A Lifestyle Guide for Financial Wellbeing’

We know that maintaining our mental and physical health is essential to living well. But Ellie Austin-Williams, a financial educator and co-host of the podcast Money Unfiltered, argues that we’re missing something important: money. In her new book, Money Talks: A Lifestyle Guide for Financial Wellbeing, Austin-Williams encourages us to view financial health as a “key part of well-being.”

“It impacts literally every area of our life,” she tells Shondaland, “but we’re not yet thinking about it in that way. We’re not giving it enough attention.”

Austin-Williams, a millennial, aims her message at a younger generation — and women in particular — who she thinks have been left out of the conversation around financial literacy, and who have a different set of circumstances to consider when it comes to making money and saving for the future. She recently spoke with Shondaland about the unique challenges of dealing with money as a millennial, how social media is impacting our spending habits, and what’s at stake when we stay quiet about our financial situations.

HOPE REESE: Money, as you write, causes anxiety. How do you advise someone who’s stressed about money to look at their overall financial picture?

ELLIE AUSTIN-WILLIAMS: There’s a practical side, and then there’s the emotional side. The practical side is always the easy bit. There’s loads of information out there. But emotionally, if you’re not really digging down into what’s going on with money, why you’re behaving the way that you do with money, you can end up just hitting a brick wall over and over again — even if you follow the practice of that perfectly.

So, you need to start asking: How do I really feel about money? What does thinking about money set off for you? How does spending make you feel? How does saving money make you feel? How do you feel if you have a bill that you’re unprepared for? If you feel stress, is it because you don’t have the money to pay that or because previously you were in a situation where you were worse off financially, and you’re still carrying that fear? Or when you were a child, you saw bills being a cause of stress. Is that something you’re carrying into your adulthood, even though you are in a very different situation?

It’s about awareness of your emotions around money. Because once you’re aware of how you’re feeling about money and how financial decisions are making you feel, you can start to understand them better and unpack them. You can start to challenge them if there are ones that are unhelpful. And then you can also start to embrace ways to change any of these thoughts or feelings around money.

HR: You wrote the kind of book you thought was missing — can you explain?

EA: In my early 20s, I started working as a solicitor. I was a corporate lawyer for a couple of years and started earning a decent amount of money. I wanted to know what sensible decisions I could make with my money but also have fun, because I was working really hard. I studied for years and years to get to that point, and everything I found was one extreme or the other — it was basically telling me that I needed to be really, really strict and save everything and budget down to zero and invest my money for the future. Or it was kind of “You only live once. Don’t think about it.” There was nothing in the middle. And everything was also very male-focused. Particularly about saving and investing and planning for the future financially — that was not really speaking to women and the unique life events that a lot of women face.

HR: So, what are the unique financial decisions women make?

EA: The way that the workplace is still set up is male-focused. It’s not surprising because in the timeline of history, the time that women have been working is actually relatively small compared to the history of men working.

Conversations about progression and talking about your achievements and asking for more money and writing your résumé … research shows that men are a lot more willing to put themselves forward for things that they may not be 100 percent qualified to do. Women tend to be more cautious and want to feel really confident before they put themselves up for an opportunity. All of these different things accumulate in the workplace, so it’s often harder for women to assert themselves and to advance.

HR: You shift focus from how to save money and be financially literate to how to accumulate wealth, to grow a career, to negotiate. How to actually build the financial foundation from the start.

EA: Absolutely. I believe you can budget yourself to high heaven, and you can come up with the most comprehensive plan when it comes to saving money, but ultimately there’s a limit to how much you can save. Whereas there’s not really a limit to how much you can grow your money. Obviously, there are realistic parameters that you’re working within, like what you earn and how much disposable income you’ve got. But in theory, everybody can take a small amount of money and invest it in their pension or the retirement accounts or in their stocks account, or you can learn to negotiate and put forward your case for a higher salary. Or when you’re moving jobs, you can go for a higher position and go into it confidently and negotiate your package for remuneration. Those are the things where there is no real limit on how far you can go.

HR: What are the unique challenges that millennial women face at this moment when it comes to finances?

EA: The biggest challenge facing millennials and Gen Z increasingly is the environment that we have grown up into, leaving school, heading into early adulthood at a time where there was a financial crisis. We’ve basically had one economic disaster after the next. Obviously, with the latest being the cost of living post-pandemic and the fallout from high inflation, which we’re very much still feeling.

That is putting a huge amount of pressure on people who are early on in their career, who haven’t accumulated assets, who typically are going to be all millennials and Gen Z. We are trying as much as possible to save for our future, to be able to achieve these financial milestones like, you know, a house, a family. But because of the cost of living, it’s much harder. And then you layer on top of that house pricing, which has really kind of lost the plot over the last 20, 30 years, where we see a lot of our parents’ generation and the generation before who were able to buy houses with a relatively normal income, with four-time salary borrowing power. That’s laughable now. Now, you need a huge amount of cash, which is not really practical to save in the current environment to be able to get on the property ladder, and that has financial consequences all the way through your life. It impacts your ability to save for other things, like a family, retirement, a wedding.

It creates a financial burden for a lot of people because there’s an assumption when a lot of people are looking at retirement that people are mortgage-free or rent-free. And for millennials, a lot of us will get to retirement age and still have housing costs we’ve got to figure out how to pay.

HR: You’ve spoken to many women in their 20s and 30s about what’s stressing them out about money. What are the big takeaways?

EA: There’s a real contrast between the amount of people that are feeling stressed — huge numbers of millennial women feeling stressed about money — but then when it comes to events like weddings and celebrations, there’s still a huge amount of money being spent. There’s this real kind of balancing act that people are trying to keep up with as I stress about how I’m going to pay my bills. My best friend wants to go to, you know, the Maldives on a bachelorette. It’s a real problem, coming up over and over again, these expectations.

That’s particularly prominent post-pandemic because obviously we couldn’t have parties, we couldn’t have big celebrations, so there’s still a lot of people who have come out of that and want to do everything on a huge scale.

The other big thing is having a family. They are either in a relationship and talking about it, or they’re not, but they’re thinking about this. But the financial impact of a child is terrifying to them.

Childcare is ridiculously expensive, but then also in their career. So, a lot of women are proud of their career, enjoy their work, and rely on that income for their finances. They’re worried about what having your child might do to that career trajectory.

Money Talks: A Lifestyle Guide for Financial Wellbeing

Money Talks: A Lifestyle Guide for Financial Wellbeing

Money Talks: A Lifestyle Guide for Financial Wellbeing

HR: The idea of wanting to keep up with our peers is not new, but today we have social media. How is that impacting us?

EA: It’s the amount of exposure. I feel like we are actually quite a lucky generation in the sense that when we were in our teens, we were still in the early days of smartphones. Now we are 24-7 exposed to what other people are doing in a curated way. Even the pictures of people crying have to be faked, to a degree, because you have to think, “Oh, I’m going to take a photo of this moment.” Even vulnerability on social media isn’t fully genuine. But we forget that because the whole idea of how social media has been created is to feel like it’s authentic, to feel like we are friends with these people who we probably don’t actually know and probably never will meet. It creates this real sense of missing out or feeling behind or “Why have I not been able to do what that person is doing?” And we just don’t know the whole picture.

I think a lot of millennials feel this sense that everybody else that they’re looking at online are doing better. They’re achieving more. They’re traveling more. They got the perfect husband. They’ve got the picture-perfect baby. And actually, you know, it can make you feel really insufficient — but when it comes to money, so much of what we see, we don’t know how it’s being funded. We have no idea whether people are being gifted money, whether they’re being gifted holidays, and whether they have a family trust fund. But we just look at the images and think, “How is the person the same age as me able to buy that house?” And it’s just not a fair comparison to be doing.

HR: It’s taboo to speak about money. There’s shame if we don’t have it — but it’s also taboo for people to talk about privilege. How is that affecting us?

EA: There’s a shame that a lot of people feel that they don’t have enough money. But people are actually more comfortable saying things like, “Oh, you know, I don’t have any money. I’m really struggling with this,” than they are saying that they’ve got a lot. I think it may be an insecurity about wanting to come across like you’re boasting or because we’re hearing all the time about how much people are struggling. But if people don’t talk about the ways that they are privileged, then it creates this feeling of not being enough for the people around them. Because you get these scenarios where you cannot join the dots. You are working hard, and your friends suddenly have a property; they bought a house. And you’re trying to work out “Well, this is how much they earn, we’ve been on a similar trajectory, how have they done that?” You’re going to start thinking, “Well, I’m missing something here. I’m the one that’s not been saving enough or making the right decisions.” When often there’s another explanation: They’ve had help.

Being helped by your family is an incredible thing. But it’s not something that is available to everybody. And it doesn’t mean that your family loves you any less if they’re not able to help you. But it is something that, when you acknowledge it, can really help other people to understand why you might be in different circumstances.

Hope Reese is a freelance journalist who contributes to The New York Times, Vox, The Atlantic, and other publications. Her book, “The Women Are Not Fine,” will be published in 2025.

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