How to Choose Funds for Your Retirement Account

Selecting funds for your retirement account can be frustrating. You’re faced with an overwhelming amount of financial jargon, paired with tremendous pressure to make the best decision given the importance of your retirement investments. Several of you have asked me to take this topic on directly, so let’s explore how to navigate retirement account fund selection!

Before we dive in: If you’d like a quick orientation to investing, explore how to start investing in four steps. And, if you’d like clarity on 401(k)s and IRAs, review this overview of the main differences in these common retirement accounts.

So, how do you choose funds for your retirement account? I’ll take you through four steps:

  • Decide how much of your retirement investments will be in stocks (versus other investment types)

  • Identify mutual funds that might meet your needs

  • Select the funds that are right for you (low-cost and with a strong performance history)

  • Invest (consistently and automatically) according to your asset allocation

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Let’s start with the first step - identifying the portion you’d like to invest in stocks. When you contribute to a retirement account, you need to decide how that money will be invested. This is referred to as “asset allocation.” How much will you invest in bonds (which are generally lower-returning but more stable)? How much will you invest in stocks (which tend to return more, but can be riskier)?

The asset allocation decision can seem overwhelming to many of us, who want to get the answer “just right.” However, like so much with investing, there is no perfect strategy. I suggest using one of two methods to derive your answer.

Rule of thumb. Many advisors suggest that subtracting your age from 110 provides the percentage of your portfolio you should keep in stocks. For example: If you are 29, 81% of your portfolio should be in stocks, and the remaining 19% should be in less-risky investments like bonds or cash. (Note: Advisors used to subtract from 100; I now see many shifting to 110 or 120 given longer lifespans.)

Online questionnaires. Financial institutions have easy-to-use questionnaires that help assess your risk tolerance, investment time horizon, and other elements in order to provide you with a recommendation. These questionnaires will provide a suggestion for you to consider regarding your asset allocation.

Note that most employer-sponsored retirement accounts will not permit you to invest in individual stocks. Instead, you can purchase large groups of stocks at one time by buying mutual funds. I generally like this limitation, as I do not believe the average person (or even most investment professionals) can outperform a well-designed, low-cost mutual fund. Therefore, once you determine the percentage you’ll be investing in stocks, you’ll usually be purchasing mutual funds (made up of stocks), instead of individual company stocks themselves.

Next, you need to identify the mutual funds available in your retirement plan that might meet your needs. Typically, most employer-sponsored retirement accounts limit your investment options, providing you with a list of mutual funds to select from. You can learn more about mutual funds here; since mutual funds allow us to buy many, many investments in just one purchase they are a very convenient way to invest.

When you are provided with a list of mutual funds, it will typically include the fund name and the ticker symbol, so you can easily research it. This is another step that can feel very overwhelming, and I recommend four steps to narrow your list of mutual funds down:

  • Look for index funds that mirror the market. I’ve mentioned before that my favorite mutual funds mirror a large, diverse market. One example is the Vanguard 500 Index Fund (ticker symbol: VFINX).

  • Avoid mutual funds that bet on an industry or sector. If you not 100% certain that a specific industry is going to over-perform all others, why would you place your valued money in that mutual fund? I avoid any funds that overemphasize a particular industry or region.

  • Explore target date funds if you like to keep things simple. Target date funds are designed to make asset allocation (which we discussed in the first step) easier. They are designed to get less risky as your retirement date nears, shifting from stocks to bonds. Note that, generally, their returns also drop over time (as they shift from higher-returning stocks to lower-returning, but more stable investments). Target date funds are named with the retirement year - so, if you’re 30 and plan to work until you’re 50, you add 20 years onto today’s date and select the fund with that year in the title.

  • Call your retirement account provider. Many retirement account providers (like Vanguard, Fidelity, and Charles Schwab) also offer support in identifying and exploring investment options. Taking some time to speak with them may provide additional clarity.

I suggest considering 3 - 6 mutual funds, with no more than two bond (or fixed-income) funds. Fewer funds reduces complexity and allows you to better understand what you’ve decided to invest in.

At this point, you have a list of several funds, and need to finalize your investments by checking costs and performance histories. Before investing, you should examine the 3 - 6 mutual funds you’ve identified to confirm they are low-cost and have a strong performance history relative to benchmarks.

I recommend you check at least three things; All should be available via your financial provider, but you can also search the funds on an industry site like Morningstar.

  • What's the expense ratio? This is how much the company that manages the fund charges you for their work. An average expense ratio is around .6% - meaning, for every $100 you have invested, the fund rakes in 60 cents. Sounds small - but tiny fees make a meaningful difference in your wealth over the long term. Vanguard’s average expense ratio is .12% - meaning, for every $100 you invest in a Vanguard mutual fund, they charge 12 cents. That’s much, much lower, and lets you keep more of your hard-earned money.

  • Are there other fees? It can be costly to create fancy, actively-managed mutual funds. So, look carefully for purchase or redemption fees, or 12b-1 fees (marketing or distribution fees.) Ask, ask, and ask again about fees before investing!

  • What's the 10-year return? If you’re investigating a stock fund, you’ll want to explore how it performed over the last decade, compared to the S&P 500. The S&P 500 is a very common performance benchmark because it includes the 500 largest U.S. companies. If the mutual fund seriously underperformed the S&P 500, it may not be worthy of your hard-earned money.

You’ll also want to compare each investment you are considering to one other; if an investment has a particularly high expense ratio, or low return relative to others in your short list, you may decide it isn’t worth investing in.

Finally, invest (consistently and automatically) according to your asset allocation. Remember your asset allocation? Well, now that you have your 3 - 6 total mutual funds, you will need to determine exactly how to invest across each fund.

Let’s say you have selected three funds, an S&P 500 index fund, a broader market index fund, and a bond fund. Further, let’s assume you’ve already determined you’d like to invest 10% in bonds and 90% in stocks. Then, your only remaining decision is how to divide that 90% between the two stock funds (the S&P index fund and broader market index fund) - as 10% will go to the bond fund. In a situation like this, my suggestion is keep is simple - so, start with a 50/50 split between the two stock funds, unless there is a compelling reason to do something different.

Most retirement account providers will allow you to allocate your investment dollars on a percentage basis. Typically, this is done online or by calling the customer service department. Importantly, unlike regular (non-retirement) investment accounts, employer retirement accounts aren’t subject to taxes when you change your investment allocations. For this reason, I suggest reviewing your investments at least once a year to ensure you’re comfortable with how your retirement money is invested.

I hope this overview helps you make your retirement account investment decisions faster and with greater confidence. Remember - there’s a lot of jargon that the financial industry uses - I’m here to help you cut through the clutter and grow your wealth!

xoxo,
Ms. Financier

How to Improve Your Credit Score

For many of us, our credit score is the number that we didn’t even know we needed to manage, until it’s too late. We wait helplessly as lenders pull our credit history to determine where to set the interest rate on our loan. Bad credit can hurt our future finances by increasing interest rates on credit cards and mortgages, a frustrating cycle that can result from too much debt, a spotty payment history, credit cards that have unpaid balances, and even student loans.

So - what can we do to improve our credit score? First, we need to understand that a credit score is a number intended to summarize our creditworthiness, or the likelihood that we will pay back money loaned to us from a bank or other institution. Our score is based on our credit report information, which is typically maintained in the United States by three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Our score can impact the interest rate on our credit card or mortgage, whether a landlord decides to rent to us, and even our employment. (While employers can’t check an applicant’s credit score, they can access a credit history, or report, as part of pre-employment screening.)

The concept of a credit score was introduced as an effort to take bias out of lending. Before credit scores, lenders made character-based decisions. Stores and banks would determine which individuals they deemed worthy of credit. This system resulted in discrimination against women and people of color, who were often deemed risky (and therefore unworthy of credit) against the highly subjective standards of the day.

Statisticians Bill Fair and Earl Isaac worked to create a more objective, mathematical model to assess creditworthiness. Their score, the FICO Score, was developed by Fair Isaac Corporation, and is now the most common method used to calculate your credit score. However, the score - first introduced in the 1950’s - wasn’t widely used until the 1970’s, when modern credit reform legislation started to even the playing field in regard to credit access.

Today, credit scores range from a low of 300 to a high of 850. Generally, a score below 550 is considered bad, 550 - 649 is poor, 650 - 699 is fair, 700 - 749 is good, and a score above 750 is considered excellent.

If your score falls in the “bad” or “poor” categories - below 650 - you may have difficulty accessing credit, and may be charged very, very high interest rates. Similarly, if you are above 700 in the “good” or “excellent” categories, lenders will be very eager to do business with you.

There are other scores like the VantageScore, but they tend to be used less often and are generally in line with your FICO score. I recommend focusing on your FICO score as your primary measure, though you may also want to access other scores if you have the time to do so.

So, what should you do if your score is lower than you’d like? Follow my step-by-step guide below to start improving your credit score.

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Know your score. First, you need to know your score. You can pay for your score via the three major credit bureaus. When accessing your score, be careful to avoid ongoing “credit monitoring” offers - these offers are often served up to you automatically when you are pulling your score. As you check out, ensure that you’re only paying to pull your score, and not signing up for repeat charges. If your score is lower than the “good” or “excellent” categories, you may consider prioritizing areas for improvement.

Pull your credit report. Your credit report includes the data that contributes to your score, so ensure that you have a recent copy of your report to help you analyze your score. While legislation in the U.S. allows you to pull a free credit report each year, credit scores are not included in that free report; ensure you have both.

When you pull your credit report, look at it carefully for errors. Credit reports include a lot of data on your credit history, reported by banks and landlords, and can contain mistakes. Ensure that addresses are correct, that the accounts listed are owned by you (or were yours in the past), and that any late payments were, indeed, paid late.

Each credit bureau has a specific process to fix any errors on your credit report, so if you find an error, take notes of exactly what you’ve done to work with the reporting agency to fix the error. Unfortunately, consumers (and not the agencies) bear the burden of putting in the work to fix mistakes. Follow up until you are absolutely certain that the error has been fixed.

Evaluate what you can improve. Let’s get back to improving your score. Your FICO score is based on five primary factors, which have different weightings:

  • Types of credit in use (your credit mix): 10% of your score

  • New credit: 10%

  • Length of your credit history: 15%

  • Amounts owed (your credit utilization): 30%

  • Payment history (how you’ve handled your credit): 35%

The type of credit in use refers to the diversity of your credit sources. Do you have five credit cards, but no other loans? This tends to lower scores. Or, do you have a student loan, one credit card, and mortgage? This mix may raise your score, as it demonstrates using credit for different things, with different loan structures, versus a reliance on one type of credit.

This is a smaller portion of your score, so I do not recommend taking out more loans to improve your mix. You should limit your loans to what you truly need. However, if you have many types of the same credit (for example, many credit cards but no other loans) you may want to consider closing some cards. That said, any credit mix improvement will only have a modest impact on your score.

New credit looks at the recency of your accounts. In general, if you don’t have much new credit, your score will be higher compared to someone who has recently opened up several new accounts. New accounts may signal that you are over-extending yourself or aren’t able to pay your debts, which can lower your score. You can’t take proactive steps to improve this element, but you can stop opening accounts to improve this portion of your credit score.

Length of credit history is similarly something you have little control over. Generally, the best credit is old credit, and the factors in this category include how long your accounts have been open, how long since accounts have been used, and how long specific account types (like credit cards) have been open.

Like the new credit factor, there is little you can do to improve this element, though you can take steps to keep older credit, as long as it isn’t too costly to do so. For example, you can pay off a high-interest credit card that you opened in college, stop actively using it, but keep it open to improve your length of credit history over time. Note that this may only make sense if the card doesn’t include any other fees or costs.

If you’re new to credit, and don’t have credit cards or other loans, you may want to open one card and charge a single item on it monthly to start establishing your credit. Once a week, you can pay for your groceries on the card and immediately pay it off. I’ve struggled with credit card debt, so I understand why many avoid credit cards - but if you don’t have a credit history, it can be challenging for lenders to score your creditworthiness, and therefore you’ll end up with higher rates on things like auto and home loans in the future.

Amounts owed, or credit utilization looks at how much you owe (your balance) relative to how much credit you have available. This is a large factor of your score (up to 30%) and - good news - one that you can take proactive steps to improve.

Here, you can have a measurable impact on your score in a relatively short period of time. For example, if you lower how much you owe on “riskier” accounts like credit cards, your score will increase. FICO does not treat all debt the same, and mortgage, auto, and student loans don’t hurt your score in the same way that credit card debt does.

This is because credit cards have a balance that you control - your choices each month determine how much credit you’ll use, and therefore how large your monthly bill will be. In contrast, an auto loan has a fixed structure. Your auto loan was provided out for a certain amount, and you paying on a set schedule each month. This is a less risky proposition for lenders, who like predictability.

If you have credit cards with a balance, my recommendation to improve your credit utilization is to take out all of your credit cards, write down the balances you owe and the interest rate, and start paying off the highest interest rate cards first. This will save you money by lowering the interest you pay and eventually improve your credit score.

Similarly, you can call each credit card and request a higher credit limit. An increased limit means that you will be using less of your available balance. However, it is important that you aren’t tempted to use your credit cards more to take advantage of your higher limit.

If you keep your credit cards open when you pay them off, this can help your score (because you are using less of the total credit available to you). Again, this can be a balancing act with the first factor (type of credit in use) - but remember, that is a much smaller portion of your score, at only 10%.

If you don’t have credit card debt, but have other debt (like student loans or auto loans), you can also work to reduce those balances. The amount of debt you have left on these loans is also a contributing factor to your credit utilization, and paying off your loans faster than expected can also help your credit score.

Some auto, student, and home loans make it a little tricky to pay down your loan balance earlier. I recommend calling your lender to understand the preferred way to make extra payments, so they don’t accidentally apply it to your next month’s payment - which would help you next month, but would not lower your balance faster. Tell the lender you are interested in making an extra payment towards the principal balance of the loan, and then keep an eye on your next statement to ensure it was applied correctly.

Payment history is the largest single factor in your credit score, at 35%. This element looks at how you’ve handled the credit you’ve been provided in the past, which FICO has found is a good predictor of future behavior.

Payment history includes seven sub-components, including length of overdue accounts, amount of money in collections, and past due items. Negative items like bankruptcy or an unpaid account that went to collections can stay on your credit report for 7 - 10 years. Since this section includes historical information, there are limits to the proactive steps you can take to improve this section of your credit score.

That said, you can take steps tomorrow that will improve your score in the future - these include prioritizing getting up-to-date on any accounts that you are behind on and checking your report for errors as I mentioned above.

Managing your credit in the future. In addition to the steps above, you can take active steps to protect and manage your credit to it continues to improve in the future. Two of the most powerful steps you can take are only accessing credit when you critically need it and paying your balance on time.

If you only access credit when you critically need it, you are less likely to be tempted to fall into debt and will have a cleaner, tidier credit report. Women are often tempted by store cards that are offered by retailers when we’re shopping - I urge you to avoid these, as they are some of the highest interest-rate cards on the market, and also increase the number of credit cards you need to manage. Twenty percent off your purchase isn’t worth increased debt and stress.

Additionally, if you pay your balance on time, consistently, you are taking one of the best steps you can to improve your score. If you’re going to have trouble paying a bill, call your lender and work out an arrangement - many will accept a partial payment. Your lender reports missed payments to the credit bureaus, so you’ll want to work proactively with lenders to ensure they know your payment is coming, and don’t report a missed payment instead.

Finally, you may want to consider freezing your credit. This is a simple, effective, step you can take for a modest fee (often $5 or $10, and in some states, it is free). If you freeze your credit, no one can open up any credit without your confirmation first. This is a powerful step to protect yourself from fraud, which can have devastating effects on your credit report and score.

You can freeze your credit by contacting the three agencies directly. The last time I froze my credit I was able to complete the entire process for each agency online, in under thirty minutes. When you freeze your credit, you are given a PIN that you will unlock your credit should you need to apply for a loan in the future. Save this PIN in a safe place, and should you need a loan in the coming years, you simply contact the agencies and provide the PIN so the lender can pull your credit.

Candidly, I recommend a credit freeze over credit monitoring, because a freeze is more preventative. Credit monitoring tells you if something looks incorrect, which means you may have already been a victim of fraud. Additionally, credit monitoring often involves expensive, monthly fees.

I wish you the very best as you work to strengthen your credit! If you take steps now, you can move your credit score up, putting you in a more favorable position for your next loan, saving you a tremendous amount of money in the long run.

xoxo,
Ms. Financier

Muriel Siebert: The first woman to trade on the floor of the NYSE

The world of finance is notoriously male-dominated, and has a reputation for being unwelcoming (at best) and hostile (at worst) to women. In finance, women make up more than half the workforce but only 2% are CEOs in S&P 500’s financial services firms. Of all mutual funds managed in the United States, just 2% are run by a woman or team of women. (Not sure what a mutual fund is? I’ve got you - here’s an overview.)

Why is this particularly problematic? Because the world of finance is both fascinating and well-paying. Many women may not even consider a career in finance because of the gender imbalance, or may write off money and personal finance as too complex because so much money talk is gendered (written for men, by men).

These bleak statistics make the story of Muriel “Mickie” Siebert even more fascinating. In 1967, she became the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).

Born in Ohio, Siebert visited the NYSE for the first time as a teenager, and she was immediately intrigued by the scene on the trading floor. The energy, constant dealmaking, and controlled chaos struck a chord in her, and she remarked to her friends that she would like to work there one day.

Siebert returned to Ohio and studied at Case Western Reserve University from 1949 to 1952, but never earned her degree. During her time in college, she enjoyed her business classes, recalling, “I could look at a page of numbers, and they would light up like a Broadway marquee.” Sadly, her father fell ill and Siebert left college early. She never returned to finish her degree, but was awarded over 20 honorary doctorates throughout her life.

Two years later, in 1954, she made her way back to New York City and pursued roles in the world of finance - starting first in research, where her analytical eye and attention to the numbers propelled her success. Her first job in finance was for Wall Street firm Basche & Company and earned her $65 weekly. Over the course of several years, her income grew rapidly. By 1965, she had made partner at Brimberg and Co, earning “several hundred thousand dollars a year.”

Despite all of her rapid success, Siebert faced a wage gap, taking home only 60% of what men in similar roles earned. Frustrated by the inequality, she sought a firm that would pay her equally. Another Wall Street titan advised her to pave her own way, and Siebert decided to take her financial future into her own hands by pursuing a seat on the NYSE and eventually, opening her own brokerage.

In 1967, thirteen years after she relocated to New York, Siebert fought relentlessly to secure her seat on the exchange. In the 175 year history of the NYSE, every seat had previously been held by a man. Up until Siebert’s request, no woman had asked to purchase a seat.

Her quest to secure the seat - which would allow her to trade on the floor of the stock market, and therefore have very direct control over the flow of assets - was challenging. (A seat is an important component to owning a brokerage, allowing Siebert to buy and sell securities on behalf of her future clients.) First, she needed a sponsor. She asked nine men - who refused - finally securing a sponsor when she approached the tenth.

After confirming a sponsor, Siebert had to fund the seat. She reports getting caught in a Catch-22, where the NYSE required her to secure a loan for $300,000 of the $445,000 seat price...which banks were reluctant to lend her until she had secured the seat. Notably, this financing arrangement was a requirement that had not been demanded of other (male) applicants.

On December 28, 1967, Siebert was elected to the NYSE, after several years of effort to align sponsorship and financing. Notably, she was the only woman (among 1,365 men) for the next decade. Shortly thereafter, she opened her own brokerage firm, Muriel Siebert & Company - the first woman owned-and-operated firm of its kind. Today, the company continues to uphold the values Muriel followed when creating the firm, including a respect for other people’s money.

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Siebert had a unique vantage point on women and money, and she observed differences between the men and women she traded with, noting: “[Women] do hold their stocks longer - they are not in and out, I think women are more patient, where men have a little more...drive for the quick profit. And [men will] often make the dime but they’ll leave a quarter behind.”

Like many successful women, Siebert is a powerful example of paying it forward. Later in life, she would donate time and money to supporting other women in business and finance. She is quoted as saying, “Women are coming in to Wall Street in large numbers, and they are still not making partner and are not getting into the positions that lead to the executive suites. There’s still an old-boy network. You just have to keep fighting.”

She also railed against mens-only clubs, fighting to get access for women, and lobbying the NYSE to install a women’s restroom near the luncheon club she frequented on the seventh floor. As a woman of Jewish faith, she regularly experienced anti-Semitism.

Her relentless fight for equality was also grounded in business outcomes. She was quoted as saying, "American business will find that women executives can be a strong competitive weapon against...other countries that still limit their executive talent pool to the male 50 percent of their population.”

Siebert remarked that, “men at the top of industry and government should be more willing to risk sharing leadership with women and minority members who are not merely clones of their white male buddies. In these fast-changing times we need the different viewpoints and experiences, we need the enlarged talent bank. The real risk lies in continuing to do things the way they've always been done.”

Later in life, her advocacy continued. Among many efforts, Siebert launched the Siebert Entrepreneurial Philanthropy Plan, which directed a share of her firm’s profits to support charitable efforts. She was also key to developing programs that supported financial literacy among women, in partnership with the New York Women’s Agenda. Her foundation also developed the Siebert Personal Finance Program, aimed at improving financial literacy, targeted at middle and high school students but offered to adults as well.

Siebert passed away in 2013, and three years later, the NYSE unveiled Siebert Hall. Dedicated in her honor and featuring memorabilia from Siebert’s life, the room represents the first time a space in the Exchange was named for an individual. At the dedication, Tom Farley (NYSE Group President at the time) remarked, “When Mickie became the first female member of the NYSE in 1967, she shattered a glass ceiling on Wall Street. So, when it came time to dedicate our newly-renovated meeting hall - a contemporary counterpart to our more traditional Boardroom - the progressive and ground-breaking Mickie was the obvious choice.”

Siebert’s impressive personal story, and the impact she had on the community, serves as a reminder that we can achieve amazing things. Her success is not accidental, but the result of a smart, driven woman fighting for what she believes is right, and doing well (for herself and others) along the way.

xoxo, Ms. Financier


Learn more about Muriel “Mickie” Siebert:

Changing the Rules: Adventures of a Wall Street Maverick by Muriel Siebert

Book Review: A Wall Street Women Who Cleared a Path by William J. Holstein via The New York Times

Muriel Siebert, a Determined Trailblazer for Women on Wall Street, Dies at 84 by Enid Nemy via The New York Times

Muriel Siebert, the first woman trader on the New York Stock Exchange by Joann Weiner via The Washington Post

The Woman Who Kicked Down Wall Street’s Doors by Joanna Scutts via Time

Makers Profile: First Lady of Wall Street (includes video interviews with Siebert!)

Wikipedia Page

Second Interview Questions You’ll Probably Get - And How to Prepare for Them

As a candidate for a new job, you’re typically going to face several rounds of interviews with the company you’re exploring. In the interview process, you have an opportunity to demonstrate your skills, illustrate how your work experience aligns with the role, and provide answers that your cover letter and resume can’t address.

The first interview in the hiring process is often via phone, and is usually the time to address general questions about your experience. Human resources team members often conduct this “screening” interview, and are typically capturing basic information to understand your fit for the role, near-term career goals, and better understand your resume and experiences.

Generally, the second interview is more focused, lasts longer, and is an opportunity to more deeply explore your capabilities. Your second interview is often conducted by someone that works on - or is responsible for - the team that is hiring for the position. This generally makes it a more detailed discussion, with more specific interview questions.

In many hiring processes, you can expect additional interviews beyond the second round, and different types of interviews. For example, some companies prefer “two-on-one” interviews where two staff members conduct the interview together, and others prefer “case interviews” where you are presented with a business problem you need to analyze and discuss.

How can you prepare for these interviews? First, you need to understand the interview process you’re walking into. Don’t assume anything about the process. To be well-prepared, I strongly encourage you to inquire about the number of interview rounds you should expect as well as the types of interviews that the company uses to make hiring decisions. Further, the company should provide you with who is conducting the interview. This will allow you to research their background and come with your own questions tailored to their experiences.

Additionally, you should prepare by gathering any publicly available information about the company. Sites like Fairygodboss and social media make this easy by helping you understand company priorities, summarize employee feedback, and learn about executives that run the business. You should always visit the company’s own website before an interview, and pay attention to recent press releases and statements of company goals and values.

Bolster your preparation by connecting with your network. Look for alumni, former colleagues, and connections that work at the company. Having a few, brief networking conversations in advance of your interview will provide you with valuable real-life perspective from current employees. Remember that these people are busy - reach out to them with a pointed, thoughtful set of questions and recognize that their time is valuable. If you impress them with your questions and insight, they may even bolster your candidacy for the job!

Finally, prepare your own thoughtful, tailored questions to ask of your interviewers. A good interviewer will ensure you have time to ask questions about the company and role. This is an opportunity to demonstrate your preparation. Tailored, specific questions illustrate that you are seriously considering the opportunity, and provide the interviewer with insight into how effectively you’ll address the business problems in the role.

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While companies use very different types of interview processes, there are questions you’re likely to get in a second interview. Here are ten common questions that you can expect - and prepare for.

  • Walk me through your resume. This is an opportunity for you to add context to the resume you’ve painstakingly prepared. A good resume walkthrough will be succinct (around 3 minutes) and both start and end with how your experiences fit will with the role. Share your biggest accomplishments and include the results of your actions, providing metrics, feedback received from leadership, and quantifiable results wherever possible.

  • What attracted you to this role and company? Show you’ve done your research by highlighting specifics about the company’s unique position in the marketplace, recent accomplishments, cultural values, and reputation. Mention any connections you have at the business, and other research you’ve done to confirm it is a good fit for you.

    Similarly, you’ll want to articulate how the role will both take advantage of your skills and experiences while affording you an opportunity to develop further. Be prepared to highlight how selecting you will be a win-win for your own career and the company’s objectives.

  • What are your career goals in the short- and long-term? Your short-term career goals (typically within the next 1 - 3 years) should align well with the immediate opportunity you are interviewing for. I recommend sharing your objectives and communicating how you think the position may help you achieve those goals.

    Longer-term goals are typically five (or more) years out, and require a more careful balancing act. Interviewers understand that employees today are more likely to switch jobs, but still remain wary of hiring someone who is eager to switch jobs. If you don’t have a very specific long-term goal in mind, I recommend focusing on the skills you plan to be utilizing and experiences you aim to have in that timeframe. This may include leading a larger team, working in an international assignment, or serving a different type of customer.

  • Why are you looking to leave your current position? Remain positive and future-focused when you respond to this question, as your interviewer is likely both genuinely curious and interested in the elements that you’re not excited about in your current role. Don’t disparage your current employer - however difficult the situation might be. Instead, focus on what you’re seeking to gain in the new position, highlighting the new skills, experiences, or knowledge you’re interested in attaining.

  • Tell me about a time when you worked as part of a team. This question is typically seeking to understand your ability to work in teams, the role you often plan in teams, and how effectively you describe projects and situations. In your response, share context before you dive into details. What was the team tasked to with achieving, how was success measured, and what was your role?

    As you respond, offer a brief summary of the role you played, how you interacted with others, and whether the team achieved its objective. I recommend sharing what you learned from the experience, and briefly highlighting other team experiences the interviewer may want to hear about.

    In experiential questions, you can generally offer a fairly brief summary. When you conclude, you can always ask the interviewer if they’d like to hear more. For example you can inquire, “Would you like me to share additional detail about our team report, or how the team interacted?” This is generally better than preparing a lengthy, detailed, overview that is far more than the interviewer needs.

  • Tell me about a time when you had to deal with conflict at work. Your interviewer knows you are eager to put your best foot forward - but they also recognize that the workforce involves conflict. Your answer to this question provides clues about your personality, self-awareness, and how effectively you manage challenging situations.

    When responding to this question, share a genuine conflict - not something minor or inconsequential. I also recommend avoiding situations where the other individuals were clearly in error - selecting a conflict where there’s a genuine difference of opinion, and neither party is objectively “right” or “wrong” is more authentic.

    In your response, don’t disparage the other individuals involved in the conflict. Provide context, so the interviewer understands the situation and why there was a difference in opinion, and share how you evaluated the conflict, how you addressed it, and the ultimate resolution. Highlight any lessons you learned, or things you’d have done differently if the situation arose again.

  • Tell me about a time when you failed at work. Like the question above, this is an opportunity to understand your self-awareness, candor, and resilience. Talking about our successes is fun - but we learn much more from our failures.

    When responding, I recommend that you select a significant example. Downplaying your failures, or selecting a minor issue, indicates that you aren’t being candid or might not learn from mistakes. In your response, ensure you highlight how you took ownership of the failure and sought to learn from the experience.

  • What is your biggest professional accomplishment? This is an opportunity for you to shine - prepare at least three major accomplishments that you’d like to share in the interview process, and prioritize them. For some, it can feel uncomfortable sharing your successes - but if you don’t communicate these to the interviewer, they won’t fully understand your fantastic achievements. If you need some help, practice with a friend, who can help you effectively share your biggest career wins.

    For each accomplishment, focus on the role you played as well as the results or benefit that resulted from your efforts. Benefits come in many forms - they may include quantifiable business metrics - but I advise you to articulate other benefits like company reputation, team morale, and client satisfaction. Like other questions, this is also an opportunity to highlight skills you developed or lessons you learned as part of the success you achieved.

  • What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses? This question is often checking for both information and your own self-awareness. Candidates that brag about a strength without much evidence, or share “faux weaknesses” like perfectionism, can cause the interviewer to question the validity of other responses.

    Your best preparation is a strong view of your own skill set. If you don’t have this already, enlist a trusted colleague or friend to help you develop your top three strengths (and weaknesses) that you can back up with brief examples. When answering a question like this, spend more time outlining your strengths, and less time on your weaknesses.

    When listing your weaknesses, I recommend offering one that is genuine - but wouldn’t be detrimental to the role. Your interviewer may ask for more - so you’ll want to have at least three prepared that are truly opportunities for development but wouldn’t rule you out for the position you’re applying for. Many candidates responding to this question elect to highlight gaps that result from lack of experience (haven’t managed people, haven’t served in an international position) versus lack of skill.

  • Why should we hire you? This question is at the heart of the interview process, and I believe it is one of the most important questions you should prepare for. Further, if you aren’t asked it of the interviewer, you should proactively share your thoughtful response.

    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.”

    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. Your skills include the capabilities you’ve developed that prepare you for success. Linking these to company goals demonstrate your understanding of the position and wider business. Finally, tailoring your response to your interviewer acknowledges that you’ve done thoughtful research on them in advance of the discussion.

In addition to these general questions, you can expect questions tailored to the position you’re interviewing for. Ensure you’ve researched the role and understand common expectations, success indicators, and industry standards so you can effectively navigate the more detailed questions in the process.

Thoughtful preparation and practice with a trusted friend will put you in a position to nail your next interview, stand out among other applicants for the job, and land you the role you’ve been working towards. What second interview questions do you prepare for? Or, if you’re a hiring manager, what do you typically ask? I’d love to hear from you.

 

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

Why Women Must Make Money a Priority

I believe wealth equality is at the heart of gender equality. Wealth provides the holder with:

  • Security,

  • Options, and

  • Power.

Security can include modest expenses, like the ability to pay for an unexpected car repair with ease, or more life-changing costs like hiring an excellent lawyer to secure a divorce.

Options created by wealth similarly range, from taking weeks of unpaid leave following the birth of a child, to walking away from a sexist, toxic workplace knowing you don’t have to worry about paying your bills.

Power provided by wealth isn’t referring to power over others, but the power to pursue the life you want. This can include taking a vacation to Costa Rica to recharge your batteries, or self-funding your startup in early stages.

These benefits have been enjoyed by straight, white, able-bodied men throughout history. Those of us born into privilege and / or wealth have had a particular leg up, to put it lightly.

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Today, the wage gap across genders still persists, and is particularly punishing for women of color, particularly Hispanic women. Women that identify as LGBTQA make less than their straight peers and trans women face significant earnings gaps.

We also face an investing gap, as women keep more of our money in cash than our male counterparts.

The wage and investing differences factors compound our retirement gap, where women have often saved less than men. Frustratingly, we will need to save more than men for retirement. (Though partially for a good reason – we tend to live longer.)

This is why I see it as my mission to help women build wealth. We are in a more powerful position when we can leave a relationship without fear of finding affordable, safe housing. When we can stand up to everyday sexism at work without fear of going broke if we lose our job in retaliation. When we can make the choices many men have been making for eons, to follow their passion, without having to beg for pocketbook money to do so.

And, for those of us lucky enough to have created wealth, I believe it is our responsibility to send the elevator back down. By donating to nonprofit organizations supporting women and girls, providing career advice and mentorship, fighting back against the patriarchy, and sharing our experiences (failures and successes) we give more women a seat at the table.

Finally, this responsibility is shared by men. Amazing male allies can play a tremendous role in supporting wealth, and therefore gender, equality.

Join me in helping more women get comfortable talking about money. I’d love to hear how you’re improving your own financial footing, or supporting women in your life as they build wealth.

xoxo,
Ms. Financier

This post also appeared on the Top Money Hacks blog - which is focused on simplifying the complicated world of personal finance. Top Money Hacks shares short, practical tips for busy people.

I Love My Company, But Hate My Role...What Should I Do?

You landed the job you’ve worked so hard to secure. After all the networking, interviews, and salary negotiations, you’re a month in - and you hate it. The company has everything you hoped for - smart colleagues, interesting challenges, thoughtful, diverse leaders - but the role you’re in stinks. What do you do next?

I’ve got you. This is precisely what happened to me my first job out of college. It took me about six weeks to realize how much I hated the role. The first few weeks were a whirlwind of onboarding, meeting new colleagues, and the rush of a new job in an amazing city. Then, after everything settled down, I realized the daily responsibilities of the job weren’t energizing and excluded some of the things I loved most. Here’s what you should do when faced with this dilemma.

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First - check the culture. Understand the culture around internal movement from colleagues. There can be both written policies and unwritten norms to explore. Since you’re a new employee, you can do so by accurately explaining you’re interested in understanding long-term career prospects. You’ll want to understand:

  • Formal policies - some companies restrict new hires from moving into a new role for a certain amount of time

  • Unwritten norms - what’s commonly accepted for a new employee, what career paths have successful colleagues forged as they moved teams

  • Your manager and leadership team - reflect on the discussions they have had with you, and how they’ve reacted to colleagues that moved roles - if they’ve encouraged career development, you likely have a manager more open to supporting your shift

Second - determine how to engage your manager. If your manager is a strong developer of talent, they will want you to find the absolute best position within the company. She will have signaled this by discussing long-term career ambitions with you and by offering (and asking for) feedback. In this case, I recommend candidly discussing your ambitions without denigrating your current role.

You can approach this by saying, “Taylor, I have enjoyed my first several weeks here tremendously. In our next one-on-one, I’d like to get your advice on how to further grow my career here and contribute even more.” Giving your boss a heads-up ensures they aren’t blindsided.

You’ll want to carefully balance your primary responsibility - which is success in the current role - and your future ambitions. You might say, “Taylor, in the first few weeks here I’ve learned a tremendous amount. Contributing on the Alpha Report was a big challenge and it was fantastic to see it so well received by our clients. I still have a lot to learn, however I’m beginning to see that, in this role, my love for creativity and design aren’t being leveraged. Would you be open to a longer-term career planning discussion?”

This diplomatic approach recognizes that you are still new, and frames the discussion around your career goals, not the position itself. You’re reminding your boss of the successes you’ve had in the short term you’ve been in seat, and labeling the things you aren’t getting out of this position.

In this discussion, you’re looking for how your manager reacts. Is she engaging you to start thinking about your career, does she welcome a longer-term discussion, does she start thinking creatively about how to give you some exposure to the things you find lacking? Those are good signals, indicating you have a manager who is likely to help in your transition. If she appears frustrated or annoyed, you might need to be more delicate.

If your manager is only focused on keeping you in the current role, and appears disinterested, then you’ll want to engage others across the company in career-coaching discussions. Learning and development teams, HR business partners, employee networks, and fellow college alumni that work at the company can help you navigate the business.

That said, you should assume that everything you share in those discussions goes back to your direct manager. I’m not saying it will - but you should approach each meeting with a positive, thoughtful approach that is anchored on your long-term contribution to the success of the business you’re a part of.

Third - explore where you want to go. This component is particularly important - you don’t want a reputation as an unreliable employee who can’t stick to their commitments. Therefore, the next position you move to should be one where you want to invest time and effort.

Now that you’re inside the company, you’re able to see the reality in much more detail than you could when you were interviewing. As you build your company network, I suggest three things:

  • Always bring something of value to each networking discussion. This doesn’t need to be huge; it could be as simple as doing a quick search on the person you are meeting, seeing they follow Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg on LinkedIn, and sharing a recent article that featured Sandberg’s views.

  • Focus on skills, not just roles. As a new employee, you’re just learning the company. Don’t make assumptions about what function is best for you. Instead, focus on the three to five skills you’d like to develop or utilize more. Your colleagues may make interesting connections - like pointing you to a team that is just forming, but will need the skills you mentioned - that you wouldn’t have been able to yourself.

  • Ask your colleagues for connections. As you build your network, ask your colleagues who they recommend you meet. This is an excellent way to close the discussion and continue growing your connections.

  • Understand the internal application process. Learn precisely how the process works for employees who move internally. Most businesses require a very similar process for internal hires as they do external - resume submission, formal interviews, and even cover letters.

Fourth - set yourself up and make the move. In my experience, two things contribute disproportionately to making a move within your current company. The first is critical - you need to be effective at your current position. Even if you dislike it, you’ve got to nail it by meeting deadlines, delivering quality work, and ensuring you’re performing well by asking your manager and peers for feedback. If you don’t have a strong reputation in your current position, it will be challenging to get the next job.

Additionally, I recommend being appropriately transparent with your management team about your long-term ambitions. This is far easier if your manager is supportive of you. But - you never want your manager to be surprised that you are applying for a role internally. Many HR departments make a first call to the employee’s current manager before setting up an internal interview. This often allows HR to capture feedback on your performance and ensures the manager isn’t surprised. You want your manager to hear about your interest in a new role from you, not HR.

If you love your company, but hate your role, you can navigate into a new position. The talent in today’s market remains scarce, and competitive businesses recognize that it’s better to keep an employee by moving them into a new role than having them resign.

I’ll share my experience - after six months in the role I disliked, I landed an internal position in a new department that stretched my skills in exciting, interesting ways. My new role had many things my first position lacked, including more focused client engagement and deeper analytics.

Interestingly, some of the skills I built in the role I disliked (particularly an intensive attention to detail and the ability to write research reports extremely quickly) serve me well in my career to this day. I wish you the best of luck as you land the role you deserve in the company of your dreams.

xoxo,
Ms. Financier

Giving Up Coffee Won’t Make You Rich

Coffee is a hot topic in the personal finance world. I’m serious! Much ink has been spilled doing the math on how much we’re spending on our daily coffee order. If you Google “give up coffee to save money” you’ll see pages of posts, with particular judgement for those of us (like me) that indulge at Starbucks.

I’m here to confront this trope. I realize this is deeply controversial, so hold on to your hats!

There are three primary arguments supporting the myth that eliminating your daily coffee makes you rich:

  • Purchased coffee is an equivalent experience to home brew

  • Daily coffee is meaningful, in and of itself, as an item to cut out of your budget

  • Cutting small expenses is a good investment of effort in building wealth

First things first: purchased coffee is an equivalent experience to home brew. If you believe this statement, fine, give up Dunkin’ Donuts and bank the savings. However, many of us view our daily purchased coffee as an indulgence - a special, delicious treat in our routine. I represent those who see our local coffee shop, Starbucks, Costa, Tim Horton’s or Dunkin’ Donuts as a yummy delight.

If your daily coffee is more than just a caffeine boost, you surrender more than an “overpriced beverage” by giving it up. You lose a stroll to the coffee shop with a co-worker, friend, or mentor. You miss out on the social experience of sitting at the bar and enjoying a leisurely chat with neighbors that stroll in. You give up the opportunity to enjoy a creative (Wi-Fi connected) space to launch your side hustle.

You might argue that other places can offer the same experience - a library, for example. Possibly, though my library is less social than my local coffee shop. Don’t get me wrong - I adore my local library! But, patrons are often studying, researching for a project, polishing their resume, or quietly reading. It’s a different experience than a vibrant coffee shop.

I’m biased - I launched my blog from a coffee shop. It’s where I do some of my best creative thinking. And the coffee shops near my company offices have been host to some of my funniest, most insightful, meaningful career conversations. To me, that’s worth more than the cost of the drink itself. If your experience varies - that’s fine, but please stop coffee-shaming those of us that get far more utility out of our time at Starbucks, okay?

Next, let’s enjoy some math. Coffee-shamers insist that daily coffee is meaningful as an item to cut out of your budget. I argue that most of us have more significant changes that we can make before needing to cut our coffee habits.

Let’s make an aggressive hypothetical, and assume you indulge in a $4.50 coffee five days a week, or 260 days a year. This represents an annual expense of $1,170 ($97.50 monthly). While not chump change, here are a few other areas you could look for more substantial savings:

  • Car payments. The average monthly car payment in America is $493 (the average monthly lease payment is $412). And pricier cars are come with more expensive auto insurance payments. Average auto insurance payments vary, but range from $213 to $77, with an average across states of $125. If you can reduce your costs 25% below the average, you’d save $154.57 monthly. You could do this by buying a slightly less expensive car (say, 4 years used instead of 2 years, or used instead of new, or buy instead of lease), by shopping around on your car insurance, or increasing your insurance deductible. Further, if you can pay off your car and drive it for many, many years, you’ve saved the entire payment (though of course, you’ll have maintenance costs).

  • LIfe insurance. No, I’m not telling you to ditch your insurance. In fact, I’m a big fan of ensuring you’re managing your risk by being properly insured. But, I’ve found that many people struggle to understand insurance, and therefore may not have the right policy in place. Whole life insurance policies can be popular with agents that enjoy the hefty commissions many of those policies provide. However, many of us are effectively insured with less expensive term life insurance. In one comparison, a healthy 30-year old would pay $286.66 monthly for a $250,000 whole life insurance policy. That same coverage in a term life insurance policy costs $21, representing a monthly savings of $265.66.

  • The sneaky ways we spend more than we mean to. I’ve written an entire post on this topic, but I’ll summarize it in two words: Target and Costco. You know what I’m talking about, yes? Your store may vary, but many of us have places that we simply can’t leave without spending more than we mean to, on things we don’t really, truly value. After reviewing many, many household budgets I’ve observed that nearly every household has more than $200 in monthly savings on these unintended expenses.

The three categories above represent areas where you could look to trade off for more meaningful expenses, but there are countless others. If you value your daily coffee, track your expenses, and look for any areas that are far too high relative to what you value. Bam, you’ve found savings and get to remain caffeinated!

I’ve saved my favorite argument for last: Cutting small expenses is critical to building wealth.

Wealth is created in the gap between expenses and income. I wholeheartedly believe that increasing your income is the more important part of the wealth-building equation. The energy to focus on cutting daily indulgences you value, like Starbucks, would be better placed on developing your career, creating a meaningful side-hustle, or networking yourself into that new job you’ve been angling for.

It is easier to save and invest when your income increases; automatically transfer the additional funds to your savings accounts, investments, or biggest debts. You’re building wealth by mindfully putting this increase towards your financial goals, without having to walk enviously past your favorite coffee shop.

Further, expenses can only be cut so far; and while some choose to (or, importantly, have to) live on less, your income potential is theoretically limitless. Technology, social networks, and the increasing demand for quality knowledge workers lower barriers to innovation and entrepreneurship. Given limited time, I recommend you prioritize growing your income as a more productive long-term improvement (versus cutting modest expenses you get value from).

Despite what you might read, you don’t need to give up your daily coffee to get rich! Furthermore, if you value the experience and luxury of a regular coffee, purchased coffee is not an equivalent experience to home brew. As I outlined above, there are many other meaningful items to cut out of your budget if you’re looking to reduce expenses. Finally, we run up on reality - there’s a limit to cutting expenses, so placing extra energy on increasing income is a smarter investment of your limited time and resources.

So, enjoy the experience of your daily skinny vanilla latte if it’s something you truly enjoy. See you at Starbucks...I’ll be the one chatting with the baristas while working away on my blog! Cheers.

xoxo, Ms. Financier

This post was originally written for Dirt Cheap Wealth, as part of her “Breaking Financial Myths” series, where Personal Finance bloggers challenge oft-repeated (yet seldom understood) personal finance concepts.

Investing for Beginners: 21 Things You Need to Know

Investing is defined as, “the outlay of money usually for income or profit.” The idea behind investing? Put your money to work for you, in something you believe will increase in value over time. Investing your money in the stock market may seem like a foreign concept; How do you know which funds to invest in? How does trading actually work? And what the heck is a mutual fund?

There are some gender differences, too. Men are generally more confident about investing, while women are more goal-directed and trade less. Women tend to keep 10% more of their savings in cash than our male counterparts. Millennial women report a lower level of financial comfort. On average, we are less likely to feel “in control” or “confident” about our financial future. And, women generally have a smaller total invested when we retire - because we earn less.

Where to start? I’ve got you - the items below serve as a beginner’s guide to investing.

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1. Investing builds wealth

Is there anything more powerful than the idea of your money making money for you, without you lifting a finger? That’s at the heart of investing.

The power of compound interest means that the earlier you invest, the sooner your investments start growing and making money on your behalf. This builds your wealth far more rapidly than saving in a checking account.

2. The market is where companies go to attract investors

When people talk about investing in “the market” what are they referring to? Today’s markets are largely exchanges - like the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) - that allow us to buy and sell investments to others. You’ve seen photos of business executives and celebrities “ringing the bell” to open the NYSE, but it’s not the only market; others include the NASDAQ, London Stock Exchange, and many others.

The market is a general term for spaces where companies go to attract investors, and where investors buy and sell with each other.

3. Investing allows you to own a portion of a larger business

Buying stock is like purchasing a little slice of a company. Say you buy stock in consumer goods company P&G (manufacturer of Tide, Crest, Dawn, Tampax, and many other household names); that stock costs $90.98 per share at the time of this writing. If you buy that share, you are betting that P&G will continue to grow and make money. P&G uses your $90.98 to invest in its business; open new locations, fund new products, hire new staff.

4. Owners make money when the businesses they own make money

Companies like P&G that offer stock to investors often give investors some of the money they earn. Every three months, these companies tell investors how they are doing by issuing financial statements.

If they are doing well (taking in more money than they spend, which is called profit), they will often give a portion of the money to investors. These payments, called dividends, can be re-invested or cashed out by investors.

5. You need an investment account to invest in the market

Investment accounts are offered by financial services companies (like Vanguard, Charles Schwab, and Fidelity) and allow you to buy stocks and other investments. Once you’ve determined what to invest in, it’s easier to select the right investment account.

6. Investment accounts come in several forms

There are several types of investment accounts, designed for different purposes.

Retirement accounts are for the future, and include 401(k) and IRA accounts. These typically include penalties if you access them before retirement age, and the government often gives you tax breaks on them to encourage investing.

Regular investment accounts are often referred to as brokerage accounts. These aren't necessarily for retirement, so you can add or withdraw your money as you see fit. These don't have special tax benefits (unlike many retirement accounts.)

7. 401(k) accounts are provided by your employer help you save for retirement

Retirement accounts, like a 401(k) or 403(b), can only be offered through your employer. They are named for the section of the Internal Revenue Code that outlines how they work.

401(k) plans can be offered by private companies. Similarly, 403(b) plans can be offered by public education employers, some non-profits, and the like.

8. IRA accounts are for you to save for your retirement

While 401(k) plans are offered by employers, a Roth or traditional IRA is available to anyone that earns an income. This helps those that work for companies that don't provide a 401(k) benefit, as well as those who want to invest more for their retirement.

You have to open this account for yourself at a qualified bank or broker, like Vanguard or Fidelity.

Traditional IRAs are funded with wages that you have already paid taxes on. However, depending on your income, you may be able to deduct your contributions from your taxes.

9. Some IRA accounts (Roth IRAs) allow you to access money in the future, without taxes

Roth accounts are funded with money that has already been taxed, so you do not owe the government any taxes when you access it in retirement.

Some people prefer Roth accounts because they like the predictably of knowing they will not be taxed in the future. Regardless of whether you prefer a Roth or Traditional IRA, the most important step is to begin investing. Either would be better than neither!

10. You need to fund your investment account in order to buy investments

Once you have selected both the type of account you are focused on (IRA, 401(k), brokerage) and the financial services provider (Vanguard, Fidelity, Charles Schwab), you need to fund the account by putting money in.

If you are just starting to invest, you can call the financial services provider or go to their website to send them your money and open your account. This money will sit in the investment account in cash until you decide which investments to purchase.

11. It is very, very hard to pick the right stock to buy.

All this knowledge is useless if you don’t put your money to work for you by selecting an investment. This is where many women, wanting to know all the details can face analysis paralysis.

Since a stock is like purchasing a little slice of a company, many people like to analyze company information (financial performance, industry trends, competitive landscape, emerging regulations), and then buy the companies they think will win.

A caution: this is very, very difficult to do. If you are buying individual stocks, it is very challenging to consistently make money.

Think about it; as an individual investor, you need to be educated enough to buy only the stocks that will continue to pay dividends OR buy (and sell) the right stocks at the right time, when they increase in price. And you’re competing with everyone else who watches the market - including professionals.

One of the money mistakes I made was trying my hand at purchasing individual stocks. I have shared how that worked out - disastrously - for me. There are over half a million companies you can invest in on public exchanges. How will we pick the right ones to buy stock in? Read the next steps to learn how.

12. Mutual funds allow you to buy many companies in one purchase

Mutual funds are one investment vehicle that allows us to buy many, many stocks in just one purchase. I prefer these to individual stocks because you can own hundreds of companies in each share.

Many retirement accounts only allow mutual funds, given they offer more companies in each purchase and are generally seen as less risky than stocks.

13. ETFs are like mutual funds, but cheaper

ETFs are my favorite type of investment. ETF stands for Exchange-Traded Fund. Like mutual funds, ETFs allow investors to buy many companies in a single share. They are nearly identical to mutual funds, save for some technical differences (how they are traded and regulated, for example).

I like these better than individual stocks and even mutual funds because they are generally less costly to the investor and have low expense ratios, as I explain in the next step.

14. Investments have costs

What's the expense ratio? This is how much the company that manages the mutual fund or ETF charges you for their work.

An average expense ratio is around .6% - meaning, for every $100 you have invested, the fund rakes in 60 cents. Sounds small - but tiny fees make a meaningful difference in your wealth over the long term. Vanguard’s average expense ratio is .12% - meaning, for every $100 you invest in a Vanguard mutual fund, they charge 12 cents. That’s much, much lower, and lets you keep more of your hard-earned money.

Are there other fees? It can be costly to create fancy, actively-managed mutual funds. So, look carefully for purchase or redemption fees, or 12b-1 fees (marketing or distribution fees.)

You can find these fees easily online when you research your potential investments, because companies are required to publish expense ratios and 12b-1 fees to their prospective investors.

Fees are taken directly out of the investment, so you do not see a “line item” of how much they are when your money is invested. This is convenient for expensive funds with high fees.

15. Returns help investors compare performance

Returns are indicators of how well (or poorly) investments perform. They help investors easily compare performance across different investment vehicles. Returns are expressed in percentages.

For example, if I invested $100 in an ETF that achieved a 4% one-year return, I would have earned $4 in that time period.

You can compare any range of time when looking at returns and compare your potential investment to a few big benchmarks.

Investment returns are from past performance and are not a guarantee of how well they will do in the future. However, they are a useful indicator.

15. Benchmarks like the S&P 500 help compare performance

How did this fund perform over the last decade, compared to the S&P 500? The S&P 500 is a very common performance benchmark because it includes the 500 largest U.S. companies. If the mutual fund or ETF seriously underperformed the S&P 500, it may not be worthy of your hard-earned money.

16. Review the 10-year return to compare performance

There are many ways to evaluate investment performance. I recommend using the 10-year return because I like a longer view into performance.

Compare your investments 10-year return to the S&P 500 10-year return so you can see if you are buying something slightly better than, or worse than, the performance of that group of companies.

Candidly, I keep my investments very simple and largely buy ETFs and mutual funds that match the S&P 500. That works well for me.

Investment experts like Warren Buffett recommend this approach for individual investors and studies show it is very difficult to beat “the market” consistently (meaning, a large benchmarked group of companies like the S&P 500).

17. Target date funds can make investing for retirement easy

Many financial services providers offer “target date funds” which are designed to help you save for retirement by adjusting over time. These funds buy less risky investments as the target date gets closer.

If you are planning on retiring in 30 years, you would buy the target date fund that is dated 30 years from today.

Keep an eye on the expense ratios and other fees associated with these funds. Many are modest, but I have seen some that are far higher than the average mutual fund (which is .6% industry-wide but .12% for Vanguard funds).

18. Investing is easier when you do it automatically

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 take advice from Warren Buffett one more time. He says, “Do not save what is left after spending, but spend what is left after saving.”

19. Investments pay you through dividends and growth

Investments like mutual funds and ETFs make money for investors in two basic ways.

First, the company may perform well, create profits, and pay stockholders dividends from those profits as I outlined above. Dividends are a financial “thank you” for investing in the company.

If you choose to reinvest the dividends you receive, and buy more shares, you are creating a powerful wealth-building cycle.

Second, you can make money by selling your stock to someone else. Then, you profit (or lose) the difference.

20. The best day to start investing is today

Is there more complexity we could examine? Sure. But, these 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? You've got this!

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.

Saving for Retirement: The Beginner’s Guide

When you’re starting your career, you’ve got a ton on your “must do” list: impressing your boss on your first solo assignment, successfully navigating workplace politics, preparing to ask for your first raise, curating the perfect work wardrobe...the list goes on and on.

There’s another, critical, financial to-do that you need to accomplish. You need to start investing for retirement.

Why should you care about investing for retirement? Fair question - retirement can seem like a hazy event in the future, making it feel far less urgent than other life priorities. However, let’s learn from others - not saving early enough for retirement is the number one financial regret of Baby Boomers in America. In contrast, I have never heard anyone say they regret saving too much for retirement, too early.

Further, investing a modest amount today can be more powerful than investing a larger sum later in life. The power of compound interest means that the earlier you invest, the sooner your investments start growing and making money on your behalf. You can never, ever recapture time. Starting today with smaller amounts will build financial momentum in your investment accounts.

Finally, women should care about investing for retirement because we face a retirement gender gap. We tend to live longer, face a wage gap over the length of our careers, and spend more time out of the workforce than men. On average, we need to save $1.25 for every $1 saved by men.

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What type of account is best - an IRA or a 401(k)? Once you’ve decided to invest, it’s time to identify the best type of account for your retirement investing. Let me be clear: either an IRA or a 401(k) is better than doing nothing. Both are fabulous options that are set up to encourage investing. Don’t spend months trying to make the perfect choice; you’ll lose valuable time where your money could be in the market, growing for you.

If you’d like to learn more details about investing, here’s how to start investing in four steps. I’ve also created a very simple summary of what investing in the market really means. Here’s a summary of the main differences between an IRA and 401(k):

Traditional 401(k) Account: Offered by your employer, this account allows you to invest a percentage of your wages for retirement.

  • 401(k) accounts are funded with pre-tax wages. This means you pay less in taxes to the IRS. It also means you’re investing a larger amount of money (since you’re investing a full dollar earned, not just the portion remaining after taxes are paid).

  • Many employers will “match” a portion of your savings. This is free money; never pass up free money!

  • You pay taxes on the money when you withdraw it in retirement.

  • In 2017, you can save up to $18,000 annually in a 401(k) - more if you are over 50.

  • Generally, you cannot access the funds in a 401(k) account without paying steep penalties until you reach retirement.

  • 401(k) is the subsection of the Internal Revenue Code that defines how these accounts work, hence the name of this retirement vehicle.

Traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA): You have to open this account for yourself at a qualified bank or broker, like Vanguard or Fidelity.

  • Traditional IRAs are funded with wages that you have already paid taxes on. However, depending on your income, you may be able to deduct your contributions from your taxes.

  • You pay taxes on the money when you withdraw it in retirement.

  • In 2017, you can save up to $5,500 annually in an IRA - more if you are over 50. The limit is far lower than 401(k) limits in most cases.

  • Funds in an IRA account are for your retirement, but certain qualifying expenses allow you to skirt tax penalties. These include higher education expenses, a first-time home purchase, and medical costs.

In addition to the differences above, 401(k) and IRA accounts may come in two flavors: Traditional and Roth.

  • Traditional accounts have been funded with money that hasn’t been taxed, so you pay taxes on the money when you access it in retirement. (Traditional IRA investments receive a tax deduction, which makes it the same as a pre-tax 401(k) investment.)

  • Roth accounts are funded with money that has already been taxed, so you do not owe the government any taxes when you access it in retirement.

So, which is the right type of account for you? Like many financial answers, it depends. In general, I recommend prioritizing a 401(k) account, because it often includes both employer matching funds, and you can save far more money for your retirement, in one place.

That said, the best advice I can give you is to make an informed decision quickly, and start investing (or, increasing your investing). Every day that passes without your money in the market is another day that you’re missing out on the amazing power of compound interest. You’ve got this!

xoxo, Ms. Financier

This post originally appeared on Victori Media, a site dedicated to helping millennial women live life victoriously. I love the site’s mission and am inspired by its creator, Tori Dunlap, who built her first business at age nine and is an award-winning digital marketer, entrepreneur and blogger.

How to Slay Your First Job Out of College

This post is by my fabulous internet friend Tori Dunlap. Founder of her first business at age nine, Tori is an award-winning digital marketer, entrepreneur, and blogger. She has led, developed, and executed social media and communication plans for global brands. Tori is founder of Victori Media, helping millennial women live life victoriously and is obsessed with finding cheap flights, reading a good book in the bathtub, and watching classic "Whose Line" episodes.

You’ve walked across that stage, diploma in hand. You’re absolutely exhausted, and elated for what’s to come. But whether you have a job lined up already or are beginning the search, your challenges (both good and bad!) are just beginning.

I was in your shoes just a few short years ago, when I graduated college and launched my career. Like most graduates, I was discovering how to navigate the corporate world. But unlike most graduates, I landed a job that had me running marketing and communication strategy for a global company of 5,000. By myself.

In order to be successful, I knew I was going to have to constantly learn. And since my first day on the job, I’ve been given more responsibilities, had fantastic opportunities to travel and work special events, and even earned a massive raise.

Here’s what I learned about how to kill it at your first corporate job.

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1. Chat with your boss

Discovering more about your role requires a 1:1 discussion with your supervisor. Your first week on the job is a great time to figure out the big picture stuff, like how success will be defined in your position — is it quantitative or qualitative? The number of clients you bring in, or an increase in brand awareness? — and what your goals should be in this first year.

More day-to-day expectations are important too — do you need to stay as late as your boss? Can you work from home (if so, how often?) What meetings should you be attending? Ask questions now before you regret NOT asking them later.

2. Get some info

The best resource for getting your feet wet at your first job? The people you’ll work with every day! It’s your chance to learn everything you can about a new company: make friends with people in other departments, email executives a few questions about their role and experience (after you’ve done your research on their background and achievements), ask someone out for coffee. Sit with new people at lunch every day for your first few weeks, ask to observe any executive meetings — soak it all in!

3. Bond with your peers out of office

Work is better with friends — your mental health is proven to increase when you have friends at the office. Having people that will support you, guide you, and have your back will be so important as you take on larger projects. Go to lunch together, or bring your home lunches outside. Visit the art museum together, go to a movie, grab drinks. Building positive, friendly relationships with coworkers will make tough days easier, and will congratulate you and cheer you on when things go right.

4. Contribute innovative ideas

Going above and beyond in your job is not just working hard. You want to be an innovator. See where you could fill a need, and pitch it to your boss (chances are, you learned some of the challenges in your informational interviews!) Begin to seek out the organization’s problems, and dream up ways to solve them. For example, I implemented our Lunch and Learn program at our office (and it helped me get that huge raise!)

5. Offer support and encouragement

Your coworkers are just like anyone else: to be successful, they want to feel supported. When a coworker is set to leave for vacation, ask them if there is anything you can assist with while they’re away. When the person in the cubicle next to you gets a raise or promotion, handwrite a note of congratulations. Make them something small for their birthday, or help decorate their desk. It’s the small things, but they’ll go a long way in having a more cohesive, collaborative team who feels respected.

6. Ask for feedback

In that very first meeting with your boss, you want to set up sessions for formal feedback. Ask her for a formal review every 6 months, with consistent check-ins when you meet one-on-one. The last thing you want is to feel like you’re doing a great job, only to have a negative review from lack of communication. Ask for feedback from peers and other team members, too. Let them know you’re eager for feedback on what you can improve, since you’re looking to grow.

7. Constantly strive to learn

Whether this learning comes from your on-the-job training, an introductory interview with someone in another department, a book, or an online course, the best thing you can do for your career is to keep learning (and you thought college was over!) Free webinars and networking events have been very helpful for me, as well as collaborating with colleagues on projects. Ask your boss if there is a discretionary budget for learning materials, courses, or certifications.

For those of you just launching your careers, be compassionate and confident in your skills, and never stop asking questions. You’ve got this! If you’re looking to discover your path after graduation, or are having a hard time finding that perfect fit — drop me a line! I would love to work with you to discover your full potential.

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I love Tori's thoughtful, practical advice on how to slay your first job out of college! For those that have been in the workplace for some time, you probably realized you're doing several of these things already. Or, perhaps you found something new to incorporate. Thank you, Tori, for your take!

xoxo, Ms. Financier

 

How My Mentor Helped Me Get Promoted

In the workforce, doing great work isn’t enough to accelerate your career. Mentors and sponsors ensure your great work is recognized, acknowledged, and appreciated by those in power. My mentor has been a tremendously valuable source of guidance throughout my career, and our partnership helped me earn my most recent (and significant) promotion.

Let’s take a moment to define terms:

  • Mentors provide guidance, coaching, and perspective on your career and professional ambitions. I think of my best mentors as a second set of eyes on my life decisions, and love this article on the four things the best mentors do. Mentors may be within or outside of your organization.

  • Sponsors may do some of the things mentors do, but they exert effort on your behalf. They actively seek, develop, and create professional opportunities for you. I believe you must have at least one sponsor within your own organization.

A report by executive search firm Egon Zehnder indicated that only 54% of women have sponsors or mentors supporting their career. Frustratingly, women have fewer sponsors than men. In my experience, I find we are less assertive about developing senior relationships because we often feel uncomfortable asking for help. If you don’t yet have a mentor, here are six tips on how to get one.

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My primary mentor is an amazing, inspiring businesswoman with over a decade of additional professional experience. Let’s call her Amani. Her guidance has been valuable throughout my career and she played a massive role in helping me secure a big promotion.

Eighteen months ago, I felt stuck in a professional rut. Amani and I had a conversation where I shared this feeling with her, and she asked me several pointed questions to help me diagnose the source of my angst. I find that the best mentors, like Amani, often listen more than they speak.

One of the questions she asked me was: “If you weren’t stuck, what would be happening differently at work and in your career?” This simple, thoughtful question required me to gather my thoughts. I shared some of the frustrations that would be eliminated, the projects I’d stop spending time on, how I’d change my staff, and the new things I’d take on. “Well,” Amani chuckled, “let’s build your plan to do just that.”

Over the next several weeks, I evaluated and retired lower-value projects; I assessed my staff, and adjusted workload and responsibilities. With Amani’s guidance echoing in my head, I built a small working team to re-evaluate internal processes that had grown cumbersome and inefficient, and began working towards new goals that inspired me.

In the eighteen months that followed, Amani served as a “second set of eyes,” as I ran any new project and commitment by her. Her objective perspective helped me evaluate which opportunities truly matched the revised vision of my career.

Before a particularly difficult meeting, with several executives that never agreed on anything, she was my audience as I practiced the meeting, executive concerns, and questions I would need to address.

Amani helped me clarify my focus and served as a meaningful source of inspiration, particularly when some of my proposals went down in flames. She reminded me, “Your next role isn’t going to come because you were right every time, it’s going to be awarded to you because you’re a great executive and thoughtful leader. Keep proving that, and the opportunity will come.”

Importantly, Amani helped me communicate the case for my promotion in the six months leading up to the review cycle. She and I would discuss which leaders had confirmed their support and strategize on which critical promotion decision-makers needed to shift from neutral to supportive.

My great work and strong leadership earned me a promotion eighteen months after I articulated my feeling of being professionally “stuck” with Amani. Her guidance, support, and objective advice are things I’m forever grateful for. You might be curious how I pay her back? She always asks one thing: that I return the favor by mentoring other women. I’m happy to oblige.

I’d love to hear how you’ve benefited from the partnership of a mentor...or, how you’re supporting other women by serving as their mentor. By intentionally spending the time to support those around us, we’re elevating all women, which is a beautiful thing.

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.

How to Give to Charity and Have a Big Impact

One of the best things about building wealth and making money is the opportunity to give your money away. On this blog, I’ve talked about giving to charity as one of the six expenses I’ll never cut back on and donating regularly is one of the things that successful 30-year olds should be doing with their money!

I believe that anyone that is privileged enough to be investing, budgeting, and saving extra money has an opportunity to have a big impact through charitable donations. Here’s how to give to charity and have a significant impact across the course of your life.

Select a few causes that mean the most to you. I recommend identifying a small number of charities or organizations that align with your values and passions. Selecting 3 - 6 that you can truly research, understand, follow and volunteer with allows you to stay close to the impact your donations are having. By now, you’ll realize I’m a fan of focus and simplicity. With a smaller number of organizations, you can truly remain engaged and aware, and your limited resources will, by definition, go further among a smaller set of causes. What if you have more than six that you care deeply about? That’s fabulous - I don’t want you to feel limited - but think carefully about how you’ll prioritize your limited time and money to support a wider group.

Research them carefully. There are amazing resources today that help you understand the impact your selected nonprofit is having. I prefer Charity Navigator, which is itself a charitable organization. Charity Navigator evaluates nonprofit organizations against a variety of objective criteria, including financial health, accountability, and transparency. Using their site, you can easily explore how the organization uses its budget, understanding how much goes to paying its staff, versus to the causes it is designed to support.

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Set up recurring monthly donations. Like anything in your financial life, automation will make your donations easier to maintain. Further, recurring donations provide your charities with a more reliable stream of income. Fundraising is costly and very time-intensive, so your automatic donation helps alleviate some of that strain.

How much should you donate on a monthly basis? Like everything in personal finance, the answer is “it depends.” Many cite 10% of your income, linking back to the practice of tithing. I recommend starting with that as a benchmark - and lowering or raising it to fit your budget. When your income increases, or your expenses drop, you can adjust your donations as needed.

Evaluate your budget for additional donations. If your budget allows, you may want to create space for additional donations to the causes you care about. Many organizations have an annual fundraiser and run periodic giving campaigns. Contributing to those efforts provides additional support to the programs you value.

Mr. Financier and I set aside budget to participate in - and invite guests to - the annual events that are thrown by our favorite charities. It’s a great way to connect our friends to the causes we care about, connect with the leaders of the organization, and understand the progress and strategies of the coming years.

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Determine your practice for unexpected donations. The causes you care about deeply represent your personal priorities. However, if you’re like me, you have friends and family that have other philanthropic passions that they work to support throughout the year. These efforts often come in the form of a personal campaign or athletic competition.

I suggest you take one of two approaches when you’re approached by a loved one about donating to a new non-profit organization:

  • Set a budget and stick to it. Create an “on demand donation” budget that you can use when you’re asked for ad-hoc donations. This small slush fund allows you to contribute, but not go overboard or contribute at the expense of your other charitable goals. When you’ve exceeded the budget, allow yourself the permission to say, “I’m honored you asked, but I’ve already spent my budget for charitable donations - is there another way I could support you?”

  • Politely decline. There’s nothing wrong with saying no. Women, particularly, were often socialized to be “people pleasers,” and can struggle with this small phrase. You can be kind and still say no. If you choose, you may offer an explanation, “I appreciate your passion for this cause - however, I’ve decided to funnel all of my charitable giving to a small number of causes so I can have the greatest impact.”

Explore your company’s employee matching policy. Once you’ve settled on your charitable goals, your company may be able to provide additional support. Many businesses offer Corporate Matching Gift Programs, where the company will match employee donations, usually up to a certain dollar amount annually. Contact your human resources team to understand if your company has one in place, and if they do, take advantage of this “free money” for your favorite causes!

Don’t forget about donating clothing and household goods. You could spend time selling your gently used items online, or via consignment...but if you can afford to go without that “found income,” donating your physical goods to shelters, return-to-work programs, and other organizations can have a tremendous impact. When donating physical goods, take the time to research the requirements of the specific charity - you’ll save them time and effort if you provide only what they are looking for.

Finally, no amount is too small. Occasionally, I hear women muse about whether “smaller donations” have an impact. While large donations catch headlines, every nonprofit is grateful for even the most modest amount. Start with what you can afford, and don’t demean your donation. Every contribution counts and will support the organizations you care about.

Are you interested in learning more about smart giving strategies? I loved the Charitable Giving Boot Camp episode of the Better Off podcast. Host Jill Schlesinger speaks with the CEO of Charity Navigator about how to maximize your charitable giving. Their discussion explores the impact of philanthropy and several common questions about charitable giving.

One of my other favorite podcasters, Jean Chatzky, also addressed charitable giving on an episode entitled Doing Well While Doing Good with Katherina Rosqueta, the founding executive director for the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania. Katherina noted that 80% of Americans give to charity, and shares several practical tactics to bring to your own philanthropic efforts. She also reminded listeners that philanthropy isn’t just for the wealthy - anyone that engages in charitable efforts is contributing to the greater good.

I haven’t addressed the potential tax benefits of charitable donations, but there are opportunities to deduct donations from your tax bill. This is a nice incentive, but not the driving purpose behind my giving, personally.

I’d love to hear about the strategies you use to support your favorite charitable organizations! How did you identify the causes and organization you support today? What techniques do you use to balance their support with your other financial priorities? Looking forward to your feedback!

xoxo, Ms. Financier

Talking About Women and Money with a Financial Planner

Certified Financial Planner™ professionals help clients align their finances with life goals. I prefer fee-based planners that have earned a CFPⓇ certification, and recommend you consider them if you’re selecting an advisor to help you with your financial plans.

If you’re like me, you probably wonder about the lessons these financial gurus have learned from years of serving clients. Is there secret perspective that they have gained from those experiences? What patterns and pitfalls do they see in their clients?

I had the opportunity to interview Mark Newfield, a Richmond-based financial advisor who started his financial planning career after a successful first career in consulting. Mark and his team shared their perspective on personal finance with me, reflecting decades of collective experience. Here’s a summary of our conversation.

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The question you should always ask a planner. I started our discussion with the basics, “Why did you get involved in financial planning?” In Mark’s view, this is the first question any prospective client should ask before engaging a planner. He noted that very few people ever ask him this, and his team always proactively shares why they are in this business.

Mark and Angela Lessor, Director of Investment Operations, both cited the personal satisfaction they get from helping others. During Mark’s first career as a consultant, he was always the person eager to talk about money and often shared personal financial advice and perspective. When he decided it was time to move on from consulting, but wasn’t ready to quit working, he, “...put two and two together,” and shifted into a second career focused on helping people with their money. Mark proudly shared, “I have a stack of notes on my bookcase from clients saying thank you for our efforts.”

Angela shared a similar sentiment. She noted that it is incredibly satisfying to help people, many of whom come in disorganized or overwhelmed with their financial situation. Developing a plan that clients can follow, helping them get their financial footing, and partnering with clients to see that their goals are achievable are some of her favorite things about the role.

This passion for helping others is a common thread among quality CFPⓇ professionals. I follow several CFPⓇ gurus on Twitter, and can feel their excitement in empowering and enabling clients to succeed. When you are working with a planner, I believe you should feel the same from them. If they talk only about beating the market, making money, and growing wealth (but with no reflection on their passion for your success, or appreciation for your goals), that’s a red flag to me.

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In general, what differences do you see between men and women in how they manage their money? While every individual is different, Mark and Angela noted that they have observed general trends across genders. In general, they observe women making many of the financial decisions in the daily running of the household. Mark noted, “It seems like people are finally starting to become aware of that, but that hasn’t changed in decades.”

Women tend to prefer more advice and consultation, and men generally like to see the numbers. Women often want to deeply understand where their money is going and what they’re about to invest in. Like many planners, Mark and Angela engage their clients in an initial assessment, which can identify where partners (same-sex or heterosexual) differ; these distinctions may or may not be gender-based, and every couple tends to differ in a few personal finance areas.

Taking a fact-based approach enables CFPⓇ professionals to help partners navigate tricky financial decisions. While the general observations Mark and Angela shared line up with much of the gender-based research on money and investing, I recommend looking for a planner that has a defined process to engage with you. This may include an assessment, detailed questionnaires about your spending and income, and a clear long-term plan to support you. This illustrates their commitment to your overall financial health and their desire to build a plan suited for you, versus a one-size-fits-all approach.

Many people struggle to talk openly about money. Why do you think that is and what advice do you have to start a money-related discussion with a friend or family member? I was curious to understand how a professional team that constantly discusses money can help us improve our comfort with the topic.

Mark and Angela shared that getting the emotion out on the table is a good first step. For example, if you’re struggling with credit card debt, you could say to your partner: “I’m worried about debt, and I think we ought to have a conversation about it. How do you feel?”

They acknowledged that most clients know intuitively whether they are in good financial shape (or not) and most aren’t as “disciplined” as they believe they need to be. This discomfort or shame can hinder communications. Mark shared, “We see people with high incomes, say an average of $300,000 annually, and yet the number of people who come in and feel wealthy are few.”

Further, Mark mentioned the relief that many clients feel when they start to discuss money openly and candidly. I can relate to this personally; when I had massive credit card debt I felt incredibly ashamed. Once I started addressing it openly with my partner, it was like a massive weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

I found these observations from Mark and Angela illuminating on several fronts. We often compare ourselves to others, assuming they are making smarter decisions with money, know something financially we don’t, or don’t have debt. The reality is, we all make money mistakes (I’ve shared several of mine), and many in the United States struggle with financial literacy. If we are brave enough to be vulnerable and share our concerns and emotions about money with others, we can engage in a more authentic dialogue.

Further, there is a perception that more money immediately equates to fewer money-related stresses. I’ll always have more empathy for those at the lowest ends of the income spectrum, even those with means struggle to consistently make the “right” decisions with their money. Removing the assumptions that some of us have, that money can solve all problems, can give those that earn more the opportunity to engage in financial improvement.

What are the top three "money mistakes" you see women make? I was very interested to see what patterns had emerged across their client base, since we all have room to improve with how we manage our money.

Budget - no one has one. Mark and Angela noted that they rarely see clients that have set up a budget, and many women spend first and try to save the reminder. They noted that this approach is often a “complete failure, except in the most disciplined people.”

They have found that they help women get serious about their budget once they illustrate the net available cash flow after required expenses (like mortgage payments and utilities). Usually, this cash flow is two or three times the amount their clients think they can save.

Ladies, this first one is good news - it means that most of us have an opportunity to save a lot more than we do today, simply by starting to track our expenses and save first, then spend (which I call “Scarcity Budgeting,” and use diligently.)

Having too many financial accounts. I wasn’t expecting this insight, but it makes a lot of sense. Mark regularly counsels clients to consolidate accounts, because “...the more stuff you have, the harder it is to manage.” He notes that many clients don’t even know their rates of return on their investments, because they have so many accounts and can’t easily keep on top of their money.

If your employer has a 401(k) or other retirement program, you are likely tied to that financial provider. Beyond that, you may have one other brokerage accounts for other investment purposes. I believe more than two financial institutions gets difficult for the average person to manage on a regular basis. If you have not done a financial inventory, it may be a wise first step to identify where your accounts are, and how you can consolidate and simplify your financial life.

If you’re partnered - be open and transparent about money. Mark and Angela noted that many women in significant relationships struggle to be open with their finances. This is related to the question above, as talking about money when you’re struggling with certain aspects of your financial life can be truly challenging.

However, surprises and secrets can be damaging and hurtful to a relationship. Both Mark and Angela advised an open discussion, and acknowledged that working with a CFPⓇ certificant can help partners be more open about money. Mark shared, “More often than not, we do counseling on our clients spending habits. We’ve had to help with where they want to live and other significant topics in a relationship.”

I agree that a professional can help guide these conversations, and believe partners should work towards becoming financially intimate.

What additional financial advice do you have for women? Before we closed our discussion, I wanted to understand what our financial experts would recommend to women looking to grow their wealth.

Mark jumped on this question, and shared; “You’re never going to figure out what you need until you figure out what you want. Financial independence - whatever that means for each client - is a set of behaviors. How do you want to live? Answer that first.”

I couldn’t agree more! We all have unique goals for the life we want to live; these goals may include travel, passion projects, ambitions for our family, career objectives. Getting crystal clear on those objectives will help us direct our money to serve (and not detract from) those objectives.

I hope you enjoyed this perspective from Mark Newfield and Angela Lessor! I’m always intrigued to learn from those that are lucky enough to help others with their money, day in and day out. Are there any tidbits from this discussion that surprised you? What other questions might you have for a CFPⓇ expert? Or, if you are a CFPⓇ professional, what would you add to this dialogue?

xoxo, Ms. Financier

Do Women Need To Save More Than Men for Retirement?

I have been thrilled to read recent reports that millennials are out-saving other generations. On average, we save 19% of our income, which is 5% more than Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, who average only 14%.

Many of us are focusing our saving on near-term objectives, like housing, or to live a certain lifestyle. It is equally important that we save for retirement. Investing small amounts regularly can build tremendous wealth, due to the amazing power of compound interest. But, does your gender matter in your retirement planning?

I’m disappointed to say it does, because the data suggests women need to save more than men. We face a retirement gender gap. The first reason is a positive one; women tend to live longer. This is the case without a single exception, in all countries. Because of this difference, we need more money to sustain our longer lives.

The other reasons contributing to the retirement gap are frustrating. Women face a persistent wage gap over the length of our careers and spend more time out of the workforce than men. On average, we need to save $1.25 for every $1 saved by men.

A recent article in the Journal of Accountancy addressed this topic and highlighted the health care penalty that women face;

“With longer lives, women also have more years of healthcare to pay for. According to HealthView Services, a company that publishes healthcare cost research for financial advisers, a healthy 55-year old woman can expect to spend $79,000 more on healthcare in retirement than a man of the same age. And women are much more likely to need long-term care, too...It's no coincidence that over 70% of the residents in nursing homes are women.”

The article also noted that, in heterosexual couples, "Statistically, men tend to go first, and it's their wives who had to take care of them.”

The retirement gap that exists between men and women may be frustrating, but it is important to understand now, in our working years, so we can take action. Here are some practical steps that you can take to address your personal retirement gap:

  • Redirect money from lower-importance categories. Look out for the sneaky ways we spend more than we mean to. These small expenses can add up; reducing them creates wiggle room for more saving.

  • Increase your retirement saving. If you have a 401(k) at work, you can invest up to $18,000 tax-free. Your employer may match a portion of that, which is like free money.

  • Start talking more frequently about money with the women in your life, because knowledge is power. A Fidelity study found that 92% of women want to learn more about financial planning, but eight in 10 “...confess they have refrained at some point from talking about their finances with those they are close to.” Women report that talking about money is “too personal.”

  • Encourage other women to save for retirement. Be the woman at work that encourages HR to host retirement savings webinars with your 401(k) provider, and talks openly about how excited you are to increase your 401(k) contributions. Your positive, non-judgemental approach will inspire others.

  • Grow your income. This may not happen overnight, but it is the surest path to close your personal retirement and wage gap. At a minimum, you should ensure HR has verified that there is no wage gap between you and your male peers. But I know you can do even more than that to build your wealth.

While data tell us we need to save more than men, I’m hopeful that our generation will be able to apply our tendency to save towards retirement investing. I’ve never met a retiree that regretted saving too much for their future. Let’s start building wealth now, so we can live our Golden Girls life in style, just like Blanche, Dorothy, Sophia, and Rose.

xoxo,

Ms. Financier

What’s the Difference Between an IRA and 401(k)? Why Does it Matter?

Saving for retirement can be daunting...and the finance industry’s love for confusing acronyms doesn’t help. So, what’s the difference between an IRA and a 401(k)? And, do those differences even matter? Let’s explore the basics, to prepare you to build wealth.

Why should you care about investing for retirement? Fair question - retirement can seem like a hazy event in the future, making it feel far less urgent than other life priorities. However, let’s learn from our parents - not saving early enough for retirement is the number one financial regret of Baby Boomers in America. In contrast, I have never heard anyone say they regret saving too much for retirement, too early.

Further, investing a modest amount today can be more powerful than investing a larger sum later in life. The power of compound interest means that the earlier you invest, the sooner your investments start growing and making money on your behalf. You can never, ever recapture time. Starting today with smaller amounts will build financial momentum in your investment accounts.

Finally, women should care about investing for retirement because we face a retirement gender gap. We tend to live longer, face a wage gap over the length of our careers, and spend more time out of the workforce than men. On average, we need to save $1.25 for every $1 saved by men.

What type of account is best - an IRA or a 401(k)? Once you’ve decided to invest, it’s time to identify the best type of account for your retirement investing. Let me be clear: either an IRA or a 401(k) is better than doing nothing. Both are fabulous options that are set up to encourage investing. Don’t spend months trying to make the perfect choice; you’ll lose valuable time where your money could be in the market, growing for you.

If you’d like to learn more details about investing, here’s how to start investing in four steps. I’ve also created a very simple summary of what investing in the market really means. Here’s a summary of the main differences between an IRA and 401(k):

Traditional 401(k) Account: Offered by your employer, this account allows you to invest a percentage of your wages for retirement.

  • 401(k) accounts are funded with pre-tax wages. This means you pay less in taxes to the IRS. It also means you’re investing a larger amount of money (since you’re investing a full dollar earned, not just the portion remaining after taxes are paid).

  • Many employers will “match” a portion of your savings. This is free money; never pass up free money!

  • You pay taxes on the money when you withdraw it in retirement.

  • In 2017, you can save up to $18,000 annually in a 401(k) - more if you are over 50.

  • Generally, you cannot access the funds in a 401(k) account without paying steep penalties until you reach retirement.

  • 401(k) is the subsection of the Internal Revenue Code that defines how these accounts work, hence the name of this retirement vehicle.

Traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA): You have to open this account for yourself at a qualified bank or broker, like Vanguard or Fidelity.

  • Traditional IRAs are funded with wages that you have already paid taxes on. However, depending on your income, you may be able to deduct your contributions from your taxes.

  • You pay taxes on the money when you withdraw it in retirement.

  • In 2017, you can save up to $5,500 annually in an IRA - more if you are over 50. The limit is far lower than 401(k) limits in most cases.

  • Funds in an IRA account are for your retirement, but certain qualifying expenses allow you to skirt tax penalties. These include higher education expenses, a first-time home purchase, and medical costs.

In addition to the differences above, 401(k) and IRA accounts may come in two flavors: Traditional and Roth.

  • Traditional accounts have been funded with money that hasn’t been taxed, so you pay taxes on the money when you access it in retirement. (Traditional IRA investments receive a tax deduction, which makes it the same as a pre-tax 401(k) investment.)

  • Roth accounts are funded with money that has already been taxed, so you do not owe the government any taxes when you access it in retirement.

So, which is the right type of account for you? Like many financial answers, it depends. In general, I recommend prioritizing a 401(k) account, because it often includes both employer matching funds, and you can save far more money for your retirement, in one place.

That said, the best advice I can give you is to make an informed decision quickly, and start investing (or, increasing your investing). Every day that passes without your money in the market is another day that you’re missing out on the amazing power of compound interest.

I’m curious if you have any other questions about the differences between these accounts. Which have you prioritized? Let’s get investing - you’ve got this!

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.

What Successful 30-Year-Olds Do With Their Money

You’ve reached your 30s - congratulations! If your 20s are all about change (graduating college, starting a career, exploring new relationships, and living on your own), your 30s are about taking your life to the next level; accelerating your career, exploring the world, and making a difference.

Don’t ignore your finances in this critical decade. You have finally made a dent in your student loans, grown your paycheck, and started saving. There are six other things successful 30-year-olds do with their money to set themselves up for a more powerful future.

Grow your income. There are two primary levers to building wealth: reducing expenses and growing your income. Now that you have established years of experiences and accomplishments, build a plan to grow your income.

Women still face a wage gap relative to their male counterparts; this begins after college and persists throughout our professional careers. The average mid-forties male college graduate earns 55% more than his female counterparts.

Build your negotiation skills in preparation for asking for a raise or promotion. Here’s how to approach the conversation. Practice with a savvy friend and don’t get discouraged if you get an initial no; build a specific plan for what you need to demonstrate to secure a raise in the future. You may also want to read my experiences as a manager; the good, bad, and ugly when employees ask for a raise.

Save to spend. This sounds so easy, yet many in their 30s (and 40s and 50s...) spend first and then pay off debt. By your 30s, you should be setting aside money for future expenses, which include splurges like vacations and gifts as well as car maintenance and home repairs.

I recommend doing this automatically; set up a regular transfer from your paycheck into a “save to spend” account that you use for larger, irregular expenses. This is separate from emergency savings; a vacation to Puerto Rico in the middle of January does not qualify as an emergency!

Eliminate unnecessary expenses. You may have enjoyed an increase in salary across your 20s. If you’re like most of us, lifestyle inflation crept in; your spending increased as your paycheck grew. Enjoy the fruits of your labor, but not at a cost to your financial health.

Take the time to evaluate your expenses; you can use tools like Quicken, YNAB (You Need a Budget) and Mint to track your spending automatically. By keeping an eye out for the sneaky ways you spend more than you mean to, you can re-direct your money to align with your goals.

Invest for your future. In your 30s, you should be investing regularly. The number one regret of older Americans is not saving for retirement early enough. Set yourself up for a wealthy future by investing automatically, starting with your employer-sponsored retirement plan.

Investing is critical for women. Men are generally more confident about investing, while women are more goal-directed and trade less. Women tend to keep 10% more of their savings in cash than our male counterparts. Millennial women report a lower level of financial comfort. On average, we are less likely to feel “in control” or “confident” about our financial future. And, women generally have a smaller total invested when we retire - because we earn less.

If you don’t yet invest, then the best time to start is today. Here’s what investing in the market really means and how to start investing in four steps.

Manage risk. In your 30s, you may have accumulated assets, started a family, and purchased a home. You likely have insurance policies in place for home, health, and automobiles.

However, most Americans do not have a will; only 35% of us aged 30-49 have one. While wills are better than nothing, they do not afford the same protections as other important legal documents. A living revocable trust can allow you to more privacy (it does not need to be filed in court like a will) and healthcare and financial directives dictate who makes decisions regarding your health and wealth should you become incapacitated.

These topics aren’t easy to address; however, consider the additional stress you’d feel if your partner or family member passed and didn’t have this documentation in place.

Give back regularly. Finally, but importantly, in your 30s you should be giving back. Many Millennials are volunteering regularly; much has been written about the importance we place on contributing to the causes we care about.

Beyond your valuable time, set up recurring donations to the causes you support most. I recommend a monthly donation that you increase with every pay raise. Fundraising is a perennial challenge for nonprofits; your regular donations will provide a needed, predictable income stream for your favorite charities.

Strengthen your financial future by taking these six steps to emulate what successful 30-year-olds do with money.  If you have any other suggestions, I’d love to hear from you.

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.

How to Save Money In Your 20s

Your 20s are all about change; graduating college, starting a career, exploring new relationships, and living on your own. Many of these are tremendously exciting; I’ll never forget my first client presentation to six senior executives only a few months after starting my first job. I walked on air after impressing them with my research.

That said, many of these changes are stressful and costly. I racked up a massive credit card bill right after I moved to Washington, D.C. for my first job. I thoughtlessly swiped my credit card to buy essentials for my first solo apartment, shop for a work-appropriate wardrobe, and splurge in D.C. bars and restaurants.

It can be tempting to put off saving money, but if you save small amounts early in your career, you create massive wealth for your future self. When you save and invest, your money makes more money on your behalf, and that’s an amazing thing! So let’s do this - here’s how to save money in your 20s.

Automate. Set up an automatic transfer to your savings account on payday. Start with the biggest amount you can - that might be $20, or $200. Increase this amount at least once every three months - even if only by one dollar.

Invest. Yes, you need to start now! If you work for an employer that offers a 401(k) or other retirement plan, sign up immediately. Some employers will match your contribution up to a certain percentage; if you’re lucky enough to have this benefit, take advantage of this free money! If you’re new to investing, that’s okay. Here’s a primer on all you need to know.

Bring your lunch. If you pack your lunch four days each week, you’re saving $10 a meal on average, or $40 weekly compared to someone that goes out for lunch every day. That gives you over $1,000 to save each year, compared to the cost of making lunch at home. Make a “bring your own lunch” date with fabulous brown-baggers in your office to stay motivated.

Talk about money. Seriously. Women are curious about money, but are often taught that it is a taboo topic. A Fidelity study found that 92% of us want to learn more about financial planning; that means nearly every woman in your life is interested in talking about finances. Start the conversation by sharing posts (like this one) and following financial gurus on social media. By sharing that you’re interested in saving money, you’ll get creative ideas from your girlfriends and hold one another accountable. Ban any shame and judgment from your money conversations and you’ll be amazed at what you can learn.

Stop comparing. President Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Social media gives us the amazing power to stay connected to friends and icons, but heavy use has been linked to depression. Scrolling through everyone’s life highlights can make us feel like we’re not enough - which can trigger emotional spending to make ourselves feel better, temporarily. Make a conscious effort to stop yourself any time you start comparing yourself to others; run your own race!

Track your spending. You work hard for your money and deserve to know where it goes. Popular apps like Mint, YNAB, and Quicken can help you understand if you’re falling prey to the sneaky ways we spend more than we mean to. Figure out where you’re spending too much, and divert those expenses to more important goals like your next vacation or your investment account.

I’d love to hear if you have any other suggestions to save money in your 20s. What tactics worked for you? If you make saving a habit now, your future self will be so pleased with all the wealth created when you were just starting out. You’ve got this! 

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.

How Many Credit Cards Should You Have?

Credit can be a beautiful thing – allowing you to safely make purchases and earn rewards. Managing credit cards responsibly can help your credit, which can make you a more attractive renter, get you a better interest rate, and can even impact your candidacy for a new job.

However, paying with credit cards disassociates us from the physical act of spending cash, making it easier to spend more money. Further, there’s a reason that card companies offer bonuses and points. The average American household has a credit card balance of $8,377 and has an interest rate that is greater than 12%.

While credit can be powerful, it can also be a nightmare; I’ve struggled out of credit card debt many times. I’m now out of credit card debt and have vowed to never rack up a balance again. One key to reining in my debt was properly managing the right number of credit cards. So, how many credit cards should you have? My answer is at least two, and no more than four.

Why do you need to have at least two cards? You may run into a situation where your card isn’t taken by a particular merchant. Select at least two cards and ensure at least one is a Visa or MasterCard; these are widely accepted. Discover and American Express can offer powerful benefits but tend to be accepted by fewer stores.

Why shouldn’t you have more than four cards? Because complexity makes it more difficult to manage your debts. Psychologically, it can be “easier” to spend if you have more cards – your Visa may have a $2,300 balance, but your Discover is paid off; so charging that new maxi dress to your Discover isn’t that bad…(Yes, it is!)

Beyond your two basic credit cards, add up to two more that allow for special benefits. For example, one of these might be a card tied to a hotel chain or airline that you frequent and provide additional value like upgrades or early boarding. One might be a card linked to a charity you support; this allows you to donate regularly to a cause via your regular spending.

What shouldn’t you do?

No store cards. I’m serious; store cards offered by retailers have very high interest rates and generate huge profits for the businesses that offer them. There’s a reason why every cashier asks if you’d like to save today by signing up – many are compensated to do so because of the revenue these cards generate.

Avoid cards with annual fees. There’s no reason to pay an annual fee for a card unless you’re absolutely certain it is a good value. One of my frequent traveling friends has an airline-branded credit card, with an annual fee of nearly $500. However, because she’s constantly on the road, the cost of the lounge access provided by this card is worth the high annual fee. She can grab free snacks, drinks, and a quiet place to recharge between flights; some lounges even have showers for post-red-eye refreshing.

No foreign transaction fees. If you travel, secure at least one card that doesn’t have a foreign transaction fee. Foreign transaction fees hover around 3% and are charged when you buy an item in a foreign currency. That can add up for frequent travelers.

Don’t add your partner to your card too early. Credit card debt accumulated on a joint card is the responsibility of both parties. If your partner racks up a $25,000 credit card bill on a joint account, you share liability for that debt. I would not add someone to my credit card account unless I had a legal agreement in place that dictated payment responsibilities in situations like this; (a cohabitation agreement or prenuptial agreement can cover this.)

Don’t churn cards for points (unless you have the time and are extremely disciplined). There are many stories about people who funded luxury vacations using the “free” points they got from “churning” credit cards (signing up for cards temporarily to take advantage of card bonuses.) Most of us don’t have the time and focus to keep track of the details needed to profit from this exercise.

If you have too many cards, start canceling them gradually. Your credit score may take a small dip, but it is worth it to avoid managing many cards. You could also cut up your cards and wait to close the actual account (unless there is a fee associated with the card, in which case I’d suggest canceling it right away.)

Sort your cards by interest rate and credit limit; keep those you've had the longest, with the lowest rates and highest credit limits. You may also elect to negotiate those before you cancel, if there’s a card you love to use but it has a very high interest rate, for example.

Don’t ring up a balance you can’t pay off. Get into the habit of paying your credit card debt off every month. As someone who has struggled with credit card debt, I have to put steps in place to ensure I don’t overspend. I only put expenses greater than $100 on credit cards, and I transfer the money immediately from my checking account to my credit card – typically the day I make the purchase.

Get your finances in order by getting the right number of credit cards in your wallet! There are many resources for you to compare credit cards and select the right one for you, including NerdwalletCredit Card Tune-Up, WalletHub, and Consumer Reports.

What are your credit card tips? Is there anything I missed? Let me know your thoughts - you’ve got this!

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.

My Money Mistakes: The Four Times I Accumulated Credit Card Debt

I’ve made a commitment to share my money-related mistakes. These financial lowlights aren’t my proudest moments, but I hope sharing my missteps can help remove some shame and embarrassment from the topic of personal finance.

My mistake with credit cards is a series of mistakes that repeated it four times. Unfortunately, I’m not alone in accumulating too much credit card debt. As of this writing, the average American household has a credit card balance of $8,377 and has an interest rate that is greater than 12%. Consumers typically have 9 credit cards and approximately 14% of Americans have more than 10 cards. (This is far more than the number of credit cards I recommend, which I’ll cover in the next post.)

Mistake #1: Credit card debt in college. I was thrilled when I got accepted into the University of Michigan, the only school I wanted to attend. (Go Blue!) When school started, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be attending a school in beautiful Ann Arbor, with fascinating classes, inspiring campus life, and creative, thoughtful students.

It was also my first exposure to those who appeared very wealthy. Some students had cars that cost more than my childhood home, parents that bought them an Ann Arbor house as “an investment property,” or spent their winter break in Switzerland. My sturdy Eddie Bauer backpack seemed out of place - many of the women in my classes carried their books in Kate Spade, Fendi, and Louis Vuitton bags, which I had only seen on Sex and the City.

By the time I reached my junior year, I had accumulated around $2,500 of credit card debt. This debt wasn’t for my books or school supplies, but all splurges I felt I had “earned.” You know, because I was working so hard in school...and “all” my peers had nice stuff, too, so...

To manage the credit card debt, I ignored it and headed off to my summer internship in Washington, D.C. One evening, I was walking to the Metro when my cell phone rang. It was the credit card company, frustrated by my lack of payment. The representative offered to “charge off” my debt. I happily accepted.

Once I returned to campus to begin my senior year, I checked my credit score. It was in the toilet because of my decision to ignore my debt. I worked out an arrangement to repay the debt, which modestly improved my score. My first experience with credit card debt was a double-whammy; I accumulated debt buying things I didn’t need and did a horrible job of managing the debt. I swore I’d never get into credit card debt again.

Mistake #2: Credit card debt after moving to D.C. After I graduated, I moved to the nation’s capital and promptly racked up another credit card bill, around $2,700. I thoughtlessly swiped my credit card to buy essentials for my first solo apartment, shop for a work-appropriate wardrobe, and splurge in D.C. bars and restaurants.

Further, if I had been shocked by the wealth I saw on display in Ann Arbor, D.C. was another level. I vividly remember going to “pregame” one evening at a colleague’s apartment, which had amazing views of the National Mall. He told me it was his parent’s second home, which he’d be getting when his trust fund kicked in. This started a conversation on provisions in trust funds; I finally understood how my peers could afford their lifestyle. Unlike me, they had another meaningful source of income beyond their entry-level job.

About six months into my new job, I got my act together, stopped spending thoughtlessly, and actively sought out friends that didn’t live a lavish lifestyle. I also earned a promotion (and pay increase); all of my extra income went towards my credit card debt. I promised myself I’d never get into credit card debt again.

Mistake #3: Credit card debt after buying a home. I’ve shared the massive size and wild terms of my first mortgage. When my partner and I moved in, we left a 500-square-foot studio apartment for a 3,000+ square-foot house.

There were plenty of things we needed (fire extinguisher, household tools, window coverings for our bedroom) and plenty of things we convinced ourselves we needed (brand new furniture). Together, we racked up over $12,000 in credit card debt. This was the largest amount yet; a massive mortgage and large credit card balance made me feel trapped.

In 2006, Mr. Financier and I created a goal to eliminate our credit card debt in one year, with two $500 payments each month, diverting any “found” money to debt, and reducing three household expenses. We paid the debt off earlier than planned; I kept a handwritten log next to my bed to track our progress.

This was the most significant credit card debt I’d ever paid off, and I swore I’d never get into credit card debt again.

Mistake #4: Credit card debt following a significant raise. When I started my consulting career, I set a goal to be a Director by the time I turned 30. Colleagues in this position were generally 35 or older, but my career ambition and desire to grow my income inspired me to put my nose to the grindstone and shoot for this lofty goal. I earned a promotion into the Director position the month after I turned 30; my base salary rose to $150,000.

In End Financial Stress Now, Emily Guy Birken writes about the windfall effect. 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.”

I had one hell of a windfall on my hands, so I did what all responsible adults do in that situation. I rewarded myself well before I had actually saved the money to do so. Yup, you guessed it - I racked up another $3,100 in credit card debt. After the high from my shopping sprees wore off, I felt sick to my stomach. How in the world did I end up in debt, again?

It was this fourth time in debt that forced me to break my pattern. I was ashamed to be carrying a balance on my credit cards (yet again) and my debt dulled the achievement associated with my promotion. I had more than enough in my emergency fund to pay the debt off, but refused to do so, forcing myself to pay the costly interest charges as penance.

My fourth time in debt finally caused me to reflect on what habits I needed to change; there were four.

1. Watch out for life changes. I realized that I’m vulnerable to credit card debt during big life changes or times of stress. I’d feel like I “deserve” something nice and this emotional spending would push me into debt. This may not be unique to me, but since I’m conscious of this fact, I put my credit cards on lockdown when change is afoot and watch my spending even more closely.

2. Increase my save-to-spend account. I needed a cushion to fund the things I enjoy. My budget was so lean that I didn’t leave myself enough space for occasional splurges. I adjusted my automatic savings, increasing the amount going to my “save-to-spend” accounts to allow for the things I love, like shoes and dining out, that can tempt me into debt.

3. Change my shopping habits. I adjusted my shopping patterns to make myself less vulnerable to temptations. I stopped meeting up with girlfriends to shop - instead, we went to art galleries, parks, vineyards. I stopped browsing and only go shopping (online or in a store) when I have a specific item missing from my wardrobe. And, I unsubscribed from the many email lists I was on from my favorite retailers. If I missed out on a huge sale, so be it - I wouldn’t miss the possibility of subsequent debt.

4. Stop using credit cards by default. I changed my default card to my debit card, which pulled directly out of my checking account. Today, I only “allow” myself to put expenses greater than $100 on credit cards and I transfer the payment immediately from my checking to my credit card, so I can’t be surprised by large credit card bills.

I currently remain out of credit card debt and love getting zero-balance credit card bills in the mail. My money mistake with credit cards is one that I chose to repeat until I took the time to address the underlying issues. Have you struggled with credit card debt? Or, are you one of the lucky ones that excel at keeping your cards under control?

xoxo, Ms. Financier

How to Set Money Goals That Align with Your Values

Each of us has a unique set of values that we hold dear, even if we haven’t defined them. For example, I value security and exploration very highly; in the past few years, I’ve gotten better at consistently aligning my money with these values. As a result, I’m a happier person. Exploration includes mountaineering adventures, local hiking and kayaking, as well as traveling to new cities and continents. Therefore, I prioritize funding my travel budget; it is one of the six expenses I’ll never cut back on. I also prioritize donating to nonprofits that support conservation and preserve the beautiful spaces I enjoy exploring.

I recommend that each person (or couple, if you’re partnered) first take the time to define what they value. Financial guru David Bach says, “When your values are clear your financial decisions become easy.” I couldn’t agree more. Defining and recording your values may seem like an unnecessary step, but they serve as the foundation to your money goals. If you’re struggling with this step, watch David Bach and Marie Forleo have a candid discussion about this philosophy.

However, without goals, your values can go unfulfilled. The next step is to define goals to align your finances with your values. Otherwise, it can be terribly easy to spend on material goods that provide momentary joy, but don’t have a long-term impact on your life.

There’s a type of goal you should create, referred to as a SMART goal. These are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound objectives that will define your plan and allow you to measure your progress.

My partner and I consistently use SMART goals in our financial planning. In 2006, we were in credit card debt. I had over $10,000, and Mr. Financier had over $2,000. We created a goal to eliminate that $12,000 debt completely in one year, with two $500 payments each month, diverting any “found” money to debt, and reducing three household expenses. We paid the debt off earlier than planned; having a SMART goal helped us stay the course and remain accountable.

I recommend you focus on no more than three SMART goals at any given time. Ideally, these goals have different time horizons, with one that you can accomplish in six months or less. For example – today, I have a goal to save for an upcoming trip (in the next three months) and another long-term goal to achieve financial freedom before the year 2027.

By recording and defining your values and creating SMART goals to align your finances accordingly, you’re taking a critical step to strengthen your future. What values do you hold dear? How are your money goals supporting those values? I’d love to hear from you.

xoxo, Ms. Financier

I also wrote about values-based budgeting in the She Spends newsletter. She Spends is a weekly newsletter and website created to close the wage gap, investment gap and board seat gap among women. I admire their goals and love their content.