February 22, 2024

Sunem Tovar’s financial journey began in 2016 when she realized that her $16,000 student loans had ballooned to $42,000. At the time, she was only making $20,000 a year. She tells insider, “All my money was just going to paying off my loan. I was very, very overwhelmed with it.”
On the other hand, Sunem’s brother, Israel Tovar, graduated with full scholarships from Yale and Stanford in 2018. Israel moved back to Tennessee to begin his career as a teacher, but he didn’t anticipate the toll of being one of the only LGBTQ+ teachers of color working at a school that served low-income students of color. “I was getting paid $44,000, working at a school that felt like a prison,” says Israel. 
Going against Sunem’s advice, Israel bought a home that he could barely afford. “My understanding of financial literacy was that buying a house is the way you get out of poverty,” he tells Insider, but it only made matters worse for his mental health. “My anxiety was through the roof. I couldn’t sleep at night and I had sweaty palms all the time. So I quit that job. I didn’t have a plan.”
The Tovars took these financial struggles as an opportunity to work together to achieve financial freedom and set the rest of their family up for success. Here are three strategies they used to do it.
Of the two, Sunem was the first to get savvy about money. She started reading articles and books about personal finance, then created spreadsheets to track her student loan debt-payoff progress. “I started investing because I was used to limiting my spending. At that point, I had learned about compound interest and why it’s really important,” she says.
Compound interest is commonly described as “interest earned on interest.” For example, if a $1,000 investment grows at a fixed rate of 10% each year, the first year will yield a 10% increase to $1,100. To calculate gains for the second year, you would add 10% to $1,100, which results in $1,210. In 10 years, you’ll have $2,593.74 — much more than you’ll have if you simply put $1,000 in a savings account.
Sunem taught Israel everything she knew about personal finance and investing. Israel eventually moved to Washington, DC, to take a higher-paying teaching job while renting out the house he bought in Tennessee. While living frugally, Israel followed his sister’s footsteps and began investing in the stock market. Eventually, Israel sold his home and invested the profit.
All the while, the siblings kept each other accountable for saving and investing consistently. According to records viewed by Insider, Sunem has a portfolio worth $200,000, while Israel has a portfolio worth $127,000 with $13,000 in an emergency savings fund.
Sunem says, “The support we had, the fact that we were able to talk to each other, it was really important. We were able to motivate each other.”
Soon, word of the siblings’ financial independence journey spread to their parents, tíos, tías, siblings, and cousins. Their extended family began showing Sunem and Israel their financial statements and asking for advice. 
The Tovar family first arrived in Los Angeles in the early 2000s from Mexico. “Our parents didn’t finish elementary school in Mexico,” says Israel. “They don’t know English. Our dad was able to raise a family of eight in LA back in the early 2000s on a salary of $17,500, so we grew up with a lot of money trauma and money scarcity.”
He continues, “We had even more support from our family because they were also on that journey. We brought in more of our siblings — we have five — and they really embraced it. They’re like, ‘OK, let’s get this money!'”
Now, Sunem and Israel regularly strategize with their family about saving, investing, and debt repayment.
The siblings started a financial literacy business called the Dream Teacher Project to “financially empower teachers of color to get their money right,” says Israel, by teaching workshops and offering one-on-one coaching.
Of the project, Israel says, “Teachers of color in particular are severely underpaid and overworked. They are actively being pushed out of the profession due to systemic forces. So we work with teachers of color across the country to improve their money mindset and heal financial trauma.”
The siblings agree that the business keeps them accountable to their community, tying a greater purpose to their financial journey. Says Israel, “We want to make sure that our money’s right because we want to provide our clients with the best coaching.”

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