When You Earn More Than Your Parents

Being a first generation white collar professional comes with its own set of financial challenges.

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Earning more money than your parents, feeling like no one ever taught you about money, and being the first family member to graduate from college are just a few of the experiences that define what it means to be “first generation white collar,” says author L. Marie Joseph. Mainstream financial advice just doesn’t work for this demographic, she says, because it’s written without those unique experiences in mind.

Joseph, who lives in Atlanta, fills that void with her book, First Generation White Collar, and blog of the same name. She wrote the book, she says, because as a first generation white collar worker herself, she noticed a lack of relevant financial information for a group she describes as “making a nice salary, but still struggling with money.” She adds, “We have a formal education but no financial wisdom to properly manage our newfound income,” which can lead to over-spending and poor financial decision-making. Excerpts from our conversation:

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What is your overall money philosophy?

I now respect money. I live by my favorite quote: "Save your money and one day it will save you,” an African proverb. Being wiser and more knowledgeable with personal finance, I now understand the function of it and how to properly distribute my income instead of just consuming.

What are some of the unique financial challenges of first generation white collar workers?

We are the vulnerable when it comes to money, because our immediate thought is to fit in with white collar society. That makes us spend just to blend in: nice suits, children in the right schools, the right car and neighborhood. We feel we must show our family that we are doing well.

Our parents are so proud of us so we want to show off a little. So we step it up a little. My parents thought I had a massive income just flowing in once I received my first white collar job. They were correct—somewhat. I did have a nice income but they did not realize I had student loan and credit card debt that was just as high as my income.

As a result, we ignore or pay just the minimum on our debt and spend our paychecks as much as possible. My book gives first generation white collar professionals a structured plan of how to get ahead and not just get by with money. I try to cover all the bases of how to be smart with money.

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Can you share some of your advice for these professionals?

Save money, invest in your 401k, don't drink lattes. I give stories of what happens to first generation white collar professionals that get the lifestyle inflation bug. I think we try so hard to be better than our parents that it really hurts us in the long run.

We don't have anyone to tell us the true way to wealth. We also feel embarrassed to tell anyone our financial flaws so we never learn. I try to get my readers to change their mentality with money. Money is almost always psychological and not about the math. My book is also my own story; I tell stories of what I did with money in hopes that my readers can relate. I don't have initials after my name but what I do have is the knowledge and experience to know what works.

How does your advice compared to mainstream financial advice?

I do not spend three chapters on insurance and other boring subjects. I try also not to use sophisticated words. I do not want to intimidate my readers. This is why most young adults shy away from personal finance books.

Coming from a blue collar background, the words mutual funds, disability insurance, 401(k) and college funds was not discussed around the dinner table. So by the time we get our first professional paycheck we do what is common—pay our bills and spend the rest. We don't have anyone to tell us how much to save and how often.

Kimberly Palmer is the author of the new book Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.