Last fall, Tonia Brinston was named one of the Twin Cities' "Top Women in Finance" by Finance & Commerce newspaper.

She was a rare woman of color among honorees and she doesn't work for a financial services or accounting firm. And she sure doesn't boast a six-figure income.

However, Brinston has had an important impact in our community in recent years.

Brinston, 52, is a veteran financial educator at Lutheran Social Service (LSS), working with vulnerable seniors on issues such as financial security and avoiding scams. She also works with lower-income women to budget, manage money, cut debt and take control of their financial lives.

"I love helping to … reduce the shame and stigma that surrounds personal debt with members of marginalized communities," she said. "I almost feel like I'm obligated to pay it forward. I see people walking in the same shoes and making the same mistakes that I once made."

Brinston recently led the LSS Financial Counseling GetLifted program on the North Side of Minneapolis and the East Side of St. Paul. She worked with neighborhood nonprofits and community groups to expand financial education networks through additional trainers who have helped 2,500 families, thanks to a Wells Fargo grant.

Years ago Brinston was a low-income single mom, overwhelmed by bills and debt. She overspent her income.

Now, she's doing her part to close the opportunity and income gaps that disproportionately plague low-income minority families in the Twin Cities. If you can't manage your money, you can be in trouble, whether you make $20,000 or $200,000.

It's just tougher when you have little to spend but there's credit available at every turn.

In 2005, Brinston was struggling to make rent and care for three children on a $13-an-hour kitchen-manager job. She was sinking financially, thanks to nearly $15,000 in student loans and consumer debt. Her health was deteriorating, partly due to smoking. She also was overweight and flirting with diabetes and high blood pressure.

"There has to be more to life than this," Brinston recalls telling a friend.

Brinston inquired at United Way and was referred to LSS. Her financial counselor, the now-retired John Sulzbach, would become her mentor and, eventually, a colleague. Sulzbach helped her develop a budget plan, retire debt, improve her credit score and build her savings.

She hadn't learned personal finance from her family or in high school.

"There was no going back," Brinston recalled. "I had downsized my apartment. I quit going to the beauty shop and nail shop. I quit smoking. I ate raw vegetables and sunflower seeds. I quit renting movies. I read more. I love to learn."

Within two years, Brinston was debt-free, even though she had signed on for a five-year debt-reduction plan.

Brinston attended training for first-time home buyers. In 2008, she bought a $140,000 renovated rambler in north Minneapolis, with help from an incentive program that matched her savings through LSS and Thrivent Financial.

Moreover, as Brinston's financial fitness improved and life stabilized, her health improved.

"It all ties together," Brinston said. "Financial fitness and health and wellness. I had quit smoking. I lost 30 pounds. I buy in bulk and cook fresh. I make meal portions and freeze the food."

Another case in point: Years ago, Brinston's brother moved into her house after he was released from prison. Stable housing is a huge issue for ex-offenders as they reorient to life outside. Today, he's married, works and owns a home.

"He's in the '800 Club' with me," Brinston said, referring to credit scores. "Excellent credit."

"It started for me with education and making a budget," she added. "I'm happy when I meet people who are doing better who tell me, 'Hey, I'm here because of you, Tonia.' I've had to tell some of those people things like: 'Hey, your kid doesn't need a $300 pair of tennis shoes and designer jeans. You should put that money in a 529 education savings plan.'

"I know the struggle. I've been low at times … with mouths to feed. Not everybody should own a house. But we can keep a good credit score, pay bills, cut unconscious spending and make rent."

These challenges don't just affect low-income communities. Brinston, who also teaches workshops for University of Minnesota staff and elsewhere, has seen middle class and affluent folks who can't control their spending, even as their consumer debt mounts.

After 12 years as a client, volunteer and employee of LSS, Brinston this month is taking a job in north Minneapolis as an employment coach at Twin Cities Rise. The nonprofit works with ex-offenders and others with checkered job histories to empower them through emotional development, financial education and career training and helps them find employment in a career that pays well.

"I'm planting seeds in north Minneapolis," she said.

She also will continue to volunteer with the North Side's Black Women's Wealth Alliance.

Founded by Kenya McKnight Ahad, it has worked with 1,500 black women in north Minneapolis to help build good financial practices, increase members' wealth and develop small business ventures — including some that the Wealth Alliance has invested in.

"We need to economically empower our people," Brinston said.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at