Vanessa printed on coffee cup at Starbucks

Unexpressed rage and a financial conundrum: What Vanessa heard at Starbucks

Every once in a while, I get an email from a reader that makes me choke on my cup of tea. Today’s noteworthy moment came courtesy of Vanessa, an award-winning travel blogger who also happens to be a member of my team.Vanessa written on coffee cup at Starbucks Vanessa overhead something at a coffee shop that she simply couldn’t ignore, especially since it was about a topic we had just discussed in my Women’s Money Group.

Imagine: You’re sitting cheek-by-jowl with complete strangers and try as you might, you c.a.n.n.o.t. block out their conversation. Then it sucks you in.

Instead of blogging for herself, Vanessa sent me the following email (transcribed verbatim). I’ll share my two cents afterwards.

“So I’m blogging away at Starbucks this morning, minding my own business, and a woman in her late 50s sits down beside me and is joined by a man in a suit. And he is an investment advisor of some kind and she is a lady who says she just can’t figure it out and she hopes he can help sort things out for her.
So, naturally, I eavesdrop on every word. I’m classy like that. 😉

The woman started out somewhat giggly and self-deprecating, all “I can’t make head or tails of this” and the like. And when he’s asking about her family, she’s sharing some rather serious things (like how her 64-year-old husband still works super long hours and it causes a strain but he can’t afford to quit – cue the nervous laughter – but what can you do) and how her adult children – struggling, don’t you know, to get more work – need her to cover the costs of their new roof and such. But she’s doing it all with a big smile and a bit of hand-wringing.

And I realize that what I’m listening to isn’t a woman who doesn’t understand finance or who doesn’t have opinions about her finances. What I’m listening to is a woman who is filled with decades of unexpressed rage. Rage that she has to swallow on a daily basis and disguise with smiles and nervous laughter to smooth over the awkwardness of meeting a financial dude. And he’s probably the first person in years who has asked her about HER and he’s probably the first person she has told – in a roundabout way – of the freeloading kids who don’t understand the importance of house maintenance and the husband who claims to be helpless about his work schedule. And what she’s really saying isn’t that she doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to handle finances. She’s saying that she doesn’t have the emotional capacity to handle them – her tank is truly empty because what looks like a normal family situation to others is actually a lifetime of her being drained and what she really wants isn’t for someone to handle her finances, she wants someone to take something off her list. Because no one else in her life is taking anything off it.

It’s probably a good thing that they left at the same time because if he had left first, I think I would have kidnapped her and held her here while I put in an emergency call to you! Thankfully, I did NOT cause a scene and sully your good name ha ha and they left without the slightest indication that I had inadvertently heard the entire conversation.

How is it possible that a woman who is managing her own life plus that of a spouse and two adult children and essentially financing three households NOT believe she is intelligent enough to figure out finances? She is essentially doing complex budgets every day without knowing it.

All this to be said and done…… I think you need to blog about the relationship between intellectual and emotional labour and maybe how “I just don’t understand money” is an easier thing to say given the alternatives.

Promising not to violate the privacy of anyone else in this coffee shop (even though I see a dude with socks and sandals and I am desperate to know what he’s got to say).
Vanessa ;-)”

Holy Hannah, there is a ton to unpack in there. But first, what is that woman doing talking about the intimate details of her financial life in a coffee shop?!! Doesn’t financial dude have an office? I find it striking that most women don’t feel comfortable talking about money with their family and friends, but some will happily talk to a perfect stranger in a place that offers zero privacy. We are not rational creatures.

Here are a few ideas for the Confused Woman (CW):

Emotional vs financial capacity

Vanessa has hit on an important concept – the idea that money isn’t just about physical, nuts-and-bolts management and systems; it has a powerful, emotional dimension. While most of us are aware of the former in our lives, we don’t even come close to considering the importance of the latter. I refer to it as the soft but powerful side of money (i.e. emotional financial literacy).

CW’s emotional tank with respect to finances may well be hovering near empty after a lifetime of being the family’s financial pin cushion and fixer. I have no idea what tone she used as she spoke since I wasn’t there, but it could be that she feels unexpressed rage or resentment about having to deal with ongoing issues with her kids as well as the strain of her spouse’s work schedule, though I doubt she’s articulated those feelings to herself, let alone anyone else.

Regardless, she clearly feels strained and she’s turning to someone else to sort things out for her. And therein lies the main issue: She turning to someone else to figure it out.

Financial abdication

One of the biggest problems that I’ve seen in my career is women’s tendency to let someone else take over the bits they find challenging, confusing, or overwhelming.

They want someone else to handle investing.

They want someone else to figure out how to get out of debt.

They want someone else to be the bad cop and say no to spending or lending.

Of course not all women behave like this, but enough do. If they don’t find someone else to tackle the problems, they procrastinate.

What’s at the root of this behaviour? A big part of it boils down to a lack of confidence. Plus, it’s no fun to deal with aspects of our finances that cause us stress.

Have a read of Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s enlightening book The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know for a good look at just how pervasive this problem is for women. As a data-driven person, I love Kay and Shipman’s focus on research to illustrate the extent of the confidence problem. Thankfully, they also offer some suggestions on how to grow your confidence and not surprisingly, one of the key steps has to do with action: Confidence is linked to action; lack of confidence to inaction.

Back to the situation at hand. There are a few simple (though not easy) steps to minimize financial frustration, refill your emotional tank, and build financial confidence in the process:

Step #1 – Highest, best interests

What if, whenever you’re faced with a financial choice that makes you uneasy, you asked yourself a single question: “Which choice or path is in my highest, best interests?” What would that do to your outcomes?

Experience tells me it would have a dramatic, positive effect and it would yield results that make you happier. For those of you who are tempted to complain that it’s selfish to do so, notice the use of the word “highest”. It’s not just thinking about outcomes that work out better for you in the moment; it’s about making decisions that honour your values. It’s about choosing paths that reflect your higher goals, desires, and aspirations. There is nothing selfish about that.

Understand, too, that taking the highest, best route for you occasionally requires having uncomfortable conversations with people you love – saying no, declining to step in, asking for what’s fair, and so on. This is all part of the process of finding your own financial voice.

Would CW have made the same choices had she asked this question every step of the way? I don’t know, but I suspect not.

Step #2 – Responsibility

Take responsibility for your results. It’s not your financial advisor’s job to take charge of your money, nor is it others’ responsibility to take things off your list; it’s yours. By the way, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use an advisor to help you invest or to create a plan; I’m suggesting not to turn blindly to him/her to solve a problem or do something with your money that you don’t fully understand.

Also, taking a “what can you do?” approach keeps you rooted in a victim mentality. There’s no winning at anything if you shackle yourself emotionally in that way. Release the shackles and be fully accountable for your choices, actions, and results.

Is it comfortable to be fully accountable? Absolutely not. We all have financial skeletons in our closet that we’d love to pin on someone else. But here’s the thing:

Your results may not be your fault, but they are your responsibility.

The sooner you accept responsibility, the faster you can move forward. CW is free to choose her actions. She could turn to her kids and say, “I’m sorry that you’re struggling with work, but I’m not a bank. Also, you chose to become home owners and you need to figure this out for yourselves. Maintenance and repairs are part of the package when you own a home. I’m happy to brainstorm ideas with you while you work at this. You’re smart adults. I have every confidence that you’ll figure it out.”

Is funnelling cash to her kids on an ongoing basis in this woman’s highest, best interests? Clearly not. Is it in her kids’ highest, best interests? I would argue that it’s not. The kids aren’t going to learn to be self-sufficient adults if they keep up the pattern of relying on the bank of mom and dad.

When I first became a mom, I was given immensely valuable advice about how to help my daughter sleep through the night (she is now 14) and I apply the advice in all areas of my life to this day: Start as you mean to go on. In CW’s case, if she plans to bail out her kids financially forever, or be the one who puts up with everyone else’s challenges, then she should carry on. If those are not the outcomes she desires, then she would do well to reconsider her approach.

Step #3 – Control

Instead of asking someone to sort out financial problems, consider asking them for guidance instead while you implement their suggestions. It’s the difference between looking for a fisherman to haul in the catch for you versus looking for a teacher to guide you through the process of filling your own basket. The fisherman approach is quicker and easier, but you won’t gain one iota of confidence letting someone else do the solving and executing. Learn to do it yourself and watch your confidence grow.

By taking control of your financial situation, you have the means to create a life that is truly in your highest, best interests.

Step #4 – Belief

Nothing new can be learned or gained until you believe it’s possible. CW may not feel she’s smart enough to figure it out. Until she shifts that belief, she’s not likely to make much lasting progress, even if financial dude creates a plan for her. If I’ve learned one thing over the past twenty years of studying how money works it’s this: Financial success starts in the six inches of real estate between your ears. You can ask someone to manage your money and you can ask someone to take over your investments, but you can’t ask someone to believe in you for you. That’s something that only you can do.

Trust yourself. You are more than smart enough to solve any financial challenge in your life. Sure, you might benefit from guidance, but know that you’re absolutely capable of pulling it off.

I really hope that CW comes to know, and believe, that too.

By the way, if you’re ever sitting in Starbucks in Ottawa, wave if you see Vanessa and do me a favour: Ask her what she’s working on, or listening to. Just don’t take a sip while she answers.


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