A Blue-Collar Life Bled My Dad Dry. Now It Fuels My Financial Activism – CNET

Commentary: I experienced the impact of wage stagnation firsthand. Here’s how I practice anti-capitalism now — and three ways you can start doing the same.

For over 30 years, my dad worked as a chemical operator. He would come home in the morning reeking of acid and sulfur from his 12-hour shift at the plant, take his work boots off, kiss us kids goodbye and go to bed in his blacked-out master bedroom I called “the bear cave.”

When Papa started at the plant in 1971, his wage was $7 an hour, about 36% more than the median household income at the time, according to the US Census. When he retired in 2005, his pay was $23 an hour, or about $48,000 per year — 17% less than median HHI that year. Union efforts never got off the ground and worker wages stagnated as the corporation continued to post record profits.

Things got worse when he was diagnosed with colon cancer in the ’90s, which pushed my mom into a full-time teaching assistant job just to cover our medical bills. When asking my mom about Papa’s 34 years at the company, she had one thing to say: “They used him up until he died.”

As the daughter of a blue-collar high-school graduate who worked his entire life to give me opportunities he never had, I think of how skewed the American dream has become. My dad worked hard and gave me a life he could never have imagined, but it came at a grave cost.

My family upbringing is what inspired me to become an anti-capitalist financial activist. I not only teach financial literacy, I also show others how to arm themselves against a system that’s built to keep the working class stagnant, complacent and ignorant.

Here’s what I’m doing to live a more anti-capitalist life — and help others do the same.

My work focuses heavily on topics that folks of varying life experiences and socioeconomic backgrounds never learned growing up. This includes important wealth-building skills like budgeting, saving, investing, debt payoff, frugality and increasing income.

There isn’t much formal financial literacy education in schools. Some creators, like my colleague Yanley Espinal, are doing this work anyway. But both adults and young people deserve access to free financial education, and this knowledge has never been more democratized thanks to the power of the internet.

The means for communicating this information have changed, but the “meat and potatoes” of the financial information itself have changed as well. Traditionally there has been a one-size-fits-all approach to money, whereas dealing with late-stage capitalism demands a more holistic, systemic-aware approach.

Without nuanced financial education, we’re at the mercy of capitalism. Some examples of late-stage capitalism at work include:

What does a “holistic and systemic-aware” approach look like, and how can you start to break free from this rigged system? Here are three things you can do right now to begin this financial freedom journey.

No matter who you are, what you look like or what your background is, there is likely someone you can relate to who represents you in the personal finance space.

Start following and interacting with people who are giving you education, strategies and information on personal finance on social media that make sense for your life and principles. A few of my favorite finance creators include Lexa VanDamme, Kara Perez, Women’s Personal Finance, Berna Anat, Ellyce Fulmore, Melissa Jean-Baptiste, Nika Booth and Dasha Kennedy.

There are personal finance books, Netflix documentaries, blogs, YouTube channels, podcasts, TikToks and more, and it’s easy to vet whether this information is accurate. For any form of media you can think of, there is personal finance education right at your fingertips, and it’s all free or cheap. Absorb all you can about money management and how capitalism works against you, so that you can start crafting your own plan to resist it.

I’m not going to lie, the amount of information can be overwhelming, so take things slowly and know that learning about money isn’t going to be quick. It takes some time, but it is well worth it.

I only have two rules when it comes to personal finance and one of them is to always save money. The reality is that America has scant social safety nets, which means you have to build one for yourself.

More than 1 in 5 Americans have no savings, according to a report from CNET sister site Bankrate. In the event of a $1,000 emergency, the report found, 35% of US adults would have to borrow money, either by using a credit card, taking out a personal loan or asking a friend or family member.

Having no buffer against life’s unexpected emergencies and events puts people further and further down the debt cycle. And because we have no safety nets, this system keeps people at the bottom of the economic food chain. It may seem simple, but having cash savings is really the first stop to breaking this cycle.

Most financial experts recommend having a minimum of 3-6 months of savings in a high-yield savings account. In the beginning, I recommend saving at least one month of your basic living expenses. This includes your mortgage or rent; food (groceries, not restaurants); utilities; minimum debt payments; and transportation. Basically, whatever you need to pay for during the month to survive.

This way, when something happens to you, you’ll have your own back and predatory credit card companies won’t make your life worse with sky-high interest rates.

Again, this is one of those things that isn’t a quick, overnight success. It takes time to save money and build up a barrier between you and the world. In the end though, you have to remember that your savings account is your weapon against systems and cycles that keep you in debt and struggling.

You can’t make a plan with your money unless you know how much is coming in, where it’s going, and whether you have a surplus or are in the negative each month.

Ignoring and hiding from financial problems is the knee-jerk reaction for many, but it’s not helpful and is actually harming you more than it’s helping you.

Tracking your spending is the true foundation of building an emergency fund, spending based on your values, getting out of a paycheck-to-paycheck cycle, paying off debt and building wealth.

Notice how I did not mention budgeting. That’s because, in the beginning, tracking your spending is more important than figuring out how to budget. Remember: Slow steps make for big progress.

With these beginning steps, you can start to feel more in control of your money and dig yourself out of being left at the mercy of capitalism.

Had my father had the financial literacy I possess, he might have had a cancer-free life by avoiding a dangerous, stressful job surrounded by toxic fumes. He might have made more memories with his family. He might have made more than $48,000 per year. He might have enjoyed retirement.

Money and the lack of it has been omnipresent in my life, and I have realized capitalism thrives on ignorance by design. It’s my mission to inform, empower, and push folks toward thriving instead of just surviving.