The Fierce Girl's Guide to Finance

Get your shit together with money


September 2016

Our right – and our obligation – to be a Fierce Girl

Did you know that in Saudi Arabia, a woman can’t travel, get out of jail or drive a car without a male chaperone? I know this because a Fierce Girl in that country is currently running a petition to change the law, under the hashtag #Iammyownguardian. You go girl.

This is just one of many f*cked up rules that our sisters in other countries are subject to. I won’t go into detail about ‘honour’ killings, child marriages or female genital mutilation, but will just say it’s totally and utterly f*cked.

And even here in the modern, Western world, we continue to fight on other fronts. We fight not to have men threaten us with rape and death on Twitter. We fight not to be killed by men we had the misfortune to love (two women die this way every week in Australia, sadly). We fight not to be manterrupted, mainsplained to, or manspread next to.

Nonetheless, we have been given a gift of rights that many of our sisters around the world simply don’t have.  In fact, until last century, women could barely own property in their own names. Until the mid-20th century, we couldn’t apply for a bank loan without a male signatory. And in many industries, we weren’t allowed to work once we got married.

So the rights we have now have been hard-won.

Our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers handed us a powerful legacy: financial independence.

We don’t need a man to give us permission for anything (well, maybe to touch them, but they hardly ever say no to that).

So how good is this? We can earn our own money! Invest it! Save it! Spend it!

We can do whatever we damn want to do with it, because it’s ours.

We have the power to pay for our own lives. 

But as Gandalf once said, with great power, comes great responsibility. (Well I’m not sure it was him, but it sounds plausible, in his deep, calming, Sir Ian McKellen voice).

We have been handed a GIFT. The gift of financial freedom. And we have to treasure it.

That means not throwing it away, not letting a man get his grubby hands on it, not leaving it to sort itself out. Let’s disregard any Marxist deconstruction of gender politics and economics (which I could totally do, with my liberal Arts degree and intimate knowledge of Marxism).

Because I would like to argue that FIERCE GIRL FINANCE IS A FEMINIST ACT.

Beyonce: feminist icon and ‘black Bill Gates in the making’.

Men are always trying to get up in our shit. So, every time you learn more about money and finance, the more you take over the stuff they have been owning for centuries.

Every time you fight for a payrise (and to close the gender pay gap), you are carrying on a tradition of women fighting for their share of the world’s resources.

Every time you save money for your F*ck-off Fund, you are giving yourself more power to shape your choices.

Every time you invest money successfully, you are giving yourself more resources to do whatever it is that makes your soul sing.

Every time you say no to spending money on crap you don’t need, so you can pay for stuff that improves your life, you are adding to the happiness of all of us womenfolk.

And every time you use your wealth to give thoughtfully to a charity that helps other women, you are sharing the love with the sisterhood.

I could go on. And I encourage you to share your own thoughts on how you see finance intersecting with feminism.

But let’s all just take a moment to think about what we have gained, what we still need to fight for, and how every dollar we earn, spend, save and invest in a mindful way, is a dollar in the money-box of gender equality.

Insider’s Guide to Finance Part II: Financial Advisers

Financial advisers have had a bad run in recent years. But writing off all financial advice because of a few bad ones is like swearing off dating just because you watched The Bachelor choose Alex over Nikki (I know right!). Certainly there are stupid, incompetent or greedy advisers out there. But there are stupid, incompetent and greedy people everywhere, and to be honest, I would say quite a few of them make it onto reality shows.

So would I recommend using an adviser? Yes and no.

As I said in another post, I generally support outsourcing to experts. I certainly don’t let any of my finance clients write media releases, and they don’t let me manage millions of dollars of other people’s money. It works out pretty well.

So here are some reasons you would consider working with a financial planner:

  • You have a pretty big goal to reach, such as starting a business or buying a house.
  • You’re undergoing a change such as marriage, divorce or having a baby.
  • You want to make sure you are on the right track with planning for your retirement.
  • You want a roadmap that keeps you focused on a goal, with a tangible plan to get there.

Advisers actually do quite a lot more than just tell you where to invest your money. They can look your life insurance (read more about that here), how to manage your tax affairs or help with ‘estate planning’ (i.e. they make you get a will).

HOWEVER.  There are a few things you should know about the way the industry works, so you go in with your BS detector ready.

Not all advisers are created equal

Remember in Clueless, when Cher explains her virginity? “You see how picky I am about my shoes, and they only go on my feet!”


So ladies, be like Cher. Be highly selective when choosing an adviser, because there is a wide spectrum. Some advisers only have a diploma, while others have a degree (although this is set to change in the next couple of years, under new government rules).

A degree is not, in itself, a guarantee of knowledge or integrity. And similarly, plenty of good advisers have gained lots of experience on the job, regardless of having done a uni course.

However, it does pay to look at their credentials. Ask about their qualifications and experiences. Ask for testimonials. Ask your friends and family. It’s your money, and you want to be like Cher with it.

Know enough to call BS on their advice

I got a big financial plan done many years ago, and part of the recommendation was to get a margin loan to buy shares (more about them here). It was late 2007 and the markets were great. In fact the whole economoy was great, and Australia was ballin’ like Beyonce in a pool of dollar bills.


Anyway, by the time I got around to implementing the advice, I knew enough to be worried. The sub-prime loan thing was happening in the US (a precursor to the GFC). It looked like the boom could be over soon, after a  period of ridiculous high growth. And anyone with a passing knowledge of economics knows EVERY boom has to have a bust. The trick is working out when.

So I sat out the storm. We kept our money in the bank, and soon enough, the sharemarkets dropped by more than 30% – which would have meant my margin loan got called in, and I’d have lost money or had to spend more.

This isn’t to say the advice was bad. But it came at the top of the markets, and I wasn’t comfortable with the assumptions underlying it.

The lesson here is, do enough reading and learning on your own, so that if something doesn’t sound right – for you – then you can say no. Or ask more questions. Or marry someone for 72 days.

The people who lost their homes in financial advice scandals such as Storm Financial were told that despite a really low income (sometimes just a pension), they could make hundreds of thousands of dollars. If they had had enough basic financial literacy, they would have known it was total BS. (If it sounds too good to be true…)

It’s like when you are in a shoe store and they only have size 38, but you are a size 39. That sales girl will tell you they are leather, they will stretch, yada yada yada. But you know in your heart those things will give you nothing but grief, blisters and pinched toes. So, you need to take advice (from anyone, including me) with a grain of salt, and listen to your own gut feel.

Someone, somewhere, wants to make money off you

You know when you go to the beautician for a facial, and you’re paying your 80 bucks for the service. But then she tells you your skincare regime sucks, and tries to offload 200 bucks worth of overpriced Dermalogica on you. And somehow, in the moment, a $60 moisturiser seems like a really good idea. (Newsflash: it’s not, and it never will be).

Well, the same thing happens in finance. If you go to a financial adviser at a bank, for example, they are bound by rules to recommend the best financial products for you. But it just so happens that the bank has a whole suite of financial products to offer too. “Look, here’s a managed fund I prepared earlier!”.

And just like the beautician is going to offer you the product that makes her money (I know, she swears by it, she really does) – the adviser is also possibly going to sell you a product that makes money for his or her venerable employer: the bank.

It’s called ‘vertical integration’, and while the finance industry didn’t invent it, they have built a huge business out of it.

Not every adviser is part of this vertically integrated structure. Many independent advisers are deadset against it, in fact. And I am not here to say who’s right or wrong. There are fantastic advisers – both independent and aligned – selling a wide range of products in a highly ethical way. It’s just good to be aware who is making money, and where, and how.

Know what you’re buying,  ask questions, and consider whether you couldn’t get a really bloody good moisturiser at Priceline for $12. (I have, and look at my youthful skin!).

So how do I get started?

Asking friends and family for recommendations is a good start. Check out the Financial Planning Association website. Follow some advisers on LinkedIn and see if you like what they say. I wish you well, and hope you never again buy a pair of shoes half a size too small.

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An insider’s guide to finance: Managed Funds

Ever wonder what goes on in those shiny city skyscrapers, where billions of dollars change hands each day? Nah, me either.

But that’s because I have seen it first-hand. Don’t believe what you saw in The Wolf of Wall St. Most of it is just guys sitting in front of computer screens, or in meeting rooms with poorly designed PowerPoints. (My friend Amara disagrees and says I just don’t work with the right people, but I call it as I see it).

Anyway, I’ve worked with clients across the finance industry: banks, super funds, insurers, fund managers, advisers, fintechs. You name it, I’ve spruiked them to the media, advised their executives and probably gone drinking with them.

However, I’m not one of them. So I have a particular perspective.

And when people ask me questions like ‘what should I invest in?’, it’s not easy to answer, for two reasons: it is breathtakingly complex and also full of bullsh*t.

So I’m going to do some posts to help you sort through the BS, and share with you what I have discovered about the way money is managed, invested, lent and looked after.

Lesson 1: There is no secret formula.

There are literally hundreds fund managers in Australia, whose job it is to invest in shares (aka equities) on behalf of you, me and our super funds.

And every fund manager has their own style of investing. I liken it to girls and diets. Some swear by Atkins, blood type, food-combining, paleo or low-fat. Trends also come and go,  like the cabbage soup diet (which didn’t ever achieve much other than epic farts).

Fundies are the same. There are broad categories of investing, and within those, each one has tailored their own version. So you’re not just on a paleo diet, you’re on a low-carb paleo diet with an autoimmune protocol. (That’s actually a thing, for realz).

Let’s take, as an example, ‘value’ investors. They are the equivalent of shoppers who comb the racks at outlet malls looking for one perfect pair of Jimmy Choos marked down by 80%. So they buy ‘undervalued’ companies and hang out until they become cool. So, actually, it’s more like buying last season’s shoes and waiting five years until peep toes come back in.

Another style is ‘quant’ (short for quantitative). These guys don’t even bother going into a mall. Their shopping equivalent is creating an algorithm that sweeps eBay and buys one bargain pair of heels from every seller. There is still human input, but it’s mainly data-driven.

There are so many more styles, and sub-styles. Saying you’re an Australian equities fund manager is like saying you like Electronic Dance Music. Sure, but do you like house, deep house, dub-step, jungle, trance, or just Calvin Harris (and your rave pass gets revoked if it’s only him).

All these styles do well at different times and in different market conditions. It’s like how I love the last couple of seasons, when midriffs came back in fashion, because I can totally rock a crop-top (regardless of whether it’s age-appropriate). But when boho chic was all the rage, I totally floundered, because I look like a bad hippie hangover in flounces and frills.

Value investors are having a hard time right now because assets are overpriced and there aren’t many bargains to find*. It’s like the beginning of the winter, when boots are like $300 each. I never, ever buy full price because you know they will be on sale in two months. Value investors are like that, but they sometimes have to wait years for valuations to come down.

Ethical investments, by contrast, are having a stellar period, because they don’t invest in some of the industries that have been having a tough time in the last couple of years, especially mining. And they have more investments in booming industries like healthcare and technology, so it’s happy days for these guys at the moment. (Click here if you want to know more about that).

All of this stuff is swings and roundabouts though. Just like I am set up perfectly for a world where big butts are in fashion, I am going to be sad when big boobs come back in vogue. And they will.

Why pay more? 

The other thing about these funds is that they have different fee levels. ‘Active management’ is much more time-intensive and therefore more exy on fees. ‘Passive management’ is where they basically just follow the market – these are generally called ‘Index Funds’ and they have lower fees.

It’s like the difference between going to the hairdresser to get foils and complicated layers every six weeks, versus having your natural colour and a trim at Just Cuts.

Active managers would argue, as would my hairdresser, that you get what you pay for.

I pay a premium to my hairdresser and my fund manager, because I think both are worth it. My hair is frizzy and mouse-brown and needs a lot of help. I pay for ethical investments, because I am a greenie, leftie tragic. That’s totally my choice.

You could easily get a low-cost, Index fund or an ETF that will do the job of helping you grow your wealth.  You can also get a thoughtfully selected range of managed funds that will help meet your goals and possibly perform better than competitors (known as ‘outperforming the benchmark’).

So what’s a girl to do?

Well, you have a range of options.

Warren Buffett (one of the world’s richest men) reckons everyone should just do the Index Fund thing. Who am I to argue? If you want to, check out MoneySmart’s info on choosing a managed fund, and it talks about them in more detail.

ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds) are very much in fashion, and are another low-cost way to access investments via the stock exchange. I have exposure to some through the Acorns app, (which I’ve talked about here, towards the end of the post), but it’s not a large amount. That’s one of the good things about ETFs – you can start small. MoneySmart also has some good info on this.

Speak to a financial adviser. I know, you are all like ‘no, I can’t afford it’. I am generally a fan of investing in professional advice from people who know more than me (hello, divorce lawyer fees). However, I do think you need a good BS filter as well, because advisers do generally want to make money out of you. Start at the FPA if you want to find one, as their members have to be highly qualified.

If you don’t trust a financial adviser in a suit, consider getting some robo-advice. Which is not as fun as it sounds, because it’s not like Dexter on Perfect Match. (If you don’t know who that is, either you’re too young, or I’m too old).  It’s basically digital advice from companies such as Stockspot  (I am not advocating them, it’s just an example).

If only we could get advice from adorable 80s robots
If only we could get advice from adorable 80s robots

Now, if you aren’t sure why you’d want to buy shares at all, that’s a different conversation and you should probably read this post. Simply put, shares can be a good way to start building your wealth if you can’t afford a property and are pissed off at getting 2.5% interest from the bank.

Just don’t feel bamboozled by all the different managed fund options. Start small and simple, get comfortable, do a bit of Googling and reading, and I swear, you will be rich enough to buy an 80s robot in no time.

*Bonus learning – If you are interested in why assets are overpriced, it’s because of monetary policy (see this post for a primer). Interest rates are low, so everyone has more money to spend on buying investments. Also, because interest rates are low, it’s not much use sticking cash in the bank, so people buy shares and bonds and buildings to get a higher return. But when everyone does that, prices go up. It’s a tricky balance.

Photo credit: Kevin Jarrett

What I know for sure about money, and life, and leaving

Oprah’s magazine has a column called ‘What I know for sure’, where people talk about their life truths.

(Now don’t even start hating on Oprah, because she is my total soul-sister). And the fact is, we all have our truths. Hard-earned insights that life teaches us.

So I don’t have any ‘education’ for you today, Fierce Girls. I just have some truths that I want to share. They may resonate with you now, one day in the future or maybe never. We all have our own truths to uncover, and they are different for each of us.

But the great thing is that sharing our truths can start a conversation – with ourselves and each other. We start to turn these truths over, bring them into the light, examine them, see if we like them or if we can discard them.

So here is what I know for sure about money. (And when I say for sure, I mean ‘right now’ – I might change my mind at some point, because that’s called growth).

Nobody cares how much your stuff cost.

You don’t need to buy a handbag with a label. You don’t need to buy expensive wine to take to your friend’s house. You don’t need a fancy European car.

You can buy these things because you like them, or because they are beautiful. I love looking at the one designer thing I own (a Longines watch).

But nobody else really cares – perhaps they give them a cursory thought. But they quickly move on to sizing up the quality of your soul, not the quality of your goods.

And the price of your possessions bears no relationship to the satisfaction you feel with your life.

Maybe this sounds obvious. And yet I see so many people live as though it’s not. Don’t you?

You need far less stuff than you think. 

When my marriage ended, I left a 3-bedroom townhouse with a double garage, to end up with one room in an apartment and no garage.

The new place was already furnished, so I parted ways with a house full of furniture, appliances, books and kitchen gear. Left it, threw it out, donated it and squeezed a few boxes into mum’s garage.

Kept my (real) Tupperware though – that shit has a lifetime warranty!

So, I barely own any stuff now. And I am happier than I have been in years. Of course, correlation is not necessarily causation – I am happy for other, more fundamental reasons.

But this process of shedding things proved to me that beyond the basics (like containers for your epic food prep sessions), you don’t need heaps of stuff to be happy.

The more you earn, the more you spend.

I earn twice what I did back in my twenties. And yet, somehow, my life feels the same. It’s a curious thing.

I still shop at K Mart, still buy cheap wine, still drive the same car. Sure, I own more assets. But overall, my life feels very similar.

So it’s great to be ambitious and aim high, but don’t be fooled into the belief that reaching some magical salary will solve all of your money problems. We ratchet up our cost base in line with our payrises, then one day realise that having enough money is always just a little out of reach.

Side note: this is a good reason to put your payrises into extra super payments – because you will likely piss it away anyway.

Money is not about having things, it’s about having choices

Nobody gets married thinking it will end. I didn’t think it would happen to me. But it does, and it did.

And if you’re the one who wants to leave, you have to deal with the emotional upheaval just as much as the practical shitstorm. Finding rent and bond for a new place is a big expense, for example.

I was able to do that because I had savings. I had an income. I could find a nice apartment in a nice area. I had choices.

That also meant I could focus all my attention on the essentials, like bursting into tears on the train every morning.

I heard a great term recently: the ‘fuck-off fund’. A stash of money for if you want to leave a relationship or a job. You stash some cash for those times when it’s all too much to deal with.

Those are the kinds of choices you buy yourself when you make good money decisions.

So these are some of my truths. Leave a comment if you have some to add. We’d love to hear them.

Fierce Girl Action Plan Pt III – How to avoid drowning in debt

First up, a confession. I only used that headline so I could use that picture. But Beyonce is full of good advice, which we shall get to later.

Truth is, many of us stumble through life with a trail of debt.  Credit cards,  university fees, car loans. Then we think about barrelling into more debt by buying a home .

However, I am not here to say ‘debt is bad’. It’s a normal part of life, and it can help boost your wealth when used appropriately.

But not all debt is created equal.

And whether it’s good or bad, debt costs us money. Nobody lends you money without the prospect of getting it back and making more on top. 

Even that ’24 months interest free’ for your TV comes with monthly account fees. But what they really hope is that you will go over the 24 months and start paying 20% interest on the outstanding balance.

When the bank says ‘zero percent interest on balance transfers’ for your credit card, it really hopes you won’t pay it off before the special offer ends – and that you will, in fact,  add more to it.

Let’s face it. The banks have you figured. If you need a balance transfer, you probably use your credit card a little too freely. Banks like you. They don’t like Nancy No-Spend, who pays her card off in full each month. She gives them nothing.

But debt can be useful when it helps you build wealth and magnify your gains. So let’s just spend a bit of time on the basics.

Why are some loans sooo expensive?

There are two types of people in this world: people who know how to walk, and people who are in my way.

That’s irrelevant, but I read it the other day and liked it. What I really mean is, there are two types of loans in this world – secured and unsecured.

In life, all risk is priced. Whether it’s the risk to a lender that you won’t repay a loan (hello 20% interest rate!) or the risk to an investor that they might lose money (hello cheap shares in speculative tech start-up!). So, it’s handy to remember that for all money conversations.

In terms of loans, secured is less risky to the lender. There is an asset – your home, a car or shares – that the lender can come in and take back if you don’t pay the loan. The risk for them is lower, and so is the interest rate.

Unsecured loans have none of this ‘collateral’ against them. When you don’t pay your credit card, the bank can’t come in and demand that you return all those bottles of Sauvignon Blanc you bought at Ryan’s Bar. Nor do they have any interest in your hot, over-the-knee boots from last season. (Losers, obvs).

Other than sending you mean letters from debt collectors, they can’t do much to get their money back. So this riskier loan is more exy – up to 20% interest or more.

So what’s a good debt? 

Let’s call them ‘productive debts’. These loans can make you money – finance types call this ‘leveraging’. You borrow money to invest.

A home loan, in theory, will make you money because the value of your property grows.

Whether it balances out with the amount you pay in interest depends – on the interest rate, the property in question and a bunch of economic factors.  In general, the more money you throw at the loan, the faster it gets paid off, the less interest you pay and the more money you make.

Similarly, you can take out a loan to buy investments – often shares – which magnify your gains. So instead of buying $100 of shares that make you $10 profit, you borrow another $100, invest $200 and make $20.

You end up paying back that hundred, plus interest, so you don’t entirely double your gains, but you certainly make more than just spending your own money.

These are called margin loans, and they can be a little tricky for the unwary. Say the shares you bought fall in value dramatically – from $10 each to $6. The bank gets worried because that’s not enough collateral to cover what you borrowed. So they make a ‘margin call’ – forcing you to sell down your shares or tip in more of your own cash.

Now I know that sounds a bit scary, and it can be; people lost a bunch of money this way during the GFC. But there are ways to manage the risk, by not borrowing too much in the first place.

To be honest, most of you probably aren’t going to dabble in margin lending, but if a spivvy financial adviser tries to sell you one, at least you know what they are talking about. (I was advised to get one right before the GFC, and didn’t. Dodged a bullet there).

And what’s bad debt? 

Now we are friends with the good guys, let’s talk about the bad guys. Because that is always who I go for. Hello, Danny Zuko.


For simplicity, I will make a list of debts you should get out of your life as swiftly as Amber Heard kicked Johnny Depp to the curb and then donated her settlement to women’s charities (Fierce Girl for sure).

Credit Card Debt 

Credit cards are useful if you have self-control. However, much like having a block of Cadbury Dairy Milk in the pantry, it doesn’t always end up they way you hope.

But rather than lecture you, let me share some of my failings in this area and offer some lessons.

Credit Card Disaster #1

When the NRMA demutualised back in 2001, they gave members shares in the company. I got a couple of thousands dollars worth.

I also had a couple of thousand dollars on my credit card from buying clothes and drinking at The Establishment (which was  brand new and oh-so-cool). So I decided that I’d sell my shares and pay off the debt.

My  dad said this was a rubbish idea, but what would he know?! I would clear my slate and go forth debt-free. On $30,000 a year!

So we can see how this ends. I liquidate my one asset with genuine growth prospects, settle a debt, then steadily rack it up again. Without meeting one decent guy at The Establishment. (Some things never change).

Credit card disaster #2

I came back from two years in London with nothing but memories, photos and one good pair of shoes. Luckily my dad and step-mum let me move in, and I got a decent job in PR.

What a great time to set myself up financially.  I had been so poor in London, and now I had money! Hurrah!

Soooo, I spent it. All of it.

In fact, I splashed all my cash on God-knows-what and found myself in debt again. FFS.

Fast-forward a year or two, and  with a better-paid job in Melbourne, I’d paid off the card and got back in control. Until…

Credit card disaster # 3 – My partner was working in hospitality when he had an accident and couldn’t work for months. So I became the breadwinner and we continued our lives as best we could.

Except we didn’t change our lifestyle, or our cost base. Maybe I trimmed at the edges, but essentially, we were still living like a two-income household. So we racked up debt again…

Ok, there is a pattern here, and if I am honest, it’s one I have never totally cracked. Currently at zero balance, but touch wood! [2020 edit –  I have no credit card and no debt other than a mortgage – it is possible!]

The recurring theme is simply thoughtless spending. It’s one thing to have an unexpected costs come up, but another to just let your balance creep up incrementally because you’re a baller. Hence why I have tried to embrace mindful spending.

It comes down to the Micawber Principle. One of my fave Dickens characters, Mr Micawber is constantly in and out of debtors’ jail (yes, in Victorian England you got locked up for going bankrupt!). So he tells David Copperfield, over and again, “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.”

If you don’t dig Dickens (*shakes head in disapproval*) then let me break it down for you: don’t spend more than you earn. It’s that simple … and that hard.

Fancy cars are for men with small … egos

A couple of years ago I told my brother how I was planning to buy a Toyota 86, a funky little sports car. He asked me a while later what happened to that plan.

“The flaw in my plan,” I told him “is that I forgot that I’m a massive tightarse”. So the 13-year-old Mazda 3 lives another day.

I don’t have much to say here except that cars are a depreciating asset (i.e. they lose money every day), they are mostly an ego decision, and they are a pain to pay for. Just buy the cheapest/safest car you can, and find your self-worth elsewhere.

Also, make sure you find a loan that you can pay out early – it shouldn’t take you five years to pay off a five-year loan. Throw extra money in and you will save on interest, as well as getting the monkey of debt off your back.

A HECS on your debt

If you are trying to choose which debts to pay off first, leave this one down the list (other than the minimum of course). It’s pretty much interest free (they index it, but don’t charge interest), so just let that one tick over on the government’s balance sheet for as long as possible.

If you have concurrent debts, such as HECS, a credit card and a car loan, look at which one is charging the highest interest and smash that one first.

It will require patience and dedication and sacrifice, but so does pretty much everything worth doing.

Be like Beyonce! Work hard and grind hard til you own it (life, that is).


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