Best-selling author Tiffany "The Budgetnista" Aliche and I met at Elbow Room in Newark recently to discuss her financial literacy career, which she launched in Newark, and which has truly taken off over the past 18 months.
Depending on the day, you can spot her on your television, in your Twitter feed, on the Huffington Post, speaking at major conferences, teaching financial literacy in smaller groups, giving webinars, and being featured in high-recognition newspapers and magazines. Or, if you're in Newark (Aliche lives here), you just might catch her strolling around town, always with a forearm full of her signature green Budgetnista bracelets.
Among other things, we talked about how the recession changed a generation's attitude toward risk taking, why you should let your business speak to you, and why you might want to look out for a green "B" on your potential purchases in the not-too-distant future. And as always, I asked about the entrepreneurial climate in Newark.
Andaiye Taylor: Your reach has spread well beyond Newark. Can you talk about why Newark makes a good home base for an entrepreneur like yourself?
Tiffany Aliche: Newark is like a big city and a small town at the same time. If you succeed in Newark, it puts you on the map, because in your given field, there might be next to no competition. In my case, who else is going to teach financial literacy? I was the only game in town.
I look at Dreena [Whitfield, founder of WhitPR, a public relations firm, and Newark's current press secretary]: no one was specifically doing public relations for small business here before she did. Or Akintola [Hanif, founder of Hycide magazine]: no one was a hardcore photographer in the way he did it.
These are truly talented people at what they do. It's just that Newark allows us to hone our skills in a smaller environment, where people can help you out without feeling threatened, whereas in New York City, it's more dog eat dog.
Right now, I'm like the valedictorian in a small high school: I'm right in league with the other valedictorians. Newark might be pretty small, but it's the biggest city in the state. Because I'm at the top of the heap in Newark, it puts me in league with other people all over the country who do what I do.
And another thing I love about Newark is that all the movers and shakers are so touchable. It seems like everybody is just a touch away. There's more than enough going on here that you can make an impact, and you can be put on the map to succeed.
Does the proximity to New York City also help?
It does. Because Newark is so close, I’m able to make the transition to New York.
I'm City National Bank’s financial literacy expert. That's a case where I was able to work with a company that is based here, but has a presence in [New York] city. A bank in [New York] city would never have asked me to be its lead financial literacy expert at the stage in my career that CNB did. But here in Newark, there was no other real choice. The president [of CNB] saw a Star Ledger story and called me in. And that's another thing: to even have the opportunity to have press here is a big advantage.
So it sounds like this has been a great place to kick off a career. Can you talk about living in Newark?
I love living here. It's not a super pretty place like California. Newark is like the baby that’s not that cute, but it’s my baby. What I like is the people. The people here are really amazing, and it's like I can’t make it from one end of the street to the other without meeting somebody new. Or seeing someone I know and having a conversation.
And there's a certain energy here. Everyone is kind of like "Man, we’re all trying to figure out how to do something amazing."
What do you think is driving that attitude? Why are so many people trying to do their own thing?
"Living richer" is about pursuing your purposeful passion in life. I feel like the recession has led to people thinking, "If I do things the 'right way', everything can still be taken away." That’s the gift that the recession has given to us, especially if you're in your late 20s, or in your 30s. My [younger] sister and her peers who are coming out [of college] now aren't seeing the worst of it like our generation has.
The recession made you rethink how life is supposed to work. It shined light on the lie that if you go to school and get a "regular job", everything's going to work out fine. I think more people in our generation have thought to themselves, "If you're going to take away my sucky job anyway, I might as well take a risk on doing something I'll love."
How did that play out in your specific case?
I was a teacher in Newark for 7 years. A couple years ago, around the time when school was going to start again for the fall, they called and said, "Don’t come."
At that point, I had saved two years' worth of income just because, so I had a cushion, and that situation made me realize I was over that kind of teaching anyway. But it was still a devastating time.
I took two years to travel and volunteer, and always ended up teaching somehow. I realized I loved teaching, just not in the box of the classroom.
I working with [Newark nonprofit] FP [YOUTHOUTCRY] teaching financial literacy, and would be in city hall all the time because of that work. And I'd meet all these amazing people there. Newark Now would have meetings where I'd meet a bunch of people doing interesting things in the city. When I wrote a financial program for FP, people eventually started asking, "How much does Tiffany cost?" Al Tariq [Best, founder of FP YOUTHOUTCRY] was like, "I think you should do financial literacy."
How did you turn that suggestion into a business?
Three years ago, I was on my sister's couch about to lose my house. One of my mentors said to me, "You need to get a contract." I remember thinking, "Oh thanks, because they're just flying in from the sky." But then I realized I had everything I needed to go out and get paid for my work.
I thought about what organizations would want what I was giving. Then I thought about the people who could make the connections, and just started emailing. One woman I emailed connected me to The United Way, and that was my very first contract.
It's funny because in the beginning, I used to force Budgetnista to be here and there. Now, I focus on doing the best job I can do, and I have not solicited any business in the last year and a half. My job is to do my very best work, write the very best article, give my very best interview, prepare and prepare for my speaking engagements. If I do that, people will contact me. If you're an entrepreneur, the business will show you the direction you need to go in, if you let it.
Why do you think your audiences relate to you?
I tell them that they don’t need to be afraid of finances anymore, and I let people know they don’t have to be ashamed of their financial situation anymore. When I make a financial mistake, I don’t mind telling everyone, and using it as another lesson. Putting that on the table lets me say, "If I can show you this, then you don't need to be ashamed to ask me about high credit card debt, or about how to handle your potential foreclosure."
Speaking is a big part of your job. Where did your charisma come from?
I’m a middle child, so I guess that I’m always like, "Look at me!" Plus, I’m super talkative. I’ve learned that it’s just my natural personality.
You frame your financial advice in the context of happiness and quality of life. How did you develop your financial curriculum around those higher concepts?
I’m an avid reader — I always have my Kindle with me. I don't read solely about business; I read a lot of philosophical books. I’m on that quest for the best life. I love The Alchemist. I love Jonathan Livingston's book Seagull, which is about a seagull that thinks flying should be about more than just getting food. I read a lot of marketing books. In fact, my degree is in marketing. I watch a lot of YouTube videos. I’m always on the quest for my best self.
When you do your seminars, what types of people come out?
In Newark, it’s a great mix. I was working with YouthBuild, which is a program for kids who got into trouble, and want to get their lives together. When I speak at The United Way, it's usually to professional people who are in their late 20s to upper 40s. They're thinking, "I’m making good money, but I don’t know what to do with it, how to manage it." I do a lot of schools and colleges. So there's no typical person, it’s really just people who are admitting to themselves, "I know I can do better with my money, but how do I do it? I want to do better, but I don’t know the language." That's the thread that ties them together.
When it comes to my curriculum, I'm like a mad scientist. So many things I've shown people how to do are based on mistakes I've made. Or sometimes, I've figured out an issue someone I care about is having.
Because I taught preschool, I'm good at taking really big concepts and making them understandable. Being a preschool teacher was the best training ground for that. That’s why step one of my book (The One Week Budget) is literally, "Get a paper and a pencil, and begin writing this."
You've had an exciting year and a half. Where do you envision taking your brand from here?
My ultimate world domination goal is that one day, Budgetnista won’t just be associated with financial literacy. It will be associated with value. You’ll see my Budgetnista "B" on a washing machine, or you'll go to Target and see it on a dress. It'll mean this item is a great value for your money.
In the next two to five years, I want to do more shows – I would love to be the "Friday girl" on a morning news show. I want to do more travel to spread fun financial literacy around. I'm also working on another book. I did a "30 day money challenge" recently, and after I did it, a couple people were like, "Is this all in one place?" So I thought, "You know what? That’s what I’ll do next". But "One Week Budget" is still doing well, and I think it still has some time left.
I don't want to put out a new book just to make money, though. I'm not in the business of taking money from people, I'm in the financial literacy business, and I'm into helping people. I want my new book to be borne out of that energy.