By Dr. Margaret Curtis, WCI Columnist
Ask me or any of my female friends and we will all tell you the same thing: growing older is wonderful for women. We are largely past the intense early career and family years. We have made mistakes, some of them painful or costly, and learned from them. We are old enough to know better. We are also, through the alchemy of time and experience, tougher and more confident than any of us were in our 20s or 30s. Now that we're in our 50s, popular culture largely ignores us, but we know the truth: the Valkyries were middle-aged.
Hitting my 50s has made me a better professional. When I was first out of residency, I billed most of my office visits as Level 3 (out of 5) because I thought maybe the advice I was giving wasn’t that good. Now, I know that my advice is excellent, and I bill appropriately. I used to tread lightly around people who talked on the phone when I was in the room, didn’t do what I told them, or didn’t vaccinate their kids. Now I control the narrative in my exam rooms and save my energy for patients who want to work with me.
My husband has been both the beneficiary and the object of my assertiveness. He has talked about this so much at his office that staff now ask themselves this question when faced with a rude patient: What Would A Perimenopausal Woman Do? The answer is usually: Don’t Put Up With It. I recently fired a parent who swore at my front desk staff—something I would have lacked the gumption to do 20 years ago.
All of this gumption makes middle-aged women ideal financial planners. If you don’t believe me, I don’t care. But you can read on to learn how to be a better investor.
#1 We Are Not Afraid
We have done harder things than create a financial plan, and we have been through worse things than market downturns. I am old enough to remember Black Monday (1987), the Dot.Com Bubble (2001), and the Great Recession (2008). You know what happened after each of these? The economy bounced back, people who stayed in the market did well, and people who panicked and sold did not. Stop wringing your hands and stick to your financial plan.
#2 We Are Not Here to Impress You
We are low on estrogen, which is the “I care what you think about me” hormone. My investment portfolio is appropriate for my family and backed by years of data. We primarily use the following index funds:
US Large/Med Cap Stocks: Fidelity Total Market Index (FSKAX)
US Small Cap: Fidelity Small Cap Index (FSSNX)
International: Fidelity International Index (FSPSX)
Bonds: Fidelity US Bond Index (FSNAX)
REITs: Fidelity Real Estate Index (FSRNX)
We also own a single-family rental. If you think this portfolio is boring, you are right. But I didn’t ask for your opinion.
#3 We Have Other Priorities
I am the first to say that I live a life of abundance: family, friendships, dogs, a garden, a hockey rink in the backyard, and plenty of hobbies that have nothing to do with finance. I don’t have time or inclination to do dumb stuff like day-trade or pick individual stocks. We started out with a standard 60% stock/40% bond and REIT portfolio, which we are transitioning to be more conservative as we get closer to retirement. Now we have a 50/50 blend, with further breakdown into large/small/international stocks:
I rebalance every six months or when our total allocation is out of whack by 5% or more. The research on optimal rebalancing strategies agrees with me. If you still think I’m doing it wrong, re-read #2.
#4 We Do Not Suffer Fools Gladly
A male colleague once promised to share with me his “curriculum for teaching women to breastfeed,” despite the fact that I have spent more of my life breastfeeding than he spent in medical school. Not financial, obviously, but I added him to the gallery of people who tried to give me unsolicited, unwanted, and incorrect advice.
This is where I should probably put in a caveat like, “This is not gendered!” But I’m also not here to be conciliatory. This is totally gendered. Male financial advisors have tried to sell me actively managed funds and high-commission products. Male bosses have told me the following: I should take a pay cut for working during a pandemic, a Simple IRA is not an IRA, and not getting paid time off is actually an “opportunity” for me. If you want to sell me whole life insurance or crypto, ask yourself if you have something those gentlemen did not.
I no longer mistake overconfidence for competence, and neither should you.
#5 We Trust Our Own Judgment
I hear a lot of young(er) women talk about pressures they feel to make career or money moves that involve giving up their autonomy: a spouse that won’t share oversight of their finances or who wants to make a whackadoo investment, or an employer who wants them to work more hours or outside their scope of practice. My answer to them is always the same: In my 51 years, I have never—not once—been glad I substituted someone else’s judgment for my own.
This is not gendered. I manage our family’s investments but my husband checks in regularly. If you want someone else to manage your finances—be it a friend, relative, or professional—you must be part of making the plan and then insist that it be followed. If you don’t know how to make a financial plan, you can learn. And if someone tries to pressure you into making unsound decisions, don’t budge. All my middle-aged friends and I will have your back.
Getting older has many joys. If you have children in your life, seeing them grow and come into their own is a marvel. The novelty of an early career is gone but so is the anxiety, and instead, there is a pleasant sense of mastery. The real physical decline is hopefully still a few years off, although my dentist has started to ask me disturbing questions like, “How often do you find food trapped in your gums?” If you run a race, people will cheer you because you are an inspiration.
Hopefully, you are on sound financial footing, and you can start to enjoy the fruits of your labor (if you aren’t yet, you still can be. Start here.). No matter your age, you can learn the skills and savvy to navigate any financial waters—and if you feel short on both, just ask a middle-aged woman. We’ve got plenty.
If you're in your 40s or 50s, can you relate to this attitude? What other financial lessons have you learned as you journey through middle age? Is it true that the older you become, the wiser you get? Comment below!