The word dates back to the 15th century — fruit blown from the trees, no need for the labor of picking it.
These days, it’s a bit of luck, often financial, that appears when we least expect it.
I’ve been lucky enough to have a few of these over the years, like a five-figure copyright settlement for misuse of my work (and many others!) by Canadian publishers.
A four figure sum, a dormant bank account, also in Canada, I had no idea existed.
The greatest was a surprise inheritance from my late mother, who died in 2020, after a decade of no communication with me, her only child. I would never have expected she would leave me a dime, but she left a decent sum, to my shock and gratitude, and five pieces of art I really love and wondered if I would ever own.
That money paid, in part, for my trip to California in June, one of the best vacations of my life, allowing me to explore a place I had long dreamed of, to connect with 11 friends out there and even with a cousin I hadn’t spoken to in years.
I bought myself a very good watch, an estate piece (i.e. previously owned by someone else) and love wearing it.
I still haven’t figured out what to do with the rest of this inheritance, which is a pleasant dilemma, for sure. The markets are a mess, so investing it feels like not a great choice. It’s not really enough to buy appealing North American real estate. I would never touch crypto or bitcoin, so for now I look at affordable properties in far-off places like Brittany.
If you’ve never had much money to manage beyond the basics of survival, it’s overwhelming to figure out what to do, who to trust, where to use it (or not) and how soon. Financial literacy is a learned skill — many people don’t know what a fiduciary is — someone managing your money who by law must act in your best interests, not their profit.
If you suddenly came into some serious coin — $10,000 or more (and even $100 can make a huge difference for many people, especially in an era of rampant inflation) — what would you do with it?
We often fantasize about winning the lottery, but it’s a hell of a responsibility!
This story surprised me, that millennial women are less likely to handle their own finances than us Boomers:
A study published in June by the Swiss banking group UBS underscored that point. It found that even the most educated and high-achieving millennial women were not as involved as their husbands in long-term financial decision making.
In fact, millennial women — part of a generation thought to have pushed for open-mindedness about gender roles — exhibited less financial independence than boomer women did. Among millennial women living with male partners, 54 percent said they deferred to their partners for long-term financial planning rather than sharing that responsibility or taking the lead themselves, compared with 39 percent of boomer women, according to the study, which surveyed 1,320 women with at least $250,000 in investable assets.
This — initially — made sense to me:
Sallie Krawcheck, chief executive and co-founder of Ellevest, an investment platform for women, said millennials might not have realized that if they do not have financial equality, they do not have independence.
“Younger women haven’t had as many hard-won lessons,” she said.
But I know several millennial women (ages 23 to 28 in 2019) and they’ve faced a difficult economy and massive student debt, both of which can make anyone fearful of money matters.
The reason the women surveyed for not handling more of the money offered was their assumption that their husbands knew more.
This is madness!
The ability to manage money well — whether debt or investments — isn’t a male skill. I’ve seen this in my marriage with Jose, who did not grow up in a wealthy family, while my family of origin (at the grandparents’ level) had some serious money.
So I was fortunate at 19 to have a fat $350/month (thanks to my maternal grandmother) I had to make sense of and, throughout three years of full-time university, use for all my costs, including living alone in a major city.
Living on $350 a month was hardly luxury — my rent consumed 50 percent of it.
So I learned young to hustle hard for more income, through freelance writing and photography assignments.
I still remember what clothes I owned then, bought new, but very few of them and nothing as shiny as my live-at-home fellow students.
Jose and I have been able, without the additional costs of raising children or carrying student debt, to accumulate a decent amount of savings, enough that we really do have to pay attention.
He got a buyout package when he left The New York Times in 2015 and it’s our job to keep it safe and grow it when possible as we’re not going to get hired into another well-paid full-time job again, and never again enjoy job-subsidized health insurance — thanks to age discrimination.
So the pressure’s on to be smart and savvy.
I read the Financial Times every day. It’s really written for the professional experts who work in capital markets in London, New York, Hong Kong — not for me! But I learn a lot and keep an eye on companies worth investing in. If you refuse to pay attention to the global economy you’ll always be surprised by what happens.
I’ve read a few financial self-help books — the best takeaway? Don’t put your money anywhere that you just don’t understand! For me, that’s ETFs. They’ve been explained to me several times but my brain just freezes so I stick to what I know — a wide variety of mutual funds and a few individual equities (i.e. stocks.) We have no bonds at the moment.
If you’re willing and able to invest you do need to learn some lingo:
— asset allocation (where you invest)
— diversification (making a range of different investment choices to balance out the risk of individual ones failing)
— capital (i.e. money!)
That’s just a super bare bones start!
Even if you’ve got some savings in a mutual fund, have you checked how it’s doing? Do you know the top 10 holdings? I was stunned — a few years ago — to see how dominant China was even then.
Do you know what a fiduciary is? They’re the only people whose financial advice you should heed.
I also learned the hard way never to play ostrich with how your money is doing — and lost about $11,000 that way on an investment my first husband made. I was an utter fool, too scared to open the envelopes they sent, and discovered that my own money (already saved) had been used to keep paying the company every month after I lost my full-time job and could not get another.
Back when, like these women, I assumed he knew better than I.
Few things are as frightening to some people as managing money.
For many, it’s a question of sheer survival — when the American federal minimum wage, shamefully, hasn’t risen from $7.25/hour in 10 years — while the cost of living now dictates a minimum of $14.84 an hour in Cleveland and $24.30/hour in San Francisco.
For others, it’s the best barometer, literally, of their worth and value to the world, to their family, to their industry — and to themselves.
One freelance writer bragged this week about making $10,000 in a month and how she’s about to hit her $50,000/year income goal.
Which inspired many others but also annoyed me and some other writers I admire. I really tire of money being held up as the sole metric of success.
Income is not one-size-fits-all.
Expenses, as well.
I recently had an interesting conversation on Twitter with a stranger, a mechanic earning $40/hour, about my use of the words “working class” — wondering if that meant him. I suggested “blue collar.”
I’m endlessly fascinated by what we earn, how we earn it, what we spend it on and how much (if any) we save and for what purpose. As subscribers to the Financial Times, we also get its glossy oversize magazine called — no kidding — How to Spend It, which often features $10,000 dresses and $100,000 watches, pocket change to the bankers and other HNW (that’s high net worth) readers it’s aimed at.
I’m fascinated by money partly because my maternal grandmother inherited a lot of money from her father, a Chicago stockbroker and real estate developer — and spent it so fast and so freely you would think it burned her fingers. She lived a life of opulence: homes designed by the city’s top decorators, limousines everywhere, custom-made silk muumuus and matching turbans and enormous jewels. It was quite something!
She also never bothered to pay any taxes to anyone — so when she died there was little left after paying off the Ontario, Canadian and American governments.
Our weekly indulgence, fresh flowers
So I’ve seen the effects of both privilege and profligacy.
Don’t end up in trouble!
Living in the United States for decades — without doubt the meanest and most punitive developed nation when you are poor, ill, vulnerable and struggling — has also really opened my eyes and taught me to be extra cautious about what I earn and how much to save. It’s not a place you ever want to be in trouble with no lifelines or savings, reliant on charity or the shards of government help potentially available to you.
We were offered a huge break this year, a tax credit that has saved us $1,000/month (!) on our health insurance. But we’re also now required to account for every penny of our income and expenses to bureaucrats who have no understanding that — as full-time freelancers — we do not have an employer, yet keep hounding us for more and more paperwork.
That’s when I get libertarian in a hurry and would rather just pay for things myself.
I’ve stayed put in the same one-bedroom apartment for decades; our housing cost is $2,000 month, (half of it themaintenance fee we owe to the co-op,) fairly cheap for New York (suburbs.)
But we don’t have children or pets or dependent relatives, when so many others bear the costs of all of these. So we’re usually able to save money and that gives us some breathing room — helpful when we lost $27,000 worth of anticipated income overnight thanks to the pandemic.
We were also lucky to each graduate college with no debt, (Jose had full scholarships and I attended university in Canada), another enormous burden for so many Americans, even into their 30s or far beyond.
So much of the money we have access to, and how we manage it, is circumstance and luck: where we were born and raised, what resources were made available to us and when. The job market.
Good health — or its lack.
This year has, oddly, been a busy one for us. We have both had steady work and found new and appreciative repeat clients.
But we both really know how fragile it all is.
My husband grew up in a wholly different way, his father a small-city Baptist minister living in church housing. So Jose tends to be very risk-averse and I tend to be bolder when it comes to spending and investing. It makes for some challenging moments!
We work really hard, splurge when we can, and pray for ongoing good health.
One of my pleasures is enjoying culture — and yes, it costs money!
A friend recently saw an ATM receipt that left her gobsmacked — $139,000 — in the hands of a young woman, maybe in her 20s.
My friend is a single mother who works in a creative field, frustrated that she has yet to hit the level of income she craves, deeply envious of the stranger with so much more than she.
I get it — when I found out that a friend of ours, someone our age, earns $500,000 a year, I was stunned.
My husband and I are both working full-time freelance, with a mortgage that won’t be finished for another five years unless, somehow, we make a lot more money and can pay it off sooner.
What’s currently killing our ability to save — or enjoy much beyond basics — is $1,800 month in health insurance costs; his, heavily subsidized by his former employer as a retiree while they soak me the full price.
Yes, there is cheaper insurance, but it all comes with huge deductibles and co-pays.
The getting and spending, (and saving and investing, ideally), of money is often a lifelong challenge for all but the very wealthy.
But it comes down to basic economics: if you’re always broke, you’re under-earning or living beyond your means.
If you’re mired in poverty — with little education and/or weak job skills, multiple dependents and/or health issues — it can feel, and be, almost impossible to climb out.
And I know far too many women, of any age, who remain somehow terrified of money — especially when asking for it or more of it, (i.e. negotiating an initial salary, asking for raises/bonuses/commissions/better freelance rates), and handling their finances confidently and intelligently.
As if, for some reason, we don’t deserve it.
It does mean taking charge.
It does (gulp) carry consequences, no matter how much action (or inaction) you choose.
I once attended an information session at the U.S. firm where I keep my retirement money.
It was laughable.
As in laughably bad, full of jargon and weird, arcane advice possibly of value to people with millions to manage — or waste.
Selfishly, as a journalist, I get paid to learn, and, in writing about personal finance for the Times and Reuters and others, have learned (and taught readers!) a lot about handling money.
I also read the financial pages of two newspapers daily and read several business magazines to keep abreast of what’s happening in the domestic and global economy.
If you don’t know the word fiduciary, learn it and make sure anyone going near your money professionally is one.
I urge anyone thinking about how to better handle their finances to read this fantastic book, (which I reviewed in The New York Times, and am now friends with its author), Pound Foolish. It’s not a how-to, but a smart and insightful overview of the personal finance world.
Jose and I were were lucky to both have attended and graduated from college debt-free; he on full-ride scholarships, I attending Canada’s best university for $660 a year. (No, there’s no missing zero.) Neither of us attended (or needed) graduate or professional school.
Nor did we have children, saving us an estimated $200,000+ per child to raise.
Nor do we have dependent relatives.
My priorities have been travel and retirement.
But I admit it — it really did feel useless and annoying to keep putting money away year after year after year for what I hoped would one day help fund a retirement, denying myself so many purchases, (newer car, nicer clothes) and pleasures in order to do so — until that sum finally grew to six figures and I thought, with relief and pride: I did that!
And, yes, for many reasons, saving money is difficult for some people, and impossible for those who don’t earn enough to get past subsistence.
But it’s also urgent (and tedious!) to distinguish between wants and needs, between what everyone around you may boastfully own, often on credit, (new phone, new car, huge and lavish wedding, bigger house, etc.), and what fits your financial priorities.
Peer pressure to keep up — i.e. spending! — will kill you and your financial future.
This week’s New York magazine has an interesting piece by ex-Portfolio staffer Sheelah Kolhatkar asking “What if Women Ran Wall Street?”:
Despite what we’ve been led to believe, the market isn’t rational or efficient at all—it’s all about feelings. The major plot points of the crisis largely turned on emotion: Dick Fuld was too egotistical to sell Lehman Brothers when he had the chance, so his pride drove it into the ground; Bear Stearns hedge-fund managers lost huge sums of money on subprime mortgages despite the fact that they suspected the worst (“I’m fearful of these markets,” Ralph Cioffi e-mailed a colleague back in 2007); Merrill Lynch was the “fat kid,” as the investor Steve Eisman has put it, so desperate to be like Goldman Sachs that it barreled into every dumb investment imaginable and had to be bailed out by Bank of America. Almost every single bank chief doubled down on mortgage junk at exactly the wrong moment. Emotions led otherwise intelligent men—because, let’s face it, all of them were men—to make terrible decisions.
According to a new breed of researchers from the field of behavioral finance, Wall Street’s volatility is really driven by our body chemistry. It’s the chemicals pulsing through traders’ veins that propel them to place insane bets and enable bank executives to make risky decisions—and those same chemicals tend to have the same effect on everyone, turning them into a herd of overheated animals. And because the vast majority of these traders and finance executives are men, the most important chemical in question is testosterone.
Here are a few things we know about testosterone: Both men and women produce it, but men make fifteen times as much of it as women, on average… Behaviorally, it does all the things that one would expect: It is linked to increased aggression and dominance, confidence, hostility, violence, sensation-seeking… One of the most fascinating things about testosterone is the way it can be influenced by the environment.