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5 Things Madam C.J. Walker Can Teach You About Your Finances

These money moves from the famed millionaire can help you work toward wealth today.

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Madam C.J. Walker portrait
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Madam C.J. Walker was truly a self-made sister—and one of the first documented African American woman millionaires. From hardscrabble beginnings, Walker ascended to the top as an entrepreneur. Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, she gained her wealth after creating a line of Black hair care products.

Related: Join us on Facebook on February 29 for a conversation with A'Lelia Bundles, great-great-granddaughter of Madame C.J. Walker, author, journalist and historian.

Walker’s entrepreneurial story isn’t just good for cultural history or modern entertainment. She also can teach us money lessons for life. Here are five that still matter.

Give back. Walker’s biggest lesson to us may be through her philanthropy. She didn’t just bequeath money to charity in her will, but made a significant difference in her local community and to the nation. One notable donation was $1,000 to build a “colored” YMCA building in Indianapolis in 1911, at a time when her income was $1,000 a month. That’s more than $24,000 in today’s dollars. Nationally, she fundraised for Mary McLeod Bethune’s Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls and gave money to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute throughout her lifetime, in addition to supporting anti-lynching campaigns.

“Whether it’s mentoring others, helping a neighbor or stranger out, showing up for an issue or a person we care about or giving to those who need our help, every act of generosity counts,” notes Una O. Osili, economist and associate dean for research and international programs at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Erica Williams, a private wealth adviser with BMO Private Bank suggests bunching donations into one year if you take a standard deduction on your taxes to receive the best tax deduction. Feeling generous? Great! Just remember that 50 percent of your adjusted gross income is the maximum deduction for charitable contributions.

Spend with your values in mind. Walker was not afraid to spend money, and she hired Black people when she could. For instance, she hired Vertner Tandy to build her Harlem home and her mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, near the Rockefellers and the Astors. Similarly, we can think about where we’re spending our money year-round. What, and who, do we believe in, and do our spending habits reflect that?

Have a trusted advisor. Walker’s attorney, Freeman Ransom, served as her financial advisor. With just three months of formal education, Walker became a formidable businesswoman. But she wasn’t an expert in finances. Today, taxes have become even more complicated. Since we can’t all be finance whizzes, consider working with a certified and licensed professional on goal-setting and money questions.

Don’t be afraid to splurge on yourself. Sometimes we can feel like we need to save all of our hard-earned money for the future. But we shouldn’t be afraid to treat ourselves — within reason. Walker reportedly owned multiple cars, which sounds impressive now but was even more impressive in the early 1900s. We’re not saying we should have the same collection but, after we’ve worked hard and saved diligently, we’re allowed to sometimes splurge. Whether it’s travel, a spa treatment or something else, determine what’s within your budget and feel free to indulge accordingly.

Williams recommends considering if you’ll use cash or credit when analyzing if a splurge is reasonable. How will the purchase impact your monthly budget?

Write a will. Madam Walker died at age 51 from kidney failure and was confined to bed rest for the last weeks of her life. Knowing her health was failing, she had time to plan out her estate and how she wanted her friends remembered. In her will, she left charitable provisions for women’s organizations, schools and a range of causes. She also bequeathed money and personal belongings to family members, employees and dear friends.

Today, nearly half of Americans age 55 and older don’t have a will, according to a 2018 survey by Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and Age Wave. But a legally enforceable will can help avoid future financial squabbles among your loved ones, and it can help you financially care for people and causes that matter to you. Read this 2019 AARP story to learn how to write a will in just 15 minutes. That way, you’ll allow your legacy (like Walker’s) to continue for years to come.