“There’s no one else to take care of us” — how women can, and should, achieve financial independence

Bola Sokunbi, author of “Clever Girl Finance: Ditch Debt, Save Money and Build Real Wealth” (2019, John Wiley & Sons) grew up expecting to attend university, since her father had put her older brothers through school. However, the family’s finances changed during her high school years when her father had to retire early. Luckily, her mother also worked while Sokunbi was growing up, so she funded her daughter’s university degree using her own retirement savings — on the condition that Sokunbi promised to get good grades and work or apply for scholarships whenever possible.

It comes as no real surprise, then, that Sokunbi immersed herself in the world of personal finance to ensure that she could pay off her debts and start investing for the future. She runs a popular finance blog for women, www.clevergirlfinance.com, and is committed to helping women achieve comfort with their finances.

“I talk to a lot of women every day and one theme that emerges is that they say they find money difficult or they’re not good with it,” Sokunbi said. “By writing this book I wanted to make the idea of finances approachable, relatable and fun and written from a woman’s perspective so women could identify with it.”

Sokunbi talked with the Star about women’s finances and personal finance issues.

Why did you target your blog — and subsequently your book — toward women?

This generation is different from those in the past where the societal standard dictated that men were the breadwinners. Today, we live longer than men and may be the sole heads of households and it’s not an option to be ignorant about finances anymore, because there’s no one else to take care of us. This is an opportunity to combat all the things working against us.

Why does the financial industry do such a poor job serving women?

Because there aren’t enough women working in the industry. I read a statistic stating that more than 80 per cent of finance professionals are men and, when it comes to personal finance, the percentage is even higher. A 2009 study by the Boston Consulting Group found that women felt many of these men weren’t approachable and the women felt the men were talking down to them. Finding a feminine voice, angle and tone isn’t as common.

What financial information aren’t women getting now? How can we fix the problem?

Personal finance specialists always assume everyone knows the basics about budgeting and stocks, even though these things aren’t taught in schools. The bulk of conversations about investing aren’t about mindset or self-discipline. We need to establish a foundation before moving on to advanced level discussions. We need to talk about the basics of establishing a financial plan. Education and information equal power. Personal finance skills can be learned, just like other life skills such as riding a bicycle. And you can make mistakes; if you fall off, you just get back on and practise until you no longer need training wheels.

Anyone’s “army of dollars” should speak loudly to investment personnel, no matter your gender. Are there questions women should be asking to ensure they are being treated equally?

If you choose to use a financial planner, be sure that what you’re being sold or what is being presented to you is clear and explained in a simple way. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Also, do a bit of research first so your financial goals and objectives are laid out in advance. When you’re presented with ideas and products, you can then make an informed decision about their relevance to your plans. You want to make sure that the planner is putting your best interests first.

Are there additional barriers or challenges for women of colour as they accumulate wealth?

As women of colour, we may be the first or second generation of our family to go to university, or we may be children of immigrants. Our socio-economic backgrounds don’t necessarily provide us with financial guidance once we start earning more than our parents. It’s important to educate ourselves and find likeminded people for support. Immerse yourself in books, podcasts and videos about finances and don’t just keep what you have learned to yourself. Share it with your community and convey this knowledge to your children so they can do better themselves.

What’s the rule of thumb for women taking on student loan debt?

If you’re considering university, get a sense of the salary you’ll earn upon graduation, based on your degree. Don’t let your debt exceed your expected starting salary. Also, consider the cost of the same degree at various schools and consider what the degree will cost and what it will take to pay it off.

After graduation, you may need to move to a city that offers higher salaries so you can pay your debts more easily. Make sure you get a copy of your credit report to know what all your loans are. Determine the interest rate for each one and the different rules around each loan, including deferment options and the pros and cons of loan consolidation. Create a strategy for paying off your loans. The key is to pay more than the minimum monthly requirement as often as possible and be certain that the extra you pay is applied to the loan’s principle, not the interest.

Women generally earn less than men doing similar jobs. If I think I deserve a raise, how should I approach my boss?

Something women struggle with is doing negotiations and showcasing our work. Before making a move, list all of your accomplishments from the past six months.

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Talk to your boss about how you’ve been doing and the possibility for a raise, given your accomplishments. Ask what requirements you’d need to meet to be in the best position to get a raise.

It’s important to put yourself on your boss’ radar, especially if he or she supervises other employees, and you also want to prevent the company from making the assumption that you’re okay where you are.

This interview has been edited and condensed.