A financial influencer who’d rather be identified as an entrepreneur, Aja Dang and her self-built triumph MSTRPLN (Master Plan) are your life saviors from falling down the loan spiral. MSTRPLN is an unintentionally made planner from Aja’s debt-free journey, where she built layouts on her passion planner and developed it into a weekly, daily breakdown that most budget planners don’t do. It immediately got sold out after the launch in January of 2021 and continues to sell out, with more versions coming out this year.
But Aja did not picture herself in this position just a few years ago, and definitely not when she was in college. Her first and only internship at Comcast SportsNet bay area led to her Master’s in Broadcast Journalism from USC, where she developed her interest in sports journalism. She submitted her pictures to a competition called “Maxim Magazine Hometown Hotties” just to pitch her story, and ended up working for Maxim magazine with her own sports show.
Interviewing sports stars like Shaq O’Neal and Danica Patrick, Aja experienced one of her best working lives, until she yearned for more freedom and creativity that motivated her to start her YouTube channel, which portrays her debt-free journey as well. There, she shared her intimate difficulties and financial plans that were not a trend to share back in the day. But her brutal honesty created a community where people with similar worries could share advice and help each other out. This symbiotic community still goes on, as Aja expands it to other social media platforms where her followers give her advice on production and opinions that enhance MSTRPLN.
In a 30-minute interview, Aja gleefully and descriptively reveals the arduous path she walked on her own, and offers experience-based tips to those who need guidance just like she did.
How She Pioneered Personal Finances Despite Its Lack of Education
I took a personal finance class in high school, but it wasn’t taught. It wasn’t taught in a way that people cared about nor understood. And in college, no one talked about student loans, no talked about how damaging that could be after graduation. The time has changed now because our generation is so vocal about it. But in 2005, when I went to undergrad, it was just “Take out student loan debt. You’ll pay it off. It’ll be fine.”
You need to find why it’s so important for you to get out of debt. For me, before I found my why, I was okay submitting to the fact that I would always struggle with money, always be paycheck to paycheck, and never get ahead or have a retirement or relax. I submitted myself to always feeling anxious about money, because I didn’t see a way out. But my why came about when my youngest dog Luke had to go
into emergency surgery. We were at the ER, waiting to be seen for eight hours. During those eight hours, I saw family after family having to either take out debt at the vet’s office or euthanize their dog because they couldn’t afford the care. I ended up not being able to afford the care, but fortunately, my fiancé was able to pay for it. I said to myself, “This needs to change. I cannot continue to put my family’s life at stake because I don’t have my financial life together. Are you going to sink or are you going to swim?”
That’s when I kind of dove into how to get out of debt. I didn’t care about how to make more money. I didn’t care about saving off retirement. My main focus was getting out of debt. While there were many people who had various opinions about ways to go about it, I kind of zeroed in on a technique that made sense to me and pushed through it. A lot of people in the financial space think they know what’s best for everyone and I, from experience, know that that’s not true. When I share opinions or advice, I always make sure to say, “This is what I did because this is what works for me and why it works for me. But here are other options for you.”
How Being Brutally Honest Pivoted Her YouTube Journey
The one thing about me is that I’m not easily embarrassed. I genuinely don’t care about what most people think about me. That helps me push through any negative talk. The only thing that I hate, or the biggest insult anyone can tell me, is that I’m not genuine. I was never “Let me be a financial expert” in my YouTube journey. That was never a dream of mine.
When I first started YouTube, fashion bloggers were really popular. I tried that but I’m normally in sweatpants all the time and I hate spending money on clothes, so that’s not me. And then I tried the makeup thing, but I don’t wear makeup so that’s not me. I was pivoting to find my thing, and my thing ended up being just unapologetically honest about my debt. At that time, I think I was probably the first person to openly talk about their personal experience with debt. It’s funny considering now it’s a very popular thing, and I only did that maybe three or four years ago. It’s a cool thing that people are being more open and honest about how much money they make, how much debt they have, and how they’re trying to get out of that situation.
But in terms of my family, I think all of us know money was never talked about. It was never a taboo thing, but we just don’t talk about it, except my parents being like, “Are you surviving? Good. Can you afford to eat?” That was it. They didn’t teach me nor do I think they knew either. They wouldn’t have been able to teach me how to budget, how to stay out of debt, and how to pay off debt. Those were things that I don’t think anyone in my immediate world knew how to help me with, even if they wanted to. At that point, you just gotta figure it out on your own and see.
Dealing With and Overcoming Work Stress
Balancing MSTRPLN and personal life is difficult. Last year was hard because you’re always on when launching a new business. There’s always something that needs your attention. When that happens, what has to take a back seat is everything else. So, at first, I tried to do “Monday for this, Tuesday for this, Wednesday for this…” but that was too much of a structure for me. Fortunately, now I’m in a place where I don’t have to do everything in MSTRPLN anymore.
I’ve hired someone, a graphic designer, to help me with the design of the planners after I sketch them out originally. That takes a huge weight off of my shoulders. Also working with the 3PL (third-party logistics) to ship out the planners has been the best thing I could’ve done; up until December, I was shipping them all out by myself, out of this apartment; our guest bathroom was full of products and packaging; you can’t escape it. Shipping my own stuff was not good for my mental health.
Advice for entrepreneurs
Think about what you like to do and spend time doing. And if you’re in a place to hire out—like part-time—to do stuff that you don’t like or can’t do, you need to do that. I still haven’t given myself a paycheck for MSTRPLN. Everything goes back into the company. It goes back into the product or hiring more people to do things I don’t want to do. And that has been helpful. For the launch, even though it was literally just me, I knew I couldn’t take my own product photos. I knew for a fact that they would be terrible. So I hired one of my photographer friends to do that. And because MSTRPLN is mentally exhausting, I was able to hire someone who helps me with social posts on it.
Building the layouts for MSTRPLN on the computer is confusing to me. I can write it out, no problem, but it would take me forever to build it in a program. So I was able to hire someone to do that for me, too. I can now concentrate on building more planners. I can concentrate on getting the word out and doing things on social media. And everyone else can do the things that I don’t want to do or I’m not good at doing. So my advice is to figure out what you’re good at and what you want to concentrate on. Definitely put aside money for things that you can get other people to do.
MSTRPLN has a couple of launches coming up just this year. We are sold out of our 2022 dated planners, but we still have our undated planners and the digital offerings as well. But we are launching our academic planners for 2022, which has gone through a total reboot. The layouts are mostly the same, but now we’ve made it vertical versus horizontal based on customer feedback.
We also have our very first notion template launching, a notion wedding planner, which I built through the process of planning my wedding. We’re also working through our first daily planner and on our 2023 launch for our weekly planner coming up, too.
How to reach out
You can reach me personally or small business-wise on all my socials @ajadang and @mstrpln.co. We go through all of our messages on MSTRPLN just to read what you have to say. They’re very open and honest about how they feel about the product that we offer, and we’re proud that they feel comfortable telling us these things. We’re very reachable on social platforms, and if you want to check out our planners, you can check us out at MSTRPLN.co, not .com.