'Orange is the New Black' star Danielle Brooks on her biggest money mistake: 'I should have fought more'

Danielle Brooks attends the "Orange Is The New Black" Final Season World Premiere on July 25, 2019 in New York City.
Dimitrios Kambouris

Holding her almost four-month-old daughter, Freeya, in her lap, actress Danielle Brooks recounts some of the biggest lessons she's learned about money over the years. 

Brooks rose to stardom playing fan favorite Taystee on the Netflix hit series "Orange is the New Black," often shortened to "OITNB." Since, she's had roles in "Master of None" and was nominated for a Tony award for her portrayal of Sofia in "The Color Purple." It's an envy-worthy career, though Brooks does have one regret, she says: Not advocating for herself and owning her worth in the final seasons of "OITNB." 

"When you come to find out the 'Stranger Things' kids are making more than you are in your final season, that's heartbreaking," Brooks tells CNBC Make It. The lead child actors on the Netflix show "Stranger Things" earned upwards of $200,000 per episode for their third season, Deadline reported. "A part of me feels like it's a little bit my fault because I should have fought more, I should have put my foot down."

She believes in herself more now, and is comfortable walking away from situations where she doesn't feel valued, which she acknowledges is a privilege. "As a woman, I wish I would have stood by what numbers I wanted from jobs, and not fluctuated." 

The road to Netflix

Brooks is confident in her finances these days and readily offers up tips on everything from buying New York City real estate to budgeting every last dollar. She's also a spokesperson for Intuit Turbo's Real Money Talk campaign. Some of that knowledge she credits to her upbringing; the rest she learned over the past few years as her career, and paychecks, took off.

Brooks grew up, as she describes it, in a middle class family in South Carolina before moving to New York to attend Julliard. She recalls sitting on the floor of her apartment after graduation, crying over her student loans and asking her mom what she was going to do. It would take her a year to land "OITNB." In the interim, she took on "a lot of odd jobs, hustling here and there to make it work," earning $25 at a hair styling gig one day and $20 an hour to babysit the next. 

Even when she eventually landed "Orange is the New Black," financial stability didn't come overnight. She wasn't a series regular the first season, earning a day rate despite her extensive screen time. Living in New York is hard enough for any fresh-faced college grad; add an irregular paycheck and student loan debt, and it can seem even more overwhelming. 

To combat her financial anxiety, Brooks relied on a budgeting technique her mother taught her when she was growing up, called the 80-10-10 system: 10% of income goes to church, 10% goes to savings and 80% goes to bills and other necessities. She coupled that with the envelope method of budgeting, separating all the money she'd need for various expenses into different envelopes: $600 for rent, $100 a week for food, and so on, so she always knew exactly where her money was going.

Those systems kept her head above water when times were lean, as did the faith she had in herself that, eventually, she'd earn enough to knock out her student debt completely.

"It wasn't until the end of season two, I had saved up my money to pay off that loan," she says. "I remember the excitement that I felt to call my business manager at the time...I was like, oh now I can move on to my next goal."

Learning to advocate for herself

The next financial goal for Brooks was to earn enough to live in a one-bedroom apartment in a doorman building, which she was able to afford after a few seasons on "OITNB." Last year, she leveled up again, buying her first home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Brooks is a big proponent of improving your finances step by step: First, focus on paying off debt, then on affording a nice apartment, then on saving for a dream home. She calls them her "baby steps."

Her financial situation has shifted dramatically over the past few years, and more changes are coming for Brooks. She got engaged at the end of 2019, and she says she and her fiance are in the midst of an ongoing conversation about their finances. She's also working through how to set a good example, financially, for Freeya. 

What it comes down to, ultimately, is something her parents instilled in her from a young age: Not to count money before she has it. Especially as a celebrity, it can be tempting to buy into a lifestyle she can't really afford, she says. Instead, she's focusing on building a home, saving and investing for her next goal. 

"I don't try to keep up with the Jonses," she says. "I try to keep up with the Brookses." 

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