Financial literacy helped this 30-year-old go from debt to retirement riches

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Yanely Espinal knows what the power of a financial education — she came from a low-income home with two parents and nine children, and ended up with credit card and student loan debt even after receiving a full scholarship to college.

The Brooklyn native said she often saw a difference between herself and some of the wealthier students around her. She attended high school near Lincoln Center in Manhattan, where many students wore brand-name clothes and returned from holiday break with the latest gadgets. When she went to Brown University, her friends were often going bowling or eating at Chipotle, CMG, +0.91%  activities she couldn’t afford on a regular basis.

So she opened her first credit card at 18 years old, with a $1,500 limit. “I never had that much money before,” she said. She used that credit card — and three others she opened during her college years — for textbooks and a laptop, as well as trips to the movies and restaurants. By the time she graduated, she had nearly $20,000 in debt — $15,000 in credit card debt and $5,000 from a student loan. Her credit card interest rates were around 21%.

See: Financial literacy skills have taken a nose dive since the Great Recession

A $9 book called “Women and Money” by Suze Orman caught her eye one day while she was buying shampoo at Duane Reade. “That book taught me everything I wish I knew before I was 18,” she said. She spent the next few years reading up on saving and investing, and listening to podcasts and TED talks about financial topics.

“I became obsessed with knowledge I felt I was deprived from,” she said. “It was social justice and financial empowerment, and that combination helped fuel my curiosity to learn as much as I could.” She started her own YouTube channel, MissBeHelpful, to share some of her own lessons about money as well.

After the YouTuber paid off her debts, in less than two years, she opened her first Roth IRA and then allocated whatever debt payments she used to make into savings and investing. Three years after that, in March 2018, she had amassed just shy of $50,000. In the last 18 months, she’s doubled her net worth. Part of her inspiration was the goal to eventually have a comfortable retirement.

Espinal, now 30, is the director of educational outreach at Next Gen Personal Finance, a nonprofit organization that offers free resources and tools to educators interested in teaching personal finance.

Less than half of U.S. states have a financial literacy requirement for high-school students. Financial illiteracy is a growing problem in the U.S., especially for young adults. Less than one-third of college students (28%) could correctly answer three multiple-choice questions about interest, inflation and risk diversification, according to a 2015-2016 FINRA study, and slightly more than half (53%) could do the same.

Although financial literacy is useful, there is a debate about when and how to dispense these lessons. Presidential candidate Andrew Yang tweeted in September that, in his experience, teaching financial literacy is difficult to people who don’t have money. Some Twitter users criticized him for the statement, saying individuals can make the most of the lessons they learned when they finally do come into money, while others agreed with him that having the funds beforehand allows people to put their financial education to use immediately.

Still, there are steps anyone can take to get started on the path to financial freedom — and eventually a nest egg like Espinal’s. Here are a few:

Don’t miss: Money expert Jean Chatzky on how Americans should save for retirement and what you’re getting wrong about the FIRE movement

Embrace as much information as you can

Much of Espinal’s success can be traced back to her thirst for knowledge, and all the time she spent reading up on financial topics and soaking up information in podcasts and shows about money.

“When you don’t know about your money and you don’t know about money, you are in this helpless place,” she said. “Learn as much as you can and look at your situation.”

There are plenty of benchmarks and metrics online to measure how well an individual is doing compared with her peers. Sometimes these guidelines can be useful, as a way to gauge what is average, but sometimes they can be discouraging. The key, Espinal said, is simply to assess your current financial situation, and see if there are any tweaks that can be made to spending and saving, as well as other personal factors, like the interest rate you’re being charged on your loans or the payment schedule that’s set up. Espinal said the interest rates were about five times as high as what she would have been charged if she’d taken out student loans instead, but she didn’t realize that until it was too late.

Strike a balance between spending and saving

Every dollar in a paycheck matters to someone who is living paycheck to paycheck. Although it might seem impossible to part with that money to pay down debt as well as save for retirement and other future goals, it is imperative, Espinal said.

Some people may find they are spending on products and services they don’t actually care that much about — such as one too many happy hour tabs or a superfluous subscription box (it doesn’t always have to be a cup of coffee or avocado toast).

Many financial advisers suggest putting aside 10% (or more) of a salary for retirement, but that’s not always feasible. For people who can’t afford that, Espinal suggests cutting that rate in half. And if that seems impossible, try putting 3%. The goal is to set aside something — anything — even when money is tight. This is especially true when an employee has access to an employer-match, which is essentially free money. In that case, most financial experts will say put at least the amount to meet the full match.

Also see: This new ‘Broke Millennial’ book has secrets for young people who don’t want to think about retirement

‘Automate, automate, automate’

Making financial decisions can be stressful, especially when there isn’t that much money in the budget — that may lead people to making the less optimal choice. Automating financial decisions, such as saving a set percentage of every paycheck or when to pay off credit card debt, can support good financial habits, said Tim Ranzetta, co-founder of Next Gen Personal Finance, where Espinal works. “It’s hard to set aside money for the future when the current situation feels so urgent,” he said. “Automating it means you don’t even have to think about it.”

The first savings goal should be an emergency account, which can help pay for an unexpected car repair or a trip to the hospital. Eventually, people can use automation to create and build an investment account, Ranzetta said.

Automatic deposits and automatic escalation of retirement contributions has proven to help Americans for decades. Richard Thaler, who received the Nobel Prize in economics in 2017, is credited with helping Americans put nearly $30 billion in their retirement accounts, because of his and colleagues’ research on behavioral finance and auto-enrollment and auto-escalation.

Talk about it

Money isn’t the easiest thing to talk about, but it’s important. Parents can teach their children a lot about finances, as can their children eventually teach them when they’re older. Friends and family members should try being more open about these discussions, which can help in many ways, including knowing they’re not alone in a difficult situation or finding useful advice for a problem.

Opening up about your financial situation can also mean finding an accountability partner, said Joe Buhrmann, manager of financial planning support at Country Financial. Friends can become accountability partners, looking for budget-friendly activities and meals, or emotional support systems.

Look for a side hustle

Not everyone has the time or means to create a side income stream or work another job, but it’s one surefire way to make extra money to put toward debt, and eventually savings. Espinal said she juggled a few jobs to earn more, especially when she was paying down all of her debt. She’d tutor on Saturday mornings, which seemed like a sacrifice when friends were on their way to the beach, but it ensured she’d get to a place where was financially comfortable. “Get creative coming up with income,” she said. “It’s 2019. There are so many ways to find side gigs and hustles.”

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