Yanely Espinal
Early advocacy: As a sophomore, Espinal circulated a petition opposing a policy preventing student dining workers from doing homework during downtime on shift.Photo: Amanda Saviñón
Business & Entrepreneurship

Debt Deterrent
A finance expert teaches kids about money before the banks can find them

By Alina Kulman ’21 / April/May 2020
April 9th, 2020

Less than a month after Yanely Espinal ’11 arrived at Brown, she innocently walked into a Bank of America branch. “They gave me a credit card with a $1,500 limit a week later,” she recalls. A first-generation college student, Espinal comes from a Dominican family in New York and has eight siblings. She was a Sidney Frank scholar and was working five jobs, but she still needed to swipe her new credit card to pay for textbooks, meals on Thayer, and the occasional pair of shoes. “I already was the type of kid who you wouldn’t normally see at Brown. I didn’t want money to make me feel more isolated,” she explains. What Espinal says she didn’t yet understand: “The financial industry is a giant predator. And you are a giant piece of prey.” 

Espinal is now a professional financial literacy educator. She shares advice about credit scores, budgeting, and investing on her YouTube channel, “MissBeHelpful,” to over 39,000 subscribers. She is also the director of educational outreach at Next Gen Personal Finance, traveling around the country hosting free workshops for teachers on personal finance. But when she graduated from college, she says, she was the one in need of advice: with four credit cards maxed out, “I realized I was in way over my head.”  

Espinal read every personal finance book she could get her hands on and ultimately paid off $20,000 of debt in 18 months after graduation while on a teacher’s salary. She went through all of her credit card statements with a highlighter, noting everything she didn’t remember purchasing. “It was ridiculous how much of my spending was unconscious,” she says. “I got serious about aligning my spending with my values.”

In 2015, she started her YouTube channel as a platform for her own story of paying off her debts quickly. “A lot of the personal finance space is older white men talking about stocks,” she says. “I want my videos to feel like you’re in a cafe with your girlfriend, and you ask her to explain retirement funds to you.” 

While her YouTube audience is mainly young adults, she hopes her work with Next Gen Personal Finance can reach kids before they turn 18 and face “predatory lending practices and student loans. Teachers want to teach financial literacy, but they never learned it. We just have to give them the knowledge they need,” she says. 

Her next steps include writing a book, Mind Your Money, due in 2021 as a collaboration with the startup Scribe Media (publication was pushed back from this fall due to the coronavirus). What keeps her going are the comments and messages she receives from people who say that her advice got them out of debt: “It was never my instinct to talk about all of my mistakes and struggles, but I realized the only way to help others is to be my authentic self, which meant I had to share the good and the bad,” she says. “Everyone has financial struggles. Everyone makes mistakes. I want people to feel less alone.”

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April/May 2020