Turning $300 into the American dream

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As a college student studying finance in Colombia, Yeny Malaver, now 37, faced a grim reality: Even once she completed her degree, a career might always be out of reach. “I didn’t have any connections, and in Colombia it’s all about connections,” she says. So in 2001 (and with only $300 in savings), Yeny decided to move to the United States, with plans to finish her degree and gain a foothold in the finance world. 

“I had a place to stay, and I had $300, and that was it,” she says. Getting a job to pay the bills was difficult, but holding onto one was even harder, due to the language barrier, sparse connections and limited knowledge as to how things worked in the U.S. Yeny was fired from four different jobs, including one restaurant where she couldn’t memorize the wine list. At another, she was let go after struggling to learn the nuances of English. “I remember the owner yelling at me ‘take the porridge!’ and getting so frustrated, but I’d never heard the word porridge before,” she says.

Making every cent count

To make ends meet with her erratic income, Yeny stretched every cent as far as she possibly could. She commuted six hours a day by foot, train and bus from her home in Maryland to her job in Virginia. She saved the free meals she’d get from work and stretched the leftovers into the next day’s lunch. “Any time they asked if I wanted to stay late, I’d say yes, even if it meant getting home after midnight and walking home in the dark,” she says. “I needed every dollar.”

After four months, she relocated to Miami and found a small apartment with her family. By then, she also had the language skills and confidence to command a steady job at a local restaurant. Yeny bought a small notebook and every night would carefully write down everything she’d earned in tips and everything she spent. “I wanted to go to school so bad, and that goal helped me budget,” she says.

She learned that tuition as an international student at the local college would cost her $1,000 per class—and she had two years of coursework ahead of her to finish her degree. Yeny made just $1,400 a month at the restaurant, yet she managed to put aside $900 each month for tuition. When she had finally saved up enough to enroll and begin classes, she was beaming with excitement.

Achieving the job of her dreams

Yeny balanced her college course load with various side gigs for nearly two years, including a restaurant cashier, but she eventually moved into banking and took a job as a teller. In 2004, she graduated with a B.A. in finance and began climbing the career ladder. Her first post-college job was as a financial analyst. Today, she is a successful product manager, but continues to carefully track her spending. Part of that motivation stems from watching those close to her give into temptation.

“Other immigrant friends, just like me, were not organized,” she says. “They spent lots of money on little things—nice shoes, dinners out—and all these years later they’re in so much debt,” she says. Some spent the entirety of each paycheck on sizable car loans and designer clothes. “Friends used to tell me I was so cheap, that I should let myself splurge more and not budget so much. But I wanted to follow my dreams, and I knew every dollar I saved would get me closer to that,” she says.

Yeny also shares her story with others whenever she can. “The onUp Movement has given me the tools to help others, which makes me feel confident and happy. I constantly try to empower other recent immigrants because I understand their challenges. By budgeting and setting specific goals, we can achieve financial confidence in this country,” she says. “We are just as wonderful and capable as those who were born here.”

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