Oh, grow up! Sam Beckbessinger’s adults-only guide to managing your money

Money makes the world go round, the world go round, the world go round, as the cabaret singers and the financial advisers like to remind us. But all that money-go-rounding can put your head in a spin, as you battle to balance your budget, top up your savings, and scrimp just a teeny bit of disposable income to dispose of by the time the end of the month crawls around. 

If that sounds like you and everybody else you know, then Sam Beckbessigner has some sage advice to offer. “Manage your money like a f*cking grownup,” she says, that being the title of her not-so-coy book on the subject, although she did thankfully include an asterisk for the faint-of-heart.

So who exactly is Sam, and how did she learn the secrets of staying solvent, and maybe even building some wealth, merely by acting your age? As she explains in this on-the-money chat with Ruda, it all comes down to change. Change your attitude, change your outlook, change the way you think about, look at, and work with money, and it will all start falling into place.

Sam admits that she herself struggled with “self-limiting narratives about money”, working in jobs she hated because she was terrified of being broke. Then she overspent to “fill the hole of how miserable these jobs were making me”, a vicious cycle that she only managed to bring to a halt when she spent a few weeks at Yale on a scholarship, meeting fellow Africans, far away from home, who inspired her to look at her middle-class angst in a whole new way.

Now, as a tech entrepreneur and writer, she is putting those principles to good use as a “money coach” with a difference. Her book, fun, quirky, and packed with practical wisdom, is all the proof you need that managing your capital doesn’t need to be a chore, and that it’s never late to make your money grow up too.

Hello and welcome to another session of the Change Exchange. My guest today is Sam Beckbessinger. Welcome, I’m so glad to meet you. Sam’s been all over the news and the social pages, not social pages, social media because of a book which made history because the publisher has never put anything like that on the cover. Sam, so Manage Your Money Like a Fucking Grownup?

Ja, absolutely!

What do you do? What did you do before this?

Uh, so I’m essentially a tech entrepreneur and I’ve, I’m a writer and over the last sort of five to 10 years, both of those things, what I’ve started building technology around and also writing about has been about money and specifically humans and money and the emotional being, and the emotional creature and how we interact with money. And so I’ve been building tools and apps to help make that easier for people. And this is the sort of culmination. This book is a summary of all the stuff I’ve learned.

But you started out studying creative writing at UCT?

Yeah.

Um, what was the picture in your head? Where were you going?

I wanted to be a writer, always.

Of fiction?

Yeah. So it’s very, it’s been quite a journey to get from someone who basically thought of myself as a very, uh, I suppose, right brained person, like an entirely creative person, um, who was terrified of money, found it very uninteresting as well. Um, the last thing I would ever have thought of studying would’ve been finance, um, and uh, you know, what I always wanted to do was to write fiction, um, but that kind of got me to a place where I needed to learn about money for myself and uh, learning about money from that angle of someone who doesn’t think that way naturally. Um, and had to learn how to learn some hard lessons as well …

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You said in an interview, in my early twenties, I had so many self-limiting narratives about money. I chose jobs I hated because I was terrified of being broke. And then I went and overspent and got into debt to try to fill the hole of how miserable those jobs were making me. You say past-me was a dumb ass. Tell me about that story. So you took jobs because you needed to earn money.

Absolutely.

Jobs like what?

Sam: So, you come out of the world with a degree in creative writing and I think my degree was actually, it was creative writing and religious studies, because …

Not very, not very sellable.

And you know, you go out into the world a bright eyed, you know, sort of young person, very idealistic. What jobs can you actually get? So I ended up working in advertising and I was lucky that the ad agency I ended up working at is an amazing one with an amazing culture. But even then it’s something that just never sat right with me. It was something that I never had wanted to get into. Um, and although I loved everyone I worked with and learned a lot about the world, I learned a bit about business. It was just the entire life that I was living felt like it was someone else’s life. Um, and it’s weird how all of these things kind of, um … You know, every choice you make, which is extensively about money as a choice about what you value. It’s a choice about life, right? And I was making all of these choices down to where I lived, what car I drove, what job I was working, and they’re all connected, right? And they were all making me really profoundly miserable. And it took me a long time to realise that the reason that I was so unhappy it was because my entire financial plan at that point was never think about it, but also, oh shit, I’d better earn lots of money, I suppose. Um, as much as I can.

So, what made you realise that I must do something about it? I must change something?

So, I was actually, I was lucky enough that while working this ad job, um, a lot of my clients increasingly where financial services clients and one of the things I’m really good at doing is I’m really good at interviewing people. So I was working as a designer essentially, which means what I would do is I would interview people about how they thought about money and then I would try to design interfaces and communicate back to them … Kind of, from the complex world of finances in ways that would make sense to the normal people that I was interviewing, right? Um, and in doing that, what was so great is I was getting to spend time with these finance people and I learned that this whole world that I, I’d had all these emotional blocks around and refuse to engage with, wasn’t as complicated as I thought it was. That actually the principles around how do you save, how do you invest, how do you keep your money safe are simple. Um, although there’s an enormous amount of, of nonsense and rain seeking and uh, and really like terrible behaviour in the financial services industry, there are increasingly people making it easier. Right? So kind of it was playing that role as translator between the financial services industry and regular people. And in doing that, I sort of one day realised that I had learned things that I needed to know and there was kind of a bit of a Damascus moment one day driving to work and I, I sort of pulled my car off the road and I burst into tears thinking about how my life didn’t feel like my life. And it almost got so bad that I was like, I mean, I need to, I need to change it because if this is how I’m going to live, you know, this is, this isn’t, this was never the plan. This is … Where? Where … Where’s kind of the freedom that I wanted and, and, you know, the creativity and all of that and living life on my own terms and kind of I’ve been lucky enough that I kind of had internalised all of these messages in my job around how does one liberate oneself, you know, financially to be able to do things. That the timing was right. That I realised actually you can write a different script. There is a different script to, um, be, you know, put your head down at a job that you’re terrified of losing and then somehow spend all of the money you make because you’re trying to live this middle class life with all of its trappings.

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Careful, you slapped …

Oh, sorry.

So, what did you do the next day?

The next day I quit my job. I quit my job. I decided to move overseas.

Did you, did you know, did you have a plan?

I’ve never had a plan at all. Um, I, I didn’t have a plan. I quit my job with no plan. Um, I applied for, um, a bunch of fellowships and things which I thought would give me time to think. I was lucky enough to get one of them, which was the Nelson Mandela Fellowship for Young African Leaders. Um, and I got to go to …

Washington.

Yeah, well it’s actually they place you at a university for six weeks and then you go to Washington. So I got to go to Yale, which was amazing. And the most amazing part of the program, or thing about the program, was that they’d chosen 500 exceptional young people from across the continent of Africa. And so being at Yale was cool. They were old buildings, that was nice, whatever. But what was amazing is that I was there in a class with 24 other exceptional young people from other countries in Africa. Uh, there were people from the Gambia, from Cameroon, from Nigeria, from Kenya. And …

How did you experience that? Because we still in South Africa, don’t really feel ourselves part of this continent?

And we absolutely are. Um, and I learned more from those people than from any lecturer at Yale. And what was so fascinating and amazing for me, it was this incredible sense of optimism and energy, um, about the fact that in all of these countries … And South Africa included, right? We have such real problems to be solving. We’re living in societies filled with such inequality, um, but that we have this generation of young people growing up who’s increasingly well-educated, increasingly has the whole world at our fingertips, um, who have a responsibility and the ability to fix problems in our countries, um, and I was just so entirely inspired by them and they kind of inspired me to turn my own angst back on myself and think like, what is being the real source of so much of my misery. It’s actually been the sense of being trapped in a life … In a middle class narrative that doesn’t make sense to me.

Because you need the paycheque?

Because you need the paycheque and that drives every other decision. So how can I go back to my country and help other people who are younger versions of myself and in so doing help myself, really?

Let’s just look at that decision for a moment because there was a possibility to stay in America? You were in San Francisco for a year? So why the decision that you want to … I mean, you were in Silicon Valley? The heartland of tech heaven?

Absolutely. So, I’d been kind of moving sideways into technology for, for a while and I had a real interest in tech because it’s a space where people solve problems. Um, and being in Silicon Valley, absolutely. I thought maybe this is the solution to all of my misery. I’ll up-end myself, I’ll go across the world. Um, and what was so surprising is how much I hated San Francisco! It felt like poor man’s Cape Town, basically. What was very frustrating for me about being in Silicon Valley is it was a collection of the smartest people that I’ve met, with the most … So well-funded. Like everything! There’s so much privilege. Um, and what were the problems that they were working on solving. They were building apps to disrupt laundry. Or to help, you know, already very wealthy, well-off people in San Francisco live even better lives. And it was so frustrating to me. So the company I was working for a in San Francisco was Western Union. I was working at their digital arm and Western Union are a company that deal with remittances to and from Africa. So young people who’ve left, left their world and are sending money back home and those economic bonds. And I was doing a lot of interviews with people about the families they were supporting back home. Um, and it just, everything about it made me just so like, “lus” to come back home. Just like, I just missed home, I missed being in a place where the problems are real, the problems are in front of us and there’s so little legacy infrastructure holding us back.

Where your life would make a difference.

Exactly. Yeah. But also we’re building – even in the tech space – where we’re so free to innovate because it’s not like in America where you’re disrupting centuries old organisations, you know? Like in the financial services space. In South Africa, everything is so new and so, so open.

So, when you came back, did you settle in Johannesburg?

No, so I, I did feel like I needed a bit of a change of scenery and I’d been living in Joburg before I left. Um, I love Joburg deeply. It’s a wonderful, wonderful city, but just, I’d been in such a bad space when I was there that it was a place that was a bit. It was tainted for me and I felt like I needed to come somewhere but different. Um, I already had a lot of friends living in Cape Town because I went to university here, so it felt like a natural place to try and settle, that had a little bit of change of scenery, but it was still connected to South Africa. Um, and so yeah, I’ve been here ever since and so happy.

Did you come back to a job?

No, no, I came back to unemployment, which was terrifying. The theme here is I don’t make plans. Um, I, uh, I started working for a company called 22/7. Um, they were an amazing start-up. They still are an amazing start-up, although they’re not so much of a start-up anymore. They’re quite mature now. Um, and it’s basically an app that helps, uh, the middle class in South Africa, the emerging middle class, manage their finances and it’s a, it’s a set of really simple, easy to understand tools. And it was, um, it was the perfect place to take, um, you know, all of the stuff that I’d, I’d, I’d sort of been carrying around, um, and, and start to work on solving it. Like, how can we build an interface for money that makes money make sense to regular people like me who are trying to avoid it, right? Um, and …

Why do, why do we have that instinct that I don’t want to think about it. It’s … What is that emotion?

Every person I’ve spoken to a about how they manage their finances. You start off with very, you know, they started talking about very basic things that are very tangible, like, you know, I have this bank account and this credit card and I move this there and five minutes in anyone … You’re talking about your emotions, you’re talking about your family, you’re talking about how did you learn these lessons? So the thing about money is it’s not something we learn in school. It’s not something that’s a … And that’s a huge problem, I think. We, we don’t learn about money the same way we learn about biology or mathematics or trigonometry. It’s something we learn in our homes from our families by watching those around us. And often it’s something we learned from advertising and having been someone who was on that side, you know, we, you, you, you internalise these messages from the world and there’s really problematic narratives you internalise – many of us. So money was something in my family …

Problematic? You must have this in order to be happy?

So, on both sides. Right? So from advertising, that’s what you’re getting. You’re getting these, these really like, unthought through ideas implanted in your head. Like you have to have this kind of car to be a serious grownup, you have to have this kind of thing to be happy. And those are ideas that are implanted in our brains that aren’t our own ideas. Right? And in fact, there are people who are quite strategically sitting down thinking about how to implement those ideas. Then our brains, um, and on the other side of the kind of, you know, the lessons we learned that more explicitly about money, um, are often, you know, in my case, it was … Money in my family, it was something that we never spoke about. We never spoke about it.

It was bad manners to talk about money.

It was very bad manners and the only time that money did come up was in moments of crisis and, and moments where money was something to be terrified of because it had run out. And um, so the messages I internalised from that was messages of fear and, and I think that’s true for a lot of people, but what we don’t get really enough positive models about are what are the, what are the ways that you can use money as a tool. And some people who are lucky enough to grow and grow up in families where there’s entrepreneurship where there’s, there’s a sense of calm and control over money …

And money is seen as an, as an instrument.

Exactly.

It’s something, it’s a tool. Something you can use to achieve things.

Exactly. But that’s not true for a lot of families and it’s also worth bearing in mind that in South Africa, 80 percent of our population was completely barred from the financial services industry and until incredibly recently. So there just isn’t the knowledge about how these instruments and tools in the financial services industry can be used and it means that specifically young black South Africans are incredibly vulnerable to being sold credit cards, for instance, or store loans, um, that can have a huge negative impact over their lifetime. Um, so, you know, we, we like my, one of the reasons I really wanted to write this book was to sort of create a very simple structure and a counter narrative. Something that I wish I’d been given as a young person of here are some ways that you can use money positively in your life, um, that are simple, simple principles.

So how did you make the space in your own life, in time, to do this because writing a book takes time.

No, it really does. Um, so I mean, what was great, the thing that is the most time consuming about writing a book as you know, is the, is the research. The putting, putting, having the experiences to put it together. And I had, this was so in line with what I was doing in my job that I assembled a really clear, sort of sense of what I wanted to say doing that, the time to actually do the writing itself. I, one of the things I learned, I really value and jobs as flexible time. So it was something that I made sure I had in my job. Um, and so I essentially took off a month. I rented a very tiny little cottage in a tiny village and Stroud, which is in the Cotswolds. Um, it was a 500-year-old little cottage. It was very cute. I locked myself off and I wrote most of the book in that month basically.

Why did you feel that you had to get away? That far away? Couldn’t you just have gone to Calvinia?

Probably. If I did it again, I’d definitely go to Calvinia. I was in London anyway for, for work. And so it was, uh, it was, uh, it felt like a, an interesting change of scenery. I realised, I learned one of the things I do value as I, the world is a big place and while I, it’s so important to me to feel connected and that South Africa is my home. Um, I’ve learned that instead of traveling and doing the tourist thing, what I really love doing is taking times when I am working in other cities. Um, and I’ve done that in a number of ways, but that’s something I far more enjoy. I really enjoy living for a short period of time in a place. Um, and it felt like that was, that was the way to do that. So, you know, I had a, had a routine, I had a life, I would wake up in the morning or did the little village market buy my cheese. Um, that’s, yeah.

But you are a non-financial person giving very financial advice.

Yes.

Is that a bit scary?

It is. Um, and luckily I, you know, it takes a village to create a book and luckily I have surrounded myself with advisers. So, when there’s a particularly thorny or difficult concept, I do have lots of people I can check in with, but I regard the fact that I don’t, I’m not a finance person, I never studied finance. Um, I don’t come from that industry. I regard that as a positive because one of the things about the financial services industry is that it’s filled with jargon …

You used the word translate, earlier. And I think that is, that’s what you’re doing exactly. You’re translating between, from a different language, often to us ordinary people.

I mean, you take a word like risk, right? Now, one of my bugbears is that, um, people in the financial services industry talk about risk, high risk and low risk investments a lot, and they mean something very, very different to what ordinary people think risk means, right? If I say to you, do you want to take your hard-earned money and put it on a high risk investment, you’re going to be like, no, definitely not. This is mine and this leads to people making a lot of mistakes, right? Um, it’s, it’s, it’s a language problem, it’s a communication problem. But I also think it’s one of those things that just makes people afraid. It makes people afraid and feel like money is something that you have to have a degree to understand. I think learning about finances is a lot like learning how to be fit, right? So you can get a whole degree in bio, biochemistry or how the body works or kinetics and if you want to be a doctor you have to study a long time to do that. But if you just want to keep your body healthy, you kind of have to learn some very basic principles. Like you know why exercise is important too. And then you have to put it into practice and that’s the hard thing.

But you still do write the creative stuff that you started out wanting to do?

I do, and increasingly.

Like what?

Yeah. So, I write, I’m sort of horror, horror fiction often for, for young, younger audiences. At the moment I’m working on a, on a kid’s animated TV show, which is super, super fun. So, a lot of what I talk about in the book is really learning to understand what you want. It’s the easiest thing in the world, what do you want – just work out what you want, it’s easy! And then use money as a tool to let you do more of that, right? And it’s one of those things you have to be very purposeful about because if you don’t, then you’ll just spend your whole life on this track of what other people think is important to you. Right? And money just vanishes. So, one of the things identified is that I care about carving out time in my life where I can write fiction because it does not pay any money. So that’s how I structure my work life now as I structure a work life that lets me take off time where I can, I can write fiction and it’s what makes me really happy. And I think everyone has that thing that just, it’s pure love. Um, and there are so many different ways, whether you make that your job and if it’s not always feasible to make that your job, finding ways to create a lifestyle that can have space for what you actually care about and for some people it’s making more space for their family and making more space for traveling or to start a business on the side. Like everyone has that, that thing, that gnaws at them.

Have you found that the book and everything that came with it – the publicity, the public platforms, has that opened doors that look interesting?

Yeah, for sure. So, um, I’ve been talking to some friends of mine about and making more content about how South Africa’s economy works. Uh, so that’s been really fun. Like going into more of that direction and some of the sections of the book that were the most fun for me to write with the ones that were about the context of, of, of South Africa’s economy, right? Because a lot of the book is very personal. It’s very much about you and what you should do, what you can do. But I think it’s important to talk about, like, why does our economy look the way it is? Why is it so much harder for some people than others to succeed in this country and what are the things holding them back? Uh, so that’s something that I felt like I wanted to explore much more after writing this book. It sort of just like opened a little door and peered and um, so definitely like there’s more things that I, that I want to write about this more things I want to make content about. Um, it’s been helpful, uh, you know, in the workspace as well. Now what I do is I work as a, as a consultant in the financial technology industry, basically. Um, and I’ve had, I’ve had opportunities to work on a lot of businesses that are trying to innovate in the finance space to make the financial world easier for people interacting with it. Um, it’s opened lots of doors there. Um, it’s also just how it’s led to a lot of people opening up to me and wanting to talk to me about their situation, their lives, um, asked for help. And that’s led to some really meaningful interactions with complete strangers. I love it when complete strangers reach out to me, actually, and they’re like, please can I just write you a whole essay about my life and why I’m so stressed out right now. It’s quite an intimate and lovely thing

And that might in time become a book in itself. Personal experiences with money. It could be a wonderful idea.

Yeah.

Do you think you’ll stay in Cape Town? You’ve experienced other places.

As we’ve said, Ruda, one thing I don’t have is a plan. Uh, I don’t know. I’m, I, I’m extremely happy. Um, but I might not, it might not always be the right case for me to be. I feel like, um, it would be very hard for me to leave South Africa permanency. It’s so thoroughly my home. Um, so …

And it’s the raison d’etre for what you do?

Exactly.

To a large extent.

Exactly. Yeah. But I don’t know.

Talk to me about renting and buying. You have very firm ideas about that.

Um, I think it’s one of those things that gets oversimplified. Um, so one of the very few pieces of financial advice that I got growing up very few was, um, as soon as you possibly can, you have to buy property, otherwise you will definitely end up old and dead and poor and alone. Definitely!

Possibly not in that order.

It’s one of those things that if you actually run the numbers about, um, is much more complex question than people think. It doesn’t always make sense for people to buy property, financially. Sometimes to some people owning their own home that they live in is just an emotionally important goal. And then that’s a very wonderful and important goal. But for people like me where it’s just a source of enormous anxiety, I’ve run the numbers on my own situation and at least for now, it definitely makes far more sense for me to rent than to buy. Because it’s dependent on so many factors where you’re living. How long are you going to live there for a number of things and …

But then you have to put away the money that would’ve gone into the haystack, into that investment, into another investment. Exactly. Not just …

Exactly one of the, one of the main things that I talk about in the book is the idea of spending ratio. So the one number you should always know and your head is what proportion of your income do you spend every month and the trick to being wealthy, it’s the most complicated rule ever, is keep that as low as possible. If the more of your money that you don’t spend and you rather invest, it’s whether you’re investing in property or in shares and my case, um, that’s, that’s over the long-term how you build wealth. Buying property is great for people who think that they lack discipline or don’t know how the financial services industry works because it does lock you in, but buy a house is very risky because you’re also betting all of your assets on a single … I mean everything you have on one single asset and often it can go well, but actually stats show that in South Africa for nine of the past 10 years … trying to remember how the stat works. I think at that over the past nine years, house prices or the value of people’s homes has actually decreased against inflation and most of the country, except for Cape Town, which has been, I mean …

Ridiculous.

I mean, you know, I should’ve taken not to my own advice five years ago, and bought a house. I’d be rich now. So, this is the thing. It’s always a gamble. You don’t know what the future is.

And your personal life? You have partnered with someone quite recently? How did you meet him?

Three years ago. I met him through, um, through friends at an incredibly dodgy nightclub.

And how did you … What made you think … A friend of mine describes love at first sight as lust with potential. So, when we go past that … When did you, how did you decide that this was the one?

Um, I think we’re just like credibly aligned on the stuff that’s really important. We’re very different in our interests, but we’re just very similar people in that both of us care a lot about living life on our own terms. Um, and he’s also a person with an incredible social conscience. Um, and he’s, he’s also just like, I’ve learned, one of the things I’ve learned is that what I value in relationships comes down to the small things, the small ways of interacting, the day to day fabric of how you are with each other and he’s just the most kind person in those interactions. So, it’s not … I’m extremely in love. It’s great. What’s great though is, uh, so I live in this, in this flat in, right in the middle of Cape Town because I hate driving and I live with him and I live with my best friend as well. And we have two cats and I think, you know, for young people, a lot of my friends, you know, in their thirties are still living with friends in these sort of almost commune type lifestyles. And it’s so fun and I think like we have the opportunity to kind of almost redefine what family is and you know, now, uh, and I regard that unit, that’s my family. Um, and Sian, my other housemate and I have lived together on and off for a decade. And, you know, we, we co-own cats so we can live or not live together.

What about sharing space? What about having a room of your own?

Yeah, well, you know, I do, but um, so there’s a lot of really interesting research about happiness, right? And um, this, the general middle-class script about like, you know, move out, get married, buy a home, buy a car, have two kids. Uh, it turns out to be isolated. It turns out to not often be a very good script for, for happiness. And if you look at, you look at communities where people live longer and report higher lifetime happiness, they’re often quite rural communities. They are places like the, the Greek islands, people regularly lived over 100. Scandinavian countries. One thing that all of those countries have in common is a high level of sociability, a high level of community, a high level of connectedness. Um, and I think it’s something that, you know, the narrative of success that we have a in a capitalist society is, is, um, it’s really terrible at making people happy. So I think it’s, it’s a, it’s a challenge to all of us to think about like if you go off the script a little bit, if you, if you think about like you’re in control of building the life that you want to, you know, what are the ways that you can do that will, that will actually give you fulfilment and satisfaction and being more connected to friends. For me, like my friends, family is one of the things that does that.

Wonderful note to end on. Thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation and, and good luck.

Thank you.

With whatever comes next.

Thanks

Thank you. Rethink your life. It is possible. Until next time, goodbye.

  • This interview first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes. The opinions expressed in the interview don’t necessarily reflect the views of BrightRock.