Moving On Up

Financial literacy helped Tamara prepare for life after high school and beyond

Tamara Johnson isn’t scared to look at her bank account at the end of the day. She carefully calculates money that comes in and money that goes out, a life skill learned at the Boys & Girls Club that carried her through college and into her career.

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Raised in the small town of Pojoaque, New Mexico, Tamara grasped for new opportunities and big adventures even as a young girl. She was surrounded by a large, supportive family yet longed to know what it would be like to live independently in a big city. Tamara shared her parents dream of attaining college educations for herself and her three siblings.

Tamara’s father, Gary Johnson, dropped off his wide-eyed daughter at the Club when she was 9 years old. He knew it would be a safe place for her to make friends and participate in supervised activities while he and Tamara’s mother, Lorraine, worked full time. As Tamara progressed into high school, she participated in community service, toured colleges, and focused on her school work.

Tamara aspired to attend college outside of New Mexico, a pathway for experimenting with the independence she yearned for since childhood. She recognized the high costs of attending college but didn’t know how to make a plan for financing her education. Money Matters: Make it Count, a financial literacy program taught at Boys & Girls Clubs and supported by Charles Schwab Foundation, helped Tamara take charge of her future.

“I knew I wanted to go to college, and I knew I was going to do that, but I just had no idea about scholarships or how to get there.”

College bound

As Tamara remained focused on academics, Money Matters helped her prepare for life after high school and beyond. She began earning a regular paycheck by working as a junior staff assistant at the Club. Then 16, she noticed that her earnings could be quickly spent. Money Matters taught her how to manage her paycheck and contribute to a savings account, much like her mom had done for many years. Tamara started prioritizing the essential things that she really needed to purchase versus what she wanted to buy.

“I was trying to save as much as I could because I knew that, at some point, I was going to have to use that money for college tuition, that’s really a big lesson and helped me get to where I am today.”

The Johnsons encouraged their children from a young age to consider applying for scholarships, a lesson that Money Matters reinforced. Tamara’s older sister was the first family member to attend college.

When Tamara’s turn came to apply for college, scholarships were her best option for financing out-of-state tuition. Tamara was attending Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s national teen leadership conference when she received a phone call from her mother. She had received a letter from Marquette University offering a full tuition scholarship to attend the 4-year college.

“That was one of the greatest days of my life. I think it was just such a big moment for myself and my family,” Tamara said.

Marquette, located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had established the scholarship for Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s Youth of the Year finalists, which recognizes teens with outstanding leadership, service and academic excellence.

Tamara’s parents knew that their daughter had a hard work ethic and the determination to achieve success no matter where she ended up for college. The mentoring and lessons learned at Boys & Girls Club further motivated her to reach for big opportunities such as attending Marquette.

The scholarship covered tuition only for four years, so Tamara and her parents paid for room and board using their personal savings. They never took out a loan and Tamara graduated with zero debt.

Moving on up

Tamara JohnsonTamara’s success continued after she donned a cap and gown to receive her Bachelor’s degree. A college internship piqued her interest in studying law, and Tamara was awarded a partial scholarship to Marquette University Law School. She worked during the summer to pay for the remaining costs of her education. Her parents also contributed. Again, Tamara graduated without debt.

With two degrees in hand, Tamara returned to New Mexico to begin her career at a law office in Santa Fe, about 15 miles from her hometown. She felt immense pride and relief to be debt-free, while so many of her peers were burdened with student loans. Determined to maintain good financial health throughout her life, Tamara set new financial goals for her early career.

Tamara, now engaged to be married, continues to use the lessons from Money Matters to balance financial needs and wants. She is committed to making decisions beneficial for future milestones, such as purchasing her first home, raising a family, and retirement. Her careful budgeting has allowed her to save for her wedding while also enjoying travel to London where her fiancée's family lives.

Recently, Tamara and her fiancée moved to New York City where she began working with a different law firm. They had anticipated moving to a bigger city and planned their finances for costs to get settled in a new place.

Tamara’s mother, Lorraine, credits Boys & Girls Club for not only preparing her daughter with hard skills for being an adult, such as money management, but also for shaping her good character and strong values. As a lawyer who needs to gain the trust of people in difficult situations, Tamara makes others feel comfortable and shows concern for their needs.

Even as Tamara’s adventurous spirit takes her to new places, she remembers her family and the Boys & Girls Club that helped make her dreams a reality. She has continued to be an ambassador for financial education and hopes the Money Matters program can change the trajectory of others’ paths beyond high school.

“Without the support of my Club, I wouldn’t have known really anything about the basics of financial literacy. I have to give the Money Matters program credit for giving me those tools to get where I am.”

Tamara and Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, Senior Vice President of Charles Schwab & Co. and President of Charles Schwab Foundation

Tamara's Top Tips to Master Your Finances

Maxing out your credit card or making late payments can stay on your credit report for seven years. That can mean paying higher interest rates, being turned down for a loan, or not getting hired for the job you want.

The best way to avoid using credit cards is to build a savings cushion for unexpected costs. Starting now, any time money comes in, the first thing you should do is pay yourself.

At the start of the month, list everything you will need to pay for in the coming weeks. Think about how much you have, what your paycheck will be, and then, do the math to make sure you have enough to cover it.

Your spending plan will be meaningless if you don’t stick to it. Make room in your budget for the fun things so you can prioritize the wants you can afford.

Before you buy, shop around – compare prices online, wait for a sale or a coupon. Smart money moves like these can leave you with a little extra and make it easier to keep it all in balance: your needs, wants and savings.