folks in the 70s. I’m hesitant to call us middle class because the disparities between white and Black middle class are simply too great to consider them equivalent experiences.
My parents were homeowners who borrowed against the house to put 3 kids through college between 1975 and 1987. I was able to pay off my undergrad and graduate loans in my mid 30’s. My siblings and I (at 75, 61 and 57) seem to be in relatively stable financial shape which is great news! But the house my parents worked so hard to own was virtually worthless once they passed away. Through no fault of their own. It was simply located in a deteriorating Black neighborhood that was not being gentrified (and therefore invested in). My siblings decided to let it go and gave it to the city in order to stop paying taxes on a property that they could not use or develop. So that major potential source of wealth creation did not materialize for us as a Black family.
Now in middle age, I feel like the best I can do for my own kids is to try to leave this earth without any debt for them to have to deal with. It’s hard for me to think in terms of inheritance and having the potential to pass on wealth to my kids. It might happen but I’m not (nor are they) tied to that outcome. For me the financial stability I enjoy living in Central Europe, with great health care and without debt, is my first real taste of wealth. I am cautious in my optimism and fierce in my realism. I have no expectation that the advantages that I now enjoy will necessarily grow or expand for my children and their children. History says Black wealth is never a safe bet. Which helps me understand my parents’ emphasis on cultivating our *independence*. That was their mission: to see us become independent adults and we did it. That’s a more enduring form of wealth in our family it seems.
I’m sure these questions will keep turning in my brain for a while to come. Thanks to everyone who has contributed here. It’s eye opening and instructional to read so many different stories.

In both reading the hundreds of other responses and thinking about my own experiences, I felt grateful for the degree of financial stability I have been able to enjoy throughout my life. The pursuit of wealth, however, feels foreign to me, like that’s not what I’m here for. I realize now how that has been fundamentally shaped by my upbringing. Also the very real understanding that Black wealth is never guaranteed. That’s another factor that sits deeper in my bones than I have previously acknowledged.

Instead, the legacy of independence is what I have held onto, perhaps beyond reason at times. We cannot talk about our relationship to money without reckoning with our ideas of what constitutes “enough.” While my own definitions have certainly shifted over time across various material contexts, I have generally felt most content when I have enough money to do the things I/we want to do (travel, buy books, attend desired events…). That’s it.

So when my marriage broke up a year and a half ago, while I had a lot of extra expenses with moving and other start up costs, I was financially stable enough to manage it. That’s my idea of wealth. It’s having the resources to keep going after setbacks. Where my approach seems to diverge from several of the people responding in the thread is my lack of focus on providing certain outcomes for my children and grandchildren. My cognitive financial temporal organization seems more present- rather than future-oriented.

It’s not that I don’t think of my children and providing for their needs into adulthood as needed and possible, but it’s not the primary focus in how I’m thinking about what to do with my money. This may be a fault and something I’ll regret later. I mean, I’m not in debt but I also don’t own any property. Some would call that a foolhardy and precarious position to be in at my age, and perhaps that is the case. Or not. We’ll see.

dark skinned hands cupped underneath a metal faucet with water pouring out.
Photo by Kelly on Pexels.com

One resource that has helped me develop my own sense of financial health is The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist. She talks specifically about understanding money as something that flows through our lives. I appreciate the distinction she draws between allocation and accumulation as well as her advocacy of building sustainable legacies for and with our children:

More valuable and useful than any amount of money itself is to leave our children a relationship with money that is healthy. Leave them with an understanding that money flows in and out, that it should do that, and that it is a privilege to be able to direct the flow toward their highest commitments.

Lynne Twist, The Soul of Money, p. 241

That seems worth striving for. What is financially attainable at any given time can shift. Developing the kinds of supportive relationships that allow funds to flow when and where needed becomes the greater investment of my lifetime. Which also means rethinking my reliance on stalwart independence. So there we have it: the investment and the challenge – hand in hand.