In this episode, Emily interviews Dr. Michelle Thompson, who has had multiple careers as a lawyer, an adjunct, and now a coach and business owner. Michelle observed her mother’s terror and her father’s avoidance regarding money and combined the two in her own adulthood. Emily and Michelle discuss the financial struggle of earning a low stipend as a graduate student in NYC and taking on student debt for summer research and daycare/preschool. It wasn’t until Michelle started her business that she proactively changed her relationship with money through a book and coaching. Michelle speaks to the merits of facing the dark side of your relationship with money; she is now in the best financial shape of her life.
Links Mentioned in this Episode
- Find Dr. Michelle Thompson on her website, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram
- Related Episodes
- Books mentioned
- Overcoming Underearning by Barbara Stanny
- You Are a Badass with Money by Jen Cincero
- The Academic Society: Grad School Prep
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Community
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Podcast Hub
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Subscribe to the mailing list
00:00 Michelle: Whatever bedevils you about money, you have to look at because whatever bedevils you will sabotage your relationship with money. Take time to do that work and I promise you whatever is screwing with you with money will screw with you about actually getting the doctorate done.
00:23 Emily: Welcome to the Personal Finance for PhDs Podcast: A Higher Education in Personal Finance. I’m your host, Dr. Emily Roberts.
00:32 Emily: This is Season 9, Episode 6, and today my guest is Dr. Michelle Thompson, who has had multiple careers as a lawyer, an adjunct, and now a coach and business owner. Michelle observed her mother’s terror and her father’s avoidance regarding money and combined the two in her own adulthood. Michelle and I discuss the financial struggle of earning a low stipend as a graduate student in New York City and taking on student debt for summer research and daycare and preschool. It wasn’t until Michelle started her business that she proactively changed her relationship with money through a book and coaching. Michelle speaks to the merits of facing the dark side of your relationship with money; she is now in the best financial shape of her life. Quick content warning. There is a brief mention of suicidal ideation in the interview.
01:24 Emily: It’s the end of July, and I know that taxes are probably the furthest thing from your mind at the moment. However, I do have a special request for every one of you who is going to be on fellowship in the upcoming academic year, whether as a new fellow or continuing fellow. If your university does not offer automatic income tax withholding on non-W-2 fellowship income: Would you please request that my workshop, Quarterly Estimated Tax for Fellowship Recipients, be purchased on behalf of those who want to take it? You could make this request of your graduate school, postdoc office, department, graduate student association, etc.
01:57 Emily: The workshop assists graduate student and postdoc fellowship recipients who are not having income tax withheld from their stipends or salaries figure out whether they are required to pay estimated tax and if so how much and when. The workshop consists of numerous short videos, a spreadsheet, and a live Q&A call just prior to the next quarterly deadline. You can find more details at PF for PhDs dot com slash q e tax. That’s q for quarterly e for estimated T A X.
02:28 Emily: I’ve been enrolling individuals in this workshop for several years, and in the last year have branched out to bulk purchases for university offices and groups. Purchasing this workshop on behalf of students and postdocs is incredibly helpful because it can reach people who aren’t even clued in about the possibility of having to pay quarterly estimated tax or who are unable to pay for the workshop.
02:51 Emily: I’m making this request now because the next quarterly deadline is September 15, 2021, and the office or group you approach may need some time to arrange the purchase. If they are interested, they can get in touch with me at emily at PF for PhDs dot com. The start of the academic year is the perfect time to learn about estimated tax because you can start saving for your eventual payment from your very first fellowship paycheck.
03:18 Emily: Thank you for helping me spread the word about this workshop and prevent financial hardship next tax season!
03:31 Emily: Now onto the book giveaway contest!
03:36 Emily: In July 2021 I’m giving away one copy of Get Good with Money: Ten Simple Steps to Becoming Financially Whole by Tiffany ‘The Budgetnista’ Aliche, which is the Personal Finance for PhDs Community Book Club selection for September 2021. Everyone who enters the contest during July will have a chance to win a copy of this book.
03:56 Emily: Not only will Get Good with Money be our Book Club selection for September, but we will also devote our monthly Challenge to assessing and working through the ten aspects of financial wholeness as individuals.
04:09 Emily: If you would like to enter the giveaway contest, please rate AND REVIEW this podcast on Apple Podcasts, take a screenshot of your review, and email it to me at emily at PFforPhDs dot com. I’ll choose a winner at the end of July from all the entries. You can find full instructions at PFforPhDs.com/podcast.
04:31 Emily: Without further ado, here’s my interview with Dr. Michelle Thompson.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
04:41 Emily: I’m delighted to have joining me on the podcast today, Dr. Michelle Thompson. She’s had quite a career. She is a JD and a PhD, actually. She’s now self-employed, although she’s had many other jobs in the meantime, and what we’re going to talk through today is kind of her life in stages and also what she’s learned at each stage, the kind of money mindset that she developed at each stage. She has some very interesting things to say to us about academia. I’m really looking forward to this conversation. Michelle, thank you so much for joining me and would you please introduce yourself to the audience a little bit further?
05:14 Michelle: Absolutely! It’s my pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me. I am the founder of a boutique coaching firm called Michelle Dionne Thompson Coaching and Consulting. I work with clients to marry their purpose with their expertise in communities. In addition to that, I do teach part time. I love to teach. I love being with college students. I teach in the black studies department at City College of New York. And I am currently a publishing scholar as well. I’m turning my dissertation into a monograph. It’s called Resistant Vision: The post-emancipation realities of Jamaican’s Accompong Maroons from 1842 to 1901. Because I’m a glutton for punishment, my first career rodeo was as a lawyer. I was a member of the inaugural class of what is now Equal Justice Works fellows. And I used that fellowship to deliver legal services to people living with AIDS in Anacostia, in Washington, DC. And after that, I negotiated collective bargaining agreements with service employees international union district 1199, EDC in Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington DC.
06:20 Emily: Wow. I wish that we were going to talk more about your career specifically today. It sounds fascinating. But where you are going to focus on the finances through a few of those stages.
Money Mindset Developed in Early Childhood
06:30 Emily: Let’s start where all good therapy sessions do in your childhood. What money mindsets did you observe in your parents and also develop during your childhood?
06:43 Michelle: My parents were raised poor people from Jamaica and my mom immigrated from Jamaica to England to become a nurse. It was her goal in life and it probably opened up more than she ever thought. She was shrewd about money, but she was absolutely terrified about handling money. My mom died of dementia and at the one of the few last times that she could really comprehend her money, this I use lightly because dementia, her money situation, she actually had an estate worth over a million dollars, way more than she ever, ever thought she would ever, ever have in her natural life.
07:38 Michelle: But to get there, she was shrewd. She knew how to save. For a girl who didn’t have much food, she was blown away with how much food she could acquire with so little money in the United States. And every single time she got paid, she was absolutely terrified — “I have to pay the bills!” She’d take out her checkbook. She would balance her checkbook. She would make sure all of the transactions were recorded in the check register. She was flawless about it, but she was absolutely terrified every single time it happened. She worked at University of Chicago, hospitals and clinics for many, many years, and that allowed her to send my sister and I to those schools for many years, because we got half off of the tuition. Every single time the tuition bill came, she would be like, “Oh my gosh, I have to pay the tuition!” She would work overtime. It’s a hard life in some ways. She would have to work overtime for a few shifts and the money was there. If you think about it in the more woo-woo world, she could manifest money. That wasn’t the problem, but the energy of fear, always behind that. And I think that actually very much shaped my relationship with money as a young person and actually shaped this as a new thought. It shaped an attitude of avoidance of money.
09:10 Emily: Yeah. Wow. Thank you so much for that. That really, it passed down to you. It rubbed off on you in a way that you were treating money, thinking about money similarly. It wasn’t like you went the opposite direction. You were sort of more a little bit in line with what your mom was thinking.
09:25 Michelle: Well, the fear was totally intact. I think as an adult, that’s what I grappled with the fear of not having money. But instead of being on top of it, I would avoid handling it. And my dad apparently was more of the avoidance end of things. My mom would get mad because they would get the mail and he would just set them aside. She’s like, you have to open that. She would move towards it, he would move away from it. I took his move away from it and the fear.
09:56 Emily: I see, I see. Actually I’m remembering there are these there’s this framework, I’ve actually talked about it on the podcast before — we’ll link the episode in the show notes — but there’s a framework around it’s called money scripts. There’s four personality types around money and I remember one of them is money vigilance. So sort of what your mom was doing, being really on top of it. And then another one is money avoidance.
10:18 Michelle: I didn’t know these scripts, but here we go.
10:21 Emily: You’re falling very neatly into those boxes sound like, but in both cases it’s motivated by fear, which is very interesting.
10:26 Michelle: Absolutely, absolutely.
10:27 Emily: Did that actually, this fear part of it, did that play into your first career choice as a lawyer? Was that like a stable thing for you financially or that you perceived it would be?
10:38 Michelle: I remember being 12 and writing down in a journal, I want to be a lawyer. And I think I wanted to be a lawyer because I knew it was a way to make sure I earned the money I needed and not have to worry about it. Earned enough money so I could avoid it, now that I think about it. Right. I do think that because I was doing public interest work, I wasn’t making that kind of money. It didn’t manifest that way, but I think that was part of the intentionality behind becoming a lawyer.
11:11 Emily: Yeah and that’s part of the public perception of lawyers, maybe, especially at that time. I think now we have maybe a better understanding, post-recession, what law careers are, but before then it’s like, oh, you know, doctor, lawyer engineer, like great salary.
Money Mindset During Law School
11:27 Emily: Let’s talk about your money mindset, money situation during law school and then as you were working as a lawyer.
11:33 Michelle: With my fellowship came up a component that was loan forgiveness, but it wasn’t mashed in the same check. They would give me two separate payments, so I would get my paycheck and then I would get the loan forgiveness. And it was the first time I’d been held that accountable for money, so every single time I got that check — again, everything was about fear — I couldn’t figure out how to save money really during that time. I think if I had the tools I have now, then I probably could have, but I couldn’t actually figure it out at the time. I was really scared of handling checking accounts. There was all of this stuff. I had actually lost a checking account. And so I was unable to open one. I can have a savings account. I was paying everything cash and I was holding onto things through a savings account or cash. My whole money systems were really very, very janky and it was spending money to pay bills. I was good about making sure I paid the rent, generally about paying my student loans, paying the utilities, but again, every single pay period, I was absolutely terrified of doing it.
12:51 Michelle: By the time I got to working at the union, it was enough time that I could reopen a checking account. And I needed a car. That was the first like huge purchase I had to make. And, oh my gosh! I did research. I’m like, okay, this is the car I want. What really, really scared me was car insurance. I started to do it and I was in my early thirties and I was like, I can’t afford to have a car. And I just stopped the process. Avoidance. I just stopped the process. I can’t do this. When I worked for a couple more months, I’m like, okay, this clearly is not going to work. I need a car. And so it was like, okay, you have to look into other insurance companies. Then I finally found All State. I’ll say it actually gave me a rate that I was like, “okay, that I can do.” But I was absolutely terrified to actually make that purchase. I was terrified to do the insurance. I would shake is I handed them the check to actually do the down payment on the car. Complete the fear that my parents brought to handling money.
14:02 Emily: So that terror was specifically that you could not actually afford the car, that you would not be able to make the payments on the loan and the payments on the insurance?
14:12 Michelle: I think going into it, that was certainly the fear. Although, clearly I had budgeted and saw, “oh, I could do this,” but I was scared about it anyway, the way that my mom was scared about tuition.
14:28 Emily: Yeah. And I guess her solution was working more with that also a solution for you, or was earning more through overtime not a possibility?
14:37 Michelle: That wasn’t a possibility but I budgeted it. I could see the budget and how it would work. I don’t think, I believed the budget, which is funny, right? But I don’t think I believed the budget. And then shortly after that, there was an opportunity. I was thinking about buying a piece of real estate and I could do it because my employer had a 401k set aside for me that I could actually use to apply to a first-time home purchase. I saw cute place. I was like, oh, wow, this would be good. Actually, it wasn’t that expensive, especially given Washington DC. I was too scared to do it. I’m like, I can’t afford this responsibility. Oh my gosh, I’d have to tear up the floors. You know what I mean? The whole, “I can’t afford it. I can’t do it. I can’t afford it. I can’t do it.” That was the recording, if you will. That was the greatest hits that I played and I backed out of it until later.
Money Mindset During the PhD
15:31 Emily: Wow. Yeah. Let’s talk about you moving towards your PhD then. Maybe a little bit about why you did that.
15:39 Michelle: Sure. So a couple of things. On my mother’s side, we’re the descendants of a community of runaway slaves called Maroons. And those were some of the earliest historical narratives I heard. I had met my partner, my current partner in Washington, DC, when I was practicing law, who was a full professor at a major public institution in the Midwest and had gotten an offer to come to a school in New York city. And she said, you could get a doctorate. And I was like, what? Because I assumed that that process was only open to people who like went from undergrad and they got like A’s and whatever. She’s like, “no, no, no, you could totally do it.” And that’s what inspired me to do it. But also having a partner who earned a lot more than I did actually provided me with a level of financial security that actually made this easier. Like it made it look like a possibility. I didn’t have to be in New York city, paying York rents, trying to cobble a life together for myself. There’s a different kind of security for the first time in my life. And as a feminist, it’s like really, really hard for me to say that, but to be real about my money story, actually being partnered did provide a level of financial security that I had never experienced before.
17:02 Emily: Yeah. I mean, of course your finances naturally always change in some degree when you partner up, but I’m wondering, were you still feeling terror? Were you still feeling avoidance? Did you ask your partner to take over not only some of the financial, like literal paying for things, but also maybe the management? How did that work out?
17:25 Michelle: I did the management, she did the paying. We actually had split it up so we would pay for things according to percentage. Like if we put our income together, if we added it all up together, my income would come to a percentage of her income, so I was responsible for that percentage of what we were doing in the household. And that’s how we set it up. I found that I was a lot less scared to handle money with a partner. There’s something about being on your own and handling it that was far more terrifying to me than doing it with somebody else.
18:01 Emily: Yeah, I think along those lines of like your relationship with money, I think does change a bit when you, when you are partnered. I really enjoyed the, um, having like sort of the team aspect, like we are working together towards these goals and I had someone to bounce ideas off of and sort of talk over decisions. And when you’re the only one responsible for your money, it’s all on you. Because it is such a taboo topic, most people don’t have an accountability partner, they talk to, or like a friend that they’re comfortable talking to about this. It’s really like you just finally have someone who you can really share and be open about these things.
18:34 Michelle: I wouldn’t go that crazy with it. I don’t feel like we ever did that. But at least I knew that, I mean, for me, it was important to know that I wasn’t going to be homeless and that I would be able to eat, which is very tight again, it’s very tied to my parents own fears because they were raised poor. So I knew that part would be covered.
18:57 Emily: And this is specifically during your PhD program, right? Salary as a lawyer, you’re doing okay. But as a PhD student, it’s a very different situation. Can you talk about what your stipend was? And you mentioned you were living in New York, can you tell us about what the finances on your side of things were?
19:13 Michelle: Sure. I was earning, I want to say $20,000 a year and nothing over the summer.
19:19 Emily: And what year was that in?
19:23 Michelle: This was 2001. I started my doctorate in 2003. I did a master’s in 2001. Yeah, I think it was something like that. Then I gave birth to my son in 2004. So I actually borrowed because you can’t have a little, little one and write anything. Like you can’t, you can’t be doing the full-time childcare. The first year I worked, I didn’t really borrow. I was a teaching assistant and that actually worked for that year, but the following year I needed to do research in Jamaica. I actually think things worked out. There was a fellowship I got, um, that was part of New York university, so that worked out that year. But the following year, when we returned to the states, that’s when I needed him to be a preschool. It’s the years between when they’re three and five, when they’re — New York city now has public preschool, but there was very little of that at the time. I couldn’t afford in terms of getting my work done to have an hour and a half of childcare. That was useless. By the time you get to an hour and a half, you could write for 15 minutes and then you’re up and you have to get the child’s again. I actually borrowed a lot to make sure that he was in preschool. That’s what I assumed on my end during graduate school and I would also borrow to get through the summers because I never could get summer funding, which is, I think that’s a really hard part of being a doctoral student, summer funding. I never could get summer funding, so I borrowed, so I could go into the field in Jamaica. Although it was cheaper to live in Jamaica, I would borrow it to go there. And, I would borrow to do my research and I would borrow to do childcare so I could do my research.
21:30 Emily: Yeah, absolutely. This is bringing another element to the conversation, which is being the parent of a child who needs full-time attention, and how to balance that with doing your dissertation. I have talked to some people who try to work and do the childcare and trade off with their partners and such, and that’s often motivated by a philosophy around like what child-rearing should be and they try to make it work. I know it’s challenging, but it’s also on the other challenging —
21:58 Michelle: I found that the person who earns the most money will do the least childcare. That’s how it worked out in my relationship. And I’m not going to negotiate about whether I need the childcare, the childcare has to happen. So that was the deal with the devil I made. Fine.
22:17 Emily: Yeah. I have another episode that I don’t know if it’ll be published before or after this one, so this might be a preview of coming events for the listener, about another story of a parent who actually became a single parent at some point during graduate school and the same kind of thing of how much student debt had to be taken out to finance the daycare and so forth for the child. And it’s another huge layer of financial pressure that can happen for PhD students who parents during that time, or already were parents before starting graduate school.
22:46 Michelle: Exactly.
22:49 Emily: Emily here for a brief interlude!
Emily: This announcement is for prospective and first-year graduate students.
Emily: My colleague, Dr. Toyin Alli of The Academic Society, offers a fantastic course just for you called Grad School Prep. The course teaches you Toyin’s 4-step Gradboss Method, which is to uncover grad school secrets, transform your mindset, uplevel your productivity, and master time management.
Emily: I contributed a very comprehensive webinar to the course, titled “Set Yourself Up for Financial Success in Graduate School.” It explores the financial norms of grad school and the financial secrets of grad school. I also give you a plan for what to focus on in your finances in each season of the year that you apply to and into your first year of grad school.
Emily: If this all sounds great to you, please register at theacademicsociety.com/emily for Toyin’s free masterclass on what to expect in your first semester of grad school and the three big mistakes that keep grad students stuck in a cycle of anxiety, overwhelm, and procrastination. You’ll also learn more about how to join Grad School Prep if you’d like to go a step further. Again, that’s the academic society dot com slash e m i l y for my affiliate link for the course.
Emily: Now back to our interview.
Financial Stress during the PhD
24:16 Emily: So what does it do to a developing scholar to be under financial stress, like $20K per year in New York City, kind of financial stress?
24:26 Michelle: You know, again like this is where my spouse or partner at the time really provided. I can’t imagine what it’s like having to come up with rent in New York City on $20,000 a year. I just can’t. Actually, if I had to do that, I think I definitely would’ve practiced law part-time. I would’ve by hook or crook figured out how to do it and it would have taken me a lot more time to finish my doctorate. It’s just because they’re two huge things. I didn’t have to do that. My partner, we were in university housing, so we were paying far less rent. It was actually embarrassing. I had colleagues who lived in my building who were doctoral students. They paid more for rent than we did. We had a lot more space in our apartment. That was actually something that was in place. For me, you house me, you feed me, I’m good. I could cover the food, the housing was covered and it was okay for me.
Michelle: What was stressful was how am I going to fund the summers? It was always like, I guess I’m going to borrow. That was what was hard for me. For me, I just have to know there’s a pot of money I can go to, to make it work. I actually did a good job of saying, I have this much for the summer, this is how I’m going to handle that. Or, okay, good. This is the, this is the pot of money for childcare. Got it. I think at another point in my life, because I felt less secure, I might’ve dipped into that for other things and then would always be scrambling to make it up. That actually didn’t happen. Childcare always got paid. I could always make my summer bills. I could always pay for the flights. That actually worked out. And so I think in some ways I wasn’t as pressed, but I was borrowing out of my ears to actually make it happen.
26:19 Emily: And did financing your PhD feel different than financing your JD?
26:24 Michelle: No. Because I borrowed to get my JD. But for the JD, I went to a state school and they actually gave me, I wasn’t an Iowa resident, but they actually gave me in-state tuition, so it was so little money. It was ridiculous.
26:40 Emily: I guess I’m just thinking about like the norms in fields, like it’s normal to borrow for your JD. It’s fantastic if you get a discount or get a scholarship or whatever. For the PhD, it’s much more, well, it’s kind of field dependent, whether or not it’s normal to borrow. And I’m sure it’s city dependent. I mean, in places like New York, it’s gonna be more likely.
27:00 Michelle: I find in the humanities it also depends on where your advisor’s willing to go to bat for you. And my advisor, wasn’t super thrilled to go to bat for me. If they’re willing to go to bat for you, they’ll find money, they’ll help you find money, but that wasn’t the case for me. And I’m determined. I’m like, “oh, I’m here, I’m gonna finish this, I see this through to its completion.” For me, it’s just raw determination that has me doing things. I’ll just do what it takes.
Finances as Gatekeeper for Academia
27:42 Emily: How do finances serve as a gatekeeper for academia? I mean, you’re obviously tenacious, but maybe to someone else, would it have been more of an impediment or even maybe for you at a different time of life, if you weren’t partnered, like you said, you may have been doing it part time. What’s the gatekeeping aspect of this?
27:59 Michelle: There’s so many things. If you don’t come from a family who has an academic background in this particular way. Okay, it’s great. Like it’s a fully funded program, they’re covering your tuition and they’ve given you a stipend. That’s what I received. And that is great, I’m not knocking that. And there are things that you don’t know about. The cost of research is high. There’s a reason why faculty have research accounts. Just saying. If you have to travel to do any of your research and most of us have to travel to do our research, even if it’s domestic or international, you don’t have a handle on…I think what really turns the screws on people, if you’re not clear about it, is that you really have to pay to do the research to make this happen. And that’s where the the rubber hits the road. We act like we don’t have to talk about people having families in academia, but people have families in academia and you can’t raise a child full-time and do any meaningful research and write up that research. You can’t square, you can’t square the circle. It doesn’t work.
29:33 Emily: Yeah, academia might be flexible, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hours and hours and hours of work that have to be done with a degree of concentration.
29:41 Michelle: Exactly. If you’re going to sleep at any rate. I’m a fan of sleep. I think that’s the gatekeeping part of it. If you’re male and you’re married to a female, it’s expected that that spouse is going to pick that up for you. It’s expected that you’re doing the thing that’s going to make you the breadwinner of the family. That’s not expected the other way around. Programs don’t feel any obligation to make that happen for you. And then again, who’s going to bat for you to actually find funding for summers, etc. That’s a whole other whole other.
30:15 Emily: Yeah, and I think we’ve seen this thrown into super sharp relief during COVID. It’s a recession that’s largely women are losing or leaving their jobs at much higher rates than men are. Lot of that has to do with caregiving responsibility.
30:29 Michelle: Exactly. Women are publishing substantially less during COVID. For academic women it’s just dropped precipitously because Junior’s on zoom over here.
30:39 Emily: Yeah. These stresses have been there for many, many decades, but they’re much more obvious in the current crisis and things have sped up and become much more acute right now.
Finances and Money Mindset Post-PhD
30:50 Emily: Let’s talk about your story a little bit more. Once you did finish the PhD, where did your career go after that and where did your relationship with your finances go after that?
30:58 Michelle: I finished and it was like number one, “Oh, I’m not, I’m not getting institutional support from New York University anymore.” I was an adjunct at three different schools. I live in Manhattan. I was commuting to New Jersey and I was commuting to Staten island, which can take just as long as commuting to New Jersey. I was working these jobs, exhausted and I couldn’t make my credit card bills. I put my loans on forbearance but I couldn’t make my credit card bills. All of that fear about money was popping up again. And actually got to a point where I was getting suicidal and I would look at my eight year old and I go, you can’t do that to him.
31:52 Michelle: I think if I give my mind a solution for a problem, I can focus on the solution and not the problem. I decided I’m not going to pay the credit card bills for now, which is actually probably a good decision. It wasn’t great for my credit history, but it was a good decision. I was like, okay, maybe I could do journalism. Turns out journalism is in the same free fall that academia is in, pro-tip. I had been part of this peer counseling organization for years, and I knew that I had skills of listening to people and helping them shift their lives. I was thinking, I wish I could make money doing that. I come to my computer and there’s an email that says giving away scholarships to learn how to become a coach and I was like, that would be, thank you. I applied for the scholarship and I got it and I hadn’t looked back, but it turns out, just because there’s a possibility of how you could like build something so that you can support yourself doesn’t mean that you don’t have all the same money dredge that you had. And actually it’s been being a business owner that has put in sharp relief that I cannot carry this abject terror about handling my money with me the rest of my life, because I’m going to be handling a business side of finances and my own personal finances.
33:14 Emily: Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that, but you really… being an employee is vastly different financially from being a business owner and I can see how that would really bleed over and affect your entire relationship with money and not just handling the business finances.
A Shift in Money Mindset
33:28 Michelle: Exactly, exactly. I noticed that once clients paid me, it would be this absolute fear. Like, “oh my gosh, they paid me.” I’m here to be paid by clients! I mean, I’m here to help people, I’m here to serve, but people pay me to serve them. That’s the arrangement. This is not, this is not an energetic moment here. I hired a coach in part to help me sort this out. There’s a book that I use to actually help me deal with this constant worry about finances and to actually look at the emotional bedrocks connected to me and my money story. I actually started to incorporate a series of tools to help me manage the money and it got me to a point where I could call the credit card company to go, “okay, look, I know I owe you money, what’s the arrangement we’re going to make? Money wasn’t doing things to me. I was starting to shape the narrative I wanted to about money.
34:37 Emily: Wow what a shift, what an incredible shift!
34:37 Michelle: That’s been a huge, huge shift.
34:42 Emily: I’m going to get that title from you after the interview and I’ll put it in the shownotes.
34:47 Michelle: That’s what it is, Overcoming Underearning by Barbara Stanny.
34:52 Emily: Yes! I have read a different one of her books, but yes, I’m familiar with that author.
34:55 Michelle: This is the foundational book that actually helped me turn things around with money.
35:03 Emily: Wow what a recommendation!
35:03 Michelle: Again, it was all of the overcome your money fears and earn what you deserve. That was what I needed to do. Amazing.
35:12 Emily: That you still have this at your fingertips. Literally did not have to get up out of your chair to get it.
35:16 Michelle: I know, it’s like right there. I’ve worked through it twice. And if I find I’m up against another something, I’m going to pull it back out again and I’m going to work the exercises again. This book has been absolutely foundational for me. Working with a coach about my business and part of why — my coach was Britt Bolnick with In Arms Coaching is so amazing is that she understands that to run a business, you have to tackle all of these inner demons that like show up and try to sabotage you, otherwise you can’t build a business, you can’t serve people. That’s really the bottom line — you can’t serve people if you’re afraid of the money.
35:57 Michelle: She brought in other people who helped you think about what is your personality with money? I’m an investor, apparently. Who knew? I got to assess that. This man ran a workshop that we did. It was like, oh, I could save. You know, it’s not a lot, but for the first time in my life, I actually have saved in a regular savings account, a little over a thousand dollars. It’s not much, but considering that I could not figure this out at all, it’s huge! I paid off a line of credit. I paid down, I finally had room on my credit card. If I needed to rent a car, I could do it. These things have changed. A friend of mine told me about You Need A Budget. Game changer. This is a work in progress, but it’s actually been a point where it’s like, oh, I need to set up regular times with my money and we need to have hot and heavy dates. It’s set up a set of habits that I don’t worry about having money.
37:06 Michelle: Last year my mother died. God bless her. She did enough work with her estate that there was actually, after actually her care for having dementia, there was an estate. Not the biggest estate in the world. I don’t need the biggest estate. It’s a modest estate. I already got some of that. I got the apartment in DC. I sold it some years ago and I got the profit from it and I just handed half of it to my partner because I was afraid of what I was going to do with the money. This time, I was like, hmm, excellent. I’m a member of business networking international. There was someone in my chapter who does financial advising. I was like, hi, I’m on the phone with you. I need you to help me handle this money. I didn’t blink. I wasn’t freaked out by it. I replaced my hardware. This is a very different…I don’t have to be an abject fear every single time I’m dealing with money. That it’s like, wow. That has been a big shift.
38:04 Emily: Yeah! This is an incredible, incredible shift. And especially because your initial relationship with your money, the avoidance and the fear and so forth was in place for decades. Starting your childhood, for decades in your adulthood as well, and this leveling up. Well, I don’t know if it’s up, but getting to the level of being a business owner forced you to totally work on this and really master it. I’m so glad to hear those examples. I think during our initial phone call, you mentioned You Need A Budget, but you said that you couldn’t have used it prior to this transformation. It’s a great tool, but you have to be ready to use the tool.
38:45 Michelle: If you’re terrified of looking at your money and I’m not saying I’ve conquered it. You don’t like, it shows up in different ways. But if I don’t understand that, oh right, I can be really scared when I handle my money, I would have just avoided using the tools. Like that’s great. And not use it. But now I’m like, okay, do you know you’re scared. Let’s just get into it. Let’s get into it and do it.
39:12 Emily: Yeah. Wow. What a fantastic shift!
Money Mindset as a Business Owner
39:13 Emily: Is there anything else that you’d like to tell us about your money mindset now, or your relationship with money as a business owner?
39:22 Michelle: I really firmly believe that…I’m a big follower of Carolyn L. Elliott who wrote the book, Existential Kink. One of my coach for coaches, her approach to coaching is about looking at shadow sides. It’s the very Yung-ian and approach both of them have very Yung-ian approaches to the world. And I really firmly believe that if you do not turn and face the shadow, if you will, the dark side of yourself, when it comes to money and actually just really bring that dark side to life. It’s not just about money. It’s about pretty much anything you’re doing about writing, about building your career — if you do not turn and face the places that might scare the bejesus out of you, whatever it is, you’re not going to get a handle on your money, on your love, your sex, whatever it is, your career options, anything that means anything to you, you’re not going to be able to handle it. You’ve got to be able to walk and spend time in those dark places, because once you actually really clear about what the peanut gallery is doing, you can actually go, okay, I understand that’s a peanut gallery. We’re going to do this.
40:41 Emily: I see. And I’m so glad that you mentioned the different tools that you use, the book, the coaching, and so forth, to get to this point, to be facing that aspect of your personality or that side of yourself. Thank you so much for sharing this story with us and I know, again, it’s not something we talk about a whole lot, and I’m sure there’s people in the audience. Well, I’m not sure. I don’t know if someone experiencing money avoidance will be listening to a podcast about money, but maybe someone knows someone and they can send this episode and say, you know, we grew up this way with money. You want to listen to what Michelle has to say about this, because maybe what she experienced can help you.
41:17 Michelle: I’ll say this. I know that I’ve listened to all sorts of resources about money before I actually did anything about it. So I know you money avoiders. You actually would like to not avoid money and you’ll acquire resources. The next step is to actually turn and use them.
41:33 Emily: Yeah. And I think for you, part of your money avoidance, and part of your solution to this was the book Overcoming Underearning. There might be a different book that’s appropriate for different people, depending on because that’s really like an entrepreneurial type. That’s for entrepreneurs.
41:48 Michelle: There’s Jen Cincero, You’re a Badass at Handling Money, which is funny, but also really concrete tools. You see, I’ve read them all. But that’s a really lovely starting point to actually manage money as well.
42:04 Emily: I’ve read that one too. It’s a lot about money mindset stuff, so it’s a wonderful one if you want to start learning about that and start to change your mental relationship with money.
Best Financial Advice for an Early Career PhD
42:15 Emily: Michelle, thank you so much for this interview and standard question that I ask all of my guests to wrap up is what financial advice do you have for an early career PhD? What’s your best financial advice? And that could be something that we touched on in the interview, or it could be something completely other.
42:33 Michelle: Number one, you may need to do the research necessary to find funding for those times where your academic institution isn’t going to fund you. And they may not be super supportive in doing it, but do it anyway. That’s number one. Number two, it’s never too early — All right, I have three pieces of lights. So that’s number one: do the research. Start in September, to look for money for the spring. I mean, for the summer.
43:06 Michelle: Number two, whatever bedevils you about money, you have to look at because whatever bedevils, you will sabotage your relationship with money in a time where you actually are going to need to budget and be really on top of your finances, because I assume I’m presuming that you’re single and you don’t have a lot of the fundamental support that you need. So take time to do that work and I promise you, whatever is screwing with you with money will screw with you about actually getting the doctorate done.
43:39 Michelle: And number three, once you start to clarify what the, what those devils are, find the tools to help you make it work. YNAB is, I think it’s $90 a year. It is worth every dime, as a way of actually managing what you have and sticking with it. Those would be my three pieces of advice.
44:05 Emily: Yeah. Thank you so much. I think that’s a wonderful quick summary of kind of the journey that we’ve gone through during the interview. Thank you again, Michelle. Thank you so much for this interview and for joining me.
44:13 Michelle: You’re welcome! Thank you for having me.
44:20 Emily: Listeners, thank you for joining me for this episode!
Emily: pfforphds.com/podcast/ is the hub for the Personal Finance for PhDs podcast. On that page are links to all the episodes’ show notes, which include full transcripts and videos of the interviews. There is also a form to volunteer to be interviewed on the podcast and instructions for entering the book giveaway contest. I’d love for you to check it out and get more involved!
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Emily: See you in the next episode, and remember: You don’t have to have a PhD to succeed with personal finance… but it helps!
Emily: The music is “Stages of Awakening” by Podington Bear from the Free Music Archive and is shared under CC by NC.
Emily: Podcast editing and show notes creation by Lourdes Bobbio.
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