Vivian Tu, 28, started her career on Wall Street after college. When she switched to a job in tech, her new co-workers started asking her for financial advice. Eventually, she took her money tips to TikTok, where she quickly amassed over a million followers for her funny, approachable advice on everything from investing to student debt to tax write-offs. After a year of running her channel, @YourRichBFF, in her free time on weekends, she finally quit her day job to work on it full-time. Here, she talks about side hustles, how she makes money as a “finfluencer,” and why she wanted to save up $100,000 in cash before she went out on her own.
How did @YourRichBFF get started?
I’m an accidental influencer; I never meant for this to happen. When I left Wall Street for a job in tech, all my new co-workers were like, “Can you explain to me how to rebalance my 401(k)? Which health insurance did you pick? I’m just going to copy yours.” Almost as a joke, I was like, “Oh, I’m going to start a financial literacy channel, and you can send all your questions there.” And I never got around to it, because I was busy at my full-time tech job.
Then, when COVID hit, I started seeing all this — for lack of a better term — shit on the internet. People were giving advice about putting your stimulus checks in Tesla calls or random cryptocurrencies that I had never heard of. And seeing that made me angry, because I knew that a lot of people don’t have financial literacy education and aren’t going to know better. And they’re going to be like, “Oh, this helpful person on the internet told me to invest in this thing.” No! That person is a 15-year-old in their mom’s basement. Don’t do it!
In my first video, I basically just said, “I do not have any get-rich-quick schemes. There’s some real shady advice on the internet. Don’t listen to it. If you get a weird feeling in the pit of your stomach, run. If you actually want to learn how to be better with your money, and learn the tips that I learned when I got to Wall Street, hit me with a follow.” I was really hoping to get, like, 20 followers. And then, in the span of 48 hours, I had 100,000 people following me. And I was like, “Oh shit, I have to make content now. A lot of content.” Since then, I’ve put out a video every single day.
Who taught you about personal finance? A lot of people on Wall Street aren’t necessarily great with their own money.
I grew up in a Chinese immigrant home, and my parents always taught me to save. My parents even kept the plastic bags we got from the grocery store, just in case. So I’ve always been good at budgeting, because I’m quite frugal in that way.
When I started my career on Wall Street, my mentor and my boss at the time was the only other woman on the team. She was about 15 years my senior, and she also came from a Chinese immigrant family. She grew up in Kansas, without much money. Her family owned a Chinese restaurant. And she was incredibly bright, went to Stanford, and ended up working at JP Morgan. I think she saw some of herself in me. And I’m so lucky to have her in my life, to this day. She was the person who asked me, “Are you putting money into your 401(k)?” And I was like, “My 401 what?” I didn’t know what she was talking about. But she had a very intimate knowledge of my finances because she was my boss. So she broke it down for me. She was like, “You should not be spending more than X amount on rent. You should be contributing at least this much to your 401(k).” She hadn’t saved when she was in her 20s, and she wanted to help me avoid the mistakes that she’d made. I credit a huge portion of my understanding to her.
Once your channel started blowing up, how did you start to monetize it? And was there ever a conflict between your side hustle and your day job?
I started to monetize a few months in. But because of the nature of my full-time job, which was in the tech-media space, I was very cautious about it. I flagged it to my manager and said, “Hey, just a heads up … this has happened to me on social media.” And he was like, “Are you asking me if you’re allowed to be famous?” He made fun of me, but he was also super-supportive. I mostly make money through brand deals, and I’m very selective about it. I turn away 95 percent of offers that come into my inbox. And now I have a management team that helps me with that.
I don’t have to charge my audience anything. I know a lot of content creators who don’t take ads at all and just run their own direct-to-consumer product. And I’m not saying that’s wrong. But I don’t want my audience, who is often already struggling with their finances, to shell out money for financial education that I think should be free for everybody.
What was the point when you were making enough money through YourRichBFF to quit your day job?
It wasn’t necessarily about the income I was getting from my side hustle versus my job that led me to quit. I was making really good money at my job — multiple six figures. And that is a job that I could have stuck with for the rest of my life. The reason I quit was that I was getting a lot of opportunities from publishers, podcasts, and TV networks. And I was having to turn down those opportunities because I was working my full-time day job Monday through Friday, and then banging out seven videos on Saturdays and Sundays for my weekly distribution on TikTok and Instagram. I physically did not have enough hours to start a YouTube channel, or make a podcast, or write a book. And finally I thought, I don’t want to waste these opportunities. This seems like a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
I’d also set aside quite a lot of money through saving, being frugal, and investing. So I had enough runway to try this for a year or two. If it works out, amazing. If it doesn’t, I can always go back to a similar role to what I previously had. I have skills that aren’t going away anytime soon. But in 20 years, when I have a family and I’m almost 50, I don’t want to look back on this moment and be like, damn, I missed it.
What did you need to have in place in order to feel comfortable and secure quitting your job?
I needed to know that I had the infrastructure in place to succeed. That included hiring an attorney who now does all of my contract negotiations. I also hired a management team, and they get a cut of everything I make. So it was less about money and more about making sure I had the support I needed. I may know what I’m doing in the digital space, but I have no idea how to negotiate a book deal, or how to run a podcast.
I also knew that I wanted to have a very strong nest egg in case I didn’t make money. For me, that meant having about a hundred thousand dollars in savings. I can’t count on a paycheck every two weeks like I previously did. So even if I didn’t make a single dollar this year, I would still be okay.
Another big privilege that I have is that my partner and I own our place together. He still has his regular corporate finance job and makes a great living. We had a very serious conversation when I was planning to quit my job. Like, “What if there’s a month when I can’t afford to pay my half of the mortgage?” And he said, “We’d figure something out. You could dip into that money you’ve set aside, or I could help you.” Because we live frugally and don’t necessarily need both of our incomes to support our life, I felt emboldened to take this chance. And even if I don’t make a steady income, or make as much as I was hoping, we’d still be able to support ourselves.
I know you’re a big advocate of side hustles — after all, yours worked out pretty well! But what about the average person who probably isn’t going to make money from brand deals on TikTok? How can side hustles be useful to them?
I think there are two different types of side hustles. One is a great way to get out of a paycheck-to-paycheck life. And there are so many amazing, easy side hustles available now, whether it’s taking quizzes on the internet or walking somebody’s dog or babysitting. It can really put you in a much better financial position, even if it is a little stressful for a short period of time. Getting out of that paycheck-to-paycheck cycle is going to help you so much in terms of saving money. And once you start saving money, you’re going to be able to invest that money.
The second type of side hustle is not necessarily for money, but a passion project, similar to what I did. If that’s the kind of side hustle that you want to do, my advice is to use your full-time job to fund your side hustle. I used my money from my day job to buy things like my ring light, a new laptop, and a fancy DSLR camera so that my videos could be a little better. And you should pursue your side hustle while keeping your day job for as long as is feasible.
I’m not here trying to advocate for burnout in a generation that has already been economically disenfranchised. But doing your side hustle while you keep your day job is a great way to test whether it’s viable, if you eventually want to do it full-time. If I had quit my job before I had a meaningful following on social media, that would’ve been a lot scarier.
There are a lot of people who see people like you and think, “Oh, she owns her own apartment. I should try being an influencer.” What kind of advice do you have for them?
I did not pay for this apartment with any influencer dollars, let’s be clear about that. I paid for it with money I saved from my jobs on Wall Street and in tech. And also, I didn’t pay for it all by myself. My partner and I bought this home together. I’m part of a 50-50 team.
I do think I deserve to make money doing what I do, because when you do something good that helps other people, you should get paid for it. So I wouldn’t tell people not to become an influencer, because clearly it’s worked for me. But you should have a true passion for your niche, because it is very hard. It takes hours for me to come up with content, pick the right background, the clothing, the scripts. It takes a lot more work than people think. And until you get to a certain size of following or community, monetization is a very murky space. This isn’t like a corporate job where you can ask a peer how much they make, or even look on Glassdoor or Fishbowl. Payment ranges a lot. But I do try to talk to other creators about what they’re making, and all the ones I’ve met have been super, super open about what they charge.
For example, another finance creator recently texted me about a brand that they saw I was working with, and they were like, “How much did they pay you?” And I just told them. We have different niches, and our followings are not the same size, but they could use my number as a way to extrapolate what they should be paid. So we help each other.