my two cents

Older Women Are the Best Money Mentors

Photo: Debrocke/ClassicStock/Getty Images

I am 100 percent certain that Janna, a slightly older colleague at my first staff job, has no recollection of doling out financial wisdom that I still think about today. About ten years ago, we were lurching upwards in our building’s hot, rickety elevator when she made an off-handed comment about how our employer, despite its general stinginess, had a pretty good 401(K) matching policy. “It’s free money,” she said. “You signed up for it, right?”

For the record, my dad had told me the exact same thing, and so had the lady in HR when she handed me my new-hire paperwork, but it was Janna’s words that actually penetrated my thick skull. “Yeah,” I lied, and then raced home to dig out the enrollment forms. Every time I’ve started a new job since then, I’ve thought of that conversation and followed Janna’s advice.

Why did I listen to Janna and not anyone else? Think about all of the perfectly good financial tips that bombard us every day but never really sink in. None of us suffer from a lack of information about what we’re supposed to do with our money — we just don’t absorb it. How do we decide what to take seriously, and what to file under “things I should probably do but won’t”?

I would argue that it’s all about the source. I listened to Janna because I could relate to her but also looked up to her. She was 25 to my 22, an associate editor in the same department where I was an assistant. She drank martinis and was full of ideas in meetings. She talked back to our crabby manager and showed me where she kept spare tampons in case I ever needed one. She was a step ahead of me in almost every way, but still close enough that her life seemed within reach.

Data consistently shows that the majority of women want more and better financial guidance, but they just aren’t sure where to get it. For many of us, hiring a financial advisor seems too formal or intimidating (not to mention expensive), while talking to a parent, family member, or friend often isn’t much use (they may not understand your industry or specific financial challenges). This leaves a big, Janna-shaped hole in people’s lives, which is why I believe that finding someone whose advice you trust — ideally, someone a little bit older and wiser who you’re already friends with — is one of the best financial moves you can make. It could be one person or several, but consider them a mentor of sorts. Take them to drinks and court their opinions. You don’t need to pepper them with questions about their investment portfolios (and you probably shouldn’t, unless they bring it up), but watch how they handle their money, and pay attention when they discuss it.

My friend Molly has done a particularly good job of this. When she was in her early 20s and working as a staff writer for a news website, she befriended another editor, Jess, who was about five years older. Jess went on to quit her job and become a successful freelance writer who has now published two books. When Molly wanted to go freelance as well, she followed Jess’s example. “When Jess sold her first book, I was like, ‘How does that work?’ And she was very honest about the contract process and how it came together,” explains Molly. “It was also helpful to learn how she paced herself, in terms of the work she took and why. Sometimes she really wanted to take an assignment, but it didn’t pay enough to be worth it. And other times she’d say yes to something she wasn’t that into, just because it would pay the bills.”

Watching Jess turn down work was a particularly big eye-opener, says Molly. “I’d never seen somebody say no because of money before. Especially when you’re young, you’re so set on following your dreams that you don’t learn about how to make that judgment call. And when you talk to co-workers, you don’t often hear about the things they didn’t do. You only hear about the ‘yeses,’ not the ‘nos.’”

Molly and Jess now compare financial notes regularly. When it’s time to pick a health-insurance plan each year, they get on the phone and talk through their options. Molly has also used Jess’s tax accountant. And while Molly has never AirBnb’ed her apartment, Jess did last spring while she was traveling, and now Molly’s thinking about it. “Renting out your apartment is not a novel idea, but seeing her do it makes it seem more possible,” she says. “Her advice might be really obvious, but because it’s coming from her in an informal and intimate conversation, it hits home in a different way.”

Another woman I know, Tamara, never considered paying off her student loans faster than she had to until her older sister did it. They have different jobs — Tamara is a therapist and her sister is a teacher — but their bills and salaries were about the same, and Tamara figured that if her sister could become debt-free in two years then she could, too. “I’d read about these crazy people who get rid of their student debt really quickly, but that seemed so abstract to me until I talked to my sister about how she managed it,” says Tamara. “Watching her made it more tangible. When I could see the ways she changed her life to make those bigger payments feasible — like, not buying clothes or going out to eat — it didn’t seem so extreme.” Tamara paid her last student loan bill in August, three years ahead of schedule.

Your money mentors don’t need to know their status in your financial life; ideally, they’re someone you’d be hanging out with anyway. And they may come out of the woodwork sometimes, depending on what you need. A former coworker recently went from someone I occasionally got drinks with to a person I regularly consult about freelance rates. An old college classmate (who happens to be a new homeowner) became an invaluable resource when my husband and I started thinking about buying an apartment. And in the middle of writing this, one of my best friends called me for a pep talk before she went to ask for a raise. If you don’t think you know anyone who could be your money mentor, look around! She doesn’t need to be an “authority” — she just needs to be a little more savvy than you in one or more specific areas. She might even be standing next to you on the elevator right now.

Like any good relationship, no money mentor is going to fix your problems. Instead, they should open your mind to certain possibilities. Even if you aren’t in the position to follow in their footsteps exactly, watching their example will make you realize what you can do — and what you have to offer, in turn.