Money & Me: ‘Being smart with cash is much more than being debt-free’

Marilyn Pinto, founder of education company KFI Global, wishes she’d learnt financial literacy during her childhood

Marilyn Pinto, founder of KFI Global, works with fiduciary advisers in the UAE and invests in globally diversified index funds, stocks and bonds. Victor Besa / The National
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Five years ago, Marilyn Pinto founded KFI Global, an education company that specialises in teaching teenagers how to make smarter money decisions.

The Indian-Portuguese entrepreneur says parents have to help children develop a healthy relationship with money.

Her book, Smarter Richer Braver, helps parents to understand what they can do to empower teenagers to take control of their finances and make educated decisions about using cash, she says.

Ms Pinto was born in Kuwait and moved to India when the country was invaded by Iraq in 1990, before relocating to Dubai 19 years ago.

Now aged 47, she lives in Dubai's Mirdif area with her husband and their daughters, 13 and 15.

What was your money relationship growing up?

My money journey wasn’t great until recently. My dad worked for Kuwait Airways but died when I was 2 years old.

So I was brought up by my mum in a single-income household. She was working in financial reconciliation in a bank.

Money was an issue, but it was the elephant in the room. While she did her best to make sure we wanted for nothing, mum never made us feel like we were struggling.

But my sister and I always knew this was something we needed to be careful about. No one spoke about money. So what I now propose doing with kids is the opposite, in terms of having those conversations.

How did your childhood shape your financial outlook?

I can’t say I learnt from experience, I learnt from not having it.

I wasn’t really bad with money, I was never in debt or used my credit card badly. But being smart with money is so much more than just not having debt and not using your credit card badly.

That is what is important that we teach our kids, and what I wish I had learnt when I was 15.

Money is so intricately entwined in every aspect of our lives, and yet it is something we aren’t really trained to make proper decisions about.

What was your first wage?

When I graduated, I worked in customer service with AT&T in Goa, southern India. It was 10,000 rupees ($125) — which at the time was a princely amount.

Since I was staying with my family at that point, my only concern was how to blow this before my next paycheque.

I did my master's in the UK and I had family in Dubai so I came and was attracted by the big city lights. A couple of years, I thought … 19 years down the line.

What led you into financial literacy education?

My kids are academically very smart, but when it came to money … I didn’t think they had that kind of awareness.

It started as a personal mission, but the more I looked into it, I realised it wasn’t just my kids who had this issue — it was systemic.

Schools don’t have the expertise [for financial literacy], the trained teachers, the content.

Money is so intricately entwined in every aspect of our lives, and yet it is something we aren’t really trained to make proper decisions about
Marilyn Pinto, founder of KFI Global

Becoming a parent awakens you to issues your kids are likely to face. While there are many, financial literacy is the one skill every adult wishes they learnt when they were a child and yet we aren’t teaching this.

Even if it is taught, it’s [often] not taught well enough. This is a problem on a massive scale affecting teenagers around the world. There seemed to be a very easily bridged gap; this is a trainable skill.

Can't parents teach their children?

It might seem the obvious solution, but most parents haven’t had this education themselves. Not everybody has a great mindset towards money and parents are overwhelmed with so many different things. And kids don’t always listen to their parents.

The book is a combination of five years of research, hands-on experience with teaching kids; we put all our learnings into that to help parents understand the problem. Unless you understand the problem, you’re not likely to fix it in the long term.

If I’ve done my job, they will send their kids to get proper financial education.

Has your spending and saving evolved?

In my 20s, I was a spender. Not overly spending, but not a wise spender either. That's all changed.

Now, I don’t think of myself as spending or saving, I think of myself as an investor.

The awakening started when I became a parent. It wasn’t easy, it was irritating and very discomforting, because you have to change so much.

I leave it to the experts. I’ve worked with fiduciary advisers in the UAE and invest through them in globally diversified index funds, stocks and bonds.

What is your best investment?

The business. Not just financially, it also made me grow, think, pushed me outside my comfort zone.

I’ve been able to use this business as a force for good. We don’t focus so much on individual classes now, our main focus is on getting a sponsor who can sponsor this programme in schools so we can really scale this initiative because I can see the impact.

Do you have a cherished purchase?

My Kindle, I can’t go anywhere without it. I am a very avid reader.

In India, books are cheap, so every time I go on holiday there, we come back with a suitcase full. Sitting quietly, reading a book … that’s a luxury for me.

Does money make you happy?

It depends on the kind of values you attach to money. If you attach extrinsic values like power, status, self-worth and self-image, then that’s not going to give happiness.

But if you attach intrinsic values like community, the ability to help people or afford yourself more creativity in your work or a more secure future, then money can get you happiness. For me, that was a big realisation.

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Are you wise with money?

Now, yes. In my teenage years and 20s, for sure, not. I use my learning or lack of learning about money to fuel my desire to make sure more kids don’t have to go through what generations before them did.

During classes, I give personal experiences; it’s so much wiser to learn from other people’s mistakes.

I wasn't bad with money, but I only started investing in my mid-30s, which is crazy because you’ve lost out on 15 years where your money could grow, money I spent on shoes and bags and stuff.

Do you have financial goals?

I enjoy my work too much to stop … I’m one of the few people who look forward to Mondays.

My goal is having more social impact, whether it’s here or working with schools elsewhere in the world. We have a few free places in our programme that we give to the less fortunate.

My idea is to scale. I started working on this multi-stakeholder approach. We partner with banks and other financial institutions to sponsor this programme in schools and we go in and deliver a five-hour programme to give them a good foundation in money management.

We did this in colleges and universities as well. One thing we’re clear about is that we don’t product push to the kids, even if your financial institution is sponsoring the programme.

Updated: September 12, 2022, 6:23 AM