Like most millennials, I’m broke. Or at least I thought I was, until I attended the Lola Retreat in April. While I was there, my entire viewpoint on money changed forever. The retreat, self-described as “A Bold Money Event for Bold Women,” was held in New York City this year.

With more than 60 women in attendance, it was an incredible and emotional weekend filled with people who have accomplished serious financial feats, as well as those like me, who are just starting on their financial journey.

Americans’ Relationship With Debt

The debt-driven world of the United States is all new to me. In Ireland, student loan debt is thankfully almost nonexistent. For an Irish citizen, college is for the most part easily affordable.

Fees for one full academic year run at about 2,500 to 3,000 euros, or $3,020 to $3,620. I was lucky: I got a scholarship and didn’t have to pay for anything other than my books, which were also partially subsidized. Yet now, almost a full year after graduating, I considered myself broke.

Before this weekend, I had little idea of what being broke truly meant.

The first thing that struck me about debt in the U.S. was how normalized it is. Almost every woman I met at Lola had some form of debt and was eager to talk about it with others.

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Credit Cards

In Ireland, credit cards are not a must-have. In fact, probably 95 percent of my friends or acquaintances don’t have one. So I was shocked to learn that in America, most people have not only one credit card, but several.

The speakers at the event, including Broke Millennial’s Erin Lowry and Yes, I Am Cheap’s Sandy Smith, often talked about how they got their first credit cards in college. “Sign up for this credit card and get free pizza!” was a typical come-on.

Kristin Wong speaks at the Lola Retreat in 2018
Author Kristin Wong speaks at the 2018 Lola Retreat. Photo by Kelly Meehan Brown.

Free money, they thought. Why the hell not? It was that simple — that thoughtless — and it led to many of the Lola Retreat’s attendees becoming tens of thousands of dollars in debt over the years that followed.

Honestly, what 18-year-old is going to say no to free perks and the credit card that just happens to go along with it? That’s how they get ya!

Cultural Differences

To say I was stunned is an understatement. Here were these women, laughing and joking about their debt and their finances, when I would have surely been curled up in a corner, weeping uncontrollably.

I was in awe of their strength and blind courage in the face of financial adversity. I felt ashamed. Who was I to so callously say that I’m broke, when I didn’t truly know the meaning of the word?

But it’s all in the way we’re raised. Americans know that they will have some form of student loan debt if they ever hope to go to college. In Ireland, if there’s any debt at all following graduation, it’s minor in comparison.

The weekend wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. Aside from tasty grub — tacos and mimosas, anyone? — I learned a tremendous amount that I will be taking with me on my financial journey.

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Teachable Moments at the Lola Retreat

Erin Lowry, aka the Broke Millennial, started off her presentation on Saturday morning with this little nugget: “Either you control your money, or it controls you.”

It made me think about how I was a slave to my bank account: My money mindset told me I was safe only if I had a lot of cash to spend on my daily whims. For me, it was never about saving for retirement. It was all about the here and now.

Kristin Wong, the author of Get Money, further challenged my financial views. She discussed how having mental power and control over your finances is the only way to get them in check. Her talk helped me realize that I was never going to start putting money away for a rainy day unless I changed how I viewed myself and my relationship with money.

Hot tip: Reward yourself! When you go to the gym, put $5 in your savings account as a prize. Make it fun!

Kristin Sutton speaks at the 2018 Lola Retreat
Kristin Sutton speaks at the 2018 Lola Retreat. Photo by Meehan Brown.

When I first met Debt-Free Black Girl’s Kristin Sutton, I was immediately aware of her uncompromising optimism. “I never thought I’d be debt-free,” she told us during her talk on Saturday. “Celebrate and forgive yourself,” was her main message. She encouraged us to be confident in who we are and to accept our financial mistakes.

My favorite piece of advice from Sutton? “If those habits that you have now aren’t going to help you get to where you want to go, break them!” When your money practices are actively working against you, it’s time to make a change.

The highlight of my weekend was most certainly the Fuck-Off Fund panel, made up of of Sutton, Paulette Perhach, and Diane Harris, moderated by the engaging Ashtin Berry.

It was a discussion of the power of women having control of their own finances, especially in the #MeToo era. I can’t go into the sensitive details of what they spoke about, but I will say there were tears and laughs, and no one wanted it to end. Being your own woman, separate from reliance on a man, is so important.

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We discussed the pay gap, which definitely still exists; and while I knew that women earn 81 cents to a white man’s dollar, I had no idea that was true for white women alone. For example, recent studies showed that black women earn 65 cents and Hispanic women 59 cents to the white man’s dollar.

That is why financially focused events such as Lola are crucial — they highlight the kind of information we need to empower women in the financial sphere and challenge these inequalities.

Inspiring Women in Finance

Needless to say, the fabulous women who spoke at the Lola Retreat inspired me, but the other attendees did, as well. Some were looking to tackle debt head on; some were already there and wanted to share their experiences with others; and some just needed the courage to quit their current jobs in pursuit of something more. Each of them had a tenacity for change that only convinced me more that it’s time to get my financial shit together.

Regardless of your handle on debt (or lack thereof), be informed and get smart with your money.