(Nearly) Broke and Trying to Change the World

Journal of Financial Planning: March 2019



Amber Melanie Smith (ambermsmith.com) is an award-winning nonprofit founder, executive director, and speaker. She’s on a mission to encourage financial professionals to help nonprofit and public service workers secure their financial futures so they can have some peace of mind while they improve the world. Follow her @AmberMelSmith.

Editor’s note: The Journal has a long tradition of publishing peer-to-peer knowledge. This column, however, is written not by a planning peer, but by a client—a millennial client. We hope you find her perspective informative and intriguing. Share feedback at JFPFeedback@OneFPA.org​.

I’ll never forget how I felt the day I looked deeper into my student loan payoff progress only to find I actually owed more than I initially took out in a loan—after 10 years. It felt as if someone had hit me in the stomach; like I was trapped in a muddy pit with walls too slippery to pull myself up.

I was aghast. I’d done all of the “responsible” things I knew to do, like set up auto draft so I wouldn’t forget to make a payment and complete the necessary paperwork and employment verification for my income-based repayment plans each year.

As an employee of a nonprofit organization, I’d also enrolled in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which promised to forgive my qualifying student loans after a certain number of payments had been made. I’d even thrown a few extra dollars into paying off my principal for the loans that wouldn’t be forgiven here and there, when I could. I hadn’t missed a loan payment—or, actually, any payment for any bill—in over a decade.

I thought for sure I’d mastered this “adulting” thing my generation makes so many self-deprecating jokes about. But here I was, still $50,000 in debt (in student loans alone; forget the mortgage, the car payment, the medical bills…), now convinced, in my horror and dismay, that I may very well have no way out.

How could this be? I’m not a neglectful or ignorant person when it comes to the responsibilities of adult life. My mother sat me down to talk to me about how to do my taxes when I was 15 and had just completed a few months of my first job at a pizza restaurant. As a rule, I purchase only the things that are within my means, rarely if ever using credit. I maintain a spreadsheet monitoring my bill payments each month. How could I—a not-perfect but reasonably responsible person where money and overall life stuff is concerned—have let this happen?

I’m Not Alone

It couldn’t just be me, I realized, and I was right. Millennials in general are struggling with financial literacy and management. Millennials also represent the highest concentration of student loan borrowers and are thus the not-so-proud owners of part of the shiny pile of $1.5 trillion student loan debt in the U.S. (see the Forbes.com​ article, “Student Loan Debt Statistics In 2018: A $1.5 Trillion Crisis”).

And then there are the real prize winners—the people like me—millennials working in public service jobs employed by nonprofits, schools, or other government agencies. According to the Brookings Institution, millennials overall now represent nearly two-fifths of the nation’s working-age population. An estimated 25 percent of us work in either government (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) or nonprofit sector jobs, (according to the Urban Institute) with hundreds of thousands of us supposedly eligible for public service loan forgiveness help.

We are the people who, on account of these positions, have been hoping that help from the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program would offset the typically lower salaries these jobs are likely to offer. And we are the people who are now losing sleep over horror stories like those of music teacher Debbie Baker, school counselor Amanda Lawson-Ross, and countless others (read their stories at money.cnn.com), who remain confused about the status of their debt, unsure if they will be able to count on any of the help promised to them at all. After all, of the 30,000 who have so far completed their required number of payments and submitted paperwork for forgiveness, fewer than 100 have had it granted, according to U.S. Department of Education figures. Our trust in institutions we thought were safeguarding our financial futures is failing.

Making a Difference

Was this all our fault? We could have just bypassed worries over debt by getting jobs in more lucrative fields, right? Perhaps. But our country needs people who want to work in public service and the leadership they bring. We need these teachers and social workers, advocates, and staffers at homeless shelters, children’s hospitals, food banks, veteran care facilities, and more. Somebody needs to do these vital jobs, and we raised our hands.

Despite preliminary perceptions of millennials as entitled, many of us decided a long time ago that making a difference in the world was more important to us than being wealthy. So we set ourselves on a challenging career path that would allow us to do our part to change the world. We like to be of service. We want to help. That doesn’t mean, however, that we want or deserve unnecessary financial stress, exorbitant debt, or to default on our mortgage. No reasonable person, however saintly, wants that.

Furthermore, student loans are just a piece of the financial anxiety puzzle for millennials working in public service. It is compounded with credit card debt, shaky job and housing market conditions, and other turmoil that has caused our generation to behave differently than others, putting off buying homes and having children due to the uncertainty of our finances. Heck, I was even nervous about getting a dog until earlier this year (I eventually did; her name is Kira, and she’s adorable).


Maybe I do know more than I give myself credit for about the loans, saving money, making investments … and maybe I don’t. That’s the problem and the point: I have no idea. I don’t know what I don’t know.

But here’s what I do know: worries about what my financial future may hold keep me up at night more and more as I get older. Seeing the possibility that Public Service Loan Forgiveness may be an untrustworthy option has caused me, and others like me, to question the stability of other financial institutions I’m supposed to be able to count on as I get older. Will I actually be able to benefit from my investment in Social Security, like my parents? The future of my finances is a murky mess from where I stand.

Taking Action

When the shock over my (lack of) student loan payment progress had faded, I wanted to take action. I knew that there was no shame in asking for the help I needed to better understand my financial position and how to improve it. But who could I turn to? Financial planners and advisers, it seemed, were for rich people with money to invest and spare.

I met Sebastian Bunster, my current financial adviser, by luck through mutual acquaintances at work. I wouldn’t have sought an adviser for myself before running into him. Everything I’d heard or read about financial advisers before meeting him convinced me I’d need to have a decent pile of cash laying around before these professionals would give me the time of day. I didn’t have thousands of spare dollars available to retain them, nor money to invest or manage. I was a wealthless nobody. All I wanted was to figure out how I could continue my work in public service while paying off my tremendous debt and avoiding starvation and destitute golden years.

Sebastian helped me make a plan, establish some peace of mind, and gain a sense of control. For the first time, I didn’t view my debt and my financial future as a haphazard tornado inevitably on the path to destroy my security and dreams. My debt was still a mountain, but I’d been given climbing gear.

My generation, especially those of us working in public service, is calling out for a hero—a financial management hero, that is. I’m fairly integrated into the business network in my own community, and I’m just now learning that some (though it still seems like a select few) financial professionals are answering this call. But how many more of my peers perceive you as inaccessible to them? How many more would never think to seek you out or ask you for help?

So I’m sending out the signal: help us find you. Develop ways we can work with you that are affordable and accessible. Meet us where we are. If you invest your time and talents into us, I promise we’ll be a good return on investment—not only for you, but for the world. We’re the next generation of big donors, and hey, we already give a damn (a huge one). And as millennials are gearing up to overtake boomers as the largest generation, bringing us to the table isn’t just a good deed, it’s good business.  

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