Not so very long ago, Angela and Elroy Tatem’s finances were a mess.
They owed more than $80,000 in student loans, car loans and credit cards. They had no savings. Their net worth was negative, meaning their debts exceeded their assets.
“Something needed to change,” Angela Tatem recalled.
The Schenectady couple started budgeting, saving and paying down debts. It wasn’t always easy — both took on second jobs for a while — but it got them where they wanted to be: out of debt, saving money and building wealth.
Most people hate talking about money, but the Tatems are happy, even eager, to do so.
They teach free classes aimed at helping others improve their personal finances, in hopes of improving the overall financial health of the entire community.
It’s work that’s philanthropic in nature and very much needed: Studies have found that many Americans live paycheck to paycheck, have little in the way of savings, owe lots of money and aren’t putting away nearly enough money for retirement.
The picture is even bleaker for minorities — something of which the Tatems, who are both African-American, are keenly aware.
According to the Federal Reserve, in 2016 the typical white family had $162,640 in net worth, compared to $16,216 for the typical black family and $21,295 for the typical Hispanic family. Nearly one in five black households had zero or negative net worth, compared to 9 percent of white households.
“The system can make it hard for people to get ahead financially,” said Angela Tatem, who serves as director of community outreach at Union College. “We’re focused on what you can do. You can still budget. It’s your money and you can tell it where to go.”
“We’re showing people how to prepare for life events,” said Elroy Tatem, an engineer at Applied Materials in Malta.
Financial literacy alone won’t close the racial wealth gap.
But it can certainly help.
To learn more about the Tatems approach to financial fitness, I sat in on their Money Matters “boot camp,” a series of five workshops held at the downtown branch of the Schenectady County Public Library.
These classes were informative and practical, sprinkled with personal anecdotes and interesting observations.
The tone throughout was upbeat and encouraging, and I found myself surprisingly engaged by a subject in which — personal finance — I’d never been especially interested.
One of the things I appreciated most was the Tatems’ non-judgmental attitude, which is rooted in a firm belief that anyone — rich, poor, middle class — can benefit from greater financial literacy.
At times, the class feels like a support group, where people can open up about their own experiences with money and share insights gained from trying to apply the Tatems’ teachings to their own lives.
“It’s only up from here,” Angela Tatem told the 11 women who attended the first class. “You’re going to make a lot of progress.”
The boot camp begins with budgeting, then moves on to establishing an emergency fund, paying off debts, growing your savings and investing.
The Tatems’ journey to positive net worth began with a chance encounter: A well-off older woman offered to teach them how to attain financial prosperity.
Intrigued, they took the woman up on the offer and began following her advice, which included making monthly budgets, creating a “God only knows” fund for emergencies and ridding themselves of debt. They also read books about personal finance.
In 2015, the couple decided to start sharing what they’d learned.
They established an organization, called the Wealth Education Exchange, and began holding financial literacy courses in local churches, schools, colleges and other community institutions.
The Tatems were both raised in households where financial literacy was lacking.
Angela Tatem, 38, grew up in Schenectady, in a family where “a lot of stuff was done on credit.” Elroy Tatem, 34, grew up in public housing in the Bronx, to a single mother who “would get her social security check and go to the check cashing place where they charge fees to cash checks.”
Janell Price, a Mechanicville resident who took the Money Matters class in 2017 and attended several of the sessions I sat in on earlier this fall, told me that the Tatems’ teachings changed her life.
“I found myself in a better place financially,” Price, 39, said. “I was no longer getting money and spending it. I was getting money and budgeting it.” What she discovered was that “I definitely had more money.”
Now Price is developing a budget for her mother and hopes to share what she’s learned with others.
“I’m taking it one person at a time,” she said.
Most people aren’t especially good at managing money, but education can change that.
“We’re about this work because we see it helping so many people,” Angela Tatem told me. “We tell people all the time, ‘Maybe you’ll never become a millionaire, but if you do all of the things consistently, your net worth will improve.'”
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]