Financial Facades: Let’s Talk Money

F

freerich

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

-Matthew 6:21

Learning the Hard Way

2016 was my first year of “adulting.” I had just graduating with my Bachelor’s, had a beautiful apartment on Lake Washington, and was just launching my career at Amazon. All that was left for me to feel that I was a successful, independent woman was for me to get a car. Once I received my signing bonus check I went straight to the dealership to use it as my down payment towards my purchase. My eyes got fixated on a 2010 Acura TSX and I put in my offer. The finance department ran their numbers and boom I was slapped with a double-digit interest rate for a loan to cover the outstanding balance of the car. They spit game about how I could refinance it after a few months and significantly lower my monthly payments. I was credit-shallow and didn’t have anyone who could be a cosigner. Conventions of what success looks like clouded my judgement, and without my further thought or guidance I went ahead and signed the paperwork assuming it’d all work in my favor down the road.

Three months later I was back at the dealership because my car was making this loud obnoxious scraping sound. I have absolutely 0 discernment or experience when it comes to cars so I took it back to the dealership immediately just in case the car was on the brink of exploding (ok, I’m dramatic I know). So, I take it back to the dealership and they give me a list of issues with the car which total about $3,000 in repairs. I was like fuck that! I cut a deal with the manager that I’d trade the car in at a slight loss of what I paid for it for a newer car that was under warranty. I didn’t want to have to worry about repairs for a while and the fact that my Acura was already having problems made me nervous. So, a few hours later, I walked out with a 2015 BMW 328i that was on a super sale and cost only $4,000 more than my Acura. I was on cloud 9. I never had a car growing up my Mamaiay and I always caught the bus everywhere, so this was a substantial moment to me – I never would’ve thought I’d be driving a foreign. In hindsight, this impulse buy was a mixture of financial illiteracy and making up for lost time.

I looooved my car. It was the first substantial purchase that was fully mine. I customized it with the same attention that I did my home. I got the windows tinted 5%, slabbed on 20inch staggered rims, and wrapped the roof with black vinyl. A few months later, the novelty wore off and I wasn’t as excited about my car anymore. Between the car payments, full-coverage insurance, gas, tabs, tickets, etc I might as well have been flushing money down the toilet. It’s sort of funny how we think we know what we want until we get it. I began allowing friends to drive my car around, at a certain point my boyfriend at the time and I pretty much shared it until he got a car of his own. As do all material items, the car began to wear down and it just didn’t feel like it was mine anymore. The amount of people who drove it and the types of people that were in and out of the car was energy that lingered, and I didn’t want to associate with it anymore. So, I put my car up for sale.

By the time I listed my car for sale, the market was being flooded with lease returns for the same make and model. Basic supply and demand economics – my car depreciated tremendously. I was stuck with a car I didn’t want and an upside down loan, it fuckin sucked. Around this same time, I had made the decision to move to DC and I wasn’t going to let my car hold be back – I was just going to figure it out later. I parked it at a friend’s house and made the big move. When I moved to DC I was reintroduced to the simplicity of not being tied to stuff. Not having a car freed me of unnecessary stress, it forced me to walk more, and allowed me to allocate my time commuting on the metro to reading. Making my car and insurance payments while racking up expired tabs tickets for a car that wasn’t even in the same city as me was pissing me off. I had received a few buy offers so I booked a flight during the Thanksgiving holiday to rid myself of it. It was a goal of mine to be consumer debt free before the new year.

I had my car detailed, lights fixed, wheels swapped – I did everything in my power to make my car look immaculate and ready for sale. Thanks to Murphy’s Law…all my prospective buyers flaked. At this point, I only had two days before I had to come back to Seattle so I took it to the BMW dealership to get appraised. After about 30 minutes the rep tells me they’re unable to purchase my car because it’s been in two car accidents, was a former rental, and had a tampered odometer. I was devastated. I pleaded that none of that was true or disclosed during the time of the sale. Who in their right mind would buy a rebuilt luxury car for the price point I did? The rep showed me the paperwork and said according to KBB the car would be worth $8,000 max. I left the dealership with my face drenched in tears.

The whole car ride home, and even after I was home, I was a hot mess. I literally don’t remember the last time I’ve cried that much. It’s super shitty when you have something planned out and it fails in the final stretch. So much for my 2019 debt-free plan. After a few hours I sucked it up and decided to change my outlook – it’s dangerous to wallow in self-pity. I thought about how learning such a hard lesson would admonish me from making a similar mistake again and that maybe God was trying to humble me that I can’t plan everything in my life out. I have a habit of leaning on my own cleverness and not trusting God to sort things out, so I just let it go – accepted I failed and started making plans to grab dinner with my best friend.

Right as I’m getting ready to walk out my Airbnb, I get a call. My ex tells me the dealership called him and said that they had made a huge mistake with the VIN number from the first time they did repairs on my car. Turns out, my car had never been in any car accidents nor was the odometer tampered with. What an emotional rollercoaster, God be playin’ too much. They said they still couldn’t purchase it because it was a rental – but that wasn’t a big deal to me. I scheduled an appointment with CarMax the next day as a buyer.

I was in and out of CarMax within the hour. I got appraised for $1,000 less than the private buyer’s offer which I didn’t mind honestly because they freed up my hassle of going to the DMV, transferring the title, plate removal etc. I paid the outstanding balance I owed $8,000 (ouch!) and handed them the keys. I took a few more last glances – twuuu my car looked fresh, and I took a video as a final goodbye. I replayed all the memories the car brought me, the fun times, the bad times, the lessons learned. It was a bittersweet moment – bitter in that I knew I was ending an era of me, sweet in that I was happy I was moving forward.

There’s a bible verse Matthew 6:21 that I quoted above that says, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” It was clear my heart was in the wrong place and was tied down to material items. Once my heart began to shift – having the car around felt like dead weight of my past I was carrying around. When I finally let it go, I felt 3,000 pounds lighter.


Own Your Money, Don’t Let It Own You

Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

-Philippians 4:11-13

I’ve always wanted to get a PhD and study the relationship between two of the world’s most archaic and rigid systems – Finance and Religion, and how they work together to influence consumer behavior on a macro and micro scale. I’ve struggled defining my relationship with money – Do I want to focus on accruing wealth or being present? Do I want to be frugal or generous with charity? It seems as if all the self-help tips in the religious and business texts fell on opposite sides of the spectrum. The program that I found particularly interesting was in Harvard’s School of Divinity. They have a specialized program called “The Business across Religious Traditions” that began as a collaboration between its Divinity and Business School to congregate professionals who share an interest in the relationships between business and religion. The program was founded by a successful VC who felt he lacked purpose and turned to religion after the passing of his wife.

The saying, “money can’t buy happiness,” has always felt ubiquitous but unrelatable. I feel bad saying this, but I was never quite empathetic towards rich people’s problems. I remember I had a meeting with the man who attempted to launch the first Islamic Credit Union in Seattle and he told me how working as a wealth manager and at a non-profit is humbling. He shared stories about how no amount of money shelters humans from suffering. In the day time, he worked with millionaires and shared stories of their tribulations. In the evening, he volunteered at an Islamic homeless shelter. I was fascinated by his ability to navigate such opposite worlds in just a few minutes time.

My earliest memories of money consist of my Mamaiay and I not having enough and watching her continuously donate her last dollar to the homeless during our walks to the bus stop. I used to be confused because that could’ve gone towards food, or a bus fare but it never seemed to phase her. I remember she asked the bus driver to pardon her for not having her fare one time and I asked if she regretted giving her money away since she didn’t have enough now. Her answer was a simple “No.” She never seemed to stress much about money and always took the “life is short” stance and that money was fluid as water, it comes and goes freely. That sentiment towards money followed me to adulthood.

I’ve never been one to be stingy, I enjoy fighting over the bill with friends and showering people I love with gifts or experiences. I’ve always been wary of those who hold onto their money too tight, because to me, it meant they placed it on too high of a pedestal. I’ve never feared going broke or being unable to provide, money has never been a source of anxiety or insecurity for me. I think I was able to cushion myself from this by banking on my resourcefulness; my funds may be depleted at any point, but I’ve always viewed myself and my skill sets as lucrative, so I can always market myself, or find a way or to replenish my funds. This protects me from the volatility of markets, greed, and being chained to an unfulfilling job.

Last month I went to church in DC for the first time and I remember the pastor was talking about how he’s taken up a new hobby of reading obituaries in the newspaper. He then went on to discuss about how each person gets a short paragraph that sums up their lives for the rest of the world – not once in those obituaries did it mention career, income, or anything we aspire to list on our resumes. Yet, we dedicate so many of our years towards beefing up our resumes and not improving the narrative that’s to be told in our obituaries. After the service I thought about how myself and so many of my loved ones fall into this trap. As I’m getting older, I hear people talk and stress about money more. It’s the combined pressures of providing for your immediate family, your family back home, and your future family. It’s so easy to slip into this dark hole once you place so much of your happiness on money and look at it as more of means than a tool. I’ve always looked at money as a hammer, if I have hammer bolstering a nail is going to be a lot easier than if I had to use my shoe or my hand. However, whatever it is that I’m nailing down isn’t a byproduct of money itself but rather it’s something that I myself have constructed. On the flip side, if I have a hammer and I tap a nail too soft or too hard – I would have failed at my task. Money is just a tool; the individual is the actual asset.

My favorite class in my master’s program was Finance and the professor was breaking down venture capital (VC) and assets. He asked the class what we thought was the most valuable thing in a VC negotiation. Students started blurting out equity, cash flow, all the typical term sheet language. The professor told us we couldn’t be more wrong, that the most valuable item in any negotiation is the person. He went on to explain that money is everywhere, it’s great people with great ideas that are a rarity and VCs race for these funding opportunities. At the end of the day, VCs always wage their bet on the founder. Money will always be easier to replenish than talent. I might be arrogant, but I apply this method of thinking to my personal finances – like hey I’m the true asset – not the funds in my account – they’re just a byproduct of me not the definer.

I’m not immune to fantasizing about the ways I’d make my first few million or romanticizing about my future. When I find myself job searching and crunching desired salaries or letting money shape my decisions rather than leading with my passion and purpose, I say a quick prayer and ask God for realignment. I really think it’s true when the Bible says in Matthew 6:24 that you can’t serve two masters, you can’t serve both God and Money. I remember driving behind a raggedy car one day that had a loud sticker on the back bumper. It read, “Don’t let the car fool you, my treasure’s in heaven.”  I want to think like that.  Money is ephemeral – it can disappear in a myriad of ways: inflation, natural disasters, economic recessions, theft, etc. It makes no sense to try to root ourselves so much into its unstable foundation. In Proverbs 23:4-5 the Bible says “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; do not trust your own cleverness. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone.

The pursuit of money can rob you of your pursuit of happiness – In Ecclesiastes 5:10 it says “whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. I can’t help but think of the people I know, myself included that are chasing after an ever-moving target. “If I get to $x amount” I’ll be content is the greatest lie they tell themselves. When I think of ever-moving targets the story of Tantalus, a Greek Myth, comes to mind. Tantalus was a wealthy man who questioned the abilities of the Gods and Zeus dished out an eternal punishment of Tantalus having eternal hunger and thirst. Tantalus was made to stand in a pool of water, and was placed under a fruit tree. Whenever he bent down to have a drink of the water, it would drain. Whenever he reached out to grasp a fruit from the tree, the wind would move the branches away.

Money is complicated – and I know as I change, so will my relationship with it. I just want to focus on doing my best, trusting and thanking God through all the highs and the lows, and I hope when the time comes, my obituary describes a life worth living.

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