My partner and I are first time homebuyers. Our new home is great but it needs some... curb appeal. Having never hired a contractor before, I scheduled four of them back-to-back to get estimates for a big project we had been saving for. As the first contractor finished up his notes in his truck and the second contractor pulled up, my neighbour came out of his house. "I don't mean to be noisy, but if you're getting estimates, you should have a guy around so they don't take advantage and charge you more. Do you have a brother or husband or father who could come by just for the day?" My partner is a woman and I'm an only child; my dad works, and probably wouldn't appreciate a mid-day call to be around so I'm not overcharged.
To his credit, our neighbour was trying to be supportive. But ever since then, I began to wonder: Why does a woman need a man, literally any man, around in order to avoid being taken advantage of when it comes to money?
It's partly tradition: Women have spent more time as dependents than they have as individuals. It wasn't until 1974 that our moms could finally get a credit card or a loan alone (as in, without their dad or husband's signature). Back then, women literally needed men to validate us since we were seen as liabilities, even when the money was our own. Women today are still inundated with messages that we’re bad with money, that we’re irresponsible and suckers who splurge. Why?
Data shows that spending problems affect men and women at about the same rate yet, we keep telling women they're bad with money. And when someone reiterates something over and over, you begin to believe it. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: A recent study found that telling women they're bad with money decreases our cognitive function. And the personal finance industry certainly isn't helping.
"Telling women they're bad with money is a great way to hide the obvious: Women earn less than men at all points during their career," said journalist Helaine Olen. Her book Pound Foolish changed how I think about the personal finance industry.
As Olen explains, "personal finance was sold to many people as a way around wealth inequality. A way to blame people. So it wasn’t that your salary was falling behind, it was that you weren’t saving enough to keep up.” Talking to Helaine made me realise that we are trying to solve for big, institutional problems with our very small, personal paycheques. With the blame for shrinking paycheques being put on us, we turn to personal finance for help.
Personal finance was sold to many people as a way around wealth inequality.
"Everybody gets bad personal finance advice, it is not just women. The difference is that women blame themselves for it. We live longer, we earn less, we have more responsibilities with that money, yet it is impossible — almost impossible — to save that money because you are starting with less. So instead of really addressing all of this it is easier to say 'Oh women! They just go shopping all the time!'"
That could explain why we have so much guilt and confusion around money. It’s not that women are incapable of making great financial choices, it’s that the disconnect that causes the kind of frustration that keep many women from engaging in their financial lives altogether.
For most of history, women did not have control over their money. It's only within the last very decade that we've begun to take ownership of our paycheques and bank accounts. Now that we have that agency, we can start to rewrite the narrative. But where do we start?