“Why Should We Hire You?” How to Answer This Key Interview Question

Last year, my friend was interviewing for an amazing job at a great company. In her final interview, she was asked, “Why should we hire you? We get hundreds of applicants for each position - why should we offer you the job?” Normally quick on her feet, this question made her freeze.

She thought about her previous positions, the other candidates, her skills, the experiences she had managing teams...she said, “I don't know the qualifications of the other people you're considering, I'm sure they have similar credentials, and I know you wouldn't interview them if they didn't meet the criteria, but I also meet most of what the job description asks for.” She didn't get the job.

In her quest to be fair and accurate, my fabulous friend flubbed this critical interview question. When she asked the recruiter for feedback, her poor answer to that question was cited. The recruiter shared, “Our interviewer was concerned that you couldn’t sell yourself; therefore, we worry about you being able to sell an idea to clients or management.” Ouch.

The interview process boils down to the question my friend was asked. Hiring managers scan resumes, conduct assessments, check references, and do interviews to find the right candidate. They want to understand why they should hire you over anyone else. I’ve interviewed hundreds of candidates, and ask this question in every interview. Make it easy on hiring managers by nailing your answer; here's how.

 The question, “Why should we hire you?” is testing both how you respond and the content of your answer. In my friend’s quest for an accurate response, she unfortunately, missed both elements. Her focus on the other candidates didn’t help her, and her lack of preparation for this question meant she was caught unprepared and didn’t come across as confident in her fit for the role.

First, let’s address how you respond. When this question is asked, your reply should be delivered with confidence, include specifics, and be succinct. I recommend signaling that you welcome the question, with something like, “I’m so glad you asked; as you can imagine I’ve been thinking about that question a lot myself.”

Practice your response with a savvy friend. Ask her if you used too much jargon, whether you were convincing, and explore how to improve your reply. Conveying confidence in your answer will put the interviewer at ease and demonstrate that you have put serious thought into why you would succeed in this specific role.

The content of the response is also critical. When crafting your reply, prepare to address three things: your skills, the company’s goals, and your interviewer.

First your skills and experiences; this is the area you know far better than your interviewer. Prepare a simple explanation of how your capabilities will be a unique asset in the position. Three to five examples that you can relate directly to the role will suffice.

Here’s what this might sound like, “I bring four unique skills and experiences to this role; I’m experienced in managing difficult clients, am an effective presenter, have worked in the tech industry for several years, and have a degree in history. That combination means you’ll have an employee that performs well under client pressure, will be comfortable and effective in client presentations, understands the software space, and can bring historical perspective to modern-day challenges.”

Next, you need to address company goals. This demonstrates that you understand the business and makes it easy for your interviewer to connect your skills to the company’s objectives. Usually, you can find the company’s goals on their website, press releases, or earnings reports (for public companies). Clearly link these goals to your experiences. For example, “Your CEO cites client retention as a critical business goal for this year; the skills I just discussed are important to retain both happy and challenging clients in the tech industry.”

Conclude with something personalized to the interviewer. Research your interviewer - many have public social media profiles or have been mentioned in articles. Perhaps your interviewer was recently quoted discussing the importance of customer service - acknowledge that in your reply. You could share, “I also saw you were recently quoted about exceptional customer service - as you’ll see at the bottom of my resume, I received the highest customer service scores on my team last year, which will contribute to my success on your team.”

For bonus points, consider any proof points or references that might reinforce your candidacy. For example, do you have a manager from a prior role that has agreed to serve as a reference? Cite their qualifications and offer to make an introduction. Did you go to the same university? Mention a professor that provided a glowing review of your senior thesis, if relevant to the role.

If you practice both the content of your response and how you convey it to the interviewer, you’ll be far ahead of many candidates. I’m often surprised by how many applicants appear to be unprepared for this question, or even signal to me they haven’t thought about it. I’ve heard replies that begin with, “That’s an interesting question, let me think about it,” and “Hm, I’m not sure…” Those replies do not express that you’re taking this position seriously.

Walk into your next interview ready to nail this question. If your interviewer doesn’t ask it, offer your perspective during your discussion. You can say, “I've put some thought into why you should select me for this position,” and share your reply. This will demonstrate your confidence, understanding of the position, and help the interviewer better understand your skills. After all, if you can't make the case for why the interviewer should hire you - how can you expect her to?

I’m curious if you’ve answered this question in interviews. How did you respond? What tips would you suggest?

xoxo, Ms. Financier

This post also appeared on the Fairygodboss blog - I love their mission to improve the lives and workplace for women, through transparency.

Health Insurance Basics

Health insurance, something that is designed to reduce risk and mitigate costs, can be a source of stress and anxiety. Expensive plans, confusing coverage, and plenty of acronyms might cause you to throw your hands up in frustration, thinking you’ll never wrap your head around insurance.

Many Americans do just that. A 2016 survey indicated that only 4% of Americans can define the key terms that dictate how much they must pay medical costs; deductible, coinsurance, copay, and out-of-pocket maximum. That same survey found only a small difference (3%) between the knowledge of men and women; all of us struggle to wrap our heads around this topic. There is some good news: if you can grasp the very basics around health insurance, you can make big strides in your confidence in tackling this topic. The ladies at theSkimm, who produce a daily newsletter that makes it easier to stay informed, have put together a thoughtful, succinct guide on healthcare policy.

Currently, you must get health insurance in the US via your employer or independently during open enrollment (in 2017, this is from November 1 to December 15). However, if you become pregnant, or have another significant life event, and do not have health insurance, you are eligible to apply for a “Special Enrollment Period” that can allow you to add insurance at times other than open enrollment.

Once you have insurance, it is critical to understand is exactly how your policy works. I recommend using at least three sources to gather your information: your insurance provider, others that have the same plan (for example, your peers at work), and your medical providers (your doctors and preferred hospital).

Here are the questions you should answer; ask for documentation from medical providers and your insurer to confirm the details of your plan.

What type of insurance do I have? There are many types of health insurance. For example, Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) plans provide better coverage if you visit providers that are in their network but can cost you dearly if you go outside the network.

How does my insurance work, exactly? What health care costs are your responsibility, and which are covered by the insurer? Plans vary heavily and can include copays (where you pay a flat fee for certain services) or may require you to first spend a certain dollar amount on health care before insurance coverage kicks in.

What information can I access online? Today, many insurance providers have portals that will help you find doctors, examine your current coverage, and see how much you’ve spent towards your deductible (the portion of your health care costs that you are responsible for paying for). Taking time to understand the information you can access can save time and empower you to better manage your care.

Among the common insurance types – HMOs, PPOs, EPOs, high deductibles – what’s most likely to keep out-of-pocket costs down? What may come with hidden risks?

Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) plans are tightly linked to the network of providers that they have agreements with. If you have an HMO plan, your costs will be lower if every provider you visit is within the network. HMO plans usually require you to have a Primary Care Physician who acts as your health “quarterback” and refers you to other doctors/specialists. Speak with (and get documentation from) your healthcare providers about what happens in an emergency situation – is there any risk of you ending up being served by a provider that is outside the network?

Exclusive Provider Organization (EPO) plans generally do not require you to have a specific Primary Care Physician. However, similar to an HMO, they restrict coverage to providers in their network. Costs incurred out of network are often the patient’s full responsibility. There are some exceptions for emergencies, but each plan varies. EPO plan premiums are usually less expensive than HMO plans.

Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) plans generally have higher premiums than both HMO and EPO plans, but offer the patient more choice in health care providers. PPO plans rely on a network of healthcare providers; your costs (co-pays) are lower and coverage is better when you are served by providers that are in the network. However, unlike HMO plans, PPO plans may provide some level of coverage for non-network health care. I generally prefer PPO plans to all other options, if I can afford the premiums. PPO plans create cost savings through the network of providers, but aren’t as restrictive as HMO or EPO plans, nor do they require the highest deductibles.

High-deductible health plans (HDHP) incur the highest out-of-pocket costs, which mean you run the risk of paying more than other plan types. These are often intended for catastrophic situations, but I find many that select these plans do so for two reasons: HDHP plans have very low premiums and are often associated with a tax-free health savings plan. Health savings plans are often marketed as a fabulous way to save money, tax-free, for healthcare. However, there is no such thing as a free lunch and these savings plans are often paired with HDHPs because of the significant costs that are the patient’s responsibility. To be clear – a HDHP is far, far better than no insurance coverage. However, if given the option, I would strongly encourage new parents to invest in plans that they can afford with lower out-of-pocket deductibles.

In addition to the insurance options outlined above, Medicaid is available to provide health coverage to low-income citizens. Medicare serves a different community; focusing largely on senior citizens and providing support to disabled.

There’s certainly much more to explore on this topic, but I hope this helps you get started. What other health insurance resources do you recommend? I’d love to hear from you.

xoxo, Ms. Financier

How to Manage Money with Your Partner: Six Questions You Need to Answer

If you’re in a serious relationship and regularly share significant expenses, this post is for you. Money can be a major source of friction in partnerships and if you aren’t financially intimate, it is difficult to achieve your goals. Sharing financial details is a powerful start to financial intimacy. Next, you need to determine how you will manage money together.

Every couple manages their money differently and there’s no “one size fits all” answer. Further, the money management approach that works for your relationship today may need to evolve as responsibilities shift at work and at home in the future. That said, there are six questions partners can answer to determine the right approach for them. I’ll start with the more strategic questions first; answering these makes the tactical questions easier.

1. What are our biggest financial goals? Defining your top three joint financial goals provides motivation and clarity. I recommend identifying at least one goal with a short timeline (within the next six months). Record your financial goals, discuss them, and celebrate the progress you make. When you achieve a goal, replace it with a new objective to continue your momentum.

Start this conversation with your partner by defining your joint values, if you haven’t already. This is a common approach that financial planners and experts like David Bach recommend, because aligning your money with the things you value is powerful. For example, if you and your partner value security, you could focus on paying off debt or purchase a home you can afford to increase the security in your life.

2. How often should we check in on our money? Progressing against your goals is easier when you’re keeping an eye on your finances. Your money doesn't sit still when you ignore it. This can be wonderful (automatic investing growing your wealth faster than expected) or stressful (unattended credit card debt generating late fees and interest charges).

You should regularly check in on how you’re progressing towards your financial goals. Scheduling recurring “money dates” with your partner (at least once every three months) ensures you address problems and celebrate progress. Keep a running list of what you need to discuss; your top three financial goals should always be on the agenda. 

If the idea of a money date sounds painful, use the concept of Temptation Bundling in your favor. Temptation Bundling is when you link two activities together - one you enjoy and one you’d prefer to avoid. In this example, you may choose to reward yourself after a money date with a meal at a favorite restaurant.

3. How will we pay for joint expenses? Paying for expenses like housing, utilities, travel, and vehicles should be done equitably, so one partner doesn’t feel beholden to the other. 

First, define joint expenses. Some couples label anything spent by either partner as a joint expense, others put a certain limit in place where they need to “clear” the expense with their partner (say, over $200), and some decide that only certain expenses are joint responsibilities. My partner and I do the latter; we consider utilities, housing, maintenance, groceries, and life insurance to be joint expenses. In contrast, my shoes, evenings out with my friends, and conferences I attend are my responsibility.

Next, determine how you’ll fund joint expenses. My recommendation is to split joint expenses in proportion to income. Here’s an example: Ava is a journalist with a salary of $57,500; she recently married Dinah, whose job as an engineer brings in $125,000. Together, they enjoy $182,500 in gross income. Ava’s income is 32% of their household total, while Dinah’s contributes 68%.

Therefore, to pay their monthly mortgage of $2,500, Ava contributes 32% ($788) and Dinah contributes 68% ($1,712). They’re savvy women, so they signed a prenuptial agreement beforehand that outlines how they’d divvy up these joint assets in the event of a divorce.

4. How will we save and invest together? Investing and saving are critical to building wealth. As a couple, you should decide how much to save and invest. Your emergency fund is critical, but once that’s funded you should focus on retirement, save-to-spend accounts, college (for those with kids), and then investing beyond retirement. Here’s a four-step guide to getting started with investing.

Consider how evenly you are funding investment accounts. I’ve often heard women say, “My partner makes more, so we max out their 401(k) contributions. I can only afford to contribute a little.” If this is your situation, I urge you to consider a more equal strategy. Unequal investing can result in very different account balances; in the unfortunate event of a divorce, you may not receive a financial outcome you’re happy with. Even partners that don’t work outside the home are eligible for a spousal IRA to save for retirement.

5. Where will our money live? Managing your money becomes easier with fewer banks and accounts. When you address this question, consider where you’d like to keep your savings, daily checking, and investment accounts. For investing, I always recommend Vanguard; they have a low-cost strategy and are investor-owned.

Since my partner and I manage our money with a “yours, mine, and ours” strategy, our bank accounts mirror that. Mr. Financier and I have separate checking accounts for individual expenses. We also have a joint checking account for joint household expenses. Our savings and investments are set up the same way; some are jointly held (like our emergency savings account) and some are individual (like my investment account that I started before we were married).

6. Who manages the bills? Deciding who pays which bills will reduce bill-paying stress and ensure you’re not blaming one another for any late fees. Consistency can also help you catch errors. A few months ago, my internet bill unexpectedly increased by $15; I noticed the change because I always pay that bill. I called customer service and immediately received a correction.

It is important for both partners to provide transparency around joint bills. In our house, I am responsible for any joint bill (the mortgage, utilities, auto insurance). However, Mr. Financier knows how to access our mortgage account at any time and we review the statements together. This ensures we’re both aware of jointly-held debts and accounts.

You may elect to pay many of your regular bills automatically. I recommend that if you can schedule the payment from your bank to the service provider, versus giving the service provider permission to pull payments from your bank account. Your comfort level may differ, but I avoid giving my bank information to the cable company, mortgage company, or insurance provider.

Those are the six questions partners can answer to determine their money-management approach. It will take some time to create the right guidelines, but you’ll benefit tremendously when you find the methods that work for your relationship. I would love your feedback; which question was the most difficult for you and your partner to answer? Do you have any other big questions that you recommend couples address?

xoxo, Ms. Financier

Five Signs You Aren't Financially Intimate With Your Partner

In a strong relationship, you often feel compelled to share just about everything with your partner – your fears, goals, interests, and passions. As your relationship develops, your connection deepens, and you become even more intimate. But does your intimacy include the topic of finance?

Being financially intimate means sharing your financial status, goals, and struggles with your partner. Money is a tremendous cause of friction in partnerships and fighting about money is a top predictor of divorce in married couples. Many of us are raised not to talk about money or have shame about some aspect of our financial situation. But hiding information does not strengthen a relationship.

There’s some good news; one survey conducted by MONEY found that, “…couples who trust their partner with finances felt more secure, argued less, and had more fulfilling sex lives.” That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? How open are you with your partner? Here are five signs that you aren’t financially intimate with your partner, in order of increasing intimacy.

You don’t know whether they save or invest. Do you know if your partner has an emergency fund? Are they investing in a 401k or other retirement plan? Saving and investing are necessary to build wealth and create financial stability, so you should know whether your partner is doing so on a regular basis. If you’re in a very serious relationship or married, you should have an understanding of how much is in their accounts.

You don’t know if they have debt. Does your partner have credit card, student loan, auto, real estate, or other debt? How do they feel about this debt; is it under control or is it a source of stress? Are they actively paying it off? How much debt is does your partner owe, in total? Debt is something that many of us take on to achieve other goals, but it can hamper financial freedom if not managed effectively.

You don’t know their credit score. How healthy is your partner’s credit? If it is weak, what steps are they taking to strengthen it? Before you merge finances, move in together, or get married, you should see your partner’s full credit report. Many of us have had credit issues; I’m no stranger to credit card debt myself. However, credit affects a wide range of financial decisions – credit card and loan rates, housing decisions, and even hiring decisions. Sharing credit reports can help you make better joint financial decisions and work together to strengthen them if needed.

You don’t know their salary and compensation. What is your partner’s base salary? What other forms of compensation are they eligible for (bonuses, company stock, profit sharing, etc.)? Women can struggle to address this topic with their partners because of the damaging and outdated “gold digger” stereotype. However, starting and maintaining an open dialogue about compensation ensures you can address joint finances productively.

You don’t know where their accounts are. Where does your partner bank? Where (and how) is their 401k invested? Which credit cards does your partner have? Yes, you should know where your partner banks. You might not have access to the funds in each account, depending on how you’ve set up your joint finances, but knowing where the money is located can be important in an emergency and promotes transparency between partners.

If any of these are knowledge gaps in your relationship, I suggest starting the conversation with your partner as soon as possible. Each couple addresses the topic of finance differently and to open the conversation, you can share this post, schedule a money date, or bring the topic up in the course of regular conversation.

Approach your partner with authenticity and remove all judgment. If you’re nervous about talking about your student loan debt and don’t know if your partner has debt, you could say: “I’m nervous to talk about my student loan debt, but it is very important to our relationship that we can openly discuss money and personal finance. I haven’t shared the details with you, but I have $52,300 of student loan debts to pay off. I’m working hard to get my smallest loan paid off in the next few years. I’m curious - do you have any student loan or credit card debt?”

By sharing your emotions about the topic, giving your partner information about your status, and then asking a neutral, non-judgmental question of your partner, you’re starting the dialogue in a productive manner. Give your partner some slack; they may be nervous, scared, or worried to talk money. On the other hand, your partner may be relieved about the chance to share what they’ve been working on, or a secret personal finance nerd that has a lot of knowledge to share.

Good luck in building even more financial intimacy with your partner. I’m curious about what topics you and your partner have tackled together to build your financial intimacy; let me know!

xoxo, Ms. Financier

Why You Need a Prenup (or a Postnup if You're Already Married)

Yes, you read the title correctly - you need a prenup. If you're ready to commit to someone for the rest of your life, your relationship should be mature enough to tackle this topic. And, if you’re already married and without a prenup, then you should get a postnup. For simplicity, I’ll refer to prenups throughout this post; a postnuptial agreement serves a similar role for those that have already walked down the aisle.

 When a couple decides to marry, divorce is often (understandably) the furthest thing from their mind. However, data suggests that divorce rates range from 38 - 50%, depending on the source. Humans have an optimism bias; each of us tends to believe that we are less at risk of experiencing a negative event compared to others. It’s a beautiful term that puts our financial health at risk. Our optimism bias makes us less prone to expect (and prepare for) events like disability, illness, divorce, and death.

Ladies, I urge you to hope for the best marriage you could ever imagine, but plan for a worst-case scenario, just in case. The data backs up my suggestion. Women’s finances are hit disproportionately hard by divorce; on average, their income drops 40% (while men face a smaller decline of 25%). Infuriatingly, the standard of living actually rises for many men in the first year after a divorce. Women face a 27% decline, while men may see an increase in up to 10%. Note that most of the data on women and divorce is for heterosexual couples.

Further, there has been a marked increase in divorces among couples fifty years of age and older; the divorce rate in that age range has doubled between 1990 and 2010. The data suggest that divorces happening later in life have an even more devastating impact on the finances of both parties.

There are also many women who remain trapped in marriages for financial reasons. While a prenup doesn’t alleviate financial anxiety, it does provide a set of legal agreements that can simplify the path to a divorce and prevent surprises for women ready to leave their relationship.

Like other forms of legal risk management tackling a prenuptial agreement isn’t fun, but can be invaluable should the worst case occur. You’re ready to get married? Congratulations! There’s a lot of fun to be had at your engagement party, bridal shower, bachelorette party, and wedding; tackle this less-fun topic like the adult you are, in order to future-proof your relationship.

Here are some of the objections I hear when I bring this topic up with friends. (Yes, I am the person who eventually asks, “Are you considering a prenup?” My friends know I love talking about money; they expect it.)

We don't need a prenup, we aren’t rich and don’t have many assets. That means your prenup will be simple, but it doesn’t mean you should avoid it. A strong prenup can cover other important topics like:

  • Who gets first right of refusal to stay in the house you own, or apartment you rent?

  • How will joint household goods, like television sets and furniture, be divided?

  • Will splitting the home 50/50 upon sale be fair, or is another arrangement required?

  • Will your grandmother’s jewelry collection stay with you upon divorce?

  • Who gets custody of Fido, who your partner adopted two months before your engagement?

  • How will you split your joint bank accounts?

  • If you divorce, would you expect to split your 401k or other investments with your partner?

  • Given you currently out-earn your partner, can they expect some sort of alimony? If so, how much and for how long?

  • What about children, if you have them? How will their custody be managed? 

Further, you might not have many assets now, but do you plan to stay married for a long time? Do you plan to grow your income over time? I encourage you to think long-term and put an agreement in place today to address your earnings, investments, and savings.

Legal agreements like this are too expensive for me. This is tremendously short-sighted thinking that puts your future self at real financial and emotional risk. My fairly complex agreement cost $2,677 in the expensive DC area. Your partner may also engage a separate attorney to review and suggest changes, which could contribute to higher costs. However, consider the financial impact of a 40% decline in your standard of living post-divorce; that puts the prenup investment in context, doesn’t it?

My partner makes more than I do, a prenup would only hurt me. In a situation where you’re enjoying a higher standard of living due to your partner, a prenup could play a critical role in creating predictability if your marriage ends. Further, there are plenty of non-monetary questions that need to be decided when a relationship ends, as outlined above. Do you simply want to roll the dice and hope your partner would be completely fair during the difficult and emotional divorce process? Do you know, with complete certainty that you both have the same definition of fair?

We have a strong marriage; I don’t think we need a postnup. I'm happy for you; truly, I am. But remember your human optimism bias; and the statistics on divorce. How many divorced women say, “I knew walking down the aisle we were headed for divorce.” Not many. Instead, family law attorneys I know are regaled with, “I never saw it coming,” and “I never thought this could happen to me.” And that painful realization that a marriage is ending completely, totally sucks. So, further strengthen your great marriage and force a conversation around the worst case scenario. The opportunity cost of a few difficult conversations and the legal cost is worth it.

If you decide to pursue a prenup or postnup, seek out a family law attorney to put the right legal agreements in place to manage your risk and preserve your wealth. Friends, family, and local services providers (like doctors, insurance agents, and financial planners) can be a great source for recommendations.

Importantly, how can you start this dialogue with your partner? It can be a sensitive topic. You could share this post. If you have a regular money check-in, you could bring it up then. Use words that reinforce you aren’t worried about your relationship but want to smartly plan for the worst, while hoping and working towards the absolute best. 

I found that Mr. Financier responded well when I talked about a future situation, “Imagine how much stress we’d save our future selves if, God forbid, our marriage doesn’t work, and we’d already thought through all the really hard stuff ahead of time.” During the process, I also found we had different assumptions about money and property that we’d never spoken about. Working through the details together helped strengthen our understanding of one another, not weaken it.

Some amazing, strong, powerful divorcées have offered to share their perspective on prenups with you, below. If you’re partnered have you put a pre- or postnup in place? If you have, what advice would you give others? If you don’t have one, why did you feel it wasn’t necessary?

xoxo, Ms. Financier


My divorce, which was two and a half years ago, left me almost penniless since I paid for the whole thing...despite my ex making twice what I did. I was left with my pre-marriage retirement savings intact, thank goodness!

I would not get remarried without a prenup. It will be non-negotiable and part of my safety net in case something happens. I wish I had done that with my first marriage (and small bungalow that I owned at the time). Having that house to sell or as an income stream would have helped prevent some of the financial difficulties I’ve faced since the dissolution of the marriage. - T.A., Georgia

 

My divorce was a horror story. Truly. If I told you the gory details, you'd think that I was making it all up. But let's just say that I don't plan on getting legally married ever again (even if it's Ryan Reynolds.)

I was 23 when I started dating the man that would become my husband. It never occurred to me to have a prenup. In hindsight, the investment in a thoughtful and thorough agreement may have saved me three years of divorce hell; emotional and financial.

It's taken me three years (post-divorce) to just begin to bounce back and there is still so much that still isn't and probably won't ever be "right." Even if you think you don't have enough property or assets to warrant one, there are so many other considerations that may impact your post-divorce quality of life. - The Lady in the Black

 

I'm divorced and didn't have a prenup. Had I thought to have one, I think I would have learned a lot about my soon-to-be husband during the process of creating the agreement.

I won't get married again without one. I see it like planning for a business; people don't usually think about how they will want to exit the business. How would you want things to go IF you get divorced? Plan for that before it happens. - P.L., Colorado

 

I remember going out for lunch with a group of women about five years ago, just weeks after my wedding. All of them were divorced and the entire conversation was them talking about their divorces and ex-husbands. I remember judging them because they were divorced; this would never happen to me because I did everything right. I married a man whose parents were still together, like mine. One could say I married down, so he wouldn't leave me. No one in my family was divorced, so in my opinion, we were not going to be another statistic. Fast forward not even two years and he left me for another woman.

After the birth of our second daughter, my husband shut right down. He had an affair and I forgave him the first time but then he started another one. Throughout our marriage, I managed our finances, not because I wanted to but because I had to. I guess I have him to thank for my interest in personal finance and financial independence.

My now ex-husband was an impulse spender and had a lot of debt from before we got married. I spent the first two years of our marriage paying it off. Conveniently, when he no longer owed any money on his debts he left. He demanded half of everything,  though I paid for every item in our home with a few minor exceptions. Luckily we settled our financials within six months of our separation.

My ex-husband was impulsive, so I dangled a buyout of the family home in front of him for a fraction of the equity knowing he would jump at it since he had no savings. With that, I consider myself very lucky as it set me up to be more financially responsible while he spent all that money and more - he is now $80,000 in debt with nothing to show for himself and he doesn't pay child support.

A prenup would have saved a lot of money on lawyers fees and would have set us both up to know what would happen in the case of a separation. Had I had a prenuptial agreement I would have likely been able to keep most items in our home which I acquired prior to us getting married. I ended up having to sell the home my girls spent their first years in to access equity in the home. That home was supposed to be a rental and part of my retirement plan due to its desirable location.

Currently, I have a home and have rental property. I will not enter into another marriage without a prenup in order to protect both myself and my daughters. It is my future, my retirement and their future that is at stake.

I've seen other friends go through divorces and most of them are financially ruined. Most will likely have to declare bankruptcy. My custody battle took almost three years and cost $50k in lawyers fees. Most individuals cannot afford that. I drained my savings and had a mere $6,000 in my retirement account.

Luckily, I am young and have been able to rebound well considering as I no longer have to deal with an impulse spender. That said, my career affords me more than most and I have made decisions that set myself up for career success.

My partner and father of my son understands what I’ve been through with my ex, and we talk openly about this. He came into the relationship with his own savings and home. He is a child of divorce and witnessed his parents’ financial hardships firsthand. We both understand and respect each other enough to agree with this idea in case the unimaginable happens to us. - Courtney, @splitfinances

Business Travel Tips From an Expert Traveler

I’ve been traveling for business for more than a dozen years. Looking for business travel tips? I’ve got you. These are some of the travel hacks that help me survive on the road.

Enjoy the experience. There are many articles about the drudgery of travel, but visiting new places is a tremendous luxury. It is estimated that two-thirds of American adults haven’t flown in the past 12 months and 18% haven’t flown in their life. Only 36% of Americans hold a valid passport, meaning that 64% cannot travel outside the United States (though they may have previously.) Look to meet new people, try a new type of cuisine, and broaden your own horizons through your trips.

Pack a good attitude. Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek, interpret, and recall information that confirms our biases. If you travel with a negative attitude (thinking airlines are terrible, people are annoying, stations are crowded), your brain will seek those experiences and reinforce your bias towards the horrors of travel. I encourage you to pack another attitude: that travel is interesting, exciting, and offers an opportunity to experience things you never would in your home office.

Be loyal. While rewards programs aren’t as rich as they used to be, they’re still useful. I have a colleague in a different department that was traveling sporadically for five years without any loyalty programs. Since they only traveled four or five times a year, they didn’t think signing up for anything was worth the effort. Understand your company’s travel policies and look for a few airlines and hotels you can remain loyal to in order to earn rewards.

Sign up for TSA Precheck and Global Entry. Not optional. Global Entry includes TSA Precheck, so once you are vetted, you’ll have both benefits. The current cost is $85 for five years. Precheck saves you time and effort at the beginning of your journey - you can move more quickly through dedicated security lines that also include Precheck travelers (who tend to be more experienced, and therefore efficient.) Global Entry saves you time when you return from an international flight; you simply enter information at a kiosk as opposed to standing in a queue to interact with a live agent.

Invest in excellent luggage. This really, really matters. I prefer Briggs & Riley and Tumi, as both have excellent customer service and provide warranties. If possible, select your luggage in person, and ensure it works with the items you pack, is comfortable to wheel when full, and is something you can lift into an overhead bin.

Invest in a travel-friendly wardrobe. Look for pieces that can mix and match easily with one another, in neutral colors, that don’t wrinkle. Here’s where women get a big leg up on men - they are often in suits with pressed shirts; women in a professional role can often get away with an amazing shift dress. Much easier to pack. Other critical items include good scarves and statement jewelry; both add flavor to a wardrobe without taking up much space. I’m also mindful of my pyjamas; I have been in hotels that have been evacuated at night and have been standing outside with colleagues. It can happen.

Use a list and pre-pack. Even experienced travelers forget things! I have a packing list that I use for my business trips, which ensures I don’t forget small items, like socks, hosiery, and my sports bra. I also pre-pack, meaning that there are certain items that never leave my luggage. These items include: an umbrella, travel pyjamas, chargers for my electronics, and my makeup/toiletry kit (which include Band-Aids, aspirin, and Imodium, which you should never be without). I also travel with my beautiful Shhhowercap; life is too short for the ineffective plastic caps provided by most hotels.

Keep your work bag stocked. Some items that are critical for flights stay in my work bag at all times, like lip balm, hand sanitizer, tissues, gum, and a travel-friendly pouch of wet wipes in case I end up in a seat with a dirty tray table that hasn’t yet been cleaned. I also always have a large scarf in my bag; temperature is unpredictable while traveling and it can double as a blanket.

Use packing cubes. You never know when you’re going to have to open your luggage in front of colleagues, clients, or the TSA. I use Eagle Creek packing cubes, laundry bags, and shoe sacks so I can easily dig through my bag without any embarrassment.

Never check your luggage. I’m serious - even if you’re headed overseas for a few weeks, it is possible to go carry-on only if you have excellent luggage and a travel-friendly wardrobe. At best, checking your luggage wastes your time (and that of your colleagues if you’re traveling together); at worst, it puts you at risk of not having what you need for tomorrow’s meeting.

Pack an extra bag. Sometimes, you end up adding things to your luggage on your journey. This may be binders or books from your clients or something fun like an unexpected piece of art and a splurge at Duty Free. I keep Tumi’s ultra-lightweight Just-In-Case® tote packed in my luggage for these emergencies. In this case, you are then allowed to check your luggage on the return flight!

Consider noise-cancelling headphones. I travel with mine for flights that are over 2-3 hours; shorter than that, I can get by with smaller earbuds to drown out the noise. Your experience may differ, but my ears get irritated after a few hours, so an over-the-ear model works best for me on long flights.

Identify a pair of “airport flats” that work for you. I’m usually in business professional clothing when I travel, and I prefer to wear heels to client meetings. If you’re often in heels, I recommend identifying a pair of neutral “airport flats” that you keep in your luggage and can change into after a client meeting, before you have to dash through the airport to catch your flight. Comfortable ballet flats work well.

Prepare for long-haul flights. Long-haul and overnight flights require a little extra effort. When I’m flying overnight, I add a few things to my work bag, including: my noise-cancelling headphones, eye drops, panty liners (I’m serious, pack a few to stay fresh on long flights!), woolen socks, an eye mask (I prefer the 40 Blinks mask from Bucky), and a superb travel pillow (I prefer the Aeris neck pillow; Travel and Leisure has an excellent list for different types of sleepers). I also drink a lot of water and use Airborne; I’m not sure if the Airborne actually does anything but I rarely get sick while traveling.

Stay active healthy. Whether I’m traveling for a single night or several weeks, my gym clothes and sneakers come with me. Staying active on the road helps my energy and keeps me healthy. Nearly every hotel has a fitness facility, and it’s possible to get a great workout in your room, too. I also eat healthy, looking for fresh fruits and vegetables and avoiding the temptation to grab a “treat” just because I’m on the road. Since I often travel to the same locations, I’ve learned where I can get a healthy meal on the go. And in an unfamiliar airport or city, a quick Google search can reveal the best options nearby. Hydration is also really important when you're traveling; drink a lot of water if you'll be stationary and near a bathroom for a few hours!

Set two alarms. I’ll end on a very practical note. Never, ever rely on just one alarm to wake you up. If you use the hotel clock, set your phone as a backup. And, if you use your phone, call down to reception to request a wakeup call.

Those are some of my very favorite business travel tips. In a future post, I’ll share my favorite travel hacks, tech, and apps to make the journey easier. I’d love to hear if there are any that are new to you, or if you have any you’d like to add. Travel safely, and enjoy the journey!

xoxo,

Ms. Financier

25 Things Women Should Stop Apologizing For At Work

It’s time to stop being sorry. Many of us were taught to be nice, mind our manners, and apologize. Those well-intended (gendered) behavior guidelines can hurt us in the workplace.

 Women apologize more than men. Pantene even created an ad that highlighted our tendency to say sorry. However, it is important to note that when evaluating the same set of situations, we identify more of them as apology-worthy compared to men. That said, “I’m sorry,” weakens your position and puts you on the defensive in the workplace. 

Save your “sorry” for when it is needed; a difficult situation your coworker is going through at home...not before you ask a question. Here are 25 things we must stop apologizing for at work.

  1. Bumping into someone: “Pardon me,” is a perfectly acceptable response when you bump into a colleague. Acknowledge, but don’t apologize.

  2. Asking a question: Don’t start your question with, “I’m sorry;” instead use language like, “Excuse me,” “Could you clarify…,” or “I  have a question.”

  3. Answering a question: You’re asked something you don’t have the answer to. “I’ll look into that,” or “No, I don’t have the analysis for Asia,” is better than apologizing.

  4. Getting sick: Whether you stay home or leave suddenly during the day, do not apologize for falling ill! Presenteeism hurts productivity; if you’re contagious, your coworkers will thank you for staying home.

  5. Caring for a family member: If a family member or friend falls ill or needs help following a medical procedure, don’t apologize for using your time off to care for them.

  6. Declining a request: You’re asked by a peer to do something you can’t (or shouldn’t). Decline without apology; suggest other colleagues or related resources if you’d like.

  7. Requesting materials: You’re preparing for a meeting, and need certain supplies. State your request, not: “I’m sorry, but could get a projector for today’s session?”

  8. Starting a meeting: The meeting you’re leading is about to begin and everyone is still chatting. Start with, “Good afternoon, let’s begin,” and not, “I’m sorry to interrupt…”

  9. Being busy: Your colleague wants to meet with you, but your calendar is full. Don’t apologize; see if you can skip a “nice to have” meeting or suggest a few alternative dates.

  10. Asking for benefits information: HR teams are designed to source, attract, and keep great employees. When you ask for clarification on your benefits, don’t apologize. State your question clearly so they can get you the information you need.

  11. Asking for time off: In America, time off is a benefit that more than half of us don’t use in full. Don’t start with, “I’m sorry to ask for a few days next month;” simply communicate the dates you’re requesting.

  12. Announcing a pregnancy: It can be scary to tell your employer about an upcoming pregnancy, even though it shouldn’t be. Here’s how to tell your boss - no apologies permitted!

  13. Writing an email: Don’t add “sorry” to your emails. It undermines your credibility and unnecessarily documents an apology.

  14. Rescheduling a meeting: Don’t make a huge deal out of having to move a meeting. A simple, “We will need to reschedule,” with alternative times will suffice.

  15. Beginning your presentation: Right before you begin presenting, an apology slips out, like: “Sorry, these slides aren’t as organized as I’d like,” or “Sorry I only prepared this yesterday.” Don’t undercut your authority before you’ve even begun!

  16. Addressing a disruptive colleague: “Sorry, we need to move on to the next agenda item,” may silence Disruptive Dan, but why are you apologizing? Instead, try, “Dan, your point is noted. Now, we’ll address the next item, to ensure we cover everything on today’s agenda.”

  17. Requesting time from a senior executive: Senior sponsors play a critical role in career advancement. Here’s how to cultivate those relationships. Importantly, do not start off by apologizing when you ask for their time.

  18. Catching up after returning from leave: When you return back from vacation, parental leave, or an illness, you need help to catch up. Be gracious to your colleagues, but don’t apologize for being out or needing assistance to get back up to speed.

  19. Participating in an important life event: Everyone’s life outside of work is different. If you’re not available because you’re at your daughter’s important recital, or cheering for your best friend in her first marathon, don’t apologize - find another way to get the information or suggest a different time.

  20. Popping into the boss’ office: Your boss’ door is open, and you’d like to tell her about the fantastic client feedback you received. Don’t start with, “I’m sorry, Sheryl, do you have a minute?” Instead, try: “Sheryl, since your door is open, I know you’d appreciate some fantastic client feedback.” She’ll let you know if she doesn’t have time.

  21. Admitting a big mistake: Yikes - the report you sent to Alpha Company included two massive data errors. Immediately alert your boss; bring her the details of the situation and at least two ideas on how to fix it, not an apology.

  22. Informing an employee they didn’t get promoted: This is tough, but a well-intended apology undermines your promotion processes. Be direct and empathetic but not apologetic; “Cameron, you didn’t receive a promotion. You may be disappointed; I can provide a detailed summary of feedback on the two skills you’ll need to improve.”

  23. Giving a client bad news: Communicating bad news gracefully is challenging. Your client wants to understand the situation, why it occurred, and what alternatives they are now facing - not how sorry you are.

  24. Giving an employee a poor review: Ideally, you’ve had prior discussions about where they are failing to meet expectations. However, discussing a poor performance review is difficult. Stick to the facts; apologizing can only undermine the feedback you’re providing.

  25. Firing someone: Letting someone go is best done swiftly, directly, and in partnership with HR. You may be tempted to apologize, but doing so can muddy the message. “I’m so sorry, Andre I have to let you go,” may sound nice, but it’s not clear. Instead, use language like; “Andre, today is your last day at Alpha Company. You have not achieved your goals in the last three months and are frequently late to work. Here is the paperwork to complete in order to receive your last paycheck.”

Stop apologizing and start being direct. If you think you apologize frequently, share this article with a trusted colleague or friend who can hold you accountable. And, if you’re mentoring other women, let them know if you observe them over-apologizing - they’ll thank you for it!

Are there any that I missed? Do you disagree with my recommendations? Let me know.

xoxo, Ms. Financier

This post also appeared on the Fairygodboss blog - I love their mission to improve the lives and workplace for women, through transparency.

Five Money Lessons From My Childhood

I am lucky. I grew up in a household where we talked about money. I was raised in a middle-class, Midwestern suburb, and I credit Momma and Papa Financier for so, so much, particularly when it comes to my relationship with money. 

In the 80’s, we faced times where my father’s work (tied to the Detroit auto industry) slowed down, and that often meant my parents worked more while the entire family tightened our belts. We’d look for creative ways to find money - which included me taking on babysitting jobs and my siblings and me biking to local construction sites and picking up pop cans. (Cans could be returned for a ten cent deposit in Michigan, famously exploited by Kramer in a Seinfeld episode.)

When we wanted to buy the Nintendo Entertainment System, the money generated from our pop can-foraging expeditions contributed greatly. Transparency around costs and wants (like the NES) and needs, helped me understand how money worked as a little tyke. Here are five money lessons that stemmed from my early childhood.

1. All money is not created equal. My parents had a large glass jar on our wet bar that was full of spare change. At four years old, I would gaze at it in awe, thinking it contained the riches of the world. One day, my babysitter and I counted the money - we started with the copper coins and had over 100 of them. I’ll never forget the heartbreak I felt when she said, “One hundred pennies means we have one whole dollar!”

I remember thinking, “ALL of those pennies equal ONE lousy dollar?!” My shock must have shown on my little money-minded face. Next, my sitter explained that I only needed four of the large silver coins to make one dollar (much more palatable). Even better, we had a few Kennedy half dollars which added up quite quickly.

This lesson taught that all currency is not created equal. Today, I can apply today to other categories of finance, like mutual funds and ETFs. Simply because they are in the same category does not mean they have the same value, risk, or cost.

2. Doing the things no one wants to do can get you paid. We had an apple tree in our backyard, which was a superb climbing apparatus. However, every fall it also dropped loads of apples that my dad had to gather in order to cut the grass.

Papa Financier hated picking the apples up, and I offered to do it for a penny an apple. Any apples that deemed “very gross” were worth five cents, though I had to be ready to show them to my dad for inspection (they had to be rotten, or crawling with bugs and worms).

I'd tear around the yard with my apple bucket, excited because we didn't ever get paid for chores like these. Dad must really hate this task to pay me for it (or, I was very, very cheap labor)!  

Taking this approach as an adult can help generate extra income or create opportunities. One of the things I encourage new employees to do is find something that you can get good at, ideally that no one else wants to do. Take it, own it, kill it and make more income from it than I did with my buckets of apples.

3. Your money can make you money. I referenced this briefly in my introduction; one of my very early financial memories. I was five years old and my dad explained that the bank would pay me interest in exchange for my savings. This blew my mind - money without having to work for it!

At the time, U.S. savings bonds were earning 7.5%; as a comparison, the current rate through October 2017 is 0.10% (yes, only ten basis points.) The idea that I could put one dollar in the bank and earn more than a nickel by the end of the year was miraculous. This concept made saving money both compelling and tangible. I could see that free nickel from the bank with every dollar I got my hands on.

This concept is at the heart of financial freedom, which is the point at which our assets (investments and income from real estate, for example) produce enough regular income to cover our expenses. It’s also at the heart of the most powerful element of investing - compound interest.

4. Save at least half of any unexpected income. Starting as early as I can recall, my parents suggested I save at least some of the gifts I would receive for birthdays or other celebrations. They didn’t require it, or take it from me, but they’d remind me of the power of saving...versus spending it all.

Nearly 30 years later, I still remember a girlfriend who got three beautifully crisp $20 bills in her Easter Basket when we were 8 years old. The Financier household had fun, sugar-fueled Easters but our bunny hid candy, not cash. My friend showed me those three Jacksons and immediately started rattling off what she was going to buy. My heart hurt that not one dollar was going to the bank!

When we receive a windfall - an unanticipated bonus, or a generous birthday check - we’re more tempted to frivolously, quickly spend it. Our brains tend to compartmentalize and we view the extra money as distinct from our paycheck (which we spend more responsibly). One study on the psychology of unexpected, windfall gains concluded, “...the unanticipated nature of windfall gains is responsible for their heightened proclivity to be spent.” Emily Guy Birken also writes about this concept in her book, End Financial Stress Now

Don't let windfall gains slip through your fingers! I see this today. In management consulting, I'd see folks at bonus time rattle off the vacations, cars, treats they'd be buying with their bonus...and rarely hear folks talk about how excited they were to invest or save some of it. Today, I usually treat myself with at least one splurge when bonus season comes around. But most of it goes to longer-term financial goals, like saving for travel, debt payoff, or my Vanguard Financial Freedom account.

5. Anything worth buying is worth saving for. In the 80s and 90s, many retailers offered something called “layaway” where you could pick an item out and the store would set it aside for you; you could pay the store over a period of time, and receive the item once you’d submitted enough money to pay for the item. Importantly to me, Toys ‘R Us had this service.

When I outgrew my first bicycle, I started saving (along with my parents) for a pink and purple Huffy bike. This bike was absolutely outstanding. It even had a matching bag that attached to the handlebars, so I could carry my He-Man and She-Ra characters around the neighborhood with me. Sweet, right?!

To pay for this bike, I'd save up money and go with my parents to the customer service counter, present our funds, and get a ticket showing me exactly how much we had left to submit before the bike was mine to take home. What an amazing illustration of how to save up for a specific item!

This taught me to save first, spend next. When credit cards came into my life, I forgot this lesson and paid for it dearly. Now that I finally have my credit card debt under control (more on that later), I use a “layaway” approach for big purchases, from new Charlotte Olympias to appliance replacements, home improvement projects, and vacations.

I'm so grateful that I grew up with these five lessons. And while they didn't prevent me from making money mistakes they've certainly given me a strong financial foundation.

What about you? Are there money lessons you learned when you were little? I’d love to hear from you.

xoxo, Ms. Financier

Three Answers You’ll Get From “End Financial Stress Now”

One of the most fabulous things about exploring the world of personal finance is meeting other money-minded gurus. On Twitter, I follow loads of personal finance bloggers, advisors, and money mavens. There’s the practical benefit; a constant flow of interesting perspective on money and there’s also the benefit of being part of (and contributing to) a community. 

One of the finance writers I’ve had the chance to meet (virtually) is Emily Guy Birken, author of End Financial Stress Now, The 5 Years Before You Retire, and Choose Your Retirement. Emily shipped me a copy of her latest book, saying, “While [my new book] is not specifically feminist, it is geared toward helping people manage their financial stress at all income levels. (I hate that most PF books are clearly geared toward upper middle class readers). Thought it could be a good fit for you if you're interested...” I devoured End Financial Stress Now in just a few days; here’s my review and the three answers you’ll get from Emily’s book.

I’m overwhelmed with life and money, where should I start? I could imagine this book being particularly useful for those going through a big life change. New high school or college graduates, someone who is recently separated, or a person with a brand new job. Emily doesn’t shy away from the fact that money can be a stressor, damage relationships, and make us feel not-so-great.

Emily pushes us to first understand our relationship to money, so we can improve it. Her book starts with a section on Redefining Money and the first chapter asks, What Does Money Mean to You? She includes common feelings about money: shame, respect, security, freedom, success, love, time and encourages us to determine what money means to us. I found this section to be particularly powerful; as women, many of us are encouraged explicitly to be good, helpful, and kind - but not powerful or successful. This can hamper us from having a productive and respectful relationship with money.

Later, Emily encourages us to explore our money scripts. She writes, “A money script is an unconscious core belief about money. Such scripts inform everything you do with money.” Chapter seven explores four money scripts; avoidance, worship, status, and vigilance. She briefly describes the positive and negative characteristics of each and outlines the tactics you can employ to ensure your money scripts aren’t creating financial stress.

There’s also a short quiz you can take to quantify your relationship to the four scripts. Mr. Financier and I took it together, which started an interesting conversation. We both scored highly on Money Vigilance, but I also scored highly on Money Worship. This didn’t surprise me; I always have to remind myself money isn’t the answer to all my problems. As a couple, our joint tendency towards Money Vigilance has caused friction. At one point, our budget was so restrictive it created stress for both of us, because we were denying ourselves too many experiences we valued. Emily’s quiz helped us re-visit this topic in a really productive way.

How does human behavior relate to personal finance? Throughout the book, Emily explains powerful, academic concepts down using simple language. For anyone that has a curious, nerdy, academic streak - you’ll find these portions fascinating! Many of us are really interested in human motivations and Emily’s exploration into common biases and behaviors is really interesting.

Two of my favorites are restraint bias (explored on page 86) and the loss aversion (page 91). Restraint bias acknowledges that most of us think we can resist temptation, even though we often fall prey to it when faced with something tempting. I’ve been in credit card debt at least six times in my life. Each time I’ve paid off a balance, I swear, “I’ll never, ever use my cards to buy something I can’t afford.” But then, an email hits my inbox advertising a fabulous shoe sale at Neiman Marcus, and I let myself to splurge, racking up debt on my card again! Emily explains you need to know your weaknesses and plan for them; in my case, I have to unsubscribe from Neiman Marcus emails and avoid going to the mall “for shopping,” because I’ll be far too tempted.

Emily devotes an entire chapter to loss aversion, a term that describes how humans feel loss more acutely than gain. For example, finding a $5 bill on the sidewalk provides a momentary burst of happiness; but misplacing $5 that you just know you had in your coat pocket is more painful. I believe that women can particularly benefit from this chapter; we are often in the role of managing all the “things” in our home - buying gifts for others, decorating, shopping for clothes for our family members. If we better understand and combat loss aversion, we’ll save more money and avoid cluttering our lives with things we don’t need.

What practical, easy-to-follow financial advice can I adopt immediately? While understanding our biases and human behavior is critical, End Financial Stress Now includes plenty of practical tips. I particularly enjoyed the last part of the book, Achieving a Stress-Free Financial Life, where Emily digs into budgeting, managing expenses, and self-discipline.

I’m a big fan of negotiation (see my thoughts about asking for a raise). On page 161, Emily highlights a series of expenses we should be negotiating (and provides tips on how to do so.) Many women were taught to follow the rules as little girls; a nice sentiment, but the rules of commerce are often unwritten. Everything is negotiable. That doesn’t mean we’ll always get what we want, but I find women are more anxious than men to ask for lower prices or different payment terms. Researchers have found similar gender differences, particularly around initiating a negotiation. What is the absolute worst that will happen? Your offer will be declined and you’ll be where you are now, in the status quo. Let’s start negotiating, ladies!

The very practical section on budgeting is entitled, Budgeting with Your Psychology in Mind. I absolutely love this approach, because what works for one person might not for another. I’ve shared my approach, scarcity budgeting, but have come across many other approaches that work well for others. This section includes worksheets that help you think through what to include in your budget, as well as a variety of suggestions on how to budget. If I could copy one section and give it out to the women in my life, it would be this chapter!

Emily Guy Birken’s book is incredibly accessible and thoughtful. As someone who has read a lot of personal finance advice, I found her take to be a unique blend of human behavior and practical advice. If you’re in a book club, I love the idea of suggesting End Financial Stress Now as a way to open up the topic of money with your friends. Or, grab a copy for yourself and lend it out liberally as a way to gently broach the topic of money with important people in your life.

As a bookworm, I’m curious to understand some of your favorite financial books. What are your go-to favorites? Is there another that you would recommend I read and review? Let me know! 

xoxo, Ms. Financier

My Money Mistakes: The Wild Terms (and Size) of My First Mortgage

Money mistakes - we all make them, don’t we? Some are bigger than others. This one's a doozy.

In late 2004, Mr. Financier and I got swept up in the housing bubble. We were in the Washington, D.C. area and struggling to afford this expensive city. So, we did what every young couple should do - buy a home. (Please read that with the full sarcasm with which it was intended.) 

Colleagues, friends, and the media concurred; while D.C. housing was expensive, real estate prices never, ever dropped. So, if we didn’t buy now, we’d never get on the property ladder. We started looking and were promptly floored by the prices. We’re Midwesterners and grew up in areas where $250,000 could buy you more house than you could ever need. In D.C., we blew right past our $300,000 maximum after a weekend of looking for properties. Shortly, we found a beautiful, obscenely sized home perfect for a couple barely out of college. (Again, sarcasm.)

Along the way, my gut told me it was all too good to be true. Yet, I was reassured at every turn. The real estate agent pointed to the rising prices, reinforcing that housing was the safest financial bet one could make. A family member encouraged me to stop investing in my 401k, because my house could become my retirement account. The lender’s very first question was, “How much do you want to borrow?” Colleagues talked excitedly about the massive tax deduction that a house provides. “Everyone in D.C. has a massive mortgage,” they assured us.

Our first mortgage had terms that make me cringe. Our combined gross pay in 2004 was $105,000; Mr. Financier has an engineering degree and I have a business degree. We were lucky to secure excellent jobs after graduation. But, our total housing debt was $607,430. We didn’t put a penny down. The mortgage was creatively assembled, as so many were in the heydays of the boom leading up to the 2008 financial crisis.

The primary mortgage was a 5/1 LIBOR interest-only loan for $472,500 at 4.75%. Interest-only meant we were only required to pay the interest during the initial five years of the loan. Regular payments we made wouldn’t decrease our outstanding balance. After five years, our loan would amortize for the remaining term and the rate would adjust. (In layman’s terms - the payment would go WAY up.) LIBOR loans are tied to the London Interbank Offered Rate, which serves as a benchmark for interest rates that banks use to loan themselves money.

The remaining debt was a home equity line of credit provided by National City. (Subsequently, National City was hit hard by the financial crisis and was acquired by PNC.) The $134,930 line of credit started with an APR of 5% but fluctuated, as lines of credit do. The rate steadily rose during the time we had this mortgage; our initial payment of $562.65 grew to $668.37 in less than a year; an increase of 18.8%. 

Initially, we were swept up in home buying excitement and assured by the encouraging chorus around us (real estate agents, lenders, media buzz, family, and friends). It wasn’t until we were in the home for a few months that we appreciated how incredibly stupid our mortgage was. We stressed as we saw the line of credit payment increase, rising steadily as the interest rate changed.

In 2005, we scrambled to find a loan officer that could refinance this ticking time bomb of a mortgage. Mr. Financier and I worked our tails off at work, trying to increase our income to both make us more attractive to lenders and reduce the balance on our interest-only mortgage.

We got very, very lucky - in October 2005, we refinanced into a more stable mortgage. Our new loans were a $520,000 first mortgage (30-year fixed at 5.75%) and a $90,000 second mortgage (20-year fixed at 7.13%). We were lucky because we refinanced before the economy imploded. Also, our rising income made it possible to secure the new mortgage - by that time, our gross income had grown to $135,900. I also give a tremendous amount of credit to my family - my parents realized what a bind we were in and offered to lend us some money to help with the payments on our new, more expensive, mortgage until we could afford it on our own. (This resulted in another money mistake; stay tuned.)

For those of you keeping track of the numbers, you noticed that our second set of mortgages was higher than the first. No, we didn’t take any cash out; the increased mortgage covered the fees associated with refinancing. We bought for $607,430 and our second set of mortgages was for $610,000 (a difference of $2,570). In the eleven months that we had our wild first mortgages, we did pay off some principal.

The first painful part of this money mistake is the $25,730.48 we paid to our lenders during the time we had the 5/1 ARM and line of credit. Much of that was interest, of course, and is money that we never got back. As I write this, well over a decade later, I still feel sick at how much stress our original mortgage added to our lives. And I feel ill thinking about what would have happened if we hadn’t been able to move to a “better” mortgage before the housing bubble popped.

The second part of this money mistake is the fact that we bought a house we couldn’t afford at a very early point in our lives. We dedicated our twenties to furiously growing our incomes in order to pay our mortgage and build our savings. Because the housing market collapsed shortly after we refinanced, we didn’t attempt to sell the house. D.C. housting was also negatively impacted by the crash and we were underwater on our home for years, which meant we were stuck.

You might be interested in what’s happening today. We are still in the same home and completed what I hope is our last refinance in 2012. We currently have a 15-year fixed rate mortgage at 3.375%, and I recommend everyone consider a 15-year mortgage when purchasing a home. Mr. Financier and I aim to eliminate our mortgage in the next five years and regularly make extra payments. 

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Whew, that was a painful money mistake to relive! But, we learn from the mistakes of others. I share this story as an example of why you should listen to your gut and resist getting caught up in the frenzy created by others, particularly when making big financial decisions. We’re so, so lucky we didn’t lose our home (or jobs) and got through the financial crisis ok. However, luck is not a sound financial strategy. 

Have you ever had a loan with wild terms or one that you regretted? What other money mistakes have you made?

xoxo, Ms. Financier

How Do You Budget? Scarcity Budgeting Works Best for Me.

Wealth is created in the space between your income and expenses. If you’re interested in growing wealth, I suggest you grow your income and manage your expenses. If you’re like me, you enjoy increasing income more than reducing costs. But, if you don’t keep an eye on your expenses it is very easy to over-spend. 

I believe the most efficient way to manage your expenses is to find a budgeting method that works for you. If you’re partnered, you need to determine how to blend your approach with your partner’s - but we’ll explore that in a future post. 

The budgeting approach that works best for me is something I call scarcity budgeting. At a high level, the idea is to set up your finances such that you do not have excess money in your checking account. By creating scarcity, you don’t have the ability to comfortably over-spend or let your money sneak away from you.

Here are the four steps to scarcity budgeting:

1. Track your expenses to understand what you’re currently spending. Then, based on your actual expenses, decide what you want to reduce, change, or keep the same. For example, you might be appalled that you’re spending $1,250 monthly on food, drink, and eating out. Or, you may be disappointed that you aren’t investing enough for your future or donating enough to the charitable causes that matter most to you.

2. Automate your finances. I do this by having separate accounts for things that aren’t daily expenses. Travel, fun money to splurge on shoes or gifts, and boring necessities like car maintenance are funneled into different savings accounts. Each payday, a certain amount of money automatically transfers out of my account and into these savings accounts. Same for charitable contributions, regular bills, and investing; money is sent to those organizations on a defined schedule.

3. Spend only what’s left. After my money is whisked away, I’m only left with enough to buy gas, groceries, household items, and restaurant meals in accordance with my budget. I keep an eye on my checking account and don’t give in to putting things on credit cards to “tide me over” until my next payday.

4. Save or invest any excess. This is the fun part of scarcity budgeting! (Yes, I’m serious). If my checking account grows too large (because I haven’t been spending that much on regular expenses), I save or invest. This “found money” contributes to my other financial goals and gives me an unexpected financial boost. 

That’s my approach to scarcity budgeting in four steps. For me, this budgeting approach has worked wonders. Because I do not have excess money in my checking at any given time, I am not tempted to spend. Importantly, I rarely use credit cards because I have struggled with credit card debt in the past - which I’ll address in a future post.

Do you use scarcity budgeting? Is there another approach to budgeting that you prefer? Or, are you one of the financial unicorns who doesn’t budget yet still manages to build wealth? Let me know!

xoxo, Ms. Financier

Three Reasons Why Financial Freedom Is a Priority For Me

There aren’t many people in my life that know about my goal to retire by 45. While I love to talk about money and personal finance, only a few people know I’m spending most of my money trying to reach financial freedom (the point at which our investments produce enough regular income to cover our expenses). 

That said, when I get brave enough to share, one of the common reactions is incredulity. Some suspect I have a major trust fund (I don’t), or that Mr. Financier and I have inherited wealth (we haven’t); others are curious about the math behind financial independence; and others say, “Retire by 45?! Why would you want to retire so early - what will you DO with yourself!?”  

 The answer to that question is exactly why I’m so focused on financial freedom, so I’d like to share my perspective. I also recognize how lucky I am that my circumstances and hard work have put me in a position to consider leaving the workforce at a relatively early age. Here are three reasons why I’m so focused on this goal.

#1: I Need More Time for Hobbies

There’s a lot that I enjoy...reading, traveling, hiking, bicycling, volunteering, mountaineering, kayaking, discussing personal finance, bird watching, running, weightlifting, yoga, cooking, learning and taking classes, enjoying a nice glass of wine...to name a few.  With my current career, I am left with only two precious days each week - Saturday and Sunday - to focus on my hobbies. Realistically, those days are currently also filled with chores that get neglected during the workweek.

I get more enjoyment from a day that allows me to focus on the things that bring me joy. A day that starts with a morning yoga class, a post-class coffee with local volunteers to strategize about an upcoming campaign, followed by a hike in the woods and picnic lunch with my partner, ending with starting the first several chapters of a huge novel before a delicious home cooked dinner and glass of wine - that’s a dream.

If I’m lucky, I get 4 days like that a month.  If I’m realistic, it’s only 1 - and that’s depressing, to me. The idea that I might be able to escape the daily grind and have more time to spend on the things I enjoy is incredibly motivating, empowering, and liberating.

#2: I’m Sick of Working

I’ve been earning a paycheck in some way, shape, or form since I was 13. Before that, I babysat for neighborhood kids (I even had my own business cards and completed the American Red Cross Babysitting & Child Care Training) and did clerical work or physical labor as needed for my dad’s small business. When I was able to take a job outside the neighborhood at 13, I began earning paychecks. I’ve worked at a daycare center, served as a restaurant hostess, was a cashier at a sporting goods store, interned at a financial planner’s office, served as a lifeguard, and interned at a law firm...all before turning 21.

Since graduating from college, I have worked in consulting. There’s plenty to love about my career; the client challenges are fascinating, I work with smart colleagues, and I get to travel extensively. As most businesspeople know, traveling for work is both a pleasure and a grind; on the whole, I realize that I’m lucky to explore the world as part of my work. However, the massive time commitment and consistent stamina required of at a full-time job in management consulting is something I’d gladly leave behind. At the end of the day - it’s work. It's work I have to do because I need money to live.

#3: I Finally Realized That Experiences > Things

I think of 2011 as the year that the scales fell from my eyes around the value of material goods. I won’t tell you that I have sworn off beautiful things - I still salivate over a gorgeous pair of Louboutins. But, during the financial crisis, I was terrified I’d lose my retirement savings, job, and home. When the economy began to improve, I bounced back in a very financially counterproductive way. I rewarded myself with a lot of things. And those things weren’t necessarily making me feel happier or more secure. I’d often open up my credit card bills and feel nauseous about how much I spent on “stuff.”

That year, I started taking smaller steps to get my financial house in order. I stopped planning shopping afternoons with friends and instead suggested museums or picnic lunches. I canceled my recurring housekeeping service and began cleaning my own home. Mr. Financier and I started reviewing our budgets even more regularly and critically to look for areas where we were leaking money. We re-routed “fun money” that we had previously spent mindlessly towards investments. I got more serious about my career, knowing that if I grew my income, I’d have more to invest. Simultaneously I started exploring the FIRE movement and was very inspired by others that had saved enough to stop full-time work in their 50s, 40s, or earlier!

I began to internalize that, for me, life experiences will always deliver more value than material goods. And I’ve always been a fan of aligning money with your personal values. This series of realizations helped me put my money to work for my future, instead of on things I’d enjoy in the present.

As you can see by these three reasons, the goal of achieving financial freedom is so important to me because time is an incredibly precious asset and given the choice (which I’m grateful to have), I prefer free up time for experiences outside of work. I’m curious if you’ve contemplated financial freedom - either earlier in your 30s or 40s or later in life. If so, what drove you to explore the idea? Let me know your thoughts.

 xoxo, Ms. Financier

How To Create Your Retirement Budget

I get incredibly excited about the idea of creating a retirement budget. It is a chance to imagine my life at a point when I no longer have to work and can fill my time as I choose. I think about my retirement budget as a “financial freedom budget;" I aim to stop working a traditional job (or before) I reach the age of 45. Those that know about my goal of financial freedom ask about my budget. In this post, I’ll share how I think about my future spending.

I created my first financial freedom budget in 2013 when I started exploring the FIRE community (Financially Independent, Retired Early). Before that, I'd always thought, “Retirement is so far away, I can’t imagine what my budget will look like.” I had never considered how I’d be living when I stopped working; it was always “off in the future” and so “far away.” I could figure it out later, right?

My thinking changed once I was bitten by the bug to achieve financial independence. I became inspired to figure out exactly how much Mr. Financier and I would need to save to become financially free. A key part of that is how much we’d be spending, so modeling our future budget became critically important. 

At first, thinking about the expenses we’d incur for the rest of our lives was overwhelming. There are so many variables and assumptions. So, I began in the most obvious place - with our current household budget. I reviewed our annual expenses from 2012 and began making adjustments from there. The first adjustment was easy; I immediately deleted my two largest monthly expenditures. These were our mortgage (which we plan to pay off before we stop working) and our retirement savings. That change immediately reduced our monthly expenses by 59%.

Are you surprised that we were spending nearly 60% of our income on retirement and our mortgage?  Two things to keep in mind: First, we refinanced our generously-sized home (and associated generously-sized mortgage) into a 15-year loan that we pay extra on each month. Second, in 2011 and 2012 we had already optimized our budget to remove extra expenses in order to invest more our income.

Note that many mortgage payments include property taxes and homeowners insurance payments; these won’t disappear once your loan is paid off. If you plan to pay off your mortgage before retirement, include your taxes and insurance payments in your retirement budget.

Next, we reviewed our entire budget and made adjustments to reflect what we expected to spend once in the future. Like any budget, ours is a best guess and a living document that we keep coming back to and modifying over time. Here is a summary of the major changes we made.

Home Maintenance Saving: We added a dedicated line item equivalent to 1% of our home’s value to save each month for repairs, since we would not have salary and bonuses to help pay for any big expenses out of upcoming cash flows.

Health Insurance and Healthcare: We increased costs for health and dental insurance for us both, estimated based on visiting online sites and getting quotes (pretending we were 55.) We assumed we’d be paying more for healthcare as we age and increased spending in that category.

Auto Insurance: This line item decreased, as we’d sell one of our two cars in retirement (no more dual commuting) and we’d also be driving fewer miles annually, without the daily trip to work.

Travel: I love exploring, so this line item went up significantly. I increased our travel expenses three-fold. Right now, Mr. Financier and I are very time constrained and don’t travel as much as we’d like given our careers. I look forward to “slow travel” when we’re financially free - weeks or months in one location, living more like a local.

Clothes & Dry Cleaning: This went WAY down, as we wouldn’t need to be in our professional work gear every day. I still plan to buy shoes, but perhaps not quite as many new pairs each year!

Food, Wine, Dining: We increased these slightly; business travel subsidizes some of our fine dining today and we do plan to enjoy going out weekly in our financially free days. I’m also a wine enthusiast, and I’d like to explore it even more in the future.

Hobbies: We increased our hobby expenses, though not by much as we have pretty inexpensive hobbies (reading, running, hiking, camping, and yoga). I did add in additional costs for classes and seminars; there are so many amazing programs in the D.C. area and I regularly can’t participate because of my work schedule.

With these adjustments, Mr. Financier and ended up with a total monthly requirement that is far lower than our expenses today. When I did the math, I was stunned that we could have the lifestyle reflected in this retirement budget, for so much less than we were living on.

What about inflation? Many prefer to include inflation in their modeling. I do all of my calculations in today’s dollars.  Yes, inflation is real, but we never intend to move our entire portfolio out of the market, so we expect that keeping our money in the market will combat inflation - just like it does for us today.

Is my retirement budget perfect? Like any model, I know it isn’t. However, it is a starting point that allows me to explore how much income I’ll likely need to replace when I stop working full time. Many that approach financial freedom begin to live on their post-retirement budget a few years before they stop working. I like this idea as a way to reality-check and pressure-test the budget.

Have you built a budget that reflects your expenses post-career? If so, how did you do it? What feedback or suggestions do you have for me?

xoxo, Ms. Financier

The Magic Number Behind Financial Freedom

To me, financial freedom is the most glorious phrase - even better than free Manolos. What is financial freedom? It is the point at which our assets (investments and income from real estate, for example) produce enough regular income to cover our expenses. I find the idea magical! Financial freedom means we’ve invested so much that our own money has turned into our primary source of income. At this point, we no longer “need” to work for income.

At first, financial freedom sounds impossible. Only for the very wealthy, or for the tremendously lucky. I acknowledge that this magical concept isn’t accessible to everyone. However, the cold, hard math suggests that far more of us could achieve financial freedom if desired; it is a choice that requires us to prioritize growing our wealth.

You may aim to achieve financial freedom in order to retire in your 60s (or later). Or, you might be driven towards an earlier date; your 50s, 40s, or even 30s. I've shared that my goal is to reach financial freedom by 45 (or earlier). If the idea of a “work-optional” life appeals to you, there is one key number you need to understand. This number makes it possible to eliminate the need to work in a traditional career, or stop working all together! So what is it?

Four percent, which refers to the 4% safe withdrawal rate (also called the 4% rule). Why 4%? Several studies have confirmed that retirees can safely withdraw 4% of their nest egg every year, without the risk of running out of money, and without adding to their savings. While the returns on investments will vary (some years more than 4%, some years less than 4%), if you consistently withdraw 4% annually, you’ll avoid the risk of completely depleting your funds. Here’s a roundup of some of the most relevant research.

The most well-known exploration includes the Trinity Study, which originated at Trinity University. Professors explored market data between 1925 and 1995, seeking to understand what withdrawal approaches wouldn’t exhaust the retiree’s nest egg. They wrote, “Withdrawal rates of 3% and 4% are extremely unlikely to exhaust any portfolio of stocks and bonds during any of the payout periods [15- or 30-years].”

Even before that research, William Bengen’s 1994 study, Determining Withdrawal Rates Using Historical Data, analyzed and tested various withdrawal rates against historical market data. The maximum rate that retirees could withdraw without depleting their savings? You guessed it - 4%. One important assumption in this study is that 50% of the portfolios were in bonds. (It is common for retirees to place large amounts in lower-risk investments like bonds. I personally plan to have a longer retirement and will put far less than 50% in bonds).

Finally, Michael Kitces, a financial expert and lifelong learner who has many professional designations in the world of finance (see them all here), also examined periods of time going back to the 1870s - and he found that there isn’t a 30-year period in which a 4% withdrawal rate was too high. His fascinating post is here.

You can find endless information on the 4% rule and it is important to explore the studies, in order to understand the relevant assumptions. Importantly, if you believe the studies (which I heartily do) you can do some serious planning for financial freedom.

Let’s play along: if your living expenses are $75,000, you’d need to have $1.87M in order to fully cover your expenses. (You would withdraw 4% of $1.87M, which is $75,000.)

But, let’s say you spend some of that $75,000 on your mortgage (which you will pay off before becoming financially free), saving for retirement, and investing in a college fund for your niece (who goes to college next year). Then, these are expenses you won’t have to account for in the future; you might really spend only $50,000 each year! This lowers your investment requirement to $1.25M.

If you’re like me, you probably have lots of questions.

What about inflation? Simple answer: keeping some of your money invested in the market will fight inflation.

What if you want to spend more when you're financially free? That’s great; just up your budget appropriately and re-calculate the nest egg required.

What if 4% feels too risky for you? Change your withdrawal rate. Use 3.5%, 3%, 2.5%...whatever you feel comfortable with.

How can you know what your future budget will be? Short answer: create your best model based on your current budget. Longer answer: check out my next post.

In summary, the 4% rule gives you a tangible, specific number to work towards in order to achieve financial freedom. You may think the amounts required to generate income to cover your expenses sound impossibly big. You might ask yourself, “How the heck will I ever save $1.25M?!” I’ll tell you - one dollar at a time. The magic of compound interest will help you grow your money at a fast rate over time.

There’s plenty of discussion on whether the 4% rule still holds true today, as time in retirement lengthens. I encourage you to explore alternative models and determine what would work for you.

One thing I can promise? You’ll never get there if you don’t get started. Your path to wealth all depends on what you do with the space between your income and your expenses. If you grow that space, by increasing your income and reducing your expenses, you give yourself a greater opportunity to achieve freedom earlier.

I'm also a big fan of starting small and persistently increasing your investments over time. Figure out the best estimate of your target nest egg and get investing. I’ll see you in financial freedom!

Do you believe the 4% SWR? If not, what withdrawal rate do you prefer? Let me know!

xoxo, Ms. Financier

Financial Planners: How to pick the right one for you

If you've decided to work with a financial planner, selecting the right person (or team) for you will take some effort. Remember, financial experts come in many forms. Source recommendations from family and friends. If they’ve had a great, long-term advisor you should add that expert to your list. Other professionals in your network, like attorneys, insurance agents, and physicians can also be a good source for recommendations. But don’t forget to explore the CFP® Board’s directory of Certified Financial Planners (CFPs). These individuals have achieved a specific certification that includes hands-on client work, educational requirements, and standards of ethics.

Once you have developed a list of 3 - 6 planners you’re interested in, I suggest you consider three elements to narrow down your possibilities.

Credentials - what expertise do they have? I clearly prefer Certified Financial Planners, but your potential planner may also have other certifications or designations. Some to keep an eye out for include CPA (Certified Public Accountant, or an expert in the tax code) and CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst, or the equivalent of a master’s degree in finance.) Explore where they have studied, what continuing education they pursue, and whether they teach seminars or classes - this will help you understand their expertise.

Increasingly, you’ll find planners that have social media accounts. I follow several CFPs that provide fabulous advice and insight, and the CFP Board also shares advice from those that have achieved certification. By scanning social media profiles, you can get a sense of a planner's personality, interests, and whether they might be a good fit for you.

Incentives - how do they make money? If you’re hiring a professional, they need compensation for their services. Generally, there are three models of payment: Fee-only means they charge for their advice, often hourly or in set packages; Assets under management means they charge a percentage of the fees that they invest and manage on your behalf (this is typical of investment/wealth managers, and not something I recommend for most); Commissions means they get paid by banks and financial services firms for selling certain financial products (like annuities) to you.

Your financial planner’s incentives should be in line with your incentives, which is why I never, ever work with commission-based advisors. My strong preference is for a fee-only advisor with an hourly rate. If they provide great advice, you’ll recommend them to others and use them again - which will make them more money. Thus, your incentives are aligned.

Fiduciary - is your financial planner a fiduciary? You may be thinking, “What the heck is a fiduciary?” In short, it means that advisors must both disclose conflicts of interest and consistently put their client’s interests first. This is not legally required, even though many assume it is. The suitability standard is required by law, which only asks advisors to consider whether investments are suitable. In my opinion, suitability is a very subjective standard.

You will not be surprised that I think a fiduciary is non-negotiable. Ask your advisor, and don’t take their word for it. Get it in writing and ask for documentation. If you hire CFP, their certification ensures they are acting as a fiduciary.

In addition to those questions, plan to “interview” at least 3 planners in a more detailed discussion to find the right fit for you. Money magazine provided a set of 10 questions to ask. I particularly love the last two: “Why did you become a financial planner,” and “What five important financial or investment books have you read?”

Some of you have asked me what I do; I largely self-manage my money, with a check-in every now and then with a fee-only advisor. However, several years ago, that fee-only advisor did a huge comprehensive review of my finances which was very helpful and illuminated a few blind spots for me. I’m happy to recommend the group I use - they work all across the United States via video/teleconferences with clients and do a very thorough job. (I do not receive any referral fees for recommending clients to them.)

What else would you recommend to those considering a financial planner? Do you have any other questions I can help with? Good luck finding the right advisor - it takes time, but can be very well worth it.

xoxo, Ms. Financier

What’s a Financial Planner? Answers to Three Common Questions

Personal finance can feel overwhelming. An insightful article in The Atlantic explored financial literacy and reported, “While Americans are not expected to manage their own legal cases or medical conditions, they are expected to manage their own finances.” I’m curious - who do you trust for financial advice? Are they knowledgeable, experienced, and on strong financial footing themselves?

The wealthy often teach positive and valuable money habits to their children. But what about those of us that didn’t grow up rich? What about women that grew up in families where it was taboo, rude, or stressful to discuss money? How can we ensure we’re making the right steps with our money?

One option is educating yourself and managing your own money. There are fabulous financial education resources available; between books, podcasts, and personal finance forums, we can become very money-savvy. But sometimes, we want an expert that can specifically examine our unique situation, and answer questions about our goals and challenges. This can be a role for a financial planner.

What can a financial planner do for me? Fair question - because of the lack of regulation around titles and designations, services can vary. Broadly, planners work with you to build a financial plan that supports your goals. A financial planner can analyze your current situation, help you set financial targets, recommend changes to meet your objectives, provide advice, and measure your progress. A quality plan will evaluate and include your entire financial landscape, including sources of income, expenses, debts, investment accounts and holdings, life insurance, and more - comparing your current state to your goals.

One portion of financial planning is investment planning; examining your specific investments, recommending how much of your portfolio should be in certain mutual funds or ETFs. But financial planning is wider than your investment strategy. If you’re just looking for investment advice - great, but a planner offers wider support. Fee-only financial planners change an hourly rate, and often offer an initial consultation for free.

Where can I find a financial planner? I suggest starting in two places. First, ask family and friends for referrals. Ask if they’ve had a productive, positive experience that has improved their financial situation over the long term. Second, explore the CFP Board’s directory of Certified Financial Planners. These individuals have received a certification that includes completing practical and theoretical financial education, passing a rigorous examination, gaining years of hands-on experience, and upholding a high standard of ethics. Importantly, they put the client’s financial interests ahead of their own. (Importantly, this is not true of all “financial planners” or “financial advisors.”)

A good financial planner can be hard to find. Many are salespeople “veiled” as planners, others are only able to offer a limited set of financial products due to the firm they work for, and others may trade in relationships - versus quality financial advice. I’ll be clear - my bias is always towards fee-only financial planners that have attained a CFP certification. Be prepared to have introductory meetings with at least three before you select one that is right for you.

What other financial advice is out there? Accountants that are CPAs are very specifically educated about the U.S. tax code. Some CPAs achieve the Personal Financial Specialist credential (PFS); these accountants are well versed in aspects of financial planning including estate planning, investing and retirement planning. While financial planners are generally well versed on taxation, they are not required to be tax experts. So, many women choose to work with both a CPA and a financial planner, to ensure their financial plans are tax-efficient. CPAs have various fee structures but typically charge an hourly rate.

Wealth managers are also available and come in many forms. In general, wealth managers work in firms that provide financial planning, tax advice, and they will actually manage your investments on your behalf. Wealth managers typically charge by taking a percentage of “assets under management,” or how much money they are managing on your behalf.

One percent is a typical rate for wealth management services; if your wealth manager oversees your $1.2M portfolio, you’d owe them $12,000 annually. This is on top of investment fees (typically expense ratios, sometimes commissions) associated with the investments themselves. I used a $1M+ example because many wealth managers have a large investment minimum. As you can likely guess from my prior posts, I do not believe most of us require a wealth manager. A 1% fee sounds small but will eat away at wealth over the long term.

In the next post, we’ll explore how to pick the perfect planner (if you’ve decided you need one!) I’d love to hear your comments on this topic. It took me years to figure out the right balance of money professionals and everyone’s need (and desire) for advice differs.

xoxo, Ms. Financier

Three Money Lessons You Can Learn From Mountaineering

I grew up in the great mountaineering state of Michigan*. (/Sarcasm: the highest point in Michigan is Mount Arvon at 1,979 feet.) I live fewer than 200 feet above sea level in the DC area. Yet, I'm an amateur mountaineer. It all started in 2011; I stumbled across the book, No Shortcuts to the Top, by famed mountaineer Ed Viesturs at the local library. The book detailed Ed’s experiences in becoming the first American to climb the world’s 8,000-meter peaks (the 14 mountains that are all higher than 8,000 meters or 26,246 feet).

I devoured the book in one sitting and passed it to Mr. Financier. We immediately dug into other mountaineering tales - including Into Thin Air, Annapurna, and K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain. (I heartily recommend them all!) Reading about adventure and life-and-death struggles on remote, dangerous mountains made us both decide, “We need to start climbing!!” Mr. Financier started researching and found a mountaineering class that we took together. The course taught us the basics of mountaineering and enabled us to summit Mt. Baker, in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

Since 2012, we’ve climbed several hills in Washington state, including Mt. Rainier, Eldorado Peak, and Mt. Shuksan. Along the way, I’ve observed that mountaineering and personal finance are the. exact. same. thing. These are the three money lessons I’ve learned from mountaineering:

Success requires small progress for a sustained period of time. When you approach a massive mountain, like Mt. Rainier (5,400 feet at Paradise, where you often start climbing from and 14,411 feet at the summit), you look up in awe. It’s a hulking, beautiful, slab of rock, snow, and glacier. The only way to reach the summit is to place one foot (carefully) in front of the other for hours at a time.

In fact, during my summit attempts, I can’t focus on the summit - it’s far more manageable to focus on getting to the next snow mound, cresting the next glacier, or crossing the upcoming crevasse. I find myself in a mountaineering groove when I’m thinking 5 - 10 steps ahead, and working towards a near-term goal.

This is exactly like loan repayment, saving for an emergency fund, and investing for retirement. If you’re staring down a massive student loan or have ambitions to retire with millions of dollars, your goal can seem impossible. It’s easy to get discouraged, lose focus, and stop making progress. Instead, you must break your goal down into more manageable steps and move diligently forward. Celebrate the wins along the way, and keep making steady progress. Your summit will come, and it will feel amazing when you arrive.

There is no substitute for excellent preparation. When you’re climbing, you carry your life on your back and are ascending thousands of vertical feet in tricky terrain. Superb cardiovascular health, yogi-like balance, powerful strength, knowledge of the terrain, comfort with your gear, knowledge of rescue techniques, and basic first aid skills are among the many non-negotiables for the responsible mountaineer.

When Mr. Financier and I are gearing up for a climb, we up our fitness. We throw 40lbs in our backpacks, put the treadmill on max incline, and hike our tails off. We practice rescue techniques and refresh ourselves on the minutiae of our gear. We obsessively read maps and summit reports from other mountaineers to understand the terrain we’ll be facing.

This is exactly like charting a financial plan. In the Five Fabulous Steps to Financial Freedom, I described the steps to build wealth. They’re interconnected - just like cardio and strength training - but also distinct. You first need to understand where you’re starting from with a financial inventory. Then, you need a plan to strengthen and grow your income. Managing your expenses ensures your hard work doesn’t go to waste. Next, saving and investing is putting aside funds to build and grow your riches over time. Finally, just like on the mountain, you need to carefully manage your risk.

Your rope team is your survival. When you climb mountains with glaciers, you’re vulnerable to crevasses - cracks in the glacier that can be hundreds of feet deep. These crevasses can be hidden under snow, so you must rope yourself to other climbers in order to be safe. When I climb, it’s often a two-person climb, where I’m roped to Mr. Financier. If I fall in a crevasse, I need to count on him to appropriately stop the fall and set up a rescue to haul me out of the glacier’s depths.

The same is true for your financial security. You can pick your own rope team - this might be your partner, or friends, family, and colleagues you surround yourself with. They’ll impact your habits - either pushing you to increase your risk (spending more than you can afford) or helping you reduce your exposure and safely manage risk (smart investing and avoiding silly money schemes.) Who is on your rope team today? Are they the best people to ensure your financial safety?

Just like money, mountains can be a source of renewal, empowerment, and strength - or tremendous stress, anxiety, and peril. I look forward to your feedback - is there anyone on your rope team that you’ll be cutting loose? Are you preparing to effectively build wealth, or does sloppy prep put your success in jeopardy?

xoxo, Ms. Financier

*Credit to my mountaineering hero, Ed Viesturs - who regularly says he grew up in the great mountaineering state of Illinois. He does so at 1:22 into this talk he gave at the National Geographic Society. (I met him at this event, squee! He was so lovely - encouraging and kind.)

Zhou Qunfei: The world’s wealthiest self-made woman

Zhou Qunfei is the world’s wealthiest self-made woman and the richest in China. Unlike other business titans, hers is not a household name. Her business, Lens Technology, isn’t particularly glamorous, but has a reputation for high quality and employs over 80,000 people. I hope you find as much inspiration in her life as I did.

Qunfei was born into poverty and grew up in China’s Hunan province. Like many children in rural families, she contributed to her family from a very young age. Qunfei was a passionate student, but other responsibilities (including tending to livestock) required her time and attention. Her father, who was partially blinded in an accident, raised Qunfei and her two siblings. Living with her father’s disability heightened her attention to detail, a trait that would serve her well in business. She had to be hyper-aware of her surroundings and where items were placed, to avoid confusing him. Her mother passed away only 5 years after Qunfei’s birth.

At sixteen, Qunfei dropped out of primary school to pursue full-time work and contribute to her family financially. She was quoted saying, “In the village where I grew up, a lot of girls didn’t have a choice of whether to go to middle school. They would get engaged or married and spend their entire life in that village. I chose to be in business, and I don’t regret it.”

Qunfei left her village and moved in with family members in Guangdong province, seeking work near Shenzhen University. She sent part of her earnings to her father, saved, and invested in herself. Her proximity to the University allowed her to continue her education and she explored a range of topics including computers and accounting; she even secured her commercial driving credentials!

At one point, Qunfei was working in a factory that manufactured watch parts. Her responsibilities included shaping the glass, which gave her a unique opportunity to understand lenses. The conditions in the factory were poor, and she made the decision to resign. Qunfei wrote a letter of resignation that included her appreciation for the job opportunity, but clearly laid out the reasons for her departure. The letter made its way to the factory chief, who offered her a promotion after her letter crossed his desk. Qunfei said, “Maybe it was because my resignation letter was well written and this attracted the attention of the factory supervisor. They kept me on and gave me a promotion to head up my own newly created department.”

In the intervening years, Qunfei worked (and saved) diligently. The watch factory went out of business when she was 22, putting her out of a job. Because of her consistent saving, Qunfei had a nest egg of $3,000. Empowered by her savings, she made the decision to launch her own business creating lenses with support from her family. She prioritized product quality and was extremely hands-on, focusing on the manufacturing details. Over time, she expanded beyond watches and began serving electronics companies.

Ten years after the launch of her own business, Motorola requested Qunfei’s help to create a screen for their new Razr V3 phone. Seeing the potential in phone lenses, she founded Lens Technology, and began attracting customers like Samsung Electronics. When the Apple iPhone launched in 2007, it was with Lens Technology’s glass, which helped propel her company’s growth.

Qunfei’s focus on high-quality products and innovative, scratch-resistant screens, made her products unique. She has said in interviews that she would watch the rain falling on lotus leaves as a child – which inspired her to create Lens Technology's patented, scratch-resistant coating. “Droplets of water would roll around the surface of a lotus leaf and not leave any trace,” she said. “If it wasn't for my primary school teacher reminding me to be observant I may not have had the inspiration to think of my invention.”

The business Qunfei started has a massive workforce, went public in 2015, and had revenues of over 23.7 yuan in 2017. Qunfei is Chairman of the Board* and holds over 87% of the company’s shares; Forbes estimated her net worth at $8.7 billion. Her passion for the details of manufacturing and high-quality output propels her to this day. Qunfei refers to work as her hobby, alongside mountain climbing and ping pong, and cites her desire to learn as the secret to her success. Her cousin, Zhou Xinyi, said, “In the Hunan language, we call women like her ‘ba de man,’ which means a person who dares to do what others are afraid to do.”

I love Zhou Qunfei’s story for so many reasons. Her persistence, detail orientation, and the fact that she created her own business using her nest egg as seed money are similar to other entrepreneurs. What struck a chord with you? I’m curious to hear your thoughts!

xoxo, Ms. Financier

*Yes, that is her official title, irrespective of the fact that she’s a woman. We need to gender-neutralize these titles, people! She should be Chair of the Board, period.


Learn more about Zhou Qunfei:

How a Chinese Billionaire Built Her Fortune, by David Barboza via The New York Times (This profile is absolutely superb!)

How A Former Factory Girl Became A Billionaire: Zhou Qunfei, The Richest Woman in China, by Dr. Amarendra Bhushan Dhiraj via CEOWORLD Magazine

From Rags to Riches, by Elaine O’Flynn and Edward Chow via Daily Mail

Asia Power Women 2016 Profile in Forbes

Wikipedia Page

My Money Mistakes: Buying GM Stock

We all make mistakes! In these posts, we’ll explore money-related mistakes. Shame and embarrassment cause many of us to avoid talking about money. However, we learn just as much (if not more) from our financial screw-ups. Sharing our mistakes can help others avoid making similar moves in the future. And we’ve all had them - making a misstep with your personal finances is inevitable. Here’s one of my many money mistakes:

I purchased my first investments in the summer of 2000, at 19, with money I had been squirreling away from part-time jobs. I had $8,000 to invest. To spread my risk, I invested $4,000 in one mutual fund and $1,000 each in four individual companies. One of the companies was General Motors (GM).

I bought GM stock because I knew they’d never go bankrupt. I’m a native Michigander and am very proud of our auto industry. I also considered buying Ford stock but didn’t because I had more family and friends that worked there. My rationale was that by investing in GM, I’d be spreading my risk. Also, there’s a common saying in Detroit - “what’s good for the country is good for GM.” This would prove oh so true eight years later.

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I invested at just over $60 / share, shortly after the GM’s all-time high on April 28, 2000, at $93.625. My $1,000 purchased 16 GM shares, after commissions and fees. Over the next several years, GM stock puttered along, generally declining, but regularly spinning off dividends.

Between 1999 and 2003, I was working my way through the University of Michigan and subsequently, focused on starting my career in Washington, D.C. As a staunch “buy-and-hold” investor, I didn’t act on the general decline of this individual stock in my small portfolio. Enter the 2007 financial crisis. My little portfolio was not immune to the tidal wave of bad news.

As consumers struggled to keep their homes and jobs, GM was hit hard. They offered a wide portfolio of expensive, large vehicles that relied on readily-available credit and low gas prices. With foreclosures steadily rising, Americans weren’t rushing out to buy $54,110 2007 Hummer H2’s which boasted an average MPG of 15. At this time, I was also struggling to keep my job, and largely ignored my portfolio, which was in the toilet.

On June 1st, 2009, GM went bankrupt and my shares converted into Motors Liquidation Company stock (ticker symbol: MTLQQ). Because I stupidly did not sell my GM shares before they converted to MTLQQ, nor did I act on the MTLQQ shares, they became worthless. I had to complete and sign a form entitled “Request for Removal of Worthless Securities” to get them out of my account. Ouch! GM issued new stock in 2010. I did not line up to purchase.

This money mistake cost me both the original investment and the opportunity cost associated with the several years I held a losing stock. But, I’m grateful for the lesson. I’ve since sold all individual stocks and now only invest in low-cost mutual funds and ETFs. It’s very difficult for us individual investors to pick winners and losers in the stock market, and I no longer try. 

This isn’t my biggest money mistake, by far. Stay tuned as I share even more financial stumbles! What money mistakes have you made?

xoxo, Ms. Financier

Start Investing in Four Steps

In the last few posts, we’ve explored investing, mutual funds, and ETFs. Understanding these will help you effectively save and invest. But you need to take four steps (and make four corresponding decisions) to start investing and building serious wealth.

1. Choose an account type. Decide the type of account you will invest in, aligned to your financial goals. We talked about this decision when we explored saving and investing money.

If you don’t have an investment account for retirement, start there first. If you already have a retirement account and are looking to invest even more - congratulations! You’re ready for a general investing account that will allow you to build even more wealth.

Common account types include:

  • Retirement accounts, like a 401(k) or 403(b) offered through your employer; or a retirement account that you manage, like a Roth or traditional IRA.

  • General investing accounts, which don’t offer specific tax advantages but are also more accessible than retirement accounts

  • Educational investing account, like a 529 college savings account

Select the right account type so you can get your money in the market, growing for you. Make the best decision you can and move forward to identifying where you’ll invest.

2. Select a financial institution. This company will service your account, report investment performance, and help you make trades and access your money. I invest with the low-cost industry leader, Vanguard. The company is client-owned, and every strategic decision they make is focused on lowering investor costs and fees.

Financial institutions provide a service, and rightly charge fees and make money. I urge you to select a company, like Vanguard, with a low-cost reputation.

3. Pick your investments. I do not recommend investing in individual stocks, but instead ETFs and/or mutual funds. Warren Buffett, considered one of the best investors in history, speaks regularly on the power of investing in an index like the S&P 500. Don’t reinvent the wheel or think that you can do better, start with a market-matching fund like the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (ticker symbol: VOO).

Eventually, you’ll want to create a portfolio of investments - picking a few different investments to balance your risk. We’ll explore that in the future, as it is important. But, I subscribe to the KISS principle: Keep it simple, stupid. Start with one, maybe two, mutual funds or ETFs you’re comfortable with. You can add to them over time to balance your portfolio.

Look carefully at the fees associated with your investments, particularly the expense ratio. Examine the 10-year performance (don’t be excited or dismayed at 1- or 5-year results). Some investments may require a certain minimum amount before you can start investing. Don’t get discouraged; start saving diligently and you’ll be there before you know it.

4. Fund your account automatically. This is the final and most critical step to building wealth. Don’t just open the account and hope for growth. Decide how you’ll continue to fund it. I strongly recommend a regular, automatic transfer timed with your payday. Start with whatever you can afford today, and aim to steadily increase it over time.

Automatic investing will ensure you’re always paying yourself first. Let’s quote Buffett one more time: “Do not save what is left after spending, but spend what is left after saving.”

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You may be curious about the role that financial planners can play. A great planner can serve as a valued advisor and help you build wealth, but beware advisors that are tied to a type of investment or institution - how unbiased can they be? Read more about what planners do here.

That’s it! Those four steps (and corresponding decisions) will put you on a path to create real wealth. Is there more complexity we could examine? Sure. But, the basics will put you ahead of most that are hesitating to get started due to lack of knowledge or analysis paralysis. Don’t let that be you. Are you ready to get started? Let me know!

xoxo, Ms. Financier