How These Millennials Turned Pandemic Challenges Into Personal Success Stories

Sarah Kleist, Kevin Conde, Kesi Irvin, and Ashleigh Thomas made big financial changes in 2020.
(From left) Sarah Kleist, Kevin Conde, Kesi Irvin, and Ashleigh Thomas made big financial changes in 2020.
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Goodbye, 2020.

Faced with the economic reality of record high unemployment, it’s worth taking a moment to survey the impact of what has happened.

Millions of peoples’ lives and careers were altered by COVID-19, forcing them to think creatively about what came next. But a few success stories managed to emerge from these devastating nine months. Some people managed to carve out a sense of stability, while others pivoted to new careers, took major risks, or explored new careers.

Here are four millennials who made dramatic financial changes during 2020 — and what they learned:

Sarah Kleist

Who: 26-year-old living in New York City

Pre-pandemic job: Actor

Post-pandemic job: Freelance website designer

Before the pandemic completely shut down the theater industry, Sarah Kleist had a decent amount of work as an actor, but it never felt totally sustainable — and she was simultaneously juggling a “survival job” in the restaurant industry, which also shut down. This left Kleist trying to figure out her next step. 

Major Money Move: Monetizing a creative outlet

“I needed a creative outlet, so started helping my friends with their websites,” says Kleist. “At first it was just for fun, but then they told their friends, and their friends told their friends, and it blew up into a whole thing! Thinking back to who I was in March versus who I am now, my life has made a 180. I had hit a dead end, literally and mentally, and now it feels like I am in a position to grow.”

Her website design business enables her to be entirely freelance and work a job that isn’t subject to shutdown restrictions. She’s also started investing and brainstorming ways she can begin generating passive income. 

Lesson Learned: Seeking stability doesn’t mean giving up your passion

“I’m most excited to add performing back into the mix. The perk of being your own boss is getting to set your own schedule, which was always the hardest part of the performing/restaurant juggle,” explains Kleist. “I am curious to see how they complement each other.”

Ashleigh Thomas

Who: 29-year-old based in Corpus Christi, Texas

Pre-pandemic job: Ninth grade teacher

Post-pandemic job: Residential mortgage loan originator

At the start of 2020, Ashleigh Thomas was newly engaged, but feeling uncomfortable with her financial situation as she evaluated what their future as a family might look like.

“I was miserable in my teaching job, for so many reasons, and I felt like I was never going to be able to pay off all my student loan debt,” says Thomas. As the pandemic unfolded, Thomas and her fiance made a big decision: They nixed their January 2021 wedding and got married with immediate family present and a friend officiating over Zoom. 

Then they made a second major decision. “Once spring break came around, I was already so unhappy, and I knew that things were not going to get better anytime soon. Teaching was only going to get more stressful and complicated, so I decided that since I was home anyway and my husband’s paycheck could cover just about everything, now was the time to take a leap of faith and change my future.”

Major Money Move: Quitting her full-time job

Thomas decided to quit and took a part-time job as a manager for a catering company and event venue, right before Texas sheltered in place. 

“That part-time job allowed me to bring home a small paycheck while still in school for my mortgage originator license,” explains Thomas, who also tapped her savings to pay for the courses necessary to help her change her career and become a residential mortgage loan originator.

Lesson Learned: There’s never a perfect time to make a major change

The risk of changing careers paid off. Thomas was able to find a job through personal connections with a mortgage broker that hired her remotely. Now, Thomas and her husband are starting to rebuild their financial lives and even put a small amount into savings each month.

Kesi Irvin

Who: 30-year-old based in Budapest, Hungary and Bluffton, South Carolina

Pre-pandemic job: Hostess

Post-pandemic job: Travel blogger

Kesi Irvin was living an unconventional, nomadic life. For the last five years, she traveled the world and financially supported herself through seasonal work as a hostess for travel companies like The Yacht Week and BucketLust.

She typically relied on income from that summer job to get her through the rest of the year. But then her industry came to a standstill. “The pandemic came in like a wrecking ball, and all my travel plans were cancelled, and I was forced to slow down.”

Major Money Move: New job and new home 

She reevaluated her current lifestyle and recognized that while her summer job was fun, it wasn’t entirely sustainable. In search of a new way to earn an income, she started a travel blog called Kesi To and Fro. Irvin also settled down in one place and rented an apartment in Budapest for 10 months, “the longest I’ve stayed in the same place in over five years,” she says. “Building a home in one place has financial benefits, since I can cook more and find a better price on long-term accommodation.”

Lesson Learned: Creating a savings buffer is critical — and should only be deployed when necessary

“I am thankful that I had savings to dip into during the pandemic as I transitioned into a travel blogger,” says Irvin. “I have a financial background and I think it is vital to always have enough money saved to live off of for six months, just in case something happens. The pandemic reinforced that it was a smart idea to never touch my savings, and only use my savings when necessary.”

Kevin Conde

Who: 31-year-old living in New York City

Pre-pandemic job: Sous chef

Post-pandemic job: Financial representative

Prior to the pandemic, Kevin Conde would describe his relationship to money as “indifferent.” If bills were paid, there was nothing to worry about. 

“I had just finished the 2019 season with a little success from working at a prominent outdoor dining restaurant in lower Manhattan, and most recently was working as a sous chef in Brooklyn,” says Conde. “I wasn’t worried about an emergency fund or financial planning, let alone prepared for a pandemic, like so many people.”

When he was furloughed in the middle of March, Conde became inspired to begin researching finances in order to get a better handle on his own. “I started to believe if I could figure out a way to not only use this to my advantage, but to share all that I learned to better the people around me, that post-quarantine I would come out stronger,” says Conde. 

Major Money Move: Focus on budgeting 

“New York City has been very strict [in the pandemic] so the only time I felt that I was going to go outside was to do food shopping and the occasional walk to the park,” says Conde, “which caused me to really focus on where I was spending and where I was saving.”

Conde decided to prioritize saving and focus on building a budget for himself after years of not having a dedicated financial plan. “I’m proud to say within the last seven months I’ve improved my overall spending habits and adjusted my savings to the highest it has ever been, including my retirement [account],” says Conde.

During the furlough, Conde also applied to jobs in the restaurant industry, but it became clear that many businesses had no real projection for surviving the ongoing pandemic. He arrived at a crossroads: continue in the kitchen, or pivot? His new interest in finances led him to start searching for entry-level positions with financial services companies. Conde was fortunate to find one hiring new associates and started a new job. His pivot was complete.

Lesson Learned: There is value in financial literacy and planning 

“The biggest change for me during this time was how I was able to discover the rewards of financial literacy,” says Conde. “Through planning and disciplined habits, I was able to uncover holes and gaps in the way I was building wealth.”