The “Green Machine”
My parents came to this country with $100 cash, no family, and the hope 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. If our green, wood-paneled station wagon broke down, I wasn’t sure we could have afforded to fix it; let alone buy another car. If one of my parents lost their jobs, the stress in my house was palatable even though my parents said everything was ok. My earliest memories about money revolved around feelings of fear, scarcity, and envy. My mom told us how she and my 7 aunts and uncles would literally eat bugs because sometimes they were so hungry. My dad had nightmares about annual school exams that determined whether he could continue on to the next year of public school, which was free. If he didn’t pass, he was done with school because his family couldn’t afford private school. A child’s school education could be over before their 10th birthday. Although my immediate family never went without food, shelter, or clothing, the financial stress of my childhood has had a lasting impact on me. 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 Dreamhouse 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 internships: one was with a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ who owned her own financial planning practice; the other internship was with Merrill Lynch in the Sears Tower (now known as Willis Tower). Every time I rode the elevator up to the 132nd floor and saw the breathtaking view of the Chicago skyline, I felt like Tess McGill in the movie “Working Girl”. I felt like it was where I was meant to be. I also loved interacting with the clients and the work of helping people create their own wealth. The independent financial planner was very honest and said that while the investments and financial planning were important, at the heart of the business was sales because 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 where I could work in 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. Even better than my own improved financial situation was that I could afford to fly my parents out to see me in San Francisco (not first class, that was a someday goal) and to give them things or experiences that they didn’t get to have because 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 that he would never buy for himself and tennis lessons for my mom at a local club because she talked about how she always wished she had learned.
My Early Hero:Tess McGill
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. From the trajectory of my career and the fact that I was the primary breadwinner, it would have made the most financial sense for my husband to be the caregiver. 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 my job that promised a career and lifestyle I thought I wanted and a city we loved so I could be a stay-at-home mom for my son. We settled in a suburb in middle America, which felt like the final nail in the coffin of who I thought I was going to be. Fortunately, my husband is awesome, and we talked through many of the financial ramifications and many of the lifestyle changes and sacrifices we would be making. But it didn’t prepare me for how humbling and devastating it was to my sense of self that I was not a significant earner for the household, that I could go months without wearing pants that buttoned, or that 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 and that being able to care for my children has been the greatest gift of my life that 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 where investors had to be “accredited”, meaning they had to have at least $1 million in assets, not including the value of their house, or earn $300,000 or more annually. While it was fun to learn again, talk about investments and meet passionate entrepreneurs, I found myself in meetings with mostly white males. Sometimes I’d be at events as the only woman and only person of color. It sparked my feminist light again. It felt wrong to me. It didn’t seem right that this high level of talent and energy were only reserved for the very wealthy, very male subset of the population.
My whole life, I have met smart, competent, and accomplished women who would rather shave off their own eyebrows than deal with their finances and investing. They view the topic as super dull and/or intimidating with all the technical jargon. Sadly, I have also known women who were taken advantage of by unscrupulous financial advisors or who were left overwhelmed by their personal finances when they divorced or were widowed. More sparks. Sparks of anger, disgust, and the desire to help.
Why couldn’t these women have a fun, accessible way to gain confidence and learn about their money? Why couldn’t these women have an advisor who has their backs and isn’t just after their purses? Why couldn’t these women have an advisor root for them, support them, empower them, not just take over as if he knows everything? 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, with my focus on the women and not their money.
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 BW Financial Planning was created. In my own personal financial journey, I learned that being “rich” is not about accumulating as much money as possible, but 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 and who empowers you to live the life you want.