America Ferrera is a true multi-hyphenate. Whether she's speaking at the Democratic National Convention, fighting discrimination with Time's Up, or delighting on screens, the actress is a role model to many. The one thing you won't catch her doing? Shopping. "My focus shifts really quickly, and I get tired, and then I get hungry, and I just want to go to the food court and eat!" she told InStyle on a recent morning in Manhattan, where she came together with Girls Scouts and The North Face for their Move Mountains initiative to empower future generations of women. Speaking of future generations, Ferrera has put a lot of thought into how to raise a baby who will grow up significantly more well-off than she—the youngest of six in a single-parent home—did. But more on that below. For our new column Money Talks, Ferrera gets real about her first big paycheck (Disney!), the politics of the gender pay gap, and why she really, really loathes shopping.
On her upbringing... I was raised by a single mother who was raising six kids on her own single salary, so money was always really, really tight, hard to come by, and gone really quickly. Saving and investing and the basics of handling money were not really a luxury, because we were trying to make ends meet. That was a steep learning curve for me in my adulthood and learning how to manage my own money.
On the importance of mentors... No one in my family had been in the entertainment industry or could help me navigate a path, so I was just making it up as I went. Once I started to work, I was fortunate enough to work with Lupe Ontiveros, a wonderful actress who played my mother in Real Women Have Curves. Watching her work was such an education. She was so generous with me and gave me so much advice and wisdom about how to keep perspective and keep a level head throughout the industry—she had done it for so long and had fought so hard for the opportunities that came her way. I knew from the get-go I was so lucky to spend time with her and get her wisdom about what a career as a Latina actress had taught her and given her.
On her first big paycheck... My first job was a Disney Channel movie called Gotta Kick It Up! and I could not believe how much money I was getting paid to do the thing that I had always wanted to do. I couldn’t believe they were paying me at all—I would’ve paid to get to dance and be in a movie!
On her first investment... With my first paycheck, I went and bought a car. It was a 2000 Mitsubishi Mirage. It was used, and I think it cost me $12,000. The hardest thing about growing up in L.A. was getting a ride anywhere. I used to have to ride, like, three buses to get to an audition. This was pre-Uber, not that I would’ve been able to afford Uber if it had been around. I had to ride the bus, I had to walk, I had to ride my bike, I had to beg my siblings for a ride. Getting your own car in L.A. is a huge right of passage.
On spending... I love theater, I love good meals, I love travel, I love adventure, I love experiences. Experiences are probably what I splurge on the most, then practical things like my home.
On saving... I’m not a shopper, which I’m grateful for. I hate it, mainly because it takes so much time.
On the gender pay gap... Coming from so little, I had no idea what my own value was, and I think that in a lot of industries—particularly the entertainment industry—your value can feel a little bit subjective. A lot of very successful actresses learn to see their own value based on what the people around them tell them their value is: your agents, your lawyers, your managers. Asking for what you think you’re valued at can be uncomfortable in any setting and, I think, has an added subjectivity in the entertainment industry. But when you look at the landscape as a whole and you see the highest-paid actor making tens of millions of dollars more than the highest-paid actress, who’s bringing just as much in at the box office, you can’t help but realize this is a real issue. Objectively, we value women less, and it’s not because they’re bringing less to the table. The conversation is tricky because most people’s knee-jerk reaction is “actors get overpaid anyway—who are you to complain?” The way I see it is, if women in the entertainment industry, with all their power and celebrity and influence, can’t fight for what they’re worth, then who can?
On negotiating... My agents and my lawyers and my manager help negotiate, but I’m certainly a part of the conversation. It is largely about what makes something worth it to me, whether or not I feel like my value is being appreciated, and whether or not I’m getting the things that really matter to me or are important to me. A lot of times, it’s about agency. What is going to empower me in the job? It’s not just about what it looks like on the page, but it’s about how resourced am I to do my job to the best of my ability. I have friends who are single mothers who have to make different calculations about their careers than other people do because of their circumstances. It isn’t always about what I want to do or what’s good for my career. It’s about what you can invest in and get valued equally in return so you can move ahead and move forward.
On raising a well-off child... It definitely crosses my mind that my child will have very different kinds of resources than I did or my husband did. We're asking ourselves how to instill in our child the appreciation and the work ethic and the real value of what it means to earn your keep. But it’s hard to know until you’re in it!