The Financial Educator Who Learned Everything from 4-Year-Olds
Michelle Jackson — First Jobs
Tiffany “The Budgetnista” Aliche went from broke to creating a financial empowerment empire with her “Live Richer Challenge.” The best-selling author of The One Week Budget has commented or written for Essence, Time, The New York Times, CBS MoneyWatch, The Today Show, and The Real among many other outlets. Aliche frequently speaks publicly about the importance of financial literacy for clients like American Express, Columbia University, and her own workshops and seminars.
But the reason I chose to catch up with Aliche is because her 36-day financial challenge has changed the lives of black women across the United States and abroad. African-American women are making huge gains in education—some reports indicate that they are now the most educated group in America—and are becoming entrepreneurs at the highest rates in the U.S. But many black women, often also tasked with lifting their family out of poverty, have yet to reap the financial benefits that should come with higher education and business ownership. Aliche is working to change that and empower her Dream Catcher community one dollar at a time.
The gravity of her mission doesn’t seem to weigh down Aliche. Our high-energy, often hilarious, conversation about how teaching four-year-olds is the best education in communicating with debt-saddled adults left me revved up, motivated, and amazed at how a woman who had been sleeping on her sister’s couch created a financial movement.
Michelle: What was your first job and how did it influence your current career?
Tiffany: Well, my first job—my first real job—was a preschool teacher. It was a strange choice because at the time I had just graduated with a business degree with a concentration in marketing.
Tiffany: I had a bunch of internships that I promptly hated right away. I remember one of my bosses: He was so nice, but I used to write poetry instead of doing work. One day he was using my computer and he was like "great poetry," and I thought: This is not the place for me.
Tiffany: So, I just knew as I was graduating. It was my last semester and I remember feeling panicked because I did not want to go into business and work for corporate America. My personality did not suit that environment and I was really trying to figure out what to do. We took a family vacation and went to Nigeria—where my parents are from—for the first time, all seven of us, my four sisters, I, and my parents. You have to unplug in the village there is no WiFi or anything. So, I took three weeks there to kind of figure it out in this simple, beautiful place: What did I really want?
So what really made me happy? It was teaching. I had always taught. I taught at daycare centers, I taught Sunday school. So, I decided to become a teacher … [and] ended up staying in the preschool classroom for 10 years and getting my Master of Education.
Michelle: What was it about preschoolers specifically that spoke to you? Because many teachers tend to like certain aged children and now you're working with adults.
Tiffany: Often, when it comes to finding your purpose you can get easily confused. … I thought my purpose was kids, but actually it was teaching.
They're not just letting you into the classroom just because. But with preschool you didn't need to officially be a [certified] teacher (back then). That has since changed. Now you have to have your teaching degree to teach preschool as well, which is good.
I don't believe in coincidences because here I was, I'd never taught before, I go into a preschool classroom and anybody who knows anything about 3- and 4-year-olds...it is the most difficult age to teach.
Michelle: They're crazy
Tiffany: Yes, they are little drunk people. For one thing, there's no point of reference! Imagine teaching someone, saying, "Hey, this is an apple, say ‘A’ like apple." And the child says, "What's an apple?" “OK. Red like a sock.” And the child says, "What's a sock?" .… There's no place to begin from and say, “let's build some knowledge.” There are literally kids who don't even know their names. The child would say, “My name is Jo-Jo,” but their [full] name is Joseph. The kid would wonder “Who's that?” Because everyone has called him Jo-Jo. “OK, let's just start with your name.”
What it taught me was to be an amazing teacher. Not because I'm so super talented, but after 10 years of taking a person with no point of reference and bring them to a place where they could read, write, add, and subtract—basic stuff—that's a huge shift.…
On top of teaching I also learned to manage behavior and expectations from parents, guidance counselors, the state, the [school] board, basically everyone who came in to say "this is what we need our students to learn." I was a manager, I was everything, I was a nurse, I was a mom … I was running a business.
And on top of that, every year I got a new business because kids would leave and then you would have a whole new crop of kids starting from the very beginning. So, literally every year for 10 years it's like, “retraining time! Retraining time!”
So, I learned to shift people from a place of no knowledge to knowledge while being entertaining, being kind, being fun, basically all of the things that I used to build The Budgetnista … I learned in that classroom.
I attribute 95 percent of my Budgetnista success from the preschool classroom. Because it taught me everything. It taught me public speaking. It taught me pacing. It taught me cadence. It taught me patience. It taught me to check for understanding. I can tell when a crowd is restless, when I'm not hitting my mark, when I need to switch [topics]. I can pivot mid-presentation … because I know what it feels like when the energy shifts in the room and they’re bored. All of that I learned standing in front of 15 3- and 4-year-olds who are like, "I don't care, when's snack time?"
Michelle: [Still laughing]
Tiffany: I was doing the Budgetnista informally while teaching. During naptime I would have parent university, where I would tell the parents, “look, come in and I'll show you how to budget.” During naptime was when I did my own budget. The teachers would sit down and watch me in awe as I manipulated my money. I used to have the actual envelope system. So, I would get my money, I would cash my check, put it in my envelopes, do my profit and loss statements. People would just look at me like what? So after I awhile I would be like, “let me show you how I did it.” Then the parents, then the maintenance men, then before I knew it nap time was the time when the adults in the building would come into my room to learn how to budget and save. So, I was already doing it, just not formally.
This interview has been edited and condensed.