Why is this personal finance and investment stuff so confusing? How am I supposed to talk about this finance stuff with my kids if I don’t even know what “building a portfolio” really means?

What’s going on here?  Do men possess a “finance gene” that women don’t?

Ladies … have you ever wondered why men just seem to “get” finances and women often don’t?  If that sounds a bit abrasive to you, go with me here. I’m trying to shift a paradigm in the finance space.

I know you don’t believe men are smarter than women and neither do I.  We are way beyond any debate like that in society.

Women have had more access to education in the past century than ever before and are making great gains. 56% of college students are women. 58.3% of graduate students are women. To put that into perspective, that means there are 139 female grad students for every 100 male students.  And more women than men have earned their doctorate for the 10th straight year.* (through 2018)

Here’s an odd theory that may have crossed your mind.  Perhaps, men possess a special “finance gene” that gives them special powers enabling them to understand the world of finance?  Okay, we don’t even need to dignify that question with a response. Although, you can’t fault one for thinking it.

So, what’s going on here?  Why does financial literacy remain a stubbornly difficult problem to solve when women are advancing so rapidly in other areas of their lives?

I see women all around me trying.  Women are reading (and publishing!) finance books, scouring financial blogs and websites, listening to money podcasts, talking to “knowledgeable” others and yet something is missing:  women are confused, bored, frustrated with financial talk. Let’s be practical about this…. It’s not like you are sitting around talking with your girlfriends about your stock portfolio or the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Why do I, a male financial professional and father of 5 daughters, believe this is?

In a word: language

Language you say?”

Yes, language.

The language of finance is decidedly masculine.

It was created and developed by men, centuries ago when the industry was entirely male dominated, so they could sell financial products to other men.  It was created to fit the way men think about money and the emotional needs fulfilled by money – status, ego, competition, power, freedom.

 

 

From the words used to describe financial instruments* to the way financial firms market their products by focusing on statistics and “beating” the competition, everything in the world of finance was built by men to reach other men.

**Note: would a woman ever say financial “instrument” or tout their “10-year track record against their peer group?”  Nope. This is all for the guys.

No matter how many books you read, seminars you attend, or podcasts you listen to, if your “teachers” are using the same masculine language, a language you don’t relate to how are you ever to learn anything, much less teach those concepts to your children?

Markets Not Misogyny

Before I go further, I want to address what many of you are already thinking:  Does Wall Street Hate Women? [stay tuned for a future blog on the subject]

There’s a lot about Wall Street that could be construed as discriminatory but this (masculine language) isn’t one of them.  The language of finance wasn’t created to discriminate against women or exclude them. It was more basic than that – when the industry was created, men had all of the money and the language of money was created to reach an all-male audience.

As it pertains to the language of finance, it developed in direct response to the market it was serving at the time: men.  Further, it wasn’t built to serve every man.  It was built to serve men with money.  If you were a poor man, Wall Street didn’t care one bit about you (some things never change).

This is the harsh truth: 

    • The language of finance does not discriminate.
    • The language of finance, without malice or intent, does exclude women.

No, the language of the finance industry wasn’t designed to be discriminatory towards women.  Or, poor men. It was designed to reach a specific market – men with money.

And for many, many years that system worked just fine.  That is until women joined the workforce in earnest and gained their own money and economic power.

But by that time, the damage was already done.

 

 

Stop Blaming Yourself 

The most important thing is to realize you have permission, no… the responsibility, to stop blaming yourself for not knowing more about this financial stuff.  No more beating yourself up. No more damaging, negative self talk.  No more thoughts of “men are just better at this stuff than women.”

This new, more enlightened you brings a greater responsibility along with it.

Now that you know nothing innate is keeping you from mastering money, it creates a responsibility to figure it out.  

Sure, the language barrier exists but it’s not insurmountable.  Yes, there are obstacles in your way, obstacles that men don’t have to contend with, and you’re right, it’s not fair.  But you also know what mama always said about life being fair?

Begin Here

Now that you’ve identified a major barrier is language, you can find appropriate solutions.  Here are few places to start:

Above all, remember it is no longer okay to turn over your financial power to a man just because he “gets it.”  You can “get it” too and hold onto your rightful share of financial power.

Sure, it’s easier to have someone else do it but being on equal financial footing with the men in your life is more important than finding the path of least resistance.

 

 

 

One of the most common words you hear out of any financial professional’s mouth is budget.

What if I told you that I don’t believe in budgets?   There. I said it. A counter-intuitive view on the world of managing our money.   Let’s take a look at this.

“You need a budget.”

We’ve all heard it before.  Go to any personal finance site and you’ll be hit with the  “you need a budget” rhetoric post haste.

Upon hearing said advice, you’d likely nod your head unquestioningly and mutter to yourself “of course, I need a budget.  Duh. Tell me something I don’t know.”

But, what if I told I don’t believe in budgets?  In fact, what if I told you budgets are bullshit? 

Fact is, for most of us mere mortals, budgets are, indeed, bullshit.  Well-intended bullshit but bullshit nonetheless.

To the personal finance community (PFC) this is heresy.  If there’s one thing I know about the PFC, they love them some budgets.

Don’t get me wrong.  Budgets sound reasonable.  Actually, they sound quite smart.

Budgets look beautiful on paper. It’s all right there in front of you.  All you have to do is follow the budget you created…

The problem with budgets is that they don’t translate well to how we actually live our lives.

 

 

And the problems begin right from the start.  They begin from the first moment you create your budget.

If you’re like most people, you’ll start by going online and finding a free budget template because you’re savvy like that.

And, just like that, without even knowing it, you’ve set yourself up for failure.  You’ve pretty much ensured that a few months from now (if that long), you’ll be agreeing with me that budgets are bullshit.

How can I be so sure?

I’ll get to that in a moment but, first, it’s important we establish what I mean when I say “budget.”  Like most things, one person’s definition of “budget” may be very different from another’s. Let’s make sure we’re talking about the same thing.

According to Investopedia, a budget is:

An estimation of revenue and expenses over a specified future period of time and is usually compiled and re-evaluated on a periodic basis.

Um, right.  Let’s try again.  Here’s my definition of a budget:

Your projected monthly take-home income and expenses broken down into different categories.

No surprises so far, right?  It’s what we’ve always been taught without the financial jargon.

In today’s internet age, it’s even easier.  We just Google “budget worksheet,” choose the one we like the most, and start completing it.

Okay, now that we’re on the same page as to what a budget is, let’s go back to my example.

You’re ready to start doing this budget thing and Google “budget worksheet examples” and choose the one that fits your eye.

I’ve done exactly that here.

 

 

Now, picture yourself ready to tackle this budget project.  It’s Sunday morning and you’re feeling good because you’re highly motivated to get your money right.  This budget is just an easy first step towards total money mastery.

You’ve planned ahead.  You have your “Monthly Budget” worksheet in front of you and it’s printed in color because you’re worth it. Your favorite pen has joined you and the calculator app on your phone is open and at the ready.  You’re in a quiet spot in the house, have your coffee, an assortment of muffins and fruit, and you get to work.

First step: enter how much you plan on spending in each of the categories in the budget worksheet.

    1. Mortgage/rent – Oh, I got this one.  I know exactly how much we pay monthly.  So far so good.
    2. Household maintenance – Hmm.  How should I handle this one?  What’s considered “maintenance?”  Cleaning supplies? Garbage bags? Paying the plumber to unclog the basement drain?  Geez, I really don’t know. Ah, screw it – I’ll just go with this…
    3. Taxes – Uh oh.  How I hate this tax stuff.  Wait, do I even need to worry about taxes since we’re working with my take-home pay?  Yes, I think that’s right. So, why have it in here at all? Maybe for property taxes?  Yeah, that’s gotta be it. Oh wait, but aren’t our property taxes included in my mortgage payment?  I don’t really know. Stupid taxes. I’ll just skip it.
    4. Insurance – I assume they mean all insurances.  Probably not health insurance, though, because that’s through work.  Definitely, our auto insurance. Oh wait, we pay that every six months.  Do I include it here? But, we don’t pay for it monthly, how can it go here?  Do I just average it? Ugh. Homeowners insurance? Isn’t that also included in our mortgage payment?  Grrrr. Why does this have to be so complicated?”

There are two flaws (one fatal) at play here already.  

The non-fatal flaw is in not knowing what the budget is asking for.  All budgets assume you know what “income” means, assumes you know what “taxes” means, assumes you know “mortgage” means to include property taxes and homeowners insurance and so forth.

As you can tell from this example, it’s not always easy to know how to classify your spending.

One way around this is to create your own definition for each category.  It’s not a perfect fix but it keeps things moving along.

The second – and fatal – flaw is entering budget numbers without having a firm basis for doing so.  Let’s use “household maintenance” as an example.

Does anyone really know how much they should budget for household maintenance?  Not really. If you don’t know how much you’ve spent on household maintenance in the past, how can you accurately project into the future what you should be spending?

It makes no sense.

Our past spending forms the basis for our future spending.  Without having a good understanding of how we’ve spent in the past, we can’t expect to have a good understanding of how to budget for the future.

 

 

 

And, since few people know where their money goes at the level required to complete an accurate, and therefore useful, budget, right from the outset, the system is primed for failure.  You think you’re building a solid financial household when you’re really building a house of cards.

And this is just the first fatal flaw.

AREN’T BUDGETS ALL ABOUT HOW YOU’RE GOING TO SPEND MONEY IN THE FUTURE?

Yes, budgets are forward-looking.

But, their legitimacy comes from looking backward, from looking at how we’ve been living our lives.

It has been said that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.  It’s hard not to apply that psychological lean towards budgets. You don’t automatically become someone else because you complete a budget, do you?

Budgets need to be accurate.  The amounts you put down on that piece of paper need to be grounded in how you currently live your life.

Is it reasonable for someone to say: “I’ve been spending too much money on dining out and entertainment.  It’s gotta stop. I don’t really know how much I’ve been spending but I know it should only be about $300/month.”

Is this reasonable? Don’t answer too quickly.  You need more information to weigh in with a valid opinion.

She thinks she should only be spending $300/month on “entertainment and dining out” because those aren’t “necessary” expenses according to the personal finance blogs she’s been reading.  No one needs to go dine out, right?  Perhaps not.

But, this is bigger than “dining out.”   It’s about how it makes you feel.

Her dining out and entertainment budget is spent on going out with her girlfriends for lunch and dinner and drinks after work.  She also loves movies and enjoys seeing them on the big screen. She loves going to concerts and seeing shows at the theater – something she partakes in several times a year.

These activities, and the people she’s spending time with, bring a tremendous amount of joy to her life. And that budget just put a serious constraint on her joy. 

Added together, it costs her about $700/month on average for these activities.  Of course, she’s unaware it costs her this much. And she hasn’t inspected what she’s getting for her money.  She just knows she’s spending “too much” because all of the stuff she’s reading says “dining out” is a great place to cut spending.

Sigh.

Knocking $400/month off your monthly spend is really easy when they’re just numbers on a page.  But, to take that out into the real world where you actually live your life? That’s an entirely different thing and it’s another reason why budgets don’t work.

Do you really think she’s going to stop participating in some of the most enjoyable aspects of her life just because she wrote $300 in the entertainment category?

This isn’t a $400 decision.  She hasn’t asked herself to stop spending $400 a month.  She’s asked herself to change the way she lives her life and how she interacts with the most important people in it.

Is this a reasonable ask?

No way.

If she knew how much she normally spends on entertainment and examined what that spending meant to her life satisfaction, she probably would have put down a different number.  But, in order to get an accurate entertainment spending number, she would have to already be tracking her spending and do so over an extended period of time (6-12 months at a minimum).  Who does that?

Budgets are supposed to guide your decision-making, they’re supposed to be the lynchpin of your new financial life and outlook.  They’re supposed to be the first step to getting your financial life on track.

And yet, they’re built on whims and best guesses, unrealistic time and data tracking commitments, on the propensity for people to take the path of least resistance.  They end up being nothing more than “numbers-on-a-page.” They’re meaningless.

The reality is we don’t take our budgets into the real world and live it.  Because when we do try to implement our budget and cut out “$400 of unnecessary entertainment expenses” we quickly realize the difference between writing down spend “$300/month for entertainment” and actually living it.  We realize this isn’t about “money,” it’s about how we live our lives.  

Against such formidable opposition, budgets don’t stand a chance.

Budgets are built for failure. They’re bullshit.

 

 

“Yeah, but what about all those people who are using a budget effectively?“

What about them?  What about those people who can eat anything they want and remain annoyingly thin?  Should we follow suit and pull up a chair at the all-you-can-eat-buffet?

Look, there are always going to be a few outliers who can do something us mere mortals cannot.  They’re the exception. You never want to compare yourself to the exception.

Put the odds on your side.  Budgets work great on paper.  They’re terrible in practice.

So, you’re saying we shouldn’t know where our money is going?  That we shouldn’t have a plan for where we spend our money?

Let’s not get crazy.  I do believe we need to track our expenses. But to what level of OCD detail is really necessary?

Most people don’t know where their money goes.  At least not at the level of detail where a budget is useful.  With a budget, you can’t “sort of” know. You must know where your money is going.

In the real world people don’t manage their money at the “budget” level.

For example, every budget I’ve ever seen has a line item for groceries. Makes sense.  We all have to eat, right? So, without giving it a second thought, you fill in a number and are ready to go.

Next step, hit the grocery store and buy groceries.  But, you don’t only buy groceries, do you?  No, you buy other stuff too.  You buy household cleaning products.  You buy books and magazines. You buy shampoo and personal care items.  Sometimes, because you’re tired and don’t want to run to another store, you buy items like light bulbs and school supplies and a bunch of other items that are more expensive at the grocery store.

You pay with a debit card so you have an official record of how much you spent and where.  You save your receipt because that’s what you’ve been taught to do. You do this multiple times throughout the month.

It’s month-end and you’re feeling pretty good as you begin to calculate how you did compared to your budget.  As you review your “grocery” receipts you realize what is probably already obvious to you and I. You can’t just add up your monthly receipts ‘cause there’s a bunch of non-grocery spending in there, can you?

No, no you can’t.

In order to get an accurate “groceries” number, you need to strip out any items that weren’t spent on “groceries.”  

That means going through every receipt line-by-line and adding up only the “grocery” items into your budget.

How long before you to say “screw it” and just add up the receipts?  Like 20 seconds max. And just like that, your budget is wrong (again).  And that’s just one budget category. You have 24 more categories to go.  And this is just the first month!

How much longer do you need to go through this horrible exercise?  Um, how does THE REST OF YOUR LIFE sound?

 

 

 

Budgets are like incredibly strict diets.  Diets with strict rules for what you can eat AND strict rules for recording EVERYTHING you eat.

Like diets, budgets are well-intentioned but almost always fail to live up to their promise. And the biggest reason for their failure is simple — we’re humans, not computers.

We live our lives in the real world, a world where things rarely fit into tidy little categories.  Life is messy. Further complicating things, unlike diets, budgets aren’t only applicable to one person.  They apply to the household.

Meaning, if I go on a diet, my wife isn’t obligated to go on the same diet or any diet at all.  But, that doesn’t work with budgets. Budgets require both of us to be on the same budget.  When was the last time you and your partner agreed on anything spending related, much less 25 categories of spending every month of every year for the rest of your lives?

This “budgets are bullshit” idea is starting to make more sense now, isn’t it?

You might be saying to yourself, “okay, If budgets are, indeed, bullshit, what’s the alternative?  There must be a reason why everyone touts budgets as the lynchpin of financial responsibility.”

I’m glad you asked.  There is a better way.  A way that builds on the good qualities of budgeting while acknowledging, and eliminating, many of its deficiencies.

If you’re ready for a new way of thinking, join me here.

 

 

 

“Don’t be like Grandma Marie”.

Doesn’t sound flattering, does it?  Makes it sound like “being Grandma Marie” is a bad thing, as if she is a bad person.  Fortunately, that’s not the case.

Grandma Marie is a wonderful lady, a colorful character full of fantastical stories of the motherland (South Korea), a 4’ 11” spitfire who has a way of letting you know she’s not to be trifled with.

When she’s around my girls, she has an intoxicating look of warmth, contentment, and pure joy.  I know that sounds like hyperbole but I am grateful it’s not. If you need further proof, this is a woman who unabashedly stated – once to me alone, and again while in the presence of all of her children – “you love your grandchildren more than your own children.”  Well then.

I don’t know how that tracks with other grandmas but I believe it with this one.  Perhaps, it has to do with the quality of her children … ?

So, why the dire “don’t be like Grandma Marie” warning?  

I won’t get into all of the details – you can read her story here – but the short answer is my mom was not in control of her financial life.  

She was entirely dependent on my father, who at the time, used money to control my mother’s behaviors.  She was forced to remain in an unhealthy marriage for far longer than was desired.

Her lack of understanding and access to her own money led to her biggest life challenges and regrets.

My mom’s story is an unfortunate one.  It’s a story born more out of circumstance than poor decision-making.  (I say this after many years of careful thought and consideration.)

One of my deepest values is my belief that we are responsible for our actions, that we own our decisions and must look inwards first, and that we can’t ever run from the starring role we play in our own lives.  Being a victim of circumstance should be a rare thing.

 

 

The story behind “don’t be like Grandma Marie” has taught me many things.  For the sake of this blog, I’ll narrow the learnings to what it taught me about how important money is when raising strong, independent, formidable daughters.

Looking at my mother’s situation, I can clearly see how not having access to her own money severely affected her ability to live life on her terms.  

It taught me “why” it’s critical women gain and retain their financial power.

It also fueled my passion for preventing history from repeating itself with my girls. 

It provided me all of the motivation I’ve ever needed to make money mastery a lynchpin of our job as parents. I’ve always viewed our children as “adults in training.”  Finance needed to be a foundational piece of their training.

Bottom line: no one should have to go through what my mom went through.  If she had access to her own money, she would’ve made different life choices and all of our lives would have been different.

“Prepare the child for the road not the road for the child.”

If my kids fall into the same trap as my mom, it will be by “choice”, not circumstance.  There’s no language barrier to overcome. No impenetrable cultural and social obstructions.  No valid claims of ignorance or misunderstanding.

No, if my girls become like “Grandma Marie,” it will be because I’ve failed them as a parent and they’ve failed themselves as independent decision-makers.

 

 

 

Sound harsh?  Some may think so.  I don’t. It doesn’t really matter though.  It’s not about me being right and others being wrong or vice versa…. none of us make the rules.  I can’t bend the will of society to fit my view of the world. I don’t live in the world as it “should be.”  I live in the world as “it is.”

So … I’m preparing my children for the road, not the road for my children.

I know if my girls get their money right, they will accomplish two things:

  • Empower them to make life choices that align with the important things in their lives
  • Eliminate being forced to take a course of action against their will or desires

 

KEY LESSON:  Money is Fungible

(Big word…. Keep reading!)

Because money is fungible – meaning, it can be readily turned into something else of value – it has tremendous power in society.  Being fungible gives money its power. It is why money is so important, and why the pursuit of money isn’t evil or makes you a bad person.  It’s smart and practical and NECESSARY.

Education and work/life skills are also fungible.  

Your education and skillset have broad applications in the world, which is why they’re so valued.  We celebrate our pursuit of education and our desire to increase our skillset. No one looks upon these pursuits as evil or that they make you a bad person.  This is also true for money.

The trick, like just about everything else in life, is to know when your motivations for the pursuit of something end up causing more harm than good.

So, yes, being overly focused on money can lead to very bad things.  But, so too can be said of food, exercise, looking younger, sex, protecting our children, and on and on and on…

We focus on money in our household not because I’m a financial advisor but because it is important for our kids to not repeat the sins of the father.  Or, grandmother in this case.

Women are generally more vulnerable to financial abuse and are far too willing to cede control of their money to men. Being the father of 5 daughters, this makes it even more important to make money an ongoing topic of “conversation” in our household.

I put the word “conversation” in quotes because many of our money “conversations” don’t involve much talking.  At least not in the traditional sense.

Much of what we’ve taught our children about money is done through our actions, our observable behaviors.

It’s all around us for everyone to see.

From the cars we drive to the clothes we wear and the food we eat.  Where we shop, how much “stuff” we own. It’s visible through abstention – what we don’t have, what we don’t spend money on, what we aren’t doing that “everyone else is.”

Half the time my kids think we have a lot of money.  The other half of the time they think we don’t have any.  It’s a tough trick to pull off but it’s possible.

It’s taught our girls that money is really, really important in our lives.

It’s taught them it’s 100% okay to pursue a job that pays you a lot of money.

It’s also taught them you may not need a job that pays you a lot of money.

Based on what you value in your life, you can live off a surprisingly low amount of money.  Or, it can require you to “need” an equally surprisingly high amount of money.

The choice is yours. There is no right or wrong.  

How you live your life is your choice and your choice alone. You shouldn’t concern yourself with what others think, say, or do.

No FOMO.  No ‘keeping up with the Jones’.  No Facebook or Instagram lives to live up to.

This is big-time stuff.

It’s highly emotional.

It’s the stuff that changes a person’s life.

Strong, independent, formidable women

 

 

 

Being financially strong isn’t a guarantee you or your daughters will be strong, independent, formidable women.

 

Not being financially strong isn’t a guarantee you won’t either.

But, this isn’t about guarantees.  It is about putting the odds on your side.  About putting yourself and your daughters in the best possible position to be that woman.  And in order to do so, obtaining mastery over your money is essential.

Always keep in mind:

Full equality cannot exist without financial equality.

This is why enlightenHer exists.  To help women take control of their financial lives and, in doing so, help them live their life according to their values and aspirations.

I want this for my girls and I want this for all women.  And it’s not just wishful thinking.

Despite the challenges, the thought of financial equality between men and women isn’t that far off.  It won’t be easy. It won’t happen overnight. And no one is going to do it for you.

But …

It’s within reach.  We just have to go out and grab it.  We hope to help you do it!

If you are moved by this topic or know someone who needs to hear this message, please sign up for our email list to receive our latest blogs and be notified of new resources.   There is plenty more to come!

 

Written by: Ed Vargo
Financial Advisor.  Father of 5 daughters.  Creator of enlightenHer.com.