Brownsville, Texas is one of the most economically challenged areas in the United States. So you’d think it would be a difficult place to start a financial practice.
And you’d be right. Aside from the fact that I know very little Spanish (it eludes me fiercely, even after living in the Rio Grande Valley for 10 years), it’s awash in poverty. The median household income in Brownsville, according to a 2015 survey, was just $34,074. That’s $21,579 lower than the Texas average, and $21,710 lower than the national average. The per capita income in Brownsville is a paltry $15,597; literally half of the U.S. average.
That’s not to say it’s not a beautiful place brimming with amazing, talented, hard-working, God-loving families. If you haven’t seen 100 relatives fill a backyard to celebrate a child’s birthday, complete with mariachi music and an enormous rented inflatable jungle gym, you haven’t seen an authentic Mexican-American family. I’ve met some of the most incredible people living here. I’m a better person for it (I’m also a chubbier person for it – the food is amazing). It’s just that in a place like this, I’ve had the opportunity to really study poverty up close and in depth.
And remember, the median income mentioned above isn’t an evenly-spread number. It’s just the middle of the bell curve. There are huge disparities between household incomes here. Some families have millions. Others don’t even have running water or electricity.
It’s also home, at least half of the year, to what we call “Winter Texans” (“snowbirds” anywhere else). These are successfully retired people from northern states and Canada, who spend the winter months in large retirement villages scattered along the warm, breezy Texas coast. This is mostly where my wealthier clients came from.
So I spent over 8 years serving the financial needs of a very disparate, very unique client base; rich white northerners and transplants, successful local doctors, lawyers and veterinarians, to dock and rig workers, school teachers, shrimpers, and single parents.
There is also an enormous population here that, frankly, I cannot help in traditional ways. I can’t manage investments for a family who cannot light their home, but I can help them see there is a way out. I came to see my work here, in many ways, as a mission. I might be the only one to introduce a struggling young family to basic financial concepts. And maybe not in the current generation, but in future ones, we might be able, though education and access to financial know-how, lift a noble and wonderful people out of the clutches of extreme poverty once and for all.
Education is critical, because when you are faced with extreme poverty, a quiet desperation settles in. You start to believe in what I call “magical thinking”. You believe you cannot make positive changes on your own, and must have something external to rescue you from your situation. You fall prey to get-rich-quick schemes and con men. You seek out television preachers who promise prosperity if only you believe hard enough (and send them your money). That government benefit package becomes a lifeline you don’t dare give up, even though continuing to qualify for it forces you to remain below the poverty line. You spend money on lotto tickets and Powerball, sincerely believing you have a chance to win. You settle. You surrender.
And so I realized that I wasn’t going to be a financial advisor who made my fortune here. This was a place where I wasn’t going to take. I was going to give.
I realized very quickly that I could never, under any circumstances, require account minimums or charge for basic planning services if I really wanted to help this community. I would never be able to charge an hourly rate for my time, if I hoped to encourage those without enough to give their children a Christmas present, to come learn about money. Our seminars and workshops were (and still are) free as a community service. We started and maintain a free financial education website, nvest Academy, so that even if they were too afraid or intimidated or ashamed to come ask for help, they could still access quality information any time they needed it. I serve on community boards and try to bring financial education to the schools when I can.
I don’t say all of this to boast. Quite the opposite. I wish there was more that I could do, because it’s a drop in the bucket of what’s needed, and this is just one community. Giving of myself and my expertise is the only way I can make an impact on this community in any meaningful way, and making a positive impact is a lesson in the way Rich Guys see the world.
Many people without money imagine those who have it are greedy, miserly people. And while some may be, for the majority, it’s quite the opposite. Wealthy people are often generous with their expertise, their talents, their time, and their money. In fact, the ultra-wealthy donate an average of $25 million dollars each to charity over their lifetimes. The rest of us aren’t slackers, either: from the same study, the average American family donates $3,000 to charity every year.
So the lesson this week, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, is simple: GIVE. Look around you, and see where you, from your unique position of abundance, talent, and gifts, can give. Give without expecting thanks. Give without announcing it was you. Whether it’s as simple as holding a door for someone, offering a smile, donating your talents, or writing a check to help someone in need, do it. It’s part of living a Rich Guy life.
You’ll be so glad you did.