Tim Woodward

Eagle family’s secret ingredient to a successful college fund? Salsa

A cartoon that’s funny because it comes painfully close to the truth depicts an elderly man in a retirement home telling his nurse about a letter he received:

“Good news! I’ve paid off my college loans.”

An exaggeration, obviously, but there’s no denying that college debt has become staggering. With income from the G.I. Bill and two part-time jobs, I was able to graduate with zero debt. Today’s graduates average $37,000 in student-loan debt. A 2014 Citizens Financial Group survey found that many don’t expect to pay off their loans until age 41.

Marti Miller found a way to help her daughters avoid much of that.

And learn some life lessons along the way.

It started before they were even in high school. Jamie was 15. Alaina was 12.

“They complained that they didn’t have money to buy things they wanted,” Miller said. “I told them that if they needed money they could get a job. There weren’t a lot of kids in our neighborhood for them to baby-sit, so I said, ‘Let’s go down to the farmers market and get some ideas and maybe I can help you.’ 

That would be the Eagle Saturday Market, not far from where they lived. It was there that the girls got the idea for their first experiment with entrepreneurship. They would make muffins and sell them at the market. Or, more accurately, their mother would make muffins for them to sell at the market.

“Every Saturday morning I’d get up early and bake muffins,” she said. “We sold muffins and lemonade. It was a lot of work, but we learned how to have a table at the market and the girls learned how to sell. We worked really hard, but we barely broke even.”

Discouraging as the bottom line was, they were back the next year.

Switching gears

“The next season, when I told a friend that we weren’t making much, the friend said my salsa was really good so maybe we should try that,” Miller said. “I made a batch and we sold out the first two hours the market was open. After that we stopped making muffins.”

She made the salsa from a recipe she’d created years earlier. Blown away by some salsa she’d tried in Arizona, she came home, did some experimenting and duplicated it – with a twist or two of her own. It was a hit with everyone who tried it.

Cooking isn’t her occupation – she has a state job – but it’s a big part of Marti Miller’s life. In addition to making salsa, she teaches Vietnamese cooking at a Community Education class. Her mother, Nhu Lofsted, opened Boise’s first Vietnamese restaurant at Franklin and Curtis roads. You could say she has cooking in her genes.

Her salsa sold well enough at the Saturday market that she and her daughters opened savings accounts for the money they earned. She told them they could keep all of the profits – on the condition that they saved half for college.

“They deserved it because they worked really hard. I told them that once they put the money in savings, they couldn’t take it out because they’d lose the interest,” she said. “They used some of it to buy things they wanted, but they ended up saving more than half of it.

“The first year that they had their own money, we went to buy school supplies, and Jamie said, ‘Mom, don’t worry about mine. I’ve got it covered.’ I was so touched by that,” she said. “They weren’t just learning how to make salsa; they were learning how to be responsible with their money.”

Health regulations prohibited the mother-daughter team from making salsa at their home, so they paid to use the kitchen at a cookie shop. Between their first and second seasons in the salsa business, Miller converted her garage to a commercial kitchen. The business run from a garage has been successful enough that Marti’s Salsa now is sold at the Boise Co-op, Stonehenge Produce and three Albertsons stores.

These days, she spends two evenings a week making salsa. Her daughters, both now in college, help when they have time and want to make some more money.

College years

Jamie Miller, 22, is a senior majoring in journalism and public relations at the University of Idaho. She hopes to work in public relations representing nonprofit groups that benefit society. She’s taken out some student loans but says she should have them paid off “in two years, which not a lot of kids from single-parent households can claim.

“… The salsa income and stock market investments (a lot of her salsa money was invested) let us pay for the majority of my housing and tuition.”

Alaina Miller, 19, is a Boise State freshman majoring in (no surprise here) entrepreneurship. She said her salsa money will pay for about half of her college. She still helps with the salsa business when her mother needs help and she can be there, and she has helped run the Eagle Saturday Market for several years.

“I want to start my own business when I graduate,” Alaina said. “The things I’ve learned in the salsa business and running the market will help me do that.”

Both of her daughters, Miller said, are “very savvy with their money. They make good choices.”

“Jamie has worked a couple of jobs up at the university to pay for books, clothes and other things she needs. … Alaina is the same way with money. I ask them if they need something and they say ‘No, Mom. I’m OK.’ I’m really proud of that.”

The salsa business has helped her daughters pay for college, learn to manage their finances and honed their business skills – but some of the most important benefits were personal.

“Salsa is what blessed me with an actual relationship with my mom,” Jamie Miller said. “I have a multitude of memories of my mom and I chopping vegetables for hours while listening to classical jazz. The confinement of the kitchen allowed her and me to bond, and I got to know my mom.”

She said most of her friends, like her, are from divorced, single-income families. Some accepted debt as inevitable, but her mother taught her that “life’s rules are only as enslaving as you want them to be, and there isn’t any situation that is allowed to decide the outcome of your life.”

In addition to getting to know her mother better in the garage kitchen, she learned a thing or two about dreams.

“She told me stories about her childhood to pass the time, or I’d ask her for advice about my life. She and salsa showed me how any dream is attainable,” Jamie said. “The road to reach that dream just has to be constructed out of creativity.”

Tim Woodward’s column appears monthly in The Idaho Statesman and on woodwardblog.com. Know someone with an interesting story for him? Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.