Paco de Leon and her book, "Finance for the People" Courtesy Penguin Life
"This Is Uncomfortable" Newsletter

Paco de Leon wants you to embrace the little wins

Marika Proctor and Ellen Rolfes May 17, 2024
Paco de Leon and her book, "Finance for the People" Courtesy Penguin Life

Going into my Marketplace internship, I didn’t have a typical money background.

I’m an actor-turned-journalist with a grad degree in religious studies. I failed AP Calc in high school, so it’s amusing to my family and friends that I spend my days helping tell stories about money for “This Is Uncomfortable.” But as TIU listeners know, money stories are about so much more than just dollars and cents. And that’s what I love about Paco de Leon’s approach to financial literacy in “Finance for the People.”

De Leon reminds us that the self you bring to managing your money is the same self you bring to the rest of your life: to your art, your relationship with your partner, your volunteer work, etc. She thinks of managing money as a human problem, not just a financial one. 

And it’s not a get-rich-quick kind of self-help book. De Leon describes it as her version of a Financial Planning 101 course, one that addresses many challenges overlooked by the industry and business education. She packs in lots of practical tips on everything from bank accounts to credit scores, along with her personal stories about what initially prevented her from taking action and how she moved forward. 

And I loved her hand-drawn cartoons throughout the book that reinforce her main takeaways and add a little humor. 

Here are edited excerpts of our conversation. 

This Is Uncomfortable: You’re a former financial planner, a present-day bookkeeper for creative businesses and you’re a musician, among many other things. How did the book come out of those various threads?

Paco de Leon: The book was kind of organic. When I first started my bookkeeping agency, I literally Googled “how to do online business,” and online marketing was basically the answer. And so I saw blogging and putting out a newsletter as kind of [online marketing]. 

I was having lots of conversations with creative entrepreneurs, and they would ask me the same questions. When I heard the question enough times, I turned it into a blog post. 

And so I was just putting out blog posts and a newsletter every week into the ether, and eventually, a literary agent reached out to me and asked me if I had, quote-unquote, “a book in me.” And, you know, like all good creatives, I answered, “Absolutely,” and I’ll figure it out on the way. 

TIU: Throughout the book you’re encouraging folks to consider their behaviors and beliefs about money. One of my favorite suggestions you give is to schedule weekly “personal finance time.” Can you explain what that means? 

De Leon: Certainly. Weekly finance time is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s about setting aside time on your calendar every week to face your finances. So it’s just a way for you to slowly make progress on your finances. If you give it time, your brain will recognize that it’s important. 

To get started on the first week, you can just log into your accounts. That might sound silly for some people that are maybe more advanced in their personal finance journey – but for people who are scared or just starting out, just getting your logins is stressful enough. 

An illustration of a man with a kid on his shoulders. The man has a thought bubble that says, "I'm completely in charge of my actions." The kid has their fingers over the man's eyes, making it impossible for him to see. An arrow points toward the kid to signal that it is a metaphor for the man's subconscious beliefs about money.
An illustration from “Finance for the People” (Courtesy Penguin Life)

TIU: What are some tips for handling strong feelings or emotions that come up when we sit down to take a look at our finances? 

De Leon: I think it’s important to recognize how you are feeling as you’re about to go into it. Are you numb and you need to be energized? Or are you, like, wigging out and you need to calm down? The action you take right before you look at your finances, it’s gonna depend on that feeling. 

Let’s say you’re hyper. You have 90 tabs open. You’ve had too much coffee and it’s hard for you to settle. The cliche is take three deep breaths. You can put warm water or cold water on your face, whichever is helpful. Light a candle. Take a walk. 

If you are numb and you don’t want to engage — when I was writing the book, one of the things I did was I had a playlist of music that I knew would trick my body into getting excited. So I’d turn it up and I’d literally be, like, fist pumping to a hype track. And then I’d sit down and furiously try to type with that energy.

You can harness that energy for your finances too. You can trick your body into getting excited and then ride that wave. It sounds silly, but it works. 

TIU: In the book, you give folks a great primer on credit. You write that credit scores are really mysterious but they matter in terms of what we get to do in the world. If you had one practical tip for our listeners, what’s one thing they could do for their credit in the next week?

De Leon: Checking your credit score, knowing your number, it pays dividends. If you don’t know [your credit score], that is the first step. will give you a free credit report every year. If you have a score that could use improvement, you want to know so you can start to figure out — how did it get there and how can I ensure that it doesn’t get there again?

My favorite is when people are so delighted that their score is much higher than they imagined. My wife is such an adorable example: I made her sign up. And she looked and she was like, “Oh my God, it’s so high. Did you know this?” 

I said, “I had a feeling. You had a storied past, but you’re doing a lot of good things when it comes to your debt and credit now.” 

And so I would like for people to have that moment of delight. And if you don’t have the moment of delight, then great, you have that moment of clarity where you can figure out what moves need to be made.

You want to make sure everything you see on [your credit report] you recognize, to make sure that something like your identity getting stolen hasn’t happened. 

An illustration uses a pie chart to show how a person's credit score is calculated: 35% is payment history, 30% is credit utilization ratio, 15% is length of credit history, 10% is type of credit used, 10% is new credit.
An illustration from “Finance for the People” (Courtesy Penguin Life)

TIU: You talk about financial goals as the beginning of a process, rather than simply an endpoint. Can you unpack that a bit more? 

De Leon: Goals are good beginning points, but I don’t think it’s very effective to be obsessed with goals. You have to fall in love with the process because if you think about it, we’re never arriving, we’re always en route, right?

I think once you really embody that, whatever knocks you off kilter, it’s easier to recalibrate. It’s easier to reframe because if you showed up and you put that 25 bucks in your account, or if you showed up and you got those 500 words on the page, that’s it. You’ve achieved, right? In the long run, if you stack up enough of those [small actions], then oftentimes you will reach whatever your goal is. 

TIU: How do some beliefs about morality and money conflict? You touch on the tension between the two a few times throughout the book. 

De Leon: Yeah, and I feel like my answer is always evolving. The tension with money and morality hovers around biases that a lot of conscientious, thoughtful, educated people tend to have — like “It is unethical to invest in the stock market.” 

I agree, the mechanism for making money in the stock market is inherently exploitative because the people who are the shareholders at the top are extracting the wealth created by the workers, who are creating the additional value, right? I recognize that is unethical. 

But we live in a society where money does translate to power. And if we want to see change, you have to find ways to seize power, so that you can pick and choose the things that you do want to change. 

I think it is worse for us to be conscientious objectors to building wealth, especially those of us who are from various marginalized groups and who inherently lack power. We all have to realize that living life here on planet Earth is a series of negotiations. To be here on Earth is to exist in tension. It’s all about figuring out the different ways that you’re willing to participate in these systems that are not perfect. 

TIU: What about the question of morality and debt? 

De Leon: Debt has been a concept that has been with humankind since the beginning of time, before [the invention of] money. The larger question about debt is, what debt do we owe to one another? What debt do we owe to our ancestors? What debt do we owe to society at large? 

For me, once I was able to understand debt as a concept beyond money, it change[d] my perspective from “Debt is always bad, you should never be in debt” to “Debt is a facet of what it is to be a member of an interdependent species.” So that’s the philosophical bent.

The practical bent is at the end of the day, in order to build wealth, you must either build, buy or create valuable things. A valuable thing in the finance world is called an asset. What does an asset do? It puts money into your pocket. If you have an asset, it can either create an income stream or you can sell it for cash. 

Oftentimes, in order to get an asset, you need a liability, right? So when I’m thinking about risk, when I’m thinking about borrowing, the phrase that always comes into my mind is “If I want to own the asset, I have to own the liability.”  

TIU: What has been one of the most gratifying things since your book has been out there in the world?

De Leon: Certainly one of the most gratifying things is whenever somebody will say something nice about how the words in the book have made an impact on their life. That’s one of my goals in life — every day to help one person figure out their experience of being human on Earth.

TIU: Did anything surprise you about the response to the book?

De Leon: People really take you seriously after you write a book. You’ve become a serious person once you’ve written a book, and that’s been almost comical for me.

I think it just makes me realize, you know, there’s so much in our own minds, beliefs that [aren’t] necessarily true. It is a tremendous amount of effort to write a book, but I’m just a person who showed up every day for a year. And anybody can do that. You can do that.

📚 Our next Uncomfortable Book Club pick 📚

In two weeks, we’ll talk with writer Sameer Pandya about E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India,” which has its 100th birthday this year. Pandya discusses how class, money and colonization get in the way of friendship in the novel. You can pick it up wherever books are sold or read a free digital version of the book, which is now in the public domain. 

The Comfort Zone

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This newsletter was written by Marika Proctor and Ellen Rolfes, and edited by Tony Wagner and Zoë Saunders. 

The illustrations featured in this newsletter are republished with permission from “Finance for the People” by Paco de Leon, published by Penguin Life, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. © 2022 by Paco de Leon.

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