How one woman overcame her money fears, tackled her finances, and became an investor.
When Leslie Allen was 29, she walked away from her job as a senior director of communications at a women’s business development nonprofit, where she was earning $75,000, to be a stay-at-home mom.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” says Allen, now 41, a Fairfax, Virginia, resident, who also holds a master’s degree in public communication from American University. Nonetheless, she and her husband agreed it was the right thing to do for a few years while they started a family. She is now a mother of two daughters, ages 11 and 12.
She was just turning 30, and that decision started her on an unexpected decade-long path to take control of her financial life and break through her fear of managing money and investing.
The underlying driver: a deep-seated teenage memory. Allen was age 16 when her recently divorced mother asked her to help pay the rent on their North Carolina home. “I was working part-time at a department store after school, and I gave my mother my paycheck for a couple of months,” she recalls.
But it wasn’t just the rent that was a struggle to pay. “At the same time, the bank was calling wanting the car payment,” says Allen. “I added extra work hours at the store and so did mom at her job, but it wasn’t enough.”
The car was repossessed just before the last payment of $250. “I remember that terrifying fear, when you don’t have enough money,” Allen said. “It is really, really scary.”
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Those feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability came rushing back when she left the workforce; it was a wakeup call. “I realized quickly that I never want to be beholden to anyone to pay my bills for me, and I don’t want to be dependent on my husband’s salary to make sure the rent or mortgage gets paid,” Allen says.
To be at ease with taking time away from the workforce, she needed to be firmly in control of her personal financial future. “I had to get a grasp on how much money I had separate from my husband, and where my money was invested,” she says. “What was it doing for me?”
Her first move was to track down all of his and her bank and investment account information. “I did not want to get into a situation where I have all these bank accounts, and I have no knowledge of what is going on, and I don’t even know the passwords,” she says.
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To ramp up her financial expertise, Allen regularly reads personal finance and investing articles online and pores over financial magazines, newspapers, and books on investing. “I am always Googling what I didn’t know or understand to go deeper,” she says.
That, however, was the tip of the iceberg. Her learning required more than just getting a bead on the numbers and the jargon. She had to psychologically face her fear of money and talking about it with others. “For me, money has always been a taboo subject,” says Allen. “I don’t talk about how much I make. You do not ask others how much they make. You do not talk about investing. You do not talk about money at all. It is a very rude subject. For me, I have had to get over a lot of things that were engrained in me. I had to become willing to have the tough, uncomfortable money conversations that I had put off for years.”
She also opted to work with a local advisor. “There was a comfort level with her immediately,” says Allen. “I needed someone who would take me seriously, and she did, right from the start.” Her self-confidence and investment decision-making ability began to strengthen. “Working with my advisor has really liberated me from the fear of not having enough money. Importantly, she taught me not to be afraid to ask questions. There’s nothing too stupid to ask.”
Admittedly, it took months for Allen to begin to take ownership of her decisions. “Without a financial background, the concepts were a little hard to grasp at first, and I would tell my advisor that I was scared, but she always said: ‘You can do this. You’re smart enough. Don’t be intimidated.’”
Many women in their thirties may believe they don’t have time to start investing due to the demands of raising small children and working on building a career. They may also think it’s just not a real concern right now because retirement is so far away. The key is to get beyond the fear; and it can help to find somebody you can have honest conversations with about money and investing. Allen agrees. “I have learned to be honest, with myself and others, about what I want and need financially. Just because I was happy and married at 30 and not in any financial distress didn’t mean that’s the way it was always going to be. I had to come to terms with that and do a better job planning for my financial future.”
Moreover, Allen started small. “It wasn’t like I had a half a million dollars to invest at age 30. I started by deciding where to invest $5,000. And I took time to understand my comfort zone when it came to more volatile investments like stocks.” For Allen, that translates to investing primarily in conservative no-load mutual funds with a balanced mix of stocks and bonds.
Allen is now back at work full-time as a management consultant, and is the primary breadwinner for the family. Once she returned to the workplace in 2009, her husband left his lobbying career to start his own small retail business.
“I’m well aware that I can’t retire at 50—just like most people—and I’m okay with that,” says Allen. “For now, the questions are how much do I need to put away to make sure I have adequate retirement funds so I can pay the bills and maintain the lifestyle I want in retirement.”
Another goal: Pay for her children’s college education when the time comes—so that they don’t have to take on enormous debt.
Not surprisingly, Allen is teaching her children at an early age to be savvy about money. She’s already helping her oldest daughter invest a portion of her baby-sitting earnings. “I figure that if she starts young, the terminology won’t be that intimidating, and it will come more naturally to her than it did to me,” she says.
Want to get more involved with your finances and investing? Here are three key ways to get started.
For your future: It’s important to make the most of a 401(k) or workplace savings plan during your thirties. Contribute enough to earn the company match. Then take it a step further by increasing your contributions whenever you can—for instance, if you get a raise or a bonus, direct as much as possible of that new money to your 401(k). Contributions to 401(k)s can help reduce your current taxable income, too.
If you don’t have a 401(k), or if you are a stay-at-home mother, consider saving for retirement in a traditional or Roth IRA. Read Viewpoints: Quick-start guide to your 401(k).
For kids’ college: If you have children, consider starting to save—or ramping up your efforts if you are already saving for college. Consider a 529 college savings plan sponsored by a state or state agency. The contribution limits are high, there are no income restrictions, and your earnings grow federal income tax deferred. Better still, you can withdraw the money federal income tax free, so long as you spend it on qualified higher education expenses. Read Viewpoints: Five lessons learned for college
For an emergency: A good rule of thumb is to have a readily available “emergency fund” amounting to three to six months of living expenses. An emergency, like an illness or job loss, is bad enough; not being prepared financially can only make things worse. Think of putting aside money just like you have a regular bill every month, until you have built up enough. Read Viewpoints: How to save for an emergency.
Become a long-term investor
One of the best ways to give your money a chance to grow over the long term is by investing in a mix of stocks and stock mutual funds. That means getting used to riding the ups and downs of the market. For your 401(k), your employer typically gives you a choice of mutual funds. You may be tempted to choose a conservative option, but if you have a long time until retirement and are comfortable with more risk, you can usually be more aggressive. Not a hands-on investor? Consider what’s called a target date fund or a managed account offering, if your employer offers either one.
For an IRA, you typically have more choices, including building your own mix of individual stocks and mutual funds. Again, if you don’t have the skill, will, and time to manage your investments yourself, consider a professionally-managed investment solution.
Beware of debt
Debt is a double-edged sword. Borrow wisely and, you may build equity—for instance, in a home, or maybe even in yourself, with an education. But rack up too much debt, and financial distress could be lurking around the corner.
Even if you can handle your debt, too much debt may simply eat up your paycheck and not leave anything left to invest for your retirement. To avoid becoming bogged down by debt, know the details of your income and expenses before borrowing. Think carefully about how much debt your monthly budget can reasonably accommodate. Read Viewpoints: Could borrowing let you meet your goals?
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