America Saves Week Spotlight: Shelly Wolf

For America Saves Week (ASW), I wanted to bring you personal insights and experiences from real women in my life. They are all at different stages of their journey to financial freedom and have great insights and tips. I was also fortunate to be able to interview a mom and dad who played a huge role in influencing their relationship with money and shaping their money story. I hope you find them as fascinating as I did!

Tell us about your family’s relationship with money growing up.

I was born in 1942, the world was very different then, especially for women. I had one sister, and my parents (especially my father) taught us to save at a very early age.

We never talked about how much my dad made, though, but we did talk about respecting money and the importance of saving and making a habit of putting it away, because you never know when you will need it. We got allowances, but we had to save some of it every week. I remember from as early as elementary school, we all had bank accounts with a little bank book; not sure if they still have those these days. I knew about savings and took it for granted so it became a part of me.

My mom supported what my dad said, they were always in agreement and were consistent in what they gave us and how they talked to us.

What did you learn about money once you went off to college?

Not much beyond saving. My dad paid for everything, so I never thought about it. I got an allowance and was always careful with spending it. I don’t even think there were credit cards at the time, so I couldn’t get into trouble. My dad was the type of person who always paid cash for everything, credit wasn’t as easy, those days, it was very different than how things are now. He wouldn’t even get a mortgage, he paid cash for the house we bought in 1948.

When did you first take charge of your own finances?

During those days, a girl didn’t become the doctor, she married the doctor, and that’s what I did. It seemed we were on the way to a comfortable life, but he just left. After my divorce I totally took charge of my finances. I went back to school in my 40s, got my MBA, got my first job at the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, then at a bank, and then a healthcare insurance company working in IT and technology. I always had a 401k and I always automatically saved money by having it taken out of my paycheck every week, so I didn’t even have to think about it.

I went through many hard times as I built myself and was finally able to start saving again.  I have been happily remarried now for 27 years. He’s a writer and I’m a math person, so I continued to manage all of our finances and he’s so grateful and happy about it which makes it easy.

What could you have done better throughout the years when it comes to saving? Do you feel like you have saved enough for retirement?

I definitely made some mistakes investing, since I never learned about it. For example, there was a point after my divorce where we were really stuck for cash, so I decided to borrow out of my 401k… not a good idea.

I did run some credit card bills, and they were virtually impossible to pay off. Luckily, I was able to take out a home equity loan and consolidate all my debt. I learned from my mistakes, debt just gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and it becomes difficult to control and overcome. I pay off every month now, and I never run a balance.

Later, I engaged a financial planner since I didn’t know how to do it myself. He was an old college friend whom I trusted, but what I liked the most was that he only charged hourly and did not  take a commission. I saw him every two years or so. He gave me advice and I managed my investments myself according to his directions. This arrangement was a great learning experience.  I never ever invest in anything I don’t understand anymore. Once I got burned so I learned from my mistakes.

My saving habits and learning from my mistakes served me well because I only started saving in my 40s, and I just retired two months ago at the age of 74 with this huge nest egg and zero debt. It really paid off, I’m just so grateful.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned when it comes to your financial well being?

It can work out. I lost the whole basis of my support and everything was gone. There were times in my life where I just wasn’t able to save at all. I tell people in their 40s who think “I don’t have any money in the bank,”  that if you can start right now and put a little bit away and invest it where it will grow, you will be surprised in 20 or 30 years. Just stay away from sinking into the debt hole.

Did you teach your daughters about money?

I never spoke to Amanda about saving money. With my oldest two, yes we probably did, as they grew up in a totally different environment when I was with my first husband – very traditional.. Later on we had difficult times in our lives. I had some alimony but it was barely enough to get by, so things were a little tight for several years and I couldn’t save at all.

Amanda had very different formative years which is probably why her sisters are so much more traditional and Amanda knows fewer boundaries, but it made her who she is today. Unlike her, I’m like a sure and steady plodder, not a wild and crazy entrepreneur! I was a project manager, always in the corporate world. When Amanda graduated from Columbia, I kept bugging her to go get a” real job” and work at IBM. Then again, I don’t think she would have survived in such a job. I’m in awe of her and what she is doing. So proud.

If you were able to go back in time and change anything about your relationship with money, or anything that relates to it and your daughters, what would it be?

I wouldn’t change anything. There were things I didn’t know but learned from them. I’m so far at the other end of the spectrum now and we’re fine, everything that happened ended up being okay. We made the best of it and learned a lot, we built character. If you keep an open mind toward anything negative, it can help you learn.

As a child, we were always very comfortable we never lacked anything, and dad was never into very showy stuff. We had a small house and a basic car. A lot of my friends had fancy things but that never bothered me because we always knew how to be happy with what we had. That was a valuable lesson for us.

Share your #1 savings tip.

For me, it was easiest to save if done automatically before I even saw the money. No matter how much you’re making, put some money away and it will add up. Also, even if you have nothing in your account, you can start saving today. I was able to start in my 40s, and now I am happily retired with no debt and plenty in savings for me to enjoy.

Do you believe that kids can learn about basic money and financial concepts and behaviors when they are really young?

Absolutely. It’s so different now which is great, the most important thing is to be able to take care of yourself. For me it’s not how I was brought up, I was brought up with the expectation and belief that my husband was to take care of me and that’s what hurt me the most when I was divorced.

Because of that, my daughters learned that to own it, you need to own yourself. Always be able to take care of yourself, and even if you have someone in your life taking care of you, know and be able to take care of yourself, regardless.

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