A collage of various magazines that give financial advice.

Women & Money

Does Money Advice for Women Actually Help?

There’s an increase in finance-related content for young women because they need and want it. But is the advice helpful? Or simply condescending?

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This is the fourth installment of DAME’s ongoing series, “Women & Money.” Read the full series here.

There is often someone in Dr. Maggie Baker’s office who is in the grips of a financial crisis.

Baker is a financial therapist, psychologist, and the author of Crazy About Money: How Emotions Confuse Our Money Choices and What To Do About It, and she can anticipate how some clients would respond if she were to ask: With all the information out there about finances, how did you get into so much trouble?

“They would probably say, ‘My head was in a different place, I had different priorities, and as long as I could limp along, I didn’t pay that much attention,’” Baker says.

A year ago, I was limping along: I had no budget, no savings, no financial impulse control. I didn’t read about finances—instead, I wept in shame about being broke of my own accord, and then wrote about trying to change my ways in a personal essay for the Washington Post’s website, The Lily. I set a financial goal each month, in an effort to confront how reckless my spending was and develop money-saving habits.

And I did demonstrate more financial control. In part because I wrote about it, because I was held accountable by an eventual readership and my desire to avoid failing publicly. I also started making more money: In addition to freelance writing, I moved from a job teaching writing to editing in a newsroom, and took on a full-time job as a writer for a communications firm, so I am making a much higher salary now than when I began writing that piece. And—spoiler—I’m saving more money.

So what good is my story? “Make more money, be privileged enough to have the time and ability to write about it, and get paid for that, too,” isn’t actionable advice.

There is a proliferation of “money media” —articles, podcasts, books—aimed at young women over the past few years, and it primarily comprises personal stories or spending diaries, interviews with wealthy women about their journeys and habits, and prescriptive personal finance tips.

And as you might expect, there is so much repetition and white noise particularly on websites with a largely female audience. Ideas are regurgitated (“cancel your gym membership,” “try not to shop”), tips are obvious bordering on insulting (“be frugal”), and the same voices dispense advice persistently (quick: name a mainstream female financial expert who isn’t Suze Orman). This content is ostensibly meant to encourage young women to take action—perhaps because money is utilitarian, it feels like media about it should be, too.

“It’s one thing when you read something, you skim something, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s interesting,’” Baker says. “But do you engage with the information so you actually metabolize it, and make a change in your behavior in relation to money?” she asks.

When the stakes are so high—screw up your money and screw up your life, toil in wage inequality and student-loan debt forever—of course we desire content that can help us. Experts and educators agree that practical financial advice, though, needs to go further, to consider the systemic in addition to the personal—to advise how to advocate for a pay audit at your company in addition to demanding you buy less coffee.

But even the best prescriptive advice might not be the most motivating and welcoming entrée into money media. Content creators and consumers alike posit that the insight offered by other women’s finance stories can offer a motivating sense of connection where prescriptive advice cannot. “Make more money, like I did,” shouldn’t be the takeaway of these stories. But: “I’ve wept in shame, too,” could be.

Other critiques of money media for women have highlighted the gaps ranging from wage to debt to emotional labor—how women’s loans are more expensive, mortgages more frequently denied, paid maternity leave virtually nonexistent. There’s an upswell in finance-related content for young women because they need and want it. But is it helping?

“There’s an awareness that young women are much more independent, young women are much more able to claim the money space for themselves, and people recognize that,” Baker says. “So it’s kind of an open field, a new cohort to try to appeal to.”

How are we claiming the money space for ourselves? For starters, we’re working to earn income independently.

In 1966, when the women of the Silent Generation (born 1928 to 1945) were around 22 to 37 years old, most of them (58 percent) weren’t working, according to Pew Research Center data. Among Millennial women today of that same age range (born 1981 to 1996, according to Pew), 72 percent are employed.

And the number of women, of any age, claiming the money space for themselves in their own homes is climbing: in heterosexual marriages (there’s a disappointing lack of data about same-sex or unmarried couples) where both partners work, 29 percent of women out-earned their husbands in 2016 compared to 18 percent in the 1980s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Consider that The Equal Credit Opportunity Act was only passed in 1974. Before that, some banks required women who weren’t currently married to bring a man to cosign for a credit card. It was only 30 years ago that the Women’s Business Ownership Act of 1988 became law. Prior to its passing, women couldn’t get a business loan without a male relative’s signature.

It’s staggering to recognize how far some women’s positions in the world of wealth have come in just a few decades: Women were majority owners of 9.9 million businesses in the U.S. according to a 2016 report by the Small Business Administration, and are expected to control 32 percent of all U.S. wealth by 2020 — that’ll be $72 trillion in the hands of women, up from $51 trillion in 2015.

Point being: Whether women are catapulting themselves into the stratosphere of millionaires or being paid piddling salaries while drowning in debt, we’re still earning our own money more than at any time in history, and need to be able to discuss it and learn how to manage it. The question is, are we being offered the best tools and resources to do so?

Many outlets do feature money stories and conversations from a wide range of voices and lived experiences, but it’s that “try to appeal” that can feel itchy—some content is offered in a tired, pandering package.

Tanja Hester, author of Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way, and Kara Perez, creator of the Bravely financial literacy platform, co-host the podcast The Fairer Cents. They point to the redundancies and gaps in women’s money media.

“The advice that people give to women is really presented oftentimes as being in a vacuum, of being in a society in which there is no unequal gender dynamic, there is no history of oppression for people of color or marginalized people, so you see a lot of advice repeated over and over,” Hester says.

That’s what irks me: I know a night in is more economical than drinks out; I know how to find free events; I know bringing lunch to work is the moral imperative of the frugal.

For media outlets to offer so much of the same basic prescriptive content is to presume young women don’t know that alcohol is expensive and what sales are. It also ignores the emotional element of money, and doesn’t even nudge the systemic nerve of the conversation. If mainstream media presents only what’s deemed most clickable by its own definition, it’s alienating many women.

There are other resources, smaller personal finance blogs run by independent authors that broaden the conversation.

Wendy Lee, author of the Wanderlust Wendy blog, writes about finances through a first-generation immigrant lens. “I’ve become much more mindful when I write about financial freedom related topics to ensure it can be relatable for people who may not have a high-paying job, or enjoy the privilege of higher education,” she writes in an email.

The Fairer Cents hosts assert that financial blogs outside mainstream media are a place to find that kind of diverse, resonant content. “They’re not writing for the New York Times about money, but maybe they’re a teacher in Ohio making $65,000 a year and saying, ‘Here’s how I’m paying down my mortgage,” Perez says.

Gaby Dunn says she’s worked to present money media from her point of view as a queer woman who grew up low-income to middle-class. Dunn hosts the podcast, Bad With Money With Gaby Dunn, and authored the book Bad With Money: The Imperfect Art of Getting Your Financial Sh*t Together.  “A lot of people like getting their money advice from someone who looks like them,” she says. “I’m not a rich lady who’s going to be like, ‘Here’s how you get rich.’ I’m coming from relatability versus aspirational.”

Laura Leavitt, a personal finance writer from Cincinnati, has written about Dunn’s book, and says the personal stories were most helpful. “It felt more like reading a money memoir that I could selectively apply rather than someone telling me the ‘one strategy’ or ‘only way’ to financial success,” Levitt wrote in an email. “Narrative-style money writing believes that the readers are wise enough to take the elements they can use from a story and leave what isn’t applicable.”

What’s critical to this kind of money storytelling, though, is transparency. Dunn says she’s been forthright about that she’s pawned belongings and done nude modeling. “Rarely do you hear the quote-unquote ‘embarrassing’ stuff like, ‘I sell my shit and I do sex work,’” she says. “Unless you’re going to say ‘It’s not all pretty,’ I don’t think [money stories] are worth doing, because I don’t think people can replicate a journey that has just been pretty.”

Even the money stories that are skewered for their perceived lack of relatability—money diaries of the inordinately privileged—are valuable, Dunn says, if we’re encouraging transparency from everyone. “I wish the reaction to money diaries was more like, ‘thank you for sharing,’ versus these personal attacks, because personally attacking people is not going to change the systemic reasons this is the case,” she says.

Ideally, we’d use the money diaries of the rich to understand that, of course, we shouldn’t compare our circumstances to theirs—when they’re transparent about how their comfort is built upon a gifted allowance, I’m envious and angry, sure. But when society suggests that solvency is the result of working harder, living smarter, being better, these diaries can reveal a truth: Sometimes, it’s only the result of having rent, education, and bills covered by your parents.

Financial-content creators and experts say that while the nuts-and-bolts logistics of dealing with money is technically simple, the thinking and feeling aspects of money are complex.

“Money exists on paper but it also exists in a whole different realm,” Hester says. “The stuff on paper is easy—spend less than you earn, save the difference, watch the money pile up. But getting to the level of all you’re thinking about is what’s on paper, you don’t start there for most people. You start in the super emotional and fear-based place.”

Tonya Rapley, creator of the financial education platform, My Fab Finance, agrees with that sentiment. “There’s a lot of shame that people experience on their financial journeys because of their mistakes, and how closely perceived financial wellness is tied to character traits or personality traits,” Rapley says. That shame is compounded when money content comes from a place of privilege, she says, or isn’t sensitive to an individual’s experience.

“A lot of financial resources when I started my business [were by] Dave Ramsey or Suze Orman, who…” Rapley pauses, then continues: “… no.”

One of the most influential pieces of money content in her life was the book Girl, Get Your Money Straight by Glinda Bridgforth. The book was speaking to her directly, she said, because it was written by a woman of color. The overarching problem with money content, Rapley says, is that it simply can’t hold people accountable—podcast episodes and articles aren’t designed to offer personalized coaching and check-ins. “That’s the most challenging element of most people’s financial journey,” Rapley says.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that the most helpful money content for many young women isn’t that prescriptive, which may miss the mark anyway. It’s the motivation of the stories that get them started, that make them feel less alone, that lessen the shame they may feel.

Lee says she’s always been pretty good at the logistics of managing money, so she’s much more interested in the philosophy and psychology of pursuing financial freedom. She says money stories, like the ones she writes, are popular with young women for the same reason people read biographies. “Most biographies aren’t written in a prescriptive, ‘10 ways to accomplish this person’s lifestyle’ way,” she says, “But rather are stories that resonate with readers.”

This is the second in our ongoing series, “Women & Money.” If you missed it, check the previous piece on “How Women of Color are Reinventing Work”.

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