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    MICHELLE SINGLETARY | THE COLOR OF MONEY

    Take up the charge for financial freedom

    Decades after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., many are still struggling for a life above the poverty line.
    J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press
    Decades after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., many are still struggling for a life above the poverty line.

    WASHINGTON — Have you ever felt like you didn’t get the memo?

    I’m talking about a life instruction sheet that lays out what you should do to get ahead, especially economically.

    On Jan. 15, we celebrate the work of Martin Luther King Jr., a Civil Rights icon, who fought and died for the less fortunate. When King was killed, he was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers who were fighting for better pay and working conditions.

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    Decades after King’s death, so many people are still struggling for financial justice and a life above the poverty line. And for many of them, the road to a more financially stable future begins with approaching wealth a different way.

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    To help them in their journey, I picked for this month’s Color of Money Book Club “The Memo: Five Rules For Your Economic Liberation” (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, $24.95). The book is by John Hope Bryant, founder and chief executive of Operation HOPE, an organization in Atlanta that is dedicated to economic empowerment for low- to moderate-income individuals and families in underserved communities.

    Bryant said he wrote this book for what he calls the “Invisible Class.” This includes:

     Urban youth. “Even when they have a real passion for success and a desire for economic freedom, they don’t have enough education to differentiate themselves in a market economy,” he says.

     Rural adults. These folks, who live in small towns and have a high school education, work hard but can’t earn a living wage.

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     Immigrants.

     People living in poor and disconnected suburbs.

     Gang members. “They are the illegal, unethical entrepreneurs. . . . Dumb (in terms of their business plans and chosen toxic professions), but far from stupid.”

     Struggling, middle-income Americans. People with “too much month at the end of their money.”

    If you’re in the invisible class, here’s the memo you may not have gotten:

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    Rule No. 1: Embrace the fact that money rules. From the time you get up in the morning until you go to sleep at night, money rules. In fact, it’s ruling while you sleep. Take the time to learn the rules of this game. Learn how credit scoring works and what it takes to get a better score, which is the gateway to getting lower-cost money.

    If you’re in the invisible class, home ownership is one way to become seen. “Over the long arc of our history, it has been one of the best ways for the average family to both protect themselves against income erosion and to begin to build wealth,” Bryant says.

    Rule No. 2: The way you think about money can help you lose or gain wealth. “I believe that fully half of modern poverty — beyond basic issues of sustenance of course — is tied to a poor mind-set, to low self-esteem and a lack of confidence,” Bryant writes. “Mind-set matters. A positive mind-set naturally leads to having aspirations for our lives. Aspiration is a code word for hope. . . . Hope is the beginning of true wealth.”

    Rule No. 3: Spend time building a circle of influence. Your relationships are an investment as much as putting money in a retirement fund.

    “Success in life is not just about how smart you are, or whether you are deserving. The world operates in a flow, and you must get yourself into the right flow. You do that by building relationship capital.”

    This part of the memo advocates surrounding yourself with people who are going toward or are already at where you want to be. By the way, this isn’t about networking, Bryant points out. “Networking is about ‘What do I get?’ Relationship building is about ‘What do I have to give?’”

    Rule No. 4: Even if you have a job, have an entrepreneur mindset. Entrepreneurship is a skill we all need, Bryant argues. “It is a crucial survival skill in the 21st century when the only thing that is certain is change.”

    Rule No. 5: Don’t equate having stuff with being wealthy. Strive for spiritual wealth. “A poverty state of mind, an increasing hopelessness and faithlessness, dooms you to a future of increasing economic despair.”

    Bryant’s memo is the pep talk you need to help move beyond living paycheck to paycheck and achieve economic liberation. Perhaps with this roadmap, you’ll find a path to prosperity.

    Michelle Singletary can be reached at michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter @SingletaryM.