A Thanksgiving tale

Personal finance

“Spend less than you earn.” “Watch out for those credit cards.” “Pay down that debt.” “Invest in low-cost index funds.” You’ve heard it all before. Is that all there is to personal finance?

In this week of Thanksgiving, I want to share an eye-opening and humbling experience I had recently. During one of my recent volunteering stints, I chanced to sit in on a conversation between two HIV-positive, gay men, one a personal finance counselor and one a student, which made me realize that the world of “personal finance” is enormous, and that most of us who are blogging are only addressing the needs of a small group of people.

The student (who I’d guess was about my age) had been on for a year or two, living off of about $13K a year while he learned to manage his illness. He was trying to move off of SSDI by becoming gainfully employed as an independent repairman. He had made some bad choices earlier in life, as he described it, that had led him to almost hit rock bottom. Not so long ago, he had been homeless, had declared personal bankruptcy, and had been cutoff from his family since he’d come out, all on top of being diagnosed as HIV-positive. That diagnosis itself was mentally crippling because every time he looked “down the road”, he explained that the lingering question of “whether he’d even be here” always paralyzed his decisionmaking abilities.

Financially, he said he was simply grateful at this point to be barely cashflow positive and to have some income coming in that allowed him to just break even for the last few months. When asked, he didn’t think that his journey and accomplishments so far were anything noteworthy, because, as he responded with a small chuckle, “What choice did I have?”

But the counselor pointed out to him that we always have a choice, no matter how bad the alternative might be. For the student to have turned around his life given everything he was up against was, both to the counselor and to me, very moving to hear. I don’t know if most people (myself included) could have made it as far as he did given all the adversarial situations he had to face.

As the student began explaining his financial predicament, and the ensuing conversation between the counselor and the student forced me to conclude that his situation was not that uncommon.

For example, he wanted and needed to move off of SSDI — who can live in the Bay area off of $13K a year? — and back into normal employment, but the path to reaching that goal was very murky. He had coverage as well, but was unsure whether it covered things like psychotherapy, something he could not afford given his current circumstances. Adding to the confusion was that once he started earning income, he would start becoming disqualified from receiving some or all of these coverages much sooner and faster than he could increase his income to make up for them, and navigating the bureaucratic waters and avoiding pitfalls was not an easy task.

With further amazement, I sat and watched as the counselor deftly addressed all of the student’s concerns with a level of ease and sympathy that can only come from someone who’d personally gone through the same thing. Off the top of his head, he knew the difference between different Medicare plans and could rattle off a plan’s limits and coverages when asked. He also knew the names and locations of several support groups in the area that he thought the student ought to check out. Finally, he explained his own situation, having survived for over 20 years being , and I could tell the student simply benefited from being able to talk to someone who could understand his dilemmas and fears.

The counselor also came up with creative solutions to a very difficult situation. For example, he asked the student if he’d be more comfortable working within “the community”. The student said that he would. The counselor explained to him that among the community, word-of-mouth was a very effective way of advertising and marketing his services and getting work opportunities.

He also explained that many among the LGBT community would empathize with his situation if he could explain that his goal has always been to get “above the line”, but that he really needed help getting there and would need cash payments for the time being while he made his transition off of SSDI.

I realize some readers at this point might be up in arms about this sort of arrangement and advice, but I’d challenge them to put themselves into this person’s position first before passing judgment. And as I challenged myself as well, it started to dawn on me why LGBT people might be more comfortable within their own community.

Prior to hearing this student’s story, I could imagine a repairman coming to my house and telling me he needed payment in cash, and trying to explain why. Actually, he probably wouldn’t even bother trying to ask for cash payment, uncomfortable as it probably would be for him to share his personal story given all the stigma associated with being HIV-positive, let alone the long explanation he’d have to delve into about SSDI and Medicare, terms that I was barely familiar with.

As I sat there listening to the conversation, I thought about how inadequately prepared I would have been at addressing this person’s questions and how inane it would have sounded to give the standard “It’s important to get spending under control”-type of personal finance advice you often read in mainstream magazines and advice columns.

I left my volunteer experience that day giving thanks for having everything that I did. But I also realized that as much insight as my experiences as a minority in the US had given me, this insight didn’t automatically translate into compassion to other groups and people as it should have. And for that, I was humbled and, truthfully, ashamed.

I imagine that there are plenty of other people out there — HIV-positive, HIV-negative, gay, straight, old, young — who are dealing with poverty, illness, age, who aren’t getting their financial needs addressed adequately, and that this group is certainly larger than the well-educated, middle-class group that I, my friends, and probably many other personal finance bloggers fall into. When’s the last time you searched a personal finance blogs aggregator like pfblogs.org and found headlines related to dealing with Medicare Part B or getting off SSDI? Ironically, as someone mentioned a few weeks ago on another blog, it’s these people who could probably most use help and advice. What do you think? Can you think of more ways that I/we could be helping? Other than continuing my volunteer efforts with these groups, and donating to the right organizations, I’m not sure what else I could do right now.

Obviously, if you’re a personal finance blogger and already have this kind of experience and advice to share, I’d guess a blog dedicated to these topics would really fill an unmet niche.

And if you’re a reader, I challenge you to find ways we could be doing more to help and to be more compassionate — to whomever it may be, especially given the time of the year, and especially, perhaps, toward those for whom the “standard” personal finance advice might not yet apply.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


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