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The disconnect between doing good for others and doing well for yourself

Craig Zelizer

June 23, 2020

As part of the new PCDN.global we are launching a new series, on Personal Finance and Social Change & Social Impact Careers (our first interview in the series is below). One of the critical issues we’ve found is that there is a strong gap for many professionals and students regarding their relationship to social change and personal finance. Money is often a taboo subject that doesn’t receive sufficient attention and that people don’t discuss openly with their colleagues. Moreover, there is an essential need to better explore how professionals can better link their professional lives and personal finance to do money better and embed their values of advancing social impact.

In order to help address the gap, we’re doing a number of new things including interviewing social change professionals around the world where we engage in real honest discussion of money, investing, debt, building a career of impact and much more. We want to shed light on this much too under-explored topic to help professionals and aspiring students around the world better explore their own relationship to finances, to learn from the successes and challenges that others experience and do money smarter in relation to their own future and social impact.

Given the sensitive nature of finance, most of the profiles will be written up anonymously to allow for more transparent sharing of actual financial details and a more honest discussion. This first interview in the series was conducted via zoom at the end of May 2020. Dr. Zelizer conducted the interview with a professional working in peacebuilding who is originally from  Asia.  Throughout the summary below, the interviewee will be referred to as a peacebuilding professional. 

Want to talk about money and social impact careers? To share your own lessons and story (we can do the interviews and post the summary anonymously). Please get in touch at [email protected]

PCDN  Thank you for making time to chat with PCDN about personal finance and social impact careers. Please let us know a bit about yourself.

Peacebuilding Professional I'm a Peacebuilding professional, and I help lead a nonprofit organization based in DC that supports Peacebuilding projects in select regions. I'm in my early 30s and originally from Asia. I came to the US to do a graduate degree and have been working for this organization for a number of years.

PCDN How do you personally view the relationship between your finances and social impact?

Peacebuilding Professional One of the things I noticed when I started in the field is the disconnect between doing good for others and doing well for yourself. If you're in the social change sector, then it is often understood that you will not be making that much money. That you will generally have to make certain sacrifices, but it's for the greater good because you're serving the community. And while I agree with the general sentiment, I also think that the human beings out there on the frontlines doing this essential work, require a certain level of standard of living. They usually have families to support  as well as to think about their own future. Personally, I've struggled with this idea of maintaining a balance between personal finance and financial security while working in the social change sector.

PCDN  How much do you make each year and how has that increased over time (or not)?

Peacebuilding Professional  Before I answer that I have been fortunate to work at various levels in my organization. When I started at an entry level position my gross annual salary was $30,000.  Then I gradually moved up and increased my salary. First to $40,000 and then  in a more senior role to $45,000 or $47,000. For the past few years as the senior person I’ve been making a gross salary of around $75,000 plus some benefits. Also to be eligible to work in the US long-term my employer has had to provide a certain salary level for my visa.

PCDN  Have you had to negotiate your salary in your current role? Or do you get a standard increase?

Peacebuilding Professional  The only time I tried to negotiate is when I started at $30,000.  I tried to ask for a little bit more than that, because I also had student loans and I was living in DC which is very expensive. I wasn’t successful. At that time it was a real struggle the first few years but I needed a job so I took it.

PCDN  Do you earn money elsewhere in a second gig or activity?

Peacebuilding Professional  No, I'm not allowed to under my visa, I can't have any other secondary source of income.

PCDN  What are the benefits your employer provides?

Peacebuilding Professional  My employer covers 100% of my health premiums and also vision, dental, and basic minimum life insurance. Once I started in a leadership role I also get a bonus some years, which I use to help pay off my student loans.

PCDN  Do they provide retirement benefits?

Peacebuilding Professional  No.  I have a high yield savings account where I put away my savings. I’ve only started in the last few years to make enough to have some savings, which I’ve been using to pay off debt such as credit cards. I haven't really reached that stage where I can start putting away money for retirement

PCDN What about other benefits such as vacation or professional development support?

Peacebuilding Professional I now get 20 days per year of paid vacation plus sick leave which accumulates separately. If I don’t use it all in a year, I can roll over some of the vacation days to the following year. I don’t have a retirement plan, which I would like if possible.

PCDN  Do you have a goal or what percentage do you think you save every month?

Peacebuilding Professional  Eventually, I'd like to save at least 20% to 25% every month. For the past few years, I have had to make some sacrifices.  For a long time I shared a room with a friend, but next week I will move to a new place where I will finally have my own bedroom and bathroom. While sharing the room, I had a low rent which was great. I was able was able to save a lot which helped me pay off all my credit card debt and get to a more stable financial position. The only debt I have now is my student loans. Since that is the case,  I am  saving money to have some extra cushion or emergency funds for unexpected things.  Now I am in a place where I can afford to move to a bigger space and pay for a private room and bath.

PCDN  What is your current rent and what will be the new cost?

Peacebuilding Professional  I was paying $600 which is very low for the cost of living here. But I was sharing a room and now I'm moving to a two bed two bath condo where I'll have my own bedroom and bathroom. In my new place I will be paying $1200 plus half of the utilities.

PCDN  I am curious did you take out student loans? How much do you have to pay each month? When do you anticipate paying off your loans?

Peacebuilding Professional  I took out loans in my home country at a very high interest rate to finance graduate school in the US.  It's much higher than any student loan interest rate that I’ve seen in the US. I even had to pay the interest while I was in graduate school as they didn’t offer any type of deferral or grace period.  My monthly minimum payment in dollars right now is about $750 each month.  I’ve also started a separate fund in my home country, where I put aside $300 per month in a high interest account. Then I withdraw whatever I can out of the account at the end of year and put that as lump sum payment to reduce the tenure of the loan. I am on time to pay it off by 2024.

PCDN  I imagine you will have a huge party then.

Peacebuilding Professional  Yes, I will have a big party and then I can finally start saving for retirement.

PCDN  What is your advice for anyone, whether they're from the US or elsewhere considering taking student loans? Given the amount you took out in loans and the potential stress would you do make the same choice again?

Peacebuilding Professional  There are a lot of considerations, even culturally  in my country, generally banks are very risk averse and they don't want to offer loans to individuals pursuing liberal arts or social science degrees. Everyone else  takes out loans for science or technology or management related degrees, because they know that then they will go on to get higher paying jobs which would put them in a better position to pay off the loans.

I got really lucky because I managed to get a job after graduation, but not everyone I know, has been that fortunate. I suggest taking time and do your research.  I acted a little bit impulsively, because at that time I wanted to get out of my city and country and have a new experience.  But now I think there needs to be a lot more planning, to explore in more depth scholarship opportunities, to perhaps take time off and work to save resources before going to graduate school. My choice of taking out substantial loans, has generated a lot of stress and financial insecurity. Thankfully I was lucky to land a good job that has helped tremendously.

PCDN  What do you think  would have happened if you hadn't been able to get a job in the US and gone back to your country?

Peacebuilding Professional  I think my family would have had to help and this would have put a lot of stress on them.  To get the loan my parents had to put their apartment as collateral. Back home I wouldn’t have been able to land a position to earn enough to pay off the loan.

PCDN  We’ve talked about investments and it sounds like your current one is a high yield savings account.

Peacebuilding Professional  Yes, back in my home country.

PCDN  When you look at where you put your money do you examine the bank’s social impact or environmental record? Does this influence your choice of what institution to use?

Peacebuilding Professional   Personally I don’t have any investments in the US. For my organization account we do provide instructions to our financial team to divest from any kind of organization that works on problematic areas such as funding the military-industrial complex or you know, or areas  that have an adverse effect on the environment.  We do not on principle support or invest in such companies, thus it's basically socially conscious investing at the organizational level.

PCDN  What do you estimate your total monthly budget in terms of expenses?

Peacebuilding Professional  Each month I receive about $4150 net. I get a paycheck every two weeks of around $2074. My new rent will be $1300, then paying my loan and extra to put aside is about $1245, with groceries, transport, socializing is about $1000 a month. Starting from next week when I move into the new apartment, I’m expecting to save about 10% of my salary each month.

PCDN  Do you have any favorite resources you use for your own financial literacy?

Peacebuilding Professional  I don’t read much on finances. But I have a friend who is a CPA who provides me lots of good advice. She was the one who suggested opening a high yield savings account and paying off my credit card debt first. She has told me about this app called RobinHood, that she has used, but I haven’t started investing yet. I haven’t read much as I don’t have much time or resources for investing, although my friend has given me very strong advice.

PCDN   What is your favorite finance advice?

Peacebuilding Professional   My favorite is when I have some money, first put aside the amount I want to save first as a priority.

PCDN  Do you think about retiring and what age might you foresee this as a possibility?

Peacebuilding Professional  I haven't thought about it as yet. Because I haven't even started planning for retirement as yet. It's not something that I can accomplish anytime soon. I also have to help my parents with their retirement and put aside some resources for them.

Peacebuilding Professional  Do you think the investment in your graduate degree was worth it?

Peacebuilding Professional  Considering the amount I spent on my degree I don’t think it was worth it. The return on my investment as a foreign national wasn’t that high. I think that what it did help me was to get strong field experience, as well as create very important contacts and that's one of the reasons why you go to an expensive school. This is why I was able to get a job. I feel if I had gone to a lesser known or smaller school and not been able to create the social capital it would have been even harder.

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