Money Diaries: Pandemic Pivots and Budget Shifts

These past few years have been challenging for many families. Today, we chat with the Stewart-Isaacs about how they've worked to pivot and thrive!

Family Finances During the Pandemic

Everyone I personally know has been impacted these last two years, financial or otherwise. We’ve had to adapt, pivot, or in some cases push through some challenging times. 

If you’ve spent any time in our thriving Families facebook group, you can see we’re supporting one another as we work with what we have and towards our family and financial goals. 

Today I want to highlight the Stewart-Issacs, a local family here in the Triangle area (who during a conversation we had are also Coastal CU members). 

Michael and Shemekka have had some pretty big shifts to deal with since 2020.

They were featured in the NY Times last year in their money diaries series and shared their numbers as they navigated through life changes such as having a baby, job switch, remote learning for their kids, oh and buying a house.

In this episode, we get into:

  • Balancing work from home while having kids doing remote learning 
  • Buying a house in the middle of a pandemic
  • Teaching their kids to be financially savvy and thoughtful

We have a lot to cover, so let’s get started!

Resources to Stay on Top of Your Money

If you want to chat some more about creating better money habits, questions, or share your own tips please join us over at Thriving Families on Facebook.

Thank You to Our Sponsor Coastal!

thanks to our podcast sponsor Coastal Credit Union. If you want to live better, you have to bank better!

Support for this podcast comes from Coastal Credit Union! If you’re living in the Raleigh Durham area and looking to bank better, come check out Coastal today.

As a credit union, Coastal serves its members first including an annual loyalty bonus. We've been members for years and love their service and competitive rates on checking and savings accounts!

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Money Diaries: Pandemic Edition

Elle Martinez: I can't believe I'm saying this. This is two years since the pandemic started and I don't know anyone who hasn't been affected in some way, shape or form.

I saw your incredible story in the New York times.

Credit: NY Times

Michael Stewart-Isaacs: Going through that pandemic was an interesting time period. So to have that opportunity to be a part of the I guess New York times version of history in motion represent people who were finding ways to survive in the pandemic was definitely an honor, but it definitely was telling to learn so much.

Shemekka Stewart-Isaacs: Yeah, absolutely. It really helped us be more accountable in the midst of crisis and to lean into that a whole lot more.

Elle Martinez: I can't even imagine. I've done some news piece but to feel comfortable enough to like share your numbers. Cause I know like finances and family, people are very private about that, but you were very open and something that stuck out to me was the, not just the resilience, but it came across, like you guys were team.

You were really leaning into that with your kids being there for them. Balancing let's see work, you have four kids and remote learning at that time, different ages. You had a new baby job changes, and then the toddler and buying a house.

That is amazing that you guys are coming out stronger. So if you don't mind, can you go through the timeline of like what came first? Because did your baby arrive right before COVID or around then? How did that work?

Pivoting Family, Finances, and Work During the Pandemic

Shemekka Stewart-Isaacs: Okay, well if we start the timeline right before COVID kind of began to creep across the us, we feel like we were just ahead of it. When things started shutting down, we were still, I was still very much pregnant due in June. And we were being we were in the Capitol having sent it to meetings, in March.

Right, right. They started breaking down. It was like, we have a poster, things were coming, you know, they were being a little bit more careful, a bit. But, but it hadn't hit very strong then. We were in DC shaking hands with senators in the midst of while a pandemic was like, so keeping up and breaking, closing things down alone.

Elle Martinez: Wow.

Michael Stewart-Isaacs: Essentially having a small business, building our consulting firm. I was recently laid off my job because of my department closed. So making the transition felt the momentum of the work supported by Shemekka's consulting firm. Then all of a sudden, the whole world falls apart and we are already looking for a house.

We were already preparing to, you know, family because we knew the new baby was coming in. Then the worst crisis that any of us have ever experienced and we're still experiencing, had started to happen, we had to, as unfortunate word, we, the people say pivot all the time. We had the balance, we had a balance with each other.

I think a lot of what our story reflects is that we saw the need to support one another should make us whole in our family in regards to me transitioned in my income and then being able to come in and support her to keep us supported, even though we're going through the roughest time.

My background is in sales and marketing, and Shemekka just one of the most amazing leaders and coaches. So us kind of building each other up and then analysing the kids. I was calling myself, daddy daycare sometimes had to do just to keep the things moving and we were just fortunate to have each other and the opportunity.

From the different organizations work with, we were just grateful that everyone was being nimble and flexible and we found our opportunities.

Juggling Remote Work with Kids at Home

Elle Martinez: Yeah. That's, that's amazing. You touched on a lot of things, but something I want to go back to and highlight is, the reality is running a business like working period.

That was a big transition for a lot of people. I know my husband works from an office switch to remote. I'm an entrepreneur myself. So I understand like it is a lot to juggle it because you're wearing a lot of different hats and you have four kids remote learning and they each have their own needs.

How did you balance that cause like I kind of shifted, I don't know if you guys did this, like a swing shift. So I do a lot of work early in the morning before they would wake up. And then in the evening, whatever had to get done that day got done. How did you guys handle that?

Shemekka Stewart-Isaacs: We found whatever corner we could because. The students at four different schools having to participate in those classes, they needed quiet space and I'm doing leadership coaching. I need a quiet space too. So we all gave each other grace, and we knew that in this case balance needed to be fluid.

We needed to be flexible so if it was having a meeting on the stairs in the corner, you get a moment of quiet.

Michael Stewart-Isaacs: We had a son there was work underneath the family table and that was his choice, but he wanted to have his own space on his siblings. So just funny things that we got to see, our kids have to develop new habits to get their work done, to work with their other siblings.

It's not like they're in the same classes of schools say, what was that assignment? We had two middle schoolers, two high schoolers and trying to manage all of their activities, having to tell our son, he could play football, you know, are avid for those types of sports. And it's just, you know, when we're looking at all the things we had to do, I mean, it is a beautiful thing to reflect.

And again, And we're still in the midst of really that first real year of the pandemic. So it, you know, we were even in shell shock to share our finances, to share our habits, but we also knew that we had an opportunity because we are in a space where a lot of times, statistically African Americans always get judged in regards to financing.

We wanted to set an example priority as a family overall. So the pandemic just allow for us to know at worst case scenario, our work together. Planning Shamekka is super scheduling cause I can't tell you, I must admit. We can just do things at the whims, but because she loves the schedule that changed my life and it really helped us in this pandemic is having really strict schedules that we disciplined ourselves to.

We had to create our own daycare kind of system for our son so he could still be educated. The he's four now, and he's still not even in kindergarten yet. We had to create all these unique ways of overcoming these obstacles. And not let our kids feel burdened by it. That was the other part of it as well, too.

We're going through changes. Don't want you all to, you know, feel it and, you know, cause they felt it with the friends, not seeing that, like they wanted to, so it was a lot, but because we have faith and we want another we bought it together. So

Shemekka Stewart-Isaacs: we encourage them to join him when they. Up to, especially if we were if it was a late day for us. Cause we tried to do it before everyone got up, but if it was a late day and it was in between their classes, they could come over and join us. So we were able to incorporate them in that, to give them their own outlet for their own wellbeing too.

Buying a House During the Pandemic

Elle Martinez: Yeah. I'd love that holistic approach. We were in the same boat too. We have two girls and that was kind of focus was what kind of routine. With everything changing outside, and all these transitions, we wanted to give them a space where they would feel calm, even though, there's all this stuff going on, and then let them express themselves.

You know, they see the news. They're not ignorant. Kids nowadays like they are on top of everything with current events.

But I want to talk about on top of everything, buying a house. I probably don't live too far from, beyond I'm in Raleigh. And I had to help my mom, she moved into the area in the middle of the pandemic and it was crazy house hunting.

For you guys, how did that process go? Since we were going through the pandemic and then we all realized, like we all need kind of our own space in a house. Did that change your house hunt, like what you were looking for?

Shemekka Stewart-Isaacs: Oh, pre pandemic. We were always looking for space because our family was growing and. We wanted our room at that point space was important for us to be able and then while we're going through the pandemic, having a yard, we now house in the midst of this.

There wasn't like a backyard to let the kids go out and just run that energy out. So in the midst of the pandemic, I think our, one of our first pivots was backing away from the competing and putting money down earnest money and it getting out by someone else and that emotional roller coaster.

Well, that was hard cause we were looking at houses, the kids knew, they were aware of the process. We wanted them to see the process and so we involved them as much as we could.

Then I just had my, this is it, no more denial getting our bids. We're falling in love with too many houses. I was like, let's get out of the competition and let's just build, and that'll remove this competitive nature out in this ugly market, but what was it like for you?

Buying a Home as Entrepreneur

Michael Stewart-Isaacs: Well, I mean, it was tough. We were planning it pre pandemic I had with gainfully employed, we had our businesses going and then the world falls out and you're still looking for a house. And like I said, we were going place to place bidding, really trying to look at options, even outside of the city to kind of see that greater Raleigh areas.

What I've now come to call it. You know, if you think about markets like Atlanta, you know, they'll Atlanta, they call it proper. It's the hub.

People that have kind of built up the outskirts and the growth around. I think for us, we saw that opportunity to say, Hey, we go a little bit further out the city, but enough that it's an easy drive.

We can get something with a greater value. We can really kind of hedge the market a little bit. Use some of these government subsidies possible. And that's just me giving game and information that anybody out there use.

Find out what's out there. There's rural subsidies. There's USDA, there's so many different products that are out there to help people who are looking for a home.

I'm saying that now, because we were fortunate, we got in right before the there was so much. Even our house and honestly our value has increased because the market changed, you know? So that's another thing. Well, home ownership,

Shemekka Stewart-Isaacs: positive equities. Yeah.

Putting In the Work to Buy an Affordable Home in a Hot Market

Michael Stewart-Isaacs: So it was just right. Because we were already looking and we pushed and we pushed you know, she Mackle may call it or I'll go double down on it.

It's called us, buying a home while black process you know exactly your own challenges from get past.

To talk about our big family. We were former divorce SES who bought our lives together and so we're living what we call our second chance.

We're living our second chance to be able to put our lives together, to love a person that loves you, do everything to make sure our kids have the right setups and that.

Having a house was so vital to us having that foundation as my wife made me realize, because I was hesitant at first.

As a man, you want that, that big dream house and all this stuff, keep working, but was, I know we need something now. It was more, we have a beautiful home, but it was a practical, like we have a lot of kids, things are changing.

I had adapt and really suck up my pride and really say, Hey, we need this and that. She made it really clear to me when she made a concept of, we need a place to address. You living in a townhome, we were even renting a storage unit just to put it in perspective to keep excess products.

Now having a home, we've been able to have all of our stuff in one place. And that feels whole again, after a lot of life changes over the years. Cause we talking about you go back to oh eight financial crisis to this pandemic. A lot of people that hit.

We don't want to go over anyone's head to say, if you even had the chance to rebuild from oh 8 0 9 and then you get in fast forward, less than, you know, 10 years later, you're in the midst of a pandemic. That's traumatic for a lot of people so we just count our blessings that we had each other, and we were able to really put together a solid plan.

I tell anyone out there, if you have a plan work, it don't give up on it. Don't let outsiders tell you it's impossible. Push your loan agents, push your realtors. Push. Push push push. Because if you let up at any point, they'll give up.

If you stay positive and let them know that there's no way you're taking yourself out of the game, there's no way you're going to let a bid stop. You. That's the tenacity. We had to get it done

Shemekka Stewart-Isaacs: and it feels like a blood through draw away.

I understand why they make it hard. It's not fake. But like Michael was saying that persistence is key. I mean, and we did this buying a home self-employed, which is a whole nother.

Michael Stewart-Isaacs: So this is what I'm saying, all these things and we still had to keep the process going to make sure that they would not try to limit us in what was possible for our family, because we had had to happen.

Elle Martinez: Yeah and you bring up some good points. I've also had friends cause for those that are not familiar with the triangle area, it.

I mean, it is a hot market. It's growing. We had bought our house now it's been six years and two going on three years ago. Like they have a whole new development across the street. If they find like a sliver of land, they put a development in there. Yeah. So the price has shift and jumped, but you do have to all your, you know, programs that are available.

I've had friends, like you mentioned the USDA rural. Cause people think, oh no, it's completely out in the middle of nowhere, but many times it's just over the line so like on the map it says rural, but you're still, within those city limits.

I know first time home buyers, like there's programs out there and like you said, lean into that, your loan officer, lean into your real estate agent whoever's on your team, make sure they're pitching in.

Michael Stewart-Isaacs: Make them your friends. We did everything. I mean, we had a phenomenal realtor.

I mean they would gift us a lot. Just really kept us, even when we weren't getting the bids we wanted, they would still stay with us. He was wonderful gentlemen.

We are very grateful to our friend, Bobby, you know, he knows what he is. But hopefully, like I said, whether it's him or any other great realtors out there, he was an asset to us to really kind of give us the information we needed guided the.

It took us to places where he was able to get other clients approved and really helped them through the process of again, yes, your team is very important. Most times you don't think about that when you're married or kind to buy a home that you still need a team to complete the process and even down to your closing, make sure you have a lawyer involved.

We did ourselves, we have our legal kind of mindsets, but at the same time after reviewing the paper for those who may not be financially savvy or you understand legal terms, Definitely have someone who, you know, that understands those things, you, the paperwork you're signing because they will, you know, closing people.

It was this like, wow, you're charging me fees. So this was the part where we, we hope there wasn't any, we want to call it discrimination more than we would say it was a new normal that people have to get used to that home ownership comes in new complexions and it comes with different ways of lifestyle choices in terms of how you employ yourself and how you pay us.

So I think we had a teach our mortgage professionals lesson in terms of the new world in the NSF, all the people out there, creators all of those people who are having incomes coming in and in conventional ways, no one tells you that that may give you trouble doing conventional things.

So we need to make sure that people are aware of that and through our trials and we were able to kind of capture that opportunity because we literally were doing the interview with the New York times in the middle of the paper. While the kids are in class.

Why would you have to keep and wild? Let me step over here. This lady was writing her first book now and all of that came out at the same time. New York gun. I bought that for you too.

Elle Martinez: I remember that when it came in. And it

Michael Stewart-Isaacs: focuses the winners. I like it so much cause it had the receip

t. It was about, it's funny and locally we'll talk, they'll say keep receipts on things. What I tell people in life, keep your receipts from the grocery store, from the mechanic, from anything you do.

So you can start to pattern yourself and pay attention to the habits that we all collectively have. I think that was the biggest thing about this process. And it's not actually permeated into our work now that we c a greater opportunity for what we learn with New York times and this money diary process.

A lot of the work we do with our organization, our consulting firm, I Am brilliant.

We're helping organizations as well as individuals, families to really figure out not only their financing, but their mental health and other things that are going to be that can be obstacles. So our journey, but we're helping people find a better narrative so that journey ends with them finding things.

Family Finances: Teaching Kids About Money

Elle Martinez: Yeah. We're definitely with the community. We've had these conversations where, there obviously there's the numbers part of it, but there's a lot of habits mindsets that we pick up, whether, , good or bad from our parents either were copying them or running away from that, you know, protecting ourselves.

But until we can at least have those honest conversations about what. We do what we do. It's really hard to, to hit those goals that a lot of families have for themselves.

I do want to talk about habits real quick. Cause I was looking at the numbers. This personal finance, we talk about your savings rate. You guys did really good job with that.

Shemekka Stewart-Isaacs: I'm saving in this case because we had so many dynamics going on with wanting to have a comfortable down payment. I'm wanting to make sure we had things covered and things didn't want included. We knew we had to come right in.

So for us fixing a yard and having a budget for that was important. You come with the house, but we had to be prepared for that. Also having contingency plans, because we didn't know what was coming down the pipeline. A lot of my speaking engagements and traveling was cut down. So there was a pivot, even in my business model because I wasn't doing on location things.

So readjusting how we were living, how we were saving. Prioritizing that was very important to create and build a stronger cushion with the big milestones we were hitting with the new baby and new home.

Elle Martinez: Yeah but that was amazing. I was looking at the numbers, like that's a great savings rate, but something else I noticed was you guys are giving focus like that is a part of your budget, charitable giving, giving to family.

I wanted to talk a little bit about that as a priority. You mentioned, including your kids with the house hunt, letting them know. What conversations have you had with them like family finances, things like this is why we give, and how much we give because it matters.

Financial Lessons Learned From Parents

Michael Stewart-Isaacs: For me my background is, you know, one, I saw it with my family, myself. My family were immigrants in America, so my mother's from Sierra Leone. My father's from Jamaica. Growing up my principles in terms of. Finance. It was different because everything was about finding that career, finding that great job.

For me, growing up in America, I took a different pivot trying to go after entrepreneurship, which is a no-no, but I started young. That modeling for me and starting young and entrepreneur. It's something. We start with our children. Financially we teach them the bare principles of how to make money.

So we also, we were very cognitive, let them be aware of the bills we pay, you know, as any event like how much it goes out. So we make sure that financially economically are aware.

We also then say, here is our bank account balance, but we do let them know that everything does cost money and the time we're spending to work is it a time we use it to create that income so we can spend money.

We make sure they understand the cause and effect of working creates income and an income gets spent whenever you're doing the normal things. And that in itself, can't be overseeing. To then lose money that you can't do more bigger things.

I think our work affords us the opportunity with our clients that we get to travel. Exposure is very important for our children. We growing up, we both didn't necessarily have that level of travel and exposure.

Our parents did the best they could for us so we took the foundation, our family gave us and we built from that. We're teaching our kids to build from the foundation we're creating that hopefully they can build.

I think that's what everyone ultimately wants as we call it generational legacy wealth to grow. So we learned lessons and the lessons we're learning instead of waiting for our kids to turn 23 or 25 before we teach, we teach them at 13. That way, by the time they're 23, they're able to make sound decisions. We have our kids do a DJ work. We have our kids t-shirts candy.

Teaching Kids About Giving Back to the Community

Shemekka Stewart-Isaacs: I have raised them as a norm in their own giving and how they engage community. My son started at a very early age with miles missions. Miles is their last name and they were writing grants at seven for backpack programs.

They've been doing dance, fundraisers for community centers. They've done men's marches for gender and sexual violence. They were involved with the Sandy hook. They did the animal drive.

We've kept that and made that normal as far as part of their giving and engagement, so that they understand that this is, for us, it's about our faith. Giving gives more room for us to receive.

We did that around their birthdays. Oh, you wants toys for your birthday was time to gift your other ones, someone else. So having that as a practice, Something that's been very important and raising our kids.

Now that they've gotten older, now they want to make their own money. They we've been talking to them about entrepreneurialship. So from DJ into, we have an artist, you know, her artwork.

We have these young kids that they let us know what they like, and we show them business opportunities around it so that they can work in their passion so that they're not working for someone else and not enjoying their life experience with.

Michael Stewart-Isaacs: Yes and we just show by example. So they see us out there. They see us having to hold up the book and say, Hey, buy a book.

Elle Martinez: But they also seen the behind the scenes, which is like the time that you had to put to craft that book and editing. I wrote a book, so I get. It's not an easy process. It really like it pulls from you.

They said they see both sides and I love that the work and the reward with that, I know we just scratched the surface. So if anyone listening or watching this interview wants to learn more about, the work you guys are doing, want to get involved and reach out to you. What's the best way they can.

Michael Stewart-Isaacs: Well, I would say the first beacon for both of our organizations is our website. I am That will give you a lot of information about our joint effort, which is what we do a lot about mindset development, leadership, development, community development. That's what I am brilliant facilitates.

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