Building wealth can be difficult, even more so without a boost from inheritance, and especially when dealing with factors that contribute to the racial and gender wealth gaps. But in the latest Barron’s Level Up, two financial planners offered tips for navigating debt, buying real estate, negotiating compensation, and investing—at any age or stage of life.
Collective Wealth Partners Founder Kamila Elliott, who is also chair of the CFP Board, and Harris & Harris Wealth Management Group President Zaneilia Harris each started financial planning firms in part to fill holes in the broader industry. For Harris, it was serving her majority-Black community in the Washington suburbs that many major financial firms had neglected. For Elliott it was partly to help first-generation wealth builders.
The broader financial services industry, which still is majority white, needs a better understanding of the background of clients who may be different than themselves and who may face a racial wealth gap.
Among the biggest factors contributing to the gap is a disparity in earnings, driven in part by Black children with different educational outcomes due to underfunding, employment-related discrimination—with applicants with Black-sounding names 36% less likely to their calls returned for interviews—and a tax system that has exacerbated the gap for decades, says Elliott.
“For many black households, this is the first time we are talking about investing,” says Elliott, who co-wrote a paper, “Two American Financial Plans,” that examined the racial wealth gap. “They didn’t have the generational aspects of wealth building that many of their counterparts have.”
Another hurdle for the industry: Overcoming a lack of trust in financial institutions created when some Black households were targeted for fee-gouging or unsuitable or fraudulent products.
The industry can tackle this with education and transparency. “One of the most important parts of what we do is educating the public, providing them insights and giving them a place where they feel safe, to open up [and ask questions] and be vulnerable because there is a lot of distrust in the financial services industry,” Harris adds.
Here are 10 tips from the planners to build wealth.
Though it sounds pedestrian, both stressed the need for a budget, being disciplined and consistent—whether you are making $40,000 or $800,000. Even those struggling to make ends meet should invest, Elliott says. Investing just $50 a month is a start and accrues over decades in the market— over 40 years, that $50 monthly contribution, if it earned an average 9% return, would amount to $240,000, she says.
For those starting later in life, Harris recommends maxing out retirement contributions and earmarking a part of every raise to increasing the amount people are saving for retirement.
As interest rates rise, building wealth gets a little easier with even some money market accounts at brokerage firms paying 4%—a good spot for any short-term money while bonds are offering higher yields for those who have money they may need in two to five years, Elliott says.
Rising interest rates though spell trouble for those in debt, with Elliott stressing the need to tackle credit card debt as rates climb to 20% or higher. When it comes to student loan debt, both financial planners stress that families should try to avoid it.
The average Black borrower has over $50,000 of student loan debt after four years, twice that of white counterparts, a reason Elliott recommends families consider the return on investment of that debt: what are the earnings potential at completion of the program and the university under consideration? Harris recommends a two-year college program, and then transferring or exploring scholarship opportunities.
When evaluating job offers, Elliott notes more employers are offering benefits that will kick in $100 to $200 a month to help with student debt. “Upon graduation, it’s very important you learn the skill of negotiation. It’s very powerful when you understand what skill set you bring to table and the range of income you can achieve so you can earn what you deserve,” Harris adds.
Real estate has long been a critical building block for building wealth, though one that has become harder to achieve as prices have soared in recent years for first-time home buyers. Still, both see real estate as important for wealth-building.
“If you have entrepreneurial ambitions and you own a home, that can be leveraged to get access to capital. It is very difficult to access to capital [in the Black community] so owning a home is foundationally important if you have entrepreneurial desires,” says Harris. She encourages clients to consider smaller homes if they are priced out of the type they initially wanted.
Real estate over time has generated an average long-term annual return of about 6.6%, but it also eliminates a variable cost for budgets since landlords can raise rents at any time—as is happening now, Elliott says. For those who can’t find a suitable real estate option, Harris recommends allocating money monthly to a mutual fund or investment account to accumulate a possible down payment.
Helping family is one area where retirees overspend compared with their goals, according to a recent report from Employee Benefits Research Institute. It is also something Elliott sees often among clients who are first-generation wealth-creators. Both planners have clients budget for helping family and encourage them to say no when that bucket has run dry.
“If you are the person in your family that is often the most financially successful and people depend on you, it’s like on the plane. You have to put your mask on before you can help other people,” Elliott says. “You need to be financially sound to help others.”
Write to Reshma Kapadia at firstname.lastname@example.org