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IN THE FAMILY WAY

Real-world money help for real people

We asked for advice from nonpreachy, very relatable experts about things we can do right now to steady ourselves.

Money is on a lot of people's minds right now, yet talking about it is taboo.
Money is on a lot of people's minds right now, yet talking about it is taboo.stock.adobe.com/Mateusz - stock.adobe.com

How much you weigh. How many glasses of wine you drink a night. Your latest ridiculous Amazon purchase (I’m still regretting a vibrating, velvet shoulder pillow). All this is fodder: for friends, for social media. Happily, even mental health is finally out in the open, too, with more people sharing their therapies, moods, calls for help. The gritty underbellies of our lives are accepted, applauded — yes, sometimes even performative.

But money? Off-limits. I can tell you what people on my Instagram feed ate for lunch the past five days, but I have no idea how much they make.

It’s the elephant in the room. I saw a viral Tweet yesterday asking how much family money each person on Forbes’ new 30 under 30 list truly had, who bankrolled them, how they were helped along the way. But who would confess that? (Cue the eye-roll when a 24-year-old, student-loan-free CEO earnestly says, “I just worked really hard!” while being profiled in their South End brownstone.)

There have been pushes here and there to be more transparent about income, to share salary information, to disclose budgets. But it’s sort of like halitosis: something best addressed in private. Meanwhile, social media fuels the dissonance between headlines and reality. This summer, we led the country with a 16.1 percent jobless rate. There are unprecedented lines at food banks, but also unprecedented Peloton sales.

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Why are we still so skittish about how that sausage is made, especially at a time when so many of us are hurting — or at least stressed — and probably want to share, commiserate, and get advice?

“There’s always something being held back,” says Misty Lynch, a certified financial planner and life coach in Walpole. (She actually became a life coach because she noticed the close link between emotion and money for her clients.)

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“For most people, they have been taught since kids that it’s not a polite thing to talk about,” she says. “There’s guilt and shame throughout every level of wealth, from living paycheck to paycheck to having more than your neighbors. There’s always some sort of hang-up.”

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Sign up for our parenting newsletter, In the Family Way.Heather Hopp-Bruce

Maybe it’s envy of a friend who can scale down to part-time because of a spouse’s fancy job, guilt over a windfall, or downright panic about being evicted. Maybe it’s the bile that creeps up in your throat at 4 a.m. when you realize you’ve saved nothing for college. Or the dread of knowing that this week might be when the ax falls, and you have no emergency savings. Money and psychology are the same.

Making it even worse is a system that entangles employment with health care, which equates career with dignity and safety.

“The pandemic shines a light on that to the extent whereby many individuals who have experienced health challenges have experienced income reduction at the same time,” says Gerald Loftin, a certified financial planner in Norwood.

In that spirit, here’s some advice from these non-preachy, very relatable experts about things you can do right now to steady yourself.

If you need immediate help: The City of Boston launched a free financial navigator program this week, designed to triage people in need of help finding shelter, food, and other necessities. It’s part of the city’s Office of Financial Empowerment. If you’re experiencing hardship, visit ofe.boston.gov/city-of-bostons-financial-navigators. Two other helpful resources: www.mass.gov/info-details/covid-19-dhcd-website and www.mass.gov/info-details/financial-assistance-during-the-covid-19-crisis.

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If you’re frittering money on impulse buys: Clicking on Amazon at 11 p.m. feels good. It gives us the dopamine hit we used to get from, you know, interacting with people. Lynch instituted a year-long shopping ban for herself after falling into a clicking spiral during late-night shopping binges while nursing her infant. Now it’s even more tempting, she says.

“We’re on screens all day, and maybe we feel bad for our kids,” she says, who are cooped up, bored, and really want an inflatable ball pit. Her trick? Let it linger in your cart for a day. Just a day. Then revisit and see if you still feel strongly about the buy.

“Even that little delay causes the brain to use the human part, not the part looking for the rush,” she says.

If you’re staring down an unexpected income dip: “The pandemic has impacted people who almost seemed recession-proof, surprising me and them. Nobody predicted this. Their hours have been cut, or they can’t physically work, or they have no childcare,” says Lynch. See: hairdressers, chefs, small business owners.

Now’s the time to negotiate. Call credit card companies and ask for a better interest rate. If you have student loans, ask about forbearance.

“Communicate with creditors about what forbearance options they provide to those faced with pandemic-related job losses. Connect with local mortgage, rent, utility, and food assistance organizations about any available programs they may offer to assist those faced with pandemic job losses. Consider renegotiation or refinancing of interest rates on student loans, mortgages, credit cards to reduce the monthly outlay,” says Loftin.

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Plus: Many certified financial planners offer pro-bono services. Visit www.financialplanningassociaton.org to find one.

If you’re weirdly saving more than ever: A camp refund just appeared in your checking account. What to do?

“Be intentional about it,” says Lynch. Think of the airplane mask cliché: We can’t help others until we help ourselves. So before you shop or donate, make sure your own financial house is in order. This means: an emergency fund parked in a high-yield savings account (Lynch and Loftin both recommend 12 months of expenses, if possible) and paying down debt.

That said: Emergency savings is pretty laughable if you’re living paycheck to paycheck.

“Even put away $5 a week,” urges Loftin. “I’m mindful that even that can be difficult for families,” he says, but scrounging up even a few dollars each week provides a small cushion. It also creates a habit of saving.

Once you’ve addressed an emergency fund, address things you can’t borrow for: retirement savings and proper coverage, such as life insurance.

Give back. If you’re in a position to donate — this means you have emergency savings, a fully funded retirement plan, and proper insurance — then give back. Find a comprehensive list of Massachusetts pandemic relief funds here: www.mass.gov/info-details/giving-wisely-to-covid-19-relief-efforts.

Don’t beat yourself up. As Lynch says, finances and emotions are inextricably linked. But your income, your savings level, and your current money status have absolutely nothing to do with self-worth and, often, everything to do with circumstance.

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“Keep in mind social-economic differences across race, ethnicity, education groups, and geography make the ability to accumulate adequate savings very difficult for many Americans,” Loftin says.


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.