By day, she’s a consultant who helps schools implement better technology, but after work, Ani Mercedes is a filmmaker, an artist, and a financial blogger aiming to help millennials squash their student loans. She’s also a Miami native, who came back home after living in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Hawaii, always following her diverse passions along the way.
Mercedes is currently working on a short documentary film, “Hand Built Boat,” about a man teaching kids to build wooden boats by hand at The Barnacle, Miami’s oldest house. She’s also writing a blog, Haha Money, that details her own experiences paying down her student loan debt and offers practical information for others struggling with their finances. We spoke with her about how she found her passion projects and how they led her back to Miami.
You’re a technology consultant, a teacher, a filmmaker, and a blogger. How did you end up following these diverse interests?
Well, I am currently working as technology consultant for school districts across the country to help them improve their technology. I was a corps member with Teach For America, so I am very committed to education.
I’m from Miami and I grew up in Miami, but I left for college in 2003. I came back in 2012. While I was away, it was a “try everything you want” adventure, and then 10 years later, I came back. I was mostly in Chicago. I worked on the Obama campaign in 2008. I was a White House intern, and then I moved to Hawaii.
I started a photography business when I was out there. I did some photo assistant work. I did commercials and film work too, and I’ve had my own photography and film business for about four years now. Afterward, I went to grad school in New York and learned that I loved statistics. That led me to an interest in data and technology, and then back to tech and education
In 2012, I came back to Miami and I started volunteering with Indie Film Club. I’m now focusing more on my own personal projects. My next documentary film is about a man who makes boats and then teaches kids how to make boats at the oldest house in Miami.
That was something about film that I have always liked. I have always really been into art, but I was more of a drawer and painter. I minored in fine art in college as well, and I decided to go full-on to work on my art in Hawaii, because I thought if i didn’t, I would regret it. Now, I think I have a really good balance between my passions for art and my career in education.
What kind of films are you making?
I’m pretty much exclusively a documentary filmmaker. My pinnacle work was when I was in Chicago, and I made a film about one of the oldest film documentary archives in the U.S., the Kartemquin Collection. You can tell I like documentary film, right? I made a documentary film about documentary film.
The archive is now 68 years old, and it has examples of really every format in film. People don’t often think about technology and formats and what that takes to make well, because technology is so ephemeral now.
I think the message I got while working with the archive is that if you want to preserve something in your lifetime, print it. We change our phones every six months now. Some people don’t print their photos, but I highly recommend it. So every year, I make a photo album, because I‘m going to look at it with my family with it. I’m not going to look at those on my phone.
Tell me about your work on financial literacy and your blog.
I came out of grad school with $42,000 in student loans, and that’s part of why I came back to Miami. I was living on my mom’s couch for a little while, because I didn’t have a job.
Between the debt and the job search, I started reading a lot about financial literacy. I think often as an immigrant, you come to this country and you may not have the best education about finances. So I took it upon myself to give myself the best financial education that I could, get rid of my student loans, and use it as an opportunity to help other people.
I have a blog, Haha money, and I’m slowly building the premise that you need to be your authentic self to be happy, whether you’re in debt or not. That’s true of my films and my photos, and it’s the same thing with money.
I think that’s also a thread in my story. I didn’t want to be in D.C., so I went to Hawaii. I needed to be my authentic self. And I needed the same with money. I wanted to get rid of that debt, and I wanted to use that debt as an opportunity to help others. That’s the person I want to be.
And the debt is part of my story that it looks like I am going to be done with by April 15. And next, I want to work on a documentary project about my experience and what I learned.
Was it hard to be that honest about your debt? It’s not something most people talk about, much less put out in detail like you have.
For the first year I was doing it, I didn’t share it with anyone. Then I showed it to a friend and they encouraged me to share, and that’s led to so many wonderful things — press, and meeting other bloggers, and connecting with classmates. And the response has been so positive.
Money is always such a hush-hush issue, but it’s OK. It’s OK to be open about it. Debt and financial health is a huge issue for so many people. We need to help each other, and we need to be our authentic selves.
How do you think people your age are dealing with student loan debt?
Most of them either are ignoring it entirely, they’re paying the minimum and are in denial about interest, or they’re paying it fast. I worked to pay mine off fast, but sometimes that’s not the most healthy thing for every person either.
Financial health is exactly like physical health. You have to assess all the variables to take everything into account and diagnose a good next step. You can’t cure it all in one dose, it takes a lot of different approaches and considerations.
For example, you may be worried about your student loan debt, but if you have credit card debt that’s higher interest, you should probably pay that off first.
Money isn’t everything. Your health is important. Your happiness is important. And I think you have to take care of the money to have those important things.