Advice from a Pro: Interview with Carmen Wong Ulrich

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Recently, MBAchic 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:
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Carmen Wong Ulrich
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?

MBAchic: You’ve been in our shoes. You have your masters’ degree. You have a career, you’re married, you have a daughter; how are you able to juggle everything? How do you achieve balance at each stage in your life?

CWU: There is nothing like having a child and a family – it just throws things into a tizzy! I worked a lot – and I worked constantly. I think that’s something I do now; but in order to achieve balance, you must have boundaries. That’s another point of confidence. You have to be able to get to a point where you can put up boundaries.

The problem, of course, is that when you’re young, you don’t have any boundaries, because nobody expects you to have any. Just know the price that you’re paying, and be happy with it – or make peace with it. If it drives you nuts, you’re probably not in a field that will really bring you happiness. I think for me, I am grateful that I got into TV and web as opposed to monthly print magazines, because now I’m able to ask for those boundaries and to put them in place.

I look at my young producers who are getting calls from the executive producer at one in the morning—if that makes you nuts, either make peace with it because you love what you do so much, or say: you know what? This is not the way I want to live my life. And have the confidence to make that decision.

I’ve had opportunities to take full-time TV jobs again, and I have not, because that’s not the way that I want to live my life anymore. I am my own boss; I can see my child, my family, and just live. Life is short! Not everybody would make that choice, and I don’t condemn people who do. But, that’s my choice. And I’m happy with it.

While you’re young, think about and assess what you like and if you like what’s going on. There’s so much plowing ahead we do… make it about self-discovery and figuring out what’s important to you. What gets you excited about your day-to-day? What would make you happier? When the time comes for having a family, you will be better able to balance everything.

MBAchic: I recently posted a TED talk Sheryl Sandberg gave. She told women to “sit at the table” and to not “leave before you leave.” What’s your take on her advice? (**Note: readers can watch the TED talk here)

CWU: I agree partially with Sheryl; I think that you can’t discount the obstacles that are put in our way, but we have to make sure that we don’t fall into that trap of thinking about the future too much. I got my CNBC show when my daughter was only a year and a half old; I said, “how the heck am I gonna do this?” You know what? It gets done. Let’s put it that way: it gets done.

If you wait too long to have kids, or you start planning too early and start to make compromises even before you have children… there’s no reason to do that. You can bow out when you’re 9 months pregnant! You don’t have to bow out before it actually happens. That just sets you up for a lot of regret.

If you’re an ambitious woman, don’t apologize for wanting to also be a mom—just keep going and deal with it when it comes. When it comes, you will deal. But definitely don’t start setting yourself up. You don’t have control over when you meet your man or when you get pregnant (sort of – you have limited control). Plan what you have control over, which is just you.

MBAchic: You wrote two books: 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. Do you have any plans to write a third?

Carmen Wong Ulrich: I do. I have a couple of ideas in mind, but I am not ready yet to talk about them. In publishing, ideas are currency.

MBAchic: Now, of course, what do you make of all this debt ceiling drama? Where do you see the US in the global picture in the next year? In the next 5 years?

CWU: This whole thing is very distressing. This is where politics and personal finance really converge, because the decisions made in Washington affect people personally, in their pocketbooks. Not everybody’s motivations are for your wallet, so it’s very distressing. I think that the majority of Americans would agree that it’s a sad situation when some have such control of your wallet.

I think that we need to internalize the fact that things will continue to be difficult. For a long time. I wouldn’t be surprised, and I’m not a fan of “crystal-balling” it, if it is at least five years, if not ten. This will be like a slog to get through; but, okay, what are we going to do about it (I say it a lot – that’s just the way I am!)? Continue to live below your means if you can, continue to be really mindful of your money and save as much as you can—enjoy life too, just be aware of the repercussions of your financial decisions. And we are going to have to take care of ourselves more and more in the future, in terms of financial aid.

I grew up when the majority of Americans had pensions. Could you imagine? Pensions amaze me to this day. It is amazing to think that you work, and somebody has saved up for you. Now that number is getting to be as small as 15% (from the majority of Americans in the 1970s). That’s a huge shift. Corporations are not going to take care of us down the road – we absolutely have to take care of ourselves. So, be mindful of your money.

This job market is going to stick around, so the best thing you can do is to always act like a freelancer. Meaning, have the mindset of a freelancer: How else can you make money? Who else do you need to ask to lunch? Constantly network. Always be thinking: What can I do? What else can I do? Because volatility in the market, that’s just going to be the norm. And more and more of us will just end up working for ourselves (which is not necessarily a bad thing, but again, even more important to pay attention to how you manage your money)!

For more information on Carmen Wong Ulrich, visit her website or follow her on Twitter (@carmenwongulric). Have any personal finance questions for Carmen Wong Ulrich?

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