My parents came to this country with $100 cash. They had no family in the U.S. They hoped that with hard work and a little luck they could make a better life. I grew up knowing that we didn’t have a financial safety net. My earliest memories about money revolved around feelings of fear, scarcity, and envy. I remember my mom telling us how she and my 7 brothers and sisters would literally eat bugs. They were sometimes too poor to buy food and were so hungry. My dad had nightmares about annual school exams for public school. Public school in Taiwan was free. His family couldn’t afford private school. So, if he didn’t score high enough to move to the next grade, he could no longer attend school. A child’s school education could be over before their 10th birthday.
My family never went without food, shelter, or clothing. However, the financial stress of my childhood has had a lasting impact on me. If our green, wood-paneled station wagon broke down, I wasn’t sure we could have afforded to fix it. Buying a new car was not an option. If one of my parents lost a job, the stress in my house was palatable. Even though my parents said everything was ok. Feelings and emotions about money are anything but rational. And guess what? Emotions drive our decisions about everything, not just money.
From a very early age, I wanted to be “rich”. Rich enough that when we went to McDonald’s with coupons to buy “2 Big Macs for $2”, my mom wouldn’t (steal) help herself to a stack of napkins. Later, I discovered this was not an uncommon Asian behavior regardless of socioeconomic status. Rich enough to have the Barbie Dream House with the elevator that my best friend Jill had. And rich enough that my parents didn’t have to work two jobs so my brother and I could have a good education and not go without. I thought what I wanted was lots and lots of money. The kind that you roll around in because you have so much. I didn’t realize what I really wanted was a sense of financial security, the luxury of choices, and the freedom of time.
This 3 year old little girl wearing her favorite outfit made by her mom and a haircut by her mom. She did not want to eat bugs. She crawled into her parents’ bed nightly because she was afraid of everything.
To help me achieve my goal of making lots of money, I gravitated to the fast-moving, always-changing world of finance. I had two college summer internships. One was with a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ who owned her own financial planning practice. I work with Merrill Lynch in the Sears Tower (now known as Willis Tower) for my other internship. Every time I saw the breathtaking view of the Chicago skyline from the 132nd Floor, I felt like Tess McGill in the movie “Working Girl”. It was where I was meant to be!
I loved interacting with the clients and the work of helping people create their own wealth. The independent financial planner was very honest. She said that while the investments and financial planning were important, at the heart of the business was sales. Otherwise, your business couldn’t survive. I didn’t think I had the stomach or desire to be a salesperson.
So, after college, I worked on the institutional side of the investment world with company pension plans and 401(k)s. These were roles that didn’t require sales. My career took me to San Francisco where I had my own office with gorgeous views of the Bay. Tess would’ve been proud. My financial strategy was to save and invest as much as I could. I was on my way to being “rich”. To me, this meant I didn’t have to worry about what I spent. A lifetime of frugalness is hard to unlearn so spending wasn’t an issue for me. However, annual splurge trips to Hawaii became the norm.
There was something that was even better than my own improved financial situation. Now I could afford to fly my parents out to see me in San Francisco. Not first class, that was a someday goal! I could also give them things or experiences that they didn’t get to have. They sacrificed so much time, energy and money for me and my brother. One of my proudest moments was the Christmas that I gifted my dad an expensive golf putter. One he would never buy for himself. For my mom, I gifted her tennis lessons at a local club. She talked about how she always wished she had learned.
Tess came from nothing, used her smarts, and ended up in an office with a window and Harrison Ford by her side.
Then, in 2006, my oldest son was born, and he had chronic health issues that doctors couldn’t figure out. It was heartbreaking, frustrating, and scary. Who knew that my maternal instinct would kick in? Certainly, not me! Or anyone who knew me, including my husband! It eventually became clear that one of us needed to focus on our son. Financially, it made the most sense for my husband to be the caregiver. I was the primary breadwinner and had a very bright career trajectory. But that was NOT an option for me. My analytical, rational brain was being overruled… what??? Again, a total shocker to my younger, money-focused, feminist self. Another example of how emotions drive decisions, especially when it comes to the ones we love.
We walked away from a promising career, a comfortable lifestyle, and a city we loved. And I became a stay-at-home mom for my son. We settled in a suburb in middle America. It felt like the final nail in the coffin of who I thought I was going to be. Fortunately, my husband is awesome. We talked through many of the financial ramifications, lifestyle changes, and sacrifices we would be making.
Our conversations didn’t prepare me for how humbling and devastating it was to my sense of self. I was no longer the significant earner for the household. I could go months without wearing pants that buttoned. Even worse, I had no place to hide from my needy children (not even the bathroom!) In my darker days, all I could see was that I was a financial drag (an expense! GASP!) to our household. And I really missed annual trips to Hawaii! Of course, I know in reality that each family is a team. I know that caring for my children is the greatest gift of my life. And its value can’t be measured in dollars. But sometimes, the asshole in my head says differently.
When my youngest started school, I took the opportunity to consult with a hedge fund/private equity group. Only “accredited” investors were allowed to invest. This meant having at least $1 million in investible assets or earning $300,000 or more, annually. It was fun to learn again, talk about investments and meet passionate entrepreneurs. However, I found myself in meetings with mostly white males. All. The. Time. Sometimes I’d be at events as the only woman and only person of color. I felt my feminist light spark again. I felt like something was very wrong. Was this high level of talent and energy only reserved for the very wealthy, very white, and very male?
My whole life, I have met smart, competent, and accomplished women who avoid dealing with their finances and investing. They view the topic as super dull and/or intimidating with all the technical jargon. Sadly, I know women who unscrupulous financial advisors took advantage of. And I know women overwhelmed by their personal finances when they went through a divorce or lost a spouse. More sparks. Sparks of anger, disgust, and the desire to help.
Why couldn’t women have a fun, accessible way to gain confidence and learn about their money? Were there quality providers who would have these women’s backs and best interest at heart? What if these women had an advisor to root for them, support them, empower them? Would they be interested in a partnership rather than having someone mansplain about their money? These questions tugged at my heartstrings. From there, my mind started formulating what an ideal practice could look like. Could I create a financial advisory business that was based on service, not sales? I spoke to many male financial advisors about my vision. More than one told me I would be creating a charity, not a business.
This is who I picture when I think of a stereotypical financial advisor sitting behind a big mahogany desk.
In reality, over 75% of financial advisors are men, and 56% of the industry is age 50 or older.
Nothing motivates me more than someone telling me that I can’t. This is how and why I created BW Financial Planning. In my own personal financial journey, I learned that being “rich” is not about accumulating as much money as possible. It’s about having choices, freedom, and the ability to create my own best life. My hope is to help other women do the same.
Sometimes the cold, hard numbers of what is “best” for us financially conflicts with our emotions or what we value. In my opinion, the right financial advisor for you is someone who can help you find the right middle ground. That’s the true value of a financial advisor. A guide who helps you navigate your finances as life inevitably twists and turns. A trusted partner who empowers you to live the life you want.
Here are 8 questions to ask yourself to determine whether or not you need a financial advisor.