Emerald Sparks: Budget Boss


On a rainy Friday evening, Women of Cincy met up with Emerald Sparks, a financial strategist, at Brick Coffee Company in Norwood. While it was raining cats and dogs outside, we got the chance to learn about her passion for money, travel, education, and much more. 

Interview by Dani Clark. Photography by Kali Robinson.

Tell us about yourself.

That’s so open – I have so many facets. First and foremost, I am an author and financial strategist. The name of my book is Vision. Future. Reality. How to Budget Like a Boss. I love connecting with people from diverse backgrounds. So, I always try to seek out events that are going to be diversified, whether that’s with people or experiences I’ve never had before. I’m just all about doing new things.

Have you always been that way or has that developed over time?

I’ve always been a free spirit. I’m not someone who lets small, minute details negatively impact me. I’m all about being open to the moments I’m experiencing.

That's pretty amazing because you’re involved with financial planning, and that begs a sense of strict planning for the future.

Oh, I know, you’d think I’d be serious and rigid with life, but I’m always the friend that doesn’t give a specific time for when I’ll be somewhere – it doesn’t matter, does it?

I try not to constrain myself with time – I like to leave myself open to people or places that may present themselves.

That’s a positive thing – you’re open to life experiences. So, how did you get your start with your business?

So, I have a finance background with a degree in accounting. I was in financial services for 11 years. Math is a strength of mine – I even took math electives in high school. It was then that I started noticing how I would learn something, master it even, and immediately be ready for the next thing. I like some routines, some systems for a while, but eventually a time will come when I need something new. When I took a closer look at accounting, I found that it looked like a lot of different things: from sports to traditional corporate world. This meant that I could work in whatever business and not feel bored or stuck. I’ve been in banking, property assurance, personal assurance, and financial planning. I’ve been everywhere. People don’t understand credit card debt or loans, and I wanted to be that person that could give them that knowledge, mainly because it’s always come so easily to me.

As a child, I would iron my money – straight and crisp. I was fascinated by it and not necessarily in a materialistic way, but I knew from a young age that I was good with it.

Do you feel like your fascination with money and how it works was influenced by your upbringing?

My mom is opposite from me when it comes to money. I was raised in a single parent household. I never went without. I didn’t know there was another way of living until I got to high school. I went to a private Catholic high school, and in that setting I was exposed to poor people as well as wealthy people. I ended up going to Ohio State where I had similar diversity in friendships and financial backgrounds, but I wasn’t brought up that way. My mom still “pays on, until she pays off” but I keep telling her, “No, you need to pay it off so you don’t have to deal with that debt.” She embraces the concept that she could die tomorrow, but I just have to pose the question, “What if you don’t? What does that life look like?” Don’t worry, I’ve gotten her to save.

Your perspective has me thinking about life changes. How do you feel like your work influences your lifestyle?

I’m very frugal. You can ask my friends; they know I’m all about finding free things to do. I am continually asking myself, “Is it worth the money I’m spending on it?” I don’t feel like I’m extreme, I just don’t understand why I would go out for drinks outside of “Happy Hour” where it’s the same drinks, just half-priced. If we’re going out to a club and it’s free before 11:00 p.m., why would I get there at 11:30 p.m.? I’m responsible – I’d rather spend my money on things that are important to me, like traveling.

We all need more friends like that. How does your frugality affect your work-life balance? Do you feel like that translates into an incredible work-ethic?

I am definitely a “work smarter, not harder” person. I’m actually trying to automate my business now so that if my lifestyle changes and I have children, I can still rely on my own income. I’m getting to that point where I can do group coaching instead of one-on-one meetings. I live in Middletown, so I’ve started using virtual sessions and phone conferences more often to reach a larger number of people in Cincinnati and Dayton. I’ve gotten really strategic about my work – it’s a lifestyle. I’m conscious of how I’m spending my time and money. And even with that mentality, I still try to live knowing that there will be periods of my life when I will need certain things more than other times. When I give budgeting advice, I try to get my clients to recognize that as well – like work right now may be more stressful and therefore require a green tea latte every day. Maybe in a month it won’t, and you can adjust your budget accordingly.

I don’t think you need to live a life of denying yourself to be financially smart.

With that kind of flexibility, does your work allow you to travel often?

Definitely. My husband and I go on one international trip each year. Last year we did two trips: Ireland and Dubai. This year we’re going to Colombia. Even when I’m traveling, I’m looking for ways to save. I make myself aware of how much things typically cost and with that in mind we look for vacation packages online that often include cheap flights, rental cars, and adventure experiences.

So, what do you value most in your travel experiences?

Just the experience – I think it’s fun to learn other people’s cultures. I’m not that American that’s going to try and impose my American way in other places. I try to dress according to the cultures of places I go; like in Dubai, I covered my shoulders. I want to experience other people’s day-to-day lives, not just my own in a different place.

That kind of awareness of others seems so key to understanding new surroundings. When you’re planning your own personal budget, what other life values come into play?

I’m an only child – I mean, my mom, along with all her siblings, only had one child each. So, without having a large family, my friendships are hugely important to me. Most of my friends have “9 to 5s,” and going out for dinner and drinks isn’t something they really think about as costly, so spending time with them in those circumstances definitely makes it into my budget. Not to say that I don’t work in deals for going out. That’s how my husband and I try new restaurants. We find a Groupon and enjoy different foods for cheap!

I’m definitely taking notes. How do you feel your business has been impacted by the somewhat recent turn to online availability for products and services in the business world?

I don’t feel limited by where I live. In fact, I want to be nationally recognized for what I do one day and I think the virtual world will help. Regardless of how much money you make, people don’t know how to manage their finances. I think what I do is universal and matters to all kinds of backgrounds – it’s not contained to a certain demographic. I’m putting together a course that addresses how 75% of the population in the United States is stressed about money. With our education system and just the way consumerism is, we have trouble with money and I’m here to change that – or at least do my part to shift it. I really want people to know that they can make adjustments. Even entrepreneurs I work with will hesitate to get a part-time job while they’re getting started, but

I’m all about adjusting your life if you need to. Just be in your season and learn from it. You will move out of that season. I tell everyone that you cannot ride the wave forever – it will come down, but it will go back up. Your finances, just like life, are destined to change.

Another differentiator I noticed about your business is that you go and educate young people about your work. Tell me more about that.

I’m interested in teaching high school students because everyone has to be there. It’s not like a workshop you can sign up for or a special training course – you have to be in school eight hours a day. Why not incorporate some time for financial literacy programs? Only four states make it mandatory to have programs like that in high schools, and Ohio is not one of them. If I can have kids graduating knowing what credit card debt is and what interest looks like with student loans, I think as a society we’ll be better consumers and we can make better decisions. I know when I graduated high school, I received something like 12 credit card offers in the mail. Had I not known what that kind of spending could become, I would have been completely unprepared for debt. With credit cards, so many young people get them for “emergencies.” I have seen how quickly “emergencies” become that cool shirt in the store window or a new video game. Our society encourages us to be huge consumers.

I want people to be asking themselves why they’re buying what they’re buying, and think about whether it really makes them happier.

I was at a point in my life a couple years ago when I would look in my closet and see that most of my clothes still had tags on them. I was constantly buying new clothes. I had to say to myself, “I’m trippin’. What am I buying all these clothes for if I’m not wearing them?” And so, I gave myself the goal of not buying clothes for a whole year.

Once I got into that habit of not acquiring new things all the time, I realized how little I needed them in the first place.

I’m wondering about when you have these conversations with high school kids. Does it turn into lifestyle advice or stay focused on the financial aspect?

I try to keep it very basic and strictly give them information. I want them to have the knowledge of how much things cost.

I’m not trying to tell people how to live their lives; I just want people to have the knowledge they need to shape their own lifestyles and behaviors.

Kids are excited to learn about these things because sometimes it’s not something that’s talked about at home, or they don’t have a positive view on money. It’s an opportunity for them to prepare themselves for real life, and real living.

The word “finances” can inspire a broad range of emotions. When you’re with clients, how do you approach the fearful and frustrating side of personal finances?

I tell people to think of money as a tool in the world we live in. The reason people have negative or positive views on money is because they attach emotion to it. When they have money, they’re really excited, but when they don’t, it’s the opposite. If you remove feeling from money, you are free to remove its control over your life.  

I believe that your job should help you be in a better financial situation, but I see this all the time where people won’t leave jobs that make them unhappy. Whether it’s because they don’t think they’re good enough for another job or “If I get another job, I don’t know what that looks like.”

And what do you say to people in those situations?

My favorite line is, “Life is all about choices, so be choosy.” If you don’t like your job, you have the power to leave it. Once they gave you that job, the world did not suddenly stop making other jobs. When I was unhappy in my last job, I reevaluated and left. I don’t think people realize the power they have to change.

I feel like your work has everything to do with empowerment.

Yes, I’m trying to give people tools to feel comfortable with their money and know if you want to make money, you can. There are people making money on Instagram. It hasn’t been here for a long time; new opportunities are always about to be here where you are. I want people to know that they are competent, intelligent people who can do what they need to with their money.

It seems like people look at how they make money in a few different categories: 1. You are good at your job and you like it; 2. You think your job is okay and it allows you to do the things you like outside of work; 3. You hate your job; or 4. You can’t work unless it means something to you. How do you feel about the work you do?

I definitely feel like I lean more toward the meaningful category. I made a shift in my job situation because I wanted to make individuals better with their money, not necessarily just large company systems. My work matters to me and I want it to matter to other people.

With that in mind, when you envision your businesses in the next five years, what’s different?

Well, in the future, I see myself as a multimillionaire. I’m still in Ohio, but connecting to companies all over and engaging in more speaking events. I want to expand my reach and encourage this state to value financial literacy.

We love hearing people’s stories, but we are especially interested in those who help us shape them. Tell us about an influential woman in your life.

So many people come to mind, but bottom line: Oprah. She’s rags-to-riches. I love stories about people who have beginnings like my own and have become recognized worldwide. She’s on TV, she writes books, and she’s the only person who is on the cover of her magazine every time it’s published. She’s like, “Why would I have anyone else on the cover besides myself?” I think about her and am reminded that I can do the same.