Uncomfortable Talk: Women and Finances
It was an early winter day in Tecate, Mexico, the hour when late afternoon meets early evening in a chilly embrace. It was a perfect time to snuggle on the sofa in front of a cedar ﬁre or slip into a warm woolen sweater to stroll through the tangle of thyme, rosemary, and laurel bushes. Or you could do what I did that particular day: slide into the welcoming warmth of a hot tub.
I was at Rancho La Puerta, a retreat nestled high in the Mexican sierra, easing my mind and body into healthier shape after a challenging year. I was also scheduled to speak at an after-dinner program later that week about women and their money—a topic I’d been thinking a lot about for some time.
Now I found myself sitting naked with six other women in a large outdoor tub, unwinding from an exercise-laden day of hiking, stretching, tennis, aerobics, and yoga.
We were a friendly, relaxed bunch who easily enjoyed one another’s conversation in the warmth of the tub. Although from different parts of the country and with different backgrounds, we had something in common—we were all reflecting on how our lives could be more comfortable and on our sense of being more settled. The Ranch, as we fondly called the Mexican retreat, offered a blissful setting for that type of contemplation. It was also a place that encouraged our friendship and made the sharing of experiences and intimacies an enjoyable and cozy pursuit.
There Is a Commonality Between Most Women and Financial Fears
As we came to know one another, I mentioned what had brought me to the Ranch, and the conversation quickly turned to money. It’s not an easy topic for most women to talk about; our dreams, desires, and self-worth are so caught up with money that most people consider it an inappropriate topic for open discussion, the way sex and religion used to be. But in the easy surroundings of the Ranch, far from the constraints and pressures of our daily lives, my companions and I found ourselves sharing feelings we otherwise would have concealed.
We gradually discovered some remarkable similarities when it came to feelings about money. A couple of the women were fairly savvy and were working toward some long-range financial goals; others were confused or frustrated about their financial well-being.
One twenty-five-year-old in the group hadn’t saved a dime and was slogging her way through credit card hell, wondering how she got there and if she’d ever find a way out. She would have peace of mind, she said, if she could conquer her finances. Another woman, who was struggling with a nasty divorce, readily agreed and quickly added that she’d find a little relief from financial stress if she could invest for her future and know that she’d have enough money to support herself and her child comfortably.
Investing Is Freedom
“That would be my dream come true,” she said, sighing. “To me, investing is freedom.”
Her remark shook me from my hot-tub haze, but in no way lessened my mellow mood. I’m very curious about a woman’s point of view, especially when it comes to financial matters. My focus is women, and they view the money in their lives a lot differently than men do. Besides, I consider investing to be more than merely a way to collect cash. To me, investing is a way to nurture our souls and our lives.
“You know, she’s right. How we relate to money directly affects other aspects of our lives,” I said. “This is part of what I’ll be talking about later this week.”
My companions seemed to welcome a forum in which they could freely talk about money matters. And the outdoors, with the sun setting behind the mountains and the breeze carrying the sweet scent of rosemary, offered an idyllic setting for us to sift through our financial points of view. For the most part, the women were remarkably free, and our chat soon began to churn as much as the water in the tub.
“The real issue experts say, is that many women, despite strides in education and in the workplace, simply aren’t as confident and knowledgeable about financial matters as men. This problem persists even as women handle many of their families’ routine money management duties, like paying bills and making many purchasing decisions. Research has shown that women, even professional women with good jobs and successful careers, tend to be less financially literate than men,” said Annamaria Lusardi, an economics professor at Dartmouth College who has studied the issue. “The gap in financial literacy between women and men is large not only among older people, or those 50 and older, but also among young adults, an age group where women are more likely to have a college degree than men.” (Tara Seigal, “Financial Advice for Women by Women,” The New York Times. April 23, 2010)
It warmed me to see that these women were finally beginning to talk about money, which is part of everyone’s weave of life, like it or not. Silence is often shattered once you realize that your experiences—and your challenges—are universal.
We’ll Talk Family, Jobs And Sex But Money Is Difficult
But as essential to our well-being as money is, few people share their intimate experiences, joys, or confusion about money—even with their closest friends or loved ones. Most people have no problem at all talking about their jobs, their families, or even sex. But money is another matter.
Think about it. When was the last time you went to lunch with your best friend and talked about money? No, not men! Money!
Not your job, family, sex, or shopping, but money? When was the last time you discussed choices for your financial future, or how you’ll be living ten, twenty, or thirty years from now? Will you be a bag lady? Or will you be a well-set-up, comfortable, and secure woman? What strategies will work best to create a healthy financial future?
Many women have never considered these questions, partly because most of us grew up in a society that did not expect or invite women to participate in financial affairs; money is our last taboo.
But remember—sex got better once we started talking about it freely from our perspective as women, and sharing our experiences and problems. When we did, we were thrilled to discover how much we had in common. The worries, fears, desires, and fantasies we’d harbored in secret turned out to be universal. And armed with this knowledge, we were able to take back control of our sexual lives from the “experts”—the male doctors and authority figures we used to listen to. The result was liberating: Most of us discovered a healthier, more rewarding way to think about and enjoy sex.
The same can be true for money. And the good news is, women are discovering that not only can we discuss money, but we can also actively direct this important aspect of our lives.
I shared that notion with my tub mates, who I’d discovered were smart, educated, and all very good at what they did in life. Yet it became clear that some of them had reached adulthood knowing next to nothing about the personal aspects of money and how to make it grow. As we relaxed and talked, they shared their stories, which can teach us all.