Gloria Choi: “Money's Like the Ring”
Gloria likens the hold money has over people to the One Ring in “Lord of the Rings.”
This is the first of what will be an ongoing series of interviews with “regular” people. By “regular,” in the context of this newsletter, I mean those who do not make a living in finance or wealth management. This conversation is with Gloria Choi, a good friend of my wife Daniela and me.
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“I feel poorer when I spend more money,” Gloria told me.
When Gloria got her first big raise at her strategy job in Manhattan, she felt like she was swimming in money, but it didn’t take long for it to feel like a burden. She likens money to the One Ring in Lord of the Rings.
“The more you have it, the more control it has over you. You don’t become generous just because you have money.”
It’s an epiphany firmly rooted in her faith, which informs her relationship with money as much, if not more, than anything else in her life.
She believes the less you have, the more room you allow for God to intervene.
“When I was making 40K, I think I was giving [to charity] more percentage-wise than I am now.”
This thinking jibes with Jesus’ teachings, after all:
“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew.19:24)
Money didn’t have this kind of hold on Gloria growing up, as her family didn’t have much, but the lack of it gave her anxiety.
“When my mom took us to Fayva, which was like Payless, she said, ‘Get whatever you want.’ I said I didn’t want anything because I felt like we couldn’t afford it.”
Gloria’s parents immigrated from South Korea in the early 80s. Her mom worked as a clerk for the United States Postal Services. It didn’t pay a lot, but it provided good health benefits. Her father had a dry-cleaning business that ultimately foundered – a cause of stress for their family for several years.
As immigrants, Gloria’s family didn’t know much about the financial systems and the corporate world in the U.S. They didn’t impart knowledge about 401(k)s or salary negotiation, and they didn’t set up college funds for their children. (Gloria found out years later that her father had told her sister they only had money for one of them to go away for college.)
Gloria’s parents did teach her an important financial lesson, however. They taught her the importance of prioritizing.
“My mom said, ‘No matter how little money we have, I’ll always send you to the church summer school.’ It’s cheap for what it is, but it’s expensive if you don’t have a lot of money.”
This lesson of applying resources to the things that matter most forms the foundation of Gloria’s abiding philosophy on personal finance: being a good steward of money.
While pursuing an MBA at NYU, Gloria embarked on a mission trip, during which she encountered women who had formed a church group that introduced her to the notion of stewardship. They met regularly to talk about finances from a faith-driven perspective. Since everything you have comes from God, it’s your responsibility to be a good steward of your money. It isn’t yours to squander. It’s not about you. This idea inspired Gloria.
It seems that Gloria always had a generous streak. When she was making $28,000 a year in her first job out of school, she donated whatever she had left over after paying bills to charities. But being a good steward of money isn’t just about being charitable, though that is certainly a part of it. It’s about putting your money to good use. That means using it for the things you value, and it means using it effectively.
Gloria didn’t always know how to do that. For a while, she assumed it was one of those things that she just wasn’t good at, but one of her NYU professors convinced her otherwise.
“He told me there are some things you can say, ‘This isn’t my wheelhouse,’ but this shouldn’t be one of those things just because you don’t understand it. Your future finances are too important.”
At this point, she started taking wealth management very seriously. She dove into books about personal finance. Through her professor, she dabbled in some low-risk investments, like ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds), which are akin to mutual funds but trade on the stock exchange. She also made it a point to get rid of her debt once and for all.
She was so strict with her budgeting, and her timeline to pay off her student loans was so aggressive, that she was left with a $2.50-a-day allowance.
“My coworker told me I wasn’t going to be able to eat for $2.50 a day. I was that committed.”
This discipline came at a cost. In her relentless pursuit of a debt-free life, Gloria depleted her savings.
“I was probably breaking all of Dave Ramsey’s rules of having emergency funds. Thank God I was young and healthy and didn’t get sick.”
God was always the throughline for Gloria. Her early anxiety around money dissipated when she had an epiphany.
“I remember having this realization: We’re still here. We have a home. We have food. God has provided for all of our needs. I think that God‘s hand has been there through it all.”
Her modest upbringing grounded her. She brings up the song “Being Broke Made Me Rich” by Lecrae, explaining how she identifies with it.
“I think being broke, being poor when you’re young can cause two things: It can make you so anxious that you just want to accumulate wealth, or you can come out on the other side and realize you don’t need all of these things.”
Gloria hardly spends on herself. She doesn’t feel comfortable spending money on clothes and other material things. Her perspective has evolved somewhat after getting married, as her husband, Alex, has a different outlook on money.
“He’s like, ‘You need to be able to enjoy life. You have one life. Let’s enjoy it. Let’s celebrate every anniversary and birthday.’ That’s a new way of thinking. I appreciate it. I have to learn how to do that. I think you should be able to have things that bring you joy.”
Gloria has done well for herself, rising through the ranks as a strategist at FCB, a major advertising agency with offices in Manhattan. Alex is a lawyer in Connecticut. Together, they have more than enough to live comfortably. I asked Gloria how she reconciles this success with her notion of money impeding on God’s involvement.
“You have to constrain yourself. You have to be willing to give your money away.”
A big part of how Gloria and Alex achieve this is by helping their family. One of Gloria’s priorities is to set up 529s (college funds) for their son, Abraham, as well as nieces and nephews. They also help their parents with their mortgage and rent.
“I’m so grateful that I can do this. I can regularly support them. There are so many people who want to be able to do that for their parents but can’t. It’s such an honor to be able to support my family.”
Know anyone else who might be a good for this series? Send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Loved this! We need to normalize “money talk.”