Welcome to our Personal Finance Bloggers of Color interview series!
Our goal with this series is to highlight the experiences and perspectives of people of color in terms of money and personal finance topics, as these voices are often underrepresented.
Our first interview features our co-founder, Sebastian.
1. Please introduce yourself by telling us about your background.
My name is Sebastian. I immigrated to the US in 1979, where the first thing on my agenda was to get a Bachelor’s Degree from an accredited university and land a decent job.
I graduated with a degree in Business Administration with Accounting as my major. I eventually got a job as an Information Systems Analyst, where I worked for the first eight years, and later, as a Senior/Financial Analyst for the following 23 years. I retired early six years ago.
In order to keep myself busy, I have been actively volunteering at Catholic Charities as a Financial Coach and Counselor. Many of my clients had been severely exploited by financial institutions, student loans, car loans and by various advertisement gimmicks. My primary goal is to share my experiences and knowledge in personal finance with the general population.
I also serve as an executive board member for a nonprofit organization, where I often oversee the fiscal operation of the organization.
2. When and from whom did you acquire knowledge about personal finance?
Many think understanding personal finance requires formal training and education, and it does help. I gained in depth knowledge of personal finance mostly through my education. Having a college degree with an Accounting major really helped. I also gained a great deal of knowledge through my own personal finances, such as budgeting my income and expenses, monitoring my cash flow, and always trying to live within my budget. I also understood how the loan and credit card companies work, which helped me to (mostly) avoid paying unnecessary interest expenses.
However, I have to emphasize the fact that the knowledge and experience required to conduct your everyday personal finances also comes from living experience. That is where good old mentors come in handy. My mother once told me that if you want to be debt free and charitable, learn to live on 98 cents from every dollar you make, save a penny, and give a penny to the needy. Don’t wait until you get rich. Human behavior is such that the more you make the more you spend. Personal commitment and fiscal discipline is the key to avoiding the lifestyle creep that tends to come with increased income.
3. Do you feel that your race/cultural background has impacted your life in terms of personal finance? How so?
Definitely but there are two sides to my answer. The first and foremost factor that impacted my life in terms of personal finance is the adversity I faced as a minority coupled with being an immigrant. For instance, during my education in the US the professors always graded my papers with me in their mind, meaning, a predisposed mindset of inferior intellect or capacity to excel compared to the mainstream white students. I was the only person of color in the class.
Being a person of color and an immigrant also impacted my ability to land a better job. Often times I felt that as soon as they saw me they wrote me off, but did give an interview just to be polite. My accent did not help either. The notion and the rhetoric I often heard those days about immigrants was “hey they don’t even speak English,” which implies that you’re less intelligent and capable. Favoring their “own kind” was the first trait I witnessed before even getting a chance to show what I was capable of. This was in the eighties. I am glad to say that things are better now. All knowledge and skills being equal, I often started 30 yards behind (10 yards for my color, 10 yards for being an immigrant, and 10 yards for my accent). It was hard to compete with the mainstream workforce and I hit the glass ceiling more than once.
I should also say that I was lucky to ultimately work for a director who supported me and treated me with respect. However, there were still times I hit the glass ceiling. Even though I was qualified, someone else was considered for a division manager job which was influenced by the top level governing agency. As you can imagine, all top level administrative people and the governing body were represented by the mainstream white people, and if you grew up here you or someone you know might help connect you with the right people. I had no influence, and it did affect my career to a certain extent.
I also have to say that I witnessed unfair treatment toward many other minorities and immigrants during my 30 year career. Several employees from Asian countries were stuck at a beginning level accountant job for most of their career while others moved on to higher level accounting jobs. I found that unless you fight or have some sort of influence you often have limited opportunities to grow as a minority, at least during the decades that made up the bulk of my career.
Although I was impacted in the US by my race and immigrant status, I would say that we are all influenced by the society we grow up in and live in. You may think numbers add up the same way regardless of one’s background, but our behavior has been taught and learned throughout our life. Your wealth and the economy you live in has a lot to do with how you conduct your personal finances. If you only had enough money for your daily food and the utmost necessities, you will learn to conduct the basic life that fits just that budget.
In today’s world, most economies have more wealth which opens up markets for selling more goods and services. This is the basic supply and demand rule. Corporations are cultivating lifestyles for marketing pretty much anything they want. They say, hey, if there are enough people who can afford and buy their product, why not. The end result is that we are taught an unhealthy behavior when it comes to personal finances. It is human nature to want more. Until you truly distinguish your wants vs. needs, you end up spending more than you should be, which results in unnecessary debt.
I see things differently since I grew up with just the necessities, and I did not develop consumeristic habits compared to mainstream Americans. For example, when I get thirsty, the first thing that comes to my mind is water as opposed to someone who grew up here thinking of diet Coke or some other flavored drink. That is just one example of unhealthy spending, either way you look at it. I have said many times, “wow, how can they afford it, why do they want to by these items.” Well, the culture they grew up in has more wealth. More importantly, the culture embraced consumerism and the corporations continue to cultivate consumerism in people throughout their life, which I’m very seldom drawn into.
Despite the challenges I faced in coming here there are a few advantages to my cultural background. I embraced frugalism and saved more without having to make any conscious effort. Such a lifestyle helped me to become financially frugal and independent a lot sooner than I would have otherwise.
4. How did you become interested in personal finance? What made you want to start a blog?
There are two primary reasons for wanting to start a personal finance blog.
- When I start volunteering at Catholic Charities as a financial coach and a counselor, I came across many horror stories from many of my clients. Most of them were taken advantage of by businesses, financial institutions, and car dealers. I would say, some of the stories are flat mean and cruel, especially to the low-income and less educated people. Such stories made me furious. This is one of my primary reasons for me to start a personal finance blog. I want to educate and show the average Joe how to conduct your personal finances without being a victim. At least I try.
- I also shared some of my personal finances and success with my current co-blogger, who is pretty darn good with money herself. My co-blogger couldn’t wait to start a personal financial blog in order to share some of my success stories and our combined insights in order to help others get ahead.
5. What advice would you give to others with a similar background?
Don’t be timid. I lost many opportunities due to feeling timid with the mindset of being a person of color and an immigrant. Only after many years I started recognizing my skills and abilities were as good as any mainstream people, or even better than them at times. So, don’t discount your abilities, believe in yourself and challenge yourself to move on to the next level. Blogging is one of the best venues where you can explore your abilities without the direct obstacle of discrimination or bias. Take a chance and don’t give up!
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