Updated: Sep 19
Reconciling My Relationship with Money
Dominicans are bad with money. There, I said it.
Don’t worry, I’ll explain.
When I was in college, I got my first credit card offer. It was as if the world had opened up before me. I’d grown up in a small apartment with parents doing the impossible: raising three growing daughters on two scanty factory workers’ salaries. We didn’t have much, so the thought of consuming what I wanted, when I wanted, by simply swiping a magic piece of plastic was undeniably appealing. So, I went a little overboard with it. To put it mildly, I had no chill.
My parents taught my sisters and me a lot. They put us through college and instilled the morals and lessons that led us to become the strong women we are today. However, there was one thing they didn’t teach us, and it was the one thing that, due to barely making ends meet, they hadn’t mastered themselves: financial literacy. That is, how to manage, save, and adequately invest money.
A 2021 study (“Study: financial situation of Dominican citizens is one of survival and vulnerability,” Dominican Today, November 28, 2021) conducted in the Dominican Republic found that, out of the country’s total population of roughly 10 million people, 3 million live in a situation of financial vulnerability and 5.8 million are just surviving from day to day. Only 1.7 million (about 15% of the country) have a healthy financial position. The study concludes that most Dominicans have what they refer to as “survival finances.'' It’s what my parents had growing up. It’s what many Dominicans, even those in the States, have today. That’s because as bad as we have it in DR, many of us aren’t faring any better here either.
The Migration Policy Institute (Babich and Batalova, “Immigrants from the Dominican Republic in the United States,” Migration Policy Institute, April 15, 2021) reports that Dominican immigrants have significantly lower household incomes ($44,000 in 2019) compared to the overall immigrant population ($64,000 in 2019). Dominicans have also been found to experience more poverty. In 2019, 19% of Dominicans in the United States lived in poverty, compared to 14% of the broader, foreign-born population.
So, when I say Dominicans are bad with money, I don’t mean it judgmentally. Who can blame us? As a people, we often have no financial guidance. We have historically lived in a state of economic vulnerability caused by low incomes, lack of access to financial institutions and products, and a general lack of substantial financial education available to immigrant communities in the United States.
From a young age, I told myself this would not apply to me. I wouldn’t struggle from paycheck to paycheck like so many around me did. I was gonna rack it up. So, when I was thirteen, I got my first job. I was making $4.50 an hour—criminal by today’s standards, but low even back then. I don’t know if it was because I was younger than the other salesgirls or because I didn’t share the same race as them, but for some reason, I was making less money than they did. It was my first of many experiences being low-balled at work. I didn’t like the feeling at all.
What I did like, however, was the feeling of money in my hand. I got paid in cash every Friday, and I would gently stuff the money in my purple Velcro wallet, throw it in my bookbag, and take it straight home to my mother. We counted it together to make sure I wasn’t being swindled. She kept a significant portion of it to save for my back-to-school shopping and other needs, then gave me the rest as pocket money. That was my favorite part! I loved having cash on hand. I loved going to the store whenever I wanted to get a bag of chips and one of those little barrels of colorful sugar water. I loved meeting my friends at McDonald’s after school because I finally had the elusive “McDonald’s money” my mother was always urging me to find when I requested she take me there. I loved buying myself Jordans and Timbs at the start of a new school year and the privilege of safely bypassing the ire of the popular kids, who could be so cruel if they caught you without.
I liked the feeling so much that I kept a job even before becoming an official teenager. I went to school, and then I went to work. It was my routine for years, and although I was giving so much of my leisure time away, having money felt like freedom—a freedom I always wanted to have.
However, when I racked up that debt in college, it began to feel like the opposite. I saw many in my community riddled with debt, living beyond their means and working to pay off arrears. It’s not the life I wanted for myself. It didn’t appeal to me. I felt stifled by my bills as they held me captive. After graduation, I took on two jobs. A year and lots of discipline later, I was able to pay off my credit card, and a few years after that, I paid off my student loans, too. I didn’t want to have any financial baggage on me. I knew how much damage that could cause.
Financial distress has been linked to reduced cognitive capacity. The mental energy exerted worrying about how you will make it through this month is why people with lower incomes are more prone to gambling and other scams. It’s why people walk around Gucci down to the socks yet have no gas for their stoves. It’s the reason why so many drop out of school. It’s why we drink and smoke more and eat unhealthier foods. It’s not that people are poor because they make bad choices; it’s more so that they make bad choices because they’re poor. It’s a toxic cycle, and I wanted to break it.
When I got my first salaried role and noticed that, like many other Latinas before and after me, I was making less than my white male counterparts, I challenged that, too. Plenty of well-meaning people told me not to make too much noise, my family included. “You should be happy to have this job mi’ja,” they pleaded, but that all sounded like nonsense to me. I wasn’t an oblivious pre-teen working retail anymore. I knew better now—I knew that I deserved more.
I was in the room when the white boys negotiated—I heard them do it. Nothing was off limits to them. A higher salary? Sure. Increased benefits? Of course. Equity? Check. Transportation Fees? Hell yeah. Lunch? Dinner? Breakfast? Take it all!!! They asked for anything and everything, and, more often than not, they got it. So, I started asking, too. I didn’t always get a yes, but a lot of times, I did, and that was enough for me. I figured the answer would always be no if I didn’t at least try.
Eventually, after years of hustling, economizing, and advocating, I finally found myself in a comfortable financial position. Unfortunately, my relationship with money, which started as freedom, was beginning not to feel quite as liberating anymore. I was stacking it up, saving and saving, but in doing so, I was placing restrictions on myself. I refused to spend on things that I thought of as frivolous. I didn’t reward myself with gifts; I barely even bought myself something nice. I thought I wouldn’t be one of these Dominicans who own a closet full of Louboutins and still live at home with their mom. I wanted to build wealth. I wanted to be what I didn’t see growing up. Yet, I didn’t realize then that I was doing myself a disservice by doing this. I wasn’t enjoying my life—I wasn’t living in the now. It took me some time to realize that I wasn’t spending on myself because I did not see myself as worthy of it.
Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern in which people doubt their abilities, leaving them feeling like a fraud. It is often spoken of in relation to one’s career, but it can also apply to other areas, such as finances. Financial impostor syndrome can look like many different things, such as not asking for a raise or a promotion because you don’t think you can get it or not investing because you doubt your financial competence. It can also look like simply not spending. When people start making good money for the first time, their improved socioeconomic status doesn’t always click, so they feel like they’re still broke. Living in survival mode for all those years was more familiar than my newfound financial stability. So, the idea of economic security just didn’t feel real to me. I was afraid that I would lose it at any second.
Over time, I have come to reconcile my relationship with money. Saving and being fiscally responsible is important and beneficial, but it should not come at the expense of your well-being. It’s so much more valuable to take care of yourself, treat yourself from time to time, and invest in things that satisfy you.
This realization has been transformational. Rather than continue to see cash as a precious resource that may dissipate at any time if I don’t hold on to it for dear life, I now see it as energy instead. I consider the time and energy that went into earning my money and the energy that abounds as it flows from transaction to transaction. This newfound perspective allows me to be purposeful with my spending, spend with integrity, and be more intentional about how I harness this energy and project it to others.
My experience with survival finances informed how I managed (and mismanaged, for that matter) my money over the years. I don’t claim to have a solution for how Dominicans can overcome financial vulnerability. Still, I do know that it is imperative to educate yourself as much as possible regarding your finances. Explore your relationship with money, be aware of how you spend it, get informed on the available financial resources and tools, set lofty goals, and be disciplined enough to make them happen. Open yourself up to abundance. You are worthy of abundance, as am I. It truly is a freedom we all deserve.
Giovanna Acosta is a Dominican-born, Brooklyn-raised writer who now calls Manhattan home. Most of her career was spent in organizational development in healthcare, finance, and tech. She bravely departed from the corporate world and wholeheartedly pursued her passion for writing and other endeavors. Giovanna has been published in amNY, Big Think+, Fairygodboss.com, Latin Trends Magazine, The Muse, Yahoo!, Ms.Career Girl, and Vibe Magazine. Learn more about Giovanna’s BIWOC-centered platform, Good Energia, and the contemporary fiction novel she is currently working on at www.Giovannaacosta.com.