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Women and Money: Getting Savvy, Becoming Powerful
By Barbara Stanny
Growing up, I never thought much about money. Like water for a fish, it was always there. My father, Richard, is the R in H&R Block, the income tax preparation company he started with his brother, Henry. My dad never seemed to have any difficulty with money--making it or managing it. But then again, he never really talked about money, except to complain when my mother spent too much. And my mother never talked about money either. Even though I saw her at her desk in the living room, paying the bills every month, my father was the one who made all the major financial decisions. He was clearly in charge.
"Don't worry" was the only advice my parents ever gave me about money. Under those words, of course, was an unspoken assumption: "There will always be a man to take care of you." And they really believed it. After all, they were a product of their time. Mom had watched her mother make a weekly budget and then ask her husband for what she needed. Dad had seen his father take complete charge of his family's money, including his wife's inheritance. My parents both truly believed that my world would be safe because I had a trust fund and Dad would manage everything until I married, at which time the responsibility, like a family coat of arms, would pass to my husband. That's how they had done it. That's how it was done. And I certainly didn't want it any other way. Money was too big a responsibility, and I felt utterly incapable.
Then one day, long after my husband had taken over managing my money, my carefully constructed world abruptly disintegrated. I went to the bank's ATM to take out some money--not more than $60--and a message on the screen told me I didn't have enough cash in my account to cover the withdrawal. My husband, as I came to find out, had lost a fortune speculating in the stock market. I had actually suspected he was mismanaging our money, but had been too afraid to face the truth. I was stunned again when, after our divorce, I received tax bills for over a million dollars for taxes my husband never paid and bad deals he got us in. When I asked my father if he'd lend me money to pay these bills, he refused. That's when I knew, no one was going to do this for me, Prince Charming wasn't coming, I had to start taking responsibility.
Painfully, I began to accept that it was now up to me to change my situation. Every single loss I had incurred had, in a very real way, been the result of my failure to learn about and takeresponsibility for my finances. This realization didn't come quickly. I spent years blaming my ex-husband, furious with him for the harm he had done. I was enraged at my parents because they hadn't taught me about money or protected me when they should have seen what was happening. Yet, they didn't really do anything to me. I did it to me, through my ignorance, my denial, my failure to take charge. Now I had three daughters depending on me. Did I want to jeopardize their security? What kind of role model was I? Was I the kind of woman I wanted them to be?
It was then, at my lowest ebb, that the tide began to turn, in a way I could never have predicted. Working as a journalist, I was hired for a research project on women and money. Over the next several month, I interviewed scores of women who had gone from being financially stupid to being financially savvy. Each of these women had been ignorant about money in the beginning. Yet each one had become knowledgeable and competent. I was galvanized by the confidence and power that getting smart had given them. These women encouraged me, inspired me, gave me hope and a way to start tackling my own financial problems. Gradually, what was once financial gibberish started making sense. For the first time, I was excited about taking responsibility for my own financial independence. For the first time, I knew what to do.
Since the release of my book, I have had the opportunity to talk to countless otherwise intelligent women who told me how, like myself they were unprepared, ill equipped, or downright afraid to handle their finances. As one woman put it: "If I'm so smart, why am I so dumb about money?"
Indeed, why do so many women feel so dumb about money? The first, and most obvious, reason is that we haven't been taught. Managing money, by and large, was always the man's job. We have no road maps, so to speak. We have no role models. Actually society has taught us about money by not teaching us--what psychologists call "learned helplessness." We've been conditioned not to take responsibility. How many women like myself were told "not to worry" when it came to money.
This leads us to a less obvious, but more insidious reason, for our ineptitude. The truth is, it takes more than mechanics to manage our money. For many of us, taking the financial reins is as much about conquering fear and overcoming resistance as about learning facts and handling assets. Often when a woman attempts to take financial control she is struck by a strong, even if fleeting sense of foreboding--as if she is entering a place she shouldn't be, and somewhere deep in her psyche, an alarm goes off warning Danger! Keep out! As an instinctive act of self-protection, she shuts down, fogs up, or spaces out.
Perhaps there is a danger in learning about our finances. Think about it for a moment. In our world, a financially self-sufficient woman is considered by many to be the ultimate taboo. Our fear is that our self-reliance will endanger our relationships. "If I'm too successful," a woman once told me, "no one will be there to take care of me." This fear of abandonment, which has been transmitted to us by our culture, our families, even our peers, is so embedded in our psyches that women themselves will sabotage their success rather than break the taboo.
Perhaps this is why so many women, afraid to do anything, do nothing at all. Instead, they wait for a "Prince Charming" to take up the slack.
I have come to see that dispelling the myth that 'someday my prince will come' is the first and most important financial decision we can ever make. Prince Charming, by the way, need not be a man. Our "prince" could be an ideal job, the lottery, an insurance settlement; anything that we fantasize will save us financially. To become genuinely smart with money--whether we are single, married, living with a partner--we must get to the point where we can say with total conviction, I can do it myself.
Once we get to this point, once we make the decision to take charge of our finances, to renounce the prince and become personally accountable, something wonderful happens. We discover that Prince Charming, in truth, is nothing more than a projection of our disowned selves. He rose out of the ashes of our perceived incompetence, our lack of self-trust. When we finally do recognize the "prince" inside ourselves, we discover we have access to all those princely qualities we thought we lacked. It is then we can truly become financially independent and economically empowered.
Three steps to financial savvy
So how do we do it? How do we get smart, or smarter about money? I have boiled down everything I learned in my interviews, and everything I have subsequently done into three basic steps. These three steps are deceptively simple, take very little time, and require very little money. Yet they are extraordinarily effective. These three steps reflect perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned from those who are smart, which is this: small steps, consistently taken, produce remarkable results.
1. Every day read something about money. Even if you just have a few minutes, browse through some financial material. Scan the headlines of the business section, flip through an issue of Smart Money magazine, peruse the short articles in Investors Business Daily (call for a two free week subscription), or quickly surf the Internet. My website (www.princequiz.com) is linked to some of the best financial sites in cyberspace. So much of learning about money is familiarizing ourselves with the jargon, understanding the basic concepts, and watching the current trends.
2. Every week, have at least one conversation about money with someone who knows more than you. Ask them two questions: How did you learn? What advice do you have for me. Money, in our society, has been such a taboo subject, especially for women. This has got to change. It is the silence and secrecy that keeps us stuck. We can learn so much from other people, and most people will be more than willing to talk to you. And we can learn so much from each other. Form an investment club or financial support group.
3. Every month automatically transfer a certain amount, whatever you can afford, from your paycheck or checking account to a savings account. Build an emergency fund of 3-6 months living expenses. Pay off your debts. Invest the rest (also automatically every month) in your tax deferred retirement plan first, then in personal portfolio. For those who don't have any extra money at the end of the month, try foregoing one café latte every day, put the $2 in a jar, and at the end of a few months you'll have enough to start investing in mutual funds (which you've learned about from reading and talking to people.) The idea is that we fritter away so much money every day. Instead if we would get in the habit of regularly setting aside small amounts, we could begin creating wealth in a surprisingly short period.
The real payoff
Something happens as we become smart or smarter about money. We change. For most women, financial responsibility constitutes a rite of passage, a transformational experience, a hero's--no a heroine's--journey. In the course of taking charge of her money, a woman takes charge of her life. And as a result, a financially savvy woman becomes a powerful woman. It was this spirit that inspired me in the women I interviewed. These women were heroines in the truest sense of the word. Not just because they had become smart with money by bucking all kinds of emotional blocks, social taboos, and external obstacles. But because of what they did with their money once they got smart. I began to see that managing your money wisely is just the first part of taking responsibility. The other part, equally important, is recognizing one has the power to effect change.
Each woman told me, some with wide-eyed delight, how she came to the realization, "I can make a difference." Each spoke of her desire to contribute to the world, typically through charitable donations, ethical investments, political contributions, businesses they started, or sometimes just by being able to help someone they loved. Once empowered, I learned, women often become empowering, discovering within themselves the wisdom and power to serve others.
When I began my interviews, all I wanted to know was how these women managed their money. I didn't much care how they used it. Only as I grew more financially adept myself did I start to become interested in what they had to say about evoking change. It was then that I began to resonate with their recurring comments like: "I have this urge to give back," or "the fun is in the sharing."
Economic responsibility, I began to observe, is an evolutionary phenomenon. As our financial life stabilizes, there is a natural progression from needing to get a grip on our money to wanting to extend our reach into the world. As a woman stops waiting to be saved she starts wanting to serve. As she figures out how to invest for the highest returns, she starts wondering where she can invest to achieve the most change.
Women are just beginning to recognize that our individual checks, when combined with others, be it an ethical investment or a political contribution, creates widespread social change.
"I always felt the problems of the world were so big, who was I to try to solve any of them?" Linda Pei, founder of the Women's Equity Mutual Fund, told me. "What I didn't realize is what happens when people pull together, how much power we have. I started the mutual fund with the idea that collectively we can make a big difference. It doesn't matter how much money we have individually. Collectively we have power."
More and more, women are joining together, wielding their clout. Let us not underestimate the significance of this occurrence. I believe a quiet but profound revolution is underway, a revolution quiet enough to go almost unnoticed, but profound enough to have extraordinary impact. As more women learn to use their money consciously and responsibly, they are virtually reshaping the world--socially, economically, and politically.
Hopefully, in the same way that I was moved by the women I've interviewed, you'll be inspired by the information you see on this website. Transforming our self-doubt to self-reliance, our vulnerability to determination, and our ignorance to understanding is, after all, what it is all about. Any woman can become financially astute and economically powerful. And if you are one who still doubts this in your heart of hearts, perhaps this website will help you hold on to the thought: maybe, just maybe, I can too.
Barbara Stanny is the author of Prince Charming Isn't Coming: How Women Get Smart About Money (New York: Viking, 1997) and is available in our Bookstore.