My First Financial Lesson

I’ve struggled with money my entire life. I just found the paperwork to prove it, after unpacking from a recent move. I’ve been digging into decades of cancelled checks and bank and brokerage statements looking for clues to the financial lessons I’ve learned.

Lesson #1:

You can’t trust even your own mother, when it comes to money.

The letter and cancelled check stamped with big red letters date back to my first semester in journalism school. She was so sorry, but my checking account was going to overdraw and probably trigger a big bank fee. My mother had already called long distance, but the words didn’t add up until I held the evidence in my hand.  My father’s first corporate client, a Fortune 100 pharmaceutical company whose commanding headquarters in Central New Jersey he had just finished painting, paid their bills 30 days after a job was done, so the money my mother promised would be deposited in my account—wasn’t. I heard a series of loud thumps in my head (or was that my stomach?) as I counted up the number of checks I had written over the past few days, bouncing all the way from my dorm room in Milwaukee, WI, back to New Jersey. I was now 13 cents in the red, instead of ahead by $5.68 ahead.

That was a tough lesson to learn, immediately followed by:

Lesson #2:

You have to make sure you there’s money in your account before you start writing checks.

But not too long after that, I enjoyed learning the next lesson:

Lesson #3:

Treat money with respect—and it will treat you well; in fact, it may even surprise you from time to time.

I paid for my first vacation by saving a quarter a week—every week—through eight years of Catholic grade school. I still consider that long discipline to be one of my biggest financial successes. It was exciting to watch those quarters (288, I estimate) add up, week by week by week, in one after another, after another, of those nifty cardboard holders that banks distributed at the time to encourage schoolchildren to save.

After my freshman year at Marquette, I liberated those quarters from their stiff little holders and paid for my first plane ticket to the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Bobbi Miller lived.  After enduring one bitterly cold Wisconsin winter—along with the frosty attitude of Midwestern students who hadn’t seen too many people of color—Bobbi invited me and her roommate, Betty, to visit her and her parents. She didn’t tell us they owned a hotel in Charlotte Amalie. No trip since has come close yet to those eight days in paradise.

The memory of that payoff has also helped me weather the years since then, and eventually led to the next lesson, which took me years to face:

Lesson #4:

Take the fear out of managing your money.

I paid high fees for mutual funds—1 percent and more—ever since I started saving for retirement and 401(k) plans became available. I honestly believed that you get more by paying more. How could low-cost index funds compete, without active management? Many smart people, including my former boss, Jane Bryant Quinn, couldn’t convince me a, about the impact of high fees over the long term, because I was too focused, I realize now, on short-term results.

It took me nine months, beginning in September 2016, to make the decision to move my money to an index fund. I interviewed four—no, five—financial advisers, and three financial institutions, in dozens of calls and meetings, which often set me spinning in circles. But by June 2017, I made the decision to move my retirement savings. And by the end of the year, the “perfect storm” that hit—driven by high stock market returns, lower fees for financial advice, and an increased stock allocation—delivered stellar results and convinced me I had make the right decision after all.

But I haven’t arrived in my safe harbor yet. I know there are a lot more squalls on the horizon as I make my way forward.

And that put the wind in my sails (to continue the metaphor), as I began thinking about sharing what I learned. A growing body of research proves that women do better than men when they invest—but most of us just don’t invest. Now there’s an area that needs a #MeToo! movement.

I’ll be sharing what I learn every week with you, and hope you’ll send me your questions. Will you join me? Together I believe that we can find the answers to making more informed decisions. Send me your questions and news to share here.

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