Having glowingly reviewed Andrea Kennedy’s empowering book, Own Your Own Financial Freedom, Verne Maree couldn’t wait to meet her. Over linzer torte and coffee, they chatted at the author’s Dover Rise condo.
When did your expat journey start?
More than 20 years ago. I lived in Tokyo for a while, and learnt to speak Japanese. Then I went back to graduate school, the University of San Diego, California. I met my husband-to-be there: we were both doing a Master’s programme. We both ended up working in Hong Kong, and that’s where we got together.
From there we came to Singapore; then it was Manila, Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong and back to Singapore. Now I’m done with travelling, at least until our kids – Elena (12) and Stefan (15) – are out of school.
How did you become a financial planner?
My first 20 years were in marketing, a career I didn’t love. I had always invested my own money, so when girlfriends of mine were getting divorced, I’d fly from Shanghai to Singapore to give them financial advice. After one such trip, my husband said: “You should do this for a living – it comes naturally to you and you explain things well.”
So I did the necessary university course work to become a certified financial planner. I always encourage young mothers to go back to school: it’s refreshing to sit in a class with people of all ages from 20 to 60. It keeps you hooked up and plugged into different groups so that you’re both intellectually and socially engaged.
Even if someone is going to be taking care of you because you’re staying home with children, you should still find something to do that ideally is income-producing or at least keeps you in the game.
Whom did you write Own Your Own Financial Freedom for, and how did you go about it?
I started writing it for my clients. They’re a wide variety of people, many around the age of 40, that something has happened to: they have a windfall to invest; or they’ve lost their job and don’t know what to do next; or their marriage has come to an end through death or divorce.
When you’re going through trauma, it’s very difficult to focus on long-term financial decisions, and I felt that my advice wasn’t always “sticking”, so I decided to start writing it down. I’d had this book in me for quite some time! It took just six months to write. Having a great editor helped.
Why are so many women reluctant to come to grips with money matters and their own financial security? And what made you so very different?
I grew up in a house where we talked openly about money and did not spend it frivolously. In fact, my first-ever memory is of my mother screaming down the phone at a broker from Merrill Lynch: “Stop calling me and trying to sell me that crap!”
She wasn’t a graduate, and learnt math from my father before educating herself about the stock market. It was she who did the family investing.
A certain sector of society thinks it’s crass to talk about money; but that’s frankly stupid. We all need money to live on, and even someone who’s going to inherit a fortune needs to know something about managing it.
Everyone from my wealthiest clients to our Filipina helper is reading my book, I’m glad to say. The numbers may not be the same as some of the examples in my book, but the principles are.
Why are many women ignorant about financial investment?
Women are not that different from men in this regard. I find that people are either genuinely interested in finance and investing, or they’re afraid of it. If they’re afraid, it’s often because they’ve had a bad experience with math; or they’ve had a bad investment experience or know someone who has.
The investment community is largely to blame here. Apart from the mind-boggling amount of fine print, people in this industry are generally not good communicators and seem incapable of explaining investment vehicles in a clear and meaningful way. It’s also been shown that they don’t invest their own money the way they advise others to do; and here and there, of course, are some bad apples.
Also, it’s generally men communicating to men. Men tend to take at face value whatever they’re told – about investment fees, for example. Women tend to think longer and more deeply, and are more suspicious about something that’s not clear. I’ve found that women ask better questions that annoy the men they’re asking, and those questions too often go unanswered.
I think that if people want your business, they should be prepared to answer your questions properly in whatever language is required and to keep on doing so until you’re satisfied. There should be nothing to hide.
Being so well-educated and relatively well-represented in well-paid jobs, are Singaporean women more financially savvy than others?
I don’t think so. In fact, I’m astounded how many young women here weren’t even taught at home about savings.
Interest rates have been so low that money has essentially been free, and people have started to forget that money does have a price. Credit cards are also a relatively new thing here, and young people are taking them up in a way their parents never did; worst of all, they’re not always paying off their bills. When interest rates go up – and they will! – that’s going to be a problem.
On getting married, so many women give up their autonomy and their power, simply by having the attitude: you can control the money, as long as you pay my credit card bills. They don’t understand what they’re giving up.
Why do some women think this way?
Despite progress, we are still disadvantaged. At the end of the day, though we can and do go out and get jobs, only women can bear children. That role demands huge amounts of energy and focus, and affects our ability to build and sustain a career and make money. Most of us want to raise children and play a part in their lives, and for that priority we will step back for whatever time it takes to accomplish that.
Some countries, like Sweden and Germany, are better at providing practical compensation for women in this area; but in others that aren’t, spending more time at home means that women are financially penalised for their childbearing role.
That said, there’s no excuse for not being involved in your family’s financial decisions. For a whole variety of reasons, we delegate that responsibility too quickly to the men in our lives.
Who should be teaching young people about finance and investment?
If not parents, then schools. I’d love to write a curriculum that could be taught in middle school around the same time that students are learning about exponents in math class.
If money management is not openly practised at home or taught at school, and even worse if youngsters see their parents hiding money, binge-spending or abusing credit cards as a kind of power-play, they have little chance of learning this essential life skill.
My own kids are learning how to invest on the stock exchange, using real money that has been set aside for their future. They will go through a crash, maybe they’ll invest in a stinker, and they’ll experience the emotional ups and downs – all valuable lessons for them.
Parents need to be good role models. Kids understand hypocrisy – if you deny them money to spend on frivolous things, and then you yourself spend frivolously, they’ll spot it immediately.
Your book offers eminently sane and practical advice for women facing divorce – seek out mediation, for example.
I strongly advocate mediation in divorce – and that’s not just because someone like me gets hired to do it! An amicable divorce, where both parties are open about what they own, is cheaper and more straightforward because they come to the table with more realistic expectations.
Good financial advice is crucial at this time. After the lawyers have picked the numbers and split the money, people who haven’t learnt how to manage their money are in danger of losing it. That first year after divorce is when the most money is spent, when the parties are re-establishing themselves, acquiring new homes, starting new businesses and so on.
A 40-year-old friend of mine admitted that she owns nothing in her own name. Is it too late for her to provide for her retirement years? Should she be afraid?
It’s never too late. Even at 50, you have more or less 15 years to work towards something.
Nationality plays a role here: as an American without access to a national health system, I’d be terrified to have no emergency fund of my own: I feel I have to save for absolutely any eventuality. If I were Swedish, however, and everything was taken care of, it might be different.
Everyone should have a financial plan done, and take a look at how they are spending money. You should also have an emergency fund, at the very least. As for retirement savings, even putting aside $100 a month would be a start. As for property, you should at least own the roof over your head. Read my book, or somebody else’s book, to get an idea of how to get started.
Do men take your advice well?
Most of my clients are married couples who come in together because they want a portfolio review. They want an unbiased opinion on how to make the most of their financial situation and plan for the long terms. Men who have made mistakes, or who have anxiety about investing, tend to take my advice particularly well.
You’re about to embark on your PhD. What will you be focusing on?
It’s going to be a mix of psychology and finance, looking at what couples can do to make sure they go into marriage with good attitudes to money. That’s so important, because most divorces are caused by marital conflicts related to differences in this area.
I’m so glad I found something at this stage of my life that I think is important to do, especially now that my children are of an age where they need less of my time.
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