Meet the millennial fighting for Gen Z to learn about money in school

I feel like schools failed millennials: Here's how they're teaching Gen Z...
Key Points
  • After graduating from an Ivy League university, Yanely Espinal was living paycheck-to-paycheck just like her parents, who didn't finish elementary school.
  • Espinal realized her financial struggles were largely because she never learned about money.
  • Now Espinal wants to give younger generations a better shot in the real world. She played a role in Florida becoming the latest, and largest, state to require students to take a semester of personal finance to graduate, in March 2022.

Yanely Espinal is one of nine children who grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, New York.

She shared a bedroom with her four sisters. "I remember fighting for the bathroom all the time," says the 32-year-old, who now lives in Miami. "Everyone wants to do their makeup at the same time. So much drama."

Espinal's parents, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic, never spoke about money. But they didn't need to for Espinal to know that they struggled to pay for daily essentials.

"Whenever my dad was in a bad mood it was about money," she says. "Whenever money was more lax, things were paid on time and he had a little bit of extra money, he was in a much better mood. He would give us a $1 or $5 to get chips at the bodega."

Yanely Espinal, pictured with her family, at her 16th birthday party.
Yanely Espinal

Espinal expected to help her family get out of poverty. She graduated from an Ivy League school on a full-scholarship in 2011. But she soon found herself living paycheck-to-paycheck just like her parents, who never finished elementary school.

"It didn't make sense. Something was wrong," says Espinal.

That's when she realized she never learned how to properly make and manage money. "That was a lightbulb moment. I have to devote my career to demanding better financial literacy."

Now Espinal is the director of educational outreach at Next Gen Personal Finance, which offers free teacher training and personal finance curricula for schools. Espinal is helping to spearhead the organization's mission to ensure that by 2030, every U.S. high school student will graduate having taken at least one semester of personal finance.

Here's how financial literacy helped Espinal break the cycle of poverty and how she's fighting to make sure all teens learn about money before they go to college.

Trying to keep up with the wealthier kids

Espinal struggled to fit in while attending Brown University, describing her new environment as "total culture shock." She felt like an outcast not only in regards to language and culture, but also socioeconomic status.

"It feels like everyone around you always has a lot of money, even if that's definitely not always the case," she says.

Espinal attended a college gala at Brown University.
Courtesy Yanely Espinal

To pay for things, Espinal juggled several part-time jobs simultaneously. She was a residential peer leader in her dorm, a supervisor at a campus pizzeria, a cashier, a tutor, and a coordinator for campus Caribbean heritage events.

But to blend in with her peers, Espinal spent all that money and maxed out her credit cards on purchases like shoes, dresses, manicures, devices and spring break trips. She graduated with about $20,000 in credit card debt.

With her Ivy League degree, Espinal's parents were counting on her to help them get out of poverty. But as a teacher in her mid-20s, she was struggling to pay off debt, help her family, and make ends meet each month.

Espinal (back left) had a water fight with friends in 2002.
Courtesy Yanely Espinal

Then Espinal began learning how to pay off and avoid credit card debt. "That's when I was like, 'oh my goodness, there are some very simple steps and strategies. How come no one ever told me that?' she says. "That was really what lit the flame to champion personal finance education because I know that it would have made such a big difference for me, for some of my family members, and for so many of my friends."

She began creating content on YouTube to educate people about saving, budgeting, investing and more. That's when financial literacy nonprofit Next Gen Personal Finance found her videos and asked her to join their team.

'A human chess game'

In addition to her role as NGPF's director of educational outreach, she's also an advocate for the Next Gen Personal Finance Mission 2030 Fund. As such, she meets with politicians, lobbyists, and community members to advocate for legislation requiring students to learn personal finance in school.

Her latest win: She played a role in Florida becoming the latest, and largest, state to require students to take a semester of personal finance to graduate.

Espinal reading Women & Money by Suze Orman
Courtesy Yanely Espinal

Espinal likens the process of getting lawmakers on board with the bill to "a human chess game." It involved identifying anyone with concerns about the bill, explaining the bill's intent, and making sure all stakeholders are happy with the bill's language.

The Florida House and Senate passed the bill unanimously in March 2022.

As of mid-April 2022, about 20 states are considering more than 40 bills promoting personal finance education, according to NGPF. And the number of states that require or will soon require students to take a semester of personal finance to graduate has doubled in the last three years, from 5 to 11.

Espinal is reminded why she's doing what she's doing whenever she leaves her home. "If I'm walking to the park and I see kids playing, if I see teenagers on their phones, and parents walking with their kids, I'm like, yeah! I was a part of this movement that pushed to make sure that all of these kids in this community won't graduate high school without taking a personal finance class," she says.

"That's amazing, because it's what I wish I had."

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