I want to acknowledge that all women are wonderfully unique individuals and therefore these tips will not be applicable to all of us equally and may be very helpful to some men and nonbinary individuals. This is written in an effort to support women, not to exclude, generalize, or stereotype any group.
I was recently reminded of a troubling statistic: Two-thirds of women do not trust their advisors. Having worked in the financial services industry for nearly two decades, this is unfortunately not surprising to me. But it is troubling, largely because it’s so preventable.
Whether you have a long-standing relationship with an advisor, are just starting to consider working with a financial planner, or are considering making a change, there are some simple tips all women should be aware of to improve this relationship and strengthen their financial futures.
Tip #1 – Work with an Advisor You Like
You may think this is obvious or that this shouldn’t matter. Unfortunately, it isn’t obvious to many people, and I would argue that it may be the most important factor. If you don’t like someone, you are unlikely to trust them; and if you don’t trust them, you are unlikely to take their advice, even when it’s advice you should be taking. You’re also more likely to cut your meetings short or avoid them altogether. Chatting with my clients is one of my favorite parts of my job, and it’s also when I usually find out about the important changes in their life that they might not even realize impact their financial plan. It’s an advisor’s job to identify the financial impacts of your life changes, and your advisor can’t help if they are not aware of the changes. The better your relationship with your advisor, the more likely you will keep them updated—and the more likely they can help you make smart financial decisions.
Take some time to consider what’s most important to you when building a trusting relationship, and don’t be afraid to ask an advisor about their personality traits or communication style. You may need someone who is approachable and compassionate, or it may be more important to you that they are straightforward and detailed. I’ve worked with enough advisors to know we come in every shape and size you can imagine, so don’t settle for someone who isn’t a good fit.
This chart can be an extremely helpful tool for identifying your preferred communication style(s). Once you’ve identified your preferred style, you should be able to easily tell whether your advisor is communicating effectively according to your personality. If they aren’t, send them the chart! Strong communication skills are essential in financial planning, so they should be able to adapt to fit your preferences.
Aside from communication style, it may be important to you that you work with an advisor who shares certain values that you hold dear. I recently met with some new clients who I could tell were not completely at ease even though I thought we had hit it off. They were squirming in their seats when they finally got up the courage to ask me about my political leanings. When they learned that we felt the same way, they were visibly relieved. It was important enough to them that I don’t think they could have had a trusting relationship without this information. If you feel this strongly about anything, ask about it when interviewing advisors.
If you find you are having a hard time getting to know your advisor, ask to go to lunch. Once you get away from the office and their financial charts, it will likely be easier to build a connection. You may even get a free lunch out of it!
Tip #2 – Tell Them What You Want
Studies have shown that women tend to be more goal-oriented than men. I have found it to be true that women are more likely to focus on goals like maintaining a certain lifestyle in retirement, sending children to college, or making sure the family is protected in the event of an emergency, while others may focus more on measuring investment performance.
At Merriman, we believe all investing and financial planning should be goal-oriented (hence our tagline: Invest Wisely, Live Fully), but many advisors still set goals that focus on earning a certain percentage each year. This can be especially difficult if your partner focuses on this type of measurement as well. Women (or any goal-oriented investor) can sometimes feel outnumbered or unsure of how to direct the conversation back to the bigger picture. You made 5%, but what does this mean for your financial plan? Can you still retire next year? The issue is not that you don’t understand performance or lack interest in market movements, whether or not this is true. The issue is that the conversation needs to be refocused on the things that matter to you. All of the truly excellent financial planners I have worked with have known this and do their best to help clients identify their goals, create a plan for obtaining them, and then track their progress. If you’re not experiencing this, it’s either time to look for a new advisor or to speak up and tell them what you want. Also, note that speaking up is more easily done when you work with an advisor you like (see tip #1).
Tip #3 – Know the Difference Between Risk Aware & Risk Averse
Countless studies have shown that women are not necessarily as risk averse as they were once thought to be. As a group, we just tend to be more risk aware than men are. Why does this matter? First of all, I think it’s important to be risk aware. If you aren’t aware of the risk, you can’t possibly make informed decisions. But by not understanding the difference, women sometimes incorrectly identify as conservative investors and then invest inappropriately for their goals and risk tolerance. Since most advisors are well-practiced in helping people identify their risk tolerance, this is an important conversation to have with your advisor. During these conversations, risk-aware people can sometimes focus on temporary monetary loss and lose sight of the other type of risk: not meeting goals. If you complete a simple risk-tolerance questionnaire (there are many versions available online), women may be more likely to answer questions conservatively simply because they are focusing on the potential downside. Here is an example of a common question:
The chart below shows the greatest 1-year loss and the highest 1-year gain on 3 different hypothetical investments of $10,000. Given the potential gain or loss in any 1 year, I would invest my money in …
A risk-aware, goal-oriented person is much more likely to select A because the question is not in terms they relate to. It focuses on the loss (and gain) in a 1-year period without providing any information about the performance over the period of time aligned with their goal or the probability of the investment helping them to achieve their goal. A risk-averse person is going to want to avoid risk no matter the situation. A risk-aware person needs to know that while the B portfolio might have lost $1,020 in a 1-year period, historically it has earned an average of 6% per year, is diversified and generally recovers from losses within 1–3 years, statistically has an 86% probability of outperforming portfolio A in a 10-year period, and is more likely to help them reach their specific goal.
A risk-aware person needs to be able to weigh the pros and cons so when presented with limited information, they are more likely to opt for the conservative choice. Know this about yourself and ask for more information before making a decision based on limiting risk.
Tip #4 – Ask Questions
Studies have shown that women tend to be more realistic about their own skill level. It’s not necessarily that we lack confidence—more that we lack overconfidence. I think that’s a good thing; however, it means women lacking financial expertise are more likely to feel self-conscious about asking a question that could be perceived as foolish. This can be particularly hard if there is a third party present (such as a spouse) who has a greater understanding, likes to use the lingo, and/or tends to monopolize the conversation. If necessary, don’t be shy about asking for a one-on-one meeting with your advisor so you have a chance to ask all the questions you want without someone interrupting you or changing the subject.
I would always prefer that someone ask questions rather than misunderstand, and it can be difficult to gauge a client’s level of understanding if they don’t ask questions. I have many highly-educated clients who have never had any interest in investing or financial planning, so it just isn’t their strong suit. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. I promise that an experienced advisor has heard any basic question you might ask a thousand times before. If an advisor is unhelpful or condescending when you ask a question, you should not be working with that person. There are plenty of advisors out there who are eager to share what they know with you. Sometimes the hard part can be getting us to stop talking once you’ve asked! And of course, being comfortable enough to ask questions is always easier if you like the person you are working with (see tip #1).
Tip #5 – Go to the Meetings
I haven’t seen any studies on whether or not women attend fewer meetings. However, if two-thirds of women don’t trust their advisors, I have to believe they aren’t eager to sit in a room with someone they don’t trust for an hour. I sometimes hear that one spouse “just isn’t interested in finances” so they don’t attend meetings. It’s perfectly fine to not be interested. My spouse isn’t! One thing I always find fascinating about working with couples is seeing all the different ways we decide to divide and conquer household tasks. Those lines are often logically drawn based on who has the most interest or the most time. However, even if you completely trust your spouse to handle the finances and you don’t have any interest, it’s important that you are part of the big picture conversations. You may not have any opinion on whether you invest in mutual fund XYZ, but you may have goals that aren’t even on your spouse’s radar or strong opinions about whether your entire portfolio is invested conservatively or aggressively. I find that when one spouse “just isn’t interested in finances,” it means that they attended meetings with other advisors in the past where the conversation wasn’t properly framed to address their goals, or they felt uncomfortable asking questions.
In addition to making sure your financial plan properly addresses your goals and takes your comfort level into account, it’s also important to build a relationship with your advisor so that if you do have questions, if you separate from your spouse, or if they pass away, you have someone you trust to turn to for help.
You may notice that all five of these tips are easier to follow when you follow tip #1—work with an advisor you like. There are many different considerations when hiring an advisor: Are they a fiduciary? Do they practice comprehensive planning? How are they compensated? What is their investment philosophy? They may check off all your other boxes, but if you don’t like them, you are unlikely to get all you need out of the relationship. If you’re looking for an advisor you’re compatible with, consider perusing our advisor bios.
Disclosure: The material is presented solely for information purposes and has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, however Merriman cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of such information, and certain information presented here may have been condensed or summarized from its original source. Merriman does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice, and nothing contained in these materials should be relied upon as such.