Queen of financial literacy spreads the word

Miss Minnesota contestant Kelsey Malecha hopes her twin talents of tap-dancing and teaching Minnesota students the right financial moves will take her to the Miss America pageant.

Miss Minnesota contestant Kelsey Malecha hopes her twin talents of tap-dancing and teaching Minnesota students the right financial moves will take her to the Miss America pageant.

The 2007 University of St. Thomas graduate, who is MissMidwest -- as in the midwest part of Minnesota -- says her mission in life is to teach financial literacy to others. The Apple Valley resident travels across the state in her "spare time," speaking to students of all ages about money management.

I sat down with the 23-year-old commercial real estate appraiser trainee two weeks before the pageant to talk about credit card debt, retail therapy and the cost of her evening gown for the competition.

Q: Why compete for Miss America?

A: I've danced my entire life, and as a way to continue performing chose to compete for the title of Miss America because it has the talent portion of the program.I have an adult tap-dance class I take every week. My routine is to "There's No Business Like Show Business."


Q: How did you decide to highlight financial literacy as your pageant platform?

A: I wanted something that would relate to everyone and I thought about it for a long time and realized, well, I came from a household where I got an individual retirement account as a graduation present from high school.I didn't get a car like some of my friends; I got an envelope with an IRA stub in it.

While I was in college I incurred some credit card debt, which snuck up on me like it does for a lot of people. It was a very stressful situation, because I'd wake up every day and go to work -- and I realized I'm not going to work to get spending money like my friends, I'm going to work to pay off my credit card debt. Every single paycheck going toward my debt that I incurred from poor spending habits. That can happen to anyone. ... If we start instilling financially literate behaviors at a really young age, I think the opportunity that people have to make poor financial decisions will be a lot lower.

Q: How much credit card debt did you have and how did it sneak up on you?

A: I had about $5,000, which to me was a lot because having debt in my household is something that's frowned upon. I didn't tell my parents until this last year. I paid it off with my internship and after working with this appraisal firm. I was so embarrassed about it that I didn't tell anyone. Now I will tell everyone about it because it's something that I overcame.

It was keeping up with the Joneses. I think the first purchase that started to rack up on it was my first iPod Nano. I had to get it the minute it came out. I saw that a lot. When I worked at Best Buy, I'd see people buying Nanos and buying cell phones who had poor credit. ... We are a materialistic society and we do make emotional spending decisions just to feel good. I'd see people coming into Best Buy and they'd say, "I need some retail therapy." And it often results in buyer's remorse because they don't feel better and they have less money in the bank.

Q: How did you decide to get serious about paying off your debt?

A: I give a seminar about five steps to become financially literate and one of the main points is that debt can be emotional, debt can be embarrassing, and getting serious about it and making a conscious decision to pay it off will make you feel a lot better about yourself. You'll be able to sleep better at night. And for me, it was just getting the peace of mind back.


Q: How do you get your message out to students?

A: To date I've spoken at 42 schools. I read to the younger kids -- I read them "It's a Habit, Sammy Rabbit." ( ) When I get to the older grade levels I give them a portion of the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy quiz and we go over that. [We] talk about budgeting and setting goals, we go over the difference between Roth IRAs and traditional IRAs. I think it's really important to hear from someone younger about struggling and overcoming financial decisions. I think a lot of time it sticks with high school students because they realize I'm not too much older than them. They'll be going through the same things I went through. ...

Q: Did the students surprise you in any way?

A: These kids, even in first grade, think that a TV is a need. I have to explain that it's not. There are a lot of kids out there that don't have TVs. Even a videogame is classified a need by a lot of people; it's not.

Kids love money, they love talking about money. ... I'm surprised we don't have more classes in schools about how to handle money. And it's such an important life skill -- being able to manage your finances -- that I wish it were a graduation requirement.

Q: What's it going to take for adults to improve their financial habits?

A: It's hitting rock bottom for a lot of people. It takes something like losing your car and losing your house before you realize what a mess you're in. It's such a sad situation, especially with people losing their homes with the mortgage crisis. That's where they make their memories, where they raise their families, and having that taken away from them is so emotional.

Q: Did you think about the cost of your evening gown and the message it sends?


A: I knew that might come up in my interviews, so I either have to go and get a lot of sponsors or be very frugal. Sponsors helped cover the cost, Miss Minnesota-Midwest helps too. Altogether it was around $1,800 -- my swimsuit, my talent outfit, my gown and my interview suit. I know that one of the girls spent $3,200 on a gown, so I know that I make wise decisions about my money. I am very frugal and use coupons wherever I go. And I always have my financial goals set.

Kara McGuire writes about personal finance for McClatchy Newspapers. Write to her at .

What To Read Next
Get Local