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Some personal money management techniques have taught us that if we can’t afford a house it’s because we buy too many coffees, or if we just cancel our $8 Netflix subscription we’ll get out of debt quicker. But that advice fails to account for the way unequal systems and stringent or limiting beliefs can impact our relationship with money — and set us up to fail if we aren’t careful.
That’s where Finance for the People: Getting a Grip On Your Finances, a recently released personal finance book by Paco de Leon, comes in. De Leon’s personal experiences as a financial planner, who went on to start her own business, taught her a lot about the ways in which an unequal system, personal limiting beliefs and traditional advice that feels too “blamey” can hold individuals back from building wealth.
Paco de Leon is the Founder of The Hell Yeah Group, a financial firm that assists creatives with their personal and business finances. Select caught up with Paco to talk about her learnings and what readers can look forward to in her book. Here’s what she had to say.
Select: Growing up, we observe our families’ experiences with money and this often goes on to shape our own thoughts and feelings about money as adults. What role did money play in the household you grew up in?
Paco: “My childhood experience around money was a common one where my parents didn’t talk about money. It wasn’t something we had conversations about; they never sat down and said here’s a paycheck, put some of it into your savings and spend some of it. I think that’s a really common thing for folks growing up especially with immigrant parents who, when they first got to America, were preoccupied with surviving and doing the best they could. So I feel very grateful that I chose to study finance and got a job in financial planning. Thanks to everything I learned, I was able to make up for the lack of education in my household.
I’ve had positive experiences with my childhood and money. I know some people don’t have that privilege. I remember having a big birthday party one year where I received a lot of envelopes filled with money. I remember thinking it was so cool that you could grow up and get money as a gift for your birthday. The other experience that stood out to me was having an aunt who was an entrepreneur. She had a successful home healthcare business and during holidays, she’d give me a crisp $100 bill. I thought that was the coolest thing to be able to give someone a crisp $100 bill. So again, I feel like I’ve had very privileged experience with money as a child, and those memories make me smile.”
Select: In the intro of your book, you say that the story of money is whatever story you tell yourself. How did your story about money evolve as you got older, entered the workforce and moved through your career?
Paco: “I have a personal theme about worthiness and demanding what you’re worth that I’ve been trying to unearth and understand about myself. I am a queer, brown woman who is also short. In America, the doorknobs and counter heights and measurements for other common things were based on the heights of soldiers. So the world I inhabit is not built for someone who is my height. I grew up in Orange County, California and I went to Catholic school for 13 years, which was a privilege but also a problem because the messages I got in that environment were, ‘you’re queer so there is something wrong with you,’ and, ‘who you are is not okay.’ Over time, that turned into this idea that I am not good enough and not worthy. That has shown up in all aspects of my life and there are times when I felt I couldn’t stand up for myself or ask for a raise at work.
I didn’t understand what a driving force this narrative was in my life until I started working for myself. I started my business and was confronted with this idea that I am undercharging for my services, and I didn’t know why I was so afraid to negotiate. Ultimately, through a series of therapy sessions and journaling, I learned that I felt I was not deserving and not worthy enough to earn more money. It’s something I constantly deal with.”
Select: At what point did you finally feel like you were making “enough” money? How did your feelings around your sense of self impact that?
Paco: “I think the concept of ‘making enough’ has been a moving target for me, which forces me to confront what’s going on within me. I need to understand if my target is moving because I feel as though I’m not enough or, if it’s because of inflation and the cost of living going up. For me, I remember wanting to make $3,000 a month to replace my income — I quickly made that money in my first year of business. It was amazing but it expanded my perspective because I thought, what if I can make more?
The idea that there’s always more you can earn or do is a blessing and a curse. It’s frustrating because it’s a moving target. We call this the hedonic treadmill and in my book, we discuss how to step off this treadmill using Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonic happiness.”
Select: In some areas of the book, you describe “traditional” views about money — like how some financial experts blame issues on willpower. However, there’s a lot that’s changing around the way we manage our money. What are some differences you’re noticing and what should we be doing about them?
Paco: “One of the big differences I’m noticing is people are not afraid to say that this whole damn thing is unequal and not everyone gets dealt the same chance. We can take all the stuff we’ve been taught and put it through a more critical eye and come up with solutions that work for people. We’ve been taught that if you’re not following the 50-30-20 budget you’re doing something wrong; it has been implied that if you don’t do this, you’ll fail and it’s all your fault. Not everyone can do this all the time in their lives. For example, if you just graduated and moved to another major city, you’re probably going to pay a crap ton for rent and wont be saving much. We’re in a time where there’s a lot of tension and people are pissed off because they’re starting to open their eyes, and this can be a good thing because we need better conversations about money.”
Select: What are some major takeaways you hope readers walk away with?
Paco: “I want readers to feel inspired to invest in themselves. That means a few different things. It means taking part of your paycheck and investing it, but it also means taking the time to learn how finance works and showing yourself that you belong in it and it’s for you. Now, we all have access to important financial tools and we can all participate in investing these days.
The other thing I want readers to walk away with is understanding that no matter what, shitty things are going to happen. The economy will tank and a pandemic will uproot our lives. Things happen but always know that you have agency over your actions.”
Want to hear more from Paco de Leon?
Here’s a little bit more of what you can expect from Paco, straight out of her book, Finance for the People:
“As a kid growing up in Southern California, my family would often take trips to the beach as a way to cool down on a sweltering hot summer Sunday. After a short drive, we’d stake out our spot and post up. I have fond memories of these days. My sister and I chased little sand crabs and went body surfing. Once, my cousin let us bury him in the sand. And, of course, I have a lot of memories of me and my sister digging giant holes and attempting to build sandcastles.
When you first start building a sandcastle, your inexperience allows you to underestimate some things. For one, you underestimate how hard it is to actually build a sandcastle. Sand is a delicate medium. The second thing you learn is that the afternoon tide will inevitably come in and threaten to wash away an entire day’s work. You learn that you can’t stop the waves from coming in, but you can always dig a trench or build a wall.
Your financial life is like a sandcastle. You spend time tending to it, building it and making decisions and choices that you hope will keep it from crumbling. You control what you can, but there are always things outside of your control—like whether or not you have the right tools or someone to help you build, when the tide will change and when the waves will start to move in. Financial shocks and emergencies are the waves threatening your sandcastle. The thing about tides — and emergencies — is they will always come. Sometimes very suddenly as if out of the blue and sometimes gradually. When it does come in, hopefully you’ll have dug that trench or built that wall.
In the same way a trench or wall is the best defense for weathering the shock of a changing tide, an emergency fund is the first line of defense against a financial shock. And this is why it’s recommended that an emergency fund ought to be your first savings priority. It’s the first line of defense. It’s a world of comfort in a universe of uncertainty.
Despite the fact that most of us have a good rational understanding that emergencies and shocks will happen, many of us don’t save enough or aren’t saving at all. Beyond the simple math and mechanics of the personal finance equation, there are lots of reasons why humans struggle with saving money.”
—Paco de Leon, Finance for the People
There is much to uncover about our beliefs and habits around money and Finance for the People seeks to help readers begin that journey. This isn’t just another personal finance book that’ll give you generic, step-by-step instructions for saving money and getting out of debt; this book is a thoughtful look at how to start rethinking and reshaping what you’ve (intentionally or unintentionally) learned about your money and using your newfound system to build your wealth.
Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.