Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Feminist Financial Literacy:

We passed a big financial milestone last month:

We finally paid off all of our student loan debt!!!!

And of course, I'm using the words "we" and "our" gratuitously here, because none of the student loan debt was actually mine (I take great pride in the fact that despite my 9+ years of post-high-school education, I've never taken out a dime in loans to pay for any of it), and of course, all of the money to pay it off came from my husband's salary. But, we live in that kind of "our money, our debt" household. Of course it took both of us to get to this point.

And considering it was six figures worth of debt (I'm fuzzy on the actual number, somewhere between $130,000.00 and $150,000.00, because law school is expensive, man!), I'm also fairly proud that we managed to pay it all off in just over five years.

We actually had the majority of it paid off before we left Houston. In fact, if my husband had stayed at his job in Houston just one month longer, we would've had the whole thing paid off then. But when we moved, we took about a 50% pay cut, and we bought a house, so we decided to put the last couple thousand of our student loan debt on hold (as in, just paying the minimum) while we settled into our new financial position and figured things out. But sitting down at the beginning of this year to figure out our finances, we decided that we had enough financial security now to just go ahead and pay off the rest of that loan, and start funneling that money into an extra retirement account in my name.

When I say it took both of us to get to this point, it's because my husband and I both play different roles in our financial life. He's the one with a business degree who took all sorts of finance courses in undergrad. He's the one who mapped out our loan repayment plan. He has our long-term retirement plan in place with an investment strategy to get us in a very comfortable position in the future. He's got the big picture figured out. My strong suit, in compliment, is the day-to-day budgeting and frugal living. I know how to walk into a store (any store) and walk out with only the things on my list, and sometimes, not even all the things on the list because while shopping I realize that the mental math isn't adding up and I need to cut the non-essentials to meet the budget. I'm the one tracking our spending and making decisions about where we need to tighten our belts and where we maybe have room to finally spend a little.

And for most of our marriage, I've been fairly happy with this arrangement. It works out well. I focus on pinching the pennies now, and he reassures me that when we're 70, we'll be set.

But recently, I've been feeling a need or a pressure or whatever to get a better handle on the bigger picture side of things. Partly, I think this has stemmed from conversations with my younger sister, Angela. Angela is single and lives in Palo Alto, California. As in Silicon Valley. She works as a school teacher, but she has friends at Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and all the other various tech industries there. She knows people who make a lot of money. I mean, she lives in Silicon Valley, money (or the lack thereof) is everywhere in her world. After watching how her friends spent money, and stressing about her own financial position (it's an expensive place to live, and she's doing it on a teacher's salary), Angela started talking to people about their financial plans. When she was at a party, or hanging out with a group of people, she started asking anyone who was willing to talk what their financial plans were. And she noticed the most fascinating divide. Any guys she asked could talk for hours about their money. They had all sorts of plans and ideas and investment strategies. But whenever she asked women these questions, most of them would freeze up, or talk vaguely about "saving," or flat out admit they didn't really have a financial plan. And these are highly educated women working at big-name places in cutting edge fields! It struck my sister as problematic that women who were otherwise just as intelligent and qualified as men still seemed to lack the kind of financial literacy that these men have.

So last summer, Angela and one of her closest friends started a financial literacy book club for women. Every month, they choose a book on some financial topic to read, and then when they get together, they not only discuss the book, but also usually have a guest speaker talk to them about financial topics (recently the head of YouTube finances was one of their guest speakers... my sister has some pretty cool connections). Hearing her talk about this book club, and her own growing passion in helping single women get more educated about their finances, has really inspired me.

I'm in the lucky position that I'm not single, and I don't necessarily have to bear all the financial responsibility for my future alone. But I'm not sure that matters. My husband is very smart and knowledgeable, and I have every reason to trust him and the decisions he makes about our money. But that doesn't mean I'm not smart and knowledgeable too, and that we both might benefit if I were to learn some of this big picture stuff and contribute to the decision making process. I mean, there is always the terrible "what-if" scenario where I could end up single far earlier than I plan to, and that alone should be enough motivation to get me to figure this stuff out. But provided my husband out-lives me, I still believe our financial life is only all the stronger for having two heads thinking about it together.

Over the past few months, I've been starting to read more financial books about investing and other big picture stuff. This is an entirely foreign field for me, and I'm quite naive. The more I read, the more I realize I have to learn. Also, the more I realize how much knowledge my husband actually has. I've been peppering him with questions recently about our retirement accounts, and while I still get confused about the difference between 401ks and traditional IRAs vs. Roth IRAs (something about when the taxes are taken out...?), I'm slowly getting there. I'm picking up terms like index funds and targeted accounts and slowly, ever so slowly, trying to make sense of it all.

But while I realize I am still far, far behind my husband in grasping all this stuff, I've also still seen glimmers of how me learning about this could help both of us. Right now, the plan my husband has in place for us has us retiring comfortably at around age 67 (so, 65 for me?), provided our income remains fairly stable. But I've been reading up on trends like FIRE and value investing  and other such things, and I've been talking to him about how we could work to push that number lower, or at least, get us to a place where he could scale back at work earlier and branch out into some of his other interests. My husband makes a great lawyer, but it's a stressful job, and he has all sorts of other interests he would love to explore if he didn't feel such pressure to provide for a family (he's talked about teaching and graphic design, for instance). So I can be a voice to advocate for different investing strategies that open up possibilities for us. I like that! But it won't happen at all if I don't take the initiative to learn some of this stuff myself and really be a partner in making these decisions.

All of this is to say that I still don't quite know what I'm talking about when it comes to big picture financial strategies. I'm still very much a newbie at all this stuff. But I also believe that I am smart and capable, and this is important stuff for me to know about, even though I have a husband who is way ahead of me here. It's important in case I don't always have that husband, and it's important because my insights and knowledge can potentially benefit both us in the long term. I don't want to be dependent on someone else for financial security, not a financial planner, not even my husband. I want to know these things myself so that I can make the best decisions for myself.

And my sister Angela? Well, she's actually going to business school this fall. I imagine she's going to be taking this new-found passion of hers for educating women about financial literacy into the future in a big way. I'm cheering her on and supporting her by taking the message to heart and becoming financially literate myself. If you've read any good books on any financial topics, please let me know! I'm here for it!


  1. Ah, one of my favorite topics! In our household, I'm actually the one that's a little more financially savvy (on all fronts), though my husband is a natural saver and loves talking big picture stuff. We are totally into the FIRE idea (though we're not making NEARLY enough now to even have it as a possibility anytime soon, though I'm not giving up hope!). I love reading personal finance and FIRE blogs---some favorites are The Frugalwoods, Six Figures Under, and Budgets Are Sexy.

    And CONGRATS on paying off all your loans! That is nothing to sneeze at, especially with how much you had! I'm impressed :)

    1. Thanks Torrie! And thanks for the blog recommendations, I've had fun looking into all of them. Despite my new interest in financial planning, I have found that paying off the student loans has killed my motivation to be as frugal as we were before. It's not like we all the sudden have more money to spend (I mentioned we're now just funneling that money back into a retirement account), but it feels like the pressure is off now. I need a new goal or something to keep me motivated, and I need to keep reading about all of this to figure out what that goal is!

  2. Whoa, I don't know why it's listing me as unknown. This is Torrie :)

  3. Congratulations on paying off all of your debt! I wish I could be part of your sister's financial literacy book club - personal finance is one of my favorite topics, and while I feel pretty well versed, there's always more to learn. I actually think the best financial strategies are some of the simplest: regularly contribute to a retirement fund that is invested in a reasonably aggressive mix of index funds and leave it alone. One financial book recommendation is the Bogelhead's Guide to Investing. It's not a beginner book but you also don't need a degree in finance to understand it. It's about time for me to read it again for a refresher.

    1. She's actually going to the Marriott school, so she'll be moving back to Provo (I can't remember exactly where you are, but it's Utah, right?). I'll let you know if she starts up a new group! It may not have as cool of guest speakers, but I hope she keeps it up. I'd love to be part of that book club too!

  4. What a great post! And congrats! We are so so close on our student loan debt (that was about $100k more than yours). I had high hopes of paying it off in 2 years, but apparently that wasn’t realistic. I too am the day-to-day budgeter and Nathan does the long-term spreadsheets. He reads all of the subreddits on FIRE and investing. Those things stress me out! I always feel behind and unprepared. I hate spending money.

    1. Oh man, I hear you on always feeling behind and unprepared. My biggest problem (which maybe I'll write more about sometime) is never feeling like I can be generous with money, never giving to charities, never donating to fundraisers, etc., because then I'm not saving it, and if I'm not saving it, I'm robbing from our future selves! Anyway, money is such a fraught issue. And congrats to you guys on being so close to paying your student loans off, I can only imagine how much debt you had with two of you in law school at the same time! Sounds like you're doing amazing paying it off so soon!