I didn’t make this move lightly. Back on January 1st, I’d downloaded Stash, an app for beginner investors, mostly out of curiosity (discussed here previously). But I didn’t just throw a $600 bet on some marketplace lottery. In fact, I didn’t set out with any intention to invest more than a few bucks at all. However, as I began to grasp the significance of what I’d stumbled into, my gears started cranking. And once I started to learn about "retail investing," as it's called… the more I wanted to learn. Before I knew it, I was realizing this could be a really, really big deal for my life.
To be clear, I wouldn’t exactly say that $600 stimulus check represented “extra” money I didn’t need. But as far as stimulus goes, once I started to see the potential of using Stash over time, aiming for long-term wealth-building seemed more "stimulating" than just maintaining the status quo. Observing the current state in August, one finance industry veteran wrote,
The coronavirus has undoubtedly had a devastating financial effect, both for the economy and for millions of individual American families. But amid all the bad news, there’s one small piece of good news: The pandemic may prompt more people to start investing.
“And as long as people are doing that wisely, that’s a great thing — it could enable more people than ever to build wealth that will help to see them through the next crisis and give them the financial security they deserve.”
What’s the problem? Well, I’m no expert, but I can see how a surge of sudden buying and uninformed “day trading” could cause some issues. Especially if decisions are being made without doing any research.
For my part, I’m not out to make “fast money.” I don’t know much about investing, but I’ve seen all kinds of get-rich-quick schemes, and that’s not what I’m after. Instead, long-term investment growth is part of the hypothesis behind The Serenity Project — an experiment in winning the wealth-building game.
You see, I grew up in a dirt-poor family in small-town South Dakota. I know how to wait out the hard times. My entire life, I’ve longed to see freedom from a legacy of generational poverty, which still keeps many of my relatives enslaved in bondage to the past. But how do people break the chains and make life better? The only financial lesson I ever heard was “work harder.” Somehow, despite my late-20s indoctrination into the Dave Ramsey school of personal finance about 10 years ago, I sensed better couldn’t just mean working myself to death with "gazelle intensity" every possible moment of my life. I knew I had to be missing something.
So far in 2021, I’ve become convinced that investing in fractional shares is the best decision I’ve made for the New Year. But that’s not all of it; I see world-changing potential. I don’t want to just pad my pockets, kick back, and relax; I want to see what happens generations from now, if people who are struggling today can be empowered to start turning the tides for tomorrow.
Sure, I could just squirrel away some investments of my own for a rainy day and not say anything about it. Nobody would ever know the difference if I succeed or fail. But... I’m over here sharing my experiences out loud, serving as my own real-life guinea pig, because I’m realizing that greater access to ground-leveling investing capabilities could be a really, really big deal — for the betterment of a story much bigger than mine.
You see, as this article on “What Poor Kids Don’t Get to Learn About Money” goes to show, I’m not the only one raised in poverty in this country. I’m not the only one who didn’t have anybody to sit me down and tell me investing in the stock market is actually attainable for anybody, not just rich people. Granted, things were different a couple of decades ago, and it took a lot more to break in back then than it does now. But as far as I knew a few weeks ago, only people who already had a lot of money did things like that.
And… I wasn’t exactly wrong. People who don’t have a lot of money don’t normally do things like invest in the stock market. But it’s not necessarily because they can’t. It’s because many don’t know they can.
I sure didn't know I could. Now I wish I'd started years ago.
A popular criticism of capitalist society argues that the wealthy minority gets — and stays — wealthy by exploiting the poor majority. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, as they say. Such relentless inequity has yielded all sorts of suggested solutions. This past September, written in the middle of the COVID-19 global pandemic and the ugliest U.S. Presidential election season imaginable, one radical view calling for a socialist economic policy claimed,
In short, while working-class communities have experienced a decade of austerity and cuts to living standards, the capitalist class have only increased their wealth and profits. And all of this in the midst of a devastating public health crisis.
“The gambling and speculation on the stock exchange is of no use to society. Instead, the stock market is just a giant casino, where the wealth produced by the working class is siphoned off by the parasites and fat cats.”
So my question is this: Knowing the stock market is central to capitalist society, can we use it to start correcting the problems of inequity produced by the way we’ve done capitalism before? In other words, can greater access to investing help empower lower-income investors with better wealth-building know-how, for the good of greater society? Instead of relying on taxation to take money from wealthier individuals and give it to poorer individuals, why don’t we invite more people from the bottom rungs to become wealthier individuals?
I know, it sounds crazy. “Poor people don’t have money to invest!” I didn’t think I had money to invest, either. But I didn’t know there was such a thing as an app like Stash, which allows for investments in fractional shares — so people can get started with just a few bucks or even some spare change at first. It’s not a magic bullet or an overnight lifestyle makeover, but it’s a starting point. And that’s something I think a whole lot more people should know.
In their “2021 Wealth Gap and Investing Study,” the authors at Money Crashers recently wrote,
In a capitalist society, a certain level of inequality is inherent. The question is: How much is too much? And how can access to financial vehicles be open to more people so that they can grow their wealth? How can more Americans benefit from the country’s economic engine?”
This New Year, combined with online research from various sources (otherwise known as lots of Googling), I began learning how to use the Stash app to start investing in fractional shares of stocks, bonds, and ETFs. If you don’t know what some of those terms mean, don’t worry — I’m learning as I go, and we’ll cover definitions another day.
Meanwhile, I’ve taken my first few steps to become better informed about the stock market. In the first two weeks of 2021, I ventured far enough to build my beginner’s portfolio, and since then, I’ve been reading and revising, determining my investing style and developing my long-term strategy. Now, before we go further, let me tell you where I came from, so you can understand where I’m at.
To this day, my mom, who’s been physically disabled since birth due to a genetic spinal defect, is relying on the generosity of local churches and a nearby food pantry to come up with basic necessities. My dad’s education ended in the 5th grade with the death of his parents, leaving him few options for upward mobility. When I was a kid, he supported our household on a $9/hour road maintenance job, putting in back-breaking hours from dawn til dusk; no one can ever try to tell me he didn’t "work hard enough." Then, two summers ago, my dad suffered a stroke while driving a semi truck. That forced him into an early retirement he wasn’t prepared for, even as my mom faced yet another round of major surgeries.
Now neither of my folks can work. They’re isolated in an old farmhouse that’s literally falling down around them despite an outstanding mortgage, while medical bills keep piling up and assistance programs leave ends unmet. I do my best to help out, but there are times I struggle to get by, too. And no matter what I do, it always feels like too little, too late.
This is my “why.” There are those who’d say people living in poverty just need to get a real job or stop taking handouts from the government. Watching my folks’ story play out over the years, I know I’ve had a lot more bootstrapping advantages than they ever did. I’m basically healthy, I’m physically capable, and I had the opportunity for a high school education to set me up for college. I could work full-time and take online classes full-time and rack up a bunch of student loan debt to last me the rest of my life. I’m one of the fortunate ones.
Regardless, in some way or another, we’ve all been fed the American Dream about how we can have anything we want, if we just “work hard enough for it.” Well, I saw my dad labor away for decades, only to get nowhere and have nothing to show for it in the end. And that’s where a lot of people land.
Meanwhile, companies are always seeking new investors in order to keep growing, and continued growth for companies means more wealth distributed among investors. It’s a win-win at odds with our current reality. Add up the factors, and there’s gotta be a way bottom-rung earners can learn how to take more ownership in our system — a system which currently benefits from the work of the commoner more than the commoner benefits from the work of the system.
I’m no expert, but maybe it’s time we see what these American economic mechanisms can really do. Can’t our capitalist principles, which have produced so much inequity in our country, be used to actually start correcting that inequity, by helping more of us share the wealth being generated and distributed as we speak?
Now, I’m a bit of a revolutionist at heart. I’m all about game-changing, turning the tables, and putting power in the hands of people to change lives. Of all the skills to influence a social justice revolution, is better stock market know-how really going to help lower-wage earners get anywhere?
Well… what I do know is, I’ve spent most of my life working paycheck to paycheck and thinking it shouldn’t have to be this way.
And my theory is this: If I can figure out how to win the wealth-building game, you can figure it out, too.
In the year ahead, I plan to continue writing about my experiences as a beginner investor, using the Stash app to build a portfolio in the stock market. I’m not saying you should do it, too — I’m just gonna try it myself and let you know what happens. I’m learning as I go, so if you’d like to come along for the ride, we’ll be learning together, hopefully doing our small part to turn the tables and win the wealth-building game, for the good of greater society.
Does that sound overly ambitious to you? Maybe we just haven’t allowed ourselves to think big enough before.
If you like anything you read here, please share this post with your social media networks to get more people thinking about how we can all start winning the wealth-building game together. Like to connect? Drop me a line or visit on Twitter.