On Women, Money, And Learning To Say ‘No’

Why aren’t most women prioritizing their own financial security?

I have a confession to make: I am downright scared.

It’s another day, which means there is another story about a woman who has to start over financially. And because it’s another day, it means that, not only are innumerable women in the devastating position of having to start over financially, but many more are not even thinking about financial literacy, let alone practicing it.

We’ve seen the headlines: “Shocking Statistics on Women and Retirement,” just to name one. We’ve seen (or perhaps even avoided) studies which argue that, in the chaos of daily life, women are not prioritizing their own financial security, whether currently or in the long-term.

And this scares the hell out of me.

A recent survey conducted by Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to financial planning, explains that:

“Today’s women are better educated and enjoy career opportunities that our grandmothers’ generation could only dream about. However, even today, a woman’s path to a financially secure retirement is filled with roadblocks and detours, such as lower pay and time out of the workforce for parenting or caregiving, which can negatively impact her own long-term retirement preparedness.”

As such, Transamerica finds that many women are not confident about retirement, nor do they have a backup plan or strategy should even the most meticulously laid plans go awry.

It was only recently that it occurred to me, a woman in her 30s and nowhere near retirement, that I did not have a single woman in my personal life who served as a sound financial role model.

This is evident in my upbringing. As a child, language of a 401(k) or an IRA was not a regular part of household discussions. I came from a family that believed in the almighty pension plan, a lone vehicle which we all now know is simply not going to cut it the way it did for my grandparents and their parents. My mom did not question anything. My parents did not talk about money around my sister and me, with the exception of the occasional “do not use credit cards” lecture.

In fact, I was not put on a reliable path toward financial literacy at all, as a child of working-class parents. In my 20s, I “saved” a substantial amount of money, but had no idea that I was losing the very money I was saving due to inflation.

In my naïve view, saving money equated with financial literacy.

As such, the importance of investing completely eluded me. Investing was not a consideration, particularly after the Depression-era stories the senior members of my family used to share; the family members old enough to remember taking all of their money out of the banks and hiding it in mattresses. My parents grew up with these stories. These stories were then delivered to me as a child like a second-hand pair of pants: old, worn, but something I absolutely needed.

I made a decision recently. I decided that it is time to become my own financial role model; that it is time to build my own vocabulary of terms and concepts that are necessary to building financial security. And I have discovered, very much the hard way, that the word “no” is as important to this vocabulary as the words “compounding,” “interest,” “saving,” and “investing.”

I share the following anecdotes and strategies with young women in mind. I am by no means a financial expert—but you bet I am an expert in what it is to sacrifice my own financial well-being for completely indefensible reasons. I am an expert in watching the people I love struggle due to ill-advised decision-making and lack of planning. I do not need an MBA, a CFA, or any other kind of credential to know this to be true. I simply need to a) listen when others speak, and b) log into my various savings and investing accounts to be reminded that my own outcomes would look really different right now had I had an inkling of foresight when I needed it most (e.g., my entire 20s).

Because I wish I would have been given some “tough love” about finances years ago, here are a few ideas that I have had to internalize as I move toward a future of financial security:

Learning to say “no”

  • No one will care about your financial security and well-being as much as you do. Not your parents, not your spouse, not your children, not your best friend, not even your financial planner. My accountant reminded me of this fact just the other day. As I have argued elsewhere and based upon my own experiences, if you seem disinterested in your own financial well-being, others will take notice. Some might even attempt to capitalize on that fact. This is where learning to say “no” comes in handy. Unless your bills, retirement, investment, emergency, and personal savings vehicles are taken care of, then NO you do not have the extra money needed to do X, Y, or Z. Your personal financial security depends on this word. Use it kindly, but use it firmly and often. There are no exceptions to this rule, only excuses and an overstimulated defense sensor. 

Maintain complete control over what is yours and what you need

  • When I learned a few years ago that someone close to me was giving up her own bank accounts to instead establish a joint account with someone else, her reasoning was: “I’ve already been there, done that. I don’t need my own account.”

Translation: “I am not interested in protecting my financial future and prefer to completely put my financial fate into someone else’s hands.”

I am not decrying joint accounts per se. For some reasons (shared bills/expenses), they are a defensible idea. But for this person to completely relinquish control over her financial future and defend that decision with a “been there, done that” excuse is something I cannot wrap my head around.

Maintain a developed sense of foresight

  • Always have an escape plan hatched: Whether it’s an escape from a job, a relationship, an apartment, or a neighborhood, have a “what if” account. Sure, it’s not fun or sexy to think about, but life is not often sexy and ideal. Many women have found themselves in dire financial situations because “foresight” was not a part of their financial lexicon.

Saving versus Investing

  • Understand the terms “saving” and “investing,” why and how they differ, and why they are crucial to your goals for financial security. Neither strategy is enough by itself. This very lesson cost me $6,000 when I finally learned how to account for, and project, inflation.

What do you really “deserve”?

  • Finally, I grew up in a home where the word “deserve” was used more than “savings.” The word “deserve” was overused to justify any number of unnecessary add-ons, no matter how small or large. “We’ve worked hard this year, so we deserve this vacation,” or “I worked hard this week, so I deserve this pedicure (again).”

It seems to me that the word “deserve” has done a lot of damage. The word “deserve” is responsible for shaping my own unhealthy relationship with money; a relationship that needed a major overhaul after I justified, for too many years, any number of wants while forgetting to prioritize the need for financial security.

If you think about it, we can find a way to justify nearly anything. Whether it’s an expensive restaurant meal, another vacation, a brand new car, or a manicure, we can find ways to defend what might be ill-advised financial mistakes. Sure, we might “deserve” all of those things (and so much more), but our future-selves are also deserving of stability.

Christina Berchini is a university professor, author, and researcher. She earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education with an emphasis in English Education from Michigan State University, and is published in several practitioner and scholarly journals. She is the creator of www.heycollegekid.com where she gives advice and tough love to college students. Her creative work has been featured in the Huffington PostSUCCESS.com, and www.Blogher.com.

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