personal finance

6 Millennials Share Their Best Money and Career Advice From 2021

CNBC Make It

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A 25-year-old real estate investor earning over half a million dollars a year. A family traveling the country in an RV. A first-generation immigrant who hopes to teach others in her community about personal finance.

These are a few of the people CNBC Make It profiled throughout the year in our Millennial Money series, which details how people around the world earn, spend and save their money.

Along with breaking down their monthly budgets, those profiled have shared hard-won wisdom and advice on finances, careers and accomplishing their dreams. We've featured everyone from self-made millionaires to small business owners to teachers, and they all are inspiring in their own ways.

Over the past few years, it's been gratifying to watch a community form around the series, and to catch up with some of the millennials we've profiled.

Before season four starts in 2022 (you can apply here if you're interested in being featured), I wanted to spotlight some of my favorite profiles from this year. You can find all of the videos and articles for the series on YouTube and on our website.

Note: All of the following information was true as of the time of the original publication of each story.

You can always start over

Karen and Sylvester Akpan in their RV.
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Karen and Sylvester Akpan in their RV.

At the end of 2019, Karen and Sylvester Akpan owed more than $110,000 collectively in student loan debt and were paying $4,200 per month for a five-bedroom home in California.

"We were house poor. That's the honest truth," Karen tells CNBC Make It. "I figured, why are we living this life, trying to keep up with all this?"

The couple knew that something had to give. With their son Aiden, now 8, in mind, they decided to sell their house and live out of an RV in early 2020. Now, they travel the country, earning money through blogging and social media campaigns. They've paid off all of their student loan debt and are focused on investing and building wealth for their son.

Starting over like they did was scary, but ultimately well worth it, they say. "There's no way we're going back to a house or careers or anything like that," Karen says. "We love the freedom that working for ourselves, being entrepreneurs, has given us."

Have a Plan B

Destiny Adams in front of her salon in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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Destiny Adams in front of her salon in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Destiny Adams works for the state of Michigan as a child welfare specialist, earning around $60,000 a year. It's not the most exciting job, but it provides her with stability and benefits like health insurance.

It's what she does outside of work that really inspires her. Adams also operates a YouTube consulting business and runs the Destite Hair Collection, a small business selling wigs and hair extensions.

"Working a 9-to-5, it really restricts your income," Adams says. But as an entrepreneur, there is always the possibility of earning more money if you increase your output. "I like having that control."

For Adams, the different streams of income provide peace of mind that she will always be able to live the life she wants.

"If something happens with my state of Michigan employment, I also have the salon. If something happens with the salon, then I have my YouTube income. And if something happens with my YouTube income, then I have my personal brand," she says.

It's never too late to learn

JD Wilson, 38, is a teacher in Kailua, Hawaii.
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JD Wilson, 38, is a teacher in Kailua, Hawaii.

At 38, JD Wilson is still learning how to budget.

"I'm not good with money, and it is probably one of my biggest flaws and the thing I need to work on the most," he says. "But I'm learning, I'm always learning, every day."

Wilson shut down Lead U, an events company he launched that hosts empowerment workshops at schools across the country, during the coronavirus pandemic, sold off most of his belongings and moved from New Jersey to Hawaii to teach third grade.

Hawaii is more expensive than New Jersey, but Wilson is learning how to make it all work. Aside from rent, groceries and student loan payments, he doesn't spend on much else, preferring to live a minimalist lifestyle. He loves Hawaii and his new community, and his time there has helped him realize what he really wants out of life.

Invest in yourself

Emma Sadler, 29, works as a UX designer for a tech startup in New York City.
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Emma Sadler, 29, works as a UX designer for a tech startup in New York City.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit New York City in early 2020, Emma Sadler almost immediately lost her job as a restaurant manager for Union Square Hospitality Group at the Museum of Modern Art.

Searching for new jobs in the food industry proved fruitless. Eventually, Sadler decided to take a three-month UX boot camp that could help her secure a job in a totally different field. The course cost $12,000, which was roughly a quarter of her previous annual earnings. But Sadler knew it would pay for itself by opening up new career opportunities.

"It was scary," she says. "I remember talking to my mom a bunch being like, 'Am I making the right decision? Is it going to be worth it? Am I crazy to blow all this money on this investment?'"

Now, the single mother is earning around $60,000 a year as a UX designer, and knows she'll have plenty of opportunity to move up the career ladder, potentially taking home six figures soon.

"You don't need a four-year degree to be able to put yourself on a great path financially," she says. "Even in dark times, you can take control of your life and put yourself on a path that truly makes you happy."

Money isn't everything

Jason Y. Lee, 33, is the founder and CEO of Jubilee Media in L.A.
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Jason Y. Lee, 33, is the founder and CEO of Jubilee Media in L.A.

As a child, Jason Y. Lee believed earning six figures would prove he was as success. And when he graduated from college, he did just that, landing a consulting gig at 21. Fast forward a few years, though, and Lee rethought everything he believed about building a life.

He left his consulting job in 2012 and launched a nonprofit with his brother, taking home zero pay. Eventually, that became Jubilee Media, and Lee's annual salary annual rose from $0 to $30,000 to $60,000 to $97,000 today.

It's a far cry from the checks he was cutting in consulting, but to Lee, the fulfillment he finds in his work is well worth the pay cut.

"I felt like I was learning and growing every day," Lee said of the career switch. Running his own company "really changed the way that I thought about money and success."

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