'I approach financial education as the social justice issue of our time'
A Q&A with author and financial educator Yanely Espinal about her new book MIND YOUR MONEY
Most books about money are boring. And so is so much of financial media and education. A glut of finance influencers have gained followings with bad tax takes and promises of getting rich. But a few genuine educators stand out as valuable resources in the personal finance space, breaking down the complexities of money and keeping teens and young adults engaged with this important topic they often don’t have access to through school.is a self-described “ball of energy,” and her warm personality and wealth of knowledge have earned her a hefty online following, starting with her YouTube channel MissBeHelpful, which has more than 4 million views for content answering questions like How Does Credit Card APR Work?
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Born and raised in Brooklyn by Dominican American immigrant parents, Yanely worked as an elementary school teacher before parlaying her own financial journey into her educational YouTube channel. Her book, Mind Your Money, came out in May.
I met Yanely last year in her capacity as the Director of Educational Outreach for Next Gen Personal Finance, a nonprofit working to ensure that every high school student gets a full semester of personal finance education. She's also the host of “Financially Inclined” from Marketplace, a video podcast for teens about money lessons for living life your own way.
Answers have been lightly edited for space and clarity.
Dana: Last time we talked, you mentioned your earliest lessons about personal finance were often in direct contrast to what you’d been taught in your culture, being raised by Dominican American immigrant parents. For example, you learned “The host is the last to eat,” which clashes with typical advice to “pay yourself first.” How have you come to square your cultural lessons with the prevailing advice in personal finance as you’ve become a financial educator yourself?
Yanely: Rather than viewing them as opposing forces, I try to find a balance between the two that feels right for me. I pride myself in prioritizing the cultural values I was taught, like generosity, community support and taking care of family. At the same time, I recognize the importance of being transparent with my family and friends about what I can't do for them financially because of my own goals and plans for my financial future.
In my work as a financial educator, I strive to incorporate cultural sensitivity and nuance through storytelling. I find that it makes financial concepts less abstract and turns them into real issues faced by real people. I want to empower people to feel comfortable challenging key aspects of their cultural heritage if that will help them reach financial stability in a way that feels right for them.
I also want to empower folks to simultaneously challenge "best practices" in the personal finance space. We each mix and match different elements to create our wardrobe, displaying our own unique style, and that's ultimately my vision for how we tackle our personal finances, too. I want to encourage people to customize their approach, blending together cultural and personal values, with proven financial strategies. It's the only way we'll each be able to find our own unique path to financial well-being.
What is the impact of not talking about money — for all of our society, but especially for low-income families and immigrant communities like the folks you grew up around in Brooklyn?
Not talking about money means that we won't challenge what we think is true about the role money plays in our lives, and that's dangerous. It can lead to learned helplessness.
I recently learned about an experiment called "fleas in a jar," which involves placing a group of fleas inside an open jar. Initially, the fleas jump out of the jar easily. But when a glass lid is placed on top of the jar, the fleas repeatedly hit that glass lid and realize they can't escape. Over time, the fleas only jump until they reach right below the lid, accepting the limit placed on them. The interesting part of this experiment is that when the glass lid was removed and the fleas had the freedom to escape, they still remained inside the jar because they had internalized this belief that they couldn't successfully jump out. This shows how the acceptance of limitations or perceived limitations could have the power to manipulate our psychology and lead us to develop a mindset of acceptance and inaction.
This is especially important to be aware of in low-income and immigrant communities, where it's fairly easy to believe that it's not possible to change our financial situation for the better. Why talk about money when there is no money? Why bother to seek resources, information or opportunities when they're never made available to us? And when we combine these deep-rooted psychological barriers with systemic barriers like no formal financial education or a lack of exposure to financial jargon, limited access to credit, the prevalence of alternative (often costlier) and less regulated financial services, and racial discrimination in finance, we can see why talking about money and asking questions about our financial systems is critical to improving our finances and seeking the financial education that is too often withheld from us.
You wrote about Shlomo Benartzi’s research demonstrating our optimism about our future selves, and Wendy de la Rosa’s work showing that families receiving government benefits stretched their money further when they planned around a weekly amount rather than monthly. Do you see cultural or systemic forces influencing that optimism about our future selves? How might we change the way we talk about money to counteract that influence?
I remember as a kid I would go with my mom to add a payment toward her layaway plan at the clothing store. After several weeks of making payments, she would then be able to leave the store with our Easter dresses or new clothes for school that were fully paid for. This arrangement doesn't even exist anymore! Our culture and financial system has shifted to one in which we can swipe a credit card and go home with "our" goods right away, leaving the payments for our future selves to worry about and deal with. This is a significant transformation in the way we consume and utilize money. I have no doubt that it has also led to a shift in how we view ourselves in relation to our money. We feel that we deserve to get the stuff we want and need immediately or within a day or two at most — and there better be free shipping! We feel that our future selves are rightfully responsible for correcting any financial missteps we make today. This is getting increasingly difficult to counteract in America because companies continue to innovate with technologies like one-click buy, two-hour delivery, buy now/pay later services and more.
I'd say changing the way we talk about money and spending is one piece of it but certainly not the sole solution. Speaking about financial choices in the present tense and rarely in the future tense will help counteract this influence. For example, I can't tell you how many times I've heard a college student say, "When I graduate, I'll owe $10,000 in student loans." I always interrupt them and ask them to repeat the phrase in the present tense. "I currently owe $10,000 in student loans." We've got to stop ourselves from enjoying the immediate benefits of our financial choices, while delaying any long-term financial consequences. We need to recognize the reality of our financial obligations in the present moment rather than postponing the acknowledgement until a future date. Reframing our language to embrace the present tense helps us foster a greater sense of financial responsibility — and who knows? Maybe that verbal shift leads to a mental shift that makes us want to track our spending, save for emergencies and invest for our future?!
You talk about your Root Why (the purpose behind your personal financial journey) being: “I refuse to be complicit in perpetuating the generational cycle of poverty in my family.” How does it feel to take on that responsibility as an individual in a system that’s designed to perpetuate that cycle? How does that experience influence your approach to financial education?
It feels like I have a real responsibility to contribute to a collective effort that challenges the status quo. I remember getting my first paycheck and thinking to myself, "How come we're required to pay taxes, but we're not required to learn in school how to pay those taxes or how our tax dollars get allocated and used?" It didn't make any sense to me back then, and it still makes no sense to me now!
That's why I'm so passionate about the work I'm doing with advocacy and championing education bills that propose requiring a semester-long personal finance class in every public high school in America. I approach financial education as if it were the social justice issue of our time because I believe it is. Keeping in mind that I can't single-handedly tackle or solve major systemic issues trapping families in poverty, I know that I can channel my efforts into creating systemic change that'll positively affect not only your children's access to financial education and mine, but also their children and their children's children and so on — for generations to come. That drives me to continue the hard work with my personal finances and with my family, as well as professionally and with laws that improve public education across the country. I know that by doing so, the impact of my efforts will be worthwhile for many years to come!
Besides yours, what personal finance (or adjacent) book do you most recommend and why? Who is it best for?
Since I talk a lot about exposing younger learners to financial education, I'm going to highly recommend Money Out Loud by Berna Anat. It's a book every tween and teen should read to get a head start on thinking deeply about the role money plays in their lives and developing their own money mindset!
Instead of talking about the weather, what do you wish strangers would ask you about when you meet on the street?
Thoughtful predictions for what everyday life will look like in the distant future. The possibilities are endless!
To get more of Yanely’s stories and insights on personal finance and education, pick up Mind Your Money wherever you buy books!
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