The Price of Money, Part One

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It was one of the last sunny days in Portland in early autumn on a Friday morning. There was a faint smell of wood smoke on the crisp morning air and the maple leaves were only just considering a change in color. I was dressed down in jeans and a sweater, despite working for an investment firm just south of the downtown business district, where the dress code is decidedly business … without the casual. The financial industry has apparently not been affected by the west coast vibe that has given everyone else in the business world on the “left” coast permission to wear flip-flops and hoodies on Fridays, and jeans and sweaters every other day of the week. I opted to dress down this particular day and suffer the scrutiny of my coworkers for this special occasion (my boss had taken the day off). I was taking a few hours out of my day to begin a different sort of work.

You see, I’d spent the last several years in the field of finance, most of it in sales. Fortunately, I had migrated into research and analysis at that point, which was a very good thing because I am a terrible salesperson. I absolutely cannot give people the financial information that I think is so vital to survival and success and ask for money in return. Some folks can, which is I suppose what makes the industry (and the entire economic system) sustainable and what allowed me to earn the salary that I did as an analyst. In fact many people, myself included, have paid for that knowledge, but in the final moment, when I see the impact that such an education has on the lives of the people I have worked with, I simply cannot bring myself to ask for the cash. I know, I know … they came to me for the advice, they knew they’d have to pay for it, that was the deal … but somehow, asking for payment always seemed to ruin the moment for me.

I suppose I’ve always been an altruist of a certain kind, I might even be described as having (heaven forbid) a “bleeding heart” or a soft spot or some could even say I’m a sucker for a cause or even just a sap. Yes, it’s true. I want to rescue all the abandoned kittens, save all the children, help the poor, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and destroy all the suffering of the world. Of course, I realize that I do not have what it takes to single-handedly save the world or even to convince a significant number of people to help me do it, but on the occasions when I felt more practical, though no less altruistic, I considered what I could do to “act locally” while “thinking globally.” While my mother always taught me to do what I love to do, which is helping those who need it most, my father always told me to do what I do best, and for better or for worse, what I do best is give financial guidance. I am pretty good at making numbers and money matters seem, if not enjoyable, at least less threatening. In keeping with both of those ideas, I have often said throughout my career, “If I could give this stuff away for free, I would.”

Inspired, in part by my family, by such books as Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, and by my own experiences volunteering in a variety of shelters and working with a number of philanthropic causes, one day it simply occurred to me that I could indeed share my knowledge at no charge to the people who needed it most and could afford it the least. It was then that I began the journey of creating a financial education agency that would teach the skills for economic freedom to the people who needed it right in my own city.

On this, the first day of my adventure and foray into the nonprofit education world, I arrived at the teen homeless shelter and walked confidently into the large brick building through the frame of an enormous black wrought iron gate that had been fashioned by a local artist to resemble something out of a Tolkien novel. The lobby was lined with orange and yellow seats attached to walls that were covered in expansive colorful graffiti art murals extending up to the ceiling of the three-story foyer. The molded plastic seats were spilling over with teens wearing baggy jeans and sporting purple mohawks and surly looks, not unlike the typical high school classroom from my youth. I was reminded of how my step-mother looked at me aghast when I, as a middle school student in the early eighties, between the preppie and punk rock stages of my fashion exploration, begged to wear her bell bottoms and fringed leather coat that she had saved from her high school days. Now, as I looked around the lobby of the shelter and saw the pink streaked hair, black boots, and army surplus messenger bags with anarchist flags pinned to the flaps, I finally understood her horror. It wasn’t that she didn’t approve of the fashion choices I’d made or even that she was surprised that those things were back in fashion … it was that they were back in fashion so soon. It was the realization of the progression of time, despite the fact that she had not actually given permission for time to move at all.

I asked the young volunteer behind the small reception desk for the contact person at the job center. She sent me down a nearby stairwell to a small room in the basement with eight older model computers around the perimeter and two utilitarian tables, one round, one long and rectangular, in the center of the room and more chairs than a room of its size really needed. Other than the copious amount of furniture and ancient technology, the room was spare with gray linoleum floors, white walls and two bulletin boards laden with small pieces of pinned up paper advertising job openings and educational resources. A handful of the colorful teens were scattered around the room and the job center staff introduced me as the financial expert who was there to answer questions.

A young girl of about seventeen, with a fuchsia streak in her shoulder length blonde hair glanced up from the computer where she was stationed, raised her eyes to the level of my shoulder and almost immediately looked at the floor and then back to the computer in front of her. Another teen, sitting at the center table and reading a book, met my gaze directly and evenly, with an air of expectation and suspicion that I would eventually come to know as the subtler expression of irrepressible hope squashed only slightly by the distrust bred from the experience of living on the streets. As time goes on, and homeless teens become homeless adults, I’m told that distrust takes precedence and the hope almost disappears, but these kids hadn’t yet reached that point.

I bristled somewhat at the casual introduction, which I had hoped would be more formal and command more attention to the program I had spent hours developing for this group. I had topics, and lessons and exercises to impart upon these spongy little minds. This was the first project of my new agency and it even had a name: Financial Survival Skills. But, the introduction I’d been given was simply an informal plea to gather around the table and hear what I had to say, which in addition to being unceremonious, was only remotely effective.

“Come on, guys,” Bridgette*, the job center’s caseworker, pleaded, “she’s here to help you. Check it out.”

At which point I chimed in with my best and most enthusiastic sales voice, perfected from years of torturous cold calling.

“Yeah! Come on! I know lots of stuff. I can help you with your credit or bank accounts or budgeting or …


* All names have been changed.

Part 1  |  (Part 2)


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