$ My American Bias Explained $
Before getting into what I’ve been up to since filing $100 on my tax return in January, I’d like to briefly explain why I’m such a big fan of the United States despite its conspicuous flaws at every level. At the risk of sounding overly patriotic and/or naive to some, being born in the United States is like hitting the lottery. Sure, the country perpetuates xenophobic and racist founding principles, continues to have an abhorrent obsession with guns and violence, experiences grossly disproportionate wealth inequality, and has a severely flawed political system, among a countless list of other issues. However, more optimistically, the country has an inordinate amount of excess, contains every livable climate to choose from within its borders, funds government-backed programs that at least attempt to uplift some of the poorest sections of its society, allows relative freedom of speech, and I’m hard-pressed to think of many other countries that provide a tangible chance (however slim) for its citizens to go from poor to an elite global wealth status through their sweat equity. The fortune of being able to travel and live in different parts of the world over the past decade has given me great insight into how drastically different many other countries operate, for better or for worse. Consequently, my appreciation for the opportunities allotted within the United States couldn’t be higher. This actualization ignores the everyday stresses, struggles, and angst that come with being a dark-complexioned individual within the country, but that’s another conversation for another day.
These opportunities appear to show themselves within the data. Credit Suisse publishes a comprehensive annual report available for download that seeks to put global wealth into a proper perspective. From a macro view, it’s seemingly clear that opportunities to build wealth within North America are plentiful relative to the rest of the world (Table 1), especially considering North America’s relatively low population compared to many of the other highlighted regions.
Drilling down even further, it’s clearer to see that a large portion of North America’s wealth is driven by the United States. Roughly 41% of the world’s total millionaires come from the United States and about 40% of the world’s year-over-year increase in total millionaires has also been credited to the United States (Table 2).
Of course, this only paints a picture of potential. The more realistic and tangible measure of median wealth is a better indicator of the common person’s wealth, and that sits at about $61,000 per person in the United States (ranking 18th in the world). This is slightly below the world’s average wealth per adult of about $63,000 (Table 2) and serves as one glaring indicator of the country’s troubling wealth disparity. However, it still provides hope that the average person with talent has as good of a chance in the United States as any other place to earn their way among the world’s elite wealth status. This is one of the major reasons why returning to the United States after completing my graduate studies in the Netherlands last year was a no-brainer.
Why I Filed $100 on 2018 My Tax Return
Being in or around a classroom from 9AM to 4:30PM every weekday throughout most of 2018 didn’t lend itself to much time for wage earning, and I didn’t realize how little time I would truly have until it happened in real time. Despite my wishing for the contrary, the bills of the real world didn’t stop coming due, nor did the desire to eat, go out, travel, or partake in any other activity that a person would normally partake in. As a result, my bank account became the thing I only checked when I wanted to make sure the account was still active.
As my class schedule began to lighten up in November, I initially set my sights on freelancing within accounting to get my feet wet. I quickly realized that my anonymity within that space would significantly depress what I thought I deserved as compensation. Without a proven track record for completing particular tasks or professional designations to my name (such as a CPA), I found myself at the mercy of whatever the individuals on the other side felt like paying me rather than being paid what I deserved. Some of that could be chalked up to the need to enhance my negotiating skills, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that no deal is oftentimes better than taking a bad deal. I consistently saw bad deals during my brief search, so I decided to shift my freelance focus to writing in hopes of gaining some positive momentum going into December. It’s during that time where I made my first (and only) $100 of 2018 off of 3 different writing-based projects and dropped the mic.
The Immediate Aftermath
I had long decided that I would do something different and spend all of 2019 enhancing specific hard skills that I deemed to be the most critical to my foreseeable future. After much deliberation and some trial and error with a couple of money-making ventures for the first couple of months of this year, I decided to use the rest of the year to focus on:
- Software development
- CPA certification
- Foreign language (French)
- Investment / personal finance knowledge
My feeling is that I would be doing myself a disservice by immediately going back into a job market that, while presently very healthy with record low unemployment numbers, is trending towards a path full of outsourcing and automation. To get ahead of this inevitability and compete in what I see as an imminent world full of hybrid finance professionals who are both tech and business savvy, taking a step back in this manner seemed to be the best move in my opinion. My thinking was that it’s best to trade time for dollars in the short-term for a shot at a more lucrative payoff in the long-term. However, all of this skill development still costs money and that’s where my newfound aid eligibility will most prominently come into play.
With the federal poverty line being listed at about $12,000 annual gross income for individuals, I knew I’d qualify for numerous services that would aid in meeting my basic needs and potentially aid in my 2019 focus areas. I filed my taxes in late January and immediately sought after and attained aid that would cover my food, medical, and dental needs. Within a couple of weeks, I was able to get the ball rolling on food aid covers nearly $200 per month, full-coverage dental insurance that allowed me to immediately go in for a dental cleaning, and full-coverage health insurance that allowed me to immediately go in for a full health checkup.
Beyond those basic services, I proactively looked into what else I could take advantage of while I was in this newfound socioeconomic situation. I initially landed on a YouTube channel by Matthew Lesko dedicated to information regarding aid from government offices, non-profit organizations, internet crowdfunding, and the Sharing Economy. This was the beginning of a rabbit hole that opened my eyes to many services that our taxpaying dollars go towards, yet are frequently overlooked by individuals from all socioeconomic classes.
Going Forward in 2019
Among the many directions Lesko’s channel pointed me towards was 211.org, which is a nation-wide resource whose aim is to connect people with life’s many questions regarding assistance to the answers that they’re seeking. From there I drilled down to my state level, which led me to NYC 311. It was here where I started becoming familiar with the types of educational aid available for someone like myself who wanted to take their skills to the next level. From there, I found a relevant phone number that would most likely answer any questions I had regarding assistance for developing a skillset based in technology. Although my calls didn’t directly lead me towards the information I was looking for, it did lead me towards setting up a meeting with the Department of Labor. It was at that meeting that I asked the right questions that led to my exposure to a unique software development opportunity offered by Per Scholas.
Per Scholas is a nonprofit that serves as a workforce development program to help bridge the gap between unemployed or underemployed individuals and the litany of technology-based jobs available. Their partners include a who’s who of major companies (Google, Goldman Sachs, AT&T, etc.) and they currently offer eligible individuals a chance to learn one of four disciplines (CodeBridge, Cyber Security, IT Support, or Systems Administration) during an intensive, multi-month bootcamp style curriculum. Furthermore, the eligible participant obtains the high-quality education at no financial cost and finishes the program equipped to competently commence a tech career. Not anyone can just enter their program, however, as there are multiple interviews and aptitude tests that must be completed in order to determine a candidate’s viability for the program. I’ve chosen to apply to the 18-week CodeBridge curriculum, which focuses on web development and would begin this fall every weekday from 9:00AM to 5:00PM. The Per Scholas partnership with General Assembly for this curriculum makes the program extremely attractive, as successful completion of the 6 weeks taught by Per Scholas combined with the subsequent 12 weeks taught by General Assembly clears the eligible individual of the $14,500 sticker price. Assuming that I get through the final interview stage set to take place in August, I look forward to the exciting opportunities that this program will provide.
To this point, I haven’t found any additional help with financing my CPA but I’m still looking. As of now, it looks like that one is coming directly out of pocket. I’ll know soon enough, as my educational background and eligibility to sit for the tests are currently at the tail-end of the accounting board’s review. For my other focus areas, I’ve found the local library to be a tremendous free resource. While there’s obviously have a wide selection of books to choose from, the pleasant surprise lies with the high-quality classes and seminars that they also offer. They routinely offer multi-week courses geared towards business, foreign language, and many other disciplines taught by professionals. The beauty of it all is that anyone can sign up for them. While I haven’t made the library my primary stop for these things, it has served as a great supplement to the curriculum I’ve already put in place for myself.
Regarding the aforementioned curriculum, since January I’ve primarily centered my days around studying a combination of French, a business-related hard skill, and a tech-related hard skill. For example, a random March day would’ve seen me spending an hour and a half taking a French course at ABC Languages, two to three hours learning Python, two to three more hours learning investment strategies from a booklist I created at the beginning of the year, and an hour reviewing the French I learned from that day’s class. If it was a day where class wasn’t in session, I would simply put more time into the French self-study and keep everything else the same. By staying fairly consistent with this approach on a daily basis, I’ve seen tangible improvement in all of intended areas and have been pleased with the progress thus far. As time has gone on, I’ve slowly started to shave off focus time in each area in favor of more time towards networking. Once I get the eligibility sign-off from the accounting board, I plan on putting the majority of my concentration on studying for the CPA test and continuing to build my tech skills in anticipation of acceptance into Per Scholas. If everything continues to go according to plan this year, I will have added French-speaking, CPA, and software development to my list of major skillsets. The end-game for all of this is to soon become a catalyst and creator of tech-based solutions for the common process inefficiencies plaguing the financial services world. As those solutions become more vast and complex, I plan on growing in line with them. Not a bad outlook for a guy who went from $100k to $100.