When an ETF Feels More Like a WTF: What is Financial Security Anyways?

Written by Crystal Bryson, an AmeriCorps VISTA serving at La Casita Center. 

My current theory is that Facebook Memories is a tool to keep us humble. How else would I be able to pull up my app every day and be reminded of how wise I used to think I was? I don’t know exactly what I was going through 4 years ago, but I was reposting so, so many pictures of mountain or seaside vistas overlaid with quotes about how “adventure is the true wealth” and “pay for experiences, not things” and the classic “money can’t buy you happiness.”

I mean, sure, but it definitely helps, doesn’t it? Those posts are soaked with privilege and inexperience. It was easy to travel when I was still on mom and dad’s health insurance. And I didn’t mind so much taking out the credit card to help me keep up my habits and lifestyle and living expenses while living in Chicago and living off an AmeriCorps stipend, but boy has it been a tough 6 months of working two jobs to pay it off—and that’s just the first box to check before I have to face a steep tax bill, pay for a surgery and a wedding, face my student loans coming out of forbearance, hopefully contribute in some way to my partner’s dream of owning a home, and still meet the car-housing-insurance-groceries-and-miscellaneous bills that creep around each month. A rainy-day fund, a 10k investment goal by 30, a retirement plan. A singsong of these concepts kept coming up in the “smart finances for millennials” articles that appeared regularly in my newsfeed, and they all felt—still feel—impossible.  So, let’s get a little more honest.

Having shared my failings and anxieties, switching to a position of advice-giver and recommender of apps and bank accounts feels a little forced. It also feels condescending and a little tone-deaf to pile onto the genre of “girl, take hold of your finances” and not acknowledge the fact that I am a cis, white, able-bodied woman who faces minimal discrimination in life and comes from a middle-class family that was able to build wealth via banking institutions, urban planning, and legal systems all designed to help white families succeed at the expense of others. Writers have fought to draw attention to the danger of these flippant advice columns that preach a one-size-fits-all plan of action, the physical toll of poverty on the brain and the body, as well as the threat that a single random event could undo years of hard work and saving. Activists have worked and are working tirelessly to change the systems that have generated massive wealth inequality and poverty. For other VISTAs reading this, these are not unfamiliar realities, and are hopefully acknowledged in our organizations and in the work that we do.

Talking about money is awkward, and heavy, so we generally avoid it, and thus miss out on the chance to learn from other people’s experiences and examples. So just remember: this is more of a diary entry than a guide. For those of us dipping our toes into savings goals and internally debating whether to sit out the demise of capitalism or invest in something, here is my (heh) 2 cents:

My base line: a savings account, a checking account, and another savings account. I have three accounts with 5/3 Bank. The first is a checking account for direct deposits. Try not to EVER sign up for those debit card direct deposit options—if you’re able, try to find an account with a bank or credit union with no minimum balance required. Credit unions generally have no balance minimums, and you get to feel more ownership over your money (banks are typically owned by investors and are designed to make profits—read: will screw over their customer in the name of their own bottom line). The sole reason that I have kept my 5/3 bank is laziness, and because it hasn’t pushed me to the breaking point yet.

The savings account I hold with them is essentially nothing more than a backup for my checking. I had small dreams about creating a rainy-day fund with the recommended 6 months of living expenses, but for the most part I just keep shifting money back into checking when I’m about to pay off a bill to make sure there’s enough in place.

The third savings account? 5/3 has a gimmicky account called “Goal Setter Savings.” You’re supposed to set a dollar amount goal, and then once you reach that goal, you get double the interest on the account, or something like that. I’ve never actually reached any of my goals in it, but it serves an important function: to withdraw from it, or transfer, you have to physically walk into the bank and fill out a withdrawal slip (no ATM withdrawals available). Did I mention how lazy I was? I can’t quickly transfer it into checking to pay a credit card bill; I don’t have the energy to walk into the bank AND INTERACT WITH A PERSON in order to pull it out for a spur-of-the-moment vacation. I slip 10 or 20 bucks a month into it, and then clear it out at Christmas when its time to buy presents for my nephews. Now, I’m planning on using it when I get slapped in the face again with the tax on my Segal Education Award, because I did NOT anticipate how big my tax bill would be this year.

Getting fancy with investing? Some apps and some terms you might like to google.

If you’re interested in investing, have a little cash to squirrel away, but have no idea where to start, I use Betterment. It’s about as user-friendly as you can imagine. You give them a chunk of cash, tell them how risky you want to be with it, and they choose the types of investment (I still don’t really get the difference between a bond, CD, ETF, mutual fund, stock, small-cap, mid-cap) and do the research into the firms and markets and whatever that they are buying and managing on your behalf. There is a small fee, but I’ve ended up making more than enough to cover the fee. I also use Betterment for retirement planning, with an IRA account. Do I fully understand why this is the smartest kind of account to get? No. But I opened it, and I put like $20 a month or so in it, and I don’t withdraw from it because of tax reasons that I also don’t fully understand. Compared to any expert analysis, I am well behind the curve with saving for retirement, but I’m trying to embrace the “better-than-nothing” attitude and just go for it.

Like to gamble and have direct control over what you’re investing in? Try Robinhood. Buying and selling individual stocks through platforms like ETrade or Charles Schwab comes with fees. Robinhood is fee-free, easy to download on your phone, and has handy little tools to show you market research, performance, and trade. I read an article on Cracked.com, of all places, about how the US has gotten better at storing radioactive materials, googled “nuclear stocks,” and paid like $30 to invest in a uranium company from one of the search results, at $9 a pop. They’ve gone up about $3 a share since then, so I’ve made…$9? Then I lost about $20 because I thought a recycling company was going to do a lot better, but this is hardly the political environment for that, so…bust. It’s a gamble, but some people end up being really good at it, so just know that this free app could be a viable entry point into that aspect of the stock market, if you’re interested/able.

Other friends have recommended Acorn. I’ve never tried it myself, but they seem to enjoy it—give it a google and check out the reviews.

Worried about turning over your money to evil corporations? Google socially responsible investing. It’s far from perfect. This is capitalism that we’re talking about, and for-profit enterprises inherently kind of suck because of the drive for the bottom line, and sometimes the improvements they say they’re making are nothing more than virtue-signaling (has Nike improved any conditions in their factories or are they just churning out more products to Kaepernick supporters?). But it’s still nice to read about Patagonia donating billions of dollars to combat climate change or the success of companies with great workplace cultures. There is a mountain of information out there. Fortunately, it’s 2019, and there are people whose job now is to develop standards—whether that is in regards to environmental sustainability, support for human rights, workforce diversity, or others—and then identify companies that are both meeting those standards and are also profitable for an investor. Betterment has talked about rolling out some SRI funds—keep an eye out if this seems up your alley.

Mindsets.

Investing is a luxury. It requires a phone with an app, or a computer with Wi-Fi, and a bank account to transfer funds from, and then extra funds to transfer in the first place, and some time to read about what you’re doing, and connections to people that you can ask for advice and ideas. If you can do it, and you want to do it, it’s a smart tool, but how do you want to do it—and do you ethically want to? That also takes research, consideration, and conversation.

And when it comes to saving—same thing. My capacity to squirrel a little away each month is contingent upon an array of factors, not just “well I work hard and I resist the urge to buy Starbucks.” Do what you can, but don’t deny yourself the purchases that allow you to maintain a little mental stability amidst multiple jobs and responsibilities in life.

There is no universal “girl, wash your face” or “stop ordering the avocado toast” fix to the economic burdens that we find ourselves buried under in this day and age. Not to mention—there are important ethical debates over using massive banks and investing in faceless, multinational funds and companies, all within a system generating astounding inequality on the global, national, and even local scales. If I offer any advice, it’s to start more discussions with the people we trust. For other insta-millennials like me: we can’t pretend we’re living a pure, wholesome life of adventure and community while secretly drowning in credit card debt, and we can’t learn about solutions or explore our own ethics and actions without having some of these vulnerable discussions.

Just, for your own sake, don’t do them on Facebook, because the hindsight of a year’s experience is enough to make almost any post truly, deeply cringeworthy.

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