I keep hearing the same story again and again from professionally successful women. Variations on:
My grandma told me: “Always have your own money.”
It could be a mother, aunt, neighbor, Girl Scout leader, teacher, cousin, mentor or favorite coach.
What to teach girls about money
An older, respected woman looked her straight in the eye, and in her own but direct way said:
- “Do not ever depend on a man financially.”
- “Money is power, and never, ever give up that power.”
- “You are powerful. Never chose to give up that power.”
- “You are responsible for your own life.”
- “You are not a victim.”
- “I believe in you.”
Many of the women who tell me these stories are in their 40s, 50s and older, and their champions were women of a generation or two more senior than that. This is important because it is clear that women found ways to be financially independent — whether through work, or even squirreling away cash in their own name or shoebox in the back of a closet — even if they had but a fraction of the economic and career opportunity you and I enjoy.
They got it. And they made sure that the women who came after them got it, too.
Somehow, we have not collectively gotten it. By ‘it,' I mean the giant, enormous pressure for women to be stay-at-home moms and abandon their financial power, and therefore, their autonomy as adults.
The simple truth about the gender pay gap
There is a lot of pressure on women in the workforce to forsake their economic power en lieu of family.
Pew found that an astonishing 40 percent of Americans believe that children suffer when their mother works outside of the home. And study after study finds that the 21% gender paygap is a result not of rich white men in C-suits keeping competent women down, but rather women choosing to compromise their careers to care for loved ones. This pressure is so great that women who actually earn a living, falsely label themselves “stay-at-home moms.”
A recent project between my friend time management expert Laura Vanderkam and Redbook magazine found that 62% of described stay-at-home moms contributed to their household income, including 25% who run businesses. I know a blogger who earns $80,000 per year and calls herself a stay-at-home mom — a disconnect that is both common destructive, since it perpetuates the economically oppressive pressure to abandon our livelihoods and lives for our children and husbands.
Meanwhile, all research confirms: It makes zero difference how much time a parent spends with a kid after age 2, and the greatest indicators of a child's future wellbeing is her mother's education and income level.
Let us not forget: Working mothers are far less prone to depression and anxiety, and divorce rates are 50% higher for families in which one spouse does not work.
In other words: We glamorize stay-at-home moms, when science proves again and again that everyone is happier, healthier and more financially secure when both parents work.
After all: Divorce rates have been more or less steady at 50% for 40 years. The other 50% of couples? Unemployment, disability, death and other catastrophes mean a one-career family is a precarious financially agreement indeed. And when these families do divorce or separate, the new paradigm is likely to be very sexist indeed, with the mom having primary care of the kids, and being financially dependent on her ex's child support and/or alimony payments. Which is why I wrote this guide on how to divorce like a feminist.
Listen to my podcast episode on this topic:
Breaking the cycle of the wage gap
So this is what you will do to make sure we break this cycle of women sabotaging their own wellbeing, and that of their children, marriage and for women and society overall:
You will identify a girl. Maybe it is your daughter, or granddaughter. Niece, student, mentee or neighbor. She might be 6 or 16 or a young woman of 26. You will tell her with zero nuance or caveat:
Always have your own money.
Never give up your ability to earn.
You are not an adult if you chose to be financially dependent on another person.
In my research, I have found it only takes telling a young person this critical message one time. The message taps into such a primal, visceral need for freedom, power and independence, even very young girls understand it intuitively.
But do not tell her just one time. Tell her again and again. Like you make sure your child knows to be kind, and say thank you and not to chew with her mouth open. Just as you make sure that young people know how to swim and must eat vegetables, this is a non-negotiable.
Knowing this shapes the life decisions you make
Because when a child is raised to reap the magnificent bounty that is the education, professional, political and financial equality that women in this country in 2018 enjoy, and understand that she will never, ever chart her own course in this world until she embraces it as her duty to exercise it in its fullest, you set her on a certain course. On the right course. It is a course that affects every single vertical of her life:
- The choices she makes in where she attends college, and how she will pay for it (because when you are wise about your education and related finances, and do not assume that a man will take care of you and your debt eventually, you make better choices).
- The career path she pursues.
- The relationships she forges with friends and colleagues (because these are the spine of her entire life).
- The money she does and does not spend on fun.
- The money she does and does not invest.
- The partner she selects (or rejects).
- The children she choses to have (or not).
- The age she chooses to become a mother.
- The way she sees herself in the world, the value she brings to her partner, her children, friends, and the world around her.
By saying: “Always have your own money,” to a girl you are saying:
“You are powerful. And I believe that you will never, ever give up that power.”
She gets it. She will thank you. And women everywhere, forever, will thank you.
Did an older woman inspire you to always have your own money? Share your important story in the comments.
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.