When I met Glenda at a women’s day function, I was struck by her confidence and how empowered she was around money. But to become the woman she is today, she had to undertake a journey of self-discovery about the power of money and how destructive it can be when it comes to relationships.
It took her 20 years to realise that you do not empower other people by continually bailing them out. She also learnt how to say “no” to people who were draining her both emotionally and financially. Glenda, who is now in her 40s and has a successful career as a fashion buyer for Woolworths, kindly agreed to share her story.
“I learnt about ‘black tax’ first hand, growing up in a family where my father was so stretched by all the family demands,” says Glenda. In a small town, an hour outside of Johannesburg, Glenda grew up in a lower-middle-income family, despite the fact that her father, a doctor, earned sufficient money to theoretically provide a privileged upbringing for his four children. His responsibilities to his extended family meant that money was always scarce.
Glenda believes, however, that this money scarcity was a blessing, as it taught her from an early age that if she wanted to reach for her dreams, she had to do it herself.
In high school, Glenda started winning beauty pageants and took a modelling course that allowed her not only to earn money, but also to travel outside of her small town. Her modelling career meant she frequently travelled to Rosebank by train which gave her a taste of a life different from the usual aspirations of a small-town girl.
“I always had bigger dreams. I didn’t feel that I fit into the community – I wanted more. Through my modelling I grew my self-confidence and my self-image to believe in a better version of me.”
Fortunately Glenda’s parents prioritised education, and Glenda was able to attend university, where she studied towards a BCom, yet she had to cover all her expenses, including renting a student flat. This meant she worked four jobs while completing her degree – including one where she worked in an underground casino. “That shows how hungry I was,” she laughs.
From the age of 19 she started to save and invest, taking out her first policy and unit trust. “I was at university mixing with more experienced people and I learnt from them. I was blessed to be exposed to information about investing and that was empowering.”
One of Glenda’s student jobs was working at Edgars in the merchandising department, packing and organising shelves. It was there that she saw exactly what she wanted for her life. “I saw these fashion buyers come to the store. They portrayed glamour and power. These were women who looked and smelt of success. I wanted to be them.” So Glenda decided to study fashion design once she had completed her BCom.
Her first formal job was as a trainee buyer at Edgars, and her life was on track to achieve those dreams. She was earning her own money and focusing on her career while postponing getting married and having children. She was also saving and investing. But then her family duties called. And as any successful black individual will know, those who make it need to remember where they came from.
Responsibility turns into a burden
“My intention was always to ensure my mother had a good life. I wanted to help my family, but then the responsibility became an obligation and eventually a burden.”
By now her parents had divorced and her mother was struggling. She had another five children from a relationship after her divorce and couldn’t make ends meet. Glenda decided to buy her a house – it was the first time she got into debt.
“I was still renting, but I took out a mortgage and bought my mother a three-bedroom home. I could afford it at first, but then the family moved in,” says Glenda who was now not only supporting her mother, but an additional seven siblings and relatives, paying for groceries, electricity, water and maintenance.
“I was in my 20s and this was all my responsibility. I worked very hard, long hours. I didn’t even have a car – the house was my focus.” Glenda ploughed all her money into looking after her family, but she was determined to keep on saving. She took on extra side businesses and was always selling things like clothing, hair extensions and jewellery. Her mother would comment, “You are always selling something, I can’t understand why your siblings can’t work.”
Glenda started by now to realise that the relationship and expectations of her family were no longer healthy. She had become an ATM to them. She had older siblings but they never contributed to helping the family. She was always seen as the successful one, so she took on the responsibility.
Then Glenda got married and had her first child. This added another whole level of complexity and financial stress. From the start, the support she was providing her family was an issue in her relationship with her husband. Now she was expected to contribute to her marital home as well as to her extended family. Her husband also had family that he had to provide for, but unlike Glenda, he was not a saver but a big spender. Soon he racked up debts for which she became jointly responsible as they were married in community of property.
“For the first time in my life I felt disempowered. I had financial institutions calling me demanding payment. I could not save because I was trying to get out of debt.”
Her husband then started his own business and the financial situation got worse. “In a few years, I went from having a small job but lots of disposable money, to having a big, demanding job but no money.”
Glenda, once financially proud, was now drowning. She had to face the reality that her relationships were destroying her.
“We separated and I went back to basics. I did a whole reconciliation of my life. I looked at what I could or could not afford and cut back. No more holidays or luxuries. I cleared my name with all financial institutions. It took 12 years but I am now debt-free.”
Glenda also had to separate from her family. While her mother’s house had been a good investment, the family living in it were not. Glenda had to stand up to them.
“I wanted to help my family, but it became a burden. You start to feel you cannot progress financially yourself. Eventually you want a return on your investment, you want them to do something with their lives, to grow with you. But that wasn’t happening. It was not a wise investment. I needed to reach a point where my family understood that I had limitations to what I could give. It was hard because we want to be liked and we fear that if we stop giving we will be seen as selfish, but you cannot keep giving and getting nothing in return.”
Glenda sold her mother’s house and moved her into a retirement village. No longer having to keep up with the payments of her mother’s house and all the costs of the extended family living there, Glenda suddenly had disposable income again.
“I was now a single mom, working hard at building my career. I had one less bond, less family responsibility and was able to start saving 30% of my income.”
Unfortunately, the family pressures continued and eventually, in order to escape, Glenda moved with her two children down to Cape Town, away from the family drama. “I kept wanting to help people –I have a people-pleasing syndrome. Moving away was the only option.”
Glenda’s decision to say “no” to her family has come at a significant cost. She feels she is no longer considered part of the family. “I do feel distant from my family and it hurts me, but while I am not liked, I am happier. I have been working for 24 years, but have only seen financial rewards in the last five years. They were dependent on me from my first job, until five years ago.”
Glenda still believes in giving back and helping others to help themselves. “I am ten times wealthier now and in a better position to help someone, but it has to be someone who is ready to help themselves. “Black tax” has such a negative connotation and we need to stop this cycle – we need to have rules.”
Glenda believes that while one gets great joy from helping other people, it has to be an investment in the future. “We need to adjust the behaviour and expectations of the people on the receiving end and this can be done through words. We need to call it a family investment fund.”
This article first appeared in City Press.