Meet the 26-year-old Instagram influencer who wants to ‘help you get your money sh*t together!’

Quarterly Investment Guide 2021_Q4_7green_article
Illustration by Jamie Cullen

Helen Lu recently quit her job at a Big Four accounting firm to pursue a solo act.

Now Lu, 26, works for herself. She turned a side hustle—a one-woman brand she calls The Money Minimalist—into a full-time gig two months ago. Lu started her small media biz originally as a blog. Since then, she has focused on building her Instagram presence (she has 16,000 followers) and selling tickets to virtual events on Zoom, where she helps people figure out their finances and plan for the future.

The goal? As she puts it on her website, “I want to help you get your money sh*t together!”

Lu is one of a budding crop of financial influencers who have become unofficial, unlicensed, take-everything-I-say-with-a-grain-of-salt financial advisers to an eager and growing social following. She and her peers use YouTube, TikTok, personal websites, and other online channels to teach millions of would-be rat race deserters how they too can think and (fingers crossed) grow rich.

Fortune spoke to Lu about her new life as a financial influencer. The No. 1 thing people can do to become financially independent? Start investing early, she says. Playing the stock market and paying down student loans are not mutually exclusive activities. And as for meme-stock mania? If it’s a choice between setting up a Robinhood account or a 401(k), delete the app and opt for the latter, Lu says.

Here’s our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity and brevity. (Lu stresses, of course, that none of this is financial advice.)

Why quit your day job?

Lu: The freedom to be outside of a 9-to-5 and able to generate my own revenue, on my own time, has been a dream of mine for a long time.

Would you recommend others do the same?

The way to make this lower risk is to commit to it being a productive gap year. Accumulate some savings first. You can make it even more risk-free if you try out a proof of concept before you quit your job. For a lot of folks, this could be a great path. But prepare for it, and have a plan to reenter the workforce after the year’s over.

What is your audience most interested in?

Early retirement, to be honest. Or this concept of a mini retirement along the way. That’s really the goal for many of those in my audiences. A lot of people also ask me about their student loans—that’s a big one.

What do you tell them?

If your employer offers a 401(k) match, go get that match. Don’t lose out on free money. You get tax savings because you’re reducing your taxable income. On top of that you may still be able to put 20% to 30% of your income toward paying off student loans. That really calms the nerves of people who feel like they’re missing out on investing.

Do you plan to become a licensed financial adviser?

Maybe a certified financial planner. I like the idea of being able to help someone plan for their life’s milestones. If someone wants to have a wedding in five years, to buy a car in seven years, or to fund a child’s education, how do they do that? Most people find financial planning intimidating. I’d like to make it a bit more approachable and friendly.

What’s your biggest tip for stock market newbies?

The longer you put your money into the stock market, the safer you’ll be. A lot of people ask me, “What will happen if I lose money?” Most people are thinking way too short term. If you have your money in the stock market for over 15 years, the chances of you losing even $1 are, like, less than 1%. The longer you invest, the lower and lower and lower your risk gets.

You’re preaching the gospel of compound interest.

Yes. Compound growth. Buy and hold. Long-term investing. I like telling people that boring growth is better than exciting loss.

As someone whose business depends on getting attention online, how do you balance a need for excitement with boring old financial advice?

The word “millionaire” grabs a lot of folks’ attention. It’s enticing. But the person who became a millionaire off boring index funds is much wealthier than someone who took a gamble on something. It’s about debunking this idea of a golden ticket to wealth.

Do you regard the r/WallStreetBets phenomenon and GameStop mania positively? Is Robinhood helping or hurting people’s financial futures?

It’s got more people invested and interested and curious about investing, which I think is great. But if someone would rather set up that app than their 401(k), I tell them to delete the app.

Is crypto underrated or overrated?

Underrated, but even I am not ready to really invest in it yet. I’m still reading up. When I do dip my toes in, maybe in the next couple years or so, I’ll probably keep it to a small percentage of my portfolio.

How did you pick the name the Money Minimalist?

I fell into minimalism with the Marie Kondo movement. I want to teach people that the simpler you keep your finances, the easier it will be. It’s the same as physical minimalism. The less stuff you have, the easier it is for you to clean your house. A lot of people think they need to learn everything before they get started. Just get started.

Have any role models?

A few online money coaches like Delyanne Barros, Investing Latina, Investing with Rose really inspired me.

How did you educate yourself?

Graham Stephan on YouTube taught me about index funds. Ramit Sethi with his book, I Will Teach You to Be Rich, taught me, holistically, how to take care of my money, everything from loans to credit cards to savings accounts. BiggerPockets is a great blog that taught me about real estate. Mad Fientist is a podcast by an early retiree who gets into the nitty-gritty of the math. Those were my key sources.

Roth IRAs, should everybody have one?

If you’re under the income threshold, absolutely go for it. They save you so much money in taxes, and you can pull your contributions out at any time, so it’s like a backup emergency fund.

What are your own personal goals?

My net worth goal is $1.5 mil. That will be the number where I just never have to work, where I can raise kids happily and just chill out. That’s the minimum. I’m gonna do that through index funds and real estate and potentially online content sales.

By what age?

Around 35 or 40. It really depends on how quickly I can stack up my real estate because that can exponentially grow my net worth a lot faster.

Elaborate on that real estate point for me.

Once you have your first house, you can use that as collateral, refinance, and take out debt to buy another house. It can really snowball from one house to another to another once you add a second house. Maybe you can buy two more houses. It’s an art of refinancing and borrowing more money to have more money. It’s a delicate balance, but if done right, you can really compound the number of properties you have and, in turn, that will increase your cash flow from rent, and your equity will build over time.

You own property?

I bought a two-family investment property in Brooklyn with my sister and parents. They have a bit more money than we do, and this is what helped them retire early. If it were just me investing, I would probably look for typical up-and-coming neighborhoods where I can afford a down payment. Look for strong cash flows and places that are growing. A lot of people are investing in Columbus and Cincinnati. Think about these areas when you’re in them—is there potential for people to move there?

How did the pandemic affect your decision to invest in real estate?

When the pandemic hit and we still hadn’t bought a property yet, we went from zero to 100. We were like, Let’s do this faster. Once we saw those interest rates, we were like, Whoa, gotta jump on this!

Any parting messages for our audience?

Don’t feel too intimidated to get started. Start really simple. Start really small. If you don’t want to invest $1,000, or if you don’t have $1,000 saved up, that’s okay. Start with $100. $100 is better than zero, and today is better than tomorrow.

Correction (10/14/21) 10:15 a.m. ET: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a podcast recommended by Lu. It is Mad Fientist, not the Mad Scientist.

This article is part of Fortune’quarterly investment guide for Q4 2021.

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