I have been counseling people, especially women, about money for some years now. Through my own financial journey and my experience with others, I have found that there are common mistaken beliefs that cause fear and discourage women from taking full responsibility for their financial health. These deeply held beliefs, or misconceptions, are often not grounded in reality. Although we may be unaware of these beliefs, they affect how we think, feel and act, not only around money, but also in our relationships with others. Fortunately, we can learn to identify our unhelpful money beliefs, work to change them and take rightful charge of our financial lives.
Let’s look at some common misconceptions about money I routinely come across in my private practice.
If I don’t think about it, I won’t have to deal with it. This is the number one mistaken belief I have encountered. Women tend to avoid the hard facts and live “as if,” the way they imagine or would like it to be. For example, they charge a pair of expensive shoes and figure they’ll worry about the money later. Or they don’t have a budget or any idea how they’ll support themselves in old age. This keeps them in a type of fantasyland where they don’t have to think about or solve financial problems. I worked with a talented artist who avoided opening her bills. The bills would come in the mail and she would just pile them unopened, afraid on some level to “look at” them. As long as she didn’t know the truth (the amount due) she felt she could continue to live as if the debt weren’t there. As you can imagine, this created problems in her life, one of which was a bad credit history. She eventually realized this as a problem and sought my help. (In our work, we consider this a “beautiful problem” because it opens the door to facing our fear and our resistance, enabling us eventually to investigate the truth.) Once she uncovered her mistaken beliefs and looked at her fear, she hired a bookkeeper to help straighten out her bank accounts and pay her bills. In time, she was able to take responsibility for the bookkeeping herself.
I don’t have enough, so why bother? Many women believe you have to be wealthy to invest in a retirement plan. They don’t “get” the concept of wealth building. One of my clients, a very successful therapist, had been a teacher in her former career and received quarterly statements from the state’s retirement plan for educators. However, she never opened these statements and merely tossed them out like junk mail. She assumed that her account wasn’t worth much since she had contributed so little during her short tenure as a teacher. When she finally opened one of the statements, she was surprised to discover a modest amount had accumulated in her account. Together we looked at the role her defeatist belief about money had played, and why she ignored her retirement plan for so many years. With a small amount of savings socked away, she now grasped the positive ramifications of taking ownership of her account and her future.
Money is not “spiritual.” Another widespread misconception, especially for women in the helping professions, is that wanting or dealing with money is somehow unholy and not in harmony with their spiritual work and beliefs. They feel that giving one’s attention to money could somehow taint the purity of their desire to help and heal people. Often I find that women in the service professions have a difficult time valuing their services and they tend to undercharge or not charge at all. Their “caregiver” often wins out and they tend to apologize when asked what their rate is. With these women, the “beautiful problem” we work on helps them look at their self-worth. They come to see that the good work they do as healers and helpers is extremely valuable, and having a sufficient income can help them continue to contribute to the world. Receiving adequate compensation, they learn, is very spiritual.
If I mix my money with my husband’s, I’ll lose autonomy. Recently, an interesting theme has come up as I work with women who are contemplating marriage or renegotiating the financial terms of their relationships/marriages. They don’t want to mix assets or negotiate with their partners about how to spend their money. They want more autonomy with money. One of my friends recently told me, “I got a small inheritance from my family and this is going to be in my name only. I don’t want to have to debate how to spend this money. This is mine to do with what I want.” Having autonomy is terrific. But avoiding the “money talk” with your partner can impinge on your financial freedom as well. In my friend’s case, she didn’t want to consult her husband, the investor/controller of all their other finances. So she stashed her money in a savings account, where it sits earning little or no interest because investing it is just too complicated for her to contemplate. I helped her see that her fear of losing autonomy was preventing her from asking for help. She finally did talk to her husband about wanting to keep the inheritance separate. And now she is taking charge and slowly learning how to be a responsible steward of her inheritance.
I don’t need to know how to handle money. My husband takes care of me. This is a common mistaken belief of women in their seventies and older, as it was with my mother. Financial power for that generation was traditionally the domain of the male partner. In my parents’ time, most women did not have a clue about their marital assets, how their savings were invested, or if they even had savings. They never learned about investing or how to budget. In many instances, they didn’t even know how to pay bills or balance a checkbook. Their husbands took care of everything. When their husbands died or they divorced, they were easy targets for dishonest people who stepped in to “help” them with their finances.
I’m too old to learn. A corollary of the above belief is that it’s just too late to acquire financial literacy. Here’s an inspiring story from my own family proving this isn’t true. My parents got divorced after 50 long years of marriage. In her 80s, my mother had no idea how to handle the money she received in the settlement. Initially she felt overwhelmed, as one might imagine. But for the first time in her life, she wanted to master her own finances and be in control. With my help, she gradually learned how to read an investment statement and understand how much income she would receive and could comfortably spend. Having grown up during the depression, she lived in fear every day that she did not have enough. She truly had the “depression hangover” where she was always one day away from the bread lines, despite my reassuring her that she had more than enough money to live comfortably. Eventually, by acquiring knowledge of her assets and spending, she was able to overcome some of this fear and gain a feeling of security.
Empowerment does not come cheap. You can’t snap your fingers and all of a sudden be at the helm of your financial wheel. But you can take actions, steps that build on each other to bring financial health and well being to your life. Suze Orman, in her book, Women & Money, asks two very revealing questions. “Why is it that women, who are so competent in all other areas of their lives, cannot find the same competence when it comes to matters of money?” And, “Why don’t we show our money the same care and attention that we shower on every other important relationship in our lives?” She counsels that women have to cast off two deeply imbedded attitudes: “the burden of shame and the tendency to blame.” The shame of ignorance and the desire to blame instead of taking full responsibility for our own actions are common behavior patterns that don’t serve us, both in matters of money or in life.
In my coaching work, I remind each client that she is responsible for her money life. No one else is—not her partner, bookkeeper, or financial advisor. To have a healthy relationship to money requires consciousness. One of the first steps you can take toward being more conscious about your money attitudes and behaviors is to examine your underlying beliefs and really ask yourself, “Is this belief helping me become smarter and more confident about my finances?” As I see more women answer this question with a resounding “Yes!” it gives me joy to work with money and watch them grow confident and responsible with their finances.
Helen Hamada is a life coach and financial counselor. She is also the vice president and managing director of an investment firm specializing in socially conscious, dividend-focused portfolios that manages over $2.5 billion in assets, based in Woodstock, NY. Her email address is HHamada50 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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