Smart Money Podcast: Building Your Financial Smarts With Bola Sokunbi

Personal finance Nerd Kim Palmer talks with money author and educator Bola Sokunbi about budgeting and side gigs.

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Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we usually answer your real-world money questions.

This week’s episode is dedicated to a conversation with Bola Sokunbi, a financial educator and author. Personal finance Nerd Kim Palmer talks with Sokunbi about her book, “Clever Girl Finance: Ditch Debt, Save Money and Build Real Wealth.” They also discuss Sokunbi’s financial education, which started with her mother, and what Sokunbi says is one of the best ways to build financial security — starting a side hustle.

Check out this episode on either of these platforms:

Before you build a budget
Track all your spending at a glance to understand your trends and spot opportunities to save money.

Our take

Taking care of our own financial education often starts with reflecting on the money lessons we absorbed growing up. Through example, parents shape the first ideas we have around what it means to make and manage money. Then, if we have our own children, we can try to teach them all of the lessons we wish we had learned, so they don’t repeat our mistakes.

Sometimes those mistakes make up the backbone of our financial education. Whether we overspend, build up debt, or hurt our credit, it’s almost always possible to rebuild our way back to financial health. This starts with forgiving ourselves and taking time to reflect on where we went wrong.

Often, the next step is to make amends. In the case of a credit mistake, that could mean paying off high-interest debt or slowly rebuilding credit by making on-time payments each month.

Launching a side hustle can also help, because it can generate additional money on top of your existing income, providing an extra cushion in case you suddenly lose your job. You can also use the extra money to pay off debt or build up an emergency fund.

Our tips

  • Teach kids about money: Kids often learn their first lessons about money from their parents, so it’s worth putting some thought into what they are learning at home. Having conversations about spending, saving, investing and giving can help put everyday financial decisions in context.

  • Learn from money mistakes: It’s easy to make big mistakes when you’re first learning how to manage money, whether it’s building up debt or going on a spending spree. Learning from those errors can help you make better choices next time.

  • Consider launching a side hustle: Earning money on the side, in addition to full-time work, can boost your financial security because it makes you less vulnerable in case you lose your primary job. It can also make it possible to pay off debt or save more.

More about learning about money and launching a side-hustle on NerdWallet:

Have a money question? Text or call us at 901-730-6373. Or you can email us at [email protected]. To hear previous episodes, go to the podcast homepage.

Episode transcript

Sean Pyles: Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money Podcast, where we typically answer your personal finance questions and help you feel a little smarter about what you do with your money. I'm Sean Pyles. We have a special episode in store for you today. Regular Smart Money guest and personal finance Nerd Kim Palmer is kicking off the first episode of our new Book Club series, where she talks with authors of personal finance books about their advice for how you can manage your money. Kim, who are we talking with this episode?

Kim Palmer: I am speaking with a special guest, Bola Sokunbi. She is the author of “Clever Girl Finance: Ditch Debt, Save Money and Build Real Wealth.” We are going to talk to her about her book, some of her own biggest money mistakes, and what you should do right now to boost your financial security.

Sean: Sounds great. Well, I will let you take things from here.

Kim: Thank you. Bola, welcome to Smart Money.

Bola Sokunbi: Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.

Kim: Me too. Well, one really powerful story that you share, which really struck me, is how much you learned from your own mom about money. Do you mind taking us back to your childhood and explaining why and how she had such a big influence on how you think about money today?

Bola: Yeah. My mom got married very young. She was 19 years old and she got married to my dad, who at the time was early 30-something ... and this was not outrageous back then; it was pretty much the norm. And she only had her high school diploma. Typically, the mother would be the stay-at-home mom, the dad would go out and earn the income. That was what was commonly happening.

My mom went on to have four kids, and when she got into her 30s, she started to see things happening with friends of hers that didn't make her comfortable — friends who were unable to leave abusive marriages because they had no idea of the family finances; friends who had unfortunately lost their spouses, and again, had no idea of the family finances; or the spouse's family would come in and take over everything. My mom just felt very uncomfortable not being able to have her own financial standing. And so she decided that she wanted to go to school to get her college degree, and eventually her master's degree, so that she could contribute to our household financially.

I remember as a little child sitting in the corner of my living room, growing up and listening to my mom or watching her console her friends who had a big fight with their husband or had a domestic violence situation and they just couldn't leave because they had nowhere to go. And there were instances where a friend would spend the night with her kids because, again, she had no financial options. And eventually, my mom became a significant contributor to our household finances, and then eventually became the breadwinner of our family when my dad went through a financial and health downturn several years later. So she was very impactful in terms of just financial lessons and the way I think about money and all of that.

Kim: Did she talk to you about that too? Or was it more from you watching her go through that?

Bola: Both of my parents actually talked to me about money. My mom very quickly graduated and then started working full time and then started all these different side hustles. Almost every day after school and on the weekends, we were going to visit a side hustle. She started a Coca-Cola franchise; she started a bakery; she started a hairdressing salon. She had all these different side hustles over the years, and she would always tell me, "You want to have options. You want to be able to exit any situation that does not serve you. You want to be able to contribute to your family." My dad would always tell me, "You never want to be a liability, not on yourself and not on a man." And he would tell me, "I don't care who you marry or how much money they think they have, you need to be able to stand on your own two feet."

Kim: That's powerful. I mean, in the book, you really encourage people to think about what lessons they were taught themselves growing up, too.

Bola: Yes.

Kim: Do you think that plays a big role in how we handle money as adults?

Bola: Absolutely. What we observe and what we're told about money definitely reflects when we start to manage our own money into adulthood, and sometimes it's not always positive, and sometimes there are big gaps. Like for me, my parents always talked to me about, "You want to stand on your own two feet. You want to not be a liability." But they didn't specifically tell me, "Here is how to invest. Here is how to budget," for example, so there was a gap in my own financial learning. And also not just that gap, but just differences in countries. Coming from Nigeria and being an immigrant, my parents had no idea about the American credit system or what a 401(k) was. That's not something they grew up with.

Just being able to identify what gaps exist is really important to help you craft your own financial journey or your own financial plan. And also, being able to let go of the negative ideas that were impressed upon you when it comes to money so that you, again, can craft a positive plan for yourself. Because I talk to a lot of women who say they were told growing up that being rich or being wealthy was not good because only evil people, wicked people, had money; or that money was evil, or that they could never be successful because nobody in their family had ever been successful. Or they were told things like, "We're all meant to be in debt. It's how the system is designed.” So letting go of negative ideas about money that have been fed to you or you have observed or have been ingrained in you one way or the other is also really important so that you can craft the plan that you can take action on.

Kim: You also talk a lot about the fact that there are still gender differences when it comes to money. You point out that women earn less than men on average, and for women of color, the pay gap is even bigger. Do you think that financial education, which of course, you've dedicated your career and your books to, can it really help address some of those differences?

Bola: Yes, absolutely. People like to have this argument that it's an equal playing field when it comes to money, but that actually is not the case. When you think back to your mother, your grandmother's generation, depending on your age, moms were homemakers, right? They managed the home and they would make dinner and teach their daughter about all the great recipes; and the dad will come home from work and pull his sons aside to talk about business; and as a result, there is that gap. It's not organic or natural for us to have conversations about money because we were not sitting at the dinner table talking about money with our parents.

Fast forward to today's age where, despite that gender wage gap, women are earning more than their mothers and their grandmothers. Women are choosing not to get married. Women are single mothers. Women are breadwinners. We're in this position where we have to pay attention to our finances for our own financial wellness. Then when you factor in the fact that on average, we live longer than men, but we are paid less, and like you mentioned, when you break it down by demographic, statistics are much worse.

But also, the gender wage gap is one thing, when there's also this huge investment gap, which is: Because we're paid less, we're also investing much less, or not investing at all. And so really, empowering ourselves with financial education to know why it is important, not only will help us change that narrative when it comes to building wealth for ourselves, but it also helps to change that gap when it comes to our kids and raising our daughters to be financially successful, and raising our sons to understand that a woman's place is not only to be a homemaker. You don't have to be intimidated by a successful woman, so financial education is definitely something that's really cornerstone for women.

Kim: Somehow you managed to save over $100,000, I think, within three years of graduating from college. Can you tell us how you did that?

Bola: Way back when I graduated from college, I was able to save over $100,000 in about three-and-a-half years. I started saving when I was about 25-ish, and I had saved the $100,000 by the time I turned 28. Basically, I just got really creative. I had to learn a lot of the ideas about personal finance on my own. My parents couldn't explain to me the credit system, the 401(k) ... I didn't even know what that was. But I had this opportunity where I was making $54,000 before taxes, and I thought I was rich, even though it wasn't that much money in New York City — but it was the most money I'd ever made. And just knowing the sacrifices my parents had made for me and my siblings growing up, I wanted to do something that mattered, and I figured that I could do well with my finances. So I started learning about budgeting, about credit, about investing, and I started doing those things, being really frugal, starting a side hustle that really helped accelerate my savings, maxing out my 401(k), saving my tax refunds, any small bonuses I got, and that really helped to push my savings.

Kim: Side hustling, that's something you talk a lot about. You mentioned it with your mom as well. You've written a whole other book on that subject. Do you think it's important for everyone to really think about pursuing a side hustle?

Bola: I think it's something to think about. Side hustles are not convenient for everybody, right? But I personally believe that there's certain things you can do for a short period of time. I ran my photography side hustle working full time as a mom to newborn twins, and it was really, really hard. But it was, for that period of time, to help me accomplish certain financial goals. I think side hustles provide the opportunity to really help you expand your income, accelerate achieving your goals; and it has to make sense for you.

When you think about a side hustle, you don't have to do it forever. It might be something you do for six months, for a year, for five years, because you really want to pursue this goal of paying off debt, or saving money, or moving to another country, or scaling business, whatever your goal might be. But I think when you are starting a side hustle, if you decide that it's something you want to do, you really want to be intentional about what you plan to do with the money that you earn because you are exchanging your time for this money — time away from your family, time away from your kids, time away from sleep. So you don't want it to be a waste of your time. But a side hustle, I think, is worth considering for anyone who is just feeling stuck when it comes to their income, or is looking for opportunities to bring in more income, or to accelerate their goals.

Kim: You share some of the mistakes you made, too, in the book, like taking out a high-interest credit card. Tell us about that. I mean, did you just have to learn some of these lessons the hard way?

Bola: I think we all have to make our own mistakes. I had never had a credit card before. I didn't even really understand what a credit card was. This was back when it was allowable for companies to be at the career fairs and sell credit card services. That's no longer allowed, right? They would offer you free T-shirts and free pens and tell you all these amazing stories about how this credit card was going to change your life — and that's what happened to me. They had the really cute T-shirts and pens, and they told me they were going to give me $2,000 and I wouldn't have to worry about it, and it almost sounded like free money — plus a free T-shirt and a free pen.

I called my mom and I'm like, "Oh, guess what? Someone offered me a credit card, and it's free." And my mom is like, "I don't understand what you could possibly need in your life at this point that you need to buy on credit." She's like, "Get away from that table. Don't you dare get it.” So the next time the career fair came around, I went over there and I was like, "My mom thinks this is a bad idea, OK?" The lady's like, "Oh, your mom doesn't have to know. We'll just send the bill to your dorm room, or to your friend's house, or to on-campus somewhere." I was like, "Oh, wow. Let's do it." And so I did it. I got my $2,000 credit card, and I maxed it out almost within the first one to two weeks. I didn't know what I did. I bought clothes and groceries, probably, but mostly clothes, a bunch of junk.

Then like 30 days later, or 40 days later, whenever, that bill came after that first cycle. I got a bill, and I remember looking at the interest rate and it said 24.99%, and I was like, "What? This is crazy. 25% on... What did I buy?" That was my first experience and the first difficult lesson with credit cards. I had to tell my mom and she's like, "Listen, I cannot help you. You need to figure it out." I was working on campus part time, and I had a job that paid me $116 every two weeks that I used to pay my phone bill and to buy groceries, and I had to figure out how to pay off that $2,000 credit card from that $116 paycheck every two weeks. And I did it.

Kim: Wow. I mean, I think that also, it speaks to what the environment was like before the Card Act of 2009, because I think that was a common experience.

Bola: Yes. But you know what's really interesting is that I think back then, it wasn't even that bad. I mean, it was not good, but compared to now ... Because when I was in college, the only exposure I had to that credit card company was when I went to the career fair, and if I didn't go to the fair, I didn't think about the credit card. But in today's world, they can't come to the career fair anymore because it's no longer allowable, but they can hit me up on social media. Siri's listening to me, Alexa's listening to me, Instagram ads, Facebook ads, YouTube ads. Everywhere I go, I'm seeing a credit card ad compelling me into this amazing new life-changing opportunity to get into debt, basically. So I think it's much harder these days when it comes to just fighting the temptations.

Kim: Not to dwell on the mistakes you've made, but one other one I thought was really interesting, if you don't mind sharing: You talk about how you did spend a lot of money, too, on designer handbags. And actually, I think you ended up selling them, and it turned out to be profitable. But you still call that a mistake because you could have done something else with that money. Can you tell us about that too?

Bola: Yeah. I loved designer handbags. I still do. There's just something about just how pretty they are, the leather, and all that kind of stuff. And not everybody understands, but that's my thing. Some people, it's watches, it's cars, it's vacations, it's whatever. I love handbags. I got to this point where I had saved over $100,000. I think at that point, like four years later, I had saved about $130,000 or $140,000, and I was investing steadily. I was still saving. I was like, "You know what? I've worked so hard. I deserve a treat.” So I went to Chanel and I spent $2,800 on a handbag, and I wore that handbag all the time. I got my cost-per-wear, and I didn't have other handbags. That was my one handbag. I wasn't buying all these other random things, and I loved it. To me, it was worth it.

But I had gotten to this point where I felt that, well, one is not enough. I have a black one. I can get a blue one. I can get a white one. I can get a — whatever color was trendy. And so every few months, instead of saving more, I would not save, and then go buy a new handbag. And for some people, it makes sense. Like I said, you're using your items, your cost-per-wear is down. You're getting your money's worth. Good for you. But in my case, it wasn't making sense because the only bag that I was actually really using was that first handbag I bought, and the rest of them were just stacked up in my closet — basically dollar bills stacked up in my closet.

I went back and forth, like, "Should I sell them? I really like them." And then one day I was like, "Listen, this doesn't make any sense." My husband was — boyfriend at the time — was like, "These bags are so old. They look so terrible. They're so ugly. I don't know why you have them." So I decided to sell them, and for people who are familiar with the luxury handbag world, we know that there have been crazy price increases. So the handbag I bought back then for $2,800 is about $10,700 now. But I was able to sell it for about ... I think I sold about $5,000 or $6,000. The bags that I had, I sold them each, so I made profit.

It was okay that I made the profit. Sure, I doubled my money for some. For the one I had used, I at least got the cost of the bag — the original cost of the bag back. But when I did some calculating with some calculators online, if I had invested that money for that first handbag into, let's say, Amazon stock, I would've had about $30,000 to $40,000 in that investment as opposed to $4,000 or $5,000 from the sale of the handbag. So to me it was a mistake, because I could have put that money to better use because I was not using the items. If I was using the items, then great, that to me was worth the money because I was actually getting my money's worth. But I wasn't, so I considered that a mistake. Today, I'm much more mindful of how I shop in general. If I'm not going to use this, I'm not going to wear this at least 30 times soon, then we're not buying it.

Kim: Well, that's very relatable, for sure. You do talk about keeping a spending journal and how important that is for people. I think you say you keep one yourself. Can you share what kind of insights a spending journal can give you?

Bola: Yeah, so I keep a spending journal. I still have one today. It allows you to really look back and see how you have spent your money and how you felt at the time you were spending your money. It helps you reflect on your mistakes. When I look at my spending journal, I see some mistakes. Sometimes they are small mistakes, really tiny. Sometimes they're big mistakes, like: Oh my God, why did I spend that much on that dinner, on that gift, whatever. But it just really helps you assess how you're spending and how you're feeling emotionally.

When I do a spending journal, I write down what I buy when I bought it. I also wrote down how I felt in the moment that I purchased it, and why I purchased the item. So it's a good way to reflect. It is a big chore. That's something that's built into my own routine: keeping a spending journal. But I always tell people that when you're trying to get in tune with your finances — you're trying to understand your financial patterns; you're trying to change behaviors — it's worth keeping a spending journal for 30 days? Just have a small notebook or even the Notes app on your phone, and whenever you buy something, write it down.

Because it's a chore, a lot of people will find that because they actually have to open that app or open that notebook, they end up not buying the thing, 'cause they don't want to do the extra work. They also find that it helps them really see where money is going. They may have thought that, "Wow, I only spend a hundred bucks on coffee." But in reality, I'm actually spending $500, because every time I drive by the coffee store, I'm tired. I don't want to go to work, I hate my job, and I just need this big cup of coffee in the morning — and then in the afternoon — to help me feel better. This is not to say don't buy your coffee. Please, buy your coffee. But this is just really saying: Where am I spending my money, and how am I spending it, and why am I spending it that way?

Kim: I want to ask you more about your approach to budgeting. First of all, you like to call it "planning" instead of "budgeting." Tell us about that, why that matters.

Bola: Because sometimes the word "budget" is so demotivating and so depressing that it's like, "Why do I have to call it a budget?'" The whole idea of a budget is that you tell your money what to do. You are the boss. You are the queen of the castle here, so you don't have to call it a "budget." You can call it whatever you want to call it: "I'm so fabulous; this is my plan" ... "Death to debt" ... Whatever you want to call it. I prefer to call my budget a "plan," because it's my plan I want to do with my money. And then I check in on how I actually did, because there are so many negative connotations to the word "budget." Some people don't mind the word budget, and that's fine. It works for you: Great. But if that word is what's really the stumbling block as to why you haven't started your financial change, or why you're not pursuing your financial wellness, definitely change the name.

Kim: You do talk about there are so many different ways to budget. You mentioned the envelope method. People can use apps if they prefer. And the important one is really picking what works best for you. How can someone figure that out, what works best for them?

Bola: The best kind of budget is the one that works for you and fits into your lifestyle. Everybody has their own idea of what a good budget is — especially on social media. But if it doesn't work for you, it's not a good budget for you. There's no one perfect Holy Grail budget, and so I always tell people, "If you're trying to figure out what your budgeting style is, test out different ones." Maybe for the next two weeks, you try a spreadsheet, or you go into your smartphone and you find the highly-reviewed apps, and then you try those apps out. Or maybe you do a hybrid of an app and a spreadsheet. Or maybe you do a notebook and a pen right in your purse. What works for you? Maybe you like keeping cash, so the cash envelope system of budgeting might work for you. You find what works for you.

It's okay to also change your budgeting method. I'm a big spreadsheet girl. I love using my spreadsheets. In my original budget prior to the pandemic, I would write down all the details — right from my spending journal into my budget. It was like a whole elaborate thing. When the pandemic happened and my kids were home, I had less time. I'm like, "Listen, I'm just going to budget my core recurring expenses that I absolutely have to pay for in here, and then everything else after that, I'm just going to be more flexible." So I end up doing more of an anti-budgeting approach where I only accounted for what was essential, like savings, investments, paying bills — and that everything else was just kind of flexible. That was because I couldn't maintain what I was doing before, but I still wanted to be consistent with my budget. So it's all about finding the method that works for you. It's okay to change your method. It's okay to change your approach.

Kim: Well, speaking of those kids, as a parent myself, I would love to ask you, how do you talk to your own children? I know you have twins. How do you talk to them about money, and what lessons do you try to make sure you pass on to them?

Bola: That has definitely been a learning experience. I try to involve them when I'm creating my lists for the grocery store, my budget for the grocery store. Sometimes I will take them with me and we will have a challenge as to: Here is the money we have. We need to fit all these things into the budget. And they start to learn that when they bring that pack of candy or that juice box and it wasn't on the list, it means we can't afford to pay for it.

I'm also teaching them how to be owners rather than consumers. So my kids, they now recognize brand. They recognize games and toys and TV shows, and so I tell them, "Well, we can also be an owner in this company. If you like Costco, we can buy stocks of Costco, and you can be an owner of Costco. We can buy stocks in Dunkin' Donuts and Mattel, that makes Barbie and Hot Wheels, and Nike and Tesla," because my son likes cars. "We can buy stocks in all these companies so that you are now an owner. And because you consume the product, you like the product, you actually get insights as to how the company might be doing." So they're learning that as well — how to be owners, how to not have to spend, but instead invest as well. So I'm trying to teach them about investing, about budgeting, and also about the value of a dollar and what it takes to earn a dollar — the work required, so they don't take it for granted.

Kim: Toward the end of the book, you write about recession-proofing your finances, and that feels especially important right now when there's so much financial uncertainty. You recommend really building up emergency savings as a first line of defense. If people already feel like their budget is strained, how can you go about doing that?

Bola: Emergency funds essentially is really to help you weather unplanned life situations without having to tap into debt. I tell people, when you think about emergency funds and you hear financial experts say, "You need to have six months," people are like, "Oh, my God. I cannot save six months of my salary. That's insane." And that is kind of insane for many people, so you want to think about it this way: When an emergency happens, you need money. You need the money to cover your core essentials: Your food, your housing, your transportation, your medicines, your core utilities. Those are the areas you want to focus on; and all the nice-to-haves — all the cool, fun stuff — they drop off. When you look at that from the perspective of your income and six months of savings, it's a different number. It's a smaller number. It's still a big number.

I tell people that then you want to build it incrementally. So build a line item in your budget that says "emergency savings," and figure out what can you afford. When you look at your budget and you cut back — even though you can only cut back on a budget so much — or you find ways to increase your income, what can I afford to save for emergencies? That's what you're going to put aside every month. The chances that you're going to need your whole entire emergency savings all at once are much lower. It's usually going to be like one-off things where you have to use part of your savings. And so by adding that money into your budget incrementally every single month, they're able to start to build up a buffer.

When you use the money, that's what that emergency savings was there for. Because people always tell me, "I had to spend my money. I feel so bad." But you saved it for emergencies, right? Yes, so it's served its purpose. And when you spend it, then you build it right back into your budget, and you replenish it. Once you hit that number, then you can start to repurpose that money into other things. But if you're just getting started, your budget is tight, just focus on getting to your first $1,000, [or] $1,500. This cannot replace your income, but this can cover any mid-expenses — like you need to pick up an emergency prescription, you need to buy an emergency plane ticket, you need to fix a flat tire, you need to fix a water heater. $1,000 to $1,500 can help you cover that without having to tap into a credit card or a personal loan to get through the situation.

Kim: It seems like one really big takeaway for our listeners from your story is just the importance of people and maybe women, especially, to manage their own money — take an active role in building this kind of financial security. If our listeners do one thing after reading your book or listening to this podcast, what would you want it to be?

Bola: There are lots of challenges people face when it comes to money because they feel like they've made mistakes, they're bad with money. The first thing I would say is forgive yourself for any money mistakes that you have made. We have all made those mistakes. I promise you, I've made terrible money mistakes. Decide that you're going to reflect on what happened, take the lessons, and throw the rest away. You're not going to let that shame or self-judgment be your stumbling stone. You're going to take the lessons and use those lessons as steps to take action towards your success.

The second thing I would say is you want to set the intention. When you start making money goals, it's exciting. You're motivated. But as time goes on, and the euphoria wears off, it's like, "Wow, it's happening so slow. Wow, I had a setback. I'm not making progress." So set the intention, and really get clear on your why. Why do you want to be successful with your money? Why do you want to achieve these goals? Your why is not what social media or your family or the world is telling you. Your why is personal to you. It's what's truly going to bring you satisfaction and happiness when you reach that point. Let that be your motivator when it comes to accomplishing your goals. So forgive yourself for your mistakes, and set the intention that you're going to succeed.

Kim: I love that. Thank you so much, Bola. It was so great to have you on our podcast.

Bola: Thank you so much for having me.

Kim: That is all we have for this episode. To share your thoughts on how to budget, pay off debt, or manage finances as a parent, shoot us an email at [email protected] Also, visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more info on this episode, and remember to subscribe, rate and review us wherever you're getting this podcast. Here's our brief disclaimer, thoughtfully crafted by NerdWallet's legal team: We are not financial or investment advisors. This Nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes. It may not apply to your specific circumstances. With that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.