Gail Vaz-Oxlade: Telling It Like It Is

By Sandra Fletcher

Living in a modest home in small town Ontario is Gail Vaz-Oxlade, a Canadian immigrant making a worldwide impact. With 6 seasons of the television show “Til Debt Do Us Part” – broadcast on Slice in Canada and running on CNBC in the US and various networks worldwide including the UK and Australia; a dozen plus books including the best selling “Debt Free Forever”; and her new television show “Princess”, which has been picked up by Slice for a multi-season run; Vaz-Oxlade has worked her financial magic well into the consciousness of Canadians and people around the globe.

From the second I began speaking to Ms. Vaz-Oxlade I was immediately taken with her warm laugh, forthright manner and genuine passion for what we were speaking about. Her accent is hard to place and many have asked if she is from Ireland with her delicate way of pronouncing things. But asked about her homeland, Jamaica, Vaz-Oxlade easily slips into an unmistakable Jamaican patois (slang). The day we spoke she had made oxtail. You can take the girl out of Jamaica but you can never take Jamaica out of the girl.

Gail Vaz-Oxlade and her family left Jamaica for a safer new life in Canada. In Jamaica, she had lived a life of privilege, but that soon disappeared in January 1977 when she and her family arrived in frosty Canada winter for a fresh start. They had family in Canada.

“Canada's approach to multiculturalism is so welcoming,” says Vaz-Oxlade. Her family arrived here and didn't have the access to services that now exist for newcomers. She has friends that have recently immigrated – they, like most newcomers – didn't know about all the programs offered to assist with settlement into Canada. According to Vaz-Oxlade, most newcomers move in with family and stay within the culture, language and religious communities where they can be welcomed and helped. This approach allows for a gentle change to a brand new culture.

For Vaz-Oxlade's family, the change was much more drastic. They moved to Toronto which, in comparison to Jamaica, is huge. They went from a large house with servants to a modest apartment. They switched from driving to transit and walking. It was easy to get lost in the big city, both literally and figuratively. The number of people, the pace of the city and the sheer size of Toronto were big changes to adapt to.

One of the things that she noticed in 1970's Toronto was the cultural divide between black and white. Vaz-Oxlade, by her own admission, is the “whitest black girl”. In her home country the culture has a different affect on how people of different colours are treated. Different treatment of people because of their colour exists everywhere, as does racism, but it was a subtle difference to a teenage newcomer.

Vaz-Oxlade began her career as an Administrative Assistant. From there she moved to Marketing, and then to freelance writing on money and finance for over 20 magazines each month. Her “no nonsense” approach to money and finances is unmistakable. Her sensible, “in your face” advice and “tell it like it is” manner made her famous.

Vaz-Oxlade has been known to say (it's in the intro to her show “Til Debt Do Us Part”) that money and finances aren't rocket science. To put it in other words, no one needs a university degree to make a plan, set a budget and be accountable to sticking to it.

On the show, Vaz-Oxlade meets with couples in financial difficulties. Each couple has their own set of troubles but can earn up to $5,000 to help pay off their debts by taking part in challenges that Vaz-Oxlade sets for them. These tasks teach them how to learn to live within their means, set aside emergency funds and retirement funds and pay off their debts.

Vaz-Oxlade's budget sheets are no secret. She is very generous with her advice and many things are free for you to learn from. In fact, the budget template is available for free on her website along with many other helpful sample guides and worksheets (www.gailvazoxlade.com). The budgeting process is simple, but in basic terms there is a difference between the things that families want and the things that they need. The budget worksheet shows you the difference in black and white.

Vaz-Oxlade's new show, “Princess”, is a classic lesson in responsibility. Young people have to be taught about money – they don't just know how to spend responsibly unless they are taught by their parents. Often we overindulge our children in an attempt to give them a good life. The “princess” on the show (male or female) has unhealthy spending habits and lives beyond their means. Vaz-Oxlade has an ability to help people understand the reasons why they spend, and work toward changing their ways (and a possible $5,000 reward!)

In our discussion about newcomers and money, Vaz-Oxlade discussed the difference that often exists between newcomers and their children when it comes to money. Those who have saved to immigrate to a new country realize that cash is what makes the world go around. Having cash can get you the things you need, and keeping cash on hand and saving for the future is important.

The next generation has a different approach to money. Children see commercials on TV for things they want, they watch “Keeping up with the Kardashians” and “The Real Housewives” and believe that living with way too much stuff is normal. When their parents are driving 10 year old cars and socking away their money, their children want iPads and Blackberrys and SUVs. The “why can't we” produces a culture clash. Newcomer frugality versus next generation consumerism.

One of the things that Vaz-Oxlade believes newcomers understand is the pleasure of anticipation. People who immigrate have saved and waited and anticipated the move to a new country. The anticipation can be the greatest part of any process.

Ours is a society based strongly on immediate gratification. We want what we want when we want it and we get it now. This is a very different type of pleasure. This is often another type of culture clash between newcomers and their children.

Vaz-Oxlade has recently been focusing on credit, given the state of world and personal debt crises. Her newest campaign, “School Lenders”, is trying to influence financial institutions toward not solely using credit scores to determine worthiness for credit. She encourages people to write to their MPs asking them to be involved in having the rules changed. (You can also find a link to the MP letter on her website.) While people need to be personally responsible for using their credit, credit card companies also need to be responsible.

Banks are enticing newcomers to apply for credit all the time: in magazines, through the mail, at trade shows and information fairs and malls. It's important when you apply for and receive credit that you understand how to use credit wisely. Know that you are responsible for paying interest on any balance you have. Paying only your minimum payments will cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars in interest over time. Know your debt and be responsible to yourself.

It's Vaz-Oxlade's ingenuity combined with an infectious laugh and a warm and honest approach that endears her to those she helps on her reality TV programs. It’s her no-nonsense, easy to understand instructions that have saved thousands of people money around the world and helped with their financial future. And it's her strong, successful, humble attitude that makes this lady a great Canadian and a proud immigrant!

Teaching your kids about $$ MONEY $$
1. Don't be afraid of money or keep it a secret from your kids. Kids of all ages understand much more than we give them credit for.
2. As parents, explain money to your kids – knowing how much things costs helps kids to understand value.
3. Have conversations with your kids using the teachable moments. Show them how to be proud of getting good value for money, how to stretch a dollar and how to save for a rainy day.

It's never too late to invest in Vaz-Oxlade's books: The Money Tree Myth: A Parent's Guide to Helping Kids Unravel the Mysteries of Money or her brand new book Money Smart Kids to give your kids, whatever age, a good financial start.