I’ve been working pretty consistently for the better part of a decade but for most of that time, I wasn’t making nearly enough money to give my finances any real thought. As long as I had enough to cover my phone bill, books for school, and the occasional evening out with my friends, I was set. It wasn’t until I started getting my first real checks after graduating college and the money started to build up in my bank account even after I’d paid all my bills for the months (thank you, thank you to the extended student loan grace period ??) that I realized that my relationship with money was going to have to change.
I wasn’t the sixteen-year-old using my $150 earnings to ball out at Forever 21 anymore. Getting the degree had opened a new financial door to me that I was both incredibly grateful for and intensely anxious about. I was earning a higher salary in my first year out of school than my mother had in the twenty years that she’d been in this country, but now there was so much more to contend with and much of it I barely understood. Building up savings. Credit. Paying back loans. Investing.
I started watching CNBC’s Millenial Money video series as a noncommittal way to learn more about how people my age were managing their money and came across a video about Maria Melchor, a paralegal case handler and personal finance coach in New York City. In a sea of people discussing their six-figure salaries, Maria stood out to me because her story was so much like my own.
Maria is a first-generation Mexican immigrant and college graduate who, like myself, immediately fell into a spiral of financial anxiety after graduating from Yale in 2018. Rather than let that anxiety overwhelm her, Maria decided to take control of her finances and teach herself the money management skills she missed out on as a first-gen. She started her Instagram, First Gen Living, to create space in the financial literacy community for people like her.
I knew as soon as I watched her video that I needed to hear more about her story and what better way to do that than through this newsletter? We spoke about the scarcity mindset and feelings of guilt that plague so many first-generation graduates and why she thinks everyone should feel comfortable talking about their money.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ZO: When did you start thinking seriously about your personal finances and all things money?
MM: I started actively thinking about money a couple of months after graduating from college when I started getting my first paycheck from the Legal Aid Society. In December of 2018 I took out this book from the library called “Get a Financial Life” by Beth Kobliner and as I started reading it, I just took notes on that whole book and used it like a workbook.
That book helped me start going through my own learning journey. And now that I’m three years out from that, I feel very comfortable with my finances and with financial literacy in general. And I want to be a resource to others who may find themselves in this spot but who may not think to, for example, pick up a book.
ZO: Something that I’ve found is that people are really hesitant to talk about money. It’s like a social taboo. What drives you to want to have more open conversations about it?
MM: I encourage people to talk about money because I remember when I bought my first post-grad paycheck — my first big, adult paycheck — having questions about what I should be doing with that money but for months I was feeling embarrassed about asking people for help, or even bringing up the topic of money. As a first-generation immigrant and first-generation college student, I felt guilty about making the money that I did, even though it wasn’t a lot. It was about $45,000, per year.
I remember getting that $1200 check every two weeks and feeling guilty, like, “Oh, this is a lot of money!” And after paying my rent and my food, I still have money left over. Having gone through my parents’ money paperwork in high school to apply for financial aid in college and seeing that they were making way less than I was making in my first post-grad job, that made me feel guilty.
I think even just seeing somebody who shares your identity in some way talk about money is helpful because then you feel like, actually it’s okay, I’m not alone. If this person is doing this then I can do this too. Eventually, I got comfortable talking about money with friends and with my partner, but I imagine that there may be people who don’t have people to talk to at all or don’t build up that comfort as quickly as I did and online resources are the only option.
ZO: How did you decide to take that next step and turn your personal finance journey into this Instagram community and your money coaching business?
MM: After reading the book, I had taken my notes and made my first ever budget on a piece of paper and I was taking steps, but then I found a personal finance Instagram account called Zero Based Budget that is run by a woman named Cindy Zuniga-Sanchez and seeing her share how she was managing finances was very motivating. When you’re starting to learn something new seeing somebody who is farther along the journey than you who you can look to for guidance or for advice is helpful. I got to a point where I wanted to be a resource.
I don’t want to push financial literacy on anyone. I think financial literacy as an industry can be very intimidating. So I wanted to be a resource to people who were looking for one and I didn’t want to, for example, approach people directly like, “Hey, tell me what your money situation is like” or “do you know what a Roth IRA is?” I wanted to be out somewhere where I could share my experience and knowledge but then people could choose to opt-in if they wanted to learn from me or with me. I felt like Instagram, given that I had had a good experience following people like Cindy, was an option for me to keep talking about money.
ZO: I’ve sometimes felt like conversations about financial literacy shame people who don’t already understand money which is the case for a lot of first-gen students. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how being a first-gen immigrant and first-gen college graduate shapes the way you think about financial literacy?
MM: Another reason that I eventually decided to start my Instagram and my coaching business is because I had reservations about the personal finance community and I wanted to bring in my own experience to create something more inclusive and more accessible. I realized from my own interactions with financial literacy resources that there were things about them that I didn’t like and that didn’t feel right for me as a first-generation college student and immigrant and I didn’t want to focus on feeling bad about that. Instead, I went ahead and added my own voice and trusted that people who otherwise felt excluded would feel like they have access to information.
ZO: One of your recent posts that I really loved was about the scarcity mindset. How you define that for yourself and how do you see it impacting first gens who are thinking about money?
MM: Some people apply the idea that there is a limited amount of resources to our feelings and our habits. We think that what we have right now is all I will ever have. This outlook is really a product of having grown up in a society that puts a price tag on everything, including basic essential services like housing, food, and health care. For some of us, it’s a symptom of growing up in survival mode and having had to worry about food and housing, and health care. Facing insecurity with these resources makes us think like that’s just the way everything is even when it isn’t, including our money.
Scarcity is a reality for some people. Some people are currently facing real things like housing and food insecurity, but some of like myself are struggling with residual scarcity mindset. I sat down with my money, made a financial plan, and realized that I actually do have enough money and I can both meet my immediate needs and plan for my wants. They don’t have to come at the expense of one another. After I shared my own experiences with scarcity mindset so many people reached out saying that they also feel anxious about spending and about owning stuff. Part of my work is getting past that anxiety and realizing you can plan for more than just your needs.
ZO: What’s a piece of advice you give to first-gen immigrants, students, and grads who have some financial anxiety but really want to focus on their personal finance?
MM: Many people struggle with financial anxiety, and it makes sense that we struggle with financial anxiety because practically speaking, many first-gen folks have had issues with scarcity or with having to navigate systems alone at a premature age, and it can be scary to go through that again with something that is universally intimidating like money. So be easy with yourself and acknowledge that no one is born feeling fully comfortable with their money. Our society has conditioned us to have bad or scary feelings about money. And now that you’re interested in rebuilding your relationship with money it gets easier over time. For me, it’s a process that has taken years and it’s ongoing.
Some highlights before you go:
I want to flag two great reporting projects that are highlighting first-gen and other marginalized student groups. The first is at El Paso Matters, where they’re collecting personal essays from graduating first-gen students. If that you, share your story!
Glamour Magazine is looking for community college students for this 2021’s College Women of the Year. “Maybe you’re working by day and studying at night. Or maybe you simply wanted to wade into academia without immediately committing to a four-year institution. Whatever the case, you have a story to tell and we want to amplify your voice and your achievements within your school and your community.”
Thank you for reading! You can follow me on Twitter @zipporahosei and reach me for questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.