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Minka Kelly
Credit: Monica Ahanonu

There’s no doubt that landing the role of perky cheerleader Lyla Garrity on Friday Night Lights was life-changing for Minka Kelly. But the 38-year-old actress says that her run on the beloved football drama wasn’t the best gig she’s ever worked. Her favorite job wasn't even in Hollywood—it was in a hospital.

“Before Friday Night Lights, I had so many different jobs—I worked at a check-cashing company, like Check 'n Go, and at a doctor’s office in Beverly Hills,” Kelly told InStyle when we caught up with her at the Dove Chocolate Cocoa Farmers Market in Santa Monica earlier this month. “And then for four years, up until I started on FNL, I was a scrub nurse at California Hospital. And honestly, that was the most exciting job I’ve ever had! I was good at it too.”

But as fondly as she looks back on her hours logged in the nurse’s station, Dillon, Texas came a-calling. And with it, so did a steady paycheck and financial independence. “I could finally afford to have an apartment with a washer and dryer in it,” she says.

While Kelly still keeps in touch with some of her FNL castmates (“Zach Gilford, who played Matt Saracen, and I have stayed the closest over the years”), she has since moved onto other pursuits, like her turn in the DC Universe’s new superhero show Titans (out this fall) and philanthropic work.

Money Talks - Minka Kelly
Credit: Courtesy Dove Chocolate

Most recently, Kelly traveled to Ecuador with Dove Chocolate and Care, a humanitarian organization fighting global poverty, to learn about how the company makes its chocolate by employing female cocoa farmers in West Africa. The experience was one she won’t soon forget. “It’s exciting because they're not just employing female farmers, they're empowering them to be in positions of power themselves,” she says. “Care works with the women farmers to help them learn to manage their money so that they save enough to start their own business.”

Finding ways to give back has become high on the actress’s priority list over the last few years. “I think it started when I lost my mom,” she says. “It's my way of filling that little hole in my heart by honoring her and empowering women that might need a little more help along the way.”

Below, Kelly gets candid about career, finances, and paying it forward, including the first thing she bought with her Friday Night Lights paycheck and her ultimate guilty pleasure purchase.

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On learning how to manage her finances… To be honest, I was self-taught when it comes to managing my money. I kind of learned what not to do when I was growing up. And then for a while, I was in a bit of debt because I was living off of credit cards. I finally got responsible about money when I got my own business manager who helped me pull in the reins. I’m still learning, but I’m much better now.

On what she bought with her first Friday Night Lights paycheck… I got my dad a huge flat screen TV for Christmas. He had no idea it was coming and then he called me and said, “Do you know anything about this?" And I was like "Surprise!"

On her guilty pleasures… Fast food. I'm definitely guilty about that! I had a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin for breakfast this morning.

On paying it forward… If I can use my voice to bring awareness to the amazing work that organizations are doing, it's the least I can do. I used my birthday this year as an opportunity to raise over $10,000 for RAICES, an organization that is doing amazing work uniting families that were torn apart at the border. It's such a good feeling to know that you're doing something as opposed to just screaming into the ether.

On her favorite ways to splurge… I like to spurge on travel or nice dinners with my girlfriends. Oh—and on facials. It’s a part of my job!

On learning how to negotiate her salary… The first thing that comes to mind when I think about negotiating is Ellen Pompeo. She really spelled out how to do it for a lot of us. She’s the master! I’m still learning and she opened my eyes to a lot of new things.