Money & Personal Assets

Money & Personal Assets

Money & Personal Assets

Tonia Brinston is a  financial educator, chef, homeowner and soon-to-be business owner. Tonia had a big influence on the small change podcast. 

This is a podcast about financial literacy. But our initial approach was flawed. We thought we had to teach individuals how to be smarter with their money, although we were concerned about accidentally talking down to individuals with low and unstable incomes. 

What did Tonia say? She remarked that “society will have you thinking all assets are financial.” Tonia introduced us to the term “personal assets.” We realized that we were taking too narrow an approach. Tonia helped us broaden our perspective. 

What are personal assets? Here’s how Tonia described them. “Well, as a homeowner, I have personal assets. I have a friend that's a plumber. I have one that's an electrician. I have one that's a roofer. Those are personal assets to me, versus if I call a company, or somebody else, that's probably gonna charge me three or four times as much,” she says. “And these people, my personal assets, they do good quality work. They either own their own business, or they're in the union doing the type of work that they do.” 

Her knowledge and skill as a chef and financial educator are her own personal assets. “No one can take that from you, whether it be my culinary skills, my education around financial education,” she says. The power of personal assets comes into play with her network. Her personal assets both lower the cost of her expenses and boost the quality of her life. “I haven't been to a beauty shop in over 20 years. I have a girlfriend that does hair at her house. And I have inquired about what it would cost in local shops to get what she does. And it's like three times more the cost of what she charges me,” says Tonia. “And so, with that being said, I refer other clients over to her. So we're building that social growth.” 

Individuals using the skills and talents they have to support each other, building social capital by creating connections to people you can trust and rely on. The idea of “personal assets” has deep roots in our shared past. Think of the village. 

“I had one of the best elementary school bus drivers in the world. Dan-- Dan Underbucky,” says Tonia. “He was amazing. He would play trivia with us on the school bus. This side of the bus against that side. And everybody got a piece of candy when they got off the bus, but whichever side won they got off the bus first. He would take us trick or treating.  He would go sledding….  
And so, going back to the village, those type of interactions with community members, that's what the village is about.”

Dan Underbucky made his community a better place to live by going beyond his role of driving a bus driver. He developed relationships that made the neighborhood stronger. These are time honored traditions that we somehow forget about or dismiss when talking about money. We lose financially and we lose the benefits of these community connections. 

Thandi Blom is a family child care provider. We spoke to her in her backyard in St. Paul. She recalled when she was a single mom and a new homeowner. Her water heater went and she got bids to install a new one for $8,000 and $5,000. For a water heater that costs $200 at the time at a home repair store. She didn’t know what to do. 

“And at the time, there were crews, work crews outside working on the water main. And I just asked him, so what do you do? And he gave me a number to someone he knew,” she says. “He charged me the price of the water heater and $100 that I could pay. He split it up.  He said I'll come back in two weeks.” 

Thandi’s chance meeting saved her a lot of money. She also found someone she can trust.  

Trust matters to Mat Graske, owner of Caydence Records and Coffee shop. Mat sees the value of applying personal assets to business. A network of trusted small businesses in his St. Paul neighborhood helped him open his store on a shoestring budget. “I think it's so important to engage with people and you learn and become friends and all of a sudden it turns out that one of your customers has a need for tables at their restaurant up the street,” he says. “Well, if you have a skill to do that, you find a way to make it happen and trade and grow and you benefit as a community,” he says. ”All the tables, including that we're sitting at,were a fantastic gift. Thirty-five free pallets from the hardware store two blocks down. So that kind of explains the spirit of our business in general. We are like 97% DIY bootstrapping-type people to pull stuff together. But it goes a really long way.” 

Mat shared some advice about personal assets and starting a business if you don’t have much money. The advice is good for any project when money is scarce. “Ask your neighbors, maybe they're really handy with a drill. Maybe they're really good at painting. Maybe your neighbor is an accountant who, you know, you can partner with. There’s so many options for people,” he says. 

Personal assets are more than a good use of your talents or skills. They’re often deeply creative and innovative ways for people with lower and unstable incomes to solve money problems. That is the experience of Bo Thao Urabe, executive director of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders, a social justice organization in St. Paul. “Sometimes we tend to think about innovation as coming from those who are most educated or those who have the most privilege to maybe spend a lot of time theorizing and thinking,” she says, “when actually actually it's being done by the people who have the least. Because  if you have just enough or barely enough or not enough, you have to be creative.”

She gives an example drawn from her family background. They came to the U.S. as refugees following the secret war in Laos during the Vietnam War. Her family had nothing when they landed. They did get some public assistance as refugees, but it wasn’t enough.“

And so we started to, in the early mornings, before school, my mom would wake us up, and we would go into the alleys of Chicago, and go dumpster diving for cans,” she says. “Technically, you were supposed to report every other sort of cash inflow your family was getting, but she didn't report that. Because that was her way of both finding extra money, but to buy the things that she thought we needed as a family, but also to be able to send back to her family. Because we had family members who are left in the refugee camps in Thailand and things like that.”

Va-Megn is the Executive Director of ADEA, short for Asian Economic Development Association. The organization supports Asian American entrepreneurs. It’s also the force behind the creation of the Little Mekong cultural district, a collection of Southeast Asian small businesses on University Avenue in St. Paul.

Va-Megn watched and worked with his mother as she used her sewing skills to support the family and eventually start a business. “She came to the US with this traditional needlework skills, and she was able to use that and transfer that into a business. So that's an asset that we have everywhere in our communities,” he says. 

When we look at people with low and stable incomes, and we look at where they live, we We decide that they have to overcome their circumstances. We don't see their strengths, let alone their potential. We don't see that personal assets add up into something much bigger for the community. “It’s easy for people to look at low income communities as areas of deficits and not as assets,” he says. “We want to turn that around and say, okay, there's definitely weaknesses, but what are the inherent strengths of these communities?”

Money matters, of course. But it isn’t the only thing that matters. We started out with this podcast thinking we had to share ways to manage money. What we learned was that we needed to share the ways that individuals invest in themselves and invest in their communities.
One small change you can make is to figure out what your personal assets are? What are your skills? What are you good at? What talents do your friends and family have? And how can you combine these things to help yourself and each other?

Additional Resources:The Open University is the UK’s largest academic institution and a world pioneer in distance learning.  Its OpenLearn platform is free learning. Even though it’s a British institution, the second class in a series about helping you to understand better your knowledge, skills and experience so that you can pursue your personal goals smarter.

This worksheet from the University of Minnesota Extension might help you make a self-assessment.

Bartering is related to the concept of personal assets and your network. “Swapping resources with others is a time-tested way to stay in control when money is tight,” according to the University of Minnesota Extension. “Think through the assets you have. List your skills, talents, and interests. Next, try to match your skills and talents to community needs.”