How to Make it on a Teacher’s Salary
Professor Emerita leverages her love of thrift to show local educators and students how to live better with less
Cal State East Bay Professor Emerita Joan Sieber lights up when she talks about the great deals she’s found over the years: A score at the Salvation Army thrift store, or the time she bought an $18,000 piano for $2,000.
As an educator, Sieber knows firsthand about the challenges and pitfalls of living on a teacher’s salary in a region where the cost of living is high — and getting higher. But over the years, careful money management has not only given her a financial future she can count on, it’s enabled her to make many private gifts to Cal State East Bay, including a recent pledge of $90,000 that will pass those lessons of managing personal finances on to teachers and students in Hayward Unified School District, as well as others on the Cal State East Bay campus and in the surrounding community.
“It’s so empowering when you know you’re not living hand to mouth and can devote your full energy to your profession,” Sieber says. “I have achieved so much financial security and so much happiness. So, when I had a direct opportunity to improve the financial literacy of the teachers who give their heart and soul to their students and don’t earn much money, I was thrilled.”
A Lifelong Thrifter
Sieber grew up as the eldest child in a family of four at the end of a dirt road in rural Maryland. Her parents, both children of the Great Depression, taught their children about the importance of perseverance and the power of living within your means.
“We were a no nonsense family in which we all needed to work hard,” Sieber says. “I really wanted to go to college … I knew I wanted to get out of there. I wasn’t sure I knew where ‘out of there’ was, but I wanted to be around people who were interested in ideas and in transforming lives for the better.”
To get to college at the University of Delaware, Sieber worked full time as an executive secretary while carrying a full class load at night, until she received a scholarship. She graduated with highest honors and landed a full fellowship in a Ph.D. program in experimental psychology.
In her subsequent academic career, Sieber also took on consulting work, including at NASA Ames Research Center on the psychology of selecting and training astronauts. As time went on, she began to feel obligated to prepare for supporting her parents in their old age, and became a student of investing.
And she’s carried that drive into every area of her life. Sieber proudly budgets, camps instead of taking lavish vacations and her foreign travel has been mostly professional in nature. And she has continued to hone her skills of investing.
In fact, it was through Cal State East Bay that Sieber first realized she’d rather give money than spend it.
rising in the east
“I was named the Outstanding Professor of the Year in 1989 and received $1,000 as a prize, so I challenged my psychology department colleagues to triple my gift to $3,000. Every year since then, we’ve given the interest on that money to the outstanding psychology student of the year,” she says. “I remember that made me feel really good and I decided I would continue to find other ways to help people achieve important social goals in the world.”
Sieber has since funded numerous scholarships and various initiatives at the university, most recently the Renaissance Scholars program, which supports foster youth.
“The joy of giving is huge. You go through much of your life thinking ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was this or that’ but this and that costs money, so if you can figure out how to make this and that happen, you fly high,’” she says.
Teaching Life Lessons
Community outreach has been central to the mission of the Center for Financial Literacy since its launch in 2013, and with Sieber’s gift, 300 new Hayward teachers will be offered a course that covers budgeting, saving, living well on less, how to invest and how to manage credit, plan for retirement and more — free of charge. Her partner at the center, Dean Emeritus Jagdish Agrawar, will offer a similar program to university staff members this year.
“Teachers in particular come [into their careers] loaded with school debt, to a high rent area. What are they going to do, live in their car?” Sieber asks.
Participation in the new program is optional for Hayward public school teachers, who are also being equipped with age-appropriate ways to integrate financial literacy skills into their own classrooms. In Hayward Unified School District, students in an entrepreneurship class at the school district’s alternative high school will also receive some instruction from the staff of the Center for Financial Literacy. Teachers who do participate will be eligible to apply for the bonus pay given to those who take additional college courses.
Basically, Sieber says, it’s about teaching people to understand the difference between their wants and their needs and to act accordingly, helping them maximize their quality of life.
“There is a lot of fancy stuff I don’t need,” she says. “I realized early on that your possessions can own you. You can clutter your life with [them] and with lots of debt.”
And she hopes those who participate in the program will feel similarly inspired and realize they can have a rich life without large amounts of money, debt and financial worry.
“You can get a Ph.D. in finance and not understand personal finance,” Sieber says. “Personal financial literacy is not about mergers and acquisitions. It has to do with knowledge, habits and attitudes, and ignoring the dictates of the advertising industry. People are often afraid of budgeting because they might have to face the fact that they don’t have as much money as they thought and are headed for trouble. In fact, one can live very well by resisting impulse spending, planning ahead, budgeting, brainstorming and bargaining.”