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Money Stories

5 Money Lessons My Caribbean Roots Taught Me

Money Lessons Caribbean Roots

Formal personal finance education programs in the Caribbean, are few and far between, yet the informal lessons I learned about money growing up in the region still informs the way I use it.

Here are different money lessons from my Caribbean roots.

Living Within Your Means Was Your Reality

One of my first realizations about money as a child was that how much cash you had determined how much you could spend. Back then, credit cards weren’t a thing and nor making daily purchases with the swipe of plastic, routine.

Groceries, and school uniforms and supplies, and many other wants and needs were paid mostly in cash.

Save First and Spend Later

Saving for large purchases was another widespread practice, I witnessed growing up.

It was just as common to both save up for a down payment on a mortgage, for example, as it was to start buying the building materials for your home with cash, before you even approach a bank.

Some home owners even built their homes in a piece-meal fashion, by constructing each phase of a family home after saving enough to pay in cash.

If You Borrow, Pay Your Debt Fast

Although Caribbean people have a strong culture of saving, there were still times that you would take on debt.

How you handled that debt though, was to pay it off faster than required. This was especially true when it came to consumer debt. 

The are many times I heard the phrase “I don’t want to owe anybody,” from my family and other adult relatives, as they prioritized paying off debts, fast.

The are many times I heard the phrase “I don’t want to owe anybody,” from my family and other adult relatives, as they prioritized paying off debts, fast.

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Extended Family Is Your Financial Safety Net

In my twin-island Federation, there is no government sponsored unemployment insurance, nor a large scale program for cash payments for individuals or families to make up for low or non-existent income.

Your extended family provides housing, and financial support in cash and in kind to relatives in need. With multi-generational living arrangements as a standard, family members can easily pool incomes, and other resources, share the overhead costs and the financial need of things like childcare.

Side Hustles Are A Way Of Life

Unemployment rates in the Caribbean can top more than 30%, and what are called “side hustles” stateside are a way of life in the Caribbean.

It was not atypical for an individual’s income to be made up of a collection of side hustles. Nor was it uncommon to patronize your home economics teacher, as she vends local treats on a downtown street corner every Friday afternoon.

Supplementing your income is something that you just have to do.

These lessons have had a big influence on how I use money and I especially credit them for enabling me to pay off debt, save and invest while providing support to my extended family.

What are some money lessons you learned growing up?

~ Melisa Boutin

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Featured – 68 Most Inspiring Debt Freedom Stories Ever!

Featured 68 Most Inspiring Debt Freedom Stories

It’s always encouraging to see people are stepping up and paying off large amounts of debt.⠀

I am still on my journey to get on the other side of debt and I’m honored that Personal Finance Junkie has featured my story of how I paid off $13,000 of credit card and student loan debt in 13 months. or list

You can check out the full list of 68 Most Inspiring Debt Freedom Stories in the list over at Personal Finance Junkie: HERE.

~Melisa Boutin

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My Journey: How I Transitioned From Engineer To Money Coach

How I Transitioned from Engineer to Money Coach

As a high schooler in St. Kitts, I watched my family’s home go from architectural blueprint to construction and then completion. That experience allowed me to see how; physics and technical drawing (architectural drawing by hand) could come together to result in a tangible, physical engineered structure. After this experience, I considered becoming an architect, but after researching the college curriculum for that degree program, I thought that there were three too many art courses and not enough math or physics. I decided instead to pursue a degree in civil engineering that would bring together my skill in technical drawing, love for math and passion for physics and that was that!

That seems like such a long time ago now, wow!

Today I want to share how I transitioned from a well-planned out career in engineering to money coaching.

Life As An Engineering College Student

Once I moved from St. Kitts to Miami, Florida after high school, I was driven to get into and complete a civil engineering degree program of my choice. Although, I felt confident that I was adequately prepared for the rigors of an undergraduate engineering degree program, balancing a full course load of engineering, math and science classes, while facing various challenges to accessing to financial aid (I share more about that here and the result here) proved to be my greatest struggle.

Still, 5 years later I was able to overcome most of those obstacles and graduate with a bachelor’s of science degree in civil engineering in 2007 and I went on to complete a master’s of science degree in 2010.

Engineering in Real Life

A new challenge came when I was seeking full-time employment during the Great Recession of 2010. After an 8-month long job search that involved me submitting almost 100 job applications, I finally landed an engineering consultant position. I was so eager start working so that I could finally start the engineering career I had dreamed of and worked hard for, plus I needed to start paying off these student loans.

Starting from my first day of employment, I had a full plate work wise. A few months after I started working in October of 2010, on the day before Christma, I was the lone junior employee in the office when Chief Engineer asked me to make changes to an engineering drawing in order to fulfill a client’s a last minute request. This was a test for me because even though I could do engineering calculations, tests and reports all day, I had never mastered AutoCAD and really had a phobia of it. But I used the knowledge I had and a few text messages to my CAD designer co-worker and got it done.

That’s how much I wanted to soak in all the opportunities of my engineering work life. Even when I knew that AutoCAD was my weakest skill I pushed through and made it happen.

6 years later I would be working as an engineering project manager for a different employer, where I managed multi-million dollar client budgets, negotiating contractor agreement and design, engineering and field construction teams. This is why I went through all this engineering schooling and I was right where I had planned to be. Some of the main functions of an engineering project manager/consultant, is to manage massive construction projects and stay on top of every aspect of the project. You have to communicate with internal project team members, upper management, complete billing and invoicing of your company’s charges to the client, manage and review contractors’ billing to the client, complete site visits plus run revenue projections and formulate budgets both for your employer and clients.

All of this work was tough yet provided the amazing opportunity to learn and I have done just that. But at some point, the drive I had for this career path waned.

From Engineering to Money Coaching

I have been crushing on the #engineerlife since I was a pre-teen, yet I have always had a deep desire to learn and master my own personal finances, especially figuring out how I could build wealth, with $68,000 of debt while playing the role of supporting my immediate and extended family as well as how I could teach others.

My engineering skills and professional experience have helped me tremendously on that parallel path. Engineering economics taught me the time time-value of money and how bonds work. While engineering consulting work gave me the opportunity to apply what I learned from budgeting, tracking and documenting millions of dollars to my own budgeting system and helped me become a trusted resource on managing money, understanding and paying off student loan to my family and personal networks.

At the end of 2015, I had a very challenging year managing everything that was #engineeringlife and my own personal and family life. I asked myself if the career that I had so carefully mapped out, now aligned with the life I truly envisioned living. I dug deep and found the passion for personal finance education that I have always had, just sitting there and decided to start to address the stories (like these share Here, Here and Here) of borrowers’ confusion about their Caribbean student loans. I partnered with Groundation Grenada and M.A.D.E. Grenada and launched a workshop at the University of The Virgin Islands, in St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. to educate current students about their Caribbean student loans. With the feedback I got from the workshop, I dug deeper and recognized the gap of personal finance information specifically for Millennial in the Region and the North American Diaspora and launched on May 30th, 2016 to serve them.

Founder, Financial Educator & Money Coach

Now that I have transitioned, I would like to take my new intro for a spin, so here goes….

Hi! My name is Melisa Boutin a former Engineering Project Manager, now Certified Financial Education Instructor and Money Coach and paying off debt is my jam!

I am the founder of that provides personal finance tools, tipsresources, and coaching to help motivated Millennials, in the Caribbean region and the United States get rid of debt and finally live the life they envision.

Let me know what you think of it!

~ Melisa Boutin




My Caribbean Student Loan Story

My Caribbean Student Loan Story

 This post if part of the Financial Information Month 2016: Student Loan Series. During the Month of October, I will be sharing information about Caribbean Studnet Loans, stories from borrowers and highlighting the missed opportunities to address the current issues with Student Loan System in the Eastern Caribbean.

This is  my story if how I got into debt with a Caribbean Student Loan in the first place.

In August 2001, a few months after graduating from Basseterre High School in St. Kitts and Nevis, I relocated to live with my aunts in Miami, Florida. It was an exciting yet uncertain time for me, as I was to start high school at North Miami High to finish 12 grade and chart my path to College in America.

High School In the Caribbean

In St. Kitts, high school ends in the 11th year of high school and graduation is marked not by a diploma but by how many subject passes you were able to gain at the Caribbean Examinations Council’s O’Level (high school) competency, a model  based on the British General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) high school system. 16 countries in the Caribbean participate in the CXC education qualification & examination system and include: Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Montserrat, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands in addition to St. Kitts and Nevis.

I was able to obtain 9 CXC O’Level subject passes when I completed at the High School level and was eligible to continue to 6th Form (similar to community college in the U.S.) but my parents and I opted form to have me relocate to the U.S. instead.

Coming Back To The United States

I had been a Permanent U.S. Resident or Green Card holder since I was 9 years old and I actually lived on the west coast of the United States for about a year and attended elementary school there. My family then moved back to St. Kitts and Nevis. Having a Green Card enabled us to visit the U.S., without the need of a visitor’s Visa, including closer ports of U.S. entry like St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Living outside of the U.S. with a Green Card also came with the risk of losing that privilege, as the United States expects immigrants granted the right of Permanent Residency to live, work, pay taxes and contribute to the U.S. economy (more than Caribbean people already do with the amount of good we import to our countries from the U.S.). Growing up I would always hear the term “checking-in” when neighbors or friends would travel to the United States to re-start the clock on the length of time they were out of what was supposed to be their new American homeland.

When I came back to the U.S. after completing high school, however, I was no longer checking-in; I moving to the U.S. to really be a Permanent Resident, this time.

Financial Information Month Student Loan Series 2016 More Related Articles

Going To High School Again

The typical path U.S. Permanent Residents like me take when we come to the U.S. after completing up to 5th Form (or 11th Grade) in a Caribbean high school was to enroll in a U.S. high school to complete 12th Grade and then go on to college. That’s exactly what I did in Fall 0f 2001, when I enrolled in North Miami High School.

The transition to U.S. High School involved having my St. Kitts and Nevis transcripts evaluated and get placed in the appropriate classes and grade. I started Grade 12 that August and by October I was informed that I would not be allowed to complete 12th grade since my CXC subject passes were considered equivalent to a high school diploma in the U.S.

Not being able to complete high school in the U.S. would lead me down a road with multiple obstacles when it was time to transition to college, sooner than I had planned.

Preparing for College

Once I was essentially kicked out of North Miami High School, I decided to enroll at Miami Dade Community College (now Miami Dade College) while I prepared to apply to 4-year universities to pursue a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. This is where the real trouble started.

Although the Federal Government granted me Permanent Residency in the United States, that fact had no bearing on my residency in the State of Florida. I was a “new” immigrant; had not lived nor worked in the State of Florida for more than a year; I was minor at 17 years old  and I was considered a dependent for the purposes of FAFSA. All of which worked against me when I signed up to attend Miami Dade Community College. That meant, I was ineligible for in-state or in-county tuition, and state grants for Miami Dade College. This was also true for any State College or University in Florida that I would find out later.

Federal Financial Aid is based on your parents’ income and their State residency, if you are classified as a dependent student. My parents were not residents of the State of Florida and the time and were living in the Caribbean.  So, in essence, I became a student who did not have residency in the any State of the U.S., including the state I actually lived in. This made me ineligible for in-state or in-county tuition, and many state grants for Miami Dade College. This was also true for any State College in Florida that I would find out later.

I ended up having to pay out-state-tuition and since I had no scholarships, and was not as informed as I was, about student loans, as I am now. To pay this expenses, I initiated a Student Loan from the Development Bank of St. Kitts and Nevis to pay my community college tuition,  that was 3-times the price of in-state students.

Financial Aid & Scholarships

While I was attending Miami Dade College, I was also applying to 4-year colleges and searching for as many scholarships as I could. I had already completed the SAT and ACT, so  getting my applications, essays, recommendations and transcripts and applying for scholarships were left on my to-do list. I applied to at least three Florida State schools including, the University of Florida, Florida A&M and Florida International University and the University of Miami.

I searched for scholarships too and found out that pretty much every scholarship for college-bound students required that 1) you had graduated from a U.S. high school, 2) be a U.S. Citizen or 3) Both. As a recent graduate from a high school outside the U.S. who was a permanent resident, that made me ineligible for almost every scholarship I came across. Just my luck, here was another obstacle.

In preparation for my acceptance to a 4-year school, I did fill Free Application For Federal Aid and used the tax information from my aunt, who had legal guardianship of me, had claimed me as a dependent the previous year on her tax return. Once the college application process was over, I was accepted to Florida International Univeristy and the University of Miami.

Because, my aunt worked at the University of Miami and I was  her dependent, I was awarded special grants for employee’s dependents, a partial academic scholarship, and aid for Florida residents. Once I compared the two schools the costs and financial aid awards, there was not much difference in cost, so I opted to accept the offer to attend the University of Miami and finally start college, which is why I came to the U.S. In the first place.

Rescinded Aid and Student Loan Debt

Once I got to moved on-campus to start my Freshman year at UM, I was alerted by the Financial Aid office that my FASFA information needed additional documentation. After going through the additional step of verification, it was determined that since my Aunt had not claimed me as a dependent on her tax returns for 5 consecutive years prior, I could not be considered her dependent for the purposes of FASFA. That determination meant that I was no longer eligible for the employee dependent tuition benefit, plus, since I had never filed my own tax returns the previous year, then I was not allowed to use my aunt’s Florida State Residency and lost the Florida State aid. My entire financial award offer was then reworked and resulted in a massive shortfall with new costs that needed to be covered.

I remember how the University demanded I come up with the money as soon as possible and threatened to have me locked out of my dorm room, just as I was getting settled in. It was very devastating for me. I ended up being offered a waiver to get an increased amount of Stafford Loans, and used that along with funds from my Caribbean student loans and paying the outstanding balance on a monthly payment plan, to fill the gap. It was a very stressful time for me and I hadn’t even had my first mid-term yet!

Changing Course

I did not think much about how much debt losing all those grants and other tuition breaks would cost me in student loan debt as I was just focused on staying enrolled to try to avoid having to withdraw from school and start the college application process over again. But once I got into my second year at UM, I knew that even with two, part-time jobs, moving off campus to save on housing costs, taking community college classes in the summer to transfer back into UM and a bare bones budget, I would be on track to have $1000,000 in student loans if I stayed at UM, and that scared me. My physical and emotional well-being were also being over-taxed. Overall, it did not seem worth it to stay at a school where I had to travel on unreliable public transportation every day, work myself to death in every spare hour I had between classes; take a full load of engineering and science classes and still end up with an increasing student loan balance at the end of each semester.

My physical and emotional well-being were also being over-taxed. Overall, it did not seem worth it to stay at a school where I had to travel on unreliable public transportation every day, work myself to death in every spare hour I had between classes; take a full load of engineering and science classes and still end up with an increasing student loan balance at the end of each semester.

I made a plan to apply to as many scholarships as I could find that I was eligible for. Although I was running myself ragged, I, somehow, was able to maintain a competitive GPA that made me confident I could at least win something. During that process, I remember doing a scholarship phone interview on one of the Engineering Department’s computer room phone’s because I didn’t have a cell phone and I wouldn’t leave campus until late at night. I really need these scholarships if I was gong to get off the $100,000 student loan debt track.

The second part of my plan involved transferring out of UM altogether. I looked at the best-ranked schools and decided to apply. The schools on my shortlist were:

  • Bucknell University
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
  • The University of Texas at Austin
  • Texas A & M University

I only applied to schools that would provide me an application fee waiver, because I really had little money, and ended up getting accepted to at least three of the five listed.

Once I received all the decisions on the scholarship programs and transfer schools to which I applied, I decided to leave UM and transfer to Texas A & M University. The scholarships that I won were portable and I was able to enroll at Texas A&M, with an in-state tuition rate offer, and for the first time all I had, to do was go to school, study and not worry about massive outstanding tuition bills.

Student Loan Damage

After completing my bachelor’s degree at Texas A&M, I had a total of about $58, 000 in student loan debt. The debt included:

  • Caribbean Student Loan
  • Federal Subsidized Student Loans
  • Federal Unsubsidized Student Loans
  • Private Studnet Loans

Most of the debt was accumulated in my two years of attendance at the University of Miami, and whenever I think about that fact I keep wondering what I could have done differently or what other information I needed to have to navigate the U.S. Higher education system better.

That debt figure jumped to about $68,000 with additional student loans and some credit card debt after I went to graduate school..because I was not done with debt yet. Ha!

There’s no way to undo the debt but to pay it off and that’s what I can focus on now.

What’s your experience transitioning to college and financing your studies?

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