After graduating from college in 2004, Bola Sokunbi challenged herself to save as much as possible. She had admired the way her mother became a “hustle queen,” jumping into business after staying home to raise four children, and she wanted to start laying her own financial foundation.
Working as a tech consultant in New York City from 2004 to 2008 before she was married, she managed to save 40% to 50% of her $54,000 annual salary. Sokunbi, who grew up in Austria and Nigeria, educated herself about the American retirement savings system along the way. One book that particularly influenced her was Smart Women Finish Rich by David Bach. “I read that book to shreds,” she says.
Today, Sokunbi, 36, is an influencer herself. She quit her consulting job two years ago to focus full-time on running Clever Girl Finance, her financial education site for women. She has 4-year-old twins and lives with her husband, a doctor, in Hunterdon County, N.J.
Here, she shares insights into her aggressive savings plan.
Set Your Intentions
None of Sokunbi’s friends were saving as aggressively as she was right out of college. Some were making twice what she earned and saving nothing at all. But that didn’t faze her. “For me, it was setting intentions and wanting to do it,” she says. It helped that Sokunbi didn’t have student loan debt. Her mother paid for her college education, which she began in Austria and finished in the U.S.
Another tailwind was the fact that she didn’t have much time to spend money. She travelled a lot for work during the week and began a side gig as a wedding photographer on the weekends. Not only did her two jobs take up a lot of time, but they also took care of most of her meals: her company would foot the tab for her food when she was on the road, and she’d also eat at weddings as part of her compensation. When she was left to her own devices, “I was pretty much buying ramen noodles and Coke, my guilty pleasure,” she says.
She enjoyed getting to work early and reading personal finance blogs over her breakfast of a free company bagel. She loved seeing how Mr. Money Mustache and others approached investing and calculating their income in early retirement, but she didn’t necessarily aspire to follow in their footsteps and reach FIRE, an acronym for financial independence, retire early.
Find Your True Voice
Sokunbi launched Clever Girl Finance when her twins, a girl and a boy, were one year old. She developed it on the side for a year while working full-time, often staying up until 3 a.m. “I was exhausted all the time,” she says.
But her efforts paid off. The blog earned $25,000 that first year, through a diverse revenue stream of one-on-one coaching, courses, ebooks, affiliate links and eventually, brand partnerships. Two years ago, Sokunbi quit her consulting job to focus on the business full time.
Her main audience is women of color ages 21 to about 38. She realizes that many of them grew up in houses where money was a source of silent stress, and she wants to bring the discussion out into the open. “Having the conversation is necessary,” she says.
Personal finance isn't a regular part of the curriculum in most U.S. schools, so Sokunbi has picked up the slack and educates her readers about budgets and investing. Her motto is, “no shame, no judgment.”
Sokunbi learned early on that sometimes you have to spend money to make more money. She started out photographing weddings for free to build a portfolio. She had only basic camera equipment at first, but then “every time I made money I bought a lens or a camera body,” she says.
Eventually, her camera equipment was worth about $15,000 but immediately improved the quality of her photographs and allowed her to start charging between $3,000 and $5,000 a wedding. Sokunbi’s photography income padded her savings and the income from her job, which grew to $100,000 in three and a half years.
Sokunbi reached a similar juncture with Clever Girl Finance a year ago. Realizing that she couldn’t do everything herself, she hired two part-time workers to help schedule her content and tackle other administrative tasks. Their salary is an investment, but it’s one that translates into increased revenue for the site.
Sokunbi still saves as much as she can these days. She and her husband max out their contributions to their retirement accounts and put as much as they can, currently $10,000 a year each, into their children’s 529 college savings accounts. They would like to pay their children’s tuition in full, just like Sokunbi’s mother did for her.
While she has cut back her workload a bit this summer to spend more time with her twins, Sokunbi usually spends more than 40 hours a week on Clever Girl Finance. “It’s almost like, ‘why did I quit my job again?’” she laughs. “But I love it.”
Update: This story has been amended to include the time frame of when she saved $100,000.