There are a lot of things that are troubling about Elizabeth Wurtzel's essay in New York Magazine this week. It's worth a read, but largely as a cautionary tale of what not to do.
However, the part of Wurtzel's long essay that jumped out at me the most was this:
"I was amazed to discover that, according to The Atlantic, women still can't have it all. Bah! Humbug! Women who have it all should try having nothing: I have no husband, no children, no real estate, no stocks, no bonds, no investments, no 401(k), no CDs, no IRAs, no emergency fund -- I don't even have a savings account. It's not that I have not planned for the future; I have not planned for the present. I do have a royalty account, some decent skills and, apparently, a lot of human capital. But because of choices I have made, wisely and idiotically, because I had principles or because I was crazy, I have no assets and no family.
Until I went away to law school, I made a very good living as a writer and never had to do anything else. But I never saved or invested, because I believe if you take care of the luxuries, the necessities will take care of themselves. When I got a huge advance for Bitch, my second book, I bought a Birkin bag, which Maria has since stolen. If I had spent the money on a mutual fund from T. Rowe Price, I might well have panicked and lost it during the financial crisis of 2008, and I would never have had the pleasure of schlepping my stuff on the IRT in Hermès.
44 years old and not even a savings account?!?
Wurtzel's financial haplessness made me think of Carrie Bradshaw, the Sex and the City heroine who became an icon and role model for countless young women. These two paragraphs reminded me of a familiar SATC scene in which Carrie Bradshaw, after a breakup with her live-in boyfriend, has to either buy her apartment back from her boyfriend or move out. She complains to her friends about how she has no savings to buy the apartment, and wonders how others save money: "What, does nobody shoe shop?" she whines. After getting turned down for a loan from the bank because she has no assets, she finally resorts to asking her ex-boyfriend, Mr. Big, for money for her down payment, and later asks her friend Charlotte for money as well.
What's really troublesome is that in both Wurtzel and Bradshaw's cases, they saw it as charming and romantic to live with abandon, to never worry about tomorrow -- until misfortune hit and they couldn't afford their rent. And too many women fall into this trap. We think we have forever, so there's no rush to plan for retirement. But studies show that women are lagging far behind men in saving for retirement. Many women are still anxious about investing and are uneasy talking about money management -- even as more women are becoming the primary breadwinners in their households. The wage gap persists, and women still make less than men do for the same work -- in part because we are frequently afraid to ask for raises. Women stand to gain a lot by taking control of their money, by saving, investing, by asking for raises and by knowing their worth. Just recently, billionaire Warren Buffett said in an interview that he believes utilizing women's talents fully will save the U.S. economy. But that can't happen until we each start owning our economic power and making wise financial decisions.
Wurtzel, to some degree, is coming to the realization that perhaps this approach throughout her life was not the smartest. In Sex and the City, however, Bradshaw has a constant attitude of Aren't I adorable? I have so many shoes and not a care in the world! This attitude may seem fun and free -- Wurtzel argues that she's just a free spirit -- but failing to take control of your finances can have long-lasting consequences on women's personal freedom and choices over the course of our lifetimes.
Perhaps one of the most feminist things we can do is start actively managing our financial destiny. In her bestselling book Women and Money, financial expert Suze Orman wrote:
The simple fact is that nothing more directly affects your happiness than money. Oh, I know, some of you are just horrified by this notion, maybe even offended. Suze, how could you?! Happiness is about all the things money can't buy -- health, love, respect -- right? Absolutely true -- all of these are essential to a happy life. All are determined by who you are and not what you have. But the kind of happiness I am talking about is your quality of life -- the ability to enjoy life, to live life to its fullest potential. And I challenge anyone to tell me that such things aren't factors in your overall happiness... Having a healthy relationship with money puts you in a position to have better relationships with everyone in your life. It all flows together. A woman who is more financially confident and secure is a happier woman.
Getting our finances in order and owning our money is key to women's economic empowerment -- and the women's movement. Saving, investing and growing your net worth gives you the greatest freedom of all, because you're no longer tied down by the limits of money; you're free to travel, to move, to take risks, to ascend in your career, to take care of your family and to handle whatever unexpected surprises life throws at you because you're financially prepared. Managing your money gives you the freedom to be entirely in charge of your life and the direction you choose to take it in.
At the close of her essay, Wurtzel laments: "But this is it for me. I am a free spirit. I do not know any other way to be... I have always made choices without considering the consequences, because I know all I get is now. Maybe I get later, too, but I will deal with that later. I choose pleasure over what is practical."
Wurtzel seems to think that making sound financial decisions means one cannot enjoy the pleasures of today, but I disagree - that's a false dichotomy. It's entirely possible to enjoy the pleasures of life while still saving for the future. It's possible to live your life to the fullest, while still being financially responsible.
So please, let's reject the Elizabeth Wurtzel/Carrie Bradshaw complex. Contrary to what Wurtzel says, this isn't "it." There are other ways to be. Let's make the conscious choice to start taking control of our money, making savvy financial decisions, and planning for the future. Few things are more feminist than owning your financial destiny.
Follow Nisha Chittal on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NishaChittal