National bestselling author, speaker, and financial expert Anthony O’Neal creates the blueprints for financial success in his new book Debt-Free Degree. He provides invaluable advice on how young college students can achieve educational goals without succumbing to debt. He also speaks about his life experiences and encourages young adults to become their best selves. In a chat with QG, he shares nuggets of wisdom and how he reinvented himself.
How have your life experiences helped mold you into the person you are today?
I wound up $35,000 in debt and homeless at the age of 19 because I had no idea how to manage money. I had $10,000 worth of student loans that I didn’t even need and no degree to show for it. All because of some dumb mistakes and a lack of financial literacy. I took a kid’s approach to an adult decision and used debt to fund my lifestyle. Ultimately, I am thankful for those experiences because they shaped me into the person that I am today. Now, I have a platform where I’m able to help young people make smart decisions about their future. I want to help teens avoid making the same mistakes I made.
What inspired you to become a pastor?
I grew up in a home of pastors and going to church every single day. I fought the calling to become a pastor because I didn’t think it was cool. As I got older, I realized that my mouth always got me in trouble. But I also realized that I was gifted with my words when I used words to encourage and inspire people; it was powerful. After being homeless and living out of the backseat of my car, God just hit me. I realized I wasn’t using the gifts that He gave me to help other people. At that low point, I decided to accept the call. Shortly after that, I turned my life around and started in youth ministry.
Can you share some of your experiences working with One Way Youth Ministries?
The Bethel church had over 35,000 people when I started working there, but only a handful of students were attending church. I had a heart for the inner-city community and a passion for growing their youth program. I spent 80% of my time inside high schools. I wanted to reach students in a new way, so I met them exactly where they were in life. I was substitute teaching, volunteering at their games, and cleaning bathrooms at these schools. Only 20% of my time was spent in church. During the week, I would teach them about practical life issues, like money and dating, but with a spiritual foundation. We talked about things that a lot of youth ministers might not talk about. I taught my kids how to evangelize in their own way, and I am so thankful for the work we were able to do as a congregation.
Why is helping students important to you?
My parents taught me a lot growing up, but money wasn’t something we talked about. I went into the real world with no idea how to manage my finances and not understanding that debt wasn’t just free money and came with consequences. I see a lot of young adults starting their life out in the red for the same reason. They don’t have the financial knowledge they need to be successful, and they think debt is the only way to afford college. But debt doesn’t open doors. It closes them. That’s why I’m so passionate about helping students today.
Can you tell us a bit about your new book, Debt-Free Degree?
The average college student is going to graduate with more than $35,000 in student loan debt and will spend over 20 years paying it off. That doesn’t sound like success to me! Student loans keep our young people paying for their past when they should be enjoying their present and future. It is possible to get through college without student loans, but it requires hard work and planning. My book Debt-Free Degree walks you through a step-by-step plan on how to do that at any stage. Whether you’re a parent with kids in middle school or it’s their junior or senior year of high school, student loans are not the only way. I know the cost of college is overwhelming, but debt is not the answer.
What led to your creative journey as a writer?
Honestly, writing is not one of my biggest passions. But I am passionate about giving young people the tools that they need to succeed in life. Writing a book was the best way for me to give people a step-by-step plan to get through college without debt. I am on a crusade to teach our students that you do not need to take on debt to succeed. If that means writing books, then I’ll be here writing books as long as student loans exist.
Why did teaching others about financial health become your life’s mission?
I didn’t learn about how to manage money growing up. Money just wasn’t something we talked about in our household. I think a lot of families experience the same thing. Parents, if you don’t teach your teens about money, our culture will. That’s what happened to me. I want to encourage parents to teach their kids about money at a young age to avoid a lifetime of mistakes. And for the kids and young adults who don’t have strong role models in their lives, I hope that what I teach will impact their lives in a way that helps them to be successful in life.
What was being on networks such as CNN and Fox News like for you? What can we expect from you in the near future?
I am always excited about getting my message out to people who need it! I see these interviews as opportunities to reach people and save them from making catastrophic mistakes with their money. It’s no different than a conversation I would have with someone face-to-face. It’s simply a means to impact more people. That’s my big focus right now—saving people from taking out a mortgage-sized loan to fund their education.
Debt-Free Degree is just the beginning of a great literary career for O’Neal as he continues to share his message of financial wellness. His book is now available in bookstores and online nationwide.