Real Money Talk with Hadassah Damien

I’ve known Damien from around town for several years, watching her perform at her Heels on Wheels productions, sharing people in common, bumping into each other at random queer Brooklyn events, and going through each other’s castaways at clothing swaps.

A community organizer and social justice activist, technologist, archivist, artist and prolific writer, Damien has a lot to say. For the last few years, she’s been writing and teaching personal finance and progressive economics via Ride Free Fearless Money, to her community and beyond. Open to all people and incomes, her classes are particularly tailored to women and LGBTQ people. And she’s got a ton of resources on the site including a free spending plan, a user’s guide to hacking capitalism, a seven-day money cleanse, tips on ethical investing and more. You can also sign up to get one-on-one coaching with Damien if you so desire.

You also may want to check out Ride Free’s new e-mail course, Calm That ACK! In her own words, Calm That ACK! is a two-hour crash course In dealing with money $$$ & debt teaching you how to unf*ck your budget and freakin’ save while you manage lots of priorities.

As someone who has worked in the accounting profession for 10 plus years, Damien’s work strikes a chord. While I know many individuals who are radically breaking up the conservative, stodgy, mainstream model of doing business and talking about money, Damien is doing something different – she’s making the language and the various ways of using money accessible and she’s helping people address the fear that keeps many of us operating from a place of scarcity. She’s teaching people who don’t have it, how to get it, and those who don’t have a lot of it, how to get more of it. Money, after all, isn’t just for the wealthy.

Why did you decide to start this series of classes and workshops?

This class came out of a few things colliding: first, I have financial literacy from my family – I used to help my dad do his Schedule-C receipts when I was a kid, and I was encouraged to start a savings account with my babysitting money. Second, as a feminist and a queer woman, I realized early on that no Prince Charming was going to roll up and save me, so I kept learning and started strategizing about finances – even when my income was super limited. Finally, a couple of years ago, I began the process of buying a house as an investment – something I’ve been very diligently saving towards for about a decade. 

Once I started the process, that led to examining my credit score: turns out, it’s excellent. I realized WOW: I defaulted on student loans, remedied my credit, budgeted smartly, and am about to purchase property, like a boss. I did The Thing.

And through looking into where I could afford with what down payment I had, how mortgages are given and based on what, and what documentation I needed to have together to make this giant purchase… I kept reading tutorials and talking to everyone and thinking “this is the supposedly complex info out there? It’s not that confusing, it’s just detailed — and I know a lot of this already.”

The outcome was realizing my strategies are on point and I have a lot to share, from a been-there, going-for-that perspective.

How so?

It was a very, very informative time where I learned how people with access to large amounts of money think about money and how they think about moving it around using a specific strategy. I was like, ‘Oh my God I think I just learned how rich people get rich and that is potentially possible for me to do on a smaller scale.’ I had a mind explosion of like ‘Oh, what’s the difference between thinking I can’t do something and not being able to do it? What’s the difference between just having a wall that is a lack of information versus a wall that is lack of resources?’

When I started to realize part of the limitations I had was lack of information, even though my resources are relatively limited in the grand scheme of income, savings, and normalized middle classness that is American culture, I was like, ‘Oh, wait a minute. With more information, I can take my small amount of resources and do something strategic with them. I can go from a place of being, ‘Oh I’m kind of scared’ or experiencing whatever feelings, to feeling empowered and smart and like I can take smart steps with my finances.

It was a combination of learning a ton in the process of buying a house and making this mental shift that really made me want to share information about personal finances with other people, specifically with people who experience marginalization around finances. I think that’s women a lot of the time. We are not necessarily encouraged to be as sharp with finances. I was raised to think, ‘Oh your husband will do that.’ I got sharp pretty quickly because I was like, ‘Well, that’s never going to happen.’

In communities that are financially marginalized – LGBTQ communities, lesbians, as a whole, have this dual lack of access.

A lot of it is due to social oppressions and some of it is due to information we don’t have. Being strategic with money is not normalized and to me – if there was a way to lift up the financial base of communities, that is going to take stress away.

Financial stress is huge and leads to people feeling they can’t change, or do things they want to do.

To me, there’s always an activist underlying to the things I want to do. And that’s it for this project – how does stepping from fear into fearlessness around money actually support communities to do the next step they want to do?

What has the response been?

Incredible. I’m getting emails and Facebook messages to the level of I just haven’t had this kind of response to something that I’m doing. It’s really great!

You hit a nerve.

Yeah, that’s what it is. It’s this combination of talking about finances and healing and acknowledging the reality of intersectionality.

You can go to a CPA who is kind of this old, white guy who charges a lot of money and is neutral and you’re like, ‘OK that was informational’ but that doesn’t actually solve some of your problems that are completely associated with this. And there’s only so many times I can complain to my therapist about personal budgeting until I feel like I’m wasting my time.

Where’s the middle ground to actually be like, ‘I want information and I want my concerns to be held in a place where it’s OK to hold them.’ Where the emotional aspect to money is as legitimate as the financial effect.

There’s a lot of information out there and people can Google and find out things. But I think it’s very different coming from a source like you, who is a community activist, a leader who is trusted and who’s struggled through a lot of the stuff you are talking about. I haven’t met a lot of financial people who talk about their own stuff around money. There’s a dividing line.

Totally. I think that’s also true. Yeah, there’s this professionalization of I’ve always been completely middle class and together. And that ties into all that stuff of what I think of as the normalization of middle-class values in the U.S. There’s so much tied into that there’s white supremacy, there’s colonization, nuclear family, individualization, all these values that are absolutely harmful. [It’s important to] make space to talk about that in relationship to money touching those values but as it exists in our own life.

One thing that you say is that money is obviously not neutral. Can you explain that?

It goes back to the normalization of middle-classness in the U.S. I was reading an article in The Atlantic that quantifies some of the conversations I’ve been having about what it means to locate oneself in the middle class. There’s this conceptualization that the middle class is the norm; you have your job, you have your house, you have your kids, you live in the suburbs, which is what developed post-World War II America, but almost nobody puts themselves there.

Working class people tend to say, ‘Oh I think I’m middle class because I have a house or my parents have a house’ or something. And middle-class people say, ‘I’m working class because I have to work all the time and it’s really, really hard to sustain this lifestyle so I can’t be middle class. They have it easy.’ And people with a fair amount of resources say, ‘Well I think I’m middle class because my house feels solid,’ and people with wealth are like, ‘Obviously, I’m rich but I’m not like the richest.’

No one knows where to put themselves because the idea of middle-classness is a mythology, it’s a construct. This construct brings a whole set of values and values are the types of things that drive social action and individual action, so whether that is I went to a college my parents wanted me to, or I realized I needed to take out student loans because I wanted to be the first person in my family to go to college, or well, I took a different type of job because I wanted to be able to support myself or my partner, my children at a certain level. There are values in all those decisions, and it’s not that every value-based decision is trending towards the middle class at all, but that is informing how close or how far from this mythological bench point people’s decisions are being made. 

Personal finance isn’t neutral because people feel a certain way about it – do I have enough, do I not have enough? Am I able to make it? Am I able to make it the way my family wanted me to? Am I able to make it the way that my friends are or not? And there’s a bunch of tension there that gets personalized, in part because we never talk about money – so it’s like what’s a normal salary? Is what the Internet tells me true? It’s laden and difficult to talk about.

We know that money can be painful for many people. What ways do you think folks from different class backgrounds can find connection and solidarity in the midst of hard conversation?  And how will you handle conflict that comes up?

When I was 30 and working my way through graduate school, I was working part-time for an organization that taught non-violent communication and that has informed my life in a huge way. It has informed my relationships, my family relationships, how I talk to people in conflict or how I engage in sticky or conflict-laden situations. I have a pretty decent toolkit at hand on how to diffuse and let people get heard exactly where they are, and how to value people’s input that I don’t necessarily have to agree with to value and make space for. That’s huge; making an opportunity for people to not agree with each other but still have space to be heard. I’m also great at interrupting and pausing and facilitating conversation – from so many activist meetings, so many collectives, so I have a lot of practice in keeping conversations moving and going towards goal points.

What has been healing for me is to hear that everyone regardless of class, regardless of access to resources, experiences a stress and shame and worry about money.

For myself, coming from a low-resource background, I know that I held for a while some shame that not only did I grow up without resources, but now I feel bad about it, and it’s this extra bad thing. It helped me to release some of that and to realize that growing up poor isn’t the reason why I feel bad about money; it’s because money makes people feel bad about money.

It’s the cultural messages. It’s like ‘Oh wait, it’s not just me,’ and there’s one place where these conversations can be healing. I’m sure it’s going to be the case where people are going to hear other people talk about concerns that don’t apply to them. And that’s just an opportunity to listen.

What are some things somebody who is living paycheck to paycheck can do to stop that cycle?

To me, that’s a priorities and budgeting issue, and there are two ways: If you are getting steady income say, $300 a week, it’s a small amount of money but you know the amount of money it’s going to be. As compared to ‘I’m a freelancer and some months I get $3,000 and some months I get $1,000 and I feel like I don’t know what’s coming.’

If you are getting steady income say, $300 a week, it’s a small amount of money but you know the amount of money it’s going to be. As compared to ‘I’m a freelancer and some months I get $3,000 and some months I get $1,000 and I feel like I don’t know what’s coming.’

If you have information about what’s coming, you can budget a little more loosely almost because you can say unless I lose my job, I am going to get X amount of dollars every week. And the main piece of advice I would give to that person is commit to saving money like it’s one of your bills.

For me that was always putting 10 percent of money away, whether that was in a bank account, envelope, however, it needed to happen, that amount of money was not an option to be spent until I had a cushion of one month. That took however long but I got there and that cushion of one month took my stress away, just holding that money.

For the freelancer, I would say the same thing, but you would probably want to save it in bigger chunks. So, if you get that $3,000 a month or $5,000 a month or whatever feels like a flush month for you, put away as much as possible until you get that cushion for the next month you don’t have the finances that you thought you would. For a freelancer, a minimum cushion is a month and a half.

I decided to call my project Ride Free because once when I was barely working, I was making $200 a week helping someone sell antiques on eBay and working some entertainment jobs where I would make a couple hundred bucks here and there, and I committed to making saving for something special a priority.

I put $20 a week in an envelope and it was my motorcycle fund. It took three years but after three years I had enough money to go take the motorcycle safety class, buy helmets, buy safety gear, pay for insurance. It’s possible. I was making very little, tenuous shifting money at the time but the commitment was there.

The advice I want to give people, we spend money on our priorities, and sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. like we don’t feel like our priorities are as optional or choiceful as we want them to be. But we do decide, ‘OK I am prioritizing rent, I am prioritizing my student loan,’ versus ‘I’m not going to prioritize this right now and spend other money on it.’ We do make these priority-based decisions.

What are some misconceptions about investing that keep people from actually doing it?

 There are two misconceptions that I would share – one is that you have to have a lot of money to invest and the other is that investing somehow means saying yes to oil that covers the Gulf Coast. Both those takes can be true but don’t have to be true – you can invest a lot of money in Exxon, people do, but you can open an investment account with $500. The initial deposit for most mutual funds is $500. A lot of people don’t have anything saved but it’s actually not that much in the grand scheme of money.

If in one year you want to be investing, start saving $50 a month and then in month 11 you can put your initial deposit into a mutual fund. After you do an initial deposit you are often able to do monthly $100 minimum deposits, then your $50 a month, every other month you deposit into that fund. That’s actually really achievable, so in a year you could have a mutual fund with $600, plus more.

What would you say are some strategies for couples who come from different class backgrounds to find balance and comfort in sharing resources?

Number one, talk about it. Pull it out of the shadows. Normalize that you have different experiences and that you will relate to money and needs around money differently. Part of normalizing it is not judging the other partner.

For one partner for whom it’s really important to have a lot of food in the pantry, other partner don’t judge that. For one partner, it’s really important to have a certain level of personal appearance, other partner don’t judge that. People need to be allowed to do their own priority-based spending. 

If you are sharing an apartment with someone, I know strategies people take on include income-based payment schedules so for the partner who makes more money they pay the higher percentage and I’ve seen that work out in ways that feel equitable. It doesn’t have to be perfectly aligned with how much money you’re making but I think the partner with more money acknowledging they have more resources and putting considerably more resources in does a lot. Of course, our personal resources are a lot bigger than our income. There could be a partner who doesn’t bring in as much income because they have a family with a lot of wealth. They know they have a safety net they can reach out to anytime they need, so they feel they can make less money. I would take that into consideration, too. I wouldn’t say whoever makes less money pays less, that’s not the whole picture.

You’ve worked on many different businesses and creative endeavors over the years, what has been some of your strategies and tricks to getting shit done?

I’m one of those highly productive people that you hear about. It’s possible. My strategies are when I start my day I make a to-do list and often it’s based on yesterday’s to-do list. I do pretty intense scheduling. I start my day and think what needs to happen and I also put it in order of priority. The thing I feel like doing the least I try to knock out as soon as possible because that will otherwise suck hours and hours and hours from my day as I procrastinate. I try to start with something I don’t feel like doing just to get it done.

My huge piece of advice is to call people. It just moves so much faster when you call, you can get more information. Whether it’s some stupid bill or something you’re trying to book, or someone you’re trying to grab, a phone call can really go far with moving things along quickly and can be a time saver.




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