Money Management

The 10 Big Money Questions With Rebecca Foresman

By | Monday, June 13, 2016

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There are some résumés that are good, and some that are downright stressful in their on-point-ness. And particularly when you’re like me, with no degree, no shiny alma mater to have even dropped out of, and a job history mostly comprised of websites and coffee shops, it’s easy to be stressed out by someone who has seemingly had it together since middle school. So when I opened up Rebecca Foresman’s résumé for our newly-opened Managing Editor position — even the fonts were understated and classy, dammit — I was immediately overcome with a small shudder of stress. “This probably sounds weird,” I asked the friend who recommended her, “But is she… fancy? She sounds so fancy.” (In the interest of transparency, class diversity is of huge importance to our tiny team here at TFD, and while we wouldn’t out-and-out reject someone based on an elite upbringing, they would definitely move to the bottom of the stack. To be able to talk money with the TFD community, a certain amount of hustle is sort of essential to the game.)

And you see, Rebecca’s CV was the very definition of fancy: Graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton, worked a few years at the New Yorker, WNYC, as a translator at Conde Nast, all while maintaining a robust second life as a performer, sketch comedy writer, and competitive spoken word-er. It’s hard not to feel at least a little inadequate when reading through that post-grad ~journey~.

But as with so many assumptions I’ve made since starting this site, I was pleasantly surprised to have my preconceived notions about Rebecca sort of blow up in my face. She was a scholarship kid at Princeton, who chose it because it offered the best financial aid, and supplemented the rest of her costs with federal loans. And she got her “in” with her boss at the New Yorker by nannying for his son while going to school full-time (he went on to hire her after she graduated). Her 20-something experience in New York City has been one of paying student loans, working in-between, side- and side-side jobs to supplement her income, and making it work with roommates: aka, the decidedly “normal” NYC life. And while the fancy names on her CV certainly do more good for her than bad, I admit that I felt immediately a bit ashamed about all the things I assumed about her background and her pathways to where she is: I took something away from her, as we often do when we forget to account for class as a serious axis of privilege and identity.

And nothing makes me happier than to say that I was wrong, that Rebecca is funny and down-to-earth and *Jean Ralphio voice* ♫Hardworking as hellll♫ — and most importantly, that she is our new Managing Editor at TFD. She’ll be taking our humble little community into its brightest and most thrilling era yet. She’s the person to write to with your amazing ideas, she’ll be the one reading you guys in the submissions box, writing awesome shit every day, and shaping how the site looks day-to-day. I know that you guys will love her as much as we already do, but in the meantime, we thought the best way for you guys to get to know her was to have her do the 10 Big Money Questions, so she can start things out with some TFD-brand #radicalhonesty about her own financial life.

1. What was your relationship to money growing up?

Money talk happened at the grownups’ table, after my brothers and I had finished dinner and gone back to our homework or to bed. My mother and father drew a firm, relatively traditional line between the Parental Unit and Kids Zone, and they taught us that it was deeply impolite to name sums of money — whether spending or earning — in any company outside the immediate family. I wasn’t aware of how we budgeted month-to-month, or what mortgages we paid on our house. Throughout my early life, we were very comfortable — gifts at Christmas and on birthdays, occasional family vacations. I was also aware that we didn’t have as much money as my (quite privileged) friends did. My mother bought all our clothes from JC Penny, Target, and discount outlets. We saved restaurant dinners for special occasions, and only vacationed in places where we could stay with family or split a time-share with relatives. Our mother collected coupons for each trip to the grocery store, and when we went along to help with errands, we learned not to ask for things that my mother wasn’t already planning on buying. We lived in a humble suburban community off a highway that cut through the San Bernadino Mountains, edging against a Country Club Land that fed into my school, where a “gift” provided from one of the student’s fathers was a fleet of desktop computers, at a time when owning one personal computer was a rare luxury.

When you’re four feet tall and learning long division, you take life as it comes — it became normal that my friend Erica was raised by maids in uniform and lived in a white marble palace with a pool overlooking the horse ranch she rode in every day. I didn’t feel envy when I visited these friends — it was a such a surreal leap from our modest home that I experienced it Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe style, an adventurous peek into a different universe that I couldn’t see myself living in permanently. I knew money was somehow powering these startling differences, but I didn’t know how, because I was taught not to comment on it or ask detailed questions.

The crash in 2007-2008 hit our family hard. My father had to fold the consulting firm he’d started a few years earlier and take on new work. A few years later, we sold our home and moved into a rental. My parents redirected all my attention to school; I understood, intuitively, that I was only going to make it ahead financially if I pushed myself academically. This turned out be true. I applied to a private middle school, and was only able to go because my grades and test scores qualified me for a scholarship. The same was true for college.

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2. Do you feel, looking back, like you got a good education about money, either at home or at school?

In the day-to-day budgeting sense, yes. My mother has an excellent nose for bargains, wastes nothing, and finds adventure in going out of her way to save. Her conservative spending refrains sunk in early: “Do we really need this, or do you already have something exactly like it?” “We can buy that at another store next week for half the price.” As for the larger patterns of financial strategy — rewards programs associated with credit cards, personal savings goals — I’ve had to teach myself. The older (and more financially independent) I’ve gotten, the more open my parents are to discussing money; I’ve had a few helpful, detailed talks with my father about brokers’ fees, leases, and negotiating wages.

3. If you have debt, what are your strategies and philosophies for paying it down?

Princeton has an incredible subsidized Federal Student Loan program for its students. I do have a little debt left over from my years there. Thankfully, it doesn’t accrue interest, which has allowed me to exercise a Tortoise-wins-the-race payment philosophy. As soon as I graduated, I set up an automated payment that withdraws a small sum directly from my checking account each month. I set the payment amount to a low enough level that, even if I forgot to budget for my loan payment that month, I wouldn’t come close to overdraw. I mentally categorize my credit cards as debit cards; when money goes on the credit card, I consider it “already withdrawn” from my checking account (though in reality, I make the payment at the end of the month). I set multiple alarms (two days prior to the end of the month, one day, day of) on my phone to remind me to pay off all my cards in full to avoid APR charges. The advance notice encourages me to work ahead of the due date and double-check that my all my invoices have been paid and my roommates’ rent checks have come through.

4. What is your current job (or jobs!), and how did you get to where you are today in your career?

I’m so pleased to say that my primary job…is with you! I supplement my work as TFD’s managing editor with freelance teaching. I coach several improv comedy teams and run physical theater workshops. Occasionally, I also take on tutoring clients — usually high schoolers who need after-school help with French, English grammar and mechanics, or SAT prep. When I moved to New York and began babysitting and tutoring, I learned very quickly that people want to hire workers they know directly or through their immediate network. Almost all my job opportunities — in theater and journalism alike — have come through friends, colleagues, and teachers. In the hirer’s eyes, you are only as valuable and trustworthy as your recommendation letter; your CV helps give context to your professional journey and the details of your hard skill set, but it doesn’t get you the job. The best thing you can do to guarantee job mobility and security is to work hard and honestly for the people in your office; they are the ones who will open doors for you later on, whether that be a promotion or a lateral move to another company or client.

5. When was the first time you negotiated for yourself, at work or otherwise? Can you tell us a bit about that?

Aside from setting an hourly rate for my work as a babysitter and improv coach (which I did after seeking out my peers who do similar work and assessing a price that was both enticing for clients and fair for myself), my first in-depth negotiation happened while I was freelancing as a tutor earlier this year. Early-career tutors typically work for a larger organization that pairs the teacher with students who needs help in their area of academic expertise; these companies usually take a substantial amount (up to 50%) of the hourly rate and distribute it amongst their administrative staff and CEOs. There’s a strong incentive for tutors to establish themselves as independent educators and find their own clients through networks of families whose children attend the same school and hire based on word-of-mouth. After several years of work with a private tutoring company, I struck out on my own. One of my new students decided to drop out of her private school and pursue a homeschooling program. The family hired an organization to structure the year’s curriculum, and I was asked to stay on (and accept the organization’s hourly rate, which was less than half of what I’d been earning previously). I respectfully stood my ground and had several talks with the homeschooling administrator to settle on a rate that respected her program’s payroll structure and also took into account my preexisting arrangement with the family and my comprehensive experience and expertise.

6. What is something you understand about money now that you wish you had before you graduated from school and entered the “real” world?

Number one: Having no credit history can be as financially-limiting as having a bad credit score. I wish I’d had this tidbit in my back pocket to help me power through my superstitious attitude toward credit cards and get down to the business of building my credit track record.

Number Two: If you spend strategically, you not only save money — you earn it. Because I’d plunged my head in the sand and thought that, by not opening a credit card, I would avoid dangerous spending, I spent many years responsibly paying my bills and buying groceries without getting travel points (free vacation flights) or rewards points (1% – 3% bonuses on essential purchases that you rack up, cash in, and plunk straight into your checking or savings account. Free money!). In short, I lived by a purely Spartan code — spend only when absolutely necessary and pay immediately, never on credit — to avoid temptation and trouble. But by obeying such a conservative, attractively simple strategy, I missed out on a lot of benefits that would have brought more money and adventure my way.

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7. What is one of your biggest money-related mistakes that you’ve made? What did you learn from it, and what do you do differently now?

I didn’t enroll in my first corporate job’s 401K matching program. Idiotic in retrospect, but there was a logic to it: my job was full-time, compensated me very poorly, and I was still developing strategies for how to budget for the (bleak) cost of living with New York’s city and state taxes on every grocery item or household necessity I bought. I was in full-blown survival mode, and my baser instincts for self-preservation overrode the obvious logic: a penny in the retirement fund (that will be matched with another free penny) is better than zero pennies. Alas (and hooray), I now work outside any corporate framework. Freelancers don’t get 401K offers, let alone matching programs, so I can’t act on my revised saving philosophy within the context of a program that’s conveniently provided to me by an employer. That said, if the opportunity ever comes my way again, I’ll be the first one to sign up.

8. What is one big financial goal you still have for yourself? Are you currently using any concrete strategies to pursue it?

Retirement savings. I’m going to get old, and not saving for that future won’t stop it. I’m currently researching a set of options to transfer my (regular-old bank account) savings to a Roth IRA that balances flexibility (I can withdraw in an emergency) with financial advantage (higher earned interest). Those two things often work against each other (the more permanent and untouchable your investment, the more interest you’ll earn) but I’m zeroing in on a solution!

9. How do you deal with financial setbacks when they happen?

I think seriously about buying a punching bag and hanging it in my living room for easy access. Then I walk myself through two stages: 1) damage control, and 2) reflection and self-education. During damage control, I think through any possible ways I can recoup lost funds, dispute charges or interest, budget around an unexpected expense, structure a sustainable payment plan, and take concrete steps to put all my options into immediate action. During reflection and self-education, I’ve done everything from scheduling an appointment with a banking manager at my local branch to calling my dad for advice to hopping onto bank-sponsored YouTube channels to get my facts straight.

10. What is your personal definition of success, and do you consider yourself successful?

I think successful people power through all the inglorious stages of learning, failure, and growth in pursuit of mastering their crafts until they transcend individual productivity. They circle back to mentor the next generation: kids hacking their way through the front end of that same path. In a way, I think the greatest success is building something larger than yourself that will sustain communities and grow ideas long after you’re gone. I’d say that I’m somewhere in-between; I’ve mastered skills and extended them to my students and collaborators and colleagues. I’ve yet to foster a community or project that has a generous, long life of its own.

Follow Rebecca on Twitter here

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