Financial wellness is a term you’ve probably heard quite a bit in the past few years. Referring to the ability of a person to live free from financial stress (as a result of having healthy finances), the phrase has come into vogue as “wellness” trends more broadly have seen an uptick. Companies have created financial wellness programs, giving incentives to employees to save or invest in their 401(k)s, money in their pockets to get their annual checkups, providing tuition assistance for things like continued education, and facilitating free access to financial advisors. Books, podcasts, and all forms of media to empower individuals to take charge of their financial health and wealth have meanwhile evolved far beyond what’s been available in the past (remember when those For Dummies guides and dry financial materials were the only options?). Podcast listening, for one, has doubled among Americans since 2018, with a bulk of Americans listening to educational podcasts—including investing and financial ones.
Like many Americans, I wasn’t set up for financial success or generating wealth. I grew up the daughter of a welder and a hospital nurse in a city where 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. My dad, a Mexican American man, has worked jobs since he was 14 in order to financially support some of his siblings (he was the eldest of 11). He never went to college, but served in the Vietnam War before going back to factory jobs. My mother, coming from a poor white family, was the first on that side to attend and graduate schooling past high school. She got her associate’s degree in nursing while taking care of two small children.
These things are surely blessings. I knew I could come home every day to a house that was mine. I knew I would go to sleep with a full stomach. Sure, I knew what the free lunches doled out by the local church tasted like (on a hot day, sucking down the juice from fruit cups was the best part), but I had the necessities and I was, for the most part, healthy. And as I grew up, I had even more stability—or so it seemed. It was the ‘90s, and thus my parents rose from working class to lower middle class, thanks to fictitious lines of credit and predatory practices. So while Christmas presents, birthday parties, and monthly restaurant visits were the norm, it took my parents until recently to pay everything off.
Me? I ended up graduating fifth in my class, got financial waivers to apply to colleges that charge anywhere from $40 to $60 application fees (I wouldn’t have applied to these places otherwise), and wound up at a prestigious university two hours away from home—on scholarship but still saddled with loans that I myself had to pay. Working jobs since I was 15, I had no idea how to manage my money. I had no idea what true wealth was until college, where I encountered for the first time people with trust funds and homes just for vacations (can you imagine?).
When I moved to NYC (post-2008 recession), I somehow scrambled together the security deposit and first month’s rent I needed for an apartment and I cried when I got my first paycheck for an entry-level journalism position with a salary that notoriously bars many from even entertaining the idea of entering. I spent it covering my moving expenses and put what was left—around $100—into my savings account. Many who “were on my level” financially and career-wise (read: strapped for cash and in their first job post-college) usually lived at home in the Tri-State Area, or had some other sort of safety net to give them some peace of mind, and could sock away a few more dollars than I ever could. Yet, I didn’t envy them. Even then, I realized I wasn’t impoverished or poor. I was broke. Being poor is a very different mindset.
People are confused about where they fall on the wealth spectrum—and the wealth gap is so large—because the majority of Americans think that they’re middle class, no matter where on the income scale they actually fall. Despite the fact that nearly 40 percent of Americans can’t cover an emergency expense over $400, that 16 percent of adults can’t cover their monthly bills, and a third of adults under 30 have student loan debt (with total student debt up to $1.5 trillion), we still put so much emphasis on personal behaviors as the determinant of wealth. Don’t buy that $5 latte! Use that money instead to buy a house!
And with this false belief comes the harmful limiting narrative that poor people are poor because they made the wrong financial decisions; they screwed up, and they deserve to be punished for it and raise themselves up on their own. In America, poor people are hated, vilified, neglected, and overlooked.
It’s not individual behaviors that are keeping people down, it’s the systems (banking, education, health care, hiring and pay practices, etc.) in place.
But it’s not individual behaviors that are keeping people down, it’s the systems (banking, education, health care, hiring and pay practices, etc.) in place. Capitalism and white supremacy go hand in hand to keep people in the dark about how these systems work and scarcity the name of the game. The continuous harm inflicted by our society on communities of Black, Indigenous, and people of color—Black Americans, in particular—can be seen in today’s world when it comes to finances: “Research shows that systemic racism ensures that Black people in particular are more likely to live in poorer neighborhoods with fewer social services, less access to healthy food, and a higher risk of exposure to environmental contaminants,” Maya Feller, RD, wrote previously for Well+Good.
Real estate lending and buying practices outright discriminate against Black Americans (including Black individuals being denied mortgages at a rate 80 percent higher than that of white individuals and having homes appraised at drastically lower levels than white homeowners for similar properties). The median wealth for white households is 10 times higher than for Black households in the U.S., and 8 times higher than Hispanic households, according to Pew Research Center analysis. In fact, households of color are 2.2 times more likely to be asset poor compared to their white counterparts. Generational wealth, or the ability to pass down assets to future generations? That’s out of the question for many brown and Black communities, particularly for Black and Latinx households, as the racial wealth gap impedes opportunities to build wealth.
Here at Well+Good, we acknowledge and understand that your socioeconomic position impacts your ability to live well on all levels—personally, community-wise, and in a society that wasn’t made for anyone except the super wealthy to thrive. Understanding the context of how you and others live in different socioeconomic situations is the baseline for well-being. To this end, financial literacy can create change and promote equity on a personal level, while highlighting the problems we face as a society can help enact change on a systemic level.
Financial wellness is not just about how to invest in your 401(k), create a budget, or ask for a raise (though those are important, too), but how to live well, and with dignity, as a human being. How do you save when you have so little to live on? How do you build generational wealth in a world seemingly stacked against you? How do you overcome the scarcity mindset in order to live abundantly? How do you help increase the minimum wage so everyone can live comfortably?
We’ll be asking those questions. And we hope you find yourselves wondering the answers, too. Because financial wellness isn’t just a fun catchphrase. It’s a reckoning with how we understand holistically how to achieve well-being. And everyone deserves access to that.
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