How Plant Stylist Hilton Carter Went From Never Talking About Money to Taking Control of His Financial Life

For Hilton Carter, becoming a plant stylist wasn’t necessarily a planned career path, but when the opportunity presented itself, he decided to pursue it.  

The Baltimore native started working with plants about four years ago while exploring becoming an interior stylist. “I always liked bringing plants into my own space, so I just started helping other people bring plants into their spaces,” he says. “When I first started calling myself a plant stylist, I don’t think anyone else was calling themselves that at the time. But I think right now, especially as people are staying home more, it’s become more of a trend.”  

His side gig eventually became his full-time passion as he left his day job in an ad agency to expand his plant-styling business, including writing books, making media appearances and sharing his plant expertise in classes and through social media.  

Along with a budding entrepreneurial career, his recent marriage and discussion of goals like having kids and homebuying also led Carter to another surprise move — working with a Northwestern Mutual financial advisor. The reason why that felt unexpected was because finances had always been a taboo topic in his life. “My wife had a bit more financial literacy than I had growing up, but my family just never felt comfortable discussing money. I didn’t grow up with that knowledge,” Carter says. “I just needed to know what was important and have someone talk to me and my wife about all the things we had coming up in our lives.” 

Below, Carter describes how he started his journey with financial planning, and the misconceptions he hopes others can overcome to begin their own.  

How did you come to the decision to quit your day job and become a plant stylist full time? 

The full-time corporate job I had was also my passion, but I made the decision to quit that job because I wanted to explore this opportunity, where I have the ability to do what I want to do creatively. I realized I was only giving half to both sides, so I decided to go in the direction of working for myself. I held onto my job for another year until my wife, who is a dentist with her own practice, got settled in her career. Then she gave me the green light to do it.  

Is that when you started working with your Northwestern Mutual financial advisor? 

I believe we had already started working with him because the original reason we took the leap to talk to a financial advisor was because we started talking about buying a house, which we’ve since bought, so a friend gave us a referral. But I think the main motivation was really the fact that I had always had issues when it came to finances. I don’t want to speak as if we all have the same experience, but for me as a Black individual, in my family we never discussed money. We weren’t comfortable with it, but also we just didn’t have any money, so there was never a discussion of saving money. I never had the tools or the knowledge or was sat down and told, hey, these are the things you should be thinking about financially.  

So what was your relationship with money like earlier in your life? 

Even when I was going to college, there wasn’t any discussion of how much college is going to cost, and how you’re going to have this debt when you get out. I just thought, “Hey I’m going to have a creative job that’s going to pay for my loan.” So I took out as many loans as possible to gain the knowledge I needed for my craft.  

When I got out of school, I was just chasing job after job to not only pay for the lifestyle that I had, but also to clear myself from this debt. Whenever I got a paycheck I dumped it into my student loans so I could get that off my shoulders. It was a dark cloud over me for a long time. Honestly, I probably didn’t start a savings account until maybe five years ago. I didn’t have the right tools to understand how to save money, and I went through that year after year. So, I needed someone to break down for me and my wife what was important to focus on. 

What surprised you most about starting the financial planning process? 

The biggest, eye-opening thing was the transparency. Obviously, when you’re in a relationship you try to be as transparent as you can. Before we got married my wife knew what I made a year, she knew how much I had in the bank, those kinds of details. But we were never in a situation where we just put all of that on the table at once and talked about it.  

It was eye-opening to understand that we had to learn how to navigate toward our goals for the future, like when we wanted to retire and all the things we need to do to get ourselves there; what we wanted our kids’ futures to be like; or even if we saw ourselves taking a vacation each year. We just never sat down and tried to map it out before — having someone help us do that was very enlightening. I always thought working with a financial advisor meant someone saying, “Hey, you shouldn’t spend your money on those things.” Instead, it was more like, “Let’s look far beyond your student loan debt, far beyond next year, to the next five years. Let’s take this to where your kids are adults and they have kids.” That, to me, was like — oh wow, this is really important.  

What misconceptions about planning would you suggest people let go of? 

I always thought, “When I have enough money, then it’ll be great to have someone help me with it.” Because I thought you had to have money to talk about saving money, right? Whenever I heard someone bring up financial planning, I remember thinking, I want that kind of guidance. I would do research on my own, but having someone actually talk you through it all was a big relief. Having someone tell me that my student loan debt wasn’t that bad — I was like, are we both looking at the same thing here? And then we talked about what the interest rate was and what I was projected to make, etc., and it made me feel better because I was very stressed out about it before.  

Even when I went to meet my financial advisor for the first time, I still didn’t think I had enough money. But I realize now that you can’t allow yourself to believe that it’s only for high-income individuals. My attitude used to be that it’s all about right now, because where I grew up, tomorrow wasn’t promised. But the older I got, I was like, man, I’ve got to start planning for the future. As much as right now is important, you’ve got to plan for the future, too. You’ve got to start thinking about the bigger picture.  

Hilton Carter is a paid spokesperson for Northwestern Mutual.  

The testimonials presented may not be representative of the experience of other clients and are not a guarantee of future performance or success. 


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