The Business of Life with Betty Liu

Financially Savvy

I recently picked up a copy of personal finance guru Suze Orman's latest book, Women & Money. It is her eighth book, which means she knows that by now, she can turn off a few readers and still retain a vast following. That is the impression from reading Women & Money - the tone is a bit reprimanding but not altogether disagreeable.

Indeed, Orman makes some very valid, if familiar, points - that women are often too generous with their money and time to the detriment of their financial and personal success. "I simply want you to give to yourself as much as you give of yourself," she implores.

Her advice may move you to get off your butt and start doing something about your finances, which can only be a good thing. But there is always - at least for me - an underlying sense of inadequacy beneath the rah-rah support of financial advisers such as Orman.

We must bow our heads in shame for not being able to handle money well, are too meek to ask for raises, and are mad shopaholics who spend half a month's rent on a Louis Vuitton purse.

I've met many women who do none of these things and many men who do (granted, let's replace the Louis Vuitton bag with the latest plasma television). I find Hong Kong women particularly financially savvy. Many play the stock market. They know a good bargain when they see one and how to get it. They are avid savers and often the ones who handle the family finances.

It is these kinds of successful women - women who have average-paying jobs but who have become financially secure by following a few simple rules - who have given me the best financial advice.

Here are a few gems I've gathered over the years that may help you get the financial freedom you seek.

1. Never underestimate the power of saving

This piece of advice is often the easiest to follow for women. And in Asia, where the savings rate is relatively high compared with the likes of the U.S., it's a breeze. While anyone who wants to be financially successful needs to start investing - whether it be in bonds, stocks or property - one of the most overlooked ways to become financially secure is through saving.

In many ways, your savings habit will be much more important to your financial success than your investing habit. Remember, the first secret for best-selling author David Bach's Automatic Millionaire is "pay yourself first". In other words, save, save, save - at least half of your gross annual salary.

2. Know when to pay and when not to

I learned this from one woman, Hilde Gerst, who ran a famous art gallery in New York's Madison Avenue. Gerst had a dashing life as a filmmaker, diplomat and artist after escaping from Poland with her two children just before the Second World War.

Gerst started her gallery from scratch but knew that if she were ever going to play in the big league, she would have to put her money on the line.

Though she was heavily in debt after starting her business, Gerst borrowed US$10,000 - a sizeable sum in the 1960s - from Chase Manhattan Bank and bought an exquisite painting by Maurice de Vlaminck, one of the established "master" artists, which she intended to auction. The auction drew just two people, but she sold the painting for a US$6,500 profit, learning years later that the buyer was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. That taught Gerst an important lesson: the only way to make a success of art trading is with the works of the masters.

In other words, to make money, you need to spend it on the right stuff. That applies to all of us, whether it is investing in a good education, a choice property, or even in an expensive suit that will get you further in interviews than a ratty reduced-price ensemble.

3. Keep your own stash

When I was writing my book, all the women I interviewed told me one thing: they kept a little money stashed away from their husbands. Sometimes, it was a lot of money.

The point was not that their spouses didn't know about their savings, but that these women knew that it was financially prudent to put aside money in a separate account solely under their name. Life can take the best and worst of turns, and if you're not financially self-sufficient, you could be looking disaster in the face.

4. Start a club to keep you focused

I know finances can be dull, that's why we have specialists for this kind of thing - people who can crunch the numbers so you don't have to.

Remember that the easiest way to fall into trouble with your finances is to become lazy and unfocused about them. Financial planners recommend spending 15 minutes a day reviewing your investments, but who does that? One trend that is catching on is female financial clubs.

It's a relatively new phenomenon in Asia, but in the U.S., it's already popular for women to come together to pick stocks and learn about financial planning.

Most members are usually retirees, but as younger women become more financially independent, they are also joining forces. The group camaraderie helps build financial confidence and makes learning the ins and outs of investing and financial planning less - well - boring.

I was part of just such a group of women in their 20s and 30s and though we spent quite a bit of time talking about men, clothes and jobs (not necessarily in that order), we did a fair amount of investing.

We even made a dollar or two.

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