Episode No. 73

#073: Build Wealth on a Teacher’s Salary with Israel and Sunem Tovar

This post may contain affiliate links

Table of Contents

Today, we have Israel Tovar and Sunem Tovar who are two first generation Latino siblings who founded the Dream Teacher Project. Israel was a classroom teacher who built a six-figure net worth on a teacher salary by the age 26. Sunem paid off $42,000 in debt and built a $200,000+ net worth in less than 5 years. Through an anti-racist, culturally responsive lens, they empower teachers of color to get their money right, and reclaim their agency in an incredibly challenging profession.

The moment I saw their email come through my inbox asking to be on the podcast, I knew that I wanted to have them on since I was a teacher and my husband is a teacher currently. This is definitely something that is close to my heart. Let’s go ahead and dive in and chat with both of them.

Welcome Sunem and Israel! I’m so happy that you’re here to share your story and everything that you’re doing on the Inspired Budget podcast.

Sunem:

Thank you so much for having us here. We’re big fans.

Israel:

Yeah, we’re so excited, Allison, to be here with you and have this really great conversation with you.

Allison:

Yes. I mean, when you guys reached out to me via email, I immediately knew like, Absolutely, I need to have y’all on it. Because I think that you’re doing such important work out there. But before we dive into what you’re doing, I know that it all comes with a story. Right? So I want you to tell me a little bit about your childhood. I know your siblings, is that correct?

That’s correct.

Tell us a little bit about your childhood and maybe some of the pivotal things that happened in your life that have landed you to where you are today.

Israel:

For sure. So both of us grew up in Tijuana, Mexico, Los Angeles and Nashville, very different places. And we unfortunately grew up very low income. Our dad supported a family of eight on a yearly salary of $17,000 a year in LA. Granted, that was back in the early 2000s. But that’s still a little bit of money to support a family of eight. And because of that, like we grew up with a lot of money trauma, which we’ll talk about later. My dad brought us to the US initially because he wanted us to learn English. He wanted us to have more access to opportunities, and he wanted to take us back to Mexico. Obviously, that didn’t happen. In fact, we moved further from Mexico to Nashville. And moving to Nashville was such a formative experience for us because we had grown up in predominantly Mexican-American and Mexican communities, right? And so moving to Nashville in 2006 – which Nashville has changed significantly now – but at that time, we were one of the few Latinos there. And so we didn’t quite fit the racial binary; It’s mostly black and white communities. And so we got questions like, ‘Where are you from? Where you really from?’ And so that was like such a formative experience for us to lgrapple with our racial existence in the US. I ended up doing really well at school. I went to Yale for undergrad and then I got my Master’s in Education at Stanford.

Allison:

Wow!

Sunem:

I could go ahead and share mine. So like Israel said, we’re siblings. He’s the youngest. I’m a little older than him. But yeah, so we grew up with, like scarcity mindset, because we grew up in poverty. So we didn’t have a lot of money. And a story that I remember when I was 11 is that I wanted to actually be in band, but I’d never asked my dad to like, actually give me the money because you had to rent the instrument. And at that time, I already knew like, oh, my parents don’t have money. So I should not ask for for them to give me money. And that kind of like stayed with me until I was an adult. Like, you know, I shouldn’t be asking because the answer is going to be no. After that, like when we moved to Nashville, I was actually in high school, and I ended up going to college here. I got my psychology degree. And I really enjoyed learning about psychology, but I realized that I was not going to be making any money with a psychology degree. So I decided to go get my Master’s in finance, and I really enjoyed it because I’m like a numbers person. So it was really interested to learn. The only thing was that I was like, the only Latina in my master’s program. Everybody was like, it was a male like men and whites. And we had a few women of color there, but it was mainly men. Yeah, I really enjoyed doing that. And I learned about financial independence when I was getting my master’s. And the thing about when I was getting my master’s, I was like, Oh, they’re gonna teach me all about personal finance. And they didn’t. I think I literally like, took one class where we talked about, like personal finance. And that was my favorite class. But at that time, I had already like, read so much blogs, I had it written, Mister Money Mustache, and I really love like the concept of financial independence. And because I was feeling burned out from working full time and going to school, I was like, oh, I want to become financially independent. So that’s how I learned about finance, personal finance.

Allison:

I know I sent you guys a list of questions. But I might ask you other questions along the way, if that’s okay. Your story, Sunem, about not wanting to ask your your parents to do band. I mean, I know that hits close to home, especially in our family, because my husband’s a band director. And what’s crazy is that as a child, you didn’t know that there might have been resources out there. But it was just that fear of putting a burden on your parents, and what a heavy weight to hold as a child. Because, you know, one of the things that my husband does, when he does promote band to the incoming sixth graders is like, ‘Listen, if money’s a problem, I’ve got you covered.’ Because they have the money, they have the money in his district to be able to make it to where you literally pay nothing. He’ll cover everything. And so I think that that’s a heavy burden. And it sounds like that’s just one small example of what you guys went through as children. And I want to hear more about some of the money trauma that you’ve encountered. And then how are you getting over it? Because I think that so many people experience money trauma, and they let it impact them forever. But obviously, you guys have said, ‘Okay, no, no more of this. We’re going to do something to change it.’ So what’s some of that trauma? And then what have you been doing, what active steps have you been taking to pull yourself out of that?

Israel:

Yeah, so we like our story show we did face unfortunately, a lot of money, trauma, poverty instilled in us the scarcity mindset, right? There was never enough. Our parents were always worried about their finances. So even going like $20, $50 over budget a month would cause like, deep anxiety to my parents, right? Because it was like, really, really tight finances. And so we grew up with a lot of scarcity mindset, because of poverty. And we also our immigrant background, also impacted our mindset, right, we I was undocumented for eight years. And so like, I was socialized to not advocate for myself, I had to improve my advocacy skills, right? Because it’s like, if you’re if you don’t have legal status in the US, you’re always in danger of being deported. And so you always have to say, yes, never cause any trouble, you know, not have boundaries, because you’re here to survive, right? And I also had instilled in me a DIY mindset, right? Like, I can do everything on my own, right, I don’t need help, I’m gonna do this on my own. And so like, all of those things really have pushed me to like have deep reflection. So I can have a mindset shift from saving to investing. Because you know, like, investing is something that we don’t learn about and it’s you know, you learn about like, the math behind it, right? Compound Interest, XY and Z. But we don’t talk about how like, your lived experience really impacts your mindset, your money mindset, and how like, me growing up as an immigrant me growing up poor, made it uncomfortable for me to invest and to have be comfortable with this idea of like, making my money work for me, like, No, I should be working for my money, right? That’s a product of our backgrounds. Given that I had experienced this experience with money growing up, I faced a wealth shock when I went to high school. I went to a predominately white, wealthy High School. And that was the first time ever like that, I was like, well, people have money to like hire tutors. People have money to like, do X, Y, and Z. And it was even more impactful wealth shock when I went to Yale, like, you know. I was first gen, low income and people were taking trips, it felt so uncomfortable to be in the dining halls and have black and brown people, people from my community, like washing my dishes, serving me food, it was very, very uncomfortable. But at the same time, being at a place like Yale helped me instill in me an abundance mindset. Because there’s so much wealth at that campus. There’s so many opportunities at that campus. And I just felt like I deserve those opportunities. And I was able to take advantage of opportunities and money easily came to me because I was at a place where there’s so many opportunities right? And so even though it was challenging to be at Yale, being a first gen low income student of color, being at that campus really instilled in me abundance and going to teaching actually brought me back to scarcity mindset, unfortunately,

Oh, yes!

We’ll talk more about that. Right because our you know, we’re severely overworked and underpaid, right? And so that really impacted my money mindset. And so I also intentionally had to improve my relationship with money while getting my money right and building wealth. Because we firmly believe that it is as important, if not more important, working on your money mindset and healing from that money trauma than getting wealth, because you can have millions of dollars invested in the stock market and millions of dollars in your bank account. But because of poverty if you grew up poor, you can still feel that you’re gonna lose it the next day. But you also have that anxiety.

Allison:

And then are you really happy? Right? Do you have peace of mind? Do you have security? Even though your bank account says yes, your your mind is saying no. And that’s like, that’s that money trauma that least leads to financial anxiety? Really.

Sunem:

Yeah, yeah. And like something like when you grow up with financial anxiety, like it could manifest and like you becoming a spender? Or are you becoming like a hoarder? And for me, when I got to college, and I started making money, I actually became a spender. Because I’m like, Oh, I was deprived from all these things. So I went ahead and just spend my money mindlessly and basically like an Amazon purchases. I don’t even know what they were. But I just became a spender. I was just, I didn’t even know what was going on with my money. I just knew it came in and went out. And when I would check my bank account, I was like, Oh, I only have like $3 left. And I think I got overdrafted like once, and then that was like a helping stone, like, oh, I need to change something. And so like, I did leave college with like, student loans. It wasn’t a lot. But I did have that student loan. And then I got a brand new car. And I had like $42 thousand dollars in debt just coming out of college. And I was like a spender during that time. So I’m like, Oh, something has to change. And that was because like, you know, we were talking about our financial trauma, and how like, you can become a spender, or you can become a spender or a hoarder. And during that moment, I was suspended.

Allison:

And then did you flip flop? Like once you realized, did you go from one extreme to the next?

Sunem:

Yes, I did. So I actually like after I was like, oh, I want to become debt free. I became like, I was really into like paying off my debt. But once I like paid off my debt, I like started investing. Like very aggressively. Like I didn’t give myself permission to spend, which was, I guess, that’s kind of like hoarding your money in a way even though with investing it because I was depriving myself. So yeah, I went from a spender to a hoarder. And now like, now I’m trying to become like, in between, like, I’m giving myself room to still spend on things, but still invest, but I’m not investing as aggressively anymore.

Allison:
So I’m curious to know how your parents feel about what you’re doing now. And like how you’ve grown up, and I mean, can you can you share that with me?

Sunem:

Yeah. So my parents are actually happy about like that we’re actually increasing our wealth. They’re proud of us. But something is that they don’t really know how to invest themselves. And it seems like they don’t really want to learn, but they are they are, for sure really proud of us.

Allison:

Well, I want to know now what you guys are doing together to make an impact?

Israel:

For sure. So we are the co founders of the dream Teacher Project. And we empower teachers of color specifically to get their money, right and build generational wealth. I was a teacher for five years I taught in San Jose, California, Nashville, Tennessee and Washington, DC I taught all sorts of different subjects in social studies. I taught Mexican American history. I taught us at middle school US history, and I taught world history and AP World History in high school. So I hold teachers near and dear to my heart. Unfortunately, a lot of teachers are being pushed out of the classroom. There’s a huge teacher shortage because all teachers are severely underpaid and overworked. Right? And financial education and empowerment is very important to all teachers across the board, right? Because unfortunately, we don’t make enough for everything that we do, right? But teachers of color in particular are being actively pushed out of the profession even at an alarmingly high rates. You know, we’re seen as disciplinarians. We’re micro aggressed, right? We feel very lonely, sometimes we’re the only teacher of color in the school, right? 80% of the teaching workforce are white educators. And so it’s only 20 of us. Right? We also face something that Sunem and I talk about it’s called the racial wealth debt. We don’t see it as a gap. It’s a debt. Like the US owes people of color, black and brown, indigenous people of color money because this country was built on our backs. And the wealth is continuing to build on our backs. And so the US actually owes us money, instead of us not getting enough money. So we shift the blame from the individual to the system. Right? And unfortunately, as teachers of color, we tend to be overworked and underpaid. We also tend to carry three generations on our back on the teacher salary, right? So our parents, ourselves, and when we decide to have children, our children, right? That’s three generations. Now we can talk about financial boundaries, and what that looks like for that, right. But many of us, unfortunately, do have that financial responsibility. And so teachers of color in particular are being pushed out. And so we are leveraged helping teachers of color, leverage money as a tool to reclaim their agency, their profession, gain more financial peace, and build generational wealth.

Allison:

Wow, I love that. I love it because it hit it hits close to home to you, it hits close to home to me, because the truth is, is that many people do have that responsibility, like you said, those three generations. And you do what you have to do for your family. And on a teacher’s salary. Nearly impossible. Right? Doable, sometimes, but nearly impossible. And what sad is that it makes people want to leave the position that they might love in search for something else that pays more, and is more lucrative, which Hey, I mean, I don’t blame them. You can’t blame them for that. So I guess, you know, we’re shifting to teachers, what is one thing that you think that teachers can do to help develop that financial security, even if it means that they don’t want to leave the profession, because we still need good people in those spots, we still need our children to have people of color as teachers like that is so important for them to see teachers in those leadership positions, people of color in those leadership positions in the school.

Sunem:

Yeah, and something we usually tell teachers of color is to deepen their financial literacy. So like learn the language of money, learn that money can actually like help you build wealth. And that’s really important, because yeah, your salary might not be as much, and teachers deserve to be paid more, because I’ve been to all the the schools and I’ve talked to a lot of teachers of color, and they are definitely overworked. But yeah, like learning the language of money is so important, because you’re going to be able to use that money to get more agency. So if you’re able to, like create an emergency fund, start investing, create a budget, you’re gonna have more agency to be able to speak up for your students, like you’re like, Okay, well, if they fire me for saying what I have to say, it’s fine, because I have that money there to be able to pivot somewhere else.

Allison:

Yes, I think that’s so important. My husband, I think if he were to be an administrator, he would probably lose his job because he would speak his mind. And he would speak his mind on behalf of his students and the right thing, and I think that parents would probably come after him. But he very much believes, you know what, I’m gonna say what I need to say and and if I lose my job, we’re in a financial position to handle that. And so him being able to speak up and have his band, play the black national anthem, in his school, and deal with the parents, if there’s complaints that comes from our family being financially secure. He wouldn’t have the courage necessarily to do something like that, and stand up and you know, have an impact on these children in a way that has nothing to do with music if we didn’t have that foundational money piece in place.

Israel:

Exactly. And we also highlight that beyond that having our money right helps us rest more. Oftentimes because we’re so underpaid, we tend to as teachers, we tend to have like, two jobs during the school year then a side hustle during the summer, summer, right but when we learn how we can leverage money to work for us, we start investing our money we make our money work for us, instead of us working for money like yeah, we’re still going to continue to not get paid for what we’re should be getting paid but we are making our money work for us, and therefore we have our money right and don’t have to work during the summers anymore, right? Because your investments are growing on their own now, right? Or have you financial peace, it’s just like so critical, because we already have so many stressors as teachers and just like not having to worry about finances it’s like a game changer, right? It’s a game changer. So we really empower teachers to like, leverage money as a tool to like, live the life that you want, and that you deserve. If you didn’t want us in the classroom long term and you want to build wealth. Yes, it’s much more challenging with our salary, but we can still do it right. We still have power with that agency, even though we’re not getting paid what we’re supposed to be getting paid.

Allison:

I love it. It’s so true. Well, I think you guys are doing such good, important work out there. And I hope that if anyone is listening, whether you’re a teacher or not, I want you to take this episode, and I want you to literally share it and text it to someone that you know, is a teacher. And in the link in the show notes. I’m gonna put your website so that way more teachers can get information. But can you share with everyone also where they can learn more about you guys and what you’re doing?

Sunem:

Yeah, they can learn about us through our Instagram. We’re really active there. It’s @dreamteacherproject. And we share a lot of financial tips especially for teachers of color. We’re also building a community so that if you are trying to find a community of teachers who are trying to become financially free, come join us!

Share This:

Facebook
Twitter
LinkedIn
Email

Meet Allison

Allison Baggerly is a blogger, author, influencer, speaker, podcaster, and founder of Inspired Budget, which is proudly a Latinx and women-owned business. A former teacher, Allison blends her talents for teaching with her passion for personal finances to help others learn how to start budgeting and build a life they love.

Search:

Need Help Keeping Your Budget on Track?

Get digital downloads that will help you save, budget, and more.

Collection

DIY Resources to ramp up your budget

Yearly Budget Sheets (Modern Version)

Debt Free Guide

Budget Life Planner (Modern Version)