Financial Security and Financial Stability Aren’t Free
Who’s In Charge of Your Money?
I uprooted myself and moved my business from Philadelphia to California. I tell you this because it called upon my courage to make this change, but I also did so because I thought a fuller life was possible.
The career spoke of my Wheel of Life was humming with success. At that time, my ﬁrm, Perry Investments, was widely known in “muni” bond circles, and it was one of the joys of my life. Not only was I proud that I had helped to alter the perception of what women were capable of doing in the investment industry, but I was also living a very good lifestyle. I was alone but independent. And I was ready again to build a relationship with a man and enrich the social spoke of my Wheel. Life was indeed good, I concluded, and nothing could possibly ruin this wonderful sense of well-being I had created.
Then I fell in love.
I became financially dependent on this man, without fully realizing that I was. I used my cash to decorate my house and body, while he spent his to indulge me. And because I was so deeply into this fairy tale, I invested $30,000 in a “great” real estate venture he started. Talk about love and money being mixed up in the brain!
Being with this man was very comfortable because he paid for everything and he relieved the pressure I faced from my focus on earning money. But I didn’t realize the personal cost of what I was doing, because, when he later jilted me, I was unprepared. While I was becoming intoxicated with my storybook life, he changed his mind, met someone else, and stopped dating me. After two years my Sir Lancelot mounted his steed and rode off into the sunset with his new Guinevere, and I was left flapping in the breeze!
Worse yet, I got my mother to invest in his real estate deal—another cardinal sin because it’s never a good idea to encourage family members to invest in risky projects. When the so-called love of my life went on to a new sweetheart, not only did I have the misery of getting over the relationship, but I continued to have a financial connection to him. Needless to say, the investment was also a total loss.
Anger erupted like Mount Saint Helens, and I seethed for what seemed an interminable time. For weeks I prodded myself to discover what I was so mad about. I finally understood that I was angry not so much at my ex-partner as at myself for giving up the directorship of my life. Is love about losing yourself—losing who you really are and what you stand for in life? I don’t think so. Here I was, an intelligent, independent woman who had hung with the best of them on Wall Street and was now running her own business. Yet, in a blink, I’d relinquished control of my financial future by thinking my true love would be responsible for me.
I remember walking on the beach one misty day, cloaking myself in the anonymity of the fog, and thinking about how imbalanced my Wheel of Life had suddenly become. Sure, he had dumped me, but what barbed the dart, even more, was knowing that I had lapsed into unconsciousness and expected him to provide the security I sought in life by taking care of my long-term financial well-being. I wanted him to handle the pieces of my life that I didn’t want to touch, such as taking care of my money life. And I falsely thought he could manage my financial life better than I could—that was part of what had attracted me to him in the first place. The realization struck like a thunderbolt. How could a woman as well prepare as I was still expecting a man to take control of her financial future? I wondered, “Can love really be sure if it is tied up with needing financial security? What am I supposed to give him in return for financial security? And how does this relate to our souls?”
What did I think I was going to get out of that kind of relationship? What I thought I’d get was the chance to sail along without having to put any energy into some critical areas of my life; I thought I was going to get by easily. But I achieved nothing and lost a great deal. While I was busy bathing myself in fairy dust and listening to my Prince Charming croon his words of love, I missed out on nurturing my soul. I also lost some self-esteem and the opportunity to grow because I didn’t accept responsibility for a major part of my life. The woman who is totally dependent on a man when it comes to money, and ignorant of her financial life, is compromising true love and paralyzing herself in the process.
The White Knight Myth
I had fallen victim to the White Knight Syndrome. And my failed love affair told me just how deeply ingrained this syndrome was. If I could hold on to this false notion for so long—the way Cinderella held claim to her glass slipper—and find it so firmly embedded in my thinking, I wondered what other women were doing. I decided right then and there that equipping myself with a plan so that I could be assured of my future well-being was essential to my ability to choose freely and negotiate my relationships throughout my life. It’s vital to every woman’s freedom to know her money life and to assume some control over it. “Many women just let their husbands pay the bills and then take everything for granted,” says Harrine Freeman, a credit counselor and author of ‘How To Get Out of Debt’ (Adept Publishers; “But women have to educate themselves about finances. You never want to find yourself in a terrible financial situation.” (Black Enterprise, 39.7. February 2010. p. 84).
Do you still believe you don’t have to worry about your financial life because your husband or someone else is there to take care of you? And if you’re not married or partnered, do you think that someone—probably a man—will come along and handle all your money matters so that you’ll never, ever have to worry? If you harbor these notions, then you’re a true believer in the White Knight. He’s the hero who rides up on his stalwart steed with flowing mane and sweeps the princess—you—into his arms and away to his castle, where he will see to your every need.
The White Knight Syndrome has single-handedly made a vast number of women financial cripples. It’s a belief system that prevents us from moving forward and controlling our own destinies, a malaise that can rob us of our financial well-being, security, and opportunity for a quality relationship. And the White Knight takes no prisoners—the syndrome cuts across all economic, educational, age, and social lines. Beware. He comes in many guises: friend, lover, husband, partner, business associate, banker, broker, teacher, employer, father, brother, uncle, cousin, son, nephew, grandson.
The notion that women need and sometimes expect someone to take care of them isn’t new. It’s been documented over the decades and is deeply buried in our psyches and reinforced in our society. It’s something that originates in childhood and clings to us throughout adulthood. Unfortunately, the White Knight Syndrome is a precarious cultural setup for women, one that erodes our natural growth.
Portraits of White Knight sufferers abound.
June Mendoza, the Michigan housewife you met in a previous article — and I met when I visited the spa known as the Ranch, offers a vivid profile. She is someone who doesn’t want to consider that women have any financial power at all. As you can say by the way she dismissed our hot-tub discussion—it was something that didn’t concern her—June’s mind is, for the moment at least, very close. She is a woman who lives a life that can go on only as long as her husband’s paycheck arrives on time. She basically depends on her husband—that White Knight again—to take care of her. But if he drops out of her life tomorrow—say, by a sudden death—she’s going to have a problem, even with a fat insurance payoff. Statistically, women who receive life insurance proceeds go through the money in two years, and the benefits are rarely enough to care for a woman for the rest of her life.
But I do believe June showed a glimmer of curiosity back at the Ranch. She was spurred to do more with her life. Even going to the Ranch was a big step for her, because it was the first time she had ever gone on a vacation without her husband or children.
Then there’s Linette Atwood, the marketing specialist from New York who is in the midst of a divorce. We became friends at the Ranch too and stayed in touch after I returned to California and her to New York. I found her after she left my talk at the Ranch. I was concerned that something I’d said had resonated deeply. This was true: Talking about my divorce and my financial naïveté had cut a little too close to Linette’s exposed nerve. We talked later that night. I’m going to tell you Linette’s story because she is the quintessential White Knight victim. See if there’s a part of you that can relate to Linette.
Linette met Marshall, her husband after she graduated from college, and they were married a year later. Linette had grown up in a fairly traditional home: Her mother was a housewife whose interests were raising her children and working as a volunteer at a homeless shelter at their church; her father was a pharmacist who managed all the family’s money matters. Linette’s parents were very proud when she graduated from college, but they were more excited when she got married because, in their minds, she would now be “taken care of.”
It was easy for Linette to drift into this way of thinking, and easier still to pursue her career in marketing while Marshall handled all the “dirty” work: paying the bills, picking insurance plans, doing the banking, and managing the family investments. Linette lived in a beautiful co-op on fashionable Central Park West in Manhattan, had a lovely beach house in Sag Harbor on Long Island, played tennis, traveled, dressed beautifully, and had plenty of credit cards. But she didn’t know what Marshall earned or what they spent until it was too late.
“I picked up the mail before he did one day and decided to read the American Express bill because I had returned a few mail-order items and I wanted to make sure we got the credit. That’s when I saw the balance. We were two payments behind and owed more than $10,000. I was shocked. I didn’t know Marshall wasn’t paying the bills, and I certainly didn’t know how much he was spending,” Linette said. “I know this sounds irresponsible or perhaps even dumb, but I never bothered to read our credit card bills before that time. I would turn over my paycheck to Marshall and let him handle it from there.”
Linette was a victim of both her own stylish life and the White Knight Syndrome. The social and career spokes of her Wheel of Life were strong, but the financial and family spokes were off balance. Now Marshall is leaving her for a younger woman, a model whose face taunts Linette from the pages of many fashion magazines.
And worse, besides squandering money on expensive trinkets, Marshall made some risky real estate investments. By the time Linette filed for divorce, their net worth had declined sharply.
Linette knew she had earned a respectable amount of money during their marriage and thought she would get a sizable chunk of cash from the investments Marshall had made. Instead, there wasn’t much. Besides, Marshall had kept all investments in his name only!
Linette wept the night we talked. She told me she was embarrassed, hurt, and very frightened. For years, she had lived with a false security, trusting in her White Knight to care for her future. Now she was living on a fault line, and for the moment, she had a legal thicket to hack her way through before she could even consider doing anything about her troubled finances or dream about a secure financial future.
She is accustomed to a lifestyle she has no basis for maintaining on her own. Plus she has her child to think about. She could probably work twice as hard and climb even higher up the corporate ladder. Her other option could be to perpetuate the White Knight Syndrome and marry again so someone else can take care of her. Only, this time, she will possibly have to give up love in order to reinstate what she grew up believing was security.
Linette is a graphic example of a woman whose Cinderella beliefs set her up for a major fall. Sadly, she did not understand all the real choices that money presents. Nor did she realize her full powers as a woman. What will happen to Linette? Will she be able to balance her Wheel of Life?
Maggie O’Neal, the twenty-ﬁve-year-old photographer’s assistant from New Orleans, offers a variation on the White Knight theme. She may lament her credit card debt, but she nevertheless spends every dollar she earns and refuses to save because, as she’s confined to close friends, she figures that, eventually, she’ll marry or live with a guy, and he’ll take care of her financially.
Maggie has gone through her young adulthood surfing from one relationship to another. She lived with one man for six months. He paid the rent and all the household expenses, while she shopped for herself. When the magic of new love wore off, he ended the relationship and told Maggie she was fiscally irresponsible. He was right. She is. And her parents don’t help by constantly bailing her out. Interestingly, she had had no intention of attending my presentation because, she told me later, “That investment stuff is lame.” But she was so intrigued by what the other women were saying in the hot tub at the Ranch about caring for their futures that it tweaked her curiosity.
Maggie is young and can extricate herself from the White Knight’s thrall. She can begin to nurture her spirit and learn about long-term financial well-being. If she doesn’t, she’s in danger not only of becoming destitute when she’s older but also of trading her soul. In the process, she will have lost two spokes on her Wheel of Life: the financial and the spiritual.
Even Betty Scott, the San Francisco lawyer who comes across as fairly independent, is tainted by the White Knight. We discussed the syndrome one day and she smiled sheepishly and said, “Yep. There’s a small, deeply hidden part of me that still thinks the man of my dreams will take care of me for the rest of my life so I won’t have to.” Fortunately, Betty has sliced through the White Knight’s blue haze and made the first step toward personal financial control.
Once you untangle the White Knight myth, love and money will no longer be codependents. Whether you’re single or married, working inside or outside the home, it’s up to you to know about money matters and to be in charge of your finances. And with this understanding, you will easily wash that man-knight right out of your hair. But for some women, that shampoo and rinse might take a while because the White Knight is too deeply ingrained in their psyches.
I’ve met female clients in their forties and fifties who had not saved any money or considered their financial future because they still believed their husband, lover, employer, or even children would work out things for them in the future. And what’s interesting is that many of their children really do anticipate providing for their parents. “It is important for everyone–especially women–to develop a financial plan. According to a recent study conducted by Prudential Financial, less than a quarter of women feel “very well” prepared to make important decisions about their financial futures.
History of the White Knight
How did the White Knight gain steam and become so powerful? From the historical roles of men and women in just about every culture in the world. For centuries, the only way a woman could gain access to real economic prosperity was through a man; thus many women depended on their beauty, prowess, and sexual attraction to achieve financial security. Women who had accumulated wealth were rich because they inherited money or married into it, not because they had earned it. This began to change over the past two decades, as women forged ahead in professions once closed to them.
The White Knight Syndrome has also been reinforced by popular culture. Women growing up in the fifties, sixties, and early seventies were surrounded by images—on television, in advertisements, and in films—that constantly told them they could sit back and allow someone else to carry the load. In Leave It to Beaver, who made the financial decisions in Beaver’s home? Certainly not his mother, June. Who went out to work and took care of Margaret and the kids in Father Knows Best? The title says it all. In All in the Family, Edith Bunker depended totally on Archie to look after all her financial needs. And did Mrs. Brady in The Brady Bunch figure she’d have to do anything to ensure her financial future, other than merging her brood of three with her husband’s trio of sons? Even Betty Rubble and Wilma Flintstone in The Flintstones were victims of the White Knight, albeit a Stone Age version. Society supported these images, which today are obsolete and cannot possibly guide a woman as she seeks financial well-being.
Meanwhile, advertising continues to target the “housewife”—the happy spender who does all the household shopping for the family and her husband. Men are perceived as the breadwinners—they come home to a clean house, clean clothes, and a nice meal, and women depend financially on these men. When you look at TV commercials, who do you find doing the laundry or plowing through supermarket aisles or packing all the neighborhood kids off with bottles of soft drinks? That’s because women in our society have traditionally taken the role of buying articles that depreciate, like food and clothing, while men have been buying objects that appreciate, like stocks and collectibles.
According to Madison Avenue, the majority of women in the United States spend their time caring for a house and family and do not go outside their homes to work. That, of course, is not the case and hasn’t been true for decades. In the United States, most women— 57.2 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census via Women and Work Report— work.
And when advertisers do target the professional woman, what do you see? A car advertisement telling a prospective female customer she should purchase that sparkling automobile because it’s an “investment.” Not! That car won’t provide any income for her when she’s not working, so it is in no way an investment. It’s a form of transportation. Period.