Financial Playbook for First Gen Black Technologists

May 4, 2021


I responded to this tweet a few days ago (okay so looks like a week…time doesn’t really exist in this strange world we’re living in). And before I knew it, I had written a pretty long thread on twitter. In the process, the thread got splintered and then splintered again when I tried to correct it. But people responded well to what I shared so I brought it over here where it can be available in easy to read format for everyone.

I should preface this by saying, I’m not a tax attorney, nor a financial consultant. Your mileage may vary. I’m just sharing an approach that worked for me and that might be helpful to others who find themselves suddenly thrown into a new financial status after landing a high paying role. Without further ado, let’s get started.

First Some Background

I think we should definitely talk about personal finances for “first generation” Black technologists. Because of my health issues even though I’ve been working in tech for over 25 years, I’ve never had job security and that kept me from going beyond treading water financially.

For me it was a vicious cycle: 1. Get a job 2. Spend the first few months catching up on bills that were behind. 3. Finally get to the “paycheck to paycheck” phase. 4. Lose the job 5. Fall behind on bills 6. Repeat.

Having sleep apnea puts you in a grey area where it’s hard to qualify as a disability. And falling asleep on the job is a deal breaker universally. Interestingly enough I’ve observed others sleeping on jobs where I’ve been fired for that reason but to be blunt they weren’t Black.

“Why not get treatment”

There was one period where I had insurance and was able to do a sleep study and get a CPAP. It wasn’t effective. I still fought with daytime sleepiness. Also so many companies I worked for had a probation period where you can’t take time off until 90 days.

Before the 90 days my condition became an issue and no lenience was given. I became disenchanted with traditional employment and became an independent contractor because if I’m not getting the benefit of job security I might as well get extra money. That’s another story itself.

This continued on and on until 2019 when I joined Microsoft. As of June 2, my two year anniversary, this has been officially my longest tenured position. And that tenure has been what made me financially stable. With that background let’s get back to the topic.

A Fresh Start

As a first generation Black technologist, your first check might be the most you’ve had in your account at one time. Especially if you’re somewhere that you received a signing bonus. You might be coming into this with outstanding bills and possibly a negative bank balance.

First order of business: pay yourself. Put five to ten percent of that aside and use it however you see fit guilt free. You’ve put in the work, you should reward yourself. Otherwise you’re doing all of this just to pay bills. Put it somewhere else than your bill paying account.

I use chime and setup a direct deposit of five percent from each payday. It mostly supports my Magic/ D&D / Kickstarter habit. But if I want to save for something big using that it’s my prerogative. My wife also has her own.

Believe me it feels weird at first but it’s worth it.

Second: maximize your 401k match. For example Microsoft matches 50% up to the maximum contribution. That match is part of your compensation and it’s money on the table don’t leave it. It’s an extension of “pay yourself first” except this is your future self. More on 401k later.

Third: start paying down your bills. Take the time to call your creditors to make agreeable arrangements and pay them on time. This will help (re)establish your credit. See if they’ll reage your account (remove late marks from the report after making a certain number of payments). Again, this will help you as you’re establishing your credit.

Fourth: build an emergency fund. Start with your goal at $1000 then build up the recommended 3 months of cushion.

The Next Level

After about a year you should have a healthy chunk in your 401k. Many plans have an option to take a loan from your fund. Usually it’s 50% of your vested balance at 5-10% interest. The repayment comes from your paycheck and everything including interest goes back into your account.

And you get to leverage that corporate match. I’d argue that you should max out your 401k contributions even above the corporate match for this reason. You can use a conservative asset mix and still get the benefit of the interest on your loan, boosting your numbers.

Many financial advisors suggest against taking a loan on your 401K, but we’re trying to nix that high interest debt with a low interest loan that again is going back into your fund, interest and all. The only reason we’re contributing to the fund instead of paying the bills down directly is to take advantage of the employer match to increase the money. Also if you’re risk tolerant (e.g. far from retirement), that money CAN grow short term if you’re going with an agressive mix of assets (again consult an expert).

Super hack: if your signing bonus is large enough, use it for living expenses for a few months and max out the contribution for your 401k (I believe it’s around 65% of pay). After three months you should be around the annual limit if you’re making over 100k. Consult your plan and/or HR to determine how your employer match is calculated. Some match based on percentage of annual salary others calculate per pay period (e.g. 50% up to 2% of your gross period pay). If the latter is the case, in order to maximize your match, you can’t max out too soon. Consult an Expert

The End Game

When annual bonus comes around (again depending on size) PAY YOURSELF first (5-10%) use part of it to kill the 401k loan. Your balance should be higher than when you took it last. Take out the Max loan again and it should be enough to clear out remaining debt and sock some away.

In two years, you’ve become debt free, have an emergency fund, and have moved toward a higher credit score. Everything else is gravy. Any questions?