Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with personal finance expert Carmen Wong Ulrich, former host of CNBC’s “On the Money” and author of Generation Debt: Take Control of Your Money—A How-to Guide and The Real Cost of Living: Making the Best Choices for You, Your Life, and Your Money (find them here). As a woman in business (a public woman, actually, regularly appearing on NBC, CBS, CNN, to name a few), she understands the challenges we face in the professional world. Check out our conversation below:
MBAchic: As a personal finance expert, what is the biggest challenge you face when trying to help people achieve financial literacy and freedom? What about when working with young professional women?
Carmen Wong Ulrich: Two things: one is getting the message across about the real importance of financial literacy. It is absolutely vital and it determines the quality of your life. As much as we pay attention to our jobs (and getting better jobs, and making better pay) – if we paid nearly as much attention to our finances, that actually can determine what kind of life we end up having. Getting that across; I consider that my mission.
The second is for women to be confident about the decisions they make. Men have no trouble doing a lot of crazy things with their money! Our lack of confidence sometimes serves us really well because we don’t do crazy things, but I think we could learn a little bit from the confidence that guys have. [We can] apply that to our finances so we do things like save and invest better (and more often); we can make some pretty informed choices that may seem a little risky. If we are paralyzed by fear, it can be a real detriment to us.
MBAchic: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
CWU: I can’t explain to you how amazing it feels just to help someone in even the smallest moments and have them say, “You inspired me to save,” “you inspired me to cut back,” or “you inspired me to have a budget.” They are so grateful and their lives change because of it; all of a sudden, they have a retirement fund, or they’re out of debt. That’s the reason why I do this. I do this really for education, and to help people. When that happens, I am my happiest. Absolutely.
MBAchic: What piece of advice do you wish someone would have given you, fresh out of school, or when starting your career – what do you wish you knew before you started?
CWU: I wish I had known that all the hard work absolutely pays off, and all the frustration will actually fuel you to go in the right direction. The frustration pushes you in other directions, and that’s a good thing; it makes you do something. Frustration is the motivator for a lot of people. I think, for a lot of women, this may be the case because we have a little bit more trouble, in terms of people having assumptions about us and what we can do. And we get underestimated.
If you’re a smart, young woman, you get underestimated all the time. I was in a constant state of frustration. But at the same time I realize, in retrospect, that I used that frustration to push myself forward – it was like fuel. If someone had said to me: channel it, and direct it, and recognize that it has power, I think I would have thought about it more, and then maybe not have been so upset! [It helps] to recognize that that frustration actually comes from a good place, which is, [your] belief in [your] abilities. When you get frustrated with one employer, one place, one situation, your mind hopefully is thinking, okay, what can I do? Instead of focusing on how upset you are, focus on, what can I do to make it better? To change things? To not be so upset? Use that energy that you have to move things along, as opposed to standing in place, stomping your feet.
I think if someone had really laid it out to me that way, maybe I wouldn’t have had to spend so much time being frustrated, and upset, and I would have spent even more time being constructive. I’ve seen a lot of people get stuck in that frustration, and with some strange righteousness, hold onto it and wave it like a flag, and—it doesn’t get you anywhere. You’ve got to use it to say, okay, now what? What am I going to do?