Real wellness isn’t just an insta-friendly brand slogan. At its core, it’s an ongoing commitment to a better quality of life — the practice of treating your mind and body with care, aka nourishing them, exercising them, resting them, etc. And it’s for everyone, no matter what that fancy vitamin company or skincare line tries to tell (or sell) you.
What we don’t talk about enough, though, is how important it is to treat our money with the same amount of care. Because it’s just as essential to your overall well-being, let’s call it financial wellness: the idea that when you have a handle on your finances, know what to do next to achieve your goals, and regularly practice good money habits (aka financial self-care), you’re more likely to feel confident about where you are and where you’re going — your quality of life improves.
If financial wellness feels like a big, slightly complicated concept, never fear. Here’s a primer on what it is, why it matters, and how to apply the basic principles to your own life.
What’s financial wellness?
At its core, financial wellness is the state of (money-related) well-being that’s achieved and maintained when you know what you have, you know where you’re headed, and you feel good about it.
That means anyone can get there, no matter where you are in your financial journey or how much money you have (or don’t). Everyone deserves to feel confident and in control of their finances — and the practice of financial wellness is adaptable and attainable for everyone.
It’s also an intentional practice, a way to live — not an end state to be achieved or destination to be reached. Just like there are different components of physical wellness (nutrition, hydration, fitness, etc.), the definition above translates into three actionable, overlapping components of financial wellness:
Here’s more on each one.
This is made up of the core building blocks that help create (or maintain) financial security. From good everyday habits like checking your balances and spending less than what you earn (or working toward it), to your first baby steps toward stability, a strong financial foundation is the sturdy ground on which you’ll be able to design the kind of life you want to live.
Those building blocks include (usually in this order):
Familiarize yourself with where your money goes. The bad news: Pretending your account balance is just a suggestion doesn’t actually make that true. The good news: However you think you’re “supposed to” be spending your money — that’s a myth, and it’s holding you back. The way you do money (aka the way you live your life) is unique to you, which is why it’s up to you to learn how your money moves, both in and out of your accounts. That makes it possible to a) double-check that you’re spending less than you make (v important to your foundation), and b) understand how much you have left to make progress on your goals. (You’ll eventually build a budget with this knowledge, but we’ll get to that when we talk about your plan.)
Read More: What to Do if Dealing With Money Feels Overwhelming
Take advantage of free (retirement) money. If your employer has a 401(k) match program, that’s like retirement BOGO — sign up and grab that free money while you can! (If your employer doesn’t have a match program, or if you’re self-employed / a contractor, skip this step for now.)
Read More: How Does Employer 401(k) Matching Work?
Save one month’s take-home pay. These are wildly uncertain times we’re living in, full of unexpected costs and life changes. They’ve hammered home the importance of building a financial safety net for when sh*t suddenly gets real. Start your emergency fund by aiming to save up one month’s take-home pay as soon as you can — that will give yourself some breathing room while you make progress on the next step.
Read More: When You Should (and Maybe Shouldn’t) Use Your Emergency Fund
Zero in on high-interest debt. Most credit cards and even some personal loans come with super-high interest rates — we’re talking more than 10%. That’s really expensive, and it takes away precious funds that would be better spent on your actual goals. No matter how you approach it (there are a few different strategies, all of which involve paying more than your minimums), getting high-interest debt off the board ASAP is key to financial security.
Read More: How to Pay Off Debt and Take Control of Your Money
Finish your emergency fund. Once you’ve tackled your most urgent, high-interest debt, it’s time to level up that emergency fund. How much money you should aim to save in total depends on your particular situation — the more unpredictable your life, the more you’re probably going to want to build up — but the general range is anywhere from three to six months’ take-home pay.
Read More: Here’s What You Need to Know About Emergency Funds
Move on to medium-interest debt. Your emergency fund is in the bag and your most expensive debt is taken care of. Congrats! Now it’s time to take the debt payoff strategy you used for your high-interest balances and use it to tackle any debt with interest rates between 5% and 10%. (If you have any balances with interest rates less than 5%, we usually recommend continuing to pay the minimums and using extra money to invest instead.)
Read More: Should I Pay Off Debt or Invest? (Or Both?)
Start investing toward your goals! Now that you understand where your money goes, you have a safety net of cash in case of any unexpected expenses or crises, and you’re working on the rest of that debt. You’re in the clear to focus on investing, above and beyond that employer 401(k) match you set up. First order of business: getting on track for retirement.
Read More: How to Make a Retirement Game Plan
The fact is, most of us only have so much money to work with at any given time. The building blocks that make up your foundation are usually pretty straightforward, and come with a recommended order of attack. But how are you supposed to decide how to prioritize everything that comes after (and in between) that?
Enter: your plan, the strategy you follow to help get you and your money where you want to go in life. It’s made up of the tools and timeline, all designed by you, that help you hit your goals.
Here are the things that will help you form your plan:
Your core values. Research has shown that our emotions and unconscious biases guide our spending behaviors a lot more than we like to acknowledge — that’s why it’s so dang hard to follow through on your vow to spend less on takeout every month. Identifying your core values will allow you to spend more intentionally and make trade-offs more easily (including with your goals, but more on that part in a sec). It can also help you use your money in a way that will feel good — like identifying causes you want to donate to, or investing for impact. All in pursuit of living according to your priorities.
Read More: How to Practice Intentional Spending
A budget that works for you. We know that the word “budget” can sometimes feel intimidating — but the idea that budgets are hard to use or somehow restrictive is just another myth. A budget built with your values in mind gives you permission to spend your money the way you want, all with the confidence that comes from knowing you’re on track for your goals. Two easy-to-follow strategies we like to recommend are the one-number approach and the 50/30/20 rule. Experiment with them and see which one you like — the key is to create a budget that you want to follow, because it works for you (and not the other way around).
Read More: 4 Steps to Stop Living Paycheck to Paycheck
Priorities for all your goals. Now that you know what’s important to you and how much freedom your budget allows for, making future plans for your money just got a whole lot more manageable. The key is to look at all your goals — short-term ones to save for, like next year’s vacation, plus long-term ones to invest for, like retirement — and start to prioritize them against one another.
Some will clearly be high-priority, like the building blocks of your foundation, or saving up for an expense you know you’ll have to pay for soon. Others will be more nuanced, which is where your values come in (again). Say you’re investing toward a down payment to buy a home. That monthly contribution is in your budget. But then the opportunity to go to Europe next summer comes up. If you put that money toward the trip instead of the down payment, your timeline for homeownership is going to get pushed back. Knowing your core values — like what’s more important, the independence of owning your place or the freedom to roam? — can help make that decision easier.
Read More: Your Money Roadmap: How to Prioritize Your Financial Goals
Note: You don’t need to set up your foundation 100% before you make your plan — in fact, deciding which building block of your foundation you’ll tackle next is part of your plan. The components of financial wellness aren’t sequential steps — they overlap. You need all three to create a system that you feel comfortable and confident about.
Which brings us to …
Maybe your current situation feels more like financial unwellness — like everything in this plan so far seems built for someone with a lot more money, or a lot more financial know-how, or at least a better track record for making and sticking to a budget. What’s the point of a plan and a few good habits if you don’t believe they’re going to work? That’s where the third component of financial wellness comes in: a healthy relationship with not only your money, but also your own ability to manage it.
Pretty much from birth, women are socialized to believe we’re bad with money, and that's created a world where money is women’s #1 source of stress. But your finances should be a source of strength, not stress. Finding the confidence and motivation to start practicing financial wellness consistently isn’t easy, but we’re willing to bet it’s easier than you think.
Identify and unlearn the harmful myths keeping your relationship with money in the Bad Place. Women aren’t more risk-averse, nor are they just “bad at investing” (the opposite, actually). Forgoing your daily latte (or avocado toast) won’t make you a millionaire. And as bad as it sounds, faithfully executing a strategy like the one outlined here isn’t going to fix systemic issues like the pay gap. (Sometimes the answer isn’t “being smarter with money”; sometimes it really does come down to needing to earn more money, period.) Thinking about your money situation as a personal failure is a negative feedback loop that holds you back.
Read More: The 6 Money Lies Told to (and About) Women
Get comfortable talking about money with others. How do women find out they’re making less than men at their companies? They talk about their salaries. Most people (especially women) would rather discuss their own death than talk about money, but that’s only because it’s not the norm. Allowing money to remain a taboo subject only protects people with more of it — specifically, the (male) status quo. Luckily, we have a few resources to help you broach the topic with colleagues, family, and partners.
Read More: Let’s Disrupt Money ... By Talking About it
Give yourself permission to use money in a way that makes you feel good. The year is 2021, not 1721 — don’t let some imagined (by men) puritanical code guide how you “ought” to spend your hard-earned cash. Including the belief that you can’t spend money on yourself or splurge on something you want. Rest on your foundation, and trust your plan.
Read more: How to Stop Feeling Guilty About Spending Money
Note: Much like your foundation and your plan, your mindset is a muscle that needs a chance to build up over time, alongside — and not after — those good habits and good strategies you’re working on. And that feeling of control you’ve been missing? You might just find it at the very beginning, no matter how small you start, because you’re finally doing the thing.
Why is financial wellness important?
When it comes to money, every additional inch we carve out for ourselves matters. Women earn less than men do — and stop getting raises a whole decade earlier. And then there’s the pink tax, more debt, more unpaid labor, and fewer promotions. Plus, men tend to invest more of their money than women do. The result: On average, women only own 32 cents for every dollar white men own. For women of color, it’s less than one penny.
By practicing financial self-care in pursuit of financial wellness, you’re building the confidence and peace of mind to live the life you want. At Ellevest, we believe nothing bad happens when women have more money, and that’s just as true on an individual level. For you, financial wellness might be the difference between staying in a job you hate and having a F*ck You Fund you can use to bail yourself out. It could be the difference between feeling like you don’t deserve nice things and just buying the damn latte already.
There’s no magic wand any of us can wave to print ourselves more money, and we may not have control over systemic problems that perpetuate economic inequality, but financial wellness is an ethos that can give you the tools you need to be OK despite this.
Plus, financial wellness is a pretty fundamental necessity for other types of wellness, too. When your money isn’t OK, you’re likely not OK. Think of financial wellness as a powerful engine that helps make it easier to achieve wellness in other areas. For example, while you might currently be able to take care of your body while simultaneously ignoring your 401(k), the health of that retirement fund is eventually going to dictate your ability to address your physical health. Plus, as we mentioned above, money is our #1 source of stress. But practicing financial wellness is a way to directly counteract that stress.
Best of all, this isn’t a program. There are no prerequisites or recommended reading levels. You can start your journey toward financial wellness at any time, no matter how much you know about money (or how much you have). Think of each of the three components — your foundation, your plan, and your mindset — not as building blocks stacked on top of each other, but as support beams working together to create balance and harmony in your financial life, whatever it may look like.
How to get started
Spoiler: This is going to take some effort (as anything worth doing does). Self-care means eating your vegetables and doing your laundry, not just bubble baths and five-hour binges of “The Great British Bake Off.” You’re going to need to set aside some time to establish your foundation and build a plan you’re excited about following. And those false core beliefs? They aren’t about to go down without a fight, so getting good at positive self-talk (among other things) is going to be key over the long term.
But don’t panic! Feeling overwhelmed by money is extremely common, especially when you’re trying to unlearn self-defeating patterns at the same time. Just keep in mind that when finance is confusing, oftentimes the industry made it that way on purpose — quite literally. Think of your financial wellness program as your own financial bodyguard: The world is going to keep throwing harmful lies and stressful crises your way, but the steps you’re taking now are meant to help protect Future You (and Today You!) from the collateral damage.
Plus, this is literally what Ellevest is here for. This Magazine is stuffed with our team’s best advice and knowledge. Check out this big list of live workshops, email courses, and other tools you can use to get on the right path. The Ellevest membership gives you access to those tools, plus our gender-aware investing platform and more. And, of course, our money and career coaches can help you tackle the challenges you’re facing with a made-for-you plan — members get up to 50% off.
Now go light your favorite candle. You’ve got this.
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