In 2009, I lost everything. My career, relationship and home. It's amazing how quickly unemployment can knock you down and change the entire trajectory of your life. I went from earning and saving good money to waking up on my 30th birthday living on my sister's couch.
My credit card debt ballooned to $35,000 and my 802 credit score plummeted into the 500's because I couldn't pay bills. Fast forward five years later and I've not only dug myself out of that hole, but I built a business on the way up. I'm currently a speaker, bestselling author, and financial educator running an internationally recognized brand, but before building a successful business I hit rock bottom.
Here are some money lessons I learned from the struggle:
Always Save for a Rainy Day El Niño
There's no way to predict long-term unemployment, but you should always prepare for it with an emergency fund. I lived well below my means to save money before losing my job. Thankfully, I had some savings to live on.
My first "real" job at 21 was as a teacher's assistant. It only paid $12 per hour, so I lived with my parents to stack coins. I found a modest yet affordable rental in New Jersey with a roommate (my sister), that cost just $1100/month, $550 per person including utilities. As my income steadily increased, I kept the same standard of living and a strict bi-weekly budget. I used envelopes filled with cash to divide my pay into categories: bills, savings, entertainment and grooming.
I lived off one paycheck and saved the other.
By 25, I had $40,000 saved in cash.
Live Richer Lesson #1:
Nothing in life is guaranteed, so establishing good saving habits no matter how much you make is invaluable. Downgrade your life, if necessary. This could mean cutting cable, getting a roommate or keeping your gel manicure on for a few extra weeks.
How To Live This Lesson Now:
Begin to set aside a few dollars from each paycheck in a savings account. Don't have the discipline? Start with Digit. This free resource studies your financial moves and automatically transfers money from your bank account to your Digit Account. They will send you daily, fun texts with updates of your balances and transfers. You can choose to save more, pause savings or withdrawal your money via text as well. Your money is FDIC insured and they have a no-overdraft guarantee. Oh, and they do it for free!
Nothing Good Comes Easy
Before joblessness, my savings game was on point, but my investment game was lacking. I made one crucial mistake that put me in a world of debt and made unemployment overwhelming. At 27, I asked a wealthy friend of mine to teach me how to invest and he pitched me a genius plan. We would buy high-end clothing in New York and ship it to Paris to sell in one of his stores.
My return was supposed to be $1,200 per week for two years. Yup, you read that right. I thought I was going to make $62,400 per year shipping clothes across the pond. I was so excited about making racks on racks that I applied for new credit cards and took out cash advances totaling $20,000.
We sent our first shipment to Paris then I never heard from him or received any money. It devastated me at the time, but I can appreciate the lesson. First, be careful who you trust. Second, if a plan sounds too good to be true, believe it. Last, hard work and passion are what will pay off tenfold, not a get rich quick scheme.
Live Richer Lesson #2:
There's no such thing as easy money. When my "friend" aka The Thief shared his get-rich-quick scheme with me, I should have ran for the hills. Looking back on it, it didn't make sense. Rarely in life do you make a ton of money without knowledge and work.
How To Live This Lesson Now:
If you're interested in investing, you first have to invest in knowledge. Two financial books to help you get started are: The Richest Man in Babylon by George Clason, Stock Market Investing Mini Lessons For Beginners: A starter guide for beginner investors by Mabel Nunez.
Odd Jobs Add Up
Losing my job and the implications of bad investing had me down and out. At 30, I was directionless and living off the little savings I had left. I didn't know how to start over after losing so much. Back when I was a teacher, staff members took notice of my money management skills and looked to me as a financial resource.
Looking for something to keep me busy, I began volunteering at several nonprofits teaching financial education. I networked like my life depended on it and asked nonprofits to refer me to other organizations for paid opportunities. Since I couldn't find 9 to 5 work, I did a bunch of side hustles to make money. I took on one-on-one financial consultations, babysitting and tutoring.
Sidebar: Don't discount volunteering. I met my first clients for The Budgetnista by volunteering. By combining volunteering and sharing me in action on social media, I was able secure a new client each time I spoke and posted myself speaking online. In the beginning, 80% of my business came from the posts I shared on Facebook. So use your social media network to showcase your skills and increase your income.
Live Richer Lesson #3:
If there's no place for you in the workforce, make your own way. Use your experience and passions to offer a product or service that someone finds valuable. Hustle even if you have a full-time job. Multiple streams of income will lead to financial security.
How To Live This Lesson Now:
- Use Your Degree. If you have the education, put it to use. You can charge more money for a service when you're an expert in a field. Think about how you can shape your education into an extra source of income.
- Do What You Do For a Living. You can hit the ground running with your side hustle if you have work experience in the industry. There's no learning curve and you have a resume that proves you know what you're doing.
- Activate Your Passion. Start charging for things you already do for free. You already have an established clientele who like your work and you can use them to spread the word.
- Negotiate a Raise. Start to collect all of the amazing value you bring to your job. Put it together in a file. Make sure you monetize your value. Example: The decision you made to do _________ is saving the company $10,000/year.
Take Ownership of Your Situation
At first, I didn't want to face my credit card debt from the bad investment even when I started making money again. I felt paying any more than the minimum payment was admission of guilt and I didn't want to take full responsibility.
Only after owning the mistake and forgiving myself was I able to start crushing the debt. I transferred my credit card debt to cards that offered introductory 0% interest rates, so the money I paid largely went to principal instead of interest. (Use Magnify Money to help you find the best balance transfer cards.) If I had continued to sit back without taking ownership, interest would have increased my debt exponentially.
Since I've been through the struggle, I understand how disheartening financial missteps can be. You feel destitute, desperate and hopeless, but there is a way out if you face the situation. Open the bills, pick up the phone for collectors and form a plan. Sure, it won't happen overnight, but you have the power to change your situation.
Live Richer Lesson #4:
Have you made financial mistakes in the past? Are you currently making financial mistakes? Will you probably make financial mistakes in the future? Yes?! Well, so did Will Smith, Rihanna, Suze Orman, and me!
Sometimes you are unable to move forward financially, not because you don't make enough money, not because you don't have the resources, and not because your situation is un-repairable. The truth is, you have yet to get over your financial mistakes if you want to move onto greener pastures (pun intended). Financial forgiveness is one of the first keys to becoming financially healthy.
How To Live This Lesson Now:
- Admit to Yourself and Take Ownership. Confess; say "I messed up when I __________". Feel free to substitute the word "messed" with your verb of choice.
- Identify the What and Why (Be Very Specific). Take a break from beating yourself up for a minute and clearly identify your mistake and why you made it.
- Tell Someone You Trust. OK, so this may be a tough for you, but tell a trusted confidant. Doing so will allow you to let go of the shame, begin to forgive yourself, and ultimately work on a solution.
- Focus on a Solution. So the truth is out, and it's time that you focus on what IS, verses on what ISN'T.
- Plan, Then Work the Plan. Once you've drafted your list of possible solutions, pick one and begin crafting a plan. Not sure how to start or what to do?
Using these four lessons, I now run a successful business, and no longer struggle financially.
Tiffany Aliche, better known as "The Budgetnista", is America's favorite financial educator and she's here to answer your money questions.
Featured image by Getty Images
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Amber Riley Is In Her Element
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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Janelle Monáe's Reveals The Real Reason Why She Stopped Wearing Her Signature Tuxedos
Singer and actress Janelle Monáe exemplifies how change can be a powerful catalyst for growth and transformation.
Monáe, who rose to fame in 2010 following the release of her debut album, The ArchAndroid, captivated fans' hearts with her powerful vocals, catchy tunes, and style. Around that time period, when various female artists were known to wear provocative ensembles on stage, the "Tightrope" songstress set herself apart by wearing her signature black and white suits and continued to do so for almost a decade.
In the later years of her career, after the release of her studio albums The Electric Lady in 2013 and 2018's Dirty Computer, many began to notice the shift in Monáe's artistry and fashion, which some widely praised.
Although the now 37-year-old rarely addressed the reason behind the transformation over the years, that would all change when Monáe sat down with radio personality Angie Martinez on her IRL podcast earlier this month.
During the interview, Monáe --who was promoting her latest album, "The Age of Pleasure"-- opened up about her mental health struggles, how she would cope, and why she chose to live in freedom.
Janelle On Why She Stopped Wearing Her Signature Suits All the Time
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
In the May discussion, the "I Like That" vocalist revealed she suffers from anxiety, which she claimed would occur around "winter to spring."
Monáe added that when she has her bouts with anxiety, she tends to turn to food as a coping mechanism. Further in the interview, the "Lipstick Lover" singer disclosed that her emotional eating habits caused a weight fluctuation and that she could no longer fit into the suits she once wore earlier in her career.
Monáe explained that even though she tried to diet and exercise to return to her smaller figure, she ultimately stopped and made peace with herself with the help of therapy because she acknowledged that she isn't the same person she was nearly a decade ago and shouldn't try to be even if it was a highly "celebrated" version.
"I'm petite, but it can get thick... When I couldn't fit them suits anymore, and I was like, 'Oh my God, what is going on?' I would be dieting, running, or exercising, trying to fit into [it]. I'm just like, 'No. No, we're here. This is where we are.' We [are] not about to be utilizing life trying to be an old version of ourselves. No matter how celebrated that version of me was. I'm here. I'm here," she said.
Janelle On Freedom
As the topic shifted to freedom and what that meant to Monáe, the "Primetime" vocalist shared that in this new era of her life, she enjoys it because she can boldly express herself however she wants and honor who she is as a person right now.
Monáe also revealed that she had found ways to become a better artist and the best version of herself because of her freedom.
"What is the new version of freedom? What does that feel like? That's usually when I feel the most free is when artistically, I can honor exactly who I am right now," she stated. "I feel most free as a human when I can honor exactly who I am right now."
Monáe's fourth studio album, The Age of Pleasure, is set to be released on June 9.
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