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By the time Bola Sokunbi was ready to go to college, it looked like her parents had run out of money.
Her father had been forced to retire early and downsize their home in Nigeria. After he paid for her older brothers to go to school abroad, it appeared there was no money left.
But then Sokunbi’s mother stepped in — for years she had been hustling and saving money on the side, and she used it to help send her daughter to school in the U.S.
As a result of that experience, Sokunbi takes her money very seriously. “I came as a first-generation immigrant to America, and because of everything my parents had sacrificed for me to go to college, I just wanted to make them proud,” she says.
Shortly after her graduation — having earned degrees in business and computer science and maxxing out her credit card — Sokunbi began to zero in on her personal finances.
She began by focusing on a few big questions: How do I save, how do I invest, how do I budget? “I started to teach myself these principles and make progress,” she says. And then she built on that progress by keeping expenses low, contributing to her employer-provided retirement plan, saving at least 40% of each paycheck, and starting a photography side hustle.
The result? Sokunbi says she saved an incredible $100,000 in just three years on her pre-tax income of $54,000.
A few years later, Sokunbi decided she wanted to do something more impactful with the knowledge she gained while working toward that financial milestone. So she began sharing her story — and creating a dialogue with other money-minded women — through Clever Girl Finance.
As founder and CEO of Clever Girl Finance, she’s grown the platform from a personal blog in 2015 to an Instagram audience of over 320,000, a suite of free online courses, videos, podcasts, and coaching sessions.
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Most recently, she published the second Clever Girl Finance book — all about investing — which NextAdvisor named one of the best personal finance books of 2020. Her goal: to bridge the financial education gap and support women creating their own paths to financial success.
You won’t find a standard doctrine or strict financial rules on Clever Girl Finance, Sokunbi says. “I think people should be able to create a life that they can live on their own terms. Ultimately, that’s why you want to improve your finances. I believe that everyone should be able to decide what’s going to make them happy.”
An Early Wake-Up Call About Money
Sokunbi, a certified financial education instructor, says her mother was a huge influence in other ways. Her mother married young and only started focusing on her own finances after earning her college degree in her 30s.
“I remember sitting in the living room watching her console friends who were going through divorces or who had lost their spouses, and had no idea of the family finances,” Sokunbi says. “My mom said that she never wanted to find herself in that position.”
Sokunbi found the same struggles repeating in her own circles as an adult. She recalls conversations with the women in her life who didn’t know where to begin navigating their own money. That experience inspired Clever Girl Finance, which she describes as a safe space for women to have conversations about money and learn from other women who are also focused on improving their finances.
“It started to resonate with women who were looking for relatable financial content that was not judgmental, that was not shameful, that was not coming from a place of ‘I told you so,’” she says. And perhaps most importantly: “It just wasn’t overly complicated.”
Clever Money Advice — For All
As a Black woman and an immigrant, representation is a core value Sokunbi says is critical to financial education. “It’s easier to stay motivated with your aspirations when you see other people like you who have accomplished what you’re trying to accomplish,” she says. “It lowers the barrier to entry.”
Showcasing people who are typically underrepresented and underserved by financial institutions can help change the narrative of who’s allowed financial success, Sokunbi says. The role of money in women’s lives shouldn’t boil down to a “lack of having it being a hindrance in their life,” she adds.
Sokunbi believes representation is key in helping women change their narrative and get on a path to financial success. She wrote her first book, she says, because it’s the book she wishes she had when she started her financial journey.
“I am a woman of color, a Black woman, and when I went to the bookstore trying to find a personal finance book to just help me figure things out, there were hardly any books by women,” she says — let alone by women of color.
By sharing stories from real, diverse women from different walks of life, Sokunbi hopes readers can find some element to draw from or relate to in their own lives.
“My story may be relatable to a certain percentage of my audience, but not everybody,” Sokunbi says. “So our goal is to showcase a variety of women from different backgrounds and different circumstances who have made progress. Even if they don’t relate to one person, here’s another person that you can relate to.”
Make your goal for your investments specific. You’ll be better equipped to forgo short-term wants when you have a specific reason to keep saving over time.
Taking It To the Next Level: Investing
With the latest book in the Clever Girl Finance series and across the platform, Sokunbi is building upon the foundations with a new focus on financial growth via investing. That shift is a testament to the Clever Girl Finance community, she says.
“What organically has happened is people have figured out paying off debt, creating a plan for their finances, budgeting, saving. The next question is: how do I make my money work for me?”
Women generally approach wealth building a step behind men due in part to the persistence of America’s wage gap. Often, women of color — disproportionately affected by this income gap as well as generations of financial inequality — are at an even further disadvantage. Just 26% of American women invest in the financial markets at all, an S&P Global report revealed in 2019. What’s more, confidence can be a huge inhibitor. Despite earning higher average returns, just 9% of women believe they make better investing decisions than men, according to a 2017 Fidelity report.
“Women invest. We’re very good investors once we have the knowledge,” Sokunbi says. “We’re good at personal finances. We just need that information out there.”
Bola’s Guide to Growing Your Money
While she doesn’t subscribe to a single investment approach, there are a few things Sokunbi believes every beginner can do to set themselves up for success.
First, get the basics under your belt. Sokunbi says she’s found a silver lining to the financial challenges many have faced this year: more people are starting to really pay attention to their finances.
Even if you’re not in a position to begin investing now, finding a budget that works for you, establishing an emergency fund, and paying off high-interest debts can all help you map out a path to long-term success so you can begin building wealth once you’re back on your feet.
Then, when you’re ready, establish your goal. Remember, investing is for the long haul, so think long-term. Start contributing to a retirement account as early as possible. Investing can help you put money aside for long-term goals like returning to school or a future down payment.
“What is your end goal?” Sokunbi asks. “What are you trying to grow your money to help you obtain? It’s never about the money, it’s about the outcome of what you’re trying to leverage the money for.”
This can make it easier to stay out of your own way. You’ll have better motivation to refuse impulsive purchases and short-term fixes. “It gives you that focus and that ability to track your progress,” Sokunbi says.
Then establish a foundational knowledge of the account type you want and which allocations will best serve your goal. Sokunbi recommends watching videos on the topic or picking up a 101-level book. Learn how experts like Suze Orman mitigate risk with a dollar-cost averaging approach. Sometimes it can help to talk through your options with a financial advisor. Instead of curating your own investment mix, consider using a target-date fund that aligns with your goal timeline.
You don’t have to know everything. Begin with a foundation, then you can further refine your plan along the way.