Spending and saving: ‘It took a long time to change my mindset’

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It always amazes me that, even though so many of us handle money from a young age, by the time we get to our teenage years and early adulthood we lack the ability to talk about it.

I grew up feeling that talking about money was inappropriate. I remember being around 10 and asking my mum how much she earned at work. She gave me a cross look – no words were exchanged or needed. Without making a sound, she made two things plain: (1) that is none of your business, and (2) don’t be so rude.

My mum was born in St Lucia and came to the UK as a teenager. Unfortunately, her relationship with her mother was difficult and, not long after they’d arrived in the UK, she kicked her out. This meant my mum had to grow up quickly and fend for herself from a young age. She worked hard, literally day and night, but I had older siblings at home who ensured I did my homework and ate dinner. At the weekend, my twin sister and I would go with Mum to Ridley Road market to get the weekly shop, and every Sunday the family sat down for dinner together.

In our community, a pardner (or susu) is a popular method of saving money that does not involve banks

I’m not sure how much (if any) financial support my dad provided; my parents separated when my twin sister and I were very young and my mum never spoke about it. She handled the money and she made all of the financial decisions. She got on the property ladder, she sold up, she moved out of east London. She didn’t speak about money – she simply got on with it.

When it came to passing on her own wisdom to me and my siblings, the one thing she did advise was saving money in a pardner. In our community, a pardner (or susu) is a popular method of saving money that does not involve banks. It’s a partnership you form with close friends to help you to save collectively, and it was created to provide access to capital when banks refused to lend to black people (yep, you read that right).

My mum was in a pardner with her friends Monica and Ula from St Lucia. Each person puts in a regular sum of money, then the members of the pardner take it in turns to withdraw the pooled money collected each week or each month. For example, if each person contributes £50 a week and there are five people in the pardner, every week one person will receive £250.

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While I heard Mum speak about her pardner, I didn’t fully understand what it was until I was much older, and by that time setting up a pardner with friends was not generally considered an option. The only explicit mentions of money at home had to do with the fact we went to a Catholic church. Mother Teresa took a vow of poverty, so that might explain some of the things my mum used to say:

“Money doesn’t grow on trees.”

“You can’t take it with you when you’re gone.”

“Rich people are cheats/fraudsters.”

“I only want enough to get by.”

“Money is the root of all evil.”

These messages shaped my mindset and thoughts about money.

Our attitude to money is informed by the unconscious messages we absorbed as children. It’s a complex subject. Some people who have experienced extreme poverty vow never to be poor again, and they take clear action with this goal in mind. Other people believe that being poor is how things will always be, and that they will always struggle to make ends meet.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are people who are born into wealth or who inherit wealth. Some will continue to grow their money, whereas others will fritter it away and end up with nothing.

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Watching my own mother work so hard, never taking time off for holidays, never eating out, rarely pampering herself and sometimes missing parents’ evenings due to work, gave me the impression that you had to work long, hard, unsociable hours.

I subconsciously internalised the message that it was normal to work extremely hard for low pay, and you should never take days off or treat yourself, so that by the time I was a teenager and had started working, my feelings around money were negative and extremely disempowering.

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I settled for jobs that paid me just enough to get by. I didn’t feel worthy enough to put myself forward and ask for a pay rise; I had learned to crack on and make do. This meant that, as my cost of living increased and I bought a house and had a family of my own, my outgoings went up while my income stayed largely the same.

When I started working and earning a salary, I had no clue how to manage my money. I often spent all of my salary, which meant being elated on payday then deflated and stressed out for the rest of the month when I inevitably ran out of money. I fell into the dreaded cycle of living from payday to payday, regardless of how much I earned; if I earned more, I spent more.

I learned everything I know about money the hard way – through trial and error. It took a long time to adjust my money mindset, and this journey started when I became aware of my own negative and disempowering thoughts. My internal dialogue would say things like:

“I’m broke.”
“I can’t afford it.”
“I’m no good at managing money.”

“I can’t do maths.”
“I can’t afford to save.”
“I don’t understand investing.”
“Investing is for men in suits.”

But it wasn’t until I heard myself say, “Money doesn’t grow on trees, son” that I realised I had inherited a scarcity money mindset. If I wasn’t careful, I’d pass this down to my son.

It was a long journey for me. A few years ago, I was alone in my bedroom, sobbing, paralysed with fear, trying to deal with thousands of pounds of debt. I was unable to confide in my twin sister – in fact, I didn’t tell a soul. I was embarrassed and ashamed, but I spent a lot of time pretending I was fine. Is it the British stiff upper lip? Or the Caribbean “just get on with it” spirit?

Just over a quarter of parents (27%) have dipped into their child’s savings to pay a bill or put food on the table

I remember one particular day very clearly. I was feeling extremely anxious after spending all of my money before payday, so I came up with a panicked plan to “borrow” from my son’s account. It felt wrong at the time, but it seemed to be my only option. I believed that, had I tried to increase my overdraft limit, I would have been declined. I can still feel the shame and embarrassment, feeling that I had failed as a parent. I ended up borrowing from my sister, but I didn’t tell her how desperate or down I was about it.

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This was my rock bottom and my catalyst for change. At the time, I thought I was the only parent who had ever done this but I now know that just over a quarter of parents (27%) have dipped into their child’s savings to pay a bill or put food on the table.

Fast-forward to the present, and I love talking about money. My sisters, mum and I get together regularly to talk about our finances; we have become a mini money squad. At our last money meeting, we discussed investing, which is something I never thought I’d say. Once you start having honest conversations with your loved ones about your money, you’ll find it has a snowball effect and other people start to open up, too. It will mean that, rather than suffering in silence – as I did – you can support each other through your challenges and move towards your financial goals together.

After a decade of telling myself “I’m broke”, I’ve completely stopped using that phrase. Rather than telling myself I’m broke or I can’t afford something, I ask myself: how can I afford it? What steps do I need to take? Similarly, instead of telling myself I’m bad at maths or not good with numbers, I simply whip out my trusty calculator and work it out.

Turning these thoughts around gives you back some power. Asking yourself these questions will push you to look at your numbers or ask someone else how they did it. You are not defeated but spurred into action. Creating new habits around money starts with taking baby steps.

This is an extract from Black Girl Finance: Let’s Talk Money by Selina Flavius, which will be published by Quercus Books on 21 January.