Paco de Leon: Financial Advisor & Co-Host of Refinery 29’s Money Diaries Podcast

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This week’s interview is with Paco de Leon, who in short is a financial wizard. After a career in a variety of areas within finance, she founded her own personal finance firm called The Hell Yeah Group. Based in LA, they focus exclusively on giving creatives tools and support to be engaged with their finances. Paco is also the co-host of Refinery 29’s Money Diaries podcast and a financial educator to the public through her helpful blog posts on Cup of Jo, and her own website. Read on to learn more!

I’ve read so much about all the different things that you do. You sound like a Finance Wizard! Do you think that’s an accurate description of what you do?
Haha, yeah! I would say that’s pretty accurate. I dabbled in a bunch of different areas of finance and I realized that once you figure out how to make the sausage, you kind of just end up remaking the sausage over and over again and it got kind of boring. I have a background in small business consulting and management. It was  basically glorified bookkeeping, then making sense of the data and using it to tease out what you should do with your business based.

After that, I had a stint as a financial planner for a couple years. That’s where I learned all about personal finance. Then I did another stint in marijuana business consulting, which was interesting, [before starting the Hell Yeah Group].

Why finance? Have you always been interested in it?
Kind of, but I didn’t really understand how to think for myself until I became an adult. A big reason I choose to study finance  was because I thought wouldn’t piss my parents off as much (it’s practical). It was in 2006 and there were a lot of stupid people making piles of money. 

I was curious about that. I was thinking, ‘wow, what’s going on that all these not-smart people are getting really really rich?’ 

I only realized this in retrospect, but I’m just really good at consistently showing up for things. I just showed up to my classes and showed up to my jobs. Getting good at your finances, getting good at anything, really - guitar, dancing, coding - is a lot of just showing up, even when you don’t want to. It’s been ten years, and I guess I’m the finance person now. 

Yes, you are! Can you tell me about the financial training you’ve had?
I have an undergraduate degree in Business with a concentration in Finance and a minor in Economics. Part of the reason I got an Econ minor was because I only had to take four more classes to get an Econ minor because of my Finance major, so I was like f*ck it and got an Econ minor. I’m actually quite interested in Economics. Post-graduate, I went to UCLA extension for their personal finance planning program, which was actually the perfect time to do it. My boss was generously paying for it and the schooling was so much easier because I was dealing with more complex, real world financial planning problems at work. 

Your first job was at a bank. What was that like?
The first job in financial services, I worked at a Bank of America in collections. I was what they call a “Baby Collector,” somebody who is working there part time and only collects on accounts that are 0 to 30 days past due. [Collecting is the process of retrieving owed money back to the bank from individuals]I was only collecting on auto loans, I wasn’t collecting on credit cards or home equity lines or mortgages. It was really intense. 

I got the job after several interviews. Then you go through 4 weeks of classroom training. For an entire month you don’t hop on the phone at all, you just learn about the crazy, archaic banking systems: literally a black screen with green writing. It’s horrible. You learn how to navigate all those different systems and how to talk on the phone. We did a lot of role playing, which was really cheesy, but I’m really glad I got that job because I learned that I can talk to anyone about money. After calling random strangers, scattered across the country, saying, ‘Hey, can you pay us?’, you become really well equipped to talk to anyone about money.

I was there for a year and a half, maybe two years. I quit in July of 2008 and that was right as Bank of America acquired all the Countrywide mortgages. I remember there were a couple of nights when we were asked to collect on these really hard-core accounts that we didn’t have the training for. So, when you hear reports that ‘the bank lacked the infrastructure to deal with the number of defaults’ [In regard to the 2008 financial crisis], it didn’t. There weren’t enough people trained to deal with the magnitude of defaults. 

Wow. 
It was crazy! That only happened a couple of times. We were always told not to collect on accounts [that were] possibly in foreclosure [because] if you take money from them, it’s possible they won’t get that money back. When you’re trying to learn how to help people and you don’t have the tools to help them, what are you supposed to do, you know?

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What did you do next?
I worked for Wells Fargo financial right after I graduated. It was a horrible sales job and the products they wanted us to sell were just trash, they should not have existed. They were bad products that took advantage of and preyed on old people who are ignorant. They literally handed out a script for people to read. And the products we loan products that would refinance a paid off car, which is a depreciating asset.

That’s terrible.  
Yeah, it’s [messed] up. 

I only stayed at that job for three weeks. I went through the training and then thought, ‘This is the craziest job in the world’. Luckily, the timing was right, and I became an executive assistant [at a boutique consulting management firm in LA]. They were working with a lot of creative businesses, mainly interior designers, some clothing brands, nonprofits, some writers. But it was all creative people in LA. And that’s where I got my first taste of ‘Oh! These are my people. And they’re trying to navigate this silly system of business and finance - that’s totally man-made and totally nonsensical.’ I realized I just understood the system and I knew that I could help people navigate it.

After a couple years doing that and getting bored, I shifted into financial planning. I ended up working as an executive assistant to this wonderful financial planner, and he took me under his wing. He was the first person in my career who really saw me, valued my opinions, and what I thought about how to make things better. That’s when everything changed for me. It’s when I started to realize I was valuable, which I know sounds crazy, but I feel like little girls don’t always get seen in the world. They don’t get asked what they think as much as little boys. 

I worked for a bit as a financial planner, but I eventually grew very disenchanted with the type of clientele we were helping. But with each job, I learned as much as I could, I was a sponge. At the consulting gig, I learned how to do Quickbooks, how to do bookkeeping, how to build financials. Then with financial planning, I learned everything about personal finance: Investment strategies, leading economic indicators, lacking economic indicators, how to ask accountants and attorneys the right questions to really get at the heart of issues. 

The last time I worked for someone,  I got a job working for a guy who was helping people set up their marijuana businesses all around the U.S. From him I learned you can sell anything you want as long as someone will pay you for it. You don’t need permission – you can make the life you want. He didn’t have a college degree, but he was making his way in the world.  

 He figured out that people were willing to pay someone to help them figure out how to set up a cannabis business. As states legalized cannabis, they would release drafts of their new laws. We would read them and translate them into layman’s terms so we could talk to potential clients when they inevitably called asking about setting up a grow operation in Tallahassee, or a testing center in some other place in Florida. We needed to be able to say, ‘Yes, you can do it,” “No, you can’t do it,” or “Here are the caveats.” He would do kind of shady things where he would sell things, take someone’s money, and then go to the city to ask, ‘Is this possible?’ If it was possible, we would move forward. If it wasn’t possible, we would refund their money.

Woah! 
Yeah! That’s what that guy taught me. If you have an internet connection, you can create a brand, and do anything! He showed me that people were just making things up as they went. 

He ended up letting me go, but as he fired me he said: ‘Hey kid, you’re really smart. You probably shouldn’t go get another office job. You’ll be really surprised what happens if you allow yourself to rise to the occasion’. And so, I didn’t apply for another job. I woke up every day and sat quietly for an hour and thought ‘there’s got to be a way I can figure this out.’ Eventually, I realized that all my experiences left me with a very sharp tool: I really understood finances and business and I was good at educating people about it. So I went back to the idea of ‘What about those creative people? What can I do with what I know and what they need?’ And, you’re seeing the results. 

So that’s when you started The Hell Yeah Group
Yes

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You also write articles for Refinery29 and co-host their podcast, too. Did that come as you started working with more and more clients? Did R29 find you, did you find them?
I first went off on my own at the end of 2014, and by 2015 I was exhausted of trying to [get clients] “word of mouth”. I started to do research, and that’s when I was like, “Wait a minute, I know how the internet works.” I started to really, really nerd out on marketing, content marketing, how to matter online, how to sell by communicating on the internet and connecting with your audience.

A lot of the research led me to three things: put out really quality content, show up, and be consistent. And then, wait for stuff to happen. I started to do a lot of speaking gigs and I continued to write articles. If you go back into my archive they were pretty terrible back in the day. But it worked, the internet worked. I got better at writing, I listened to my audience. 

The Refinery gig found me – they found me off of Cup of Jo which is a lifestyle website. Caroline’s the features editor there. We met at a creative conference in Big Bear, California. There was a costume party and she was dressed up as a cookie, so naturally I went up to her and started talking to her. We got along and we stayed in touch. When it was time for her to find a finance columnist, she reached out to me. 

And then, one of the producers of Refinery found me there and asked me to co-host, which was very, very validating for me. I’ve been a fan of Money Diaries for a while. They really pioneered this whole money diary, narrative thing and so many brands are copying them now.o many publications are doing their version of the same thing. So of course, I said yes, and I can’t believe that they trusted me. 

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about managing their money?That it’s too complicated and they’re not “smart enough” to do it. I get a lot of people who are down on themselves, really smart people who say, “I’m just not the type of person who can do that.” I don’t believe that. You just have to create time to have tolerance for boredom and tedium. And you’ll be fine, I promise you. It’s not hard, it’s just lame.

On that note, do you have any favorite books or resources for people who are true personal finance beginners/deeply lost?
It’s going to sound really self-serving, but I really think that my content is for that exact person. 

Are you interested in continuing this work for the long haul?
I think that I’ll probably do this for a large part of my working life, but I’m definitely interested in other ways to impact the world. I’m really interested in mental health, therapy, and psychedelic drugs to help people heal. I’m not a scientist, so I’m not sure how I could participate in that field, but it’s something that really excites me.

Sometimes you don’t know [of] a way to help people until you show up a bunch of times and realize you have a really sharp or useful tool that could really help someone. It’s possible that I could’ve done it [help people] through something else. It’s interesting, because I always tell people that finance just happened to be the platform that I’m doing my work through. I want to help people sleep better at night and not feel scared. I want to get people excited about something they probably thought they could never feel excited about. I want to give people ways to make a real difference in their lives. I feel really lucky that I found finance, and finance found me. 

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you’re explaining to your ten-year-old self.

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A beautiful sentiment, Paco! We’re glad you and finance found each other too. Readers, after you’ve checked out Paco’s writing and listened to her Money Diaries podcast episodes, come back next week for a helpful personal finance how-to.

(Photos provided by Paco de Leon, taken by Olivia Katz).