Why Money Matters Matter Most

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Liz Smith reflects on why financial independence, above all else, is a woman’s greatest asset

“What are the most important things in life to you? What are your priorities?”

This seems to me to be the kind of question people are frequently asked. So, let’s just confine this discussion to women. I would say the invariable answer is this: “The most important thing to me is my significant other. Second, my family. Third, my friends.”

A few stalwart believers in the hereafter may say instead, “My relationship with my Creator” or “God” or “getting into heaven.” (It is too tiring to go into the religious side of things so let’s just accept a yes to the question on spirituality as “a given” and leave it at that.)

When I consider this question, I realize that once upon a time, when I was young and foolish and beset by my hormones and my ideals, that I would have romantically and foolishly said “my significant other.” Then “family” and “friends.” (Occasionally, when I think of the problems that have often occurred in my family, I might even put “friends” first.)

But, my darling readers, last year we were offered government findings that seem to shatter ancient shibboleths as to what constitutes poverty. There was a horrid statistic doubling the number of elderly poor (people over 65) to 47 million.

And so I want to say that now, regarding the answer to the question of what’s most important for women should always be – a healthy regard for money, how to earn it, how to invest it, how to save it so that it staves off emergencies as well as a possible old age of desperation.

This single thing is more important than significant others, family or friends. I don’t say abandon any of these. You can and will probably work at them all your life. And you should. But I think the most important thing for every woman is to become and remain financially independent.

***

I’VE BEEN lucky. After working in journalism and TV production for many years for a pittance, I finally won a byline, got a column of my own, found myself in demand, became a TV performer and made a lot of money for a while. I also wrote a bestselling book or two. I was careless about spending and giving away.

Later, I was advised by a giant friend to put my money in guaranteed Treasury Bonds and not touch it, which is what I did. And that saved money is what I live on now. Here’s the catch: I have never believed I have saved enough money to be really comfortable. So after I lost my last journalism job with The New York Post, I began to worry again. These days I sometimes stay awake at night, obsessing about money, security and safety, the same way I did when I was a poorly paid, ink-stained journalist. I fear not having quite enough. So the mythic worry is almost as real as the real thing. I sometimes drive myself crazy with anxiety. Over money!

I wish now, way back when I was at the University of Texas, instead of spending an extra year there working on my masters in advanced English, I had gone into the business school and learned the mechanics of handling money.

And a friend of mine, who is a giant of ethics in journalism, said to me the other day, “Oh, my God. If I knew then what I know now. I would have traded a few of my training years, clawing my way up the journalism ladder, for just three years of working in high finance and feathering my nest first. In other words, why wasn’t I an investment banker for three years?”

People like me, who were always proud of their idealistic cultured approach to learning, now wish they hadn’t been so cavalier about long division, fractions and, yes, even adding and subtracting.

***

JUST ONE more thing. If you pay attention to math, to making money, to saving and investing money wisely – your family and friends will like you much better than because you can quote Shakespeare. In fact, the better off you are, the more they’ll adore you and try to get along with you.

I’m sorry to have become such a philistine, but money and security is No. 1 for happy women – dames with money in the bank can bake cookies and geisha around if they want to while they are “treating” their friends and making everybody else feel safe and secure.

Now let the damning of Liz to hell for her materialistic take on life begin. I enjoy a good argument.

17 comments so far.

  1. avatar Linda Myers says:

    I really don’t disagree with you. I think everyone is entitled to peace of mind in life and money can be a large part of maintaining peace of mind, whether in comfortable amounts or large amounts. I don’t have near the amount of money now that I did even a few years ago, but I don’t have debt either which makes it less hard on me to live. So I think the accumulation of debt is an important factor also in the equation.
     
    I have a friend whose retirement income pretty much matches what I have coming in, yet she can really cannot even afford groceries after paying bills each month which were largely incurred prior to becoming disabled and living on her retirement funds. I can’t pay her bills for her, but I do buy groceries and take them to her for the peace of mind for her not to worry how she will eat. My only take on the spiritual side is somehow whatever I give freely is always given back and I am do okay as a result, so maybe that is my banking in spirit.

  2. avatar Anonymous K says:

    Liz, you will receive no damnation from me.  Please keep preaching this timely message as women need to take care of themselves and not rely on anyone else!
    I am 40 and have been divorced for five years after being married for ten.  Managing one’s own money gives confidence that spills over into many different areas of one’s life.  Words cannot express the freedom and joy I have experienced as I have become independent and self-sufficient.
    I wish I knew in my 20′s what I know now, but better late than never!

  3. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Dear Liz . . . you are as wise as you are good looking!  The best advice ever given to me came from my glamorous but hard-working aunt.  She wore high heels and dressed elegantly, working in the city of Chicago until she was in her late 70s. . and she was smart as could be about money.

    “Remember”, she said, “that the most important time to have saved enough money for is after you are 65 or are retired.  When you are alone, when you can’t get around like you used to, when you have “surprises” after you had good health all these years, you will not be running around any more.  As you will be around your apartment more of the time, you will want to have space and beauty within.  Health problems can eat you out of house and home, and you want your last years to be good ones”.

    And so while she was generous to me, she was carefully investing her money using an advisor, and living never above her means.  Remembering this, when she finally retired, I knew she would be home a lot and wanted it lovely .   . to match her.  I found a great apartment for one, had a decorator design it glamorously as she still was “gorgeous”, and she moved in with the space she needed when she was home more than out.  She felt like a queen and her happiness I believe made her thrive.  With her financial person, she had seen that her money was more than enough to see her through her final years much later.  

    What an example she was to me .  .  . and hopefully, I have followed well in her footsteps, believing that the years you want to live most comfortably are those when you may be alone after retirement.  I thank her many times over.   

  4. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    Mine was one of the generations who did not talk about money because it wasn’t polite. We made it we spent it and enjoyed it. It is time this issue for women came out of the closet. More women suffer from poverty than men in part because they were never taught to handle their finances correctly or how to plan for a future alone based on just their earnings.
    Look at all the commercials teaching us how to spend and enjoy our money as consumers. I learned to save and plan for the future at an early age but have friends that simply assume they will be cared for. I know many widows that have fallen below the poverty line because they have never managed to really understand their finances. Every woman needs financial training at an early age with an emphasis on her future in case she is left widowed, divorced or simply chooses to remain single. There should never be an assumption that others will care for us or that our children will have the means or want to.

  5. avatar Grace OMalley says:

    About three years ago, my husband and I settled a rather large lawsuit that stemmed from us becoming federal whistleblowers against a corrupt government contractor.  While the award was not retire-to-the-Carribean sized, it allowed us to pay off our home, buy a new car and stick about $100,000.00 in the bank, which we socked away in Franklin Templeton funds and never thought much about again for nearly two years.  Then, last March, we received a letter from the IRS wherein they stated that they wanted to “revisit” our tax situation in regard to our settlement after we were assured by the US attorneys with the Department of Justice and by our own tax lawyer that the monies we received were not taxable.  Long story short, we ended up having to give it all to the IRS and our local State Department of Revenue.  We only have $5,000.00 left.  They didn’t just take our money – they took any sense of security right along with it.  I risked everything and lost an $80,000.00 a year job to do the right thing for my government, only to have them turn around and take away everything we fought for.  Ironically, my attorneys were contacted by someone from the SEC last week to see if I would testify on their behalf regarding more fraud which has recently come to light.  Unfortunately, my response to that request would not make it past the WowowoW censors, but suffice it to say, I will not be making any trips to Washington, DC in the near future.  Should they subpoena me and force me to go, I will have the worst case of memory loss you’ve ever seen.  I completely understand Liz’s comments about laying awake at night worrying about money.  In the immortal words of Cyndi Lauper, “Money Changes Everything”. 

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      As an attrney told me once, most judgements are for “lost income” and so if you get the income back, well, you pay tax on the income. 

      It’s shocking to find that attorneys and accountants don’t always know what they’re talking about.  Even more shocking to find out the IRS doesn’t care that they don’t.  Their retort usually is “if you had a question about it, you should have called us.”

      I applaud you and your husband “blowing the whistle” but of course you learned what I and others have learned.  No good deed goes unpunished. 

      • avatar Grace OMalley says:

        If only I had known you when all this started back in 2002.  My advice to anyone who is thinking about becoming a whistleblower is oddly the same advice that was given to me by the Vice President of the company I worked for, which was “You have to go along to get along.  Don’t let your ethics ruin a perfectly good career”.  Unfortunately, that was exactly what I did, but since it involved active duty soldiers and national security, I dove right in, thinking I made a difference.  If I had just kept my mouth shut, I would have probably been a vice president of the company myself by now.  Instead, like our dear Liz, I lie awake in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, wondering if in another 25 years I will be one of those pitiful old people who depend on Meals on Wheels and the odd kindness of neighbors to get by. 

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        Oh I’m still willing to do the good deed. I just realize it will not go unpunished. Of all the things I don’t regret looking back doing the right thing is not something to regret.  I don’t know if there is a heaven. But if there is, at least I know I won’t be going to hell.

        Purgatory, perhaps. A day or two.  Maybe three.  But not hell. 

  6. avatar Maggie W says:

    This is a wonderful article, Liz! My friend’s husband unexpectedly died  in his sleep. They had married when they were nineteen, and her husband had always cared for her and their children.  My friend truly did not know how to live without his guidance or assistance.  The only thing she had ever been responsible for was the weekly grocery list. She insists she cannot live alone and divides her time among her three children.  This is not playing out well with their spouses because she stays for months at a time, much too long to be classified as a visit.  Her story is not unique, for it happens all over the world.  What to do about Mama or Papa? 

    While it may not be a fear, it is a real concern among my own friends.  What will happen if we are suddenly alone?  My husband and I feel we are well prepared, but in reality, we know only Bill Gates and Warren Buffet can survive a serious medical issue. I am very happy that Gabby Giffords is receiving such excellent and immediate care, but the truth is, most of us would not be so lucky… even with Cadillac insurance.  What we can do is take good care of ourselves, cultivate our friendships, and make it a point to have a financial advisor we trust.  Continue to pay attention and learn.

  7. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Most people, women in particular, who don’t have a nest egg at this point probably never will.  A harsh reality.

    And now we have Congress looking at allowing states to declare bankruptcy and tell our public servants including teachers that they no longer have a pension.  Welcome to America.  The new America. Where the crooks are getting richer. And everyone else is heading for the freeway underpasses.

  8. avatar Lila says:

    Spot on, Liz.

  9. avatar Laurie Deer says:

    I agree that financial independence is a woman’s greatest asset.  With it, we are able to stand on our own two feet.  My late mother was so affected by not being financially independent that for years she lived in poverty raising us. And she relied on my dad, despite the divorce, for financial assistance.  I think this contributed to her poor health.
    It’s funny, I always remarked money could not make you happy but I digress.  For a woman in her mid forties, it’s the single most important thing on my mind.  I strive for it and made one of my main goals for this year which I will accomplish.
    Cheers to all women on the path to financial independence!
     

  10. avatar lebucher says:

    The best advice I got from my mother was to be self supporting and financially independent, and to not depend on a man.  She learned this the hard way.  Nothing quite smothers your soul quite like having to beg a man for enough money to buy groceries with, while he always has enough cash for his fun activities.  He made sure she got nothing for herself and she had to struggle to feed us.  She made our clothes and did what it took to make things ‘stretch’.

    I have worked hard to get where I am and by living well below my means I’m also saving like crazy to ensure I have a comfortable enough retirement so that I won’t have to depend on the generosity of others for basic needs.  It still slays me when folks advise me to let a man take care of me.  I have seen what happens when that plan fails due to death, divorce, or a husband that can’t manage money, and then reality strikes.

  11. avatar calgal says:

    If not for my steadfast maximum contributions to IRAs in my 22 working years, I would not have been able to leave my 30-year marriage when I finally woke up to the fact that I had been severely verbally abused for the last 15 years of it. Had I not been able to leave, I would probably be dead now from the accumulated health issues of 15 years of extreme stress. And I was able to take my 16-yr-old son with me, out of the line of fire. As it turned out, I was able to leave, save myself and my son, and am now able to support myself in a modest retirement (I’m 64) without Social Security or a pension. I still have nagging leftover health issues, but I wake up every morning to a day free of fear. Free of fear of abuse, free of fear of not having enough money to survive on my own. The only one you can count on to take care of yourself is you. And you CAN take care of yourself. You must.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      People really do not realize the impact of stress, particularly stress from being abused, has on their health.  Many believe they simply cannot leave. Many do not realize that is their only choice.

      You were lucky that you had sufficient funds in an IRA that carried you through. Many have not been and used the funds from these accounts to keep going after the rug was pulled out from under them as a result of the economy – believing in a month or two or three things would get better in their business or they would find another job.  Things didn’t get better and there was not another job.  And one or two or three months turned into one or two or three years. And many have found they now have nothing. Quite terrifying.  It’s not by choice. Merely by circumstance. And believing in a system that simply does not believe in us any more. Equally terrifying is the talk of allowing states and local municipalities to file bankruptcy and in essence leave retirees with little in the way of pensions.   Many were smart and took “menial jobs” to cover the basics.  Many of those “menial jobs” are not there any longer. Particularly if you are over 50.  Too many under 50 applying for them.

      Savings should never be looked on as capital to fall back on but rather capital to produce income to live on.   A lesson many of us have learned the hard way. Although again by circumstance many of us felt at the time we had no other choice. And made the wrong choice.

  12. avatar Elizabeth R says:

    Liz, I so agree!  My husband and I got a somewhat late start in life together (we married when I was 40 and he was 47) and we weren’t as conscientious about managing our money as we should have been for the first few years.  (Both our careers were with nonprofits which everyone knows are no road to riches!)  However, with the help of a small inheritance from my mother and the counsel of a highly competent independent financial advisor, we accumulated enough to finance a modest but satisfying retirement.  Fortunately, we don’t have expensive needs and many of our wants will probably remain just that.  

    We’re now 74 and 81, respectively.  I still work part time, which helps, and we have a truly fantastic retiree health plan.  Still, I worry (sometimes a lot) about outliving our resources and especially about losing our health insurance if my husband’s former employer should decide to cancel it.  We’re relatively healthy now, but who knows what the next 5-10 years will bring?

    I agree with Maggie W–only Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and the small 1% that controls most of our nation’s wealth really have “enough”!

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      Many do not realize that at one point Brooke Astor worried about “outliving her resources” and in fact stated as much in an interview with I believe Town & Country back in the late 1970s.  Her son, strangely enough given what happened later, managed to “turn things around.”

      When you worry it’s simply time to watch it.  And to keep in mind that savings should never be looked on as capital to fall back on but rather capital to produce income to live on.