During the time I rented an apartment, every phone call with Big Mama started with this question: “You still giving your money to the White man?”
Every. Single. Phone. Call. For a year.
Financial lessons from Big Mama
In the 25 years that I’ve been writing the Color of Money column, it’s largely been Big Mama’s wisdom about personal finance principles that I’ve passed along to readers.
My first column was published on March 30, 1997. The headline was: My Grandmother’s Saving Grace.
I wrote then: “My grandmother was an example of the bedrock financial principles of the older generation of African Americans. These tough-minded, conservative practices helped get my generation of middle-class blacks where we are today.”
My grandmother wasn’t always right — it’s okay to rent, and you are in fact getting something for your money: a roof over your head.
Sometimes, it pays more to rent your roof than own it
Big Mama didn’t teach me how to invest because she was too scared of the stock market. The only bond she had was the bond adhesive for her dentures. I’m ready for retirement because I didn’t listen to my grandmother’s advice and consulted a financial adviser, who pushed me to invest in stock mutual funds.
Over the years, people have wondered about the origin of the column’s title. I’ve been asked if I meant to write a column only geared toward Black households.
From the outset, I wanted to explore financial planning issues confronting African Americans — and I have done that over the years, including in my award-winning 2020 “Sincerely, Michelle” series. But, as I said in that inaugural column, the Color of Money is for “anyone else who realizes that, regardless of who you are, the color of money is always the same.”
I was a bit naive when I started writing the column, not fully appreciating that not everyone had the benefit of a Big Mama. I didn’t understand how people with enough money could so easily mismanage it or make monumentally bad financial decisions.
Netflix series asks couples with up to $35,000 saved: ‘Marriage or Mortgage’? You know where I stand.
At times, I was too harsh, too judgmental. However, the more I talked to people, spending time not just looking over their budgets and bank accounts, but getting to know their financial backstories, the better I understood their motivations for the money moves they made. With the benefit of experience, I understood the depth of their financial fears. This money stuff can be intimidating.
I’ve also come to realize that money missteps are often rooted in childhood traumas or, in many cases, from being overindulged.
I studied behavioral economics, which made my advice more practical and reasonable. Because people are human, what works on paper doesn’t always work in practice. When it comes to money, many people are prone to irrational behavior.
Okay, you make money mistakes. Here’s why.
Sure, it may make more math sense to pay off debts with the highest interest rate. But, behaviorally, when people pay off smaller debts first, they experience an immediate triumph, and that can energize them to become aggressive in getting rid of the rest of their debts.
I no longer underestimate the power of marketing, which conditions Americans to be consumers. Masterful marketing campaigns encourage overspending and the accumulation of debt.
“Saturday Night Live” had a hilarious skit in 2020 about sentimental car commercials. You know the ones, where a spouse is surprised with a new car.
The SNL skit starts with a father, mother and teenage son sitting around a Christmas tree.
“Hey, Matt, I think there might be one more gift for your mom right there,” the dad says.
Then the voice-over says: “It hasn’t been a normal year. So, this Christmas, get her something extraordinary during the Lexus ‘December to Remember’ sales event.”
They all go outside to see a white Lexus with a red bow in the driveway.
“Did you seriously buy a car without asking me?” the wife says incredulously.
I love that skit because if you buy a new car without discussing it with your significant other, that’s not a gift. That’s a 60-month financial obligation. A purchase that large should be a joint decision.
My hatred of debt has been a recurring theme in my column because far too many people don’t consider the long-term consequences of carrying debt. Yet, I frequently get pushback from folks who think there is such a thing as “good debt” and “bad debt.”
One column with the headline, “Yes, all debt is bad debt,” led to a discussion with Jared Bernstein, who is now a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
Debt: Smack it or hug it? My debate with Michelle Singletary.
“I’d wager there are not many more devoted fans of this paper’s personal finance writer, Michelle Singletary, than yours truly,” Bernstein wrote in a 2017 column. “She’s a walking, talking, vigilant consumer protection bureau, although, to be clear, she does n’t let you off the hook either. I don’t just read her. I read her from her to my kids. But there is something about which we disagree, and that’s debt.”
Bernstein and I had a debate within his column. I have argued there is great debt, good debt, and bad debt.
“She thinks it stinks. She wants to smack debt around. If debt was crossing the street, she’d run it over. I disagree,” he wrote. “Great debt boosts your earning power such that you can pay it back and have money left over afterward to safely take on some good debt.”
I countered: “In theory, certain loans make sense. Without mortgages, most Americans couldn’t afford to purchase a home, which for many households ends up being their biggest asset. I recognize that business loans have helped people follow their passions and create small businesses. But what we need in America is not more cheerleading of debt but more caution.”
Are you plagued by the serial get-out-of-debt disorder?
I learned my hatred of debt from my grandmother. She despised debt.
Big Mama passed away at 82, two years after my first column. I still hear her voice in my head, reading about avoiding debt as much as possible, saving more, and spending less. She was and is my writing muse de ella, and I miss her dearly.
As I celebrate 25 years of the privilege of writing a personal finance column for The Washington Post, my grandmother continues to be the inspiration for my advice and my mission to do what she did for me: model and encourage good money management, maintain a healthy dose of skepticism, and help people who are less fortunate.