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5 Financial Tips for Contingent Faculty Who Don’t Want to Die in Poverty (Especially if They Are Women)

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Are you working as contingent faculty at a university in the United States of America? Do you identify as a woman?

Then this post is for you.

On September 1, 2013, Margaret Mary Vojtko passed away from a heart attack, probably caused by the side effects of cancer. 83 years old at the time of her death, Vojtko died destitute and on the brink of losing her home. What people found shocking was the fact that Vojtko had been a university professor, and as such she had worked up until her death, earning a meager $10,000 a year without retirement or health benefits. Meanwhile, the university where she worked–Duquesne University in Pittsburgh–charges between $50,000 and $65,000 per year in tuition depending on how the students enroll.

Part-time faculty hired on a semester-by-semester basis, collectively known as contingent faculty, is the largest employment category among university faculty in the United States, the result of a development that can be traced back to the 1970s. The salary of this employment category is based on what is known as course overload, that is to say, what a tenured professor earns when taking on courses outside of their regular teaching load, or when a professional moonlights as a university teacher in addition to pursuing their career in medicine, law, or what have you. It is very difficult to make a living on these salaries, because they are not intended to be a living wage; they were created as side income. The positions are not intended to be permanent.

The majority of contingent faculty are women and persons of color, groups that on the whole experience equity loss over their lifetimes in comparison to white men. Meanwhile, outdated gender roles and gender expectations discriminate against women regardless of ethnicity or race. Boys are educated in personal finances, girls are not. Men are in charge of family savings, investments, and credits, women are not. Men are advised to invest. Women are advised to save.

When a man dies, he is more likely to leave money behind than is a woman. When a woman dies, she is more likely to end her days in poverty because women make less money, they are denied financial literacy education, and they live longer. In other words, when a man dies he leaves money behind because his life ends before his money runs out. When a woman dies, her money has run out long before she draws her final breath.

Put all of this together and you–a woman working as contingent faculty–are at great risk of ending your life in poverty. Because of Obamacare, chances are you will have access to some kind of health insurance if you get really sick, but what about your pension? How far will your social security check take you if you have spent a lifetime working short-term employment for little pay? And no, your university will not step up and do the right thing. Universities are loyal only unto themselves. They owe you nothing, and university administrators will be the first to tell you.
But don’t despair! There are ways to make sure that you will live out your days safe and secure in your own home.

Put all of this together and you–a woman working as contingent faculty–are at great risk of ending your life in poverty. Because of Obamacare, chances are you will have access to some kind of health insurance if you get really sick, but what about your pension? How far will your social security check take you if you have spent a lifetime working short-term employment for little pay? And no, your university will not step up and do the right thing. Universities are loyal only unto themselves. They owe you nothing, and university administrators will be the first to tell you.

But don’t despair! There are ways to make sure that you will live out your days safe and secure in your own home. (I am aware that depending on your ethnicity or race, banking and investments can be more or less difficult to access. The advise I offer below is to be taken as general advise to be applied to your personal situation.)

Here are 5 financial tips for contingent faculty who don’t want to die in poverty (especially if you are woman).

1. Open a Savings Account
The easiest way to secure your financial future is to open a savings account. But not just any savings account. You need to open a High Yield Interest (HYI) Savings Account. What makes a HYI account different from a regular savings account is that the HYI account pay a much higher interest rate than a regular account.

I used to have my savings in a regular savings account. That account paid a monthly interest of 0.0499%. I then switched to a HYI savings account which at the time paid a monthly interest of 0.9%. After the Federal Reserve has increased its interest rates, my HYI account now pays 2% per month. My old savings account is still paying 0.0499%.

Not all banks offer HYI accounts, so you need to do some research. I have my HYI savings account with Discover. That’s right, the credit card company has an online bank branch.

But how can I talk about savings accounts when contingent faculty barely gets by on the salary we are paid?

First of all, everything that has to do with accumulating money is done over the long term. Money accumulates over time, sometimes over a very long time. In Swedish, we have a saying that many small creeks fill up a whole river (“många bäckar små blir snart en hel å”). Money works the same way.

I save 10% of everything I make, regardless of the source or the amount. That 10% goes straight into my savings account. Add to that the interest paid by the HYI account. On top of that, add the compounded interest, or interest on interest. You will literally see your money add up in front of your eyes. Also: Interest is free money.

2. Invest in the Stock Market.

Wait a minute! Invest in the stock market? Can’t you see what is happening right now?

Yes, I see what is happening on the stock market right now because I have invested in the stock market.

There are two reasons why I am not panicking over the fact that my entire portfolio is in the red. First, in the words of Suze Orman, you haven’t lost or gained anything on the stock market until the moment you sell. I am not selling anything for many years yet.

Second, I am dollar cost averaging. The guiding principle for investments in the stock market is the same as for the HYI savings account. You invest small amounts of money in the same stocks regularly over a long period of time. In stock market speak, this is called dollar cost averaging. By dollar cost averaging over a long period over time, the ups and downs of the stock market will even themselves out. By dollar cost averaging, you can start small and increase your investments incrementally at a pace that feels comfortable for you.

Choose an online platform for your stock market investments. That way you handle all your investments yourself, you don’t have to deal with a broker, and you don’t have to pay that broker commission. I am using TD Ameritrade as my online platform for investing in the stock market. TD Ameritrade is great; however, they don’t offer the service where you can dollar cost average into more expensive stocks by buying slivers of that stock.

Third, I am investing in the stock market because of the dividends, not the profit. Dividends are payments companies make on a regular basis to their shareholders. And just like interest, dividends are free money.

All my stocks are enrolled in what is known as DRIP, or Dividend Reinvestment Plan. When a stock is enrolled in DRIP, the dividend is automatically reinvested in the stock that paid the dividend. It is dollar cost averaging without having to lift a finger using free money.

The goal with this type of long-term investment and reinvestment is to own enough stocks for the dividends to provide for you. Companies pay dividends to their share holders regardless of what state the stock market is in. Right now, my entire portfolio is in the red, but now is also the time of the year when quarterly dividends are paid. In other words, I am buying stocks on the cheap using free money. And I am not selling any stocks for many years to come.

3. Invest in Your Retirement.

Not all universities enroll their contingent faculty in their retirement programs. If your university makes retirement payments on your behalf, check and see if the payments are made into an investment account. If they are paid into an investment account, make sure to invest that money. Here, being familiar with the stock market will help you.

Regardless of whether your university pays into retirement or not, the payments you will get from social security and your employer will not be enough for you to live on, simply because the salaries of contingent faculty are so low. As contingent faculty, a good option for retirement savings is a Roth IRA, which is a retirement investment account where you pay taxes on the investment amount and not on the pay-out after you retire. All major investment firms offer Roth IRAs.

4. Get Your Own Credit Card and Learn to Manipulate Your Credit Score.

A fallacy when it comes to credit cards is that all users of a credit card earn credit for the purchases made on the card. This is not true. Only the credit card holder earns credit. This belief is a major financial trap for women across generations who are in heteronormative relationships and co-users on their husbands’ credit cards. In those situations, all the purchases and payments benefit the husband, and no one else.

If you don’t have your own credit card, you need to get one. There are credit card companies who offer credit cards specifically for people with no credit who need to build credit. That is how I first became a Discover customer; as an immigrant I needed to build credit, and Discover offers one of these cards.

Once you have your credit card, you will start to build your own credit, which results in a credit score. The credit score is an insidious way to keep us all in debt, but unfortunately we are forced to live with it. It is the credit score that determines the interest rates on our mortgages and loans, some employers look at credit scores before they make a hire, utility companies and cable and internet providers look at your credit score before they decide what rate you will be paying for your bundle.

There are ways to manipulate the credit score in ways that benefit us. The easiest way is to pay off your card once a week instead of once a month. Once again, it is the small amounts that add up and become something big. Also, check and see if your credit card allows you to pay off the principal of the debt in addition to paying off the monthly amount which includes the interest.

5. Educate Yourself.

Growing up, boys and girls are treated differently when it comes to handling money and learning about money. Boys are taught early on to be the providers, to make investments, and to handle money. Girls are taught none of that because the girls are supposed to be taken care of by the boys. This attitude towards gender and money hurts women and girls and robs them of agency and control over their own lives. This attitude is why women end their lives in poverty while men die with money left over.

As contingent faculty, we are among the highest educated people in the world. In the global university system you can’t get a higher degree than the PhD, which is the minimum requirement for teaching in many academic disciplines.

Treat your finances as you would a research project and educate yourself. So much amazing financial advice is available for free, but I will narrow down my recommendations to two podcasts.

The first podcast is the Financial Feminist, hosted by Tori Dunlap. Tori Dunlap is a theater major turned millennial financial adviser who is on a mission to dismantle the patriarchy by teaching young women how to become rich. Dunlap’s podcast is filled with life hacks such as how to manipulate your credit score, how to investigate your personal anxieties surrounding money, how the financial sector is stacked against women of color and the LGBTQ community, and so much more. Dunlap has her first book coming out later this year titled Financial Feminist. Overcoming the Patriarchy’s Bullshit to Master Your Money and Build A Life You Love. Needless to say, I will be buying Dunlap’s book.

The second podcast is the Women and Money Podcast, hosted by Suze Orman, a giant and veteran in the field of financial advise. Where Dunlap’s podcast is geared towards young women, Orman speaks to women over 50. Here you will get advise on what to do with your Roth IRA, your social security, questions about real estate, wills and living trusts, what to do if your husband died and left you with nothing, and a lot more. On her website, Suze Orman sells her discounted package of must-have documents, such as power of attorney in cases of medical emergencies, and her book The Ultimate Retirement Guide for 50+. Buy this book even if you are nowhere near your 50th birthday.

I listen to both Financial Feminist and Women and Money because they speak to the issues women encounter during different parts of our lives. Dunlap teaches me life hacks while Orman teaches me what to do so that I can live out my later years safe and secure.

One final thing…

Securing your financial future takes time, effort, and commitment. But, if there is one personality trait that we as women academics have, it is tenacity. If we can dedicate between five to ten years of our lives working on the same book or dissertation and not give up even though we sometimes despair, then we have the strength, the intelligence, and the wherewithal to become financially secure, especially since we all too often have no one on our side but ourselves.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.


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