Why I Quit My 6-Figure Job On Wall Street To Help My Peers Succeed

by Dani Pascarella Shalvoy, CFP®
USA Network

I had it made.

At 27 years old, I had a job as an investment specialist at one of the world’s top financial institutions; it gave me a salary that put me comfortably in the top 1 percent of Millennials.

My life was filled with winter vacations to tropical islands, summering in Montauk and a closet filled with more designer duds than I could count.

Even better, I spent my days helping business titans who I had read about in the papers and watched on TV manage and grow their wealth.

There are not many places where you can do that in your 20s, and it was incredible.

But, last month, after five years on Wall Street, I quit my job and walked away from it all.

While I was doing well, it became impossible to enjoy my success while so many of my peers were struggling.

Crippled by student loans, credit card debt and underemployment, many were still living with their parents and had lost hope for a better future entirely.

I had to do something.

The Difference Between The Haves And The Have Nots

The striking difference between the haves and the have nots within in my peer group became evident almost immediately after college graduation.

Friends and even acquaintances from my past started contacting me in droves asking for help improving their careers and financial situations.

“Why’d you come to me?” I would ask them, baffled. At 22 years old, I had just started working in finance full-time and was very green.

Surely there was someone better, more qualified, to whom they could turn for help. But, there wasn’t.

In any industry, top talent goes where there’s money to be made. Wealth management is no different.

The more in-demand a particular financial advisor is, the wealthier a client must be in order to be worth his or her time.

I worked with a top-notch private banking team on Wall Street, and most of our clients had at least a $25 million net-worth or were even billionaires.

The people calling me were obviously nowhere near that and so most financial advisors wouldn’t give them the time of day.

Professional help was not an option.

While all of this was happening, I noticed a small percentage of my friends seemed to have it all together: great job offers up the wazoo, perfectly balanced checkbooks and well funded investment portfolios.

How did they have everything under control when so many of our former classmates didn’t?

I quickly discovered a commonality between my financially savvy friends: They all had parents who had a solid understanding of finance.

In a world where most schools don’t teach personal finance courses, this sliver of my friend group was lucky enough to receive a robust financial education at home.

I thought about my childhood. CNBC was on TV every night as my mother cooked dinner, and if I shouted out the closing prices of certain stocks to her, I would be rewarded with extra dessert.

When it came time to pick a college, my parents told me to go where I got a scholarship: The University of Florida.

“In the long run, where you got your last degree matters the most. So, splurge on a one or two-year master’s program at whatever school you want later on. It’ll be way cheaper than paying for four years of out-of-state tuition, and you’ll have a graduate degree, too. An education is an investment and you need to think about your ROI,” they told me.

It became evident the biggest difference between the haves and the have nots within my peer group was a financial education.

Determined to make a difference, I cofounded a charity that brought young Wall Street professionals into high school and college classrooms to teach personal finance in an entertaining, compelling and relevant way.

I figured we were young enough to seem relatable to and capture the attention of students, but we were also credible because we all had experience on Wall Street.

Going to schools confirmed what I already knew: Parents were the factor that best determined where my peers would financially end up.

For example, a student in one of our classes put all of the money from his after-school job in a fishbowl in his room.

When asked why he replied, “My parents told me that’s what I should do.”

But, the cycle could be broken with education.

When we told that student he could get an account at a bank for free and explained why it was a better option, he was shocked.

More importantly, at the next session, he told us he had opened a bank account. That moment made everything real.

Even a small change can make a big difference in someone’s life.

For one student, it may be opening his or her first bank account, while for others it may be understanding how student loans work or learning how to save for retirement upon getting a first job.

Seeing just one person make a change for the better gave me a sense of fulfillment I wanted to hold onto forever. But, it all came crashing down shortly after that.

Bringing young financial professionals into schools is not scalable.

It’s tough to leave work during the school day in any job, especially one as demanding and as focused on the trading day as wealth management.

While my colleagues in finance were adamant about helping and believed in the cause, they’d have to cancel speaking arrangements at the last minute because their bosses needed them.

I wound up using vacation days to cover for speakers who couldn’t make it at the last minute, and it got to the point where I didn’t have any vacation days left.

On top of that, most financial firms bar their employees from discussing a lot of finance’s most important topics in front of an audience.

Everything I taught students had to go through our compliance department, and while we could talk about the basics, like checking and savings accounts, game changers like investments and asset allocation were off limits.

A Problem Worth Solving

How do you solve our nation’s financial literacy problem when the people who are best equipped to teach the next generation work for financial firms and are therefore restricted in regards to time and what they are allowed to teach?

I thought long and hard about this question until I got an idea that would lead me to quit my Wall Street job.

I wanted to take all of the knowledge I had accumulated over the years and put it online so students everywhere could access it for free.

I had seen firsthand how some of the world’s wealthiest individuals managed their money, I knew how to make personal finance seem appealing to my peers (thanks to my experience teaching in schools) and I knew how to tell stories through media because I had worked at CNBC and was a part-time student at Columbia Journalism School.

All of the elements needed to make this work were there, and I knew I had to at least try and make a difference, even if that meant taking a drastic pay cut.

So, I quit my six-figure Wall Street job to start, what I hope will become the go-to online destination for Millennials who need help improving their financial situations.

Everyone deserves a chance to achieve financial freedom, regardless of what school he or she went to or what his or her parents taught while he or she was growing up.

And, unless some major changes happen in our society, most of my peers will never get that chance.

In the coming decades, Millennials will face more financial pressure than any generation ever has.

Today, student loans are at an all-time high, the delinquency rate for student loan borrowers with loans in repayment is over 27 percent and the savings rate for adults under 35 is negative 2 percent.

Add to that our nation’s dwindling social security program and a national deficit of over $18 trillion (that’s over $154,000 per taxpayer), and most of us will probably have to pay for the well-being of our parents and our country in addition to our future children and ourselves.

The least our society can do is equip the next generation with the knowledge and skills that will help them face, and hopefully overcome, the imminent financial struggles ahead.