My work as a producer lets me learn all sorts of interesting things. In my years developing video content for the internet, I got to interview people from all walks of life. I got tips from 5-star chefs and a walkthrough of creating an app from a narrative game designer. I even interviewed doctors who gave expert advice on post-partum care. A little over a year ago, I got hired by One Good Man Productions on an insane project. It was 6 high-quality digital shows – over 470 minutes of content, shot, edited. And, I had to deliver all of this in a little under nine months. It was a challenge I was willing to take on. The project was entertainment content for a third-party client, Million Stories, to promote financial literacy and entrepreneurship to millennials.
“Oh, boy, that’s boring,” I thought. But I liked the team, headed by an indomitable ambitious boss I was excited to work for, Lisa Freberg. So, I dove in. I had tackled topics I had no expertise before. Now, I was ready to make financial literacy as engaging as possible.
As I dug into the casting of real people with financial questions, the script refinement for the basics of financial literacy, and researching horrifying statistics about the sorry state of financial literacy among millennials in the United States, I learned a couple of things:
a. I don’t know anything about my finances, and
b. no one seems too either
The Leading Cause of Divorce
Money is one of the leading causes of divorce. Predatory lending is on the rise, and fewer than half of millennials own a home. Students with little to no financial literacy take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. And, that’s before they even understand the ramifications. Financial illiteracy is an epidemic, and it’s negatively affecting millions of Americans. The mission that seemed “boring” to me, suddenly seemed pertinent, vital even. I am certainly no financial expert. But, after a year steeped in creating content to promote financial literacy, I have had to look at my finances. Then, I started through my very own journey of financial literacy.
As a smack-dab-in-the-middle Millennial (I turned 30 this year – yikes), I can’t hide from the internet hate claiming to be on either cusp. I also couldn’t avoid the many pitfalls my generation faced financially. For example, I was starting Junior High on 9/11. We’ve been at war since then. I was entering my Liberal Arts college in the 2008 crash. Then, I joined the workplace in 2012 in a fragile economy, and even worse, I had a degree in acting. I joked that it wasn’t any worse for me, having chosen an unclear path than it was for everyone else in my peer group. And I wasn’t wrong. Some of my friends have kids, homes, and marriages. However, most of us are on a much late-in-lifepath then our parents for those milestone events. And, most of us point to our dismal finances.
Financial literacy taught by my parents
I have been very fortunate to have parents who supported me financially through (and after) college. And while they taught me the basics – I remember getting my first paycheck being stunned at the amount that seemed to be missing. My dad walked me through taxes and explained net vs. gross income. My parents helped me set up a bank account and told me not to leave a balance on my credit cards. But that was the extent of it. And it turns out I had a lot more passed down, both in knowledge and actual dollars than the average American 20-something. A financially healthy individual can contribute back to society, but we’re not teaching money stewardship in schools. Only 31% of high school students believe they learned healthy financial habits in their public education.
Millennials Didn’t Even Know the Basics
The people we were interviewing didn’t know even the basics. Like, what is a credit score, and what’s a good credit score? And, How do I set up a budget? As the people (millennials) I worked with “tsked” at the lack of financial literacy, I realized how bad my relationship with money had become. I wasn’t saving money – I had a 401k before I started working freelance, but retirement? That was something I’d think about when I sold a big project. I’d come to terms with the fact that I’d probably never own a home – not without a significant change. My partner and I were planning on dying with his student loans.
And that’s what Million Stories gave to me: The ability to see that I’m not alone, which is heartening. And now, I have more control of my financial destiny than I thought. Some resources and goalposts are attainable. Was I spending too much on takeout? Obviously. But I also wasn’t budgeting at all. My pessimism about money was based on nothing. The more I knew, the less stress I felt about my personal finances.
One of the shows I got to work on, American Paycheck, took a trip around the country. We looked at how millennials are making money and what they are doing with it. I expected this to have been depressing. Indeed, this is the first generation that will make less than their parents, even though they are more educated.
What I saw instead was my generation making the system work for us. They were resilient and entrepreneurial – so much, so we coined the term side-hustle. The hope and kindness that the people we interviewed showed for their future and their communities were inspiring. And although there weren’t step-by-step financial takeaways from making this show, it did help put into perspective the unique entrepreneurial spirit of the United States, in an otherwise bleak time.
I also got a glimpse into a future that seemed distant to me: children. When I got to step into the lives of Millennial parents in Milk Money, I saw parents making great sacrifices, like commuting for hours. Indeed, they were following their dreams of starting a business. They were looking at every expense as the number of hours away from her kid, instead of a dollar amount. It gave me hope that with the resources available in my community and the world wide web, I could figure out how to save for college AND retirement. Even as a freelancer.
It wasn’t all human interest and hard work either. George Igoe showed us how to travel in a city for less than $100. That’s a sum even my new budgeted self-finances could handle. And Faceplant looked at business people, Olympians, and YouTube stars who failed miserably and bounced back.
And Million Stories taught me the How-To’s too. With shows like Adulting with Richard Sherman, where NFL star and all-around-amazing human Richard Sherman breaks down the three-step ways to get on the road to financial adulthood.
Or Tip Jar, where Financial Expert Jean Chatzky listens to real problems that young people are having with their finances. And, she talks them through the best next steps. In these shows, I learned firsthand how to pay off credit card debt my parents told me not to get into. I learned to start an emergency fund. And, I was reminded again, I’m not alone. Less than half of Americans could cover an unexpected $400 expense. I heard from other people starting their financial journey what their concerns were, and they weren’t very different from mine.
And then COVID came
When COVID hit, my team knew that the already tenuous grasp on financial literacy millennials had was going to become even more problematic. So we found a voice that they related to. We went to experts to advise on employment, stimulus packages, and paying your rent in this challenging time.
My team and One Good Man, alongside the Singleton Foundation for Financial Literacy and Entrepreneurship, have accomplished something I’m very proud of. We’ve created engaging content and addresses the very serious issue of financial literacy facing millennials. I know that my own life is greatly improved because of my crash course in money-talk. And by taking the advice of Cary Singleton and looking at my personal finances as my own little business. Indeed, I’m taking steps to be the CEO of my own life.
I am certainly not a financial expert, I’m still just a freelance producer. However, I am now better equipped to control my financial future. By recognizing that money isn’t taboo, little steps can make a big difference, and there are resources everywhere. Now, I’m on my way to saving for a down-payment on a house.