For Elham Yusuf Ali, financial freedom means emotional freedom from debt.
Elham first heard about Financial Gym while taking coding and programming classes from General Assembly. When Financial Gym was offered as a free workshop, Elham was interested in learning how to budget and invest while in school. Since joining Financial Gym as a member, Elham has worked with her trainer Crystal Martinez on how to budget for school, her future job relocation and Nina (her cat who can do puzzles. Seriously.) However, her health soon became the biggest priority.
While Elham said that she’s lucky to have a full ride for her graduate program at Columbia University, money isn’t just a potentially difficult subject to talk about - it can be triggering. Financial Gym spoke with Elham to discuss her financial goals and how financial health is directly linked to her mental health.
FINANCIAL GYM: What do you do and how long have you been with Financial Gym?
ELHAM YUSUF ALI: I’m a MPH (Master of Public Health) candidate at Columbia University, I live in Washington Heights. I’ve been a Financial Gym member since August 2017.
FG: What made you want to be a member?
EYA: Before joining I was severely in debt and I had a lot of health issues that were causing difficult financial problems. Having someone like Crystal who could give financial advice I could actually use was really helpful.
FG: Can you share one of your financial goals?
EYA: To maintain a debt free life. I have bipolar disorder and one of the big triggers as part of my illness is the potential to go into a huge spending frenzy. Financial health is a big indicator of my own health.
FG: How has Crystal helped you get back on track?
EYA: I got sick my senior year of undergraduate school which continued to my first semester of coming to Columbia. I was bombarded with medical bills and I didn’t know how to navigate them. Having Crystal around to give that objective analysis was really helpful.
Crystal also helps with my spending. She asks me to keep $20 cash on hand in an envelope and that’s my physical way to spend. Amazon is my biggest vice and Financial Gym has helped me reframe the way that I shop. I add what I want to my cart but don’t actually click “purchase”. After leaving it in the cart and stepping away for a week or a month, it’s easier for me to think about if it’s a need or a want – and most of the time now I can leave it. This is good timing since I’m moving to Dubai in May for a new job.
FG: How has Financial Gym helped you achieve saving before you move?
EYA: So it turns out pet relocation fees are actually very expensive. Sometimes you have to pay for both import and export fees. Crystal and I took the time to compare rates for different companies – because I’m not leaving my cat here, there’s no way! I’m also liquidating all of my furniture in my apartment so I don’t have to put in storage.
FG: Why is money generally an awkward conversation?
EYA: I only got comfortable with it when I met Crystal. One of the things that Financial Gym does in my student package plan is generate a report of my spending and saving. Crystal is very transparent and honest – she calls me out and I really appreciate that. I need that honesty so I can move forward. If I’m not honest about how much I’m spending, I don’t know if I’m in a manic episode or not and that usually tells me if I am.
FG: Can you tell me what your first quarterly review was like? Usually it helps to have wine on hand…
EYA: It was actually the second quarterly review that scared me the most. The first one was a baseline. The second one you have to work you’re a** off to top it and I got too comfortable. That’s when the Amazon happy-clicking began! When I met with Crystal she said, “What are you actually spending this for?” I realized I was justifying that I needed things but I didn’t actually need them.
FG: What does “financial freedom” mean to you?
EYA: Financial freedom means actual emotional freedom from debt. It’s the strongest indicator for me for my physical, emotional and intellectual health. Crystal is not just my trainer, she’s my life coach. When you get used to having someone with you, it’s like insurance that you always want to have.