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Seeking Higher Ground: Moving to the right side of the tracks

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“You’d think a white girl like me woulda had a better relationship with money.” 

I blurted that out during a recent “Money Matters” interview. Across Colorado, financial disparities are widening, particularly across racial and geographic lines. So the Bell Policy Center, with funding from the Colorado Health Foundation, has begun the Money Matters project. It aims to improve lives by expanding access to safe, affordable financial services and by teaching financial skills. In a local pilot group, folks have begun sharing personal stories to gain insights into what works, what doesn’t, and what they would change.

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Despite having had two college-educated parents, both birthright U.S. citizens, I’ve always harbored money anxiety. A sense of unworthiness kicks when I have to negotiate a salary or fee. Though I’d prefer to avoid money-talk entirely, Money Matters got me to examine my hangups.

Part of my fiscal dis-ease probably harkens back to family history: My maternal grandfather was a steel-mill laborer. As a third grader, I discovered that he and Grandma Mamie were far less literate than I was! Mamie grew up dirt poor, one of five daughters reared by a widowed mother living in a wind-scoured sod-house. Even into her seventies, Mamie saved buttons from outworn clothes and patched her dishcloths. The shadow of that hard time fell forward 60 years across four generations.

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My paternal grandfather, by contrast, retired to a horse farm after owning a Chicago law firm. His family called my mom the “little girl from the wrong side of the tracks”.

Although there aren’t any tracks here nowadays, I’ve been thinking how I figuratively crossed over.

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Much has to do with where official lines get drawn: On the credit side of my balance sheet, I count being in line for Medicare, Social Security and excellent public schooling. The latter includes in-state tuition at CU Boulder (about $350 a semester back then, if memory serves).

On the debit side: both parents. In her 70s, my mom phoned in a panic: the “man at the bank” was trying to swindle her into moving money from a savings account to a “CD”! She’d never heard of a Certificate of Deposit and didn’t understand FDIC insurance.

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My father, who’d blow the mortgage money on ski tickets, was unreliable. During college, he abruptly cut off my living allowance. He then refused to fill out financial aid forms (an invasion of his privacy) while also refusing to declare me, at 17, an emancipated minor. This story prompted my Money Matters interviewer to ask, “What did you do? Rack up credit card debt?”

“Oh no!” I laughed. “I’m old! It wasn’t legal for women to have credit cards back then! That was before Ruth Bader Ginsberg changed our lives.” (Boyfriends, a then-husband, and later my stepmother supported my living expenses until I graduated.)

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Looking back – even from a relatively privileged viewpoint – I can see how socially-drawn “lines in the sand” can make and break families.  Age, gender, education, skin color, class, immigration status, family history, language, access to healthcare… they all combine with our individual actions to determine our fortunes. 

My own modest retirement comes thanks not only to saving, investment and learning from two husbands, but also to having recently crossed one of those socially-drawn dividing lines.
At 63 and a half, I was working six part-time and seasonal jobs here in the Roaring Fork Valley. (Age discrimination, ya think?) None of those jobs offered health insurance; I had to buy it myself. Because my income was about $150 above the line at which the Affordable Care Act would offer help, and because Colorado drew up a “resort area” zone that saddled mountain towns with the highest insurance costs in the nation, an ACA counselor advised me to: 1) stop working or 2) use a friend’s front-range address to sign up for healthcare.

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Ironically, option one would have left me unable to pay for glasses and hearing aids – the only  healthcare I actually needed! Option two left me feeling ethically queasy. Wasn’t that illegal? “There’s nothing in the law against it,” the counselor replied. “The worst would be that the provider would kick you out.” 

Thank goodness I managed to stay well and out of trouble for 18 months before Medicare made an honest woman of me.

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Since Money Matters is asking what works and doesn’t, here’s my two-cents-worth: Public education and affordable college work. Big time! Financial ignorance doesn’t. 

And if I could change just ONE thing to benefit other Coloradans? 

I’d use my magic wand to erase Colorado’s 11 health insurance zones and say it’s all one state. Nobody should have to choose between rent and healthcare, or lose their small business, just because they’re under 65 and live in 816XX.

Nicolette is seeking Roaring Fork Valley residents, particularly seniors, to interview for the Money Matters project. Email — your insights are needed and your privacy will be protected. 

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