What your wealth (or lack of it) is doing to your brain

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‘You need to set an intention,” Emilie Bellet is telling me. Immediately, my mind goes to yoga and meditation, acts of self-care, which, love them or loathe them, have become the cornerstone of modern well-being. Before you know it, you’ve bought the leggings, the superfood salad, and you’re off on the retreat of a lifetime. Anxiety and stress, see ya later!

Never mind the niggling worry: how am I going to pay for all this mental succour? I know I should really check my online banking, but it’s approaching the end of the month and I know it won’t look pretty. I’d rather scribble in my gratitude journal about what I ate for tea.

If this sounds all too familiar, then you are one of the (mostly female) people Bellet has helped to get a grip of their financial health.

Being financially savvy doesn’t have to mean investing in cryptocurrencies and shares in Tesla, but rather taking care of the fundamentals of our financial well-being.

Good budgeting and pension planning should be the face cream you apply every day, she says. Start now and your bank balance will age beautifully. Yet, too many of the women she helps are in their 30s and 40s and only just starting to think about it all. By then, she says, “it’s too late”.

If you’re harrumphing at the sheer obviousness of it all, no doubt you are in fine financial fettle and haven’t missed a month of saving in your life. However, Emilie can guarantee that there will be someone you care about – male or female – who is making these mistakes. Living from salary cheque to salary cheque, and not thinking about their future. They just won’t be telling you about it.

Of the 8.8 million people struggling with debt in the UK, 64 per cent are women, according to the Money Advice Service. Meanwhile, in 2016, the Money Advice Trust commissioned YouGov to conduct an online survey of 18- to 24-year-olds, which found that more than half of young people (51 per cent) worry about their finances on a regular basis. 

A third (32 per cent) felt heavily burdened by their debts, with 21 per cent of respondents sometimes being kept awake at night by financial stress.

A recent study found that half of young people (51 per cent) worry about their finances on a regular basis Credit: Getty Images

We don’t grow up talking about money, which is, incidentally, where we’re all going wrong, says Bellet. “Being able to talk about money at home is important. You build financial habits from very early on,” says the 38-year-old mum of three. But lots of us have no clue what we should be doing; according to one report, 39 per cent of adults (20.3 million) don’t feel confident managing their money.

Bellet speaks to otherwise smart students who have no concept of the financial implications of their student loan, or what constitutes a good or bad debt.

Born in France but living in London since 2007, Bellet says money was never part of the conversation at home. “With my parents, or my girlfriends, we were never talking about money. And then, bam, you’re an adult and you have a credit card, rent, bills.”

It didn’t stop her from becoming first an analyst at Lehman Brothers and then subsequently working in private equity, investing hundreds of thousands on behalf of others.

“My job was investing big money, but I wasn’t doing it for myself,” she recalls. When she started to talk to her girlfriends, it was “awkward and embarrassing”.

Never mind talking about investing, simple budgeting and pension management wasn’t even happening.

Bellet went on to quit her job and found Vestpod, a digital platform that aims to change the conversation about money and empower women financially via a weekly newsletter, as well as personal-finance workshops and networking events.

She has revised her bestselling book, You’re Not Broke, You’re Pre-Rich, in order to make it more slimline and accessible: “Like a little bible you can fit in your bag.”

It’s about getting people to start on their financial wellness journey, which will be different for all of us.

That’s why we’re talking about setting intentions. “It doesn’t need to be complicated,” Bellet explains. “But you need to set an intention of where your money is going to go. What do I value in life?”

Her advice is to sit down and write down your values. “It might be that you value travel, family, education, freedom.” But then when you look at what you’re actually spending your money on, you realise it all goes on Zara and other retail websites. “That’s when you realise you’re completely misaligned with your own values, because your money goes into others’ pockets.”

While the majority of her work involves helping women, it’s not, she says, because they are “bad” with money compared with men, but that they have different experiences.

Bellet recalls from her private equity days how much easier it was for men to talk about investing, “because it sounds cool”. However, she noticed, men won’t talk about debt, budgeting or saving.

By learning to invest earlier in life, though, they make mistakes and build up their confidence before they take on further commitments, such as family or a mortgage.

There are systemic issues as well, such as the gender pay gap, which mean women fall behind on their personal finances. “We’re still the primary carers of children and the elderly. Taking time off means less money in savings.”

A 2020 Scottish Widows’ report found that, on average, women in their 20s today are on course to retire with £100,000 less in their pension pot than a man of the same age.

Yet it’s not that women can’t deal with money. Research has shown that they are much better at running household finances. “The problem is that the men will make the bigger financial decisions, such as renegotiating the mortgage, which is not always a good thing, because they tend to take different risks from women. Interestingly, research has shown that women outperform men at investing by 1.8 per cent.”

Male or female, as a nation we played fast and loose with our wallets in lockdown. The UK racked up a digital shopping bill of more than £110  billion, the most since records began.

Bellet admits to having made too many Amazon Prime purchases, one after the other. Her poison? Books. “It’s a disaster.”

She calls the rise of the buy now, pay later schemes “horrible”. “It’s become super-trendy to spend money. On social media you’re bombarded all day by influencers wearing this and that, and you can buy at a click.

“It’s affecting mental health and it’s affecting your wallet as well,” says Bellet. “It’s really hard to keep track if you’re not super-intentional with your money.”

Her advice is to remove your bank details from all your devices and from PayPal. If you’re searching for that quick-fix dopamine hit to alleviate your boredom, she advises against making purchases on the spur of the moment. Instead schedule a day and a time in your calendar, say on Saturday evening, and allow yourself one hour of digital window shopping.

Acts such as this are just as essential to our self-care as going to the gym, having a hot bath at the end of a long day, or going on a relaxing holiday. Perhaps even more so, because, says Bellet: “If you’re stressed and anxious, the chances are that money is at the root of it.”

Instead of putting off renegotiating your household bills, sort out your savings accounts and divide them up according to your values and aims, short- and long-term. Seize control of your purse strings and Bellet promises it might even become a pleasure to do.

“Once you’re in control, it’s an enjoyable experience because there are no surprises any more.” And if you overspend a few times, that’s OK. It’s not about judging yourself too harshly.

“It’s about planning for your future. A little pot of money will buy you choices. From changing jobs, building a business, or leaving a toxic relationship. Then you can breathe a bit more.”

You’re Not Broke, You’re Pre-Rich by Emilie Bellet (Octopus, £10.99). Order your copy from the Telegraph Bookshop.  

Emilie’s five tips for financial wellness

  • Decide what money means to you. Is it a tool to do things with your life, or the goal in itself?
  • Talk about money with your partner, family and friends. Emilie suggests giving them her book to read and asking for their feedback
  • Know your numbers. Open your bank statement, look at your payslip, check your pension, find out what your credit score is. Know where you’re at. Then you can ask how you can improve it
  • Look at your behaviour around money. When we overspend, it’s not always because we buy a huge sofa. It’s little things that add up. Are your spending habits aligned with your values and are they healthy?
  • Think long-term. Once you’ve sorted out your emergency fund and short-term savings, you can start to think about who you will be in 30 years. What do you want your life to look like? Then you can start saving for that person. 

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