Haley Kowalewski was just 23 when she scored her first corporate job, with a corporate paycheck to match.

Lacking any family members knowledgeable in money matters, she quickly set out to teach herself the rules of financial literacy–only to be met with a resounding lack of available resources.  

“I remember feeling super lost,” Kowalewski said. “When I first started making money, that’s when I realized there was a problem…that’s kind of what started everything, was [not] knowing what steps to take and which resources to find.”

Through some painful trial and error, she began to master financial planning, eventually leaving behind a full time recruiting position at Apple to launch her online business, FemmeFinancialCoaching. Today, her social media content–covering everything from breakdowns of her monthly spending to the ins and outs of retirement accounts–is available to over 170,000 followers eager to learn from her success. 

Due to a lack of nationally mandated financial curriculum in public high schools, young Americans have been forced to take an independent approach to learning financial literacy upon entering the workforce. 

Kowalewski is part of a wave of financial influencers who are filling the financial literacy void,  utilizing social media to establish online businesses aimed at explaining financial terms and techniques, a trend that expanded in the wake of the pandemic. This shift in the financial education industry has helped to level the playing field for women and other demographics traditionally denied more formalized financial schooling—while also allowing uncredentialed financial content creators to pass themselves off as experts. 

The United States, with its lack of streamlined standards for financial education, has largely failed to prepare students for economic prosperity. 

Only 17% of U.S. adults report having taken a personal finance course in high school, while 88% say high school did not “fully-prepare” them to manage their finances, according to a 2023 report by Ramsey Solutions, a financial counseling company. 

Once firmly out of the nest and planted in the work force, young Americans must reckon with their lack of financial know-how, but have eschewed traditional–and costly–financial advisors in favor of TikTok and Instagram. In a 2023 survey by Betterment, a wealth management company, 65% of respondents identifying as Gen-Z and 55% identifying as Millennials reported taking financial advice from social media. 

Covid-19 turbo-charged this trend, as work from home requirements, furloughs on student loan payments, and covid-era stimulus checks left young workers with a rare abundance of free time and money. Millennials net worths sharply increased following the pandemic and had nearly doubled by 2022, according to a report by MagnifyMoney. 

“When Covid hit, it was this huge opportunity…we’re not going out, we’re not spending money,” Kowalewski said. “During 2020, and more 2021, that’s when TikTok and [Instagram] reels were starting to blow up. Those are what really helped grow my business early on.” 

As the financial influencer market has grown saturated, content producers have had to grow increasingly creative, and have taken to targeting different demographics who have traditionally been left out of financial education.  

Both Kowalewski and Haley Sacks, who operates on social media channels as MrsDowJones, specifically aim their content at Millennial and Gen-Z women eager to improve their financial futures. Younger women tend to have ‘very low’ financial literacy across multiple areas, leaving them more vulnerable to high debt, depleted savings and a lower ability to assess risk, according to a report by the TIAA Institute and the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center. 

Kowalewski tends to build content around teaching her followers to lower their expenses and increase their investing output, with the goal of helping women build more financial independence and autonomy than they’ve had before. 

Sacks frames much of her content around pop culture hooks to make learning financial concepts more engaging and less intimidating, imparting lessons on memes of Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and the Kardashians. In one video, Sacks broke down the subject of tax-write offs by explaining how popular rapper Cardi B was able to use them to pay for plastic surgery. 

Other financial influencers have tailored their financial lessons along racial lines, such as Dasha Kennedy, founder of online financial literacy community Broke Black Girls. Black Americans are more likely to have lower financial literacy rates than their White and Asian-American counterparts, according to a study by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation. 

Nick Meyer, a Certified Financial Planner and creator of financial education site NickTalksMoney, thinks the competition largely benefits consumers of financial content–with a few caveats, such as a lack of required qualifications for dispensing information via social media platforms. 

“You don’t need to have credentials to be knowledgeable about personal finance, but [they] are a good sign that you do actually know what you’re talking about,” Meyer said. “The low barrier to entry has definitely led to some less-than-stellar info showing up on my feeds from time to time.”

Some of this “less than stellar” advice financially has endangered followers to the point of triggering legal action. In December 2022, the SEC filed a lawsuit against eight financial influencers who passed themselves off as seasoned investors and purposely gave bad stock tips to their followers, resulting in fraudulent profits of nearly $100 million.

Despite the risks, Meyer doesn’t think the financial influencer trend is on its way out any time soon. 

“People will always care about three things: health, wealth, and relationships,” he said. “Anyone that can provide insight on any of those topics will always have a place in media.”