Calling out those who give patronizing financial advice to women could be a full-time job. And as someone whose whole life revolves around getting more money in the hands of women, sometimes I just have to step into that role.
The spring of 2019 was one of those times. (And yes, a similar version of this article originally ran on Fast Company back then.)
Allow me to set the scene:
Another day, another reminder that the financial industry was not built for women. In late April, Chase had tweeted to millennials to shore up their bank accounts by finishing off the food in their refrigerator and making coffee at home. The resulting social backlash was immediate and scathing, calling the company out for its high fees and its $25 billion government bailout. (Chase deleted the item and thanked its followers for their feedback.)
This was followed by the publication of a book called “The Latte Factor,” in which two self-styled experts on women and money — both middle-aged men — spin a “compelling, heartwarming tale” (the publisher’s words, not mine) of an older male barista patiently and carefully mansplaining to a young woman about money over the course of a few revelatory days.
The crux of this advice is the oft-used trope: “Don’t buy your daily latte ... instead invest the money and become rich.” (Spoiler alert: He may first appear to be a barista but — wait for it — he actually owns the coffee shop. And the building. And a whole bunch of other buildings.)
This book follows in a long tradition of personal financial advice for women packaged into simplified, bite-sized nuggets that boil down to giving up frivolous expenses, starting with the fancy coffee.
I have so many thoughts on this. So. Many. Thoughts.
1. The math doesn’t work. In order for that one latte a day (at $5 per latte) to earn you that $1 million of today’s purchasing power in 40 years by investing in the stock market, you would need to earn ~16% on average. Every year. Some more, some less, of course. But year in and year out. For 40 years. After taxes. After fees.
So it’s possible. Just not at all likely.
2. OK, is it me, or is the whole latte thing patronizing? It’s not a martini-shaken-not-stirred, is it? Or a six-pack. Or a ribeye. Or the new tech gadget. It’s a latte. Dripping with its feminine connotations as a milky, sweet, steamed, flippant luxury. And thus, presumably, it’s an easy candidate for the mild contempt that its dismissal implies.
3. Which gets to the broader issue of our society patronizing women about money. From childhood, we as a society send girls messages that they are bad with numbers, relative to their brothers. Still today, parents talk to boys about making money and investing and to girls about saving money and being careful with it. Girls get lower grades in math than boys for the same answers at school. And girls get lower allowances at home than boys for the same chores.
As we get older, we women are told that we’re bad with money in a thousand small ways. Women’s magazines — on the rare occasions that they have written about money — have presented it as a challenge, describing financial planning as “difficult” so “you’d better buckle your seatbelt,” and showering us with money quizzes to find out whether we’re a “Carrie” or “Miranda” money personality. In fact, Carrie herself was a tough, savvy, modern New Yorker in every way — except when it came to money. There, she bought too many Manolo Blahniks and so couldn’t afford to buy her apartment. Seriously.
A test: How would this play on CNBC? If it’s not something that anchors would talk about with straight faces, then it’s patronizing financial advice. If on-air talent isn’t discussing whether they prefer to give up their latte or their facials — or maybe not buy as many shoes — to better prepare for retirement, then no one else should shovel that on women either.
4. But, as infuriating as it is to be patronized, that’s not the biggest issue. All this nonsense about lattes and shoes is shifting the attention — and thus the blame — for the underlying systemic money challenges women face, to the women themselves.
Don’t look over there, where it says that the gender pay gap in America is decades away from closing for white women, 100-plus years away for Black women, 200-plus years for Latina women: Let’s focus on the small luxuries you can give up.
Let’s not act like flexible work schedules are benefiting women mentally, emotionally, physically, and professionally. Yet only 2% of business leaders say their company never plans to require employees to work in person: Who wants to go shopping!?
Don’t pay attention to the fact that women carry a higher student loan burden than men do: Have you clipped your coupons?
The fact that the US is the only high-income country in the world without a mandated paid parental leave? The fact that just 27% of US civilian and private-industry workers have access to paid leave? The fact that women filed almost 80% of workplace sexual harassment cases between 2018–2021? Well, those don’t really fit the personal-guilt-being-sold-as-personal-empowerment narrative that sells so many books.
Women have effectively internalized the messages that our society sends them about money, and the result is that the primary emotion so many of us feel about money is shame. We feel shame when we are in debt; we feel shame because we spend too much, certainly; we feel shame because we earn too little — and we even feel shame because we earn too much. (Get this: Even when women make more than their husbands, they’re doing more child care and housework. Yet, what do women feel about accomplishing this super-human balancing act, day in and day out? Shame.)
The result of this is that women prefer to talk about anything — literally anything — more than money, including their own deaths. At a time in which we openly speak about sex, money remains for women the final frontier of shame.
5. The further result is that, as a society, we have masculinized money. While girls are being taught to be careful with money and to save it, boys are being taught to pursue money and to grow it. They're taught to be confident around money, so much so that they overestimate their investing skills and underestimate their need for financial education. It is likely no wonder that the money industries are overwhelmingly male, even as the research tells us that women are better investors than men, both as individual investors and as professional investors.
As if to drive home the point that money is male, the symbol of Wall Street is a bull. A big, snorting, anatomically notable, powerful bull. (Its more recent counterpoint, standing in front of the New York Stock Exchange building since 2017, is a statue of a little girl. A prepubescent girl. A brave girl, certainly, but one who — if she went to work at the company that placed her there — would have been the victim of gender discrimination on pay, according to a lawsuit that became public shortly after the statue was placed there.)
So this isn’t about the lattes. It’s never been about the lattes. Or any of the other ways we women are told we’re deficient around money. It’s about changing the narrative to recognize the real challenges we face as women and tackling real issues. It’s about demanding a fairer playing field from our institutions (paid parental leave, anyone?). It’s about holding the companies at which we work accountable by demanding that they report out, and close, their gender pay gaps. It’s about giving all of our children the tools to live the lives that they deserve. It’s about balancing out our existing power structures.
As Gloria Steinem has said, “We will not solve the feminization of power until we solve the masculinity of wealth.” But we’re definitely not gonna solve anything by giving up fancy coffee. Full stop.
A $5 latte (or a $6 or $7 one) isn’t going to ruin your life. (And if it is, Ellevest has a whole team of financial planners who can help you.)
So, just buy the f***ing latte.
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