Yale alumna draws on past struggles to help students conquer money fears
Growing up in the rural Midwest, Tara Falcone ’11 B.A. knew financial struggle. At age nine, when her mother was about to marry for the fourth time, she moved from Ohio to Michigan to live what she thought would be a more stable life with her father and stepmother. A year later, her dad developed kidney disease. As his condition quickly deteriorated, he also developed congestive heart failure, and he died at age 36, when Falcone was just 13. Her stepmother was 30. “He got so sick at such a young age that, by the time they looked into it, he couldn’t qualify for life insurance,” Falcone said. The family debt had ballooned due to missed work and medical bills. “His debt left us in a dire financial situation.”
Schoolwork had always been Falcone’s escape from the harsh realities of her home life. Now, she threw herself into her studies with even greater abandon. “I channeled all my energy and grief into my schoolwork; school was where I felt safe,” she said. “I even went to school the day after my dad passed. I just didn’t want to be home.”
But financial hardships were always close behind. She learned how to tell creditors to “get lost,” even disguising her voice in different accents. She started working at an ice cream shop at age 14, and later as a waitress at the local diner. Through it all, Falcone held tight to a personal mantra: “I vowed that that vicious financial cycle would stop with me,” she said. “I always wanted to be independent and self-sufficient.”
Teachers at Ionia High School saw her potential and provided support, accommodating her work schedule when she needed extra time, and guiding her in college applications. She applied to three large state schools and a smaller liberal arts school, hoping for scholarships. Two weeks before the Common Application was due, a guidance counselor suggested she apply to Yale, which provides need-based scholarships. “I scrambled to put an application together,” she said, “and a number of my teachers wrote recommendations.”
Falcone was sitting with her stepmom the day the news came in, waiting for the dial-up modem to kick in. “All of a sudden, I hear the ‘Yale Fight Song’ and I looked at the screen in disbelief,” she said. The financial aid package Yale provided was more than any other school had offered.
Life on campus
Falcone went to Yale determined to become a doctor with the hope of “avenging” her father’s death by discovering the cure that had eluded him. But she also pursued Spanish, because she loved languages and thought it could help differentiate her in medical school applications.
It wasn’t easy assimilating on campus, though Falcone says she was fortunate to be paired with other students from similar backgrounds at Morse College. She remembers sitting in a chemistry section where other students eagerly raised their hands while she was only vaguely familiar with the periodic table. She used it as motivation. “I thought, ‘You can either let this get you down or use it to fuel your fire. You deserve to be here,’” she said.
Again and again, Falcone had to wrestle with financial difficulties: How would she fly home for Thanksgiving? Would the dining halls remain open? Could she borrow the necessary clothes for a sorority event? To earn money, she conducted data analysis at the medical school for a graduate student. “My schoolwork suffered junior year because of how much I worked,” she said. “Working until midnight doesn’t leave much time for physics homework. But that was my reality, and I had been living it a long time.”
She found an ally in John Falcone ’11 B.A., an economics major and lacrosse goalie who was also on full financial aid. They started dating freshman year and later married.
Learning the language of money
Falcone struggled with her decision to pursue medicine. It had always been the driving force behind her academic decisions, but in her senior year, the prospect of medical school and becoming a doctor no longer compelled her. That February, she had a dream in which her father came to her and said, “I don’t want you to live your life for me anymore. Find out what you are passionate about.”
She needed, she said, “to find out who Tara is.”
Her then-boyfriend John had started working in investment banking. Money had caused her nothing but stress, and she knew almost nothing about how to earn it, or manage it. Was there a place for a Spanish major in finance? She pitched herself to investment and hedge funds as a “blank slate” open to learning their methods. A small hedge fund in New York City took a chance and provided her with a few books to read. She soon fell in love with the work of analyzing stocks. “I liked looking for diamonds in the rough and red flags,” she says. The reality of how money worked became clear. “I was amazed that money could make more money,” she said. “That you didn’t have to always trade time for money or negotiate for a higher salary.”
A year into his investment banking career, John had become disenchanted, and applied to the Navy’s Officer Candidate School. “He always had a strong calling to serve,” she said. He was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, while she remained in New York. Then John proposed. The engagement raised new questions for Falcone about whether she wanted to stay on in the more traditional investment world or take her newfound knowledge and strike out on her own. She chose the latter.
After marrying, the couple relocated to Japan, and Falcone began developing what would become ReisUP, a platform initially designed for teaching people basic investing topics like how the stock market works. But many young people she encountered were not ready for investment discussions. “They were struggling with putting a budget together,” she said. And nearly everyone she knew was stressed out about student loans. “It started to dawn on us how much our friends owed,” Falcone said.
A new money plan
When Falcone returned to Yale for her fifth-year reunion, she attended a financial literacy session and met John Caserta ’01 B.A., a financial service professional, and Steve Blum ’74 B.A., senior director for strategic initiatives at the Association for Yale Alumni and a former partner at KPMG. The two had been hosting “Money Mondays” for Yale students, providing personal finance insights. Falcone saw an opportunity to greatly expand their reach.
“I had developed a knack for creating videos,” she said. “I told them we could cast a wider net by putting the information online where students could access it at their leisure.”
With Caserta’s and Blum’s support, Falcone developed a full curriculum covering a host of personal finance topics taught via short videos with related online resources. She called it “LIT” (short for “financial literacy”) with the tagline “Learn Money. Be Ready.” Weaving in her own stories, Falcone covers subjects like having a money mindset, budgeting basics, debt and loans, taxes, insurance, investing, and retirement. Yale has recently made LIT available for free to all students on the Yale Well website.
There’s a reason LIT is modelled after a course, Falcone says. “In my experience, you need to connect the dots for someone. The concepts build on each other. If you follow it over the course of the academic year, you will be significantly more financially savvy.”
Falcone is co-chair of a Careers, Life, and Yale event on Sept. 28-29 on finance and consulting that is open to all Yale students and which brings together alumni from a range of investment firms, among them JP Morgan, McKinsey, and UBS. She will lead a practical personal finance workshop and a panel on women in finance and consulting.
“If the darkness I experienced can somehow provide light to someone else, that will be worth it,” Falcone says. “Whatever financial situation you grew up in, your money story is yours to write.”