WOMEN AND OUR FEAR OF MONEY
BY JENNIFER LEIGHTON
Have you heard of Chrometophobia, the clinical term for the fear of money? Probably not. It’s not a well-known term and, besides, who is afraid of money? Yet, for many women, the fear of money is a real issue. While it may not reach the level of a psychiatric diagnosis, it affects how we look at – and deal with – our finances and our futures. Our fear can impact our decisions, both minor and major – from what to buy to which career to pursue to whom we should marry. Women and our relationship with money can be very funny indeed.
The most common fear women experience relating to money is what’s known as the “Bag Lady Syndrome.” We worry we will end up impoverished and homeless in our later years and we grow increasingly certain our Louis Vuitton Neverfulls will someday carry the last of our earthly possessions as we meander the streets, alone and destitute. If you were a fan of “Sex and the City,” you may remember an episode when Carrie, broke and worried about losing her apartment, laments she “will literally be the old woman who lived in her shoes.”
I can relate to this. In the past, I had imagined myself as an 80something, sitting on a bus stop (while wearing a shower cap, of course) and rifling through a brown paper bag (having been forced to sell the Neverfull years before), looking for change to pay the bus fare. As crazy as that vision may seem, I know I’m not alone. Even highly-successful women such as Gloria Steinem and Katie Couric have admitted to this fear. Perhaps you’ve had it, too.
Like most fears, the fear women have with money (or maybe I should say the fear we have with money management) comes from a lack of education and information. Traditionally, women left the “big” financial decisions to the men in our lives. Many of us have gone from a father to a husband (or two husbands…or three…) who took the role of the “money manager” in our families. Sure, we may know how to write checks and pay bills, but we very often abdicate a higher position in our financial lives simply because we’ve been taught to think of it as the “man’s job.”
My first husband was an Accounting major with an MBA who’d become a successful businessman and, as a result, I looked to him to make financial decisions for the both of us. I thought of him as the “smart one” when it came to money and of myself as the gal who barely understood what a 401(k) was. When we divorced, my financial world was, to put it mildly, rocked. Where was I going to live? How would I support myself? Would I become a 40something sitting on a bus stop while wearing a shower cap? These were real fears.
I eventually realized, however, that I didn’t lack power over my financial future because I lacked the capacity or intelligence to have it. I lacked power because I’d willingly given it up to someone else. Giving my ex the keys to our finances seemed so easy at the time. But that’s the problem with taking the “easy road;” there’s usually a tougher path in the future. So I was left with no choice but to pack up the Neverfull with just a few items, dramatically readjust my lifestyle, and begin the process of rebuilding my life – all the while promising myself I’d never give up that power again.
Divorce, widowhood, change in career status – these transitional events in a woman’s life illuminate the financial decisions we’ve made in our past. “If only I’d budgeted better.” “Why didn’t I plan for that?” “I wish I’d paid attention to what he was doing with the money.” “I should have gone to those meetings with our financial advisor.” Suddenly, hindsight does indeed become 20/20. And often, we don’t like what we see.
Of course, not all women have ceded control of their finances. And reports indicate the financial literacy gap between men and women is shrinking. A study by BMO Wealth Institute revealed that women in the United States have decision-making control over $11.2 trillion of the nation’s estimated $28.6 trillion of investable assets. That’s nearly 40%! Additionally, women are the primary breadwinners in 38% of American households. When you compare that to 11% in 1960, you can honestly say we have indeed “come a long way, baby.”
But while the financial gap may be shrinking, women still lack confidence when it comes to the management and investment of money. A 2014 report by the Center for Talent Innovation found that almost 50% of wealth-creating women in the U.S. do not have a financial advisor. A 2015 survey by BlackRock, an asset management firm, found that female investors tend to keep a higher proportion of their money in cash, thereby lessening future returns. And, in my personal experience working in financial services with women in transition, almost all of the women I meet admit they were reluctant to play a bigger role in the family’s finances. “I thought he was better at it than I was,” they tell me.
So how do we increase our confidence and lessen our fear of the management of money? We do the very thing which scares us – we begin to get involved with our finances. For some of us, this may mean picking up one of the many books written on women and money and giving it a read. For others, it’s time to look through all of your financial statements in order to get a handle on your current situation. Maybe you should make an appointment to actually meet your financial advisor in person (or to find one). Maybe you need to read through that tax return instead of just signing it. By taking one small step – and surviving it – you’ll be less afraid of the big ones.
Next, let’s become more comfortable with talking to our partners about money. A 2015 study by Fidelity Investments found that eight in 10 women avoid financial conversations and are more likely to talk to their significant others about health issues and sex than salary or investment ideas. And yet, a 2015 poll done by TD Bank on love and money found that couples who regularly and honestly talk about money are happier in their relationships than those who discuss it less frequently. I think even the not-so-financially-savvy among us can do the math on those stats.
And lastly, whether you are employed as the COO of a Fortune 500 company or as the COO of your household, it’s important to realize you have a vested interest in your finances. So take ownership of them! Play a larger role when it comes to making monetary decisions and don’t let another person control your destiny. Figure out your goals and work to achieve them. As you become a shareholder in your financial future, you’ll automatically see your confidence increase and your fears begin to shrink.
It’s amazing how much has changed in the years since I was forced to confront my own version of Chrometophobia. And it’s become my mission to help other women face theirs. It’s a thrilling experience every time a woman asks me how she can become more financially confident or when I’m able to speak to a group on the importance of financial empowerment. With each step forward I take, I see that shower-capped lady on the bus stop less and less. But I think I’m most reminded of my transformation whenever my new husband and I sit down to go through our financial statements – together.