Photo: Brian Bowen Smith

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My first thought as I read Angela Steele's request for financial advice was, "Are you kidding me?" At the age of 27, she has paid off her college loans, saved $12,000 for emergencies, started a retirement fund, earned a sparkling 770 FICO credit score, and—despite earning a modest $30,000 salary—has not a single penny of credit card debt. Make over what? She deserves a gold medal in money management.

Yet when we connected for a phone chat, Angela seemed genuinely distressed. She described herself as at a "financial crossroads," unsure how to reach two important goals: help her nephew pay for college and cover her mother's medical expenses as she ages. "When I look at my goals I don't see myself getting there at the pace I'm going now," she told me. "I need to make some choices and take some risks."

Angela was mulling a job change or new investments to shake things up in her financial life. I presented her with an entirely different challenge.

Angela was raised by a single mother in Phillipsburg, New Jersey. She's obviously smart (she earned an anthropology degree from Stanford University) and also strong and resilient—let's just say meek doesn't earn you the MVP title on your college rugby team. After graduation Angela spent 14 months in China studying hip-hop culture on a prestigious Fulbright scholarship. That is an impressive list of accomplishments! I pointed out to Angela that at her age I was still a waitress earning less than $100 a week.

When Angela told me her number one goal is "to show my family that we can break the cycle of poverty and become truly financially independent," I wanted to send a hug over the phone line. I love that this young woman is thinking about the future. That she's so focused on caring for her loved ones shows she has a big heart. But after we talked some more, I began to worry that the people she's trying to save don't actually need saving. For instance, it turns out the college-bound nephew she wants to help is only 4 years old—and both of his parents are working full-time. As for Mom, well, she's a lively 50 and doesn't have any medical issues that should spark Angela's concern.

While focusing so much on family, Angela has lost sight of her own priorities. "I think you are the obstacle to your own financial freedom," I told her. "You are missing the point that you really matter. You can't save for your mother's medical needs before saving for yourself. You can't fund a nephew's education until you are on your own path to security."

My most important advice to Angela had nothing to do with money: Right now she is stuck in savior mode, and we need her to recognize that the way forward is to take care of herself first.